Lessons Learned from the Pandemic: The Schools we need
(Education Part I)
For over 50 years, I have been an educator. During our year of distance learning, I have been flooded with memories, ideas, and feelings about education. What have we learned? What is essential? What should we let go of? Do differently?
As we reopen schools, we have a tremendous opportunity to imagine the schools we all deserve (that’s Education, Part II).
But this Valentine’s weekend I want to simply pause to send out love to everyone who has done valiant work with distance learning.
Valentine’s Wishes to…
Families (including mine)
Families reorganized living spaces, made desks, purchased white boards, post its and planners to create school at home. Moms and Dads, you have tried so hard to support your kids. Some of you had to put your own work aside to do this; some of you had to leave kids home while you worked. Both were hard. And kids, how do we ever pay you enough respect for grabbing your computers, your earbuds and distance learning day after day?
State departments of education took on a far more directive role than we are used to in the US, trying to provide clarity when federal, state, health, safety, equity, finances have been in a changing, confusing mix.
School districts made sure kids had Chromebooks, wi fi hot spots, and meals, for families who wanted in person schooling and those who wanted their kids home. Never being sure what would be next, you had to be ready, thinking and rethinking the right combination of masks, social distancing, ventilation, testing, and vaccines.
Teachers quickly taught in a whole new way. You gave up classrooms, gyms, labs, the simple routines understood by all; you gave up eye contact, fist bumps, and a hand on the shoulder. We can’t tell you what it has meant when you sent an I-never- give-up-on-a-student email to a worried parent, or met a shy native Spanish-speaking kindergartener and her mom in the park, or wanted to extend deadlines so the term could “end on a good note.”
And so many others we cannot forget
Office staff who pride themselves on welcoming and helping who now see few kids and parents– and then with a mask on, at a distance, and during restricted hours. Custodians learning to clean to whole new levels. Lunch ladies who pack sack lunches without the reward of a smiling face and a thank you. IT folks assuring the lifeline of reliable and flexible technology. People who lost work because no one’s riding a bus. Paraprofessionals working without a team. Counselors and social workers supporting students through stress, loneliness, and depression. Nannies, babysitters, childcare workers, pod leaders coaching kids on a computer while parents work. Union leaders representing faculty and staff worried about their students, but also worried about themselves and their families. And all those working for our now and our future in the larger community: scientists, doctors and nurses, agriculture workers, grocery clerks, food banks, social welfare organizations.
At this strange time, we have learned how important our schools are to our country. We have learned that good teaching is hard—and highly valued. I remember when there was no Cabinet level US Department of Education, when many argued there was no Federal role in education, when an appointment to the US Committee on Education and Labor would hardly be noticed. All that has changed now. Thank you for showing such respect for education in our national life.
(Education Part II)
What have we learned during the Pandemic and from Distance Learning? That learning has been so compressed and intense in a single year. But also, what have I learned from the distance of time and age?
First, as I wrote in my Education Part I blog post, we have learned how important our schools are to our country, to US families. That feels really good to an educator like me. Huge accolades to kids, teachers, administrators, and parents. You acted quickly and were flexible. You used much of the old system, but taught and learned in a whole new way.
And believe me I see how strange and frustrating that must have been. I have glimpses of the daily challenges of distance learning as I continue my volunteer English teaching in Latin America but via Zoom. At times I would like to crawl into the screen to make eye contact, touch a shoulder, let alone move around a room of learners gathered together.
What is worth worrying about? What’s not?
Many are arguing of the importance of getting kids back in schools, for a combination of worthy reasons. But some are of much more concern to me than others.
What’s worth worrying about?
For sure anything that makes more inequity for students with special needs, English Language Learners (ELLs), young people of color, families in remote areas, and those living with poverty and hunger. That’s worth worrying about. Diminished expectations and opportunities have historically plagued them. And now that truth is both worse — and more apparent to all of us.
And perhaps scariest is knowing of students who are not just struggling, or getting behind, but are simply not “in school.” Missing. Thinking about how to rectify this, that’s worth worrying about — a lot.
The socialization and mental health of our kids, that’s definitely worth worrying about. Trouble engaging and focusing. Pressure over online attendance, missing assignments, poor grades. Stress. Anxiety. Loneliness. Depression. Inability to understand the material without a teacher present. Fear of going back to school after being safe at home.
BUT let’s not work so hard to quantify time lost in academic content and skill development or, god help us, projections of lost earning power. Let’s simply concede that, of course, this has been very, very hard on kids and families. But it’s not about 3 months behind in reading, or 4 months in math, a year of academic progress, or lifetime earnings. That’s not worth worrying about. It’s just not.
