As we settle into our “new normal,” returning to in-person instruction, there is some lingering anxiety over what it will take to recover from the past school year and what disruptions might await us in the year ahead.
Kim Morton is an elementary school principal at the Leadership Academy in Vista Unified School District, in California. In an interview with Allison Zmuda, she shares some silver linings she has uncovered, as well as how positivity is the throughline that informs how she views the “lost year” of education and its impact on the year ahead.
Given the space to reflect on the past year, she says, “I think the biggest takeaway is that we are all stronger than we think and we can do hard things.”
The effect of remote learning on students
Leadership Academy is a TK-5 school with a diverse population and a significant number of EL students. While many of those students may have been disproportionately affected by factors such as unemployment rates, housing instability, food instability, and a lack of connectivity or technology resources to really participate in the virtual learning Leadership Academy offered, Morton likes to look on the positive side:
“They may have missed some seat time but they gained a year of experiences in their home life with their families, and what they experienced in their community. And I think that gives them a whole year of living, and a whole year of living with experiences that they can now bring this year to the classroom that they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to experience.
“Whether they were going to work with their parents, and their family bakery or their auto repair shop, they really got to see some of the world and how it operates day-to-day. And I think that’s something that we want to bring back this year and honor and really respect those experiences that they did have.”
The effect of remote learning on learning
Those with a less positive outlook are expecting a challenging school year as we return to in-person learning, deeming “learning loss” and “COVID slide” as daunting obstacles to overcome. Morton feels these terms are damaging to students, teachers, and the learning community, and tries to avoid using them altogether.
Instead, she sees this time as an opportunity to come together as a community, using our shared experiences from the past year to change the way we look at experiencing school.
“We can’t do more worksheets and more drill and kill and more of those traditional ideas that you think about when you have this intense desire to recover from what we’re calling learning loss. And I want to put a positive spin on it and think about– how can we make this a positive experience at our site?
“We always ask the question, what would make a student or a teacher or a staff member or a parent jump out of bed and want to run to school? And that’s really what we’re going to work on this year, is: what experiences have the students had, and how can we talk about those when they come back and make it something that they’re excited about?”
Remote learning and learning about “Myself”
One of the hallmarks of the Leadership Academy is having students narrate their own learning journey through the deliberate lens or use of a portfolio. Traditionally, these portfolios have been paper based, but this year Morton plans to have every student from TK-5 create a digital portfolio– and to use their experiences from the past year to propel their learning forward.
Appropriately, the first category of these portfolios will be titled “Myself.”
“When we talk about this past year, the students have had a lot of opportunities to be the leaders of their own learning at home. And many of them have done a fantastic job. And so I think, share their reflection on what helps them stay focused, what helped them learn at home. How can they reflect on their, you know, what they went through in their minds to get through the year and get through their studies, and even talking about how it was a struggle. I think that’s important, so they have that voice, so they understand what they’ve been through.
“And then they set their goals in the next section on where they want to go and make an action plan on how they want to get there. And we make it doable, and we make it come from them. And when they can articulate that, and they can understand how they’re thinking and why they’re thinking that, I think it gives them the power and it makes them feel like they have a place to go. And they know how they’re going to get there. And they feel safe in doing that, because they’ve created it on their own and it’s come from their own cognitive reflection.”
Getting ready for a year of “yes”
Pre-COVID, Morton instituted a “yes policy” for teachers and students to encourage them to share their voices and follow their passions– for example, a teacher who loved to cook started an afterschool cooking club, building a curriculum around it.
“It made her want to be here and want to come to school because she could follow that passion. We’d like to offer the same opportunity to our students on what they love to do.”
While some might hesitate to enthusiastically allow, say, a slime club for students and the messiness that entails, Morton points out that these passion projects fuel excitement for the school year for students.
“Our ‘say yes’ policy means that we let the kids say what they want to do, and we say yes to them, and we figure out a way to make it happen. And I think that they look forward to it. I know a lot of students have already asked me, when do we get to start giving you ideas for our clubs? And so I know they’ve been thinking about it, they can’t wait to get back with people so they can share their passions with their friends.”
Over the course of our interviews, we’ve found that reflecting on the challenges of the past year has been almost universally revelatory for school leaders. Kim Morton and the Leadership Academy illustrate that those revelations don’t need to have tinges of doom and gloom.
By taking a positive, passion filled approach rather than “getting past” or “overcoming” our pandemic-induced time at home, we can embrace the opportunity to mine those experiences and hear those voices to strengthen the learning community, reinforce students’ senses of their own resilience, and forge ahead with projects that will have students returning to school invigorated and ready to learn.