What do they have to say about education during the pandemic?
Elizabeth sits down with Sam to hear her take on education during Covid-19. She has lived throughout the world, has been in ten different schools (counting preschools) & is barely 16. Sam brings a host of experiences, giving her a singular perspective. You’ll find Sam’s good nature, ease & insight delightful. Stay tuned for Episode 3, coming your way soon!
(The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Elizabeth: Hi, Sam, and thank you for spending time with me! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sam: All right! So, I'm Sam, I'm in 10th grade, I'll be 16 soon. I moved here in September of 2020 and I like it here! I go to a giant public school, and we're half online, half in-person right now.
Elizabeth: You are originally from the U.S, correct?
Sam: Yes, I'm American.
Elizabeth: So, for starters, could you tell us about your life leading up to now?
Sam: So, I was born in Italy and my dad was in the military before this. So, I've had the opportunity to live in a lot of different places. After Italy, when I was still a baby, my parents and I moved to Montgomery, Alabama. From there, to Washington D.C, and then when I was about three years old, we moved to Japan for four years, where my brothers were born. Then, we came back to the U.S. and lived in Montgomery, Alabama again, and then Las Vegas, Nevada, and then Washington, D.C. again, and then Norway for three years.
Elizabeth: Wow! So, how many schools have you been to?
Sam: Including preschools, I suppose it's about ten, but if you don't include those, probably around seven.
Elizabeth: Where were you when the pandemic started?
Sam: I was living in Oslo, Norway.
Elizabeth: I'm guessing in an international school?
Sam: I was, yes.
Elizabeth: So, what happened with your school when the pandemic started?
Sam: I have friends who live in the U.S, in Germany, everywhere in the world - and we all talked about how our schools reacted. My school did an amazing job compared to just about everywhere else. Everybody was watching the news when coronavirus was picking up back in February, and then around March 11th or 12th, we completely closed down because the school had two cases, but the weekend before that, our principal had already gotten suspicious. He was like, "something is going on here", and so he actually put the teachers through a course in distance learning and how to teach virtually before we even shut down! And so, we just went straight into online classes every day - like, every period just matched up. So, there were some adjustments, but I think things have kind of remained the same. There haven't been any major changes.
Elizabeth: Did you go back to school and have a chance to say goodbye to people before leaving to come to the U.S?
Sam: We did. I left Norway in June, but around mid-May, we actually went back to school [with in-person classes]. Some people chose to stay home, but I'd say about 80 to 90 percent of the students were back in school. And in Norway, up until a couple of months ago, nobody wore masks either - we just basically stayed a meter apart. What was strange was, we only had two classes a day instead of our usual five. And so, we would be in one class for three hours, and then the teachers would switch classrooms, so students wouldn't have to.
Elizabeth: So, in terms of finishing out last year, and then actually leaving a school to move to another country... it sounds as though you had to close that chapter completely.
Sam: I would say it did feel normal in some ways, but then in other ways - I've been in this sort of pattern for a while where it's like, I'm kind of finished and done with Norway, but because of the pandemic here and the fact that it's been so bad in the U.S, I never started life here. So, it's just been this weird in-between for the past, I guess, nine months now.
Elizabeth: From Norway to uprooting your life (yet again) to come to the U.S. - what was that like? You moved to a place in the US where you had not lived before, so you were repatriating, but not really to a place that was familiar, right?
Sam: Yes... it's strange. I've always considered myself to be from the U.S. Like, when people ask where I'm from, I just say "America" - but I've never really considered it home. I've always considered home to be wherever I am at that point.
From June to September, we lived with my grandparents. I love them dearly, but it was just strange and different to live with them, and for that long. My dad retired from the Air Force when we got back to the U.S, and for years before that, my parents had always said, "once your dad retires, we can live wherever we want to, you can get a job anywhere." Last year, right before everything shut down, my mom had plans to come back to the U.S. to figure out where we wanted to live, but of course, everything shut down. So, we literally came back with no plan on where we wanted to go! My dad didn't have a job; we just had our suitcases and a car! So, I moved in with my grandparents. And then my parents just drove around the southeastern United States, because our family is down in Georgia, and we just kind of picked here. Yeah, it's been a strange experience.
