Perspectives: Is Online School Pointless for Seniors?

photo illustration by Ari Gordon

Yes – Dina Zeldin

No – Shoshi Gordon

I’d never experienced déjà vu until I got to Mr. Lee’s AP Lang class. 

Once a week or so, I’d get a creepy feeling that I’d been here before, in the same seat, discussing the same think-pieces, worrying about the same due date, and wondering how many of Mr. Lee’s anecdotes were true. 

Really, though, the first time I “took” Mr. Lee’s AP Lang class, I wasn’t in the 9000s classroom. I wasn’t enrolled, either. Instead, I was either in my friend’s car with fresh boba in hand, on their living room couch procrastinating on my assignments or cooking pasta at their stove. I took Mr. Lee’s AP Lang class vicariously through my two closest friends, who were both a year older than I was and in Mr. Lee’s E block section.

Mr. Lee’s AP Lang class is such a perfect concoction of current events, philosophy and Mr. Lee that it inspires great conversation even if you haven’t done the assigned reading. When Lang inevitably wormed its way into our conversation, I’d act as a backboard for my friends as they bounced ideas for their daily blog posts, hear the progress they’d made on their essays and suggest edits, laugh as they recounted class discussions and offer my own insights. 

I explored the content alongside my friends, then enrolled for my own senior year. My previous sideline experience of Mr. Lee’s AP Lang class didn’t necessarily give me a grade boost the same way pre-reading a few chapters of my calculus textbook might have helped, but it did make me a more engaged student. I was prepared to tackle the tough discussions because I had already been doing so for a year (talking over boba, on the couch or while the water boiled) and had been subconsciously contemplating the topics ever since.

When school went online in mid-March, I was devastated, primarily because the most meaningful part of education was stripped away. Like everyone else, I’ve been doing my assignments completely cut off from discourse and disengaged from my peers. Twenty minutes of class gives no time for a real discussion, and the assignments have little value if I only hear my own perspective. 

At a place like South, where I am surrounded by individuals who challenge and inspire me, discussion not only invites community, but also deepens learning. Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky qualified the importance of classroom discussion in his description of the “Zone of Proximal Development.” Although what a student can learn independently is relatively limited, the student can cross a threshold to the ZPD — a larger sphere of information — with another person. 

Traditionally, teachers are the ones to guide students into the ZPD, but Vygotsky posits that a student can learn as much, if not more, simply by collaborating in conversation with a peer. Vygotsky’s theories lay the foundation for the “fishbowl” exercises that students love to hate, as well as the more casual conversations like those in Mr. Lee’s AP Lang class. The habit of discussion bred in the classroom has incidentally seeped into other aspects of my life. Whether it’s at lunchtime or via whispers in class, conversations with my friends and classmates have been the most enriching part of going to school. It’s how I got to take Mr. Lee’s class twice.

 I understand that NPS’s virtual learning is the most feasible option for school right now. It’s important that underclassmen at least skim through content so that they aren’t behind come September. For some students, online learning has provided a useful structure and pastime.

As a senior, though, continuing with my classes makes little sense. I’ve lost so many quintessential parts of adolescence because of this interruption to my senior spring — seeing my classmates over Zoom but not being able to engage with them feels like rubbing salt in the wound. 

Before school ended abruptly, seniors had finally donned the care-free attitude of “slump,” a mindset that fueled discussion. The threat of a bad grade no longer short-circuited us from participating in a challenging discussion; people were sleeping longer and had more energy to contribute; those who hadn’t done the homework were motivated to get participation credit. Contrary to the popular image of a lazy, apathetic senior, I experienced the most excitement to learn and discuss during the fraction of senior spring that I did have.

Zoom classes are a poor replacement for a real classroom — everyone knows that. But especially for seniors, the current set up conflates assignments with learning. While I’ve been doing assignments and going to class meetings (more or less), I haven’t been learning through meaningful discussion. As a senior, I’ve submitted my fair share of assignments over the last four years and was just gearing down for a relaxed yet engaged semester. 

Now, though, when my teachers ask a question just to be met with empty stares from 20 screens and *crickets*, I feel the ache of missing learning more than I would if we didn’t have online school. I miss the discussion: big questions with winding answers, disagreement and discourse, tangential topics and unprompted soliloquies. Language fueled our insights. Without it, school just isn’t exciting. Neither does it encourage the same intellectual conversation that I had over boba and during car rides.

