Thinking beyond elections

Like many of us, we’ve spent the recent weeks trying to absorb what will happen on the day of, and those following, the election.  Will the election have a clear winner? Will the election results be contested? Will recent appointments to the Surpreme Court play a role? Is it possile that we are living in one of those rare moments that become chapters in tomorrow’s history books?  This morning I saw this quote from Winston Churchill in a post by Dane Ravitch. Isolated as we are from the familiar it’s easy to lose sight of what really matters. Churchill’s quote seems like a pretty stark reminder.

The foundation of all democracy is that the people have the right to vote. To deprive them of that right is to make a mockery of all the high-sounding phrases which are so often used. At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper — no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.

As I reflected on these words, I recalled a podcast we recently listened to.  In it, the participants, in seeking a response to the question, “Why Can’t We See”, explored the concept of bias and how our biases influence how we absorb (accept/reject) information.  In discussing this, one of the participants quoted a Latin phrase… “What is received is received in the manner of the receiver.” – i.e., our experiences shape our willingness/ability to receive new ideas.  

Since I am “tuned” to education and learning, here’s how I heard Churchill…

With apologies to Winston…

The foundation of all education  is that children have the right to learn. To deprive them of that right is to make a mockery of all the high-sounding phrases which are so often used. At the bottom of all the tributes paid to education is the little child, walking into the classroom, needing the tools for learning and making  sense of the world around them — no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.

In the midst of uncertainty surrounding learning in the pandemic world, what matters is not recreating the schools we remember. What matters is the creation of learning opportunities for each and every child, regardless of age, income, zip code…. “no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possible diminish the importance of that point.”

Be well.

A Letter from a Friend

Tom Welch and I became acquainted when we worked together as consultants for the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). Bill Daggett, the founder of ICLE, once shared with us an observation about a very famous hockey player, Wayne Gretzky. He said that what made Gretzky so successful was that, more than other players, he knew where the puck was going to be… in Bill’s thinking, “seeing the future” was key in helping us adjust learning to meet the needs of kids not just for that time but, more importantly for the future they would encounter.

Over and over, Tom has proven himself to be the Wayne Gretzky of exploring learning opportunities for kids. Tom recently shared a letter he had sent to his daughter. I asked if I could share it with you. While the purpose of the letter was to help his daughter with decisions about the involvement of her son, Hutch, with RTI (Response to Intervention), Tom offers us all some Gretzky-like thoughts about where the “educational puck” could/should be. Enjoy…

My dear daughter,

So when is the conference? Here’s my take on RTI — admirable concept — IF you think that all kids should be responding to instruction in the same way and at the same pace. I just no longer believe that. In fact, the downside is exactly what seems to be going on with Hutch. The worst thing is to send a message to kids (and parents) that the kid is “behind” and needs to “catch up”.

Here’s the way I have been illustrating that lately — Most schools and teachers operate as if kids are “widgets” or “pieces”. The teacher says in effect “This year our goal is to build every kid into a beautiful Lego bonsai tree. We have decided exactly what every child should look like at the end of the year and we even know what pieces are required to build those beautiful Lego trees that we envision. Not only that, but we know how those pieces should be put together and we have figured out a time schedule so that every kid’s tree can be complete and match our vision at the end of the year!” Hooray for us!

Blog Lego 1Image 10-9-20 at 2.02 PM

Well, as it turns out, the purpose of school IMHO should NOT be to turn out identical carefully constructed identical Lego bonzai trees, all built on a common timeline and with a common set of instructions. For one thing, this actually runs counter to what we know about learning and the way the brain organizes learning and information. Learning doesn’t happen from the outside, in. It happens from the inside, out. In other words, for true learning to occur it must start with the individual learner. For the brain to learn things long term, the new information must connect to things that are already within the learner(remember “Mr. Welch’s” motto — Go from what you know to what you don’t know?) If information is presented from “outside” then it will go into short term memory but won’t “stick” unless it finds path to things already there. Remember how Hutch made real progress with reading at the end of the summer? That’s because he was beginning to connect with internal motivations and experiences (the signs he was reading and wanting to understand from HIS world). There have been a number of studies done about this — one I read about last week was from a very exclusive prep school. AT the beginning of the school year (Sept), kids were given the same final exam in science that they had been given at the end of the previous year. Keep in mind, it was the SAME exam. The average at the end of the year had been an A- (these were smart kids, right?) but when they were give the SAME exam just 8 or 9 weeks later, not a single student even passed it! The bonsai tree had no roots to anything in the kids real lives, and as can be predicted, they had not retained the information. I don’t know if they were, but if the teacher/school were using RTI during the previous year, those kids would have been fine, right? All on track (probably, or if not, thanks to RTI,they were “caught up”) and I’m sure the teacher and school and parents were all quite happy with the performances at the end of the year. Mission accomplished. Too bad it wasn’t the right mission ;-(. The goal of learning is learning, not responding correctly and on time to instruction. I’m sure, Marty, that you remember passing plenty of classes just fine, but the material didn’t “stick”. Think of your math experience — passed AP Stats just fine, but when did you REALLY learn math? When you were learning to fly! That was no “bonzai tree” experience — it was rooted in your personal goals and experience. Unfortunately when kids don’t do well in a class they think it’s something wrong with them (Woe is me, I am bad at [math]”) when the real problem was the whole way someone thought you should learn. Thank goodness you had that experience of learning to fly that summer or you might have not understood the depth of your abilities to learn and apply your learning.

So if not bonzai trees made of Legos that can be mass produced and built according to plan and on a timeline, then what? You can probably guess what I might say —

Old growth forest

This is a much better metaphor for learning and individual learners — when you look at all the different plants, pick out the ones that are “behind” or “ahead” of where they should be. Ridiculous to even try, isn’t it? Each is where it should be. Some get more sunlight for a time and grow faster, another just a few yards away may be growing more slowly. Is that a problem? Is either of them behind or ahead? No, each one is growing as it should. And when are any of the trees “done” growing? Another ridiculous concept. That’s why it’s stupid to say “Oh you finished math — you’re done!” No, there’s always more to learn about math or anything else in a natural environment of learning. What a sad message we send to kids when we give them the false idea that they can consider themselves “done” with learning anything. Part of what keeps me going is I keep learning! I’m always curious about things and anxious to know more. I think that was one of the best gifts my folks gave me. I can see Granny scoffing now if I would have ever told her I was “done” learning history, or if I’d told her I had learned everything I needed to in science or French because I’d finished a course. She was much wiser than that. She knew a great deal about learning — not just from her education but from her experience raising 5 VERY different kids who each learned in very different ways and at very individual paces and with very different sets of interests.

So my advice — listen earnestly to what the teacher has to say and take those parts that seem helpful for you and Hutch. Those things that will nurture him and help you nurture him. But DON’T let her try to tell you that he is “behind” or “ahead” with ANYthing. He is where he is! And you know what? That’s exactly the point from which you will continue to work with him and encourage him. And the whole idea of any kid being behind or ahead is one that I hope you will talk to him about over the years. Whether it’s classmates or Hutch who is “struggling” and labeled as “behind” or “slow”or “excelling”. Please tell him about the Legos and the forest ecosystem and tell him never to judge himself or others based on some random set of instructions for constructing a Lego bonzai tree!

Much love and encouragement to you all!

Love,
Dad

Getting To How…

Ace Ladder Aug 14 - 2In recent posts I’ve focused on the opportunities offered by COVID-19 for making significant changes in education. For the next few posts, we’ll be concentrating on one of the most vexing issues involved in altering deeply entrenched systems. I deliberately used “we” here because for these posts this blog will serve as a forum for several highly regarded colleagues.  While misuse of social media platforms has been getting a lot of negative (and in my view, well-deserved) attention recently, this collaboration with three highly regarded educators (known among one another as The 4 Amigos) continues to demonstrate the possibilities of connection. I’ve included brief bios of each of us at the end of this post.

As a starter I’d like to reiterate a few thoughts about why we must consider options to simply recreating the experiences that our students had prior to the disruption of the pandemic.

Recent Gallup polls suggest that the engagement level of students here in the US, drops from almost 80% in 4th grade to less than 40% by grade 11.  Why would we recreate experiences that were accompanied by such precipitous drops in engagement the longer students attend school?

Recent studies in the NY Times report dramatic increases in pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, and depression.  Youth suicides (pre-pandemic) have never been higher. Why would we recreate experiences that contributed to these dramatic decreases in the social emotional health of our children?

The organization and separation of content in use today has remained largely unchanged since it was designed by the Committee of Ten in 1893.  Why would we recreate a series of experiences based on content silos disconnected from one another and increasingly separate from real life?

Perhaps most significantly, why would schooling continue to organize teaching and learning in ways totally at odds with our current knowledge and understanding of learning and the human brain?

Pandemic as Portal

What we know is that schools, as they have reopened,  barely resemble the schools we knew. We are seeing the beginnings of parental responses to these options in a national movement known as “pandemic pods” or microschools. This movement is one response to what we have described as the “pandemic portal”… the opening of a doorway to what could be.

As I’ve shared here previously, to take advantage of this opportunity, we need to move beyond expending energy on the recreation of yesterday’s schools, beyond debating why change, and focus on how to create the structures and cultures we need.  This series will focus on that how.

We will begin with the seat of learning, the brain, and how learning can/must change with our new awareness. We hope that you will join us on this exploration, that you will share your successes and stumbles, that you will create for one another and for our children the circles of support and safety where change is possible.

