A COVID Thanksgiving

Given as I am to understatement, I’m finding this to be an unusual Thanksgiving.  We’ve spent more time in the past week or so thinking and talking about just how we might maintain the warmth and love of this time than we have creating the shopping lists for the “Big Meal”.  One of the things that I’ve noticed is that I’m spending far more time than usual actually thinking about the things I should be thankful for.  

Cloistered away in our home (and actually thinking about being thankful that we have a home), I realized how often in my life I let the preparations for the celebration overshadow the meaning of the celebration.  Today, I was working on a post for next week and, at some point (God only knows how long it was before I realized that I “had gone away”), I returned to the present.  Still recovering from my mental detour, I realized I had been thinking of Thanksgiving, but not about the missed family gathering or the annual carving disaster. I realized that I had been thinking of people… people who have blessed my life with their presence.  People that might not know how much I’ve appreciated the gifts they’ve shared with me.

I thought of how many Thanksgiving dinners I’ve shared with others.  I thought of the blessing that we offer before trying to remember in which direction we should start passing the many dishes.  I realized that I couldn’t recall a dinner in which we each took the time to share with those around the table why we are blessed by their presence in our lives.  I know that Thanksgiving is not a holiday we normally associate with resolutions but I resolved not to let another year pass without telling those around me how much their presence means to me… how important they are.  It’ll work this year.  We only have a few people around the table and I love them all!

Patting myself on the back for being such a sensitive, caring soul (even if it took me over 6 decades to wake up), it dawned on me that, more than usual, we are , in this time of COVID, surrounded by examples of people doing things for us that we should be thankful for.  People who are often invisible to us as they deliver the mail, who pick up our trash and recyclables, people whose job makes it difficult to safely social distance, people who risk their lives and the lives of their families by continuing to care for us.

As we approach this special day, I want to offer a special thank you to all those educators who are working at home and in our schools trying to offer our children a safe way to learn in times they have never prepared for.  I spent over 25 years in the classroom. I spent additional time as an administrator.  While I had to make an occasional decision about whether or not to close school due to snow, never was I faced with the need to make potentially life and death decisions on an almost daily basis.   Never was I asked I asked to offer learning experiences to kids I could not see and who couldn’t see me. Never was I asked to forget almost all I had learned about teaching and implement a whole new way of teaching that might change on weekly basis.

 You will be mentioned in our Thanksgiving prayer. Thank you.

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

Learning, using nature’s design…(schooling tends to bend brains in unnatural ways)

 This little series of blogs shared by Dr. Susan Clayton looks at learning from a different angle – the biology of learning…

The COVID virus is, in a sense, currently in control of this planet. I realize some will disagree with this claim however agree or disagree this pandemic is creating new and different lenses for viewing life on the planet. Education is no exception.

Many parents, children and youth, teachers and administrators are not liking what they once thought was fine in schooling. Newspapers and magazine articles are filled with stories chronicling the struggles of parents, children, school leaders and teachers trying to make distance learning work.  See here,  herehere, and here. Unwilling to deal with either the fear of illness or a continuation of what many experienced in the Spring version of remote learning, a growing number of parents are organizing what have become known as “pandemic pods” or micro schools where their children can interact with smaller numbers of their peers and work under the guidance of the “pod tutors”.

Regardless of who you are and what you believe about COVID, amongst all our diversity is a common ground: we all have a brain and the growing understanding we possess about the way the brain works can make all the difference when we consider how to create cultures that grow learning.

Schooling in North America for the first 200 plus years did not have the advantage that we have today – the technology to see inside our brains – how our brains work and in particular for all of us who are part of schooling – how our brains learn. This technology – PET scans, MRI’s, fMRI’s are some of the familiar machines, has been on the scene for 30 years and is in a constant state of refinement. We have known since the mid 1990’s that the brain is not particularly suited to current models of schooling. Schooling pre-COVID and now in COVID is not paying attention to what neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience are uncovering about the brain’s way of learning. Let’s unpack some of the discoveries using 3 questions: what is learning; why learn; and how do people’s brains learn? The answers to these questions cut across all ages, all ethnicities and cultures.

What is learning?

Please take a moment and observe the 2 trees:

  • What are you noticing about each tree?
  • Describe your observations in ‘bite size’ phrases.

Susan graphic 2

Susan graphic 1

A few responses:
  • Lego tree is human made
  • Forest is nature’s work
  • Lego is mechanistic; forest is organic

What is learning, mechanistic or organic; human-made or nature’s work?

