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Third grader Emilia Cisneros (left), and her sister, Eden, who is in fourth grade, do their schoolwork at home on March 18, 2020 in San Anselmo, California. Both of the schools that the girls attend are closed because of Covid-19. (Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Third grader Emilia Cisneros (left), and her sister, Eden, who is in fourth grade, do their schoolwork at home on March 18, 2020 in San Anselmo, California. Both of the schools that the girls attend are closed because of Covid-19. (Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Let the Children Play—My Prescription for Covid 'Learning Loss'

Play is the mind's way of finding out how things work, what a person can do, how it feels to do this or that.

Steven Singer

Things are different in school these days.

Learning is not quantifiable in the way they pretend it is and teaching is not the hard science they want it to be.

The classes are smaller. The kids are more subdued. The teachers are exhausted.

But that's life as we try to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic and somehow get back to normal.

I come into the room every day and sit behind a glass barrier.

My kids either stumble in from the hall wearing masks (often below their noses) or they log in to Zoom and participate online. It's far from ideal, but we get things done.

Right now we're reading the play version of The Diary of Anne Frank. The kids were reticent at first. With the unreliable schedules of in-person v. remote learning, it took us months to get through our last text, The Outsiders.

Now we're speeding through scenes of the play with each person required to read a part aloud. The results have been amazing.

In any normal year, I have to stop the class at various points to discuss what's happening in the play. This week, the students, themselves, stop us with questions, comments, and more curiosity than I've seen since the pandemic hit last year. It's as if they're starving to learn something, and this play is nourishing their hearts and minds.

I laugh because my first thought was to come down on the shouting out and side commenting until a deeper part of me realized this was all okay. They were on-task, if unrestrained.

It's something, going from the near silence of a Zoom chat room with its black boxes instead of student faces to a classroom full of rambunctious teenagers getting excited by the lesson.

We're having a great time as we discuss WWII, parental relationships, racism, dating etiquette, and Hitler's genitalia. (Hey! They brought it up!)

We only have about a month or so left of actual instruction time because the Biden administration is demanding we take standardized tests. That's weeks of class I could be teaching and they could be learning. But whatever.

I'm tired of fighting for things that make sense in the classroom. No one listens to teachers. That's why I'm running for office. I figure as a member of Allegheny County Council, people will have to listen to me. And I'll bring all of the concerns of those around me out in the open, too.

But that brings me to the title of this piece: "Let the Children Play—My Prescription for Covid 'Learning Loss'"

As my students and I are racing to learn something in the classroom, the same folks who demand we waste that precious time on high stakes tests are also bemoaning kids learning loss.

"Oh, woe are the children!" They cry. "How many years and months are they getting behind because of this pandemic!?"

It's like a flat Earther complaining that we need to build a fence around the planet's edges so no one can fall off. What these fools fail to understand is that there is no learning loss.

Comprehension is not a race. There is no one ahead or behind. Everyone goes at their own pace. And if you try to force someone to go more quickly than is best for them, they'll stumble and fall. Or they'll refuse to go forward at all.

These folks pretend that learning is all about numbers—test scores, specifically. You need to hit this score before you're ready for the next grade. That score's required before high school. This one before college.

It's all nonsense, and I can prove it with one question:

What do these numbers represent? What are they measuring? What is the basic unit of comprehension?

Okay. I lied. That was three questions. But you get the point. Learning is not quantifiable in the way they pretend it is and teaching is not the hard science they want it to be.

You can't look into someone's mind and see what they've learned and what they still need to know. You can give a test that tries to assess understanding of certain subjects. But the more complex the knowledge you're testing for, the more tenuous the results of that test will be. And an assessment made by someone miles away who never met the person taking it is less accurate—not more accurate.

But let's be honest, these learning loss champions are not really worried about children. They're representatives of the standardized testing industry.

They have a vested interest in selling tests, selling test prep materials, software, etc. It's just a pity that so many of our lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are persuaded by their arguments (or the hefty campaign contributions that come with that persuasion).

So as the school year rapidly comes to a close, I have a suggestion to make. I know I'm not qualified to do so. I'm just a public school teacher with 17 years experience. I've never sat on any think tank boards. No testing corporation has ever paid me a dime to hawk one of their high quality remediation products.

But being in the classroom with kids day-in, day-out for all that time, I have observed some things about children and how they learn. Most importantly—children are people. I know that's controversial, but I believe it to be true.

As such, they need down time. They need time to regroup and recharge. This pandemic has been hard on everyone.

As of April 1, nearly 3.47 million children have tested positive for Covid-19, most with mild symptoms, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. A few hundred have died, mostly children of color. Many more kids probably contracted the virus but were asymptomatic spreaders of the disease to adults.

As a result, between 37,000 and 43,000 children in the United States have lost at least one parent to Covid-19, according to USC research.

We should not be demanding they work harder at a time like this. We should be providing them with kindness, empathy, and love.

They have suffered through changes in routine, disruptions in learning, breaks in the continuity of their healthcare, missed significant life events like birthday parties, vacations, and graduations. But worst of all they have suffered the loss of safety and security.

We should not be demanding they work harder at a time like this. We should be providing them with kindness, empathy, and love.

In the classroom, I no longer have a thing called "Late Work." If a student hands in an assignment passed the due date, there is no penalty. I just grade it. And if it isn't done correctly, I give them a chance to redo it. As many chances as they need.

I remediate. I tutor. I offer advice, counseling, a sympathetic ear. It's not that much different than any other year, except in how often children need it now. Kids AND their parents.

I can't tell you how many adults I've counseled in the last several months. So when the last day of school arrives, I will close my books. There will be no assignments over the summer from me. No homework. No requirements. No demands.

The best things kids can do is go out and play. Have fun. Recharge.

The corporate testing drones will tell you that's a waste of time. Our kids are getting behind doing things like that. Nonsense. Play is the best kind of learning kids can do. It is an independent study in whatever they are curious to discover.

Play is the mind's way of finding out how things work, what a person can do, how it feels to do this or that. Honestly, there is not a second wasted in play.

Taken moment-by-moment, there is more learning done during play than in any classroom. Because play is self-directed and driven entirely by curiosity.

I want all of my students to go play this summer. And I want the children who will be in my class next year to have had a fantastic summer of fun and excitement. That way they'll come into the classroom energized and ready to learn what I have to show them.

They won't be ahead. They won't be behind. They'll just be. And that's my prescription for a productive 2021-22.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Steven Singer

Steven Singer

Steven Singer is a husband, father, teacher, blogger and education advocate. Singer is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher in western Pennsylvania. He is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher and has an MAT from the University of Pittsburgh. He is Director of the Research and Blogging Committee for the Badass Teachers Association. He is co-founder of the Pennsylvania-based education budget advocacy group T.E.A.C.H. (Tell Everyone All Cuts Hurt). He often writes at his own blog, gadflyonthewallblog.com.

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