Be well

Our Team…Biographies:

Dr. Susan Clayton – Susan began her teaching career in 1969 in a high school in Port Alberni, British Columbia, Canada. She taught Physical Education with the explicit intent to change how PE was taught to young women in high school. In 1987 Susan went back to school (while working full time) to acquire a Master’s degree in School Counselling. She worked as an elementary school counsellor for 10 years. During this time she was President of the British Columbia School Counsellors’ Association for 3 years.  Susan then went ‘to the Board Office’ as the coordinator for teacher professional development. In 1999 Susan returned to university (while working full time) to acquire a doctorate in Educational Leadership. She was a Faculty Associate for 3 years for Simon Fraser University (Vancouver BC) where she worked with pre-service teachers. She retired from school systems in 2003 and formed her consulting company, working first for Grant Wiggins and for the past 14 years as an independent. Much of Susan’s work has been in brain based learning in Singapore. She continues to serve as an online coach for Harvard’s Visible Thinking course.

Tom Welch – Tom has been a high school English and French teacher and was named Kentucky Teacher of the Year.  HE worked at the Kentucky Department of Education as their sweeping Education Reform Act was initiated.  With that background he was asked to become the first principal of a new public high school in his home district.  Among the unique things he implemented there were a model where the 3 administrators taught a class every day, and he also developed a program so that every graduating senior received her/his US Passport at commencement.  Following his school career, Tom returned to the Kentucky Dept of Ed as “Director of Seeding Innovation” where he continued to oversee and encourage a number of forward-looking programs.  His subsequent consulting career has taken him all over the country and in the midst of a busy “retirement” he continues to work as a “connectivist” for the Univ of KY’s NextGen Learning Initiative.

Cameron Jones – Cam Jones collaborates in the development of learning experiences with children from kindergarten to high school, and adults; with industry partners from music to aerospace, the skilled trades to apiarists, urban farmers to food banks, filmmakers to politicians. Cam’s leadership is thoughtful and responsive, oriented towards understanding needs in the development of creative possibilities. Cam’s thinking begins with listening to people and reading voraciously: and then wondering about how the world should be and taking the first steps in that direction, encouraging others to join me from wherever they are.  Cam is the Leader of Experiential Learning in Ottawa, Canada.

Rich TenEyck – Rich began his teaching career in 1964 at St. Joseph’s High School. He was named a Fulbright international exchange teacher and taught for a year in a German middle school. Returning from Germany, Rich continued his teaching career while exploring and leading innovative responses to student learnng needs.  Rich has served in various administrative positions, retiring as a district superintendent where he successfully introduced and spearheaded the use of interest based bargaining in the district’s labor negotiations.  Rich failed retirement and accepted an invitation to serve as an Assistant Commissioner in the NJ Department of Education, overseeing the Department’s offices for Standards and Assessment, Innovative Programs, and Career/Tecnical Education.   Failing retirement once again, Rich joined the International Center for Leadership in Education and the Successful Practices Network where he served as national and international consultant, focusing on leadership, culture, and learner engagement. Enjoying his family and the exoloration of coastal waters, Rich obviously continues to fail retirement.

Image – Gary Larson – Far Side Gallery

What If the Future Doesn’t Work Any Better Than the Present?

If you’re an educator parent or politician, it’s been hard to avoid the discussions opinions etc. about how schools should open this year.  This uncertainty is far from over as school and district leaders continue to struggle with what to do… full remote instruction, hybrid mixing in-person with remote, full in-person, home schooling, unschooling, pandemic pods, etc. 

middle of nowhere_1129

Recently, I read a post by Diane Ravitch  in which she summarized the writing of Carol Burris who is the executive director of the Network for Public Education.  Burris spoke forcefully in support of reopening the schools in New York City with full in-person instruction  and cited several studies that reported the ineffectiveness of remote learning. The studies cited by Burris  reported the loss of learning in terms of school days lost – i.e. in one study (CREDO, 2015) students participating in remote learning lost the equivalent of receiving 180 days of instruction in math and 72 days of instruction in reading. In a 2019 study of Pennsylvania online schools, students in such schools lost the equivalent of 106 days of reading instruction and 118 days in math. Our love of metrics and analytics has apparently carried over to such fascinating calculations.

While the conversion of remote learning to days of lost instruction is a fascinating exercise, it begs bigger questions… Is this what the education of our children has become after nearly 3 decades of school reform.  Why are we locked into a system of schooling that was designed over 120 years ago?

David Brooks, in his book The Social Animal, argues that…

“modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of the hard skills, while failing to develop the moral and emotional faculties… Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops.  Yet far and away the most important decisions they will make are about whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise, and how to control impulses.  We have built a system of education based on the primacy of the rational mind while ignoring the importance of our emotional/social development.”

The present offers us lessons for the future. While a graduate student, I was in a class in which one of my fellow students asked a particularly inane question of the professor. The professor stood silently for a few moments and then said, “Son,  I’ve seen your future. It doesn’t work”.  Our present isn’t working so well right now.  Few would suggest that the future will work better. 

Russell Ackoff,  professor Emeritus of Management Science at the Wharton School, is perhaps best known for this quote: “There is an important difference between doing things right and doing the right thing. Doing things right is about efficiency. Doing the right thing is about effectiveness.” We have spent the years since the publication of “A Nation At Risk”  trying to do school and schooling right.  We have done so as if we know little more about brain development, emotional connections,  relationship building than we did when the report was first published in 1983.  By virtually all measures, we continue to validate Ackoff’s assertion. While our conversations have been about effectiveness, our actions have been about efficiency… too often at the expense of effectiveness. 

Pre COVID-19 reform efforts (No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Every Student Succeeds Act)  determined the way we experience school.  But after 30 years of such reform efforts, our test scores remain flat, the opportunity gap has widened, and reported incidents of pre-adolescent and adolescent mental health issues have spiked dramatically.  That’s not a present that’s working. COVID related modifications to schooling have stressed the majority of parents, teachers and students beyond anything we have seen in our lifetimes. Many are wondering if school will ever be the same. And that is the opening for the first Big Question. Should it?

As we plan for what the future of post COVID-19 education for our children should look like, we have the opportunity to ask, “what is the right thing?” What is needed is a thorough examination of the purpose, focus and structure of our schools! The COVID-19 experience is telling us to examine the very notion of schools and schooling. We’re part way there. This year we were given a free pass on testing.  We have kids learning at home. We have kids in virtual classrooms. We have kids in mixed age learning pods organized by parents. We have kids attending school 2 to 3 days per week or maybe not at all. 

Big Question #1 – What should be the purpose of school?

The American dream is dead. The story that we grew up with… you work hard, do well in school, go to college, graduate, get a good job, have a secure retirement… is dead.  What if the current system of schooling continues to prepare students for higher education which is beyond the financial reach of an increasing number of students?  What if the current system of schooling continues to prepare our students for jobs  that no longer exist?  Do we need our current system of schooling to prepare our children for the “gig economy”? 

In reflecting on this new reality, Clark Aldrich in his book, Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways To Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education, suggests that the purpose of education revolves around three types of learning: learning how to learn, learning how to do, and learning how to be. What would such learning look like? Would it continue to require the construction and use of expensive, largely single use buildings? In age of growing internet connectivity, would learning opportunities be limited by zip code or even state boundaries?  Could demonstrations of learning extend beyond the walls of the school and recognition beyond the award of seat time credit?

Big Question #2… What do we know about learning?

Everyone is born to learn. Personal and collective survival depends on learning.  Four of my grandchildren are under 10 years old. They are learning sponges. From the earliest days, they were curious, exploratory, and constantly making connections. They each were, and continue to be, different. In school they have been grouped not by interest, not by readiness, but, as Sir Ken Robinson noted, they have been grouped by their date of manufacture. They returned to school this year on a hybrid schedule. Caring and dedicated teachers have been doing their best to engage students who, depending on the day, may be in school or at home. Last week, our first grader, working at home that day, spent six hours on her tablet. While it was clear that the teacher was trying to do hybrid learning right, it was clearly not the right thing.

Big Question #3… Is getting back to normal the best we can do?

The “normal that is on pause right now is a culture of separateness.  We live in an age of separation… We are separated from one another. We are separated from our institutions. We are separated from our planet. In school we have organized learning into separate silos… 45 minutes for math, 45 minutes for social studies, 45 minutes for English, etc. The length may vary. The separation does not. 

What if the way to a future that works involved an exploration of connections and relationships rather than the acquisition of knowledge in discrete and separate content domains? What would happen if we educated for wisdom rather than for information? What if we focused not only on learning about our world but also on learning how to make our world better? What would experiences for learning look like if they didn’t always take place in a school building? 

Last year many of us had front row seats as we witnessed the dedication of teachers throughout the country who, with less than one day’s notice, did their best to bring learning to the students in their classes. This year we are watching much of what we’ve known as school be turned upside down in in a matter of months. Once again, we are seeing our teachers try to help our children navigate a constantly changing landscape.  What better time to say “thank you” and what better time to craft a future for our kids and communities that works?


Image – Gary Larson – FarSide Gallery

 

Where Do the Children Play?

Because I’m big on trying to identify and focus on what matters, I have broken with “tradition” and ask that you take a few minutes to listen to a musical reflection on that very question… “What matters?”  I ask that in response to the way we are currently ignoring the needs of kids in the adult “battles” over the funding of schools in the face of increasing COVID-19 related costs.  As state budgets are under increasing pressures for COVID-19 related expenses, the federal government continues to fail us and continues to place parents and educators in the position of making choices between jobs and the lives of our children.  If we can’t make our kids more important than the economy, we are lost. 

Preparing this blog post mirrored the uncertainty that parents and educators are living with each day as the traditional “return to school” dates approach.  In many ways it has been similar to my brief career as a watercolor artist… how many colors should I use? Which ones capture the hue and tone I see in my head?  Which subjects are even worth trying to capture?  Will I like what I’ve done when it’s done?  Will others find something that they like in it?

I wanted to capture two big ideas:  One is the conflict between living in an age of separation and the myth of togetherness.  The other is the scariness of trying to find opportunity in a time living in a time of fear.

Let’s begin with a bit of context.

