Andrew Nham holding his Diploma in front of Oakland Technical High School Credit: Courtesy of Andrew Nham

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This article is the first in a series produced in partnership with YouthBeat, a nonprofit organization that equips Oakland teens and young adults with digital media skills, professional mentorship, and employment opportunities. The Oaklandside held journalism workshops with YouthBeat members this summer, including the three authors of this article—Chuyi Fang, Diana Yee, and Olin Pritchard—as they developed story ideas and worked in small teams to produce their reports, which we’ll be publishing in the coming days.

Communicating through digital devices may be second nature for much of today’s generation, but taking classes completely from home is something else entirely.

Today, thousands of Oakland public school students are starting the school year with at least four weeks of distance learning, with the hope that some in-person instruction could happen in phases after that. That plan, along with ongoing negotiations between the school district and the teacher’s union, has sparked debate among students, teachers, administrators, and community members. Much remains to be seen, but we know Oakland students won’t be going back to their campuses for at least another month and maybe much longer.

OUSD students already attended classes remotely for more than two months in the spring, and many are entering this year with well-formed opinions and even some clever ideas about how distance learning could be improved. We asked eight of our peers—middle and high school students in Oakland—to share thoughts about remote learning and offer ideas for how it could work better this year. This is what they told us, in their own words.

Ayah Jackson, 15, sophomore, Oakland High School

Oakland High sophomore Ayah Jackson Credit: Courtesy of Ayah Jackson

[Distance learning is] kind of hectic. Some teachers didn’t even grade you because legally they can’t grade you. If you want to, you don’t have to come to class. Some teachers did not even come on at all during the entire thing. They really wouldn’t get you work. The only class that I really did work from was AP Biology.

The worst thing about it is you’re not getting that social interaction that we really need. I always needed extra help from my teachers, and we’re not around our teachers—that’s always been a big thing. There’s just so much distraction at home for me. I was actually an online student in 8th grade because the public school that they had sorted me into was just not something that I could do. I was having breakdowns every single day for going, and I started failing.

We need some kind of online system, maybe do some recording of [students] working, instead of using something like Khan Academy—don’t use it, or limit the usage. Have tinier classes for the students who need extra help. Allow your students to meet you at a certain time. 

Andrew Nham, 18, Oakland Technical High School (Class of 2020)

Andrew Nham posing with his diploma in front of Oakland Technical High School. Credit: Courtesy of Andrew Nham

The last two months of school, the workload was less than what I do regularly. There is less work overall, and the lessons have been simpler. However, virtual learning did not work for me because I would’ve learned more if I was present in a physical classroom. 

If I could make my own curriculum, I would focus a lot more on things like imaginative experiments, since I think virtual learning is more auditory than visual. Also, classes should be shorter because, naturally, the teachers have less things to show when they’re restricted by a screen. The rules should be the same in a regular classroom: Don’t yell or talk when the teacher is talking, don’t leave class, etc. Personally I would implement a one-mic policy because sometimes my classmates would have the loudest mics which can detect the smallest of shufflings. It hurts our ears. Although having everyone unmuted may seem smart at first, it just doesn’t work in a zoom meeting since background noise is really disruptive to the work environment.

Maida Zoeller, 11, 6th grader, Oakland School of the Arts

Lincoln Elementary student Maida Zoeller Credit: Courtesy of Maida Zoeller

It’s kind of hard because the teachers sometimes cut out and classes are a lot shorter so you’re not able to do as much and it’s not nearly as fun. Our teachers basically talk to us about one lesson for 15 minutes and then be like, okay, you can go now. They gave us a lot less work and it’s a lot less fun because they wouldn’t teach you as much. Also, a lot of people just won’t come or they’ll goof off.  I miss talking to a lot of friends, that I don’t have their phone numbers. That was last year in Lincoln Elementary, and you weren’t able to say goodbye.

I’d make it longer and have attendance—contact parents if they didn’t join. Then you would get recess and assign homework and talk about it. Maybe have a whiteboard, have textbooks to look at instead of showing it on the screen. Mostly, make sure the classroom can hear you. I want it to be as normal as possible, but not the full six hours. It’d be a little crazy to be on the computer for six hours.

Kelis Lacy, 17, senior, Madison Park Academy

Kelis Lacy, 17, is a senior at Madison Park Academy. Credit: Courtesy of Kelis Lacy

Distancing, they pile the work on top of you and you just have to do it. They can’t exactly explain what you have to do, and they have to pass [students] because they don’t know whether you have the equipment to do the work or not.

I didn’t like staying at home so I ended up, like, volunteering at school. I like helping, I like being active. So I asked my teacher if it’s okay if I volunteer and he’s like, yeah. So I started volunteering and one thing led to another and then I started an internship. At first, I was working with computers, then I got into something else with face shields. So I make face shields for hospitals and retirement homes.

