Teens, interrupted

Maples Met School students in a journalism partnership with the Free Press offer insights into coping with life, learning and longing during the pandemic


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In late 2019, the Free Press and Maples Met School launched a collaborative project, one that aimed to benefit both students and the newspaper by asking two simple questions: how can we better connect youth with journalism? And how can journalism do better at hearing the voices of diverse Manitoba youth?

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/04/2020 (1016 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In late 2019, the Free Press and Maples Met School launched a collaborative project, one that aimed to benefit both students and the newspaper by asking two simple questions: how can we better connect youth with journalism? And how can journalism do better at hearing the voices of diverse Manitoba youth?

At first, the project was open-ended. It started with a simple conversation about how youth connected to news and ideas. As the new year turned, we began to think about how to get these talented and inquisitive students out into the field to try their hands at reporting.

Suddenly, in a matter of days, the whole world changed. The public-health measures that swept across Canada saw classes suspended and students sent home to continue their learning. In this new reality, the voices of youth must be included to gain a full understanding of the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis.

The Met school concept — also known as “Big Picture Learning” — originated in 1995, when Rhode Island educators Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor launched an innovative concept. They wanted to shift focus away from rote learning and standardized tests, to a vision of education that was individually tailored and student-led. The doors to The Met — the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Centre — opened shortly after.

That idea soon caught fire: there are now nearly 200 Met schools worldwide, but the two in Winnipeg are the only ones in Canada. There is Seven Oaks Met, which opened inside Garden City Collegiate in 2009 and now has its own facility across the street on Jefferson Avenue, and Maples Met, which launched seven years later and is located in the Maples Collegiate complex, also on Jefferson Avenue.

The differences between a Met school and a traditional one start on the surface, but run much deeper. Teachers here are known as advisers, and students call them by their first names. They also roll through the years in sync with students, providing a consistency of the educator-student relationship through to graduation.

What makes Met really different, though, is how students learn. Beginning in Grade 9, they seek out internships at companies, non-profits or organizations in the wider community; they also develop their own projects that may take months of hands-on learning, as well as problem-solving that crosses multiple scholastic disciplines.

They must still hit the standard curriculum milestones, so students do take some traditional classes, including math and phys-ed; they can also choose to take band or other electives at Maples Collegiate. But most of their learning happens through the other, more hands-on and community-immersive routes.

The Free Press has invited the four students of the Maples Met partnership to contribute their perspectives to our coverage of the pandemic. The work they produced speaks to the disruption that has shaken their lives and to the challenges of isolation, but also to the resilience they are displaying as they experience these unprecedented changes.


Rory Ramos

Editor Paul Samyn (left) and reporter Melissa Martin (right) took Maples Met School students Alex Payawal (from left), Rory Ramos and Kalkidan Mulugeta and principal Ben Carr on a tour of the Winnipeg Free Press in December at the beginning of the project. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

It’d be easy to assume that teenagers are living the life right now. No school, sleeping in and the most free time since we were in kindergarten. However, most people I know are still hit with sometimes-overwhelming feelings of loneliness, isolation and disconnect.

As a generation born into a world of technology, we’re accustomed to cellphones and the internet; we know the world of infinite information like the back of our hands. And yet, as individuals born into a world of near-absolute connectivity, we are still craving connection.

In this time, we are encouraged to be on our own; to watch TV, to binge Netflix shows, to browse social media rather than physically come together. We are encouraged to do all the things we would normally do in our free time, but the times we’re living in are far from normal.

We are now spending so much time on our devices that many of us are feeling there’s no longer a point. We are finding ourselves wanting what we cannot have.

Despite what many may think, and despite the stereotypes placed upon us, youth and teenagers still value physical connection. Even though we are still reaching out to one another with calls and text messages, we are feeling the effects of isolation on our mental health.

“Personally, isolation and social distancing has (taken) a great toll on my mental health,” says Angelica Placido, a Grade 12 student at Maples Met School. “As someone who is fuelled through human interaction and the constant need for hugs, it is quite difficult (to adjust) to this astray lifestyle.”