We’re NOT in this together… the reality of separation

On a daily basis we are likely to hear some politician, policy wonk, or pundit utter, in the face of the COVID-19 impact,  “We are all in this together.”  We are not.  We are all “in this” but hardly together. Do the tenants who will now face eviction because of lack of government action feel a part of the “together”? Do the unemployed workers whose unemployment subsidy has run out feel a part of the “together”? Do the parents of children whose schools, in spite of growing data about the spread of the virus among school children and educators, are reopening with in-person instruction feel the love of “togetherness”? Do parents who are trying to juggle their jobs and their livelihoods while politicians argue the importance of getting kids back to school so the economy can recover feel a sense of “together”? Do small busines owners, struggling to keep their life’s work solvent feel a sense of “togetherness”?

Togetherness is a fantasy! While people across the country continue to get sick and die, our government on an almost daily basis offers new meaning to the word “dysfunction”.  As the houses of congress continue to squander opportunities to restore confidence in government, they, by design or default, leave the development of solutions to the “very stable genius” in the White House as we slip further and further away from togetherness.

For far too many the story of the American Dream has died or is in the process of dying.  It’s being replaced by a new story.  In it, success does not involve going to school, doing well, getting accepted in a college, graduating, getting a decent job and having a secure future.  This story involves high student debt, participation in the gig economy, unaffordable health care, economic uncertainty and, now, threats of Covid-19 related illness and even death.  It’s a story based on separation rather than togetherness. For many, this new story is frightening.

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The portal… fear and opportunity

In many cultures the concept of crisis is connected to the concept of opportunity.  While we are right in the middle of trying to determine where and how we should educate our children, we are also faced with a unique opportunity… an opportunity that we haven’t seen since the late 1890’s… what do we want education (more importantly) learning to look like?

The pandemic has opened a door (portal) to that opportunity.  It is an opportunity driven by fear but not one which need be feared.  It is also one with understandably predictable responses.  The portal that we see is a door between two options.  One option is the attempt to recover the system that has been shattered by the massive closure of schools and the reliance on remote instruction.  For a number of folks who find themselves, in a time of uncertainty and fear, seeking a return to “normalcy”, this is a return to the known, the predictable, and the safe.

On the other side of the portal is the unknown.  It’s a space where people can create what could be… what could be if we abandoned things like grades, age-based cohorts, rigid standards, large scale assessments and embraced all that we have learned about learning, engagement, student choice, empathy, equity, etc.

For some, the move through the portal to the possible is an easy choice.  What becomes clear pretty quickly to those who are either tentatively exploring, or those who have run through to the new reality, is that it is necessary to “travel light” – i.e., not everything we’ve become used to can be carried through the portal to the new reality.  Realizing this drives some back to the old, the familiar, the comfortable. Grades, tests, content-based curriculum, age-based grouping are all they’ve ever known.  Others, either reluctantly (or sometimes happily), abandon much of the old for the chance to experience and build the new. Much like kids in our classrooms, rarely are all equally ready at the same time.  And just as we shouldn’t negatively label kids in our classrooms because they are not yet as ready as some of their peers, we need to avoid negative labeling of colleagues whose primary need at this  time may be the safety of the familiar.

As many parents and educators struggle with what to do about schooling, one thing has become crystal clear. Parents are frightened. Educators are frightened. We are united in the worst of ways.  We’re united by fear.  Like no other event in recent history, the Pandemic has created, especially among parents, a fear-based unity. Want the proof?  Parents throughout the country, frustrated with the constantly changing directions about re-opening emerging in their home school districts, are organizing on a grass roots basis to provide education and childcare options for their children.  These options are known as Pandemic Pods or Micro Schools.  While they vary considerably in structure, size, and focus, they can be described as small gatherings of students organized (and sometimes recruited) by parents for in-person or virtual learning.  Instruction in Pod groups is guided, usually by parents, retired teachers, unemployed substitute teachers, college students, etc.  Instructional focus of Pod groups varies and ranges from traditional home school structures with fixed curricula used by the home district or tailored to the interests of the founding members to more progressive groups (not infrequently in multi-age groups) structured around themes such as forest schools, Montessori-like learning, etc.

Here is a description offered by the National Pandemic Pods Facebook page: “Pandemic Pods – Main”.

Join us to connect with other families, teachers, and caregivers as you navigate your family’s childcare and educational needs during the pandemic. Please join this group in order to find and join a Pandemic Pods local chapter, and to benefit from shared information and resources here in the main group.

While we’re working to help parents meet their urgent needs, Pandemic Pods also advocates for stronger public support for American families during school closures and the pandemic. We believe that public resources, options, and guidance are needed for this country to weather this crisis and leave fewer children behind.

There are currently 37,855 members of this national group and there are now 32 states with one or more local/regional chapters. Information about local chapters as well as a link to state chapters can be found on the main page.

While the structures, organization, participants may vary widely, one thing does not vary…  The willingness to create the kind of safe, and engaging learning environments that have seemed elusive in the early months of remote instruction and in the run-up to the scheduled reopening of schools taking place in the next two months.

Will the pod concept represent the long-term solutions to what and where learning can/should occur?  It’s much too soon to know.  Reviewing the flood of articles dealing with reopening, however, it seems clear that we have, for the first time since the middle of the last century, begun to clearly define what matters to American families when they think about the education of their children.  Safety, Child Care, Learning… and in that order.  Let me be clear.  The experience does not suggest that learning is not important to families.  What it says is that without a safe environment (which includes childcare for the many families with two working parents), learning will not occur.

And right now our confidence in the presence of these factors is at an all-time low… low enough that people are looking for solutions beyond the return to in-person instruction, solutions beyond the kinds of remote instructional that characterized the end of the last school year.

And here is the oddest part of the pandemic.  The pandemic, which has resulted in a rapidly expanding look at where and how safe learning can occur and the explosion of the Pandemic Pods, might be offering opportunities to move beyond seeking to recapture the normalcy of a system of schooling that has been mired in the continuation of a system of standards and assessments which define our children by test scores, beyond a system where zip code determines the availability of learning experiences, beyond a system which labels students at the earliest ages as “behind” because they aren’t yet ready to test at sufficiently high (and arbitrary) levels necessary for the school to maintain an artificial standing among real estate brokers.

What If…

As some of you know, I‘m working with a small group of educators to explore ways in which to support safe, learner/learning centered options. We are acutely aware of the need to move the conversation beyond “why” to focus on the practical issues of “how”.  As we work to expand the “how” parts of our thinking and for the conclusion to this piece, I’m sharing a post that appeared on the blog Chicago Unheard entitled “What If We Radically Reimagined the New School Year”. [LINK]  It’s a great and thought-provoking read.  I’ve found no better description about steps what might be possible on the other side of “the portal”.  It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece and I hope you’ll read it.  Here are a few of the author’s ideas for our reflection.

…What If We Designed a School Year for Recovery?

…“What if?” I thought. What if Chicago Public Schools (CPS) did something radical with this school year? What if this fastest-improving urban district courageously liberated itself from narrow and rigid quantitative measures of intelligence that have colonized the education space for generations, and instead blazed a trail for reimagining what qualifies as valuable knowledge?

What if we put our money, time and energy into what we say matters most? What if this school year celebrated imagination? In We Got ThisCornelius Minor reminds us that “education should function to change outcomes for whole communities.” What if we designed a school year that sought to radically shift how communities imagine, problem solve, heal, and connect?

What if this messy school year prioritized hard truths and accountability? What if social emotional instruction wasn’t optional or reduced to one cute poster? What if we focused on district wide capacity-building for, and facilitation of, restorative justice practices?

…What If We Really Listened?

What if we made space to acknowledge the fear, anxiety, frustration and confusion students, staff, and families are feeling? What if we listened? What if we made space to acknowledge the anger and demands of students? What if our priority was healing? Individual and collective. What if we respected and honored the work of healers and invested in healing justice?

What if our rising 8th-graders and seniors prepared for high school and post-secondary experiences by centering their humanity and the humanity of others? What if healthy, holistic, interconnected citizenship was a learning objective? What if we tracked executive functioning skills and habits of mind? What if for “homework” families had healing conversations?

…What If We Made Life the Curriculum?

What if we recognized that life—our day-to-day circumstances and our response to them—is curricula? It’s the curricula students need, especially now as our country reckons with its identity. What if we remembered that reading, writing, social studies, mathematics, and science are built into our understanding of and response to events every day?

… Let’s Stop Policing Our Imaginations

Lately, I am acutely aware of how intentionally I have to work in order to renew my own lost imagination. How much have we snuffed out the what-if imaginations of our students with policies that police their bodies and minds, inequitably and unimaginatively distribute funding to schools, and tolerate out-of-date, counter-revolutionary curricula?

The removal of police from schools, after all, does not eliminate all forms of policing. What if we didn’t police the imaginations of students?

What if enough is enough? No one is coming to the rescue. We can rescue ourselves. We must. As the fifth core assumption/belief of restorative justice states: Everything we need to make positive change is already here. We just have to let our students, families, neighbors, and friends tell us what they need. And we show up. And we learn together.

 

What If…

…What if we didn’t allow politicians to make the educational decisions we should be making?

 It is astonishing and, of course, discouraging, to see economics now elevated to the position of ultimate justifier and explainer of all the affairs of our daily life, and competition enshrined as the sovereign principle and ideal of economics… It is impossible not to notice how little the proponents of the ideal of competition have to say about honesty, which is the fundamental economic virtue, and how very little they have to say about community, compassion, and mutual help…For human beings, affection is the ultimate motive, because the force that powers us , as John Ruskin (1819-1900) also said, is not “steam, magnetism, or gravitation”, “but a Soul”…

Wendell Barry

Some time ago, in a previous post, I shared my sense that we were approaching a battle for the soul of our country. Would we continue to behave according to the gospel of Ayn Rand and explain/excuse the ever-widening disparity of wealth and well-being through the concept of social Darwinism or would we rededicate ourselves to the commitments of New Deal thinking that sought to measure our progress by the health, opportunities, and well-being available to the weakest and neediest among us?

