The kids will be okay: Reflections from students at TechBoston Academy

Graduation is just around the corner for seniors around the country. As many look to what comes next, some are taking time to look back and think about everything learning amid a pandemic has taught them. In fact, Casey Andrews, a high school English teacher at TechBoston Academy, made research and reflection on school during COVID-19 a requirement for her Action Research class, offered to eleventh- and twelfth-graders who want to explore equity issues in their school.

I recently sat down with her and three of her students—Hemwattie Alesha Ramcharran, Valentina “Tina” Sylvestre, and Fernando Yudha Hartono—to hear more about their assignment and what they uncovered. Their answers appear in video clips or quoted below, and they have been edited for length and clarity.

I’m curious about how this class became part of the curriculum at TechBoston. Can you tell me more about that, Ms. Andrews?

And can you tell us a bit about the assignment your students completed?

Alesha, Tina, and Fernando, in your assignments, you made it clear that learning how to learn during COVID-19 has been a process. For example, Tina paints a grim picture of what life was like last spring: “[W]hen the pandemic first started students felt like they were being suffocated. Students could not last long in their home environment, because they have never experienced spending more than 4–5 hours at home, they are used to socializing and being around entertainment.” You also expressed concern about kids living in toxic home environments or having to spend a lot of time alone. How did you feel when your school shut down last year?

Fernando: “I feel like it has been quite a learning experience for me. Within school, I’m able to socialize and perform activities with others within my age group. However, remote learning has taken these moments that ensure our well-being away. To accommodate the lack of socialization, I try to spend more time doing my hobbies, such as playing video games.”

Alesha, the thesis of your research paper is that “Overall, students have shown a great improvement in their work, students are building bonds and friendships with teachers that are able to help them through this period of time.” I think every one of your teachers would be really happy to hear that you and your classmates feel like you have strong bonds with them. Do you have any examples of things Ms. Andrews or other teachers have been doing that help you feel connected?

As part of your assignment, you surveyed seniors at various schools in Boston and asked them to answer the following question: “Have your grades been affected by COVID? How has that impacted you?” One student in particular said they have been trying their best to “prioritize their health before school work.” Have there been times during the last year when you’ve felt like you needed to put your physical or emotional health ahead of school?

In your research, you also noticed that many students liked being able to do work on their own time. You wrote, “Sometimes doing classwork or homework in the class time can not be very motivating. Students may want to do the work later because they are not ready to do it at the exact moment or you would have to rush. […] Sometimes students are able to bring out their best work in the personal time that is given to them.” Have any of you enjoyed having more flexibility in when you complete assignments?

Fernando: “I have certainly benefited from the flexibility teachers have provided. For all my classes, the teachers have used a soft deadline approach for assignments and do not penalize for late submissions as long as students communicate and complete them in a timely manner. This allows me to go about with my schedule yet still be able to learn and produce quality work.”

Tina, I think it’s so clever that you wrote your assignment in the form of a letter to your superintendent. Why did you choose to do that?

In your letter, you explained that “many students showed signs that they were either sad or felt too isolated.” You also note that things got better with time and that, “As the days that students had to stay home expanded the more comfortable they got.” Do you have any ideas about why things got easier for students over time?

Fernando, I loved how much your essay focused on the opportunities this difficult year has presented us. “Our struggles today are our future glories,” you say in your opening. “[W]e proved our resiliency […] by continuing to march towards a better, brighter future and developing unique coping mechanisms.” Can you share one or two things that have helped you cope?

“For me, the primary thing that has helped me march forward and cope amidst the difficulties of COVID-19 is the strong support system of my family and the TechBoston Academy (TBA) that I am blessed to have. My family has always been there for me, in both ups and downs of life, and this current experience has not been any different. I can communicate any worries, stresses, or fears with my family without any judgment occurring and receive support on how to navigate difficult circumstances. If my family is unable to address a particular issue, I can rest assured since I have the support of the TBA community. Like my family, the TBA community is a positive community that builds each member up, rather than breaking them down.”

You talk about the importance of mental health in your essay, a topic I think you’re very right to bring up. You wrote, “[S]ince the COVID-19 pandemic has brought upon us daily mental tolls, it is imperative that everyone remains aware of their mental health to prevent the disastrous repercussions of mental health negligence.” Is there anything your school has been doing to support the mental health of you and your classmates?

“I think that TBA is doing a fantastic job ensuring both the physical and emotional needs of families are met. Frequently, TBA staff has sent check-ups with students and their families, allowing open communications to occur to swiftly address any issues. In class, teachers have incorporated more self-care and mental health awareness to educate and instill the significance of mental health and self-care for students. For instance, in our Action Research class, Ms. Andrews has designated Fridays as Self-Care Friday, and students get to decide what self-care activities they would like to perform. Some of the activities we have done on past Self-Care Fridays were baking cookies, listening to music, and watching a poetry event.

I think you’re the only one who chose to survey students and teachers. Why did you choose to include teachers, too?

“I think that to best understand something, you should try to approach and cover as many perspectives as possible. By including teachers in the survey, we gained a much more holistic perspective of the extent to which COVID-19 has impacted the TBA community.”

Alesha, Tina, and Fernando, do you have plans for life after graduation?

Alesha: “I am going to go to college, no matter what. College has always been on my mind. I want to go into nursing.”

Tina: “The plan was always to go to college and study nursing and see where it takes me from there.”

Fernando: “After graduation, I plan on attending college, although I am currently unsure about the specific school and major that I wish to pursue. I am also unsure about my future career, although I am eager to see where life takes me.”

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