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At School, Learning Helplessness

At School, Learning Helplessness

Jodi M. is a seventh-grade health teacher in a quiet, distant suburb of New York City. She is worried about her students, many of whom have lost their independence and become less resilient as a result of the pandemic.

“These kids are so anxious and depressed they can’t do anything for themselves,” she says. (I’m keeping her last name anonymous to stave off repercussions.)

Jodi’s suburban public school has responded to this student helplessness by providing even more help, expanding an intervention program originally intended only for kids who did poorly on standardized tests.

That class had provided tutoring in math and English. But over the years, it morphed from academic assistance to more general hand-holding, says Jodi. And now, in day-to-day practice, she says, “The teachers are making charts (for the kids). So, for example, Johnny will have a chart he’s given every day and it will say, ‘This is due in this class, and this is due in that class.'”

Prior to COVID-19, the school had one class like this for seventh graders. Now it has three. “This is a way of basically having ‘mom’ coming with you from class to class,” says Jodi. Not a real mom, of course. But it is real moms and dads who sign their kids up for it.

Jodi has been concerned about her middle schoolers’ anxiety and helplessness for quite a while. She’s been teaching for over 20 years, and about five years ago the issue crystalized for her when one girl came to class late and hadn’t had a chance to get lunch. Jodi said, “Well, you can eat here. Just go get lunch from the cafeteria.” And the girl responded: “By myself?”

Note that this is not a dangerous school. The town is a quiet hamlet. And yet, many of her students had not been allowed to go out and about by themselves, mostly because of stranger danger.

That’s when Jodi started assigning The Let Grow Project, a free initiative sponsored by my nonprofit, Let Grow. The project is a homework assignment designed to push students to become more independentand parents to let them. It tells students: Go home and do something new on your own. Just by trying something outside their comfort zones, there have been some huge breakthroughs. Kids did things like walk the dog, ride their bikes into town, even use a sharp knifeall for the first time.

But since the start of the pandemic, the kids have been doing less and less in class as well as at home. Part of the problem is masks.

“We did a community activity today,” Jodi said when we spoke last week. “It was the game 20 Questions. I take two kids outside, tell them a word and they come back in, and their team has to guess the word.” But thanks to the masks, the students couldn’t figure out the words. “No one can hear!” lamented Jodi.

At home, the students are more passive too. “COVID made it worse,” says Jodi. “When they were home with their parents, if they didn’t want to do something and they complained, their parents would just do it for them. Because, if you think about it, the parents were home also. So, what takes less time: doing it or fighting with your kid?”

Jodi is assigning her students The Let Grow Project again this year, in the hopes of reigniting a spark of spunk, and this time she is prodding them to go further beyond their comfort zones. Until they do, the kids are on lockdown every which way: locked down by a culture afraid of strangers, afraid of a virus and afraid of pushing kids to do anything considered challengingincluding keeping track of what’s due when.

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