OPINION: The Humanity of Our Students

The To&Through Project
7 min readJun 9, 2021


By Ashley N. Leonard and Jennifer Ciok

To&Through Project Op-Eds: In the spirit of dialogue, To&Through Op-Eds provide our team members opportunities to raise critical issues, context, and questions that arise in their explorations of educational equity for Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students.

As we prepare to welcome all students back to school this fall, it is vital that we learn more about how the last year-and-a-half has affected them. In April, the six schools in the To&Through Middle Grades Network gave their middle grade students an assignment that asked them: “How have you changed and grown since the beginning of the pandemic?” Students’ responses took several different forms: poetry, drawings, playlists, or written reflections to describe their experience.

During our quarterly network session on May 5, educators from the schools came together to share examples of their students’ work and identify themes that ran across students and schools. Below, we’ve listed those seven themes along with excerpts from the students’ work.

Together, these reflections remind us of the importance of listening to our students and of their piercing humanity. As one educator noted, “It was interesting to see that their feelings were VERY similar to my own feelings. They’re not just ‘kids,’ they’re humans.” Our hope is that when they return in the fall, we create learning environments that honor and nurture this humanity.

Student Reflections

Developing new hobbies and interests

● “I have found myself loving decorating/designing things in a game. I found a new hobby in bullet journaling and learning calligraphy and I hope to learn more things and keep bullet journaling.” — Hernandez Middle School

● “While in quarantine I have taken up hobbies such as sewing. I have started taking care of myself and I’ve even tried gardening and it’s fun! I have also bought myself a camera and I want to make a YouTube channel and sell things I make to make some money.” — UChicago Charter School, Woodlawn Campus

● “The past year has been one of reflection. Many people say it is the worst year, but I believe it brought me to a great test. It helped me find myself, my hobbies, what I want to be, and even more. It helped me mature very quickly…I started writing more songs and performing them to my friends. I got into reading even more and I got back into my favorite game, Rainbow Six: Siege… I recently got into sea shanties, which is a very underrated form of music.” — Columbia Explorers Academy

Becoming more aware of current events

● “This song (“I Ran” by A Flock of Seagulls) everybody can really relate to because if people can run away and stay away from this virus they would.”
— Brighton Park Elementary

● “I noticed racism through the pandemic. There were a couple black people who died from racist white men. These innocent people Brianna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and more innocent black lives died because of their skin color.” — John B. Drake Elementary

● “And I wondered what kind of times are these
A bigot for a president
Police taking innocent lives
and the fact that they just let this fly
The world needs change
And we will bring it”
— Columbia Explorers Academy

Continuing to develop their identities

● “A way I noticed I’ve changed is that I’m more motivated in school, like I’m way more focused and it makes me feel good about myself because it’s like wow we graduate so soon and I got accepted to the school I wanted, it’s honestly a great feeling. I want to stay motivated, positive, and keep myself focused on going the right paths for my future. I want to stay like that because it gives me a big opportunity to have a better future and bigger things. The pandemic was actually something that ruined a lot of things for me, like for example having a big 15 party, how I see myself graduating in 6th grade, I fell off with tons of people, but made new friendships I really love, I stopped being able to go out without feeling like I won’t get sick, and in general ruined plans I had for me. I started focusing on myself more and it feels so great man.” — Brighton Park Elementary

● “After a year of getting through the pandemic I think I will be a little more comfortable and confident at things. It will make me more confident that I would be able to do more things and focus and also make use of my time and try to start the work early so I do not have some more work on top of me.” — UChicago Charter School, Woodlawn Campus

Feeling isolated and seeking connection

● “I changed my type of music in the last 14 months because the pandemic makes everything look sad and it was sad for me so I changed. The pandemic made me feel trapped like an animal in a zoo because we can’t do what we used to like hugging people and giving people handshakes and that’s very sad for me. I miss seeing everybody in my school because maybe they have changed. A new activity I started to do is going outside more to exercise because I don’t want to get weak since we are inside our houses.”
— Brighton Park Elementary

● “This made me feel alone. I couldn’t see my friends. I didn’t want life to be like this. This made me feel like I’m a nobody. I really don’t like being anti-social.” John B. Drake Elementary

● “Sad — In this drawing it represents me being sad by changes made in my life and how they have affected me I’m just sad I’m not the old me and sad that I’m so close to being a adult I feel like time is going by so quick and I can’t catch up to life and although I shouldn’t give up it’s really hard to keep trying but I have learned to be a stronger person in life no matter the situation.”
— Hernandez Middle School

Marking life milestones

● “The third month went by too. I was drawing more and I feel happy because I feel like I have improved. We went back to Texas because my parents bought a new house and we will be moving in shortly. It was hard going back because we didn’t have internet and I had to work through my phone. Good thing that it was just for a week.” — Columbia Explorers Academy

● 8.October 2020: Party up, DMX | “My birthday was this month too. I could barely do anything. I was about to lose it.” — UChicago Charter School, Woodlawn Campus

● Track 6 / Song: No more parties / Artist: Coi leray | “My birthday was this month and I couldn’t have a huge party so this song describes that.”
— UChicago Charter School, Woodlawn Campus

Experiencing changes in friendships

● “I lost a lot of friendships throughout the year but I made new ones and made the best out of it.” — Florence Nightingale Elementary

● “I don’t listen to BTS or K-Pop often, but I chose this song because it was the first thing that came to my mind when I thought about the pandemic, about how my friends and I used to spend time together before quarantining and the friend group breaking up all together and going our own separate ways. We were a group of about 6 or 7, but we didn’t really have a main group interest, we usually just talked more with the ones that we had known for a longer time or shared common interests with, like drawing, anime, and K-Pop.”
— Brighton Park Elementary

● “I think that I have changed a lot during quarantine. I’ve matured and seen who my real friends are. I would like to remain open minded and just be me and have fun in life. The pandemic made me realize how important it is to be close to your family and friends. I miss seeing my friends at school and being able to be around others without having to wear a mask.”
— Brighton Park Elementary

Hoping for a brighter future

● “Good things, going on with the pandemic, new species, discoveries. One thing I am most interested in is our movements that happened with BLM are going to court. LGBTQ+ rights are getting a lot better. During this time, water has gotten less pollution, but masks have been trash all over the place. Even though it’s hard to leave home, I still have more board games coming in.”
— Hernandez Middle School

● Track 13 / Song: Levitating / Artist: Dua Lipa | “In March I was so happy because school was starting to reopen, and I finally got to come to school. This song has that excitement that I had.” — UChicago Charter School, Woodlawn Campus

● “I’m grateful for surviving through this year… I got happier the past few months. I couldn’t wait for the new year and see a new me.”
— John B. Drake Elementary

Learn more about the To&Through Middle Grades Network, or explore the To&Through Middle Grades Success Resources library.



The To&Through Project

The To&Through Project aims to increase high school & post-secondary completion for under-resourced students of color in Chicago & around the country.