Learning Gains for DC Teens During the Pandemic

Letting Passion Guide Their Education

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Zoe Cymrot with Montana, a guide dog in training. Photo Sarah Cymrot

Zoe Cymrot has been waking up at 6 a.m. since March of last year. Every morning, the 13-year-old takes Montana, a one-year-old yellow lab, out of his crate to give him breakfast and begin his morning training session.

Montana arrived at six weeks old from the evacuated New York kennels of Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Zoe is responsible for his training until he is around 18-24 months old. At that point, he will go back to New York for specialized guide training. If he passes, he will be placed as a guide dog for a person who is visually impaired.

I have had the chance to watch this unique pandemic project unfold up close —Zoe is my younger sister.

Zoe has impressively balanced distance learning and the training of a young and feisty puppy, simultaneously attending to her Zoom class while convincing Montana to settle (and stop nibbling her toes).  It is inspiring to see how at age 13, she is learning to do something that will have a profound impact on someone else.

And she’s not the only one.  I spoke with more than a dozen teenagers across DC, curious about whether they had experiences like Zoe’s.

Often described in the media as a lost year for education, these teenagers tell a different story, a story of finding what they wanted to know more about and then searching for ways to learn about it.

There is absolutely no question that this past year has been a challenging time for teenagers. It’s a period  of life that is supposed to nurture independence, growth and opportunity. But when the pandemic hit almost a year ago, it curtailed all of that: a school year cut short, separation from friends, summer events canceled, frustrating semesters of distance learning —not to mention the constant anxiety about getting sick and infecting loved ones.

But the decision of DC Public Schools (DCPS) to make every Wednesday a day of “asynchronous instruction” (a day with no live classes), empowered students to decide for themselves how they would spend that day.  As many doors closed on extracurriculars and friendships, teens got creative. I discovered a huge range of fascinating endeavors that are happening behind the closed doors of many homes. Rather than learning loss, the teenagers tell stories of finding new passion for study.

Multi-instrumentalist and composer Camila Marryshow is pictured with her flute. Photo: Courtesy C. Marryshow

“I don’t mean to be morbid,” Camila Marryshow, a 12th grader from Ward 5 told me, “[But] your time is not guaranteed, so I really took that to heart and I thought about ‘what do I want to do if I only have a certain amount of time?’”

Composing cinematic music is what Marryshow wanted to do. Already an instrumentalist with perfect pitch who plays ukulele, classical guitar, flute and piano, Marryshow recognized that her passion is actually music composition. She is drawing on that passion to process and reflect on COVID-19. You can hear one of Marryshow’s recent compositions here.

Expanding her knowledge of composition has helped Marryshow map out her future, as well. Her intense exploration over this past year led her to apply to colleges where she can pursue this field.

Like Marryshow, Kamtoya Okeke found a way to dive deeper into an already existing interest. An avid reader who enjoys writing poetry and short stories, the extra time from the pandemic has allowed her to commit herself to a much bigger project–writing a science-fiction book.

Initially inspired by The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, Okeke sees threads of the plot line for her work influenced by the issues of equality and racial justice raised by Black Lives Matter protests last summer. While she has not published any excerpts from her book, you can read some of her poems on page 6 in the recent edition of the School Without Walls literary magazine.

Tenth grader Amaia Noursi stumbled upon an unexpected online opportunity that piqued her interest–a comedic script writing class taught by Greg Daniels, a writer, director and producer involved in a variety of TV shows including The Office, The Simpsons, Parks and Rec and most recently, Netflix’s Space Force.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is a great opportunity; if it weren’t [for the pandemic] then I would have to go to LA to do this,” Noursi recounted. She signed up, drafted a script for the first couple episodes of a TV show based on her freshman year of school and is looking forward to someday being able to film it.

Beyond projects, some teens, like Daya George, a 10th grader from Ward 3, has found other meaningful ways to dedicate her time.  In addition to her role as Student Government Association President at School Without Walls (SWW) and as student representative on the Local School Restructuring Team (LSRT), George volunteers with Kyanite Kitchen, an organization that distributes food to DC’s homeless population.

Se’phira Amen pictured in her traditional Indian dance costume. Photo: Courtesy S. Amen

Homeschooler Se’phira Amen said that the pandemic has expanded her knowledge of her own capacity, teaching her that she is able to learn in varied ways.

Amen has been training in classical Indian dance for the past ten years. For the last year, she had to figure out how to take dance lessons online.

“I know that I am capable of learning over Zoom,” she said, “so if I go off to college in a different state and can’t go to the studio every week, then I have a way to keep learning.”

When Montana isn’t asking me to play with his purple squeaky toy, my friend Nathaniel Liu and I have pursued a pandemic project of our own.  Confronted by the fear and uncertainty about the future, Nathaniel and I wanted to understand how other people have made their choices about their career paths.

We started a podcast called My Life’s Work. For each episode, we interview a Capitol Hill neighbor, exploring how each one discovered their life’s work.

Like my peers, this pandemic project has allowed me to feel like I am continuing to move forward with my life. We are currently working on our fourth episode—you can find all of our episodes at mylifesworkpodcast.org or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Nathaniel Liu, Co-host of podcast ‘My Life’s Work,’ which profiles the career paths of Capitol Hill residents. Photo: Sarah Cymrot

It’s been a terrifying and disappointing year for all of us. But this group of teens revealed their innate resiliency.

Together, they demonstrate that while COVID-19 might be impacting schools, that doesn’t mean that teenagers are slowing their learning down. Instead, they’re finding ways to pursue their passions, to learn about things that don’t always fall under the school curriculum. They’re taking this time to learn more about life —and themselves.

Follow along: This story is the first in a three-part series entitled: Lost Year? Teenagers and Learning During the Pandemic

Sarah Cymrot is a 16-year-old from Capitol Hill who occasionally contributes to the Hill Rag. She is the co-host of My Life’s Work podcast and attends School Without Walls High School. You can reach her at [email protected].