Thinking About Old Practices In New Ways

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With schools, workplaces, and businesses being shut down to stop the spread of COVID-19, the world feels like it’s been put on pause. For some people, this is not all that different. Staying home and reading or working out or going on walks is the usual. However, for the general public this feels very different. For schools and school aged children specifically, this is very different.

Writing from the perspective of a high school senior in a small town in New Jersey, lots has changed for me. The teachers I wanted to learn from, the friends I wanted to see, and the jobs I wanted to pursue, are no longer in my reach. Now, my new normal is waking up at 7:30, working out until 10, going to school until 3, and then spending the rest of my day wondering what to do. At first, that last part of the day was tough. The hours I normally spent studying or squeezing in a shower and food before going to bed, are now completely free. What I do in that time has really put the education system in perspective.

I have never been one of those people who says things like People need to stop saying the U.S. is so great- have you seen Finland’s education system? Or Our education system sucks! When I am going to use this in my life?. Personally, I have always, and still do, love school. Does that make me a little uptight and/or nerdy? Yes. Most definitely. However, it also makes me think. While I have never thought that the American education system was perfect, I’ve also understood that there might be a lot of flaws in our schedule of long hours of homework and long hours of actual school.

This current “quarantine” situation has got me thinking about the impact of our “8 o’clock to 3 o’clock plus activities and sports” lifestyle. Now I have a situation where with about eight hours left at the end of the day I have no homework, the school day is over, and there is no way I can see friends or go out to get coffee or see a movie. In these eight hours, I have accomplished more things and have explored more parts of myself than ever before. Since two weeks ago, when school closed and it felt like the world was ending, I have seen muscles on myself I did not know I had, I have started learning a third language, I have written more newspaper articles than ever before, and I have read more Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf than I ever have. While these things affect very few people other than myself, they do contribute to an overall improvement in my well being and my education.

In American schools, most kids are taught one language other than their native tongue, which is typically English. In school, kids get 45 minutes of pickleball and this is considered exercise. In school, kids write what is required of them. In school, kids read only what their teachers ask of them- mainly, because that’s all they have time for once they get home. But now, without homework and with fewer hours in the school day, kids get to go beyond what schools have been offering.

Are these limitations the fault of the school systems? I wouldn’t say so. School systems are doing their best to keep students competitive in a cut-throat culture that demands kids do the most all the time if they want to be “successful.” However, with this in mind, things like writing articles for fun and learning a third language- something that is normal for most students outside the U.S. – have not been put into the schools’ curricula. The culture of the United States has been focused on competition. Schools, parents, and kids all start worrying about college and careers from a child’s first days in school. Because of the cutthroat nature of the college process and the hunger for money, kids in America are not being taught multiple languages and multiple art forms the way students in Europe are. They are instead being taught how to work and how to get an edge.

Most European countries’ students are trilingual, if not polyglots, and test higher than most American students, as well as read and write better than our students do. Why is this? While I am not a professional, my guess is that students in Europe are not being taught material that will act as a foundation for them to learn more, not how to work, the way Americans are taught how to work. Which strategy is the right answer? I do not know. However, what I do know is I have grown my mind more than I ever have before in these past two weeks of school, with fewer school hours, less homework, and fewer grades being put in.

Is it more valuable to be kept busy and to be taught how to work as opposed to being taught skills? Or is it better to have less time in school and more time to develop interests, even if those interests don’t guarantee financial success. The answers to these questions lie in experimentation and there seems to be no correct answer right now. Yet, this time off from the busy schedule of normal school has proved to be more similar to the short-day-less-homework education style of many other nations.

During a regular school year I find myself making empty promises to teachers to join clubs or do plays or write articles–none of which I can actually do because of my school work. Most kids my age who value school the same way I do don’t know if they have any hobbies. During this time of isolation, I’ve had multiple conversations with my friends about how we have had to explore new things like baking or drawing, because we’ve never before had time for hobbies.

While I have had these conversations with my friends, I also know of many others who have basically done nothing with their 8 hours and have instead sat in front of their screens watching videos or have just been sleeping to pass the time. If the United States changed their education system to somehow incorporate more free time into the lives of students, would we just be opening the door to slackers who will just continue to sit in front of their screens? The truth is, the only way to answer this is to try it and see. However, in a world with free time and no disease epidemics, these kids who nap and consume entertainment all day wouldn’t be cooped up inside. Instead, they would be able to do things like go running in parks, see inspiring movies, or go to museums. Would kids do this? Maybe. But if free time became an everyday occurrence instead of a side effect of a global quarantine, maybe they would.

Should school systems be cutting hours and minimizing homework? That is another thing I do not know. But the impact of COVID-19 and my state’s attempt to contain the disease has led me to do more than I ever have before- and it’s not just me. My best friend has been going running and learning Spanish and reading the top 50 best books ever written. My other friend has been writing newspaper articles and practicing piano because she finally has time! I have friends that have started doing art on the regular and baking and cooking almost every day.

While this abundance of time alone can drain us and leave us feeling useless at times, it has taught us lessons. This mix of social distancing with less school work is an extreme case of having nothing to do. However, maybe a lighter version of this situation with no social distancing (with no disease epidemic), but still less school hours and less school work could benefit students and allow them to think creatively outside the confines of a school building.

Recently, everything about COVID-19 feels like the end of the world. But instead, it may be the start of new ways to go about old practices.

Abby Bermeo is a senior at Verona High School. This commentary was first published in the VHS newspaper The Fairviewer and is reprinted with permission here. You can read more student perspectives on the outbreak of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in The Fairviewer.

Photo by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash

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