We have heard it from our state leaders. “Our kids are not OK.” Let’s be honest, none of us are. We are all ready to move on. This year has been hard. That said, it is important to remember that, as Viktor Frankl said:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
While the events of the past year pale in comparison to the lived experience of Dr. Frankl, I have yet to meet anyone who would have chosen the restrictions, guidelines or other challenges that this year has brought to us. But, when asked to reflect on the past year, a Middle School staff offered, “We have all grown so much as people.” In that vein, I am choosing to focus on some of the ways that our students have (and are) growing and showing their resilience despite (or in spite of!) the pandemic.
Grade 5: A Long Walk to Water
BFA MS grade five students virtually hosted author/illustrator Jim Averbeck on March 19. Mr. Averbeck illustrated the pictures for the original A Long Walk to Water, written by Newberry Award winner, Linda Sue Parks. Averbeck discussed his relationship with Linda Sue Parks, the experiences of Salva Dut, a real life “lost boy of the Sudan”, and water borne pathogens common in Africa. Averbeck shared his stories of living as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, the symbolism involved in his drawings, and fielded questions from many curious fifth graders.
In this experience, throughout this year, and across each room, students have become more empathic and compassionate with one another. Students continue to work together with scientists and historians to build collaboration skills and community. Students continue to be curious and questioning about the world around them while maintaining a supportive learning environment.
Grade 6: A Day in the Life
In response to my question “How are students showing us that they are, in fact alright, the 6th grade teachers shared a running observation of observed student behaviors throughout a day :
Students are greeting their teachers upon arrival at school.
Students are asking their teachers how they are doing. It’s not only teachers doing the asking.
Students are given a structured and predictable day they can count on.
Students are racing out to recess ready for play.
They want to be the first one to grab a sled and get to the sledding hill.
Students are exploring nature.
Students are swinging to see how high they can go.
Students are cheering for someone who just scored a touchdown outside at recess.
Students are setting goals and envisioning their future.
Students are engaged in math games that allow for friendly competition and connections to math concepts.
Students are jumping out of their seats, barely able to contain themselves because their teacher just asked an intriguing question.
Students are emailing their teachers questions when they are home.
Students are writing hello and thank you notes to their teachers on their papers.
Students are whispering YES to themselves after receiving successful feedback on an assessment.
Students are asking a peer for help on a hard math problem, accepting help, and learning from one another.
Students are learning to persevere, try, and take risks.
Students are making a list for themselves and crossing out things to do as their day progresses.
Students are hurrying over to their teacher to tell them about a new science fact they just learned.
Students are asking for book recommendations.
Students are asking everyday if a book has been returned because they’ve been anxiously waiting to read it.
Students are celebrating that their picture was a winner in the winter photo contest.
Students are complimenting each other’s outfits and new hair cuts.
Students are holding the door for their peers.
Students are wishing each other a Happy Birthday.
Students are joking with their teachers that they are now taller than their teacher.
Students are writing inspirational quotes on the cover of their notebook: “Keep Hope Alive.”
Students have multiple adults that care about them each and everyday.
Grade 7 & 8: Resilience is for real!
In Grades 7 & 8, A notable benefit for many students (and their teachers) has been the smaller class sizes. As eighth Grade Science teacher, Ashley Barnes-Cota explains, this improved ratio allows her to give more one-on-one attention to her students. Eighth grade Math teacher, Dana Hamm notes that the reverse is also true – the smaller ratio makes it easier for students to focus and learn in class. Seventh grade Social Studies teacher, Jen Skerrett’s whole instructional approach has shifted to take advantage of this dynamic. With more opportunities for small group discussions and personalized learning, she explains, “everyone’s voice can be heard.” Seventh grade English teacher, Emily Wills sees this benefit occurring beyond the in-person school days as well. With the hybrid model’s online learning opportunities, some students who might be more shy in the classroom are expressing themselves unreservedly in online work. “I hear their thinking now in ways that I otherwise wouldn’t,” Wills explains.
Alongside these deepened connections with their teachers, students are also experiencing new ways of connecting with each other. Seventh Grade Math teacher, Mr. Bailey notes that students are taking the initiative to lead their peers in group games over Zoom each Wednesday. Grade eight Social Studies teacher, Ben Psaros adds that on ‘Zoom Wednesdays’ during virtual advisory meetings, kids show up, have fun, discuss work due, ask questions if needed, and keep connected.
Our eighth grade ELA teacher notes that mask-wearing and hygiene protocols are all second nature to students now. Remote work is getting done, with students even asking for extension activities to fill their time. Students are learning life skills about coping with adversity, adapting to change, organizing their own routines to be successful, and emailing teachers in a professional way.
Ms. Wilkins speaks for many of us when she says, “I’m very proud of students’ adaptability and resilience.”
In Mr. Bailey’s and Ms. Skerrett’s rooms, the A and B cohorts have taken to leaving fun scavenger hunts in the room for the other group to solve. On top of these creative social dynamics, Seventh grade Science teacher, Michelle Messier has noticed something very significant happening this year; faced with different, smaller groupings during their in-person school days, she has observed many students making lemonade, “building relationships with peers they might not otherwise have connected with.”
In context of all that we are, and have been going through, a frame that I think of is that of a chrysalis. I think of the transformation of caterpillars into butterflies. To make this transformation, caterpillars isolate themselves in a chrysalis. I sincerely doubt that what happens in the chrysalis is a painless process as the transformation is taking place. But what emerges is beautiful and moves through the world differently than before.
While the events of the past year are none that any of us would have chosen, every day I continue to admire the resilience, compassion and care that students show during these challenging times. We are seeing a grace, support and understanding that speaks to a growth and positive transformation in how we work together amidst (or perhaps despite) difficult circumstances that will serve all of our students (and perhaps all of us) well into the future as we re-emerge and learn to move through the world in ways different, and hopefully better, than before.
Justin Brown is the Principal at BFA Fairfax Middle School. He is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him on Twitter @jbrownenator.