All school year, Montenique Woodard’s seventh period, her last class of the day, has been her hardest. “I feel like I don't know what to do with them,” she said of her middle school science class when Edutopia first talked to her back in the fall. One boy in particular, the “class clown,” was a persistent challenge, and his behavior influenced his 23 peers, 15 of whom are boys. But reconnecting months later during the coronavirus closures, Woodard shared some surprising news: the same boy was “thriving” during remote learning. “I think not having those everyday distractions in school has really allowed for kids like him to focus on the work and not necessarily all the social things going on because some kids can't separate that out,” said Woodard, who teaches in Washington, D.C.
We’ve been hearing that a lot. Increasingly, teachers in our audience are reporting that a handful of their students—shy kids, hyperactive kids, highly creative kids—are suddenly doing better with remote learning than they were doing in the physical classroom. “It’s been awesome to see some of my kids finally find their niche in education,” said Holli Ross, a first-year high school teacher in northern California, echoing the sentiments of dozens of teachers we’ve heard from. That’s not to say it’s the norm. Many students are struggling to adapt to remote learning: Digital access and connectivity remain a pervasive equity issue; stay-at-home orders have magnified existing problems in familial dynamics; and, universally, teachers and students grapple with how to replicate the engagement and discourse from an in-person classroom.
But it’s not a tiny handful, either, and the unplanned break from the physical classroom may be bringing to light hidden reasons some kids struggle while others succeed. In the responses we gathered from our educators, we found recurring themes—like social situations and the inflexible bell schedule—that simply don’t work well for all kids. For a few of the teachers, at least, it’s inspired them to consider making permanent changes when they return to the classroom.
THE BENEFITS OF SELF-PACING
On average, the typical high school student starts school at 8:00 a.m. While school schedules differ by district, many students then face back-to-back classes with little reprieve. But during the pandemic, school schedules have suddenly become more fluid, allowing students more choice over when and how they do their school work.
“I think a few of mine are doing really well getting a taste of more independence,” said Lauren Huddleston, a middle school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. “They’re taking ownership a bit more because they’re no longer under the micromanagement of the school day.”
This flexibility to make their own hours is also giving students a chance to exercise, take breaks, or even be bored, all of which research shows is beneficial. High school English teacher Ashlee Tripp speculated these kids were doing well because, “they enjoy the freedom to work at their own pace and decide how they want their day to look,” and students seem to agree.
“The reason I enjoy online learning is because of the opportunity to structure my day efficiently,” wrote a 10th grade student in English teacher Katie Burrows-Stone’s class survey. “I am able to workout, relax, and complete the work in a timely manner, with no distractions.”