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Capturing Covid Learning Through Poetry: Things I Learned This Year

An assignment that focuses on learning gains rather than losses can get the new year off to a good start.

July 9, 2021
Michael Austin / theispot.com

It’s a lost year. When his brother graduated third grade, he was so much further along. How will these kids ever catch up?

This summer, the learning loss narrative is still hanging around like a heavy cloud, exacerbating teachers’ and children’s feelings of inadequacy. Without downplaying the catastrophe of Covid-19—like everyone else, students far and wide have suffered profound losses—we nevertheless question whether this current preoccupation with their academic loss is well founded. How do we know that most children are collectively suffering from a significant cognitive lag? Do many of the metrics we use to measure achievement even work?

As instructional coaches and curriculum developers who support both teachers and students in schools around the country, we’ve had unique portals into this unprecedented school year. In our view, the emphasis on learning loss risks overshadowing the invaluable—if counterintuitive—learning gains of both teachers and students throughout the past year. The pandemic upset nearly every plan and routine, yet in many classrooms this painful shake-up set the stage for tremendous innovation and creativity.

Finding a Powerful Message Through Poetry

Curious to record the learning we were witnessing, we launched the Things I Learned This Year poetry initiative: We asked teachers and students to jot down what they discovered during the last year, and we wove their contributions into two shared list poems. Here is what educators shared:

“Things I Learned This Year”
by K–12 Educators

That a child’s social and emotional well-being always comes first.
That keeping things fun is more important than ever.
That children are fully capable of learning on their own.
That their hidden curriculum should come out of hiding.
That releasing myself from perfection helps my students do the same.
That I need to slow down, talk less, listen more.
That it’s OK to let go of tradition in favor of new things.
That I can’t validate students’ emotions too much or too often.
That the outdoors isn’t just for recess—so much learning and growth can happen there.
That kids mimic the anxiety of adults around them.
That classroom community is everything.
That whatever engages my students in the moment is what I should be doing.
That tuning in and being present beats checking things off my list.

As children struggled to manage anxiety this year, educators realized that connection, community, and engagement weren’t just nice-to-haves, but prerequisites to meaningful learning. This truth became impossible to ignore as frustrated or disengaged kids simply wandered away from their computers in favor of more interesting endeavors—a perk, at least from the children’s perspective, of not being trapped in physical classrooms.

Many teachers responded to the loss of their captive audience by prioritizing student engagement over sticking to the plan. They wove children’s unique interests, strengths, and needs into lesson plans. One teacher asked a particularly active group of kids to choreograph silly movement breaks. Another developed writing lessons around positive-self talk and mindfulness. A third educator asked each child to teach the class about a topic they cared deeply about, regardless of whether that topic was one the class would have covered in a typical year. In short, these teachers taught the kids, not only the curriculum.

Educators also evaluated their self-worth in brand-new ways. “Did I have a good day because I followed my plan and the kids complied?” morphed into “Did I have a good day because I listened to kids, met them where they were, and facilitated moments of joyful learning?” This shift is clearly a gain, and one that educators want to hold on to far beyond this school year.

Students shared with us about equally transformative discoveries. Because most schools simply couldn’t manage synchronous Zoom learning from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., many kids finally had room to tend to their private learning lives. With school out of the way by lunchtime, students investigated their own wonderings and passions. They wrote science-fiction novels, composed songs, maintained long-distance friendships through letters, and taught themselves how to create masks from old T-shirts. Many discovered that deeply meaningful learning can happen independently, without an adult giving them explicit directions (something that they knew instinctively as toddlers but may have been drilled out of them at school).

When we asked elementary and middle school students to name their Covid-19 learnings, here is what they shared:

“Things I Learned This Year”
by Elementary and Middle School Students

That being sad can be shared.
That it’s good to bring your interests to school.
That staying in pajamas all day isn’t as glorious as it seems.
That time bends in different ways.
That I can be flexible.
That I don’t have to sit at a desk and have grown-ups tell me things in order to learn.
That I can occupy myself; I can look through my “idea box” and maybe write a song.
That friendship can prevail through any situation.
That someone can be far away, but in your heart, they’re right there.
That I can deal with bad news.
That even though the whole world is apart, we’re also together.
That even though bad things are happening, we’re sharing it.
That parents don’t always have the answer.
That I can pay attention to little things and see extraordinary in the ordinary.
That noticing purple flowers grow makes things better.

No doubt, this powerful learning about agency, resilience, and gratitude is harder to quantify than whether or not students know their multiplication facts. But as Jerry Muller writes, “Not everything that is important is measurable, and much that is measurable is unimportant.”

Educators, consider taking a moment to pause, reflect, and record what you’d like to carry forward from this difficult year. Perhaps your students can do the same; they may even like to create their own list poems like the ones we shared here. If we let the epiphanies of this moment evaporate, we’ll return to the old normal this fall. Let’s seize this opportunity to imagine something better.

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