Little did I imagine at that time that this question might involve the health, opportunities, and wellbeing of our children.  Little did any of us imagine that the health and very lives of our children might become pawns in the new politics of our era.  It’s against this backdrop that I offer what may be the longest post I’ve ever published.  Most of the words, and certainly the most eloquent, come from a parent who posted what I’ve reprinted here on Facebook.

Several weeks ago, I began to collect articles from various news outlets, publications, etc. about the reopening of schools.  Initially, the majority of these articles focused on the various options being considered by school leaders and/or state government agencies.  Many of the articles reported on the pros and cons of various forms of blended learning – i.e., scheduling options which combined alternating in-person instruction schemes with the continuations of some form of remote instruction. As we learned of the continued growth and spread of “hot spots” throughout parts of the nation, a growing number of articles offered solutions involving some form home schooling and even the emergence of home schooling co-ops for parents.  Always in the background was the constant drumbeat of the importance of having kids back in school in order for the economy to grow. More radical voices went to far as to offer calculations of what might be an “acceptable” number of child deaths.  Against this backdrop the President publicly called for the return to school as normal and, exceeding what most think to be the limits of his power, threatened to withhold federal aid to those schools which did not comply with his “order”.

It’s against that backdrop that I offer the following piece.  It appeared recently on Facebook, not my usual source for material.

Note: From intro by Facebook poster…”Written by a parent of two children in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia….  This is the type of dialogue that is productive, whether you agree or disagree with his point of view.  It’s probably too long for many of you.”

From Joe Morice, daughters in 8th & 10th grade in Fairfax County Public Schools’ Centreville Pyramid:

To our fellow FCPS families—this is it gang: 5 days until the 2 days in school vs. 100% virtual decision. Let’s talk it out, in my traditional mammoth TL/DR form.

Like all of you, I’ve seen my feed become a flood of anxiety and faux expertise. You’ll get no presumption of expertise here. This is how I am looking at and considering this issue and the positions people have taken in my feed and in the hundred or so FCPS discussion groups that have popped up. The lead comments in quotes are taken directly from my feed and those boards. Sometimes I try to rationalize them. Sometimes I’m just punching back at the void.

Full disclosure, we initially chose the 2 days option and are now having serious reservations. As I consider the positions and arguments I see in my feed, these are where my mind goes. Of note, when I started working on this piece at 12:19 PM today the COVID death tally in the United States stood at 133,420.

“My kids want to go back to school.”

I challenge that position. I believe what the kids desire is more abstract. I believe what they want is a return to normalcy. They want their idea of yesterday. And yesterday isn’t on the menu.

“I want my child in school so they can socialize.”

This was the principle reason for our 2 days decision. As I think more on it though, what do we think ‘social’ will look like? There aren’t going to be any lunch table groups, any lockers, any recess games, any study halls, any sitting next to friends, any talking to people in the hallway, any dances. All of that is off the menu. So, when we say that we want the kids to benefit from the social experience, what are we deluding ourselves into thinking in-building socialization will actually look like in the Fall?

“My kid is going to be left behind.”

Left behind who? The entire country is grappling with the same issue, leaving all children in the same quagmire. Who exactly would they be behind? I believe the rhetorical answer to that is “They’ll be behind where they should be,” to which I’ll counter that “where they should be” is a fictional goal post that we as a society have taken as gospel because it maps to standardized tests which are used to grade schools and counties as they chase funding.

“Classrooms are safe.”

At the current distancing guidelines from FCPS middle and high schools would have no more than 12 people (teachers + students) in a classroom (I acknowledge this number may change as FCPS considers the Commonwealth’s 3 ft with a mask vs. 6 ft position, noting that FCPS is all mask regardless of the distance). For the purpose of this discussion we’ll say classes run 45 minutes.

I posed the following question to 40 people today, representing professional and management roles in corporations, government agencies, and military commands: “Would your company or command have a 12 person, 45 minute meeting in a conference room?”

100% of them said no, they would not. These are some of their answers:

“No. Until further notice we are on Zoom.”

“(Our company) doesn’t allow us in (company space).”

“Oh hell no.”

“No absolutely not.”

“Is there a percentage lower than zero?”

“Something of that size would be virtual.”

We do not even consider putting our office employees into the same situation we are contemplating putting our children into. And let’s drive this point home: there are instances here when commanding officers will not put soldiers, ACTUAL SOLDIERS, into the kind of indoor environment we’re contemplating for our children. For me this is as close to a ‘kill shot’ argument as there is in this entire debate. How do we work from home because buildings with recycled air are not safe, because we don’t trust other people to not spread the virus, and then with the same breath send our children into buildings?

“Children only die .0016 of the time.”

First, conceding we’re an increasingly morally bankrupt society, but when did we start talking about children’s lives, or anyone’s lives, like this? This how the villain in movies talks about mortality, usually 10-15 minutes before the good guy kills him.

If you’re in this camp, and I acknowledge that many, many people are, I’m asking you to consider that number from a slightly different angle.

FCPS has 189,000 children. .0016 of that is 302. 302 dead children are the Calvary Hill you’re erecting your argument on. So, let’s agree to do this: stop presenting this as a data point. If this is your argument, I challenge you to have courage equal to your conviction. Go ahead, plant a flag on the internet and say, “Only 302 children will die.” No one will. That’s the kind action on social media that gets you fired from your job. And I trust our social media enclave isn’t so careless and irresponsible with life that it would even, for even a millisecond, enter any of your minds to make such an argument.

Considered another way: You’re presented with a bag with 189,000 $1 bills. You’re told that in the bag are 302 random bills, they look and feel just like all the others, but each one of those bills will kill you. Do you take the money out of the bag?

Same argument, applied to the 12,487 teachers in FCPS (per Wikipedia), using the ‘children’s multiplier’ of .0016 (all of us understanding the adult mortality rate is higher). That’s 20 teachers. That’s the number you’re talking about. It’s very easy to sit behind a keyboard and diminish and dismiss the risk you’re advocating other people assume. Take a breath and think about that.

If you want to advocate for 2 days a week, look, I’m looking for someone to convince me. But please, for the love of God, drop things like this from your argument. Because the people I know who’ve said things like this, I know they’re better people than this. They’re good people under incredible stress who let things slip out as their frustration boils over. So, please do the right thing and move on from this, because one potential outcome is that one day, you’re going to have to stand in front of St. Peter and answer for this, and that’s not going to be conversation you enjoy.

“Hardly any kids get COVID.”

(Deep sigh) Yes, that is statistically true as of this writing. But it is a cherry-picked argument because you’re leaving out an important piece.

One can reasonably argue that, due to the school closures in March, children have had the least EXPOSURE to COVID. In other words, closing schools was the one pandemic mitigation action we took that worked. There can be no discussion of the rate of diagnosis within children without also acknowledging they were among our fastest and most quarantined people. Put another way, you cannot cite the effect without acknowledging the cause.

“The flu kills more people every year.”

(Deep sigh). First of all, no, it doesn’t. Per the CDC, United States flu deaths average 20,000 annually. COVID, when I start writing here today, has killed 133,420 in six months.

And when you mention the flu, do you mean the disease that, if you’re suspected of having it, everyone, literally everyone in the country tells you stay the f- away from other people? You mean the one where parents are pretty sure their kids have it but send them to school anyway because they have a meeting that day, the one that every year causes massive f-ing outbreaks in schools because schools are petri dishes and it causes kids to miss weeks of school and leaves them out of sports and band for a month? That one? Because you’re right – the flu kills people every year. It does, but you’re ignoring the why. It’s because there are people who are a–holes who don’t care about infecting other people. In that regard it’s a perfect comparison to COVID.

“Almost everyone recovers.”

You’re confusing “release from the hospital” and “no longer infected” with “recovered.” I’m fortunate to only know two people who have had COVID. One my age and one my dad’s age. The one my age described it as “absolute hell” and although no longer infected cannot breathe right. The one my dad’s age was in the hospital for 13 weeks, had to have a trach ring put in because she could no longer be on a ventilator, and upon finally getting home and being faced with incalculable time in rehab told my mother, “I wish I had died.”

While I’m making every effort to reach objectivity, on this particular point, you don’t know what the f- you’re talking about.

“If people get sick, they get sick.”

First, you mistyped. What you intended to say was “If OTHER people get sick, they get sick.” And shame on you.

“I’m not going to live my life in fear.”

You already live your life in fear. For your health, your family’s health, your job, your retirement, terrorists, extremists, one political party or the other being in power, the new neighbors, an unexpected home repair, the next sunrise. What you meant to say was, “I’m not prepared to add ANOTHER fear,” and I’ve got news for you: that ship has sailed. It’s too late. There are two kinds of people, and only two: those that admit they’re afraid, and those that are lying to themselves about it.

As to the fear argument, fear is the reason you wait up when your kids stay out late, it’s the reason you tell your kids not to dive in the shallow water, to look both ways before crossing the road. Fear is the respect for the wide world that we teach our children. Except in this instance, for reasons no one has been able to explain to me yet.

“FCPS leadership sucks.”

I will summarize my view of the School Board thusly: if the 12 of you aren’t getting into a room together because it represents a risk, don’t tell me it’s OK for our kids. I understand your arguments, that we need the 2 days option for parents who can’t work from home, kids who don’t have internet or computer access, kids who needs meals from the school system, kids who need extra support to learn, and most tragically for kids who are at greater risk of abuse by being home. All very serious, all very real issues, all heartbreaking. No argument.

But you must first lead by example. Because you’re failing when it comes to optics. All your meetings are online. What our children see is all of you on a Zoom telling them it’s OK for them to be exactly where you aren’t. I understand you’re not PR people, but you really should think about hiring some.

“I talked it over with my kids.”

Let’s put aside for a moment the concept of adults effectively deferring this decision to children, the same children who will continue to stuff things into a full trash can rather than change it out. Yes, those hygienic children.