How you answer the question becomes the filter for what you read in this post – this is how our brains work. What you believe about learning become(s) the filter for everything and anything you read and hear about learning. I invite you to take a moment and recall from your memory what you believe about learning: how do people learn? And then read on.

A few pieces of neurobiology  – aka: terminology

The human brain has 2 hemispheres; the left and the right. We are not more inclined to one or the other rather, we use both together.

The human brain has 4 lobes: frontal lobe, parietal lobe, occipital lobe, and temporal lobe. There is 1 of each on each side of our brain.

A few of the incredible roles of each lobe:

  • Frontal lobe – move parts of our body at our will; think about the past; plan for the future; make decisions now; focus our attention; solve problems; ability to be aware of our thinking, learning and doing – the frontal lobe is like our command center.
  • Parietal lobe – this is our association center; we manage our spatial awareness and orientation to our environment
  • Occipital lobe – our vision center – there are cells in this lobe for colour, shapes, lines, triangles…
  • Temporal lobe – our hearing center and our language center. You may be familiar with “Wernicke’s area”, critical for our speech and comprehending what others are saying. And familiar with “Broca’s area” where we produce our speech.

Please do not miss the fact that our brain works as a whole. We cannot be labelled as ‘primarily visual learners’ or auditory or kinesthetic – it takes a whole brain to learn.

Consider this example. (I encourage you to not ‘jump ahead’ of each step)

  • I am going to ‘say’ a wordin print… it is a very familiar object.
  • When you hear the word please consider what your brain had to do to know what this object is. The space between the word and the explanation indicates your time to think about what your brain had to do to remember this object.

The word: apple

  • Given that each one of you will have learned to recognize an apple, each brain will begin with the part that was first introduced to ‘apple’.
  • For those of you who tasted an apple as your first experience with an apple, that would likely be the first sense that flew into action in a nano-second.
  • Maybe your first experience was seeing an apple; if so, your visual cortex would have been the first to activate… And by the time you did this little activity those memories have been laid down so deep that when you saw the word ‘apple’ it took about a nano-second to bring ‘apple’ to your conscious level.

Learning what an apple is: what it looks like, tastes like, smells like, feels like, and hears like when you bite into it – requires our 5 senses, 4 lobes and 2 hemispheres. In other words, our whole brain. Imagine if you believed you were a ‘visual’ learner and your schooling experiences built on this ‘strength’ for leaning ‘apple’. What might you have missed out about ‘apples’?

Neurons are our brain cells, the ones that do the work of learning. These number in the billions and their connections amongst each other number in the trillions. All human behavior can be traced to the communication between neurons. Let’s focus on this communication, the making  “connections” that form neural networks – places where we ‘store’ are beliefs, values, things we learned that have ‘stuck’.

Learning and Memory are different

Learning is the act of making (and strengthening) connections between hundreds of thousands of neurons. Said another way: learning is dynamic. By dynamic we mean learning is the on-going process of changing existing neural networks; deleting some, adding new networks and/or adding onto existing networks. Learning is about linking neurons in new ways.

The bottom line: no change in networks, no learning. Eric Kandal is  neuroscientist who won the Noble Peace Prize for discovering how our brains form memory. This is what he tells teachers, parents and children: “The whole function of education is to alter the brain”.

Using the “apple” to illustrate: once the learner has grasped the basics of “apple” – shape, colour, feel, taste and smell, connections to this basic ‘apple network’ can be made. For example learners explore how apples grow – on trees. And then maybe uncover the fact that there are different kinds of apples – colors, shapes, tastes, smells and then uncover and explore the concept of ‘orchards’; what is required to grow quality apples… Each new piece of information about apples, develops and strengthens the ‘apple network’.

 Memory is the ability to reactivate and/or reconstruct the previously made connections in learning. If you cannot recall the difference between the lego tree and the forest tomorrow, you did not form a memory for this information; it did not ‘stick’. If you do remember you will not use the exact same words you used today; the 24 hour break between learning it and recalling it will have made some changes. Memory is impacted by space and time and our moment to moment experiences with our environment.

Said another way: what went into memory will not ‘come out of memory’ exactly the same. I did not ask you to memorize the responses I presented.

Using the “apple” to further illustrate: the teacher presents a task for the learners: “You sell apples to grocery stores. The produce managers want to know all about the size, color, taste, feel and smell of the apples you are selling and what the farmer does to ensure quality. Prepare, in writing, what you will include in your conversation with store managers about eh apples you are selling”.

