The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fault lines in our society, including in public education. Thankfully, nearly all our children and youth have survived, but many went through harrowing experiences, including serious illnesses and deaths of family and friends. Some of our young have prospered, thanks to their parents’ wealth and savvy, but many more have been left out, left behind, and deeply scarred.
Soon almost all our young people will be back in school buildings, for what one might call ‘brick-and-mortar learning.’ What should that look like? What should happen in classrooms? Will there be a mindless rush to measure “learning loss” and then ‘catch up,’ or will the adults in charge recognize the gravity of what most kids have experienced?
I suggest that we think of our children as recently freed Prisoners of War who’ve been kept in isolation for months. They have endured unprecedented and often harrowing experiences, and they’ve also endured endless stretches of boredom. They now need time and space to process what they have been through. They need to learn how to be together. Basically, they need a safe way to re-enter society.
We don’t want to go back to ‘normal,’ not now and not ever! Pre-COVID, most schools were uncomfortable and even unsafe for many youngsters, who were bullied and teased and victimized by their peers, conscious of their place in the dreaded pecking order. Modern electronics made this harassment easier, even allowed it to be anonymous.
To become safe places for all children and youth, schools need both time and space. That means rethinking the daily schedule. For openers, make the Middle School and High School morning ‘homeroom’ period–normally just a few minutes–into a 30-45 minute period that can be used for discussion of salient issues. No electronics allowed, and no topics off the table. Set some rules, including “What’s said here, stays here” and “Treat everyone else the way you want to be treated” (which is, of course, a variation of The Golden Rule.)
Because elementary school kids stay with one teacher all day, the approach should vary. I think teachers should invite/challenge their students to come up with rules for classroom behavior. Let them spend as long as necessary debating the rules they want to live by, instead of slapping up a laminated poster listing the rules. Allow students space and freedom to talk about their experiences during COVID, because they are now getting accustomed to being with their peers, in person. My strong hunch is that they will come up with their own version of ‘The Golden Rule.’
Looking back at what I’ve posted in this space during the pandemic, I’m afraid I sound a bit like a broken record about the importance of creating schools that respect students, teachers, and learning.
Here’s what I wrote in June, 2020, 11 months ago: “Create a school environment that is physically, emotionally, and intellectually safe for every child. Physical safety is the easiest of those three. Emotional safety means more than adults keeping their antenna alert for bullying. A more effective strategy is to enlist student leaders in this effort, to persuade them to set the bar high and to communicate to other students about bullying and other harassment: “We don’t do that here!” In an intellectually safe environment, it’s cool to ask questions and be curious, and it’s admirable to acknowledge when a student isn’t grasping a concept or understanding what the teacher just said. Displaying ignorance in pursuit of knowledge is to be expected and encouraged, not mocked.”
Back in July, 2020, I argued that it would take a village to open schools safely. “When public schools closed during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, the Federal Government responded with funding to hire school nurses. Because only 60% of today’s schools have full-time nurses and 25% have no nurse at all, Congress should do that. But it should also provide emergency funding to rent supplemental space, pay for Covid-19 testing and PPE, buy liability insurance, and pay teacher aides.”
I wrote this in February: “This school year is unlike any other. For those students who have been able to stay on track, congratulations and Godspeed. But for those whose lives have been turned upside down, they have not failed! They shouldn’t have to go to summer school, have their ‘learning loss’ measured and published, or be held back.”
One year ago I wondered how learning should be assessed, and I’m still asking that question.
“Pass/Fail” may end up being the popular option, although hard-working students and dedicated teachers will object, because that ‘one size fits all’ approach discounts their efforts. Randi Weingarten, the sensible President of the American Federation of Teachers, believes teachers and students should design ‘capstone projects.’ “We’ve got to trust educators and students to come up with meaningful projects that demonstrate student learning, and to do so in ways that minimize the inequalities of the digital divide,” she wrote in an email. “Before the pandemic, most students had seven months of learning, so let’s end the year with meaningful projects.”
In December, 2020, I made these suggestions for schools when they reopen:
1. Make the institution more (small d) democratic.
2. Give students more agency over their own learning.
3. Give kids time and space to get accustomed to being with peers, even socially distanced, for the first time in many months.
4. Social and emotional learning may matter more than book-learning for these first weeks and months, because we don’t know the effects of isolation.
5. Lots of free play.
6. And maybe this is (finally) the time to move away from age segregation and group children instead according to the interests and their level of accomplishment.
7. Finally, NO hand-wringing about ‘remediation’ or ‘learning loss,’ because that’s blaming the victim, big time.
At this moment in late April, 2021, I am not particularly optimistic about the future. Sadly, too many School Boards did not see this crisis as an opportunity, and, like many others, I am deeply disappointed that our new Secretary of Education refuses to abandon high-stakes standardized testing.
On the plus side, public schools will get a large infusion of federal funds to allow them to be properly ventilated and brought up to (technological) speed.
And never forget that children are resilient…….