What do they have to say about education during the pandemic?
Enjoy Episode 4 of Bennett’s video series. Elizabeth and Steven talk about his experiences as a rising 10th grader at an international school in Hong Kong during the pandemic. Steven's recollections and perspectives give us yet another reminder of the admirable tenacity of students around the world amid the advent of online learning, and sometimes chaotic reactions to the effects of COVID-19 on education.
(The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Elizabeth: Good morning for me, good evening for you, Steven, and thank you for taking the time to speak with me! To start, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Steven: Hello! My name is Steven, I just recently turned 15 years old. I currently go to HKIS, which is Hong Kong International School, which is a private school, and I'm in 9th grade, just recently starting high school. Well, we just finished our 9th grade about two weeks ago.
Elizabeth: Tell us about this past year.
Steven: So, the pandemic hit Hong Kong and affected schools around mid-January . That was when I was in 8th grade actually, nearing the end of my middle school career. We were on our Chinese New Year break at that time. This was an unprecedented situation, so I'm sure that, including HKIS, many other schools didn't know what to do. It took a while for everyone to get back into this - we got into online school in around mid-February, and that continued on all the way until the beginning of my freshman year.
Elizabeth: Of course, that started a little bit earlier there than it did over on this side of the world. So, you started with online learning - what was that like, at that point?
Steven: Well, our online classes were completely full-on, hour-long classes for each period of the day, and they would give us assignments, of course. But of course, you would have to stay online for check-in and the teaching of the classes themselves.
Elizabeth: So what was that like for you? As you were finishing middle school, graduating from 8th grade, and probably saying goodbye to some of your middle school friends?
Steven: Yeah, it was kind of disappointing, because it was the end of our middle school time, and we couldn't really see each other as much as we wanted to. But, we were lucky in that we actually were able to have a graduation ceremony with everybody. They allowed that, and it was really nice to see everybody and reunite after a couple months of online school.
Elizabeth: Moving into your 9th-grade year. How did that look? How has that been?
Steven: Our 9th-grade year was quite chaotic, in fact. It was very on-and-off in terms of online school and in-person school. So, from the beginning of our my freshman year, which started in August, we went to online school from August to all the way to December; it was quite a long period of that. During those times, we sometimes would go in-person for about a week or so, but then we would have to transition back because of the sudden spikes and outbreaks in Hong Kong.
After December, it was more in-person instruction, which was really great. From January to March, we had a hybrid schedule. I'm not sure if other schools did this, but in HKIS we would have 9th and 10th grades on campus for the first half of the day, and then 11th and 12th grades 11 were the second half of the day - that would continue on until March
After March, we would have full day, in-person [classes], back to normal.
Elizabeth: So, you have really experienced all versions of education, and every combination of education. What are your reactions to that? You smiled when you mentioned being in-person, so I'm guessing you like that better! What are your observations about that?
Steven: I would say that, in the beginning, when we started online school, nobody particularly liked it much, because we hadn't gotten used to it. Then, some people started to gain a liking for it because of the extra amount of sleep, or time at home, those things. So, online school wasn't too bad or too difficult for students, but compared to in-person school, for me, I believe that in-person school is much better for students, because you can get that socialization time and interact with your teachers.
I feel like, in Zoom classes, it's so much harder to focus. Students can just get on their phones or just completely ignore what the teacher is saying, as compared to in-person classes, where you actually need to focus, and you can talk to your teacher more.
Elizabeth: Did you keep your camera on during your online classes? Was it required?
Steven: Yeah, in HKIS, for every class, we have to keep our cameras on, it was a requirement for us.
Elizabeth: That is very that's a very common theme that I've been hearing - just how hard it is to focus when you're in an online class, and how all of those natural cues that we have to help us remain focused when we're in-person are lacking. Did you feel that you adjusted to that? Or, did that remain a challenge for you?
Steven: I feel like it remained a challenge for me, and for a lot of students, because it's quite hard, obviously for the freshman students who are still growing up and trying to mature, to maintain a high attention span. And now, with the addition of Zoom and online learning, it's much more difficult for students to look at a screen for an hour straight and try to listen to what the teacher is saying.
Elizabeth: You mentioned your interaction with your teachers - how would you describe that as being different?
Steven: I feel like interaction with your teachers is the most essential part of your high school life, and just going into school in general. It's really important to get to know your teachers. If you're on Zoom, it really takes away that important interaction time with them, and if you lose that, it's obviously hard to learn better and to get to know each other.
Elizabeth: I'm guessing that's true for teachers, also - to really know your students as individuals. It's really about getting to know each other, which is obviously different when you're looking at boxes on a screen.
Steven: To add to that, in Zoom classes, I feel like it's really hard on teachers. Obviously, on Zoom, you could just keep yourself on mute. You don't have to speak at all, or engage in the activity going on in class. People could be on different calls, people could be on their cell phones, doing other things, and it completely ruins the school and classroom environment. It's really hard to get that effective learning that students need.
Elizabeth: In normal life, when you were in-person at school, or are your classes discussion-based?
Steven: Our normal classes are a combination of lectures and engaging activities and discussions with classmates and group work. Of course, it's quite limited in Zoom because,
obviously, the mute button!