The task requires learners to reactivate their ‘apple network’, that is, recall the concepts such as orchards, quality, apple basics – and organize the information into a written presentation that reflects their belief in their product.

Every learner will have the ‘basics’ of apple: a fruit, grows on trees, blooms appear in spring, fruit is ready in late summer to early fall… but, every presentation will be different because each learner’s experiences with apples is different.

Memorization then is different from memory: what goes in is exactly the same as what ‘comes out’. Thinking is not required. Consider the times tables, spelling, phone numbers… we need these at our disposal but they are not what will help us solve complex problems. Solving problems requires thinking in new ways, linking neurons in new ways.

Each learner then would likely benefit from memorizing the basics noted above but the impact of the presentation will suffer if this is all the learner can do.

Why learn?

A simple, and flippant answer is “because we can”. On the more serious note, nature’s first goal for our brains is the survival of its owner. Natural curiosity is a key driver of learning for survival and once that is settled, our brains are ready for adventure with the goal of finding out who we are and who we are in this world. Learning is a personal journey played out in the collective of our families, our community, our planet. Curriculum tends to stifle the adventure. Parents, this maybe something you are seeing with your children. Teachers, you know this happens and children, many of you are so ‘done’ with having your journey shuffled off to one side in the name of curriculum, assessments and report cards.

Note: The next blog will explore the role of meaning and emotion in learning. Our brains have so much to do 24/7/365 that they are not interested in what seems irrelevant to their owner’s life.

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

 

A Confederacy of Dunces or…

Why can’t we say concentration camps? Why do we accept the inability of our elected legislators to react positively to the needs of a failing nation? Why do we tolerate descriptions of ethnic groups other than “real” Americans as vermin and animals? Why do we have “police” with no identification breaking up peaceful demonstrations and carting people away in unmarked vans? Why can’t we say the word fascism?

This, more than any other post that I’ve shared, has the potential to significantly reduce my following.  While this piece is not directly about education, schooling, etc., it is pointedly about learning… my learning as I’ve sought background for things that I had only studied about in my undergraduate course work in international relations.  I hope you will consider the importance and possibility of our learning as we all experience things here in the US that we had only read about taking place in other countries.

Background  #1

I was raised to believe that the health of a society is reflected the way it deals with its weakest members – most commonly understood as its youngest, oldest and poorest. By that standard we are a failing society… a society seduced by the mythical story of the American Dream, a society that has accepted the notion of Social Darwinism, labeling those for whom “the Dream” proved elusive as lazy drains on the nation’s wealth and a society one that has encouraged the naming by “real” Americans of blacks, Mexicans, immigrants, etc. as dangerous “others”.

Background #2:

While I find Donald Trump to be a reprehensible human being and an embarrassment, it’s clear that not everyone shares this view.  So, while I would love to see a new president elected this fall, what I’ll be sharing here is less about him than about the failure of 30+ years of governing by both political parties. In many ways, Donald Trump represents the logical consequence of legislative self-interest, lack of understanding of the logical consequences of free market capitalism, voter apathy, and a society increasingly characterized by separation… separation from one another, separation (and distrust of) our institutions, separation even from our planet?.There has been “a Trump” in every transition from democracy to authoritarianism.

Why am I writing this? 

Earlier today, on Facebook I posted a copy of a tweet that had been written by Charlotte Clymer, a member of one of the “casket teams” that handle and transfer the remains of fallen soldiers returning to the US after being killed in combat. It was heart wrenching.  It crystalized for me thoughts that have been increasingly difficult to put aside. How have we come to this and what, exactly is “this”? As I’ve learned over the years, I do better asking questions than offering facile answers.  

So it’s not surprising that I was struck by a question: What are the options when things around you seem to be unraveling? And unraveling faster and faster. My knee jerk reaction was that we were moving through uncharted waters. That’s pretty unnerving, especially when the pace seems to be accelerating. But what if the waters aren’t “uncharted”? What if they’re leading to something known, something predictable? What if we’re in the process of repeating stories that have been told before?  Stories that have ended badly?  Revolutions in Europe and South America didn’t happen overnight.  There were conditions.  There were signs and there were steps along the way.  Steps and conditions that sometimes were missed and sometimes welcomed.

