This is a monthly guest post by Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. His last column was about the National Book Festival.
And just like that, summer is over. The weather is beginning to break. The morning air is crisp, and suddenly there are pumpkins everywhere. And though the seasons are transitioning, which means we’re about to experience the strange time warp that comes from consecutive holidays, all I can seem to think about is you. Because you are in school. At least, a form of school. Most of you are at home sitting in front of your computers learning from a distance. Your kitchen tables now classroom desks, your refrigerator now the cafeteria. And because I know all this is going on, it’s hard to discuss my plans to carve my face into a pumpkin and leave it on my older brother’s doorstep as a joke. Or how I’m so curious about what it’ll be like to attend a Halloween party over Zoom. Maybe I should figure out how to be Zoom for Halloween! I don’t know. The point is, I haven’t had the energy to really think about any of that, because I can’t stop thinking about … you.
So, here are five things I want you to know as you continue on this strange journey of distance learning:
- This isn’t awesome for anyone, so be easy on yourself. I talked to some young people recently about this, and they were expressing how sometimes it’s harder to grasp the concepts being taught, because the teacher may be moving too fast (we all learn differently) or the Wi-Fi at home isn’t strong enough (all signals aren’t created equal) or there are distractions in the home that are sometimes hard to avoid (Grandma, please turn “Let’s Make A Deal” down!). Listen, as someone who also uses Zoom all day every day, I feel you. It’s brutal. And it’s not just you. We’re all having a hard time. So be gentle with yourself and do the best you can.
- And speaking of us all having a hard time, your teachers are also struggling. Have you ever tried to talk to someone through a window? Like, with the window down? I mean, down when you’re in the house, up when you’re in the car. You get what I’m trying to. … You ever tried to explain something to someone through a thin piece of glass? You would think it wouldn’t be so hard, but the fact is, as humans, we communicate best without filters between us. Oh, there’s a great joke about social media that I should put right here, but I’m trying to stay focused, even though it’s just so hard to stay focused during these times. Ugh. But anyway, your teachers are trying to communicate with you through a filter. And the trippy part is, it doesn’t sound muffled, but it is. It’s the difference between a song on the radio and a live show. At the live show, even if you know all the words to a song you’ve been singing for years, it feels different when you’re right there in front of the singer. Also, more importantly, your teachers are teaching for six hours a day and most of that time is spent just talking to a black screen. Which is wild. And hard. And exhausting. So, yeah … we’re all doing our best.
- If you have friends who live around you, and you feel like it would be better to work with them than to do all this by yourself (and you’re sure everyone is safe and healthy), distance learn with them. I think we’re calling these “pods.” Basically, a study group. It creates a silo of human energy and provides multiple sets of eyes and ears to weigh in on the same things so that if one person misses something, someone else may have it. I’ve been preaching this idea that collaboration is key. Right now, it’s never been more necessary. Plus, there’s more space for jokes. A little laughter changes the temperature of things. Seriously, it’s important. Find a pod, so you can laugh … and learn.
- This one is tricky. If — and I want to stress this — IF you are comfortable having your camera on, which means you don’t mind the weirdness of people looking into your home (which, by the way, I totally get if you do), then turn it on. You know why? Because there’s something about a teacher seeing you that helps you pay attention. Accountability works in strange ways, and this is one of them. As a matter of fact, maybe just turn it on during the classes you’re having a hard time in. It’s the equivalent of choosing to sit in the front of the class because you need to concentrate. Again, I know we all live in different environments with all sorts of things going on around us. So, if you can’t, don’t. But if you can, do. I think it’ll help. It’ll help the teacher tighten up too.
- And this is the one I want you to take seriously. Well, I want you to take them all seriously, but this one I want you to really take seriously. If you think there’s a way to make this better, if you think there are cool and interesting ways to engage through the screen, PLEASE suggest it to your teacher. Or have your parent suggest it. The truth is, we’re in unprecedented times, which means there have been, and will be, growing pains. But what it also means is that there’s room for creativity. Which means there’s space for your voices. Say something. If you heard of a cool game that could help with the learning process, suggest it. This goes for the teachers, also. Why not ask your students if there’s a way to add some energy to this experience? A way to ensure that we’re all still connected around education and still excited about the opportunity to learn. We have to push ourselves a bit, but that’s OK. We’ll be OK. We are OK.
There’s no number six, but if there were one, it would simply be to remind yourself that you are more than grades. You’re a person, whole and complex. A vessel of imagination and fear and possibility and potential. There’s pain there. But there’s purpose there too. You are big. Way too big to be whittled into a single alphabet meant to qualify your brilliance. So, try as hard as you can. I repeat, TRY AS HARD AS YOU CAN. And after that, smile.