I want you to imagine that you were asked to do something but your skill set to do the task was limited. It’s not that you haven’t done something like the new task before, but the complexity of the new task was beyond your prior experience or training. For example, maybe you were asked to run a marathon after you had run your first 5K. Maybe you were asked to make a wedding cake for 500 people after you finished making your first cake from scratch. Perhaps you learned to play Jingle Bells from memory on an instrument and then someone told you that the next piece you’d have to learn is Beethoven’s 5th. These leaps of skill seem farfetched, but you get the point. Can you think of a time when you were asked (or told) to do something where you had some skill, but felt like you did not have enough to do the task?
This happened to me when I went to college. Before I tell you about that, I want to tell you a little bit about my high school experience. In high school, I took almost 30 credit hours of college classes my senior year. For example, I took Intro to Psychology, Intro to Sociology, Freshman Comp, Freshman Lit, College-Level Spanish, and College-Level Government and Economics. When I tell you that these classes were easy, I’m not telling you that anyone could have taken them, I’m telling you that my peers and I were hardworking overachievers. We were the kids competing to be not just in the top 10 percent, but the top ten of our class. The other piece of information that you need to know when I tell you that these classes were easy is that the people teaching these classes looked at us as high school seniors. Though that was true, these classes were meant to be freshman-level classes taught to college freshmen. Looking at us as high school seniors meant that the classes felt more scaffolded and diluted than what might have been expected of true college freshmen.
Nevertheless, I graduated high school with enough credits that I was mathematically a sophomore in college. Here’s the problem. Students who completed their freshman year after they graduated high school were treated like freshmen during their first year. Certainly, there are some training wheels that professors of freshmen put on the bike, but by comparison, my experience of college classes during high school was like riding a Big Wheels Tricycle. No one falls off of a Big Wheels Tricycle. As such, there was no way I was going to be unsuccessful during these high school college course because they were designed to over-support me. What I needed, though, was a bike that prepared me to be a sophomore who had to ride a two-wheeler. In short, due to circumstances outside of my control, I was underprepared for the challenges that lay ahead. As a result, my first year taking college courses on a college campus was a shock to my system. Though I had the intellectual capacity to work at the highest levels, my preparation for what I walked into created a gap that I had to navigate. There were a lot of tears that year and a lot of self-doubt.
I’m thinking about this because I’m thinking about our students this year. I have seen and heard people talking about them as though they are two years behind. For example, something like, The last time ninth graders were in school every day was March of 2020. That means, we really have seventh graders as ninth graders. Talk like this is well-meaning and intended to give an explanation to the lack of preparation, stamina, and experiences many students are demonstrating. Talking about students in this way suggests that the students are academically stunted, or were somehow “prevented from growing or developing to [their] full potential” (www.vocabulary.com). I want to suggest that what we’re seeing from our students is not simply stunting of learning, but something more.
There is an identification status for students whose learning is interrupted if they are also English Language Learners (ELLs). In New York State, we refer to students like this as Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFE). According to the NYSED website with SIFE resources:
The majority of our SIFE arrive at our schools with low or no literacy skills in any language. Some are behind in content knowledge for their age and pose great challenges for educators. They also may have complex social and psychological needs due to traumatic migration experiences, frustrations with their academic delays in relation to their peers, a lack of familiarity with school culture, and isolation in school. Many of these students, with their complex needs, often do not get the support they require in school and make little or no progress. Some may eventually drop out of school.
Sound familiar? Though officially SIFE students are students whose first language is not English, the descriptions of behaviors for students whose formal learning has been interrupted still apply to the native English speakers in schools across the country. The students we see in school now have learning gaps due to interruptions to their education which has caused trauma. These are not students who had one teacher who didn’t adequately prepare them for the rigor of the grade they are in now (similar to what I experienced my senior year of high school). These are students who “are behind in content knowledge for their age and pose great challenges for educators.” The students who have been in school during the pandemic often have “complex social and psychological needs due to traumatic experiences,” “frustrations with their academic delays,” and “a lack of familiarity with school culture.” The reason it feels like it’s not just one or two students who are struggling like it may have been pre-pandemic is due to the fact that all of our students lived through the pandemic and the associated challenges that we have faced since March of 2020. These are not just situations, this is situational trauma. In short, we do not “really have seventh graders as ninth-graders,” we have traumatized ninth graders who are still living through this experience. There is a difference.
I have a lot more to say about this so I will write more about it in future Lyon’s Letters. For now, I just wanted to start by getting out there the idea that there is a significant difference between students who struggled pre-pandemic and what we’re seeing now. An inability to recognize the difference impacts how we respond. As you think about what we’re seeing from our students through this lens, what impact does that have on you?
P.S. This week's Catch comes from Casey Jakubowski, Ph.D., who is the author of Thinking About Teaching and A Cog in the Machine. He is president of