Why now? The answer is clear and getting clearer.  For too many people the past 30 years have not been good.  They have not been good for those of us who look at our society with expectations that the poor, weak, and downtrodden will be cared for.  They have also not been good for people who may not share that expectation but who have watched their wages stagnate, their pensions disappear, their medical/pharmaceutical costs drive them into bankruptcy, the cost of educating their kids leading to mountains of debt and the need for multiple jobs just to make ends meet. 

As the availability of these basic human needs has diminished, people’s responses have varied… with one common thread… there must be someone to blame for their particular troubles.  We appear to have gone “all in” on this response.  

As the disenchantment with the difficulty of gaining “our share” of the American Dream grew, so did the expressions of our disenchantment, leaning most recently on increasing levels of  anger and violence. And through it all, the institution that we depend on for truth and accurate information has become increasingly partisan, occupied as they are with either defending or criticizing Trump (pick your network) and, far too often, being less than courageous in the process.  

But the process of blame continues and has escalated now into threat.  We have graduated into the acceptance of terms such as  “others”, “vermin’, “animals”, criminals”. We built walls to protect us from some.  We put others in camps.  We sent members of a new national police force (ICE) to conduct raids at their homes and places of work. The labels have implied greater threats and the need for greater retaliation.  In recent weeks, in the service of “law and order” we have seen the increased presence of armed militia and the expansion of the idea of “others” to include ethnicity, skin tone and anyone who disagrees.  

The last living judge from the Nuremberg Trials has called the collection of immigrants and their families, the separation of children from their parents, the housing of these humans in cages  “human right violations”.  During this entire time our mainstream, corporate news services have consistently struggled with the use of words such as concentration, camps, cages, fascism, etc. And we grew increasingly accepting  of ICE raids, protests, armed groups with uniforms and no identification, unmarked vans with protestors placed in them as necessary to preserve law and order and, ultimately, our democracy.  

And still we have not added words like tyranny, authoritarianism, fascism to our conversations about “what’s next”.  

Why did I decide to write this dark piece? Because we are closer to the edge than we’ve ever been. Some wonder if turning around is even an option.  I’m becoming one of those people.  I review my reading from college, books like the Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.  I revisit my undergraduate thesis on the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany. I see frightening parallels.  I see us continually demonizing and calling for the elimination of the those we label as “other”… the blacks, the Muslims, the socialists, the police.  I hear our president identifying himself and his policies as the “only way to greatness”.  I remember the others who used that language.  

When I taught in Germany, I learned that very few of my students ever asked their fathers , “What did you do in the war, daddy?”  I don’t want to hear that question from my grandchildren and have to answer that I stood by and watched… watched as a slow descent into authoritarianism accelerated and the ideals of democracy were lost to repression and silence while I did nothing.

I was far too silent in the 60’s when I should have been challenging the decisions that brought us into and kept us in Vietnam.  I was too busy trying to raise and support a family.  I was far too silent when our black leaders tried to help us understand that slavery hadn’t ever really ended.  Later when I saw people around me losing their pensions, borrowing crazy amounts of money for their kids’ college education, I had a good job, a secure pension, and no student loans.  In short, I was living the American Dream which was becoming increasingly unattainable for a growing number of people. 

In my recent readings I re-encountered the quote by Pastor Matin Neimoller as circulated by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum…

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out Because I was not a trade unionists.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

I do not want to have to say this to my grandchildren. This is not only about the election of one man. This is about the rejection of separation. This is about the need for connections and relationships. This is about recognizing that the rich, older, white men who control our government and its policies will not speak for us.  Much like the children we teach, we must learn to find and use our own voices.  

Want some resources?

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder

From Publisher’s Notes…In On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder provides a stark warning for the future of American democracy. Too easily are we ignoring the ways in which tyranny starts to eat away at democracy. As our political system faces new threats – not unlike those faced by democracies in the 20th century – we must look to the past to safeguard our future.

“America Was Already a Failed State. It’s About to Become an Authoritarian One” Haque

Umair Haque – From Amazon Notes…Umair Haque is one of the world’s leading thinkers. A member of the Thinkers50, the authoritative ranking of the globe’s top management experts, he has published two books through Harvard Business Publishing, where he also authored Harvard Business Review’s top blog for several years, on subjects including economics, leadership, innovation, finance, and careers. Umair has held senior positions in finance and strategy, and holds degrees from McGill University and London Business School. 

https://eand.co/america-was-already-a-failed-state-its-about-to-become-an-authoritarian-one-3f6b25cef863

Be well.

This deserves a better title than I can give it…

There’s been a lot written about the President’s remarks about American service men and women… none more poignant or eloquent than this reprint of a tweet by Charlotte Clymer.

