Reteaching Myself How to Learn

by Sophie Lewis, Managing Editor

“Okay, 3, 2, 1, go.” I press play and the iconic Netflix logo on my computer screen is replaced with the face of a man with a bleach-blonde mullet and enough piercings to keep a jewelry shop in business. A few houses down the road, my friend is mesmerized, or perhaps disgusted, by the same image. It’s 1 a.m., and we’ve decided to start yet another episode of “Tiger King,” the binge-worthy documentary series that has captivated bored quarantiners and inspired countless memes.

For 41 minutes, we share laughter, confusion, pity and revulsion over FaceTime as Joe Exotic’s life somehow becomes even more outrageous, from tiger attacks to a failed gubernatorial campaign to federal prosecution. As the credits roll, and Exotic lip-synchs to a country song about tiger hunting, my friend and I debrief the whirlwind episode.

We discuss the filmmakers’ point of view: after spending years collecting footage, are they still sane? Was their purpose to convince viewers to support or oppose Joe Exotic? The historical context of the documentary feels apposite — the tone of Exotic’s candid and unfiltered political messages bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain politician in Washington. And was such instant popularity expected from an audience of millions of bored Americans?

That’s when I realize that I’m analyzing an episode of Tiger King like I would a primary source document for my upcoming AP U.S. History exam, taking note of historical context, intended audience, purpose and author’s point of view. It’s 2 a.m., I’m a bit delirious, and the Founding Fathers would undoubtedly be disappointed in me. 

Like many of us, I have a lot of free time on my hands, which I’ve spent picking up hobbies like running, keeping up with the news and of course, watching Netflix, instead of focusing on schoolwork. My time management skills have deteriorated since school closed, and I’ve submitted my fair share assignments after the 11:59 p.m. deadline on Fridays. Even so, I do still care about my learning; I’ve just found different ways to showcase it. This unprecedented crisis calls for unprecedented educational opportunities, and the skills that I previously developed in my classes are surprisingly applicable to my new hobbies.

For example, if my legs start to feel sore while I’m running, my first thought is that I’m incapable of continuing and should just give up and walk home. But thinking back to my biology class, I remember that my muscle cells have started to perform lactic acid fermentation to create energy in spite of limited oxygen, a process that’s responsible for the leg cramps. My liver will eventually convert this lactic acid back into pyruvate, so there is no reason for me to stop running. (I did have to look back at my notes to remember these details, but it’s the thought that counts.)

While wearing a mask and practicing social distancing are great ways to flatten the coronavirus curve, I learned cooler curve-flattening techniques in my statistics class. For a normal curve, all you need to do is to increase the standard deviation; if you’re looking at a sampling distribution1, choosing a smaller sample size will do the trick.

This year’s AP Spanish exam includes a mock conversation where students have exactly 20 seconds to respond to a number of prompts. From practicing this exercise so many times on AP Classroom, I now know intuitively exactly how long 20 seconds is. My new skill comes in handy if I’m ever attempting an at-home workout and need to do an exercise for exactly 20 seconds, though this happens pretty infrequently (I’m not getting Chloe Ting’s abs anytime soon).

Making connections between daily life and classroom materials is what every teacher hopes to inspire in their students — even if some of my connections may not be exactly what my teachers had in mind. Researchers at the University of Michigan identified seven key principles to enhance student learning; listed was the importance of encouraging active learning, where students “must make what they learn part of themselves.”

Unfortunately, it’s taken a pandemic to realize just how enriching it feels to internalize my educational experience. When what I learn and who I am stop being separate entities, I truly “get” the material. During the one time in my life when I don’t have any finals to study for, learning has never felt more rewarding. Maybe it’s because I’ve realized that in-person learning isn’t something I can take for granted.

I’m incredibly privileged that my experience in quarantine doesn’t revolve around taking care of younger siblings or worrying about my family’s ability to pay bills. I recognize that not everyone can spend time watching Tiger King, and that some may not feel safe leaving their home to go for a run (not only because of the virus).

Nonetheless, I’m grateful that I’ve become a more conscious student. My classrooms used to be limited to the room numbers that appeared on my schedule. Now that my bed has become a desk and my home has become a school, I can’t help but allow my learning to feel more personal. And whenever I’m allowed to venture out into the world again, I know that my education will continue to be with me every step of the way.

1. A footnote for fellow nerds: n must be ≥ 30 to satisfy the C.L.T., or else the sample must come from a normal population.