Angelica and I are different in the way that she is fuelled by interaction with others, while I often find myself more energized in my time alone. Yet the impacts are very much the same. The line that separates being alone and being lonely is blurred, and like others I know, I am struggling to see where I stand.

I catch myself wanting to be around others more often. Things I once enjoyed to do in my free time now feel mundane. No amount of screen time or books can transport me to a world without the virus that has taken hold on each of our lives.

We do our best to connect through our devices, and no doubt, it’s better than nothing. I can only hope in this moment where we are far away from one another, we will continue to hold onto our loved ones in our hearts and support each other.

Phone calls, text messages and video chats don’t seem to be enough to push COVID-19 out of our heads. They do not compare to the needed connection of face-to-face contact, and that is something we all know.

In times of need, we want nothing more than to be there for the ones we care about, but right now, we’ll just have to do that behind screens and windows, keeping ourselves safely at a distance.

Rory Ramos is a Grade 9 student at Maples Met School.


Kalkidan Mulugeta

Rory Ramos (left) and Alex Payawal (Melissa Martin / Winnipeg Free Press files)

During this global pandemic, people have lost things that meant a lot to them, such as spending time with friends, travelling or going to church or places of worship. These were our distractions, the things that helped us cope with the crazy things happening in the world and our individual life stresses.

But now our healthy distractions are gone. We can’t go out with friends, or even go to school. It’s hard to be motivated to do anything anymore. So what are youth doing right now to distract themselves?

I use the phrase “healthy distractions” for a reason. A healthy distraction is something that positively takes all your attention, like talking to friends or journalling. An unhealthy distraction, on the other hand, is something that negatively distracts you from important things.

But in a time like this, all of our distractions, including many of the healthy ones, are gone. Or are they?

Music is a big distraction that, at least for me, helps me transport to a whole other world. Music has the power to change your mood instantly, whatever your taste. Personally, when I’m panicked, I love listening to hype music — something super energetic — to get me in an excited and happy mood.

After talking with other high school students from Maples Met School, and youth from my congregation at Generations for Christ Church, I discovered what youth are listening to right now includes music from nearly every genre: rap, hip-hop, trap, pop, R&B and alternative, rock, jazz, worship songs and calmer music.

Why should you care about the music youth are listening to? It matters because this shows how youth want to feel. In a time where no one has answers and people are freaking out, youth want to feel happy, energized and relaxed.

Another distraction many teenagers have been doing to pass the time right now is learning a new life skill, such as cooking. Others are reading, watching new TV shows and movies, going on social media, drawing, playing video games, making music and having quality family time.

A lot of youth are also taking the time to dig up old passions or find new ones, such as relearning how to play the guitar or discovering a love for skateboarding.

Something interesting that came up while talking to youth was one student from the Maples Met school said they were teaching their mom TikTok dances. For those who don’t know, TikTok is a popular social-media platform where people can post videos of them dancing to songs or make fun of the current situation.

As a 16 year old, this is a lot to deal with right now, and I know for me, not being able to see my friends is really hard. But I know that this is all temporary and it isn’t going to last forever. Until then, I am going to do the same as a lot of youth right now and make the most out of this not-great situation.

Kalkidan Mulugeta is a Grade 11 student at Maples Met School.


Alex Payawal

Students Kalkidan Mulugeta (from left), Alex Payawal and Rory Ramos, along with principal Ben Carr. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

When the provincial government announced that schools would be cancelled for the rest of the school year, I remember looking up from my bed to see the two licence plates that hang on my wall.

One is from Saskatchewan, the year 1975. I like to imagine where that licence plate has been. I like to imagine that it has been all over the country, going to new places, meeting new people. I found myself looking at it at times when I felt lonely. When quarantine started, I realized I was doing that much more often.

