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.
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.
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 This, Cornelius 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.