Listen, my 15 year old daughter wants a sport car, which she’s not getting next year because it would be dangerous to her and to others. Those kinds of decisions are our job. We step in and decide as parents, we don’t let them expose themselves to risks because their still developing and screen addicted brains narrow their understanding of cause and effect.

We as parents and adults serve to make difficult decisions. Sometimes those are in the form of lessons, where we try to steer kids towards the right answer and are willing to let them make a mistake in the hopes of teaching better decision making the next time around. This is not one of those moments. The stakes are too high for that. This is a “the adults are talking” moment. Kids are not mature enough for this moment. That is not an attack on your child. It is a broad statement about all children. It is true of your children and it was true when we were children. We need to be doing that thinking here, and “Johnny wants to see Bobby at school” cannot be the prevailing element in the equation.

“The teachers need to do their job.”

How is it that the same society which abruptly shifted to virtual students only three months ago, and offered glowing endorsements of teachers stating, “we finally understand how difficult your job is,” has now shifted to “screw you, do your job.” There are myriad problems with that position but for the purposes of this piece let’s simply go with, “You’re not looking for a teacher, you’re looking for the babysitter you feel your property tax payment entitles you to.”

“Teachers have a greater chance to being killed by a car than they do of dying from COVID.”

(Eye roll) Per the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the U.S. see approximately 36,000 auto fatalities a year. Again, there have been 133,420 COVID deaths in the United States through 12:09 July 10, 2020. So no, they do not have a great chance of being killed in a car accident.

And, if you want to take the actual environment into consideration, the odds of a teacher being killed in a car accident in their classroom, you know, the environment we’re actually talking about, that’s right around 0%.

“If the grocery store workers can be onsite what are the teachers afraid of?”

(Deep breath) A grocery store worker, who absolutely risks exposure, has either six feet of space or a plexiglass shield between them and individual adult customers who can grasp their own mortality whose transactions can be completed in moments, in a 40,000 SF space.

A teacher is with 11 ‘customers’ who have not an inkling what mortality is, for 45 minutes, in a 675 SF space, six times a day.

Just stop.

“Teachers are choosing remote because they don’t want to work.”

(Deep breaths) Many teachers are opting to be remote. That is not a vacation. They’re requesting to do their job at a safer site. Just like many, many people who work in buildings with recycled air have done. And likely the building you’re not going into has a newer and better serviced air system than our schools.

Of greater interest to me is the number of teachers choosing the 100% virtual option for their children. The people who spend the most time in the buildings are the same ones electing not to send their children into those buildings. That’s something I pay attention to.

“I wasn’t prepared to be a parent 24/7” and “I just need a break.”

I truly, deeply respect that honesty. Truth be told, both arguments have crossed my mind. Pre COVID, I routinely worked from home 1 – 2 days a week. The solace was nice. When I was in the office, I had an actual office, a room with a door I could close, where I could focus. During the quarantine that hasn’t always been the case. I’ve been frustrated, I’ve been short, I’ve gone to just take a drive and get the hell away for a moment and been disgusted when one of the kids sees me and asks me to come for a ride, robbing me of those minutes of silence. You want to hear silence. I get it. I really, really do.

Here’s another version of that, admittedly extreme. What if one of our kids becomes one of the 302? What’s that silence going to sound like? What if you have one of those matted frames where you add the kid’s school picture every year? What if you don’t get to finish the pictures?

“What does your gut tell you to do?”

Shawn and I have talked ad infinitum about all of these and other points. Two days ago, at mid-discussion I said, “Stop, right now, gut answer, what is it,” and we both said, “virtual.”

A lot of the arguments I hear people making for the 2 days sound like we’re trying to talk ourselves into ignoring our instincts, they are almost exclusively, “We’re doing 2 days, but…”. There’s a fantastic book by Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear, which I’ll minimize for you thusly: your gut instinct is a hardwired part of your brain and you should listen to it. In the introduction he talks about elevators, and how, of all living things, humans are the only ones that would voluntarily get into a soundproof steel box with a potential predator just so they could skip a flight of stairs.

I keep thinking that the 2 days option is the soundproof steel box. I welcome, damn, beg, anyone to convince me otherwise.

At the time  I started writing at 12:09 PM, 133,420 Americans had died from COVID. Upon completing this draft at 7:04 PM, that number rose to 133,940.

520 Americans died of COVID while I was working on this. In seven hours.

My Hope…

Thank you for reading.  My hope is that you will share the thoughts and concerns of the parent, Mr. Morice, with your friends and colleagues.  His thoughts and research have great potential to serve as the basis for needed “big question” discussions.  What would happen if we added the following question to those discussions? Why are we in such a rush to recreate a system which has so little appeal to its “customers”? Are we so bound by tradition and our own memories of school that we continue to focus our thinking on looking backwards for our solutions?  Why wouldn’t we consider revisiting a purpose of school that looks beyond the restoration of a system designed more than a century ago? 

Be well…

Shouldn’t We At Least Try?

Note:  Please understand that my thoughts as expressed here are increasingly focused on what is becoming a reality here in the US.  As the data from the COVID-19 grows increasingly alarming, we are faced with an emerging forced choice situation… our lives or our jobs.  Thrust squarely into the forefront is the reality that right smack in the middle of all that is pressure to get our kids back in school.

In discussions of this dilemma, we are hearing with increasing frequency that we cannot resuscitate the economy without re-opening the childcare function of our schools.  If we are able to put risking the lives of kids and educators aside in service to the economy, we are then confronted with the reality that, despite almost heroic efforts by educators (with little or no preparation or experience) to create and manage remote instruction, our experiences with remote instruction did more to highlight problems equitable access than they did to create opportunities for effective learning. The basic premise of this short series of posts is that there will be no return to “normal”.

I have found no clear roadmap for navigating a course though these unprecedented times.  Nor do I pretend that my words provide a definitive answer. I write because I believe that we are faced with a challenge and an opportunity.  I believe that we are living in a time of increasing separation that has been growing for some time.  I believe that our schools and legions of hard working educators have been victimized by several decades of “reform” that has left our kids tested, sorted, and disengaged.  More importantly, there is increasing data that reveals a frightening increase in the incidence of pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, and depression. I believe the areas of focus that I’ve included in this post offer us the opportunity to organize experiences for our children less around what we know, in our hearts matters most for the development of healthy, caring, curious, and connected learners. I believe that we have sacrificed the opportunity for our kids to learn how to learn, to learn how to do and to learn how to be to the false idols of efficiency.  My fondest hope is that something in these words touches your soul and offers the encouragement to create a whole new normal.  Be well.

As I was reflecting on an introduction to this follow-up post to last week’s “Reopening… Doing the Right Thing”, EdWeek came through with a gift… “Scheduling the COVID-19 School Year”. This was the second in a series entitled, “How We Go Back To School”. Here is the EdWeek description of the series… “These times are unprecedented. Through these eight installments, we will explore the steps administrators need to take to ensure the safety of students and faculty.” This (the second) installment begins with the following…

Five days a week, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. That traditional school day—so coveted now for its normalcy and essential contribution to how our families, communities, and economy function—probably won’t make a full comeback this fall.

Some school communities will forge ahead with a return to the typical school calendar, but that carries large risks. If there’s an outbreak of the coronavirus, they’ll have to shut down abruptly. But in many school districts, the sheer numbers of students and staff members will make a traditional day impossible under social distancing protocols that public health officials say are necessary as the pandemic persists. The math just doesn’t work when students must stay six feet apart from one another and their teachers.

That’s why a mash up of online schooling and in-person instruction—what we’re calling hybrid scheduling models—is likely to be prevalent this fall.

There are multiple variations of these schedules, and they provide the most flexibility to schools. They also present some of the most challenging logistics and may be especially taxing for teachers who must prepare lessons and instruction for two modes: virtual and in-person.

The authors then moved on to describe a number of school schedules that might be possible and offer analyses of the pros and cons of each option.  To save you some time, most of the article focuses on the mechanical/physical aspects of getting kids and adults back into buildings (and out of their homes).  Given the problems involved with social distancing, transportation, delivery (in-person or remote) of a fixed curriculum, the focus is understandable.  The ways in which various proposed schedules impact learning (whether positively or negatively) get little attention.

But What If…

What if the editors of EdWeek had begun with a different focus?  What if they began the series with the question, “What is the purpose of school in the context of the changing world?”  What if they looked at the purpose through the lens of the people who have lived through the various iterations of remote learning?  What if they looked at how the much coveted normalcy of the school day actualy did or didn’t support the development of the things that parents and educators have identified as “sacred”?  Remember these from my last post?

Sacred Screen Shot

From Big Question Institute Webinar – Will Richardson, Homa Tavangar

In that initial post I suggested that we would be visiting the ‘How” of reopening school from this perspective.  If you find that you are committed to reopening school as true to the model we have used for the past hundred years, the EdWeek series is a good starting point.  However, if you are seeing the need to reorient and reimagine the ways in which learning takes place for both our kids and ourselves, here goes…

Begin with Unlearning

Most of us who have made our way through a variety of schools and levels of education have developed explanations for the way our world works.  Jean Piaget is credited with offering a starting point for us.  Piaget suggested that, by the time a child enters school, he/she has developed explanation for about 90% of how the world works… and that the majority of these explanations are most frequently WRONG.  When we’ve encountered kids in school who seem to be struggling to learn something new Piaget suggests that they are NOT having trouble learning.  They are having trouble Unlearning – i.e., discarding the explanations that they brought with them.

When someone suggests that in reimagining the way learning can/should occur in schools, they often suggest we should be offering our students more agency – i.e., more opportunities to select what and how they wish to learn – or, maybe,  we should do  away with grades, or make failure a non-option, etc.,etc.    But our experience in schools and with schooling tells us that this can’t work… that kids aren’t capable of using such agency wisely.  They need grades for motivation.  But why is that?  What if it’s not because they aren’t capable but because schooling as they and we have experienced it, has trained them to be just who they are.

