Last week in this space I posted an almost entirely fabricated** article about faux “research’ I claimed to have done by hitchhiking while posing as a retired teacher, CPA, doctor, et cetera. Although the piece was posted on April Fools Day, a fair number of readers took what I wrote at face value.
Why would smart people take me at face value? I think it’s because my phony research supported their core belief–teachers matter–and they simply couldn’t wrap their brains around the notion of anyone poking fun at that.
“Teachers Matter” is a core belief of mine as well, so let me be serious for a moment, because what many teachers are doing during this awful pandemic again demonstrates their value.
Our teachers are stepping up big time, judging from news reports and from the stories I’m hearing from family and friends. In some communities teachers have organized ‘drive throughs’ of the neighborhoods where their students live, so the kids can come outside and wave hello–from a safe distance–to their teachers. Here’s one TV report about how teachers in California are staying connected with their elementary school students.
A high school teacher I know well is working with some of his students–at a distance–making PPE for three local hospitals. He bought sheets of plexiglass, and they are cutting and bending it, then attaching straps, to produce the face shields that protect First Responders from the virus.
Many educators are delivering meals or handing them out at schools because they understand that, for many low income students, meals at school might be the only food they got that day. In fact, the nutritional needs of children is the reason politicians like New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio delayed in closing their schools (a decision that has cost New York City dearly).
Here’s an excerpt from a report from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (a newspaper I urge you to consider subscribing to): The New Kensington-Arnold School District, where all 1,975 students qualify, is handing out to-go bags with breakfast and lunch items from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays at seven locations for all students 18 and younger. The district asked parents and older students to fill out a survey to indicate continued participation in the meal program to improve efficiency and waste as little food as possible.
And the Oil City Area School District in Venango County, where more than 90% of the students are eligible, said anyone from 1 to 18 years old could receive a bagged meal that would include lunch for that day as well as breakfast for the next day. The meals are available from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Seventh Street Elementary School or at the high school.
Steel Valley, one of the school districts with 100% reduced lunch eligibility, gave students backpacks of free food on a Friday to get them through the weekend and said it will continue to serve meals to students on weekdays during the shutdown.
Since 11,000,000 American children–one out of every seven–live in ‘food-insecure’ households, what teachers and school districts in Pittsburgh and elsewhere are doing qualifies as ‘life-saving’ work.
Equally important, some teachers are making ‘house calls’ via phone or Skype and other apps or they’re sharing their email addresses, making themselves available for questions. That’s an experience our grandchildren and the grandchildren of friends are having.
Stepping up for their students during this pandemic has taken a toll, including the ultimate sacrifice, as the newspaper Education Week is reporting.
The pandemic has also revealed the fault lines in our education system and society at large, including pervasive economic inequality. Online learning is literally impossible when students cannot get online because their homes don’t have wifi or because they don’t have the devices. “Nearly one in five students between kindergarten and 12th grade do not have computers or speedy Web connections, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center in 2018, the latest available, which said this “homework gap” disproportionately plagues low-income families and people of color,” The Washington Post reported recently.
Two weeks ago in this space I wrote, “(A) lot of school systems seem to be reflexively behaving as if they could simply transplant school’s routines to the home. Some are emailing or posting lesson plans that they expect students (and parents) to follow.” It may be worse than I thought. Apparently most school districts hadn’t thought through how to respond, and so they’re simply trying to impose school’s routines on American homes, with class periods and worksheets, the whole nine yards.
“Same old, same old” isn’t working, as The Los Angeles Times reported recently. Profiling senior Emilio Hernandez, an honors student taking AP calculus, physics, design, English, engineering and government, The Times writes, Now, with a borrowed laptop from school and family crowded in the living room, he’s struggling to make school feel like, well, school. He has trouble falling asleep and finds himself going to bed later and later — sometimes as late as 3 a.m. “Assignments that would normally take me two hours or 30 minutes are now taking me days to complete. I just … can’t focus,” he said. “I don’t have anyone giving me direction. It’s just me reading and having to give myself the incentive to do the work.”
Think about that: An honor student who is taking an incredibly demanding schedule hasn’t learned–or been expected–to strike out on his own. To me, that’s the bitter fruit of the top-down, standards-based, test-centric approach to ‘education’ that so many politicians and so-called ‘school reformers’ have embraced.