Elizabeth: So you came back to the US, which was home, but wasn't really home, and you didn't have a home in the U.S, so your parents decided where home would be... and you started in a public school there?
Sam: Yes, I did. I started while we were still living with my grandparents, but we were virtual at the time.
Elizabeth: Can you talk a little bit about that? What was that like? You're clearly a seasoned professional at this point when it comes to starting at new schools, but my guess is, this was probably the first time that you had to start at a new school where you weren't physically in school. What was that like for you?
Sam: Very strange. I remember the weeks leading up to school - I knew we weren't going to go fully back to in-person classes, that was just impossible at that point. But they kept saying, "we're gonna go back," then, "only a third of the school will go back, then we're going to rotate," then, "we're going back where you're just going to go for the first three days of the year and then it'll be fully virtual," and then eventually they got a point, a week before school started, where they were saying, "no, you're gonna be fully virtual." By that point, I was just really stressed about everything. Usually, I just get on with things, I'm like, "oh it's weird, but it's fine," you know... But for this, it was really stressful, having to check the computer all day...
Elizabeth: What else was stressful for you about that?
Sam: Having never been to the school before, having never walked the halls or met with the teachers... and, I had spoken with my counselor only a couple of days before I started school. She talked about transferring my grades over, and I was doing course selections, literally three days before school started. I think the most stressful thing was, I didn't know what was expected of me.
The website where we get all of our information crashed within the first hour of everybody going back to school! Yeah, the first day was a disaster... it went down in flames. None of my zoom links worked, so I wasn't able to log onto a single class that day and I got marked absent for all of them.
Elizabeth: Wow, what a first day at a new school!
Sam: Yeah, it wasn't fun.
Elizabeth: Wow. And it must have felt kind of artificial in a way, like you weren't actually really starting at a new school if, as you say, you never got to walk the halls.
So, if you even have acclimated to it - how long did it take for you to adjust to the academic needs of being online?
Sam: The academics were very easy. For the courses that I signed up for, my counselor, who I'd spoken to before, told me "these are going to be pretty easy. You have to take these to graduate," back when most people were discussing their freshman year and that kind of thing. As for the basics - English, Math, even French (which I'm taking) - it got a little murky with where the lines are drawn from the levels that I was at my last school to the levels that I was here. So I feel like I've repeated a whole year. So, I think the fact that academics have been really easy has been very helpful. It's not challenging at all. I don't have a lot of work, and so, that's actually been pretty nice while adjusting to everything.
Elizabeth: In terms of how online courses have been taught by your school - are you required to keep your camera on?
Sam: We were, but then somewhere along the line that rule just kind of got thrown out the window. Now, the majority of students don't have their cameras on.
Elizabeth: And how about you, do you have your camera on or do you let yourself have your camera off?
Sam: It depends on the class...
Elizabeth: I do think it's a new thing now, for students, the ability to be invisible in your classroom - to be participating in a class, but to have nobody be able to see you or what you're doing. Do think it's had an effect on the way you learn?
Sam: Not really. I have never really had a problem focusing in school. Although, if I have a really good book, I love to read and so, I now will tend to tune out a little bit... especially if it's not an interesting or engaging lesson, or especially if I'm re-learning something from last year, I'll just read through the whole lesson [instead]. I'll still be able to do most of the things afterward.
Elizabeth: So in terms of the academic standpoint, are there aspects that you like?
Sam: I really have hated online learning for a lot of reasons... but I would say, it's been really nice to work my schedule out to where I can take really long breaks when I get all of my homework done. So when 1:45 PM hits, I'm free for the rest of the day! That's probably been the best part.
Elizabeth: You like the feeling that you have a little bit of control over your schedule, in a way.