Be well…

The straight line distance between Washington, D.C. and Dover, Delaware is less than 85 miles. It takes a helicopter about 40-45 minutes to make the trip. I was 19 years-old, and it was my first time riding a helicopter. I barely remember any of it. I was distracted.

I was more nervous than I’ve ever been in my life about what was to come next, and so, as this Black Hawk floated above the earth with my casket team–me being the youngest and most junior–I could only think: “What if I mess this up? What if I fail? How will I live with myself?” 

That’s how it should be in a moment like this. You should be nervous. You should let that sharpen your focus. Because there is no room for error when handling the remains of a service member returning to the U.S. after being killed in combat. You should strive for perfection. 

The helicopter landed, and my anxiety spiked. In retrospect, I recall noticing the silence of the rest of the casket team. These were young men, mostly early 20s, loud and boisterous and chests puffed. Now, they were quiet. It was unnerving. 

When you’re a new enlisted soldier in an infantry unit–the FNG–you’re treated like you know nothing. Because you don’t. Everyone around you is older and vastly more competent and confident. Yet, in this moment, despite having done this before, they were all nervous, too. Scary. 

We were brought into a holding area near the tarmac on Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the remains of service members who have died in a theater of operations arrive on a C-17 transport plane. We rehearsed our steps. And did it again. And then again. No room for error. 

The plane arrived. The ramp was lowered. The transfer vehicle that would complete the next leg of the journey was parked. Our casket team was positioned. We were now each wearing ceremonial white cotton gloves we had held under the bathroom faucet. Damp gloves have a better grip. 

We’re a casket team, but these are not caskets. They’re transfer cases: rectangular aluminum boxes that bear a resemblance to a crate for production equipment. Yet, the dimensions are obvious. Any given civilian would take only a few moments to realize that’s for carrying bodies. 

It’s called a “dignified transfer”, not a “ceremony”, because officials don’t want loved ones to feel obligated to be there while in mourning, but it is as highly choreographed as any ceremony, probably more so. It is done as close to perfection as anything the military does. 

I was positioned in formation with my casket team, and I could see the transfer cases precisely laid out, dress right dress, in the cavernous space of the C-17, each draped with an American flag that had been fastened perfectly. I remember my stomach dropping. 

There is simply no space for other thoughts. Your full brain capacity is focused on not screwing up. The casket team steps off in crisp, exact steps toward the plane, up the ramp (please, oh god, don’t slip), aside the case, lift up ceremonially, face back and down the ramp. 

During movement, everyone else is saluting: the plane personnel, the OIC (officer-in-charge), any senior NCOS and generals, and occasionally, the president. The family is sometimes there. No ceremonial music or talking. All silent, save for the steps of the casket team. 

You don’t see the family during this. You’re too focused. There are other distractions. Maybe they forgot, but no one told me there’d be 40-60 lbs. of ice in the transfer case to prevent decomposition over the 10-hour plane ride. You can sometimes feel it sloshing around a bit. 

Some of the transfer cases feel slightly heavier, some slightly lighter. The weight is distributed among six bearers, so it’s not a big difference. But then you carry a case that’s significantly lighter, and you realize those are the only remains they were able to recover. 

It probably takes all of 30-40 seconds to carry the transfer case from the plane to the mortuary vehicle, but it felt like the longest walk ever each time. The case is carefully placed in the back of the mortuary vehicle, and the casket team moves away in formation. 

I don’t know how to describe the feeling after you’re done and on your way back to D.C., but it’s a mixture of intense relief that you didn’t screw up and profound sobriety over what you’ve just done and witnessed. I wouldn’t call it a good feeling. Maybe a numbed pain. 

From the outside, the most egalitarian place in America is a military transfer case. They all look exactly the same: an aluminum box covered with the American flag. We didn’t know their names, rank, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation–none of it. All the same. 

Whatever cruel and unfathomable politics had brought all of us to that moment–from the killed service member in the box to those of us carrying it to the occasional elected official who attends to pay respects–there were no politics to be found during a dignified transfer. 

The fallen service members I helped receive and carry during this part of the journey to their final resting place were not “losers” or “suckers”. They were selfless and heroic, and I had the honor of being among the first to hold them when they returned home. 

There are service members around the world involved in caring for our war fatalities. The mortuary specialists, the casket teams, the family liaisons–so many people who work to ensure that this final act is done with the greatest amount of dignity and honor, seeking perfection. 

