Peers, Ethics, Advocacy, and Hope: Helping Students from Failure to Success in the Pandemic

For those keeping score, my sixth-grader has gone from failing several classes to the cusp of honors as we head into the new year. Here are four lessons I take from this V-shaped recovery that I hope can help teachers and parents alike.

1. One peer connection can make a huge difference. I have no doubt that part of my son’s recovery in grades comes from one specific connection — the one he made with one other student from a family we have podded together with. The fact that four days of every week, the two of them sit in classes together, ask each other questions, share complaints, and sneak in a game of Minecraft in between periods when they think we’re not looking, all of this has given him a connection that his screen-borne teachers and distracted parents could not.

How can we (parents and school staff) be sure every student has at least one constructive connection with a peer to carry them through this pandemic year? A few years ago, I worked with staff at a school who went through their roster of every student and asked, Who do we already know has a supportive connection? Then, most importantly: What are we doing about everyone else? This was an enlightening exercise that helped educators connect with each other and discover together in a caring way around their kids.

Here’s another way to get into the discussion: Read this fabulous op-ed by Jal Mehta on Making Schools More Human with your students. I read it with my son this morning and it is a great entry point for adults and students to think about our present reality and our hopeful future (and it gets at real-world ethical questions that I will talk about in a moment)!

2. Don’t just cover all the content; engage students with real-life ethical questions. As sixth-grade science began, my son was excited to learn about thermal and potential and kinetic energy. But once he had the rote vocabulary down, he started to get bored; grades sagged. But when given the challenge of determining the best heating system for the school, he was riveted once again. This challenge asked him to apply what he was learning to real-world, ethical issues. It was a moment of inspiration, thanks to thoughtful planning by his science teachers (thanks, guys!).

Moving from the rote to the riveting is no easy task. My colleagues at reDesign have a great way of talking about this, they call it “blooming questions,” where you sequence strategically from explaining and understanding new vocabulary and concepts, to applying them to a real-world situation, to analyzing and evaluating their use. Alona Cohen, one of the best science teachers I ever worked with (who went onto start an amazing school), used to have one ethical question for every topic she broached. She knew that, for example, delving into whether cloning was moral would motivate students more than simply memorizing the structure of DNA.

We are currently in the midst of more than enough ethical issues to go around, between COVID, Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump, and climate change. If you are a teacher, I beseech you: Fear not these issues! Instead, after you have introduced new concepts and vocabulary at a low level, move up to a higher level by asking students to apply them to the messes we are in.

3. Self-advocacy is a skill that must be taught. If you’re eleven years old (heck, even if you’re 47), it’s no fun to pick at the wound of failure. Discussing it is embarrassing. Challenging it is brazen. And, really, come on it’s just not cool.

But from the best teachers and principals I’ve worked with, and from many of their students, I have learned how critical it is for once-failing students to learn why and how to self-advocate.

A few weeks ago, my son finally wrote his first email to a teacher, and it went roughly like this: Thanks for the feedback on my work. I noticed that I had 0 out of 10 on two assignments. What can I do to improve my grades?

Getting those three sentences began his road to recovery, but getting them written was no easy task. My wife and I had to tell him again and again: No, it’s not cool. Yes, it feels brazen. But it’s necessary. Each piece was another lesson he had to be carefully taught: taking the prerogative to write, showing respect for the teacher, asking how he could address the problem, rejecting his assumption (proven wrong) that he would get in trouble. And our son is lucky: he is white, he is male, he comes from a family that has worked in education. If this privileged kid is getting the signal that it is uncool to self-advocate, imagine what message kids who are not white and not male and not well-resourced are getting (and if you can’t imagine, read this from the early research on stereotype threat).

Teachers, counselors, and student advisors, this pandemic is a time that you must be actively teaching students to advocate for themselves.

4. Know that you can do this. We are nearing the halfway mark on a seismically challenging school year. Full-scale vaccinations are a wonderful light on the horizon, but that remains a distant horizon, and for the remainder of this school year, much schooling will be remote, deaths will rise, and isolation will continue. Loss of math skills and lagging literacy are already a reality.

But, for those parents who are relatively well-off (and with median American household income just shy of $70,000, I’d say that if your household earns more than this, please admit that you are well off), I suggest thinking about this school year this way:

What is the worst thing that will happen to your kids? If they make no progress this year, perhaps they will graduate from college when they are 23 instead of 22. You know what: That is AOK. Please resist the American urge to compete with everyone to get to the fantasized finish line. I guarantee you that our children are learning more than we can imagine in this challenging year, and it is a failure, not of our students but of our own imagination and our own tests, if that deep and powerful learning does not show up in scores.

I ask all of us to focus on those students and families who are not so well off, students for whom this can be a make or break year, those who were already struggling or behind, already undervalued by the system, already working to make ends meet. Those students and families need adults to tell them, and truly believe, that they can do this with our help. And as we go into the new year, think about how we can make that happen.

Founder of Eskolta School Research & Design. Education reformer, husband & father living in New York City.