Elizabeth: The mute button, or sometimes for older students, the invisibility button! So are there any aspects of online learning that have worked for you?
Steven: I feel like online school was in some ways useful, in terms of being able to have more study time, and being able to stay at home and focus on independent learning, as compared to maybe meeting your teachers after school, or attending clubs. After school, you have more time to yourself and more time in your own room to do your own studying. I think that was one of the main benefits in terms of education and study habits.
Elizabeth: So in essence, more time, and to some degree, independence. And now, I think that what happened in education has probably moved education along; it has evolved overnight, and some things will stay.
Are there particular things that have changed in your education over the last year that you hope will remain?
Steven: That's an interesting question, huh! What do you mean by "education"?
Elizabeth: As in, if some classes might be better online, or if there's more connectivity in other areas...
Steven: Oh, I see what you mean. Well, I feel like, for online schooling, there are quite a lot of classes that actually don't work too well... for example, PE (Physical Education), band class, and choir class - quite difficult!
I would say that one of the benefits that all that education has brought upon us is that students had to interact in different ways, and had to use chatting online more as a way to
communicate and ask each other, "what was the homework today?" When we study with each other today, we have to go on calls with each other.
Elizabeth: That's funny, imagining band practice online and all the poor parents in their houses...
What are your particular interests? Your hobbies, or your favorite courses?
Steven: I particularly like math class. Also chemistry class. Some of my hobbies are playing tennis, and debate.
Elizabeth: Okay, math and chemistry. How about those online?
Steven: Yeah, so, those weren't particularly impacted too badly, because we didn't really need as much interaction within the class, compared to classes such as Chinese or Humanities (English and History). You didn't need that much engagement. But of course, in math and science classes, you need a lot of lecture time, and students didn't really focus that much... so, it was still affected, but not as much.
Elizabeth: If there was something that you didn't understand, and you're presented material and you had a question - how would you deal with that online versus being in-person?
Steven: I feel like you would do it in the same fashion, but not exactly the same. What I mean by that is, online, of course, you can unmute yourself and ask the teacher a question if you're unclear, or maybe after class, or after school, you could go approach a teacher. But the thing that's different with online classes is that, because you haven't gotten to know your teacher, it's quite difficult to approach them. And so, it's a very limited number of students who are actually willing to go see their teacher and ask questions if they're unclear, compared to in-person.
Elizabeth: If you're in class and you have a question and you put up your hand and you ask the question person, that's public somehow... it feels less public when you speak on Zoom, if you're the only person who's interacting on zoom and everybody else is quiet, it feels kind of funny...
How's it looking for you for next year?
Steven: Fingers crossed, hopefully for my sophomore year, my 10th-grade year, maybe, just maybe, we could go all the way back to normal, without all those safety precautions! But I'm pretty sure that we're going to maintain those precautions, keeping our masks on and such.
Elizabeth: What about your social life, and your relationships with your friends? How that has been affected?
Steven: I think that social groups have definitely probably shifted a lot during this time because of less interaction. For example, if you had friends in other classes and you were in-person, you could still talk to them and manage to speak to them, but now that's quite closed off - you only maybe talk with people who are in your class. So you would maybe get new friend groups online. That changed a lot.
Elizabeth: So, have you made some new friends this year?
Steven: Yeah, I've talked to a lot of different, new people, especially because there have been many new students that have come to HKIS... it was an interesting first year of high school I have to say.
Elizabeth: I'm glad that you've managed that! Do you feel like, you know what their faces look like?
Steven: On Zoom yeah! But, it's it's a completely different experience in person, and just having that mask in person, takes away from the full socialization experience, and just not being able to see their face... isn't too great.
Steven: Do you feel that this has changed "Steven the student", do you feel you've become more disciplined in terms of making yourself focus?
Steven: Yeah, I feel like as a student, that studying has really changed a lot, and life as a student has changed a lot. First off, I feel that this pandemic has really affected, obviously, socializing, as we discussed, and specifically as a freshman, you couldn't get that full experience of getting to know your campus, getting to know your teachers, getting to know everything that you should have known if we had in-person classes. It really affects your life as a student.
As for education, I would say one of the hardest things to deal with is not being able to talk to your classmates as easily, your teachers, and also getting to join extracurricular clubs is really difficult.
Elizabeth: Any final messages for the adults who are making decisions about how education will go forward?
Steven: I feel like there has been lots of impact on students and teachers, and we really are trying to deal with this all together. I feel like the best way that we can overcome this problem together, whether or not we're in online school right now or in-person school, we just have to try and interact as a community better and get a better understanding of each other so that we can maintain that interaction and maintain that community.
Elizabeth: Okay, well last question, what's your favorite word?
Steven: My favorite word? Food!
Steven: Yes, I've made a huge connection with food over online school, you know - lots of time to get some snacks, sneak in some snacks during classes... food has really become a very important friend to me, and I feel like the pandemic really shaped that for me.
Elizabeth: Well, thank you for that! I think you're probably not alone in that... well, thank you so much for your time, Steven. I really appreciate it!
*Recorded March 2021
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