Guest column Nate Budington: What the ‘pandemic semester’ could be for high schoolers

Published: 3/29/2020 9:58:45 AM

High school students are about to get a taste of what it means to reinvent a school on the fly.

Educators are creating online curricula with no time to experiment, and teachers, normally energized by the interplay between readings and roomfuls of students, will be left to figure out what to do as they stare into their laptops.

At most schools this sudden online semester will offer less rigor and a bland replication of what happens in a classroom. Expect a messy implementation. And it seems probable that schools are going to be liberal about grading given the chaos that is almost guaranteed. My best guess is that most students will see a nice GPA bump after this spring if they do what’s minimally expected.

For students who love the challenge of their high school classes, or who aim to attend colleges that accept a small percentage of their applicants, worry is already setting in. This is especially so for juniors who are afraid that the most important year of all for college admission will be a total write-off. Many of us are already fielding calls from students concerned about what this means for their college applications.

We’ve been trained to think of schooling as a series of increasingly more challenging lessons involving textual analysis, scientific experimentation and historical/social literacy interspersed with training in the arts and second languages. This is largely the basis of all non-technical schooling from second grade on and will remain the foundation for this sudden online experiment.

But there is an unexpected bright spot as we all enter into the surreal and solitary world of social distancing and online learning: The chance for conventional high school students to engage with the unschooling movement. For a brief moment — the pandemic semester — there’s a chance for high schoolers to break free from the formal definition of schooling and do something truly different. And colleges will love it.

What could that mean? Pick a spot in the woods and do your own habitat study. Write and record a series of original music. Organize a neighborhood effort to convert flower gardens into pollinator-friendly environments. Write a novel. Learn how to build furniture. Take a kayak to Brattleboro and paddle back to Turners Falls, keeping an eye out for bald eagles. Create an online platform to reach out to your fellow students who were socially isolated even before the pandemic. Or do all of these.

A year from now when we have hopefully emerged from this pandemic, colleges are going to be asking the question “So what did you do in the time you weren’t in school?”

Students who have taken the initiative to offer something more than good grades in their online courses will rise to the top. By embracing the successful work done by the unschooling movement, students will not only add something powerful and original to their high school portfolio, they’ll also do something critical for their own self care in a time of boredom and fear.

This a rare, though brief opportunity for our high schoolers to reimagine themselves as learners and to get out of their heads long enough to engage in a new way, the land and community of which they are a part. One side benefit is they won’t have to fret over their college essay. It will have written itself.

Nate Budington is an independent college admission advisor in Amherst, and a former admission officer at Williams College and the University of Redlands.




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