Superimposing school on the home is not working for students at all levels. LA reports that on some days half of students don’t bother to log on–IE, they’re skipping school. New York City is having trouble getting kids to participate, and, of course, no one knows whether kids who do sign in are actually paying attention. Basically, given the opportunity “to vote with their feet,” kids are (electronically) walking away from school as they know it.
That’s precisely why this is the perfect time to rethink public education. State standardized tests (given to meet federal rules) won’t be required this year. Many states have already relaxed their rules requiring 180 days of classroom-based instruction, but now it’s time to go further. Randi Weingarten, the wise leader of the American Federation of Teachers, has some suggestions for evaluating the work that students are doing at home, including a ‘capstone project.’ She writes, in part: There are many ways outside of state accountability systems to show student learning, as teachers can attest. They just need the freedom to use their professional judgment. Teachers do this throughout the year — administering tests and guiding students on projects and portfolios. We know that students love to show what they know to people who matter to them. We need to trust teachers, in consultation with their principals and colleagues, to design meaningful, educationally appropriate tasks.
However, this will be harder than it sounds, because for at least the past 30 years teachers have not been trusted with student evaluation and curriculum development. Instead, those at the top have devoted years and millions of dollars to creating “teacher-proof” materials, a concept that should boggle the minds of everyone who cares about learning.
Teachers who have gotten accustomed to being told what to do may have trouble adjusting to new freedoms and responsibilities–not to mention adapting to the new experience of teaching on-line.
When Edutopia brought about 500 teachers together (electronically), much was learned, including “Less is More.” Here’s an excerpt: If your district allows it, you should plan to do less. Students won’t be able to work as productively, anyway—so if you can’t scale back you’ll be sending them work they cannot do—and your own life and family need added care. “Feedback from students and families over the last 10 days in Italy is ‘less is more,’” commented Jo Gillespie. “Consider that parents are trying to work from home, and siblings are vying for computer and Wi-Fi time. … And (Stacy) Keevan, the teacher in Hong Kong with weeks of experience, confirmed that time and distance play funny games during a crisis: “What would normally take you one class period to teach in the classroom will probably take you twice as long.”
The AFT’s Weingarten suggests a “capstone project” for all students, giving each the opportunity to shine. I think the goal should be ‘knowledge production,’ and not the spitting back of information. Project-based learning is a good way to encourage knowledge production because when children explore their interests, they acquire and create knowledge. When children DO, they learn.
Interestingly, some commercial interests are responding to the pandemic by doing things that will make it harder for students to become producers. For example, Google is opening up its gaming venues for free–as if today’s kids needed to spend even more time playing video games. The goal here is to set the hook even deeper, to keep everyone consuming.
As I wrote last week, In the age of Covid-19, we ought to be encouraging children to ask good questions. Home Learning entails the search for answers. Before Covid-19, parents might ask their children at dinner, “What did you learn in school today?” Now, let’s ask, “What good questions did you come up with? How’s the search for answers going?” The goal of education, the goal of Home Learning, is not the right answer. The end game is perpetual, life-long curiosity.
What changes should be made in public education once the pandemic passes? What are the lessons of this pandemic for public education? Kiah Duncan has some suggestions:
- Remote learning days should be embedded throughout the school year once or twice a month. School Improvement days should become remote learning half days. That would help teachers improve their digital teaching skills by working together and give students regular practice so that it is easier for them to do on their own at home.
- Each state should ensure that all students have a device that they can use and replace any devices that are not returned. If any state is willing to implement remote learning, they should be accountable for ensuring that each school has the necessary amount of access.
- All teachers should be required to have a technology element integrated into a lesson that is formally or informally observed each school year. The only way to effectively assist teachers that may require more help is by knowing what they are doing and giving them the opportunity to improve before it becomes mandatory.
Just as important, we need to reimagine public schools and teachers must be deeply involved in this process. I write about what schools could be in Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education. We simply don’t have enough young people to continue with the current “sorting” approach to education that picks out winners and losers. Instead, we have to ask of each child, “How is she smart?” instead of “How smart is she?” and proceed accordingly.
Ironically, schools need to become more like most American homes, instead of trying to superimpose their tired routines on our households.
** It wasn’t entirely fabricated. When, at age 21, I hitch-hiked around the country, a lot of drivers (men and women) accosted me; however, I am not writing an autobiography called “In the Car Where (Might Have) It Happened.”