See, I want to actually have activities. Like, we have workdays but then we have activity days that we having fun and actually getting to connect, instead of being all about work.

Jasmine Yee, 15, junior, East Bay Innovation Academy

Jasmine Yee sheltering at home in Oakland. Credit: Courtesy of Jasmine Yee

Personally, online school seemed to be much easier than a regular school. The only difficulty was that the wifi at home often wasn’t stable. Teachers seemed to struggle also. Some classes were more easy-going with less assignments and some classes still had the same workload. I think online learning was easier for me because I didn’t have to worry about my schedule. (The best part is) definitely being able to stay home with my family. 

Some classes were boring and not very exciting. The teacher would just tell us to use class time as work time. If I were to change that, I would want more group involved projects instead of individual assignments. The workload was overwhelming and it seemed like deadlines were too close. What made it worse was that some assignments didn’t have clear directions. I wish there were more opportunities to chat with teachers one-on-one because I was sometimes clueless about assignments or classes. I want structuring and extended deadlines.

Alberto Dominique, 18, Skyline High School (Class of 2020)

Alberto Dominique, Skyline High School, Class of 2020 Credit: Courtesy of Alberto Dominique

The last two months, the workload decreased and my motivation level changed. For example, in AP literature I had lost all motivation for what wasn’t mandatory. About my classes, some of them continued to maintain structure during shelter-in-place, while other classes stopped as soon as school closed. We didn’t do virtual learning, but rather independent learning. This meant the teacher was no longer instructing us but rather giving guided directions. Speaking of virtual learning, the best part for me is how I have full control over my schedule, but there are a lot of distractions to my learning. 

If I could design a distance learning curriculum. I would like it if teachers created their own online modules like Khan Academy. In addition, have students engage in some kind of activity that promotes learning while classes would follow the Pomodoro format. Homework should not be mandatory but recommended. If students need the practice, they do it and receive feedback. If they are ahead of the subject, they can skip it and not waste their time. 

Kleyverson Mendez, 16, junior, Fremont High School

Kleyverson Mendez, 16, attends Fremont High School in East Oakland. Credit: Courtesy of Kleyverson Mendez

I think [distance learning] didn’t work. I’m the type of student that does all my work at school and I don’t like to do work at home. At school, you don’t have anything to distract you and at home, you have many things to distract you, for example, your phone. It’s difficult to do your schoolwork at home. And sometimes I don’t understand the teacher. Some of the teachers just give us work without explaining. I miss the help of other teachers, and the help of other friends. The teachers don’t even respond to us when other classmates and I ask questions. What I would change is to give less work. One of the things I don’t want is to have a long class, like more than an hour.

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Middle school student of Julia Morgan School for Girls, Zoe Pritchard Credit: Courtesy of Zoe Pritchard

Zoe Pritchard, 12, 7th grader, Julia Morgan School for Girls

The last two months [of school were] miserable. For my school, we used the zoom to have online classes and most of the time was spent staring at a slideshow and doing work. The workload was smaller but my motivation level was much lower. The most enjoyable classes were when we were doing something that got us away from a screen. The best part of online learning for me is you can get a snack whenever you want but the worst part is the learning felt fake because there weren’t any people. 

If I could design my own curriculum, I’d want a mix of half the people physically going to school while half are on zoom. Also, I’d ask for feedback from the students to make it the best distance learning environment they can get. In terms of homework, I’d have one place for all the homework of all the classes to keep it organized but also keep the homework lower than normal.

Anthony Diaz, 14, freshman, Skyline High School

Anthony Diaz holding his artwork in front of the display wall at Montera Middle School. Credit: Courtesy of Anthony Diaz

It was kind of great. When I was online, I had to do all the homework assignments and I got a lot of points. When I did the homework assignments, it was kind of like a challenge. I used to work in the afternoon or in the evening. My favorite thing is to send all those videos in Google classroom, and my favorite part about the work is probably (writing about) superheroes. 

Maybe like, if I made my own online class, I think that I should probably spend time with the others or ask how their day is going, how was their weekend, or ask them what their favorite things are to do. Probably have art class, science class, computer class, PE class. I used to go to the park with my family and spend time with them—even when we were just walking around, like, it kinda reminds me of PE (at Montera Middle School) when we used to walk around, the laps that we were doing. I kind of miss that place.

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Chuyi Fang

Chuyi Fang is an Oakland High School senior and an intern at Youth Beat at KDOL TV. She’s heading to UC Davis in the fall of 2020 to pursue her study in Cinema and Digital Media, with a goal of one day producing films that educate others, that bring new perspectives, and inspire a change in the world.

Diana Yee

Diana Yee is 18 years old and an intern at Youth Beat at KDOL TV. She will be heading to UC Santa Cruz in the fall to pursue her study in Computer Science: Video Game Design.