For some Chicago high school students, remote learning brings a new school struggle: motivation

Trinity sitting on the steps outside of school with her backpack and laptop.
George Washington High School student Trinity Colon holds her laptop on the steps of her now-closed school. (Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat)

Darius Stanley and his friend Trinity Colon loved high school. For the two student athletes, the hallways of George Washington High School in South Chicago sometimes felt like their own personal version of High School Musical, the energetic film series.

“I love my school. It’s like a giant community,” said Darius, 16, a volleyball player and member of the student council. “Always fun while still learning.” 

Then the color drained out of the picture, as the coronavirus pandemic abruptly forced school closures during the spring and an all-remote start to the new school year this fall.  

Without the excitement of seeing friends in person after the summer or the anticipation of sitting in a new teacher’s classroom, both Darius and Trinity found themselves nodding off during the long days of remote learning, or the lunch breaks, during the first few days of school. 

Unlike some other students, Darius and Trinity had overcome the biggest hurdles to remote learning — securing home internet and a working device — but they found themselves staring down a more intractable challenge: how to stay motivated over a screen.

“Self-motivation is a thing I have to have every single day,” said Darius, who added that it often helped to have teachers and other classmates to keep up his energy level. “I tell myself that I need to prepare myself to keep my own space up and keep myself involved.” 

In an effort to make up for lost time in the spring, Chicago Public Schools has mandated a virtual learning day similar in length to what students would experience on campus during a normal school year. But the six-hour day already has caused a backlash, with complaints from some parents and the teachers union. 

The stakes are high. With more than 300,000 students learning online this fall and an unclear timeline for when in-person schooling could resume, whether students can learn remotely matters. 

Darius, Trinity, and Julissa Reyes, three high school students at George Washington, are all active and engaged students. They play sports. They are excited about participating in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program offered at their school. But they’ve also struggled with the transition to remote learning.

Looking back

In the first months after school buildings closed, Trinity struggled to engage with school.

Usually a straight-A student, she felt like she was in a fog. She described days spent overwhelmed with information about the coronavirus. She missed her dad; because her parents are separated, he lived in another home, and the pandemic had cut short their visits. Meanwhile, she was struggling to find the motivation to engage in online classes.

When this school year started, she tried to tackle that problem, but it was hard. She missed the first day outfits, personalized supplies, and plans to decorate her locker — all back-to-school rituals that usually made her excited to return to school. 

“It seems silly, but that kinda stuff has been normal for a while and it’s sad not being able to carry out those same traditions,” she said. 

So she spent the night before the first day of school channeling her low-key stress into some redecoration. The high school sophomore rearranged her room to have a desk area for remote learning,keeping in mind that “people will be able to see my house now. 😅,” Trinity said in a text message. 

“I’m still trying to remain optimistic and making up for the lost traditions in other ways like putting a lot of effort/time in creating a special physical and digital space for myself,” she said.

For Darius, bringing some normalcy back into the school year has meant getting creative about new social channels and establishing some boundaries in his home. The 16 year old lives with his brother and a cousin; three other cousins from across the street often spend school days at his home. “It gets chaotic,” he said. 

In the first few days, it felt strange to put introductions into a Google form instead of saying them out loud or to hear one person’s voice at a time instead of the ambient noise of a full classroom. 

So he tried to recreate some of the unity that comes from being together, in class: “As soon as I found out the roster for the class I immediately made a group chat,” he said. “It made it feel like, ‘ok we are still all in this together, we are still in class together.’” 

A joint effort

Students say individual teachers and the school itself have helped them adjust. 

At George Washington, which dubs itself “your neighborhood high school where college is the mission,” the school’s website offers any students “lost” on the first day the opportunity to connect to a Google meet with their counselors or the front office. 

Julissa Reyes, a junior who lives with her mom and older sister, said she has appreciated teachers being real with students. 

They have participated in the virtual icebreaker activities as students get to know each other, whether by making a presentation about hobbies or playing a game called “Two Truths and a Lie.”

“They kind of opened up themselves a lot over the last few days,” she said. 

Last spring, she felt overwhelmed by the amount of schoolwork in the first confusing weeks of remote learning, with teachers trying to make sure students finished their learning requirements. As an IB student, “I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with everything.”

So far, the workload this year seems fine, she said.

“Once the classes started the teachers were very understanding from the students’ point of view,” she said.

Darius noticed that teachers this year seem aware of the larger issues happening outside of the classroom, and they haven’t hesitated to address them virtually. Teachers have asked students their gender pronouns. They also have discussed race and racism, big issues in the news this summer as the protesters across the country marched against police violence toward Black people. 

“I like that our teachers are bringing awareness to that,” he said. 

Trinity said it has been easier to connect with teachers and students in some classes, but not others. She prefers when teachers give students the option to turn off their videos, even though a district directive encouraging students to turn on their cameras.

“There’s classes where teachers demand cameras to be on and make things uncomfortable for students,” she said. In others, “teachers are trying to be as inclusive & understanding as possible.”

Trinity is all-too-aware that she has some things that many of her classmates lack: a desk, working technology, and a quiet set up.

In the good moments, she says she’s adjusting. In other moments, it feels hard to get used to this new normal: “Off the bat, that looks like it could be a struggle.”

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