I suppose the one thing we all took for granted is that dignity would always be affirmed by all our civilian leaders to those service members who gave everything. I never would have predicted any official, let alone a sitting president, would insult fallen service members. 

I cannot adequately describe my anger at Donald Trump for being so willing to send service members halfway around the world to die on his own behalf and then call them “losers” for doing so. This coward is unfit for his office and the power it holds. He needs to go. /thread 

Time for Big Questions

thinker-28741_1280One thing that the combination of retirement and a pandemic does is provide lots of reading/thinking time.  Every once in a while, this combination results in a “flash of the blindingly obvious”.  This morning was one of those times.

If you’re an educator, parent or politician it’s been hard to avoid the discussions, opinions, etc. about what to do with schools when confronted with the traditional time of school opening. This morning I was reading a post  by Diane Ravitch in which she summarized a post by Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education. Burris, in speaking strongly in support of the reopening of schools in New York City, cites several studies that report on the effectiveness of remote learning.  The studies cited by Burris report the loss of learning in terms of school days lost – i.e., in one study (CREDO, 2015) student learning in math was the equivalent of receiving 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days in reading.  In a 2019 study of Pennsylvania online schools, students in such “schools” lost the equivalent of 106 days of learning in reading and 118 days in math.

I know we love metrics and place great faith in their usefulness, but WTF?  What kind of days were lost? Were they days with a great teacher, a mediocre teacher… maybe days when there was a long-term substitute in the class?  But more important than the accuracy of days lost… Is this what education of our children has become after nearly three decades of school reform? Is this what our world needs … a world that is struggling to accept the reality of climate change, a world struggling to determine whose lives really matter, a world struggling to determine what an acceptable number of student/teacher deaths is to justify reopening schools, a world struggling with dramatic spikes in pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, depression and suicide?  Why are we locked into a system of schooling that was designed over 120 years ago?

Wait! What?  Are you suggesting that we need to change the purpose, focus and structure of our schools… maybe even change the very notions of schools and schooling? That’s exactly what I’m suggesting.  We’re part way there.  Right now we have gotten a “free pass” on testing. Right now 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 2-3 days per week or, maybe not at all. Is getting “back to normal” the best we can do?… not because normal was so great but because it was familiar?

A while back I shared a story about a fellow student in one of my graduate classes who upon hearing about an assignment that the professor had given, asked the man if the material would be on a test.  The professor paused, looked thoughtfully at the student and then said softly, “Son, I’ve seen your future.  It doesn’t work.”  Our future isn’t working.  Whether  our future is as described by Charles Eisenstein – The More Beautiful…] – the continued commitment to a story that no longer works for too many – i.e., the continuation of an Age of Separation — or as described by  Umair Haque … a continuation of the reliance on self-interest, the continued absence of relationships and the continued abuse of life/life forms that we feel are inferior to ours, there is one common theme… it isn’t working for too many of us or for our planet.

What if the way to a future that “works” involved an exploration of connectedness 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? If the Committee of Ten (1893) were reconvened today to once again revisit the purpose and organization of Schooling, and if they found truth in the words of Charles and Umair, what experiences might they suggest for our kids? If the pandemic is actually a portal to a new kind of learning experience, a new structure for what has been “schooling”, what might we be doing?

What would experiences for learning look like? Would they always take place in a school building? Would learning continue to be delivered from the heads of teachers or the pages of textbooks to the heads of students?  We have watched much, if not all, of what we’ve known as school be turned upside down in a matter of months. What if this is the best chance we’ve had in our lifetimes to move from separation to connectedness?

Last year we witnessed the courage of teachers throughout the country who elected to speak up about the learning conditions too many states and communities had inflicted on their parents, teachers and students.  They spoke up on issues of class size, access to mental health services, compensation.  They got attention. They made a difference.

Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan theologian and biblical scholar suggests that we have two stages of our lives.  In the first of these we spend our time defining our identity and, not infrequently, defending it.  But there is a second stage to living.  It’s the exploration of who and how we can be… who and how we can “become”. Rohr suggests that, too frequently, we become mired in Stage One, missing the opportunity to learn, to connect, to become.  These stages exist not only for individuals but for institutions, societies and nations as well.

Daily we are experiencing in real time the reality that staying in Stage One and defending what our schools have become isn’t working for too many students and their teachers.

Shouldn’t we at least try?

Coming next time…What can I do?

Be well.

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.

Portal 2 Screen Shot 2020-08-14 at 3.10.18 PM

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.