Wait! What?  You mean they are capable?  You mean our explanations for their lack of engagement, their lack of independent thought, their lack of motivation and responsibility are wrong?  That’s exactly what I mean and exactly where we must begin if we want learning to be something other than what it was pre-pandemic.

We have to recognize that grouping kids by age, telling them what they MUST learn, telling them they’re good or not so good based on test scores, teaching them that learning occurs in specific blocks of time focused on separate content areas might be great for adult convenience, but it creates the complaints that too many of us have heard in the faculty room and that we approach.

If we don’t begin with a willingness to unlearn, there is no reason to begin.

Spoiler Alert #1 – This is about changing schooling.

Spoiler Alert #2 – If you choose to continue, you’ll be entering a world where you’ll be doing more work than I will… Take another look at the “What Everybody Says” list. We’ll work with this for a bit as a starter.

Spoiler Alert #3 – This is not intended to the “THE” approach.  I believe there is no “THE” approach.  This is “AN” approach for those who resonate both with the notion that is time to change schooling and to seriously ask the “what if” questions.

Why this and why a starter?

Exploring the ways in which we can/should change schools and schooling will demand that we think in terms of and answer some Big Questions.  How we’re going to route the buses to accommodate a split rotation of classes when we open is NOT a “Big Question”. It complicated.  It’s important but it’s not BIG.  Why we should have school? What is the purpose of school? These are BIG questions.

To be able to explore such questions, we’ll need to (1) acknowledge that this may be necessary and (2) provide the emotional space for people to share openly some things that they may never have questioned or, at least, not recently questioned.  The “What Everybody Says” list provides the starting point for some big questions. It’s up to us to ensure that we provide the safe space. The process also provides another key aspect of safety, the honest invitation for professional educators and members of the school community to explore.  Simon Sinek calls this zone, the “Circle of Safety”.  This is not a “top down” exercise.

The process (quick summary)This is not a one month process.  It is not a “quick fix”.  It is a question about who we want to be, who we want to become.  It’s a time for “what if?” questions. It’s a time for “couldn’t we at least try?” questions.  It a time for “how can I help?” questions. It a time for “What matters?” questions.  We begin with “Why?”

To get started, begin with “the list” and then identify your own list of sacred climate issues – i.e., your own version of the “What Everybody Says” list.  Then, with this revised list, make a list of what actions in your school demonstrate that such an item is important. Then review your list of actions, policies, procedures, etc. to see what you could be doing but you’re not.  (Be careful here… very frequently discussions about such lists devolve into “if only the state, if only the district, if only the board, etc. would allow us, permit us, etc.”).  This is not about what “others” could/should be doing.  It’s about what you can do in your district, your school, your classroom (even if it’s a bit subversive) to prove that relationships, that equity, that diversity, that social emotional health matter.  Finally, make a list of practices, policies, procedures, etc. that may actually be counterproductive.

Suggested Steps…

The first stepestablish a framework for discussion.  Look at the “What Everybody Says?” slide… do you agree? Do you think your colleagues agree? This is best done individually to start.

The second step (ideally done in small groups or with small steering working group as a starter) … Validation – i.e., do you agree or disagree with the items on the list? From your perspective, there may be some thing(s) missing.  Feel free to add any that you feel should have made the list.  This will reveal what matters to you.  Product of this work will be a consensus on new list. If consensus is not possible on some items, out them on a “parking lot” list that you may revisit.

The next stepInterrogation – i.e., what if we began our “what should learning look like” process with an interrogation of our beliefs about schooling, learning and purpose? In the validation step we looked at the list of the “sacred” and asked ourselves if we would agree with any or all?  In the Interrogation Step, what we are looking at is not just how important we believe these things are in the big universe but how important they are in the culture of our school and what are the actions that validate our rating.

Example: How important is the development and nurturing of relationships in our students?  Give it a rating from 1-10. Do this for each of the items listed.  If you’re like most of the respondents, you would have mostly 8-10’s.  Now the fun part – Take one that you’ve ranked highly.  Write down the intentional things that your school does to promote/support that item.  Then write down a list of things that your school does either intentionally or unintentionally that hinder the development of that item.  Work your way through the list.

Next stepSummary – i.e., What conclusions can you draw from your interrogation?  Have you identified topics that you feel are very important but where there may be few, if any, actions which demonstrate that importance? Suppose you rated the development and nurturing of relationships very highly but noted teachers know very little about the outside interests of their students?

Big Question… What would your school, your classroom look like if your actions matched your intent?

Key take-aways from this process —

  • What’s important to you as an educator, to your school community? – i.e., What Matters?

o Is how you spend your time, energy, resources consistent with What Matters?

o Is this importance visible?

o What could you be doing more of/doing better?

  • How does remote instruction help/hinder these important areas of focus?

o What have we learned about helping remote instructional experiences and blended schedules advance these important areas of focus?

  • Are there institutional (policies, practices, procedures) blocks to these “sacred” items

We are faced with choices, perhaps even the chances of a lifetime.  When I was in grad school, I recall an exchange between a fellow grad student and our instructor who happened to be the dean of the graduate school of education.  In response to a particularly insulting question from the young student, the dean paused and then offered the following, “Son, I’ve seen your future. It doesn’t work.

Our system of schooling that has been largely unchanged since it was designed in 1893. It doesn’t work for many in 2020.  It hasn’t worked for some time.   It leaves far too many children disengaged.  It contributes to increasing levels of stress, anxiety and depression.  It too frequently reduces student learning to test scores on instruments whose value and accuracy is increasingly under attack.  Most importantly, it has not responded to the change in our world.  It seeks to improve by looking backwards at what many of us working in education remember fondly.  We continue to define our purpose as passing increasing amounts of information from one container (the minds of teachers) to another container… the brains of the students.  Our purpose must be greater than that.  Learning is now taking place in a context far removed from the needs of the industrial age and not yet in concert with today’s context.

Young people throughout the world are telling us that schooling as we have experienced it is not how they learn.  They are learning beyond the walls of the school and within them as well.  As we prepare for the return to school, what would happen if we acknowledged that we have been given an opportunity… an opportunity to question why we would continue to group our students by age, treating those whose progress is slower as failures often ineligible for the very experiences that excite them, to question why we teach a rigid curriculum of content disconnected from real world relevance, to question why we bring all students to school in the morning and send them home in the afternoon.

Here’s the message.  We fear the status quo.  Change threatens that status quo and our emotions tell us to resist, to not abandon the familiar.  The truth is that in many aspects of our lives, the status quo has been shattered for us… shattered by the COVID pandemic. For months now, school has not been the same for us, for our students, for our parents. We can see already that our schools will not return to the status quo when we reopen them.

To paraphrase my grad school professor, “We’ve seen the future.  It will be different!”  We have the opportunity to define “different”.  We’ve seen firsthand what happens when we allow politicians to make decisions about medical/health issues.  We’ve also seen firsthand what happens when we give legislators the power to define learning.  The “how to” steps I’ve shared here are not the only steps that educators can take to define and design for what matters.  They may not be the best steps.  They are the first steps.

What Next?

I am a member of a small team of educators who are committed to the need to support change in schooling and learning.  We are fans of the concept of “little bets” – an approach based on our experience that not everyone is ready at the same time and for the same degree of change.  We are not a business.  If you have moved beyond “why change” to “how do I/we” change, we are looking to support you.  Working with kids and schools both nationally and internationally has enriched our hearts for many years.  We are part of the gift economy and accept no payment for our support.  For more information, please contact me at Richard.teneyckkean@gmail.com

 

Be well

Reopening… Doing the Right Thing

The next few posts on this blog will focus on the options available to educators as the time of possible reopening of our nation’s school gets closer.  On so many levels this is a time unprecedented in our lifetimes.

Our lives, our mobility, our jobs, and our families have been disrupted by COVID-19.  On the heels of this disruption, we have been reminded of the disparities in our society and the ways in which “otherness” continues to challenge and weaken connectedness.  We are seeing a breakdown/failure of major social institutions.  We have watched our health care system become overwhelmed as the virus spread and taxed, almost beyond capacity, our health care facilities and our frontline medical workers.

In the wake of deaths of black citizens (both male and female) caused by police officers, we have watched as our system of law enforcement and public safety became so beleaguered in the face of rioting/rebellion that police stations in several cities were simply abandoned.  As I write this, officials in Seattle are seeking to “take back” a section of that city that had been yielded to protestors. Calls for the “defunding” of police departments continue to increase and  gain momentum.

Writing about education in the face of these challenges to our very existence and our way of life seemed, at first, to focus on the “small stuff”.  And yet as we have experienced the shut down of our schools, the moving of the place of learning from the school house to the family house, the impact of our forced experiment with remote learning  on learning, the loss of social connection by adults and kids alike, I come to the conclusion that this is not small stuff.

So I hope you stay with me as I explore how this “reopening of school moment in time” begs, or more accurately, demands more than just finding the right, safe mix of schooling and social distancing.  Is the system that shut down the one we wish to reopen? This is a big question and this is a time for big questions!

I want to share a bit of a “roadmap” for what I’ll be suggesting.

While I’ve decided to tackle this journey, I won’t be doing it alone.  I’ll be drawing on the work of many others who have already begun this exploration and whose work has touched many.  I encourage you to check out the links to explore in greater depth the thinking and provocations of some very special people.

As I began working on this series of posts, I came across a piece in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson.  He had me at the title. “Why America’s Institutions Are Failing.”

He speaks here of the theme of his article…

“Why have America’s instruments of hard and soft power failed so spectacularly in 2020? In part because they are choking on the dust of a dead century. In too many quarters of American leadership, our risk sensor is fixed to the anxieties and illusions of the 1900s.”

“The failures of our law-enforcement agencies and public-health systems are not one and the same. But our orientation toward militarized overpolicing and our slow-footed response to fast-moving pandemics both stem from an inability to adapt our safekeeping institutions to the realities of the 21st century. Lost in the anxieties and illusions of the past, United States institutions have forgotten the art of change in a changing world.”