 I  don’t experience déjà-vu when I log onto Mr. Lee’s AP Lang class; instead, I feel disheartened, reminded of what I’m missing. I’m still hoping I get to see my classmates glammed up in Macy’s best at a late-August prom. But Mr. Lee’s AP Lang class won’t hold the same weight in our conversation — and that’s a shame.

In the past few weeks, we’ve all felt the disappointment of canceled events and pitiful online replications of others, and school is no different. In transferring to online learning, I’ve felt frustrated with my inability to finally experience the famous “senior spring,” a mythical time supposedly filled with forming new connections, less busywork and meaningful assignments and projects. Instead, I’ve found myself with homework-filled days, endless awkward Zoom meetings and a historically new level of procrastination. Despite all this, I still need South in some form or other. Online classes have given me the privilege of having one constant in this “time of uncertainty:” school.  

In Facebook groups and texts, I hear the familiar grumblings about teachers or frustration over an assignment, and for a moment it’s like I’m back in the crowded hallways of South. In their own way, these assignments and classes have provided me with the familiar irritations of school (and a newfound appreciation for them) and allowed me to stay connected with friends whom I may not have spoken to otherwise and with teachers whom I may not see in person ever again. 

But virtual South encapsulates more than annoyances of school. Zoom meetings and surveys serve as a check-in for students who may not have strong friend or family support systems, and, even for those who do, weekly calls foster a sense of togetherness. As my 90 degree thumb joins a slew of others, I know I’m not the only one struggling. No, asking, “So, how are you doing?” is not always the best way to check-in, and I find myself squirming under what I like to call the “stare of expectation” teachers give after stating “I know, I know, this has been a hard week.” That being said, it’s important that teachers and students are shown that they’re cared for — even if it’s through school. A simple “I miss you guys” can mean more than you think. 

Digital South has also given me a channel through which to focus the many feelings that the virus-that-shall-not-be-named has brought up. Instead of aiming my rage, disappointment and grief toward the fact that I ran out of watercolor paper, or worse, toward myself, school has given me a moment of reprieve. I can be mad about an assignment or the administration’s lack of action, and while my anger is maybe misplaced, it doesn’t harm anyone and gives me a chance to process my feelings in a slightly healthier way. Having the short-term deadline of a one-point reflection due Friday stops the weeks from merging into a jumble of unproductivity and Netflix and stops me from obsessing about the long-term prospect of when this will end. Never?

Online school has provided a schedule. The combination of Thursday morning wake-ups and weekdays headlined by procrastination have allowed the weekend to feel more weekendy. While we may not have complete closure on the school year, having online school will make the end of it, and effectively high school, more satisfying. 

Engaged in the digital landscapes of TED talks, Google docs and Schoology, I’ve found glimmers of meaning. The smart, thoughtful and engaging assignments I’ve received have provided breaks from the stress of lockdown life and endless scrolling. I’ve developed a newfound love for environmentalist Rachel Carson through an assignment in my Sustainability class and engaged in larger questions about life, purpose, happiness and kitsch through “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and discussions with my English class (you should all take AP Lit). 

Having such low-stakes schoolwork provides opportunities for seniors to learn how to conserve mental space. The high-stress competitive environment of South pressures students to always be busy and operate at maximum effort. Many students’ sense of self-worth and drive — mine included — stem from grades and classwork. Online school gives students an opportunity to confront this mindset. I’ve learned how to delegate my time toward assignments I find meaningful and to stop stressing over things that ultimately don’t matter.

In reality, the actual assignments are not bad or particularly time-consuming, but stress that students have been trained to put on themselves makes them think so. A 16-minute TED Talk (made eight minutes by the miracle of 2x speed) is not strenuous if you write a low-effort reflection and call it a day, but for those who never learned how to not put 100% into everything they do, such an assignment could take much longer. Online school gives seniors the opportunity to learn how to delegate our energy so that we don’t get burnt out, skills which will be imperative not only in college but also in the workforce. 

It’s also important to recognize that if you are being given work that is too hard or too time-consuming for any reason, you can do something about it. Conversations with teachers, deans or department heads have resulted in the cancellation or changing of mandatory office hours and group projects. The school has purposely set strict guidelines to help students from feeling overwhelmed and is taking actions to enforce them. I’ve received a record number of surveys, and I can see that the school is trying its best to adapt to students’ needs. Lastly, we need online school because we all love and value our teachers, and when it comes down to it, they need to work — and to be paid. 

Look. I’m not gonna say that online school is fun. Or well-organized. Or well-thought-out. To be honest, I hate it too. But I’m not going to say it’s pointless, it just has a different point than it used to.