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The Return to School

2020-05-29 06:11:58

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Besha Rodell, a columnist for the Australia bureau.

The return of Australian children to school has been one of the country’s most hotly debated topics, with feuds breaking out between federal and state officials while parents and teachers grapple with their own fears and frustrations. But what about the students?

Their voices have been harder to find, so I thought it would be useful to ask some of the children I know what their experience has been like, and how they’re feeling about the slow return to class and normalcy.

I started at home, with my son Felix Stewart, who is a 16-year-old year 11 VCE student at Princes Hill High School in Melbourne.

Felix returned to school this week with mixed feelings. He told me he was relieved to return to school for social reasons, but home learning worked incredibly well for him.

“These past few months have been some of the most productive of my entire school career,” he said. “I’m someone who is so easily distracted. I’ve also accepted that if someone tells me to do something, I don’t want to do it. Maybe it’s my adolescent/cave man brain. When there’s no one to tell me I have to get something done, then I tend to just do it.”

Felix also said that the last couple of months have been valuable in terms of preparing him and other older high school students for what lies ahead.

“These last few months have been good training for what we’re actually trying to achieve,” he said. “Most jobs, as far as I’m aware, do not have one boss looking over a room of 30 employees, telling all of them to get to work.”

Even some students who are younger seem to have enjoyed the flexibility of learning from home. Archie Trengove, who is in grade one at South Preston Primary in Melbourne, just celebrated his seventh birthday with a Harry Potter-themed isolation party that he declared his “best birthday ever.”

Though he returned to school this week, he has loved the time spent at home, telling me “it was nice to spend so much time with my mum.”

He has bloomed during these months, learning to read much better than he was able to before. When I asked him if there was anything bad about learning from home he said, “No, not really.”

These responses, of course, are not universal. With some schools better equipped and more competent with remote learning than others, the disparities in teaching and experience have tended to vary even more widely at home than they might in school.

And many students say they prefer a structured classroom.

That is certainly true of Charlotte Dawson, a year 9 student at Wesley College in Melbourne who just turned 15. Charlotte will return to school on the 9th of June, and feels as though she has fallen behind while learning via Zoom.

“It’s especially hard in maths, because the teacher would usually come around and check on how everyone’s doing,” she said. “You have to be so much more forward and proactive to get that attention, and not everyone is good at that.”

She also said that she thinks teachers have been compensating for lost face-to-face instruction by loading up students with far more work than they would usually be given. (This is a complaint shared by Felix, as well, along with many other children.)

What’s clear from speaking to all these kids, though, is that education rarely takes such differences into account — nor is there much room for children to figure out which conditions best help them learn.

For many parents, quarantine has provided that opportunity. It reinforced for me just how different every student is, and how one-size-fits-all schooling will always leave some children behind.

If anything positive can come of this grand experiment in learning that Australia has undertaken, it might be that schools begin to allow flexibility for students with different needs and learning styles.

Have your kids thrived or struggled with home learning? Let us know at [email protected]. (And if there are any students out there who would like to share their experiences, we’d love to hear from you as well.)

Here are this week’s stories.

All of a sudden our greatest friends and supporters became our neighbors. Our friendly six-year-old neighbor has been our new best friend, joining us for pancake parties in our front garden and roasting marshmallows.

Toby, our neighbor’s dog, has also been part of our recent circle of close friends. He is one of the coolest and calmest dogs I know, a great addition to the isolation pack. Reaching out to friends and simply saying “how are you” has become the norm, and it truly feels nice when others are brutally honest and say how they feel, even if it is pretty or not.

— Carolina Luna


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