…“Lost in the anxieties and illusions of the past, United States institutions have forgotten the art of change in a changing world.”

 Suddenly this wasn’t an article about the failure of our health care system or our concerns about the direction of policing.  It was also unintentionally describing the failure of our system of education to move beyond the content, the structure, organization and priorities as defined by the Committee of Ten Committee of Ten in 1893!  This was about the reality that the discussions and planning that we are seeing are largely focused on how we might best recreate the schools we had prior to the pandemic when the world around us has changed more than the Committee of Ten could have ever imagined.

In a recent webinar webinar entitled “New Leadership Lenses for Reopening Schools” offered  by the newly formed Big Picture Institute, Will Richardson and co-founder Homa Tavangar provided a framework for moving beyond the return to a “new” normal… a chance to reorient ourselves and reimagine what school might be if we acted more consistently with the things we view as sacred in providing learning environments for our children.

It is an opportunity narrative and is not intended to diminish the myriad of logistical questions and issues which must be addressed to provide the safest learning environments for our children and their teachers. The connection to Thompson’s article in The Atlantic is striking. The message is clear.  If we are to reverse the trend of failing institutions caused by our propensity for looking backwards, we must acknowledge that the world has changed far more dramatically than our system for learning has responded.  We have been “marching backwards into the future”.  The context for learning is vastly different as must be the purpose of our learning.  We are now faced with the opportunity to correct that course.  We are in a time that demands the writing and telling of a new story.

I’d encourage you to spend some time with Will and Toma as they share the lenses and speak to the opportunities they have developed to help teachers and school leaders incorporate these into their planning for learner centered education.

I have often shared the thinking of Charles Eisenstein Charles Eisenstein .  Charles gained national attention with the publication of his book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. In this work and in other writing Charles offers that we are living in a time which is in between stories…a time when it has become increasingly obvious that the story which prevailed when most of were growing up is no longer valid. That story told us that if went to school, worked hard, did well, we would be able to go to college, get a good paying job and have a secure retirement. For the majority of Americans if that story is not dead it is certainly dying. Charles, Will and Homa suggest it is time for us to write a new story and that story must begin with reimagining our options for education and learning.

While we are understandably nervous, perhaps even frightened, by the change in our roles and in our lives that reorienting how our children learn will involve, there is a greater than ever number of educators and families who are calling for options to simply returning to a newer version of schools designed in and for the 1890’s.

Where Do We Begin?  An Inro to Big Questions…

We Begin with Big Questions.  Thompson, in his The Atlantic article speaks to the issue of being trapped in rearview mirror planning.  I would add to that that we have also become seduced by the lure of the quick, decisive “fix”.  Leaders are valued for their decisiveness.  They are rarely asked about their problem solving or analytical skills.  We need look no further than our recent responses to societal dilemmas… the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on illiteracy, the war on terrorism.  How well have these worked for us?   One doesn’t need 20/20 hindsight to see that in each case almost no attention was paid to root causes.  Deeper analysis would have gotten in the way of the valued quick, decisive action.  You might note that we continue to have problems with drugs, poverty, terrorism, etc.

When we look at the lens of our current world, we see challenges related to a world threatened by our response to the pandemic, a world struggling with the proliferation of what seem to be endless wars,.  One needn’t look too far in the future to recognize the possibility severe economic  recession/depression.  Even more likely in pour future are problems caused by the accelerating changes in our environment.  The world our children are or will be entering is not one well served by a system of education (whether public or private) designed and little changed since 1893!

Since the recommendations made by the Committee of Ten, which roughly divided education into preparation for college or preparation for work, we have witnessed the transition from an agricultural to an industrialized to an information-based, technology rich society.  And as Russell Ackoff pointed out we have focused our attention on trying to do education in this context right  – i.e., we have focused on uniformity (children grouped by age), scalability (a move away from locally contextual learning needs to national standards and assessments), efficiency computer-based “personalized” instruction, and metrics based increasingly complex and frequent large-scale assessments.  Ackoff asserts that this is far different than trying to do the right thing.

We are being confronted with/offered the opportunity to revisit this focus on doing the wrong things right.

Let me share two starting points.

What do we hold “sacred” about schooling?  What are those things that we seem to agree upon as most important.  In surveying teachers and families in the wake of the remote learning response to the COVID pandemic,  Richardson and Havagar share the following list:

Sacred Screen Shot

If these are, in fact, as widely accepted as we believe, how can we not reorient our reopened schools to own the intentional creation of policies, practices, and procedures that incorporate them in the learning experiences of our children?

The list of all-stars whose thinking and explorations have driven my own explorations and who thoughts have given moral purpose as well as the courage to offer something do different from my usual writing would be incomplete without reference to Jan Resseger.  Nothing captures who Jan is, more than the introduction to her blog…

“That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.” —Senator Paul Wellstone — March 31, 2000

I want to be clear.  Just as Jan wrote about our moral obligation to insure that all children, regardless of social class, skin color, place of birth, must have the right to a free , sound public education, I believe that we are morally obligated to insure that our system of learning offers each and every child not the opportunity to return to school that comes as close to “school as normal” as possible,  but to a reoriented and reimagined system which guarantees that each and every child is offered the opportunity to enjoy what we as professionals and parents have identified as sacred/most important.

OK, I Got It But How Do We Start?

As I wrote in the introduction to this piece, this is the first in what now appears to be a two-three part series.  Focusing on the “how” is a useless venture if there is no acceptance of the why reorientation and reimagination is needed.  I’ll close this part of the thinking with a critical acknowledgement… considering, responding to and implementing the myriad of procedures necessary for reopening schools in ways that incorporate the best medical practices and minimize the health risks to all involved, whether they be children, teachers, schools staff, and parents is a herculean task.  To illustrate the magnitude of the process, here is a  link to a piece written by a school superintendent in my home state of New Jersey.  When I first saw the title, I assumed that it was written by someone with Borowitz aspirations.  A few lines in, I was transported back to my time as a superintendent and immediately gave thanks that I was no longer occupying that chair.

Charles Eisenstein writes that we are living in what he termed an “Age of Separation” – a time when we are separated from one another, from our institutions, and even from our planet.  The way out of this separation, offered by Charles, is the cultivation of empathy… the willingness to see the world through the eyes of the other.  As we move on to the “how” of reimagining how our children and their educators experience learning I’ll be asking you to explore both in your own heart and with others who work with you exactly what it is about the education of our children that is sacred to you.  I’ll be asking whether or not the way you choose to reopen school reflects what our hearts know is/want to make possible.  We don’t have to recreate 1890 with better technology.

Right now, before, before and during “remote learning” we have a system in which our kids grow to be increasingly disengaged as they grow in it.  We have system which on some levels contributes to the dramatic increases of pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, depression and youth suicide.  We have system which sorts kids and too often narrows their opportunities based on test scores using instruments that feed our desire for accountability rather than individual growth.

As Dr. Ryan suggests. The proper response to this reality is WAIT! WHAT? Followed by WHAT IF WE DID (fill in the blank), COULDN’T WE AT LEAST TRY (fill in the blank), HOW CAN WE HELP ONE ANOTHER? And finally, WHAT REALLY MATTERS?

Part Two of this short series will focus on how we can address each of Ryan’s questions. I hope you’ll be back.

On to how…

Welcome Back

Oh, that’s right I’m the one who’s been away.

Maybe when we got all enthused about the quote, “May we live in interesting times” we should have asked for a definition of “interesting”. Wishing that we might live in a time of fear, dueling expert opinions, uncertainty, and separation seems like a terrible thing to wish on anybody, especially ourselves.

So, where have I been? In the past few weeks I’ve probably started at least 4 different blogs.  I always name them by the date of the first draft and include a version number.  On several I’ve gotten as far as Version 3.2 but none seemed to earn the desired “final”.  The relevance of each seems to have been eclipsed by the “headline of the day” … some these even dealt with education.  These included thoughts that seem to have been prepared by the writers at Saturday Night Live and dealt with the day to day struggles of folks trying to implement what has euphemistically been termed “remote learning”. How can you write a helpful (I think I really mean “serious”) blog/essay about the problems caused for teachers when they can no longer give “zeros” for uncompleted work?  Or how about responding to experts suggesting that we will need to address the coming preschool gap and regression in reading skills of kindergartners?

And just as I was approaching what might have been the “final” on another piece, the governor of New York announced the formation of a partnership with the Gates Foundation to “reimagine “ what education might looks like now that we’re accepted (or at least he has) that we might not need school buildings anymore.  Given the track record of the Gates Foundation with investments in the such initiatives as the Common Core, the portfolio approach to district organization, value added evaluations of teachers, etc. (BTW, for a complete list of the reform “successes” I’d encourage you to read Jan Resseger ‘s post from today)   Inviting Gates and other tech experts from around the country to design a new system of education seems eerily similar to expecting a real estate developer to design responses to the COVID-19 pandemic (cue the fiddle music and clips of burning buildings!).

I recall when our kids were younger and we were traveling we played a family game.  The first one who spotted and correctly identified roadkill would get a point.  We went so far as to develop a business plan for the sale of the “Dead Animal Game” (complete with reusable stickers of the most commonly seen animals) at highway rest stop stores.  Stuck here in the house I found myself wondering if we shouldn’t be thinking about a “dead society” game. Social distancing seems to be formalizing a trend that has been underway for some time now… separation.  To paraphrase Charles Eisenstein, we have been seeing, for what might be decades now, the separation of people from one another, the separation of people from our institutions, and the separation of people from our planet and its health.

So why this piece?  I want to emphasize that, as we look at our slice of the world, education, it is critical that we learn from our experience these past months.  While we have been spending large amounts of time and money on “reforming schools, we have paid far too little attention to one of the most valuable (perhaps THE most valuable) outcomes of our system to public education… CONNECTION.  One of my connections is a young man who teaches high school English. The most important thing that I can share about him is that I wish my kids had experienced him when they were in school.  He writes today about “connections”.  It would be folly for me to offer the Cliff Notes version of his post.  So, here is something I’ve never done before… here is the complete piece that he shared today as well as the link to his site. Be well.