I like to imagine that licence plate on the back of a car passing by an ocean on one side and lush greenery the other, going somewhere new and exciting. I often dream about the freedom that the person in that car has, similar to the freedom I felt as my friends and I skateboarded around the neighbourhood.

As teens, we are no strangers to feeling alone. Cocooning ourselves in our rooms and spending hours staring at a screen is not uncommon for us. But as COVID-19 has taken control of our lives, forcing us into isolation and quarantine, a new sense of loneliness has become more prevalent.

TikTok, a social-media video-sharing platform, is filled with posts about our eagerness to hug our friends again. Pictures of us with the people we love taken months before all of this happened are flooding my Instagram feed and tweets about how much we miss each other are covering my timeline.

It’s easy to see I’m not the only one feeling this way. For many my age, we are reliant on the company of others. But even for those that have always preferred being alone, this loneliness, at times, has seemed too much to bear.

This loneliness is foreign to us, it’s new and we don’t know how to deal with it. It’s being forced onto us. We are constantly being told how our teen years are supposed to be a time of figuring out who we are, but it feels as if we have lost a big piece of that.

Our time of being alone was always a choice we made. We, as teens, understand that we don’t get to make decisions for ourselves very often, that’s what made our choice of being alone so powerful for us. But now that choice has been taken away.

My friend Karen, 14, and I seem to be feeling the same way.

“It’s the type of loneliness that you know you can’t do anything about. It’s kinda like you’re on a ferris wheel. If you’re scared of heights, then it’s excruciatingly painful, but you can’t get off ‘cause you’re at the very top and have to wait patiently for the ride to end,” she says.

As I write this, I’m sitting in my room in front of the two licence plates that hang on my wall. I know this feeling won’t be going away anytime soon, but I suppose we just have to wait.

Alex Payawal is a Grade 9 student at Maples Met School.


Emma Williamson

As the world comes to a standstill amidst the coronavirus outbreak, education across Manitoba and the globe has been moved online. Students now connect with their peers and teachers through video calls and emails more than ever before — but many students are saying this may not be a bad thing ,after all.

Ben Ireland, 17, a Grade 11 student at Maples Met School, says that he feels more productive at home.

“I like online learning because I can create my own schedule,” Ireland says. “I can decide what I want to work on and when I want to do it.”

Every learner is different, however. It can be challenging for teachers to give their students an equal quality of learning through a computer screen, and some students say they feel less motivated to do work while they are at home. Anantjot Khosa, 15, a Grade 10 student at Maples Met School, says she feels less productive.

“There is more room for you to be lazy and get into a slump,” Khosa says. “I guess since you’re not really held accountable, it can make students a little less productive.”

For some students, this has helped them to grow as people and improve their life skills. For the first time in most students’ lives, they are being asked to take their learning into their own hands and hold themselves accountable.

“I always feel like I can save something for later and finish it later because I have so much time, but that has also made me start to hold myself accountable since nobody else can,” Khosa says.

For some learners, their productivity has increased since Winnipeg began social distancing. Teens who once had trouble completing their work are now finding it easier to hand in their work and prove their learning — only because they have nothing else to do.

“I do feel more productive and I do get more stuff done, but I’m not around everyone I know,” Ireland says.

Teachers have resorted to using things like Zoom, Google Classroom and communicating via email in order to try and give their students the same quality of learning that they once had. Learners can have days where they spend hours on assignments, or have days where there isn’t much work that needs to be done.

Most students have found ways to manage their time and adapt to the online classes, but the majority of teens agree that they prefer school the way it once was. Angelica Dino, 16, a Grade 10 student at Maples Collegiate, says that she would prefer to go back to school rather than keep things online.

“I’m fine with everything for now but once this is all over, I would prefer going to actual school because I miss my friends,” Dino says. “I feel so lonely at my house.”

Emma Williamson is a Grade 10 student at Maples Met School.

Rory Ramos (left) and Alex Payawal talk to Maples Met principal Ben Carr about their writing project. (Melissa Martin / Winnipeg Free Press)
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