Sam: I do. Like, the times when you're normally changing classes or eating lunch, I can just sit at my computer and get all my work done instead, and I'm free afterward.
Elizabeth: When you say you hate it, online learning - what are the aspects of it that you've hated?
Sam: Physically being on a computer has not been great. I actually had to get my glasses prescription increased, because I spent so many hours on the computer.
Especially because I've never actually met any of my teachers, there's a communication barrier. Where normally in a class, you warm up to your teacher after a week or two, with online learning, you're really like, "well, I can't talk to him again." I can't ask any questions. If I send an email, it's got to be super formal and I have to really polite and everything. It's like, I don't know them... it's very strange. I mean, basically, we're strangers all day.
Elizabeth: That's very interesting, that you never really develop that relationship with a teacher, where you can go chat with them after class, and maybe just casually ask a question.
So how about socially? You moved in September, it's now almost April. Have you managed to meet other kids, online, or in your classes? Can you see them during class? How has that worked?
Elizabeth: I have not met anyone through the computer at school. I have made a couple of friends in the neighborhood who are really nice and who I'm very grateful for, because they actually go to my school. We don't have any classes together, but they're super sweet. I've also met some kids through my youth group and stuff like that as things have begun to open up.
But yeah, I didn't actually go to class in a building until February. So, you kind of recognize people... but height is very deceiving on Zoom. It's been really funny because I hadn't realized how tall everybody actually was... that was kind of the funniest part.
Elizabeth: That's funny! The way they looked on Zoom versus who they were when you finally met them in person. What was that like?
Sam: Meeting all of my teachers was absolutely wonderful. They are all really great. But as for the students, it's been very awkward, especially because there's only been a third or so of us in the building at a time, and we all have masks on... for some of my classes, I've been the only one there, either because just not many people are coming, or some people are quarantined, or it's a small class to begin with.
So I'd say, meeting the teachers has been great; meeting the students has been very strange.
Elizabeth: So you have two more years after this one. What are you most looking forward to as hopefully, things normalize in the coming months?
Sam: I'm really looking forward to traveling again. When we were in Norway, we traveled all over the place. So I'm really looking forward to that - in the two years that I am here, seeing the U.S. I haven't seen a lot of the East coast.
Everybody tells me the high school experience is pretty great, so probably that as well. They're all like, "you're gonna love going to football games and joining clubs!" and all that. So yeah, that would be very cool as well.
Elizabeth: To actually have the typical high school experience, right?
Elizabeth: Wrapping up, are there any comments, thoughts, or ideas that you would like to share? As I have said going into this, we adults spend a lot of time thinking and talking about how the pandemic has affected kids, education, and their school experiences. And that's why I wanted to have these interviews - to hear from kids about what they've experienced. Is there anything you'd like to share that you feel we should know?
Sam: I would say, while distance learning has been quite normalized now, in the beginning, academically (at least my school, which is a pretty challenging Ivy School), you still had to do the same amount of work, take tests, and were expected to have the same academic standard as if you were in the buildings, and it just doesn't work like that. You can't focus the same way - there are so many distractions, and unless you're completely laser-focused on a computer, you can't quite fulfill the expectations of what you could do in "normal" school.
Elizabeth: As a last surprise question, what's your favorite word?
Sam: My favorite word... that's hard! I have to think about that... I love words.
Elizabeth: You are a reader!
Sam: Yes, I love to read and write. Predicament! Predicament. Yes. My friend used to say it in every other sentence. Predicament.
Elizabeth: Predicament. It's a good-sounding word!
Sam: It is!
Elizabeth: Thank you for that. And, thank you very much for sharing your time, your experience, your thoughts with us. It's been really interesting.
Sam: Good. I'm glad!
*Recorded March 2021
--- End of transcript ---
Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by helping them make informed decisions about the best-fit schools for their children; with our guidance, they secure placement in preschools, private day schools, public/state schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, including schools with particular programs, such as special needs support.