The Middle Layer

Is it harder to be a student today than it was a generation ago?

By: Luke Coles – Principal, Blyth Academy Lawrence Park

Problematic question, of course: a person can only fully inhabit their own experience. But in a series of chats I recently had with our Blyth Academy students they answered with a resounding and collective yes, almost always listing technology and “social” among their reasons why.

In coverage of social media, there’s a lot of press when it comes to extremes: the tragically bullied, the suicidal, the overwhelmed and distraught. But what about the middle layer? The kid who many of us can identify as having been: not bullied, not tragic, not quite as central or ‘friended’ as we perceived others to be, but all in all, just fine.

Imagine a Saturday night twenty years ago. You are in high school. Your phone hasn’t rung and there is no invite to a party or event. You’re home, maybe with a parent or two. You sense there’s probably something out there that you’re not a part of, but you don’t know the specifics; you’re not clear on what you might be missing. You stay home, you watch a movie, you get up fine the next day. Maybe on Monday you get wind of that party you weren’t at. It stings. But it’s Monday now, and the party is just a concept. You don’t know how big or good it really was. Besides, it’s over. You get on with your day and everything is pretty much okay.

Today? Through the organ that is your phone, you are always accessible, and you are flooded with real-time images and video of those parties where you’re not. The content is edited and idealized, and even your resilient mind can’t help but feel “less than” when you are audience to the excitement and crafted depictions of others. Your whole night NOT at a party is coloured by images FROM that party. How hard it must be to feel happy where you are when you’re being reminded every minute of where you are not. These are not the bullied. These are the kids who are liked and accepted but not quite central or reliably invited.

As a resident of that middle layer in my own high school experience, it wasn’t too bad. I can’t fathom how much harder it would be today. But that is all our kids know. They can’t opt out of the movie reel of others’ seemingly happier and richer lives.

So what do we do? We help them to deconstruct that movie reel and give them the tools to overcome rejection. Youth need the same thing that adults need: care, attention, and connection but they are living with technology that is entangled with their emerging identity. As supporting adults we need to learn what our children and students are experiencing and work to prepare them emotionally for socializing in the digital space.

Though our physical doors remain temporarily closed, the minds of our students stay open. Full-time, Night School and Summer classes are continuing to meet on their regular daily schedules, in virtual classrooms with face-to-face instruction and peer interaction. We have been heartened by the resilience of our community of students, teachers and families through these challenging times, and the spirit with which our community has pressed forward with coursework, office hours, extracurricular activities, guidance consultations and community initiatives. The Blyth Academy model of small class sizes, flexible scheduling and individualized approach have enabled us to remain faithful to our standards. Our commitment to ongoing and meaningful communication between school, teachers, students and families has been critical to this effort.

Going forward, we are staying agile in our responsiveness to developments with COVID-19, always with the health and safety of our community top of mind. We are conducting ongoing planning to confront scenarios as they develop, with an array of options combining virtual classrooms, distancing measures at the schools, and scheduling modifications; all combined with the innovative teaching practices our faculty are developing through collaborative exchanges within and between our campuses. We will have several phases of return to, and if necessary retreat from, the bricks and mortar classrooms at the ready. We will continue consultations with our community and provincial health and education authorities to determine best options as the COVID situation progresses on its non-linear path.

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