Latest post from Write on Fight On

I’ve been trying to be optimistic and hopeful and dare I say– a little funny– to help lighten the mood. Writing to you has offered me a welcome distraction from the biblical story we’re currently starring in. And I hope reading my posts has done the same for you.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you this week marks the one year passing of one of my students. A student who sat in the second row, first seat of my literature class.

Beside their seating arrangement, general GPA in my class, and their enjoyment of school cafeteria soups (one of the few conversations I had with them)–I didn’t know much about them.

My failure to connect to them still shakes me to this day. It was only after the student’s death that I realized I had to take responsibility for my failings and do a better job connecting to my students.

So this past school year I made it a daily practice to greet every student at the door. I addressed them by name, asked them how their day was going, followed by “The Question of the Day”.

The “QOTD” ranged from: questions about what we were currently reading in class, or “would you rather” questions– would you rather lose or sight or lose your memories?, or philosophical questions–“What 3 things are needed for a rich life?”.

Like the baseball player who, after he hits a homerun, points to the sky, remembering his deceased grandmother, the question of the day was my way of remembering the student who liked soup.

And even though I’m teaching from my living room these days, I still pose “The Question of the Day” to my students.

Personal connections are the most important self-improvement tool in the human toolbox. 

Psychology is ripe with studies explaining the extraordinary benefits of human connection (lower rates of anxiety and depression, stronger immune system, higher rates of self-esteem and empathy).

The word of 2020 so far might be “essential.”

Essential workers. Essential testing. “Buy only the essentials.” Essentially, no one knows what’s going on.

No doubt we’re swimming in a scary soup, Italian Canceled Wedding or Lobster Risk, but one thing is certain– connection is essential.

As psychologist Dr. Emma Seppala explains, “the truth is that a sense of social connection is one of our fundamental human needs.”

Look connecting is not easy. It takes courage and the fear of rejection is real. (You may have rejected my soup jokes). And right now, in the spring time of 2020, social connection is much more difficult.

So how can we connect? Here are 3 ways:

  1. Take a free virtual class ( I’m currently taking “The Science of Well-Being” at Yale University. Yeah, that’s right I’m an Ivy Leaguer.)
  2. Zoomwith a friend or relative but do more than just talk. Play a game, watch a movie together, knit a potholder, make a soup.
  3. Drive to a relative’s or friend’s house, honk like you’re snarled in rush hour traffic until they come outside. And have a car-side conversation.

I understand, connecting is scary but we all need to connect. We are social creatures. Interconnection is how we, both physically and emotionally, survive.

This earthy communion of sharing our stories is how we lift each others spirits. And our anxiety, our lonesomeness, our sadness will continue unless we break-free of our self-imposed isolation and connect.

Connection is essential.

Connection will get us through a pandemic.

Or a literature class drier than a saltine cracker.

Be well,

Jay

PS: I’ll be thinking of you–2nd row, 1st seat, soup enthusiast–a little more this week.

PSS: I want to thank anyone who reads this blog. You’re connecting to me. Which means a lot. And though we may not be physically connecting we’re emotionally connecting. And emotional connections go a long way right now.

 

 

Oh no! Not “what if” again.

As I wrote recently, Covid-19 demands a number of responses.  First among these is the expression of our admiration and gratitude to all of those folks whose selfless efforts and often heroic efforts seek to help us survive what just a few months ago was unthinkable.  Not too far down on that list are the nation’s educators who in the space of a few short weeks (often much less) have been able to provide our kids and their families with food, emotional support and, for many, brand new ways of experiencing education.

In addition to being thankful and, as we reflect on the many stories and the growing list of resources available to bring school to our kids and their families, I see another possible response.  What if the disruption in the normal schooling routine presents us with a challenge and an opportunity?

Not too long ago, a Gallup poll revealed that as kids move through our system of schooling, there is a precipitous drop in their engagement in the process… a drop from approximately 80% engagement in 4th grade to less that 40% by 11thgrade.  Equally, and perhaps even more alarming, is the data that show that our kids are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

As I’ve been reflecting on these frightening statistics, I recalled a parenting response I used to hear as a kid.  Responding to one of my youthful misdeeds, my mother would suggest (often quite forcefully) … “Go to your room. Sit there and think about what you’ve done.” Might not this time of Covid-19 be calling us to so the same? What have we done?  How did we get here?  Is this where we want to be? What really matters?  What if our kids have needs that we are not meeting in our current culture and in our schools?

How did we get here?

In 1893, The National Education Association convened a group primarily composed of educators to deal with a divide in opinion about the purpose of education, which until that time, had been divided into two forms of schooling.  One was the continuation of what was considered a classical education and served primarily the wealthy and a second form which was primarily vocational or life skill based.  The conclusion and recommendation of the group, known as the Committee of Ten, was that there should be more options and that schooling should be organized into eight years of elementary schooling and four years of high school.  Beyond that structural recommendation, the group also recommended the subjects which should be taught and in what sequence.  Most people today are surprised to learn that the organization of our system of schools and what the core learning should were determined in 1893 and have changed very little for more than a hundred years.

Russell Ackoff, in his lifetime a highly regarded political economist, offered the following: ”There is a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing.  Trying to do things right is about efficiency.  Doing the right thing is about effectiveness.  Trying the do the wrong thing “righter” actually makes things “wronger.” On a deep level many of us are recognizing that we have spent far too much time working on the wrong thing in our schools.  We have spent the past thirty years on a quest for greater academic achievement… achievement as envisioned by the Committee of Ten… achievement defined as standards of learning which continue to focus our attention of isolated subjects, on large scale standardized assessments, and on false gods of efficiency and accountability.   We have spent years now and have subjected kids and their teachers to efforts to do the wrong things right.

This is the challenge of the pandemic and education.  We have to provide our kids with the best learning opportunities that we can create.  But we have to recognize that this is a temporary fix at best.  We have to do more.  Our kids, disengaged and emotionally hurting need us to do more.  We are called to do more.  We have to create a space in each of our schools and districts where creative educators can think about what learning should and shouldn’t look like when we return to our buildings.  Why wouldn’t we use this time when schools are not in session to find the time to explore if the right thing is to return to school as we’ve known it?

  • What if all the stuff that we learned in school and all the stuff that we’ve packed into the curriculum is really not the right stuff? (Think Kodachrome, Paul Simon)
  • What if the way we have “done school” has been contributing to both the loss of curiosity and engagement among our kids (and sometimes our teachers) and the increase in reported cases of stress, anxiety and depression?
  • What if much of the work we are creating now is a living example of trying to do things right rather than taking the time to determine what is the right thing? What if the tragedy of Covid-19 is presenting us with the time to question the difference between schooling and learning?
  • What if we have inadvertently demanded that parents re-create schooling in their homes?
  • What would this time of homeschooling look like if we focused on home learning enabling learning beyond the overloaded curriculum that has become a part of our children’s schooling experience?
  • What if we thought of school not as a journey with an end (graduation) but as a time when we learn how to become learners? What would the important things or skills be that we would need to become successful lifelong learners?
  • What if all the stuff that we learned in school and all the stuff that we’ve packed into the curriculum is really not the right stuff? (Think Paul Simon again)
  • What if much of the work we are creating is a living example of trying to do things right rather than taking the time to determine what is the right thing?

This is the challenge of the pandemic and education.  We should provide our kids with the best learning opportunities that we can create while they are home.  But we have to recognize that this is a temporary fix at best.  And we should recognize that we have to do more.  Our kids, disengaged and emotionally hurting, need us to do more.  We are called to do more.  We have to recognize that more math, more language arts, more chemistry, etc. regardless of the delivery method, is not what our kids need right now.  They need us… us as creators of circles of safety… us as empathizers, us as connectors, us as caring adults who are here for them. And we need one another. As we minister to the needs of our children, we must be intentional about finding support for one another and, perhaps equally important, for ourselves.

Answering the questions

As we try, as we will inevitably do, to build a new future and adapt to the “new normal” which will evolve as the tragedy of Covid-19 morphs into the next phase of our lives,  can we remember that life begins again when we consider the possibility that there may be a different way?  Surely we can consider that the Committee of Ten, no matter how brilliant they were, did not predict the learning needs of our time.  This is a time that begs us to ask ourselves “What matters?”  Could we try to ask that about learning? We have to create a space in each of our schools and districts where creative educators can think about what learning should and shouldn’t look like when we return to our buildings.  What would happen if we use this time when schools are not in session to invite and support small teams to explore if the right thing is to return to school as we’ve known it?

What would happen if school/district leaders assembled through invitation working groups to develop and answer their own set of “what if” questions?   In most schools and districts that I have visited, it was not hard to identify educators who would be honored by this opportunity. What if the starting point for such groups was the development of a “what matters” statement…  in each school and in each district?  What would our schools look like and be like for kids and adults if providing opportunities for kids to learn “how to be” was more important than test scores and seat time? What would schools and learning look like if, in addition to providing a place that met the social needs of kids to interact with caring adults and one another, there were also multiple opportunities for learning beyond the walls of the building that counted for credit and transcripts? What would schools look like if zip code or district boundaries didn’t limit the access to advanced courses, experiential learning, performance-based credit, etc.?

It’s not often that the universe dumps such an incredible opportunity in our laps.  In a way infinitely more painful than any of us could have imagined just a few months ago we are being given the opportunity to move beyond the thinking of The Committee of Ten, beyond the thinking of the 1890’s. We are being given the opportunity to bring kids back, whenever that occurs, not to schooling but to learning…not to what mattered in the 1890’s, the 1950’s… not to what mattered to the writers of A Nation at Risk… not to the designers of the test and punish reforms of NCLB but to what matters in 2020 and beyond.

Shouldn’t we/couldn’t we at least try? How can we help one another?