We can overcome all that easily with the right priorities in mind. Keep reading, keep writing, keep building relationships, those skills we work on our entire lives — we can’t go wrong with that. But if the problem we identify is reduced to numbers, we will have lost a tremendous opportunity to be better than before, to change the right things.
Why is this an opportunity for change?
But why do we need to change? Can’t we just take a big breath, a sigh of relief and go back to normal school? For sure we are hungry for much that is normal in-person school. But like my youngest grandchild said, “I have been changed by the Pandemic.” I think we all have. Those children impacted by the pandemic are the ones reentering schools and growing up marked by history as generations were marked by the Depression, World War II, 911. We probably won’t know for years what that will mean for both harm and resilience. But we know we can’t be just exactly the same as we were in order to serve them properly.
And not only have individual students changed, but we have seen the deep divisions and inequities of groups in our country, exposed with greater clarity by the pandemic and its resulting economic and educational challenges. We cannot unsee this.
We can’t ignore the realities of this time. Surely we can’t need stronger messages than these. Hate. More killings of young men at the hands of police. Black Lives Matter and Say her Name worldwide. Repeated calls for dismantling historic racism. Mass shootings, too often in schools. Relentless climate change. Repudiation of science and logic and humanity by too many.
Our children need an education that is a match for these times. Sure, they are just kids, teenagers, needing friends and fun. But they also live in this world; they will inherit it and be responsible for its future health. Sometimes they are innocent victims of the times. Sometimes they show the most courage and leadership in facing these issues. At a minimum, they are young citizens. The education we provide can aid them going forward.
Since I became a teacher in the late 60’s, we have studied methods, tried strategies, rejected some approaches, advanced our practice, never fully realizing our potential as a system. This unique time offers us a tremendous opportunity to rethink, reimagine, rebuild. We don’t get very many such opportunities when awareness and concern are so high. And I am personally haunted by some of the recommendations made over those 50 years that we did not follow but are so clearly needed now.
Some things can change the minute we reopen our doors and others will take more consideration and time for implementation. Let’s go back to school with the right priorities in mind while we buy some time for needed change.
Top priority, health and safety.
Top priority, recognizing the changes in our kids–so emphasizing welcome, encouragement, connection with peers; promoting a sense of protection, confidence, self-esteem, and commitment to school. As we move from remote learning to hybrid models to full in-person school and even to summer programs, we must always put the child before a concern about “being behind.” Well intended programs to fill in academic losses will be meaningless if a young person is feeling scared, uncertain, overwhelmed, hopeless.
What do we need?
Clearly somethings are terribly wrong in our society when the very heart of education, respect for the mind and for studying to learn, can be so disparaged and disrespected, when ignorance is promoted. Education has not made a positive impact for some, and yet I still believe is our greatest hope for societal change.
What do we need going forward?
We need Readers. Writers. Thinkers. Listeners. Debaters. Library users. Helpers. Truth seekers. We need folks who think about others, try to do what is right, who take responsibility, who work with others to analyze and solve problems – who can try to sort through what is complex, even chaotic.
What have I learned that might help us now?
I think of myself first as an English teacher and a principal. That is who I am. I studied to be a teacher in the 60’s and have experienced two national school reform movements. I learned that the classroom and the school are everything, but that big ideas and huge national aspirations can also affect those smaller, important places.
I have also been incredibly fortunate to have been in a rare mix of settings as an educator. Those experiences have informed my perspective about what is possible. One of the earliest and most influential of these settings was working in Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis, a carefully designed high school that included open space learning, team teaching, shared teacher-administrator leadership, and division of all of us into smaller House and Advisory groups. As a “baby teacher” I learned that I could help create a whole school environment and not just my classroom. I learned the power of a long-term commitment to a group of advisees and the magic of team teaching with a respected colleague.
Then during graduate school, I got to work in research, including conducting a state study on dropouts in Oregon which we ended up calling the Early School Leaver study. We had found that many students who quit school were often back in another educational opportunity pretty quickly. I also taught much later in a vocational college with many young adults who had not necessarily liked or been successful in school but were ready to change their lives. In both of these roles, I learned that past school struggles do not have to mean the end of education.
My first year of teaching in LA City Schools and my years at Portland State University, an urban university, helped me understand the special challenges and energy of cities. In counterpoint, part of my experience training potential principals, took me to remote parts of Eastern Oregon where education must be delivered differently.
But most distinctive in my career have been three unique experiences that inspired me and for which I will forever be grateful. Each of the three has been national or international in perspective and each has intentionally sought diversity of participants.
The first incredible experience was as an Educational Policy Fellow in Washington, DC with the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL). I was assigned to the staff of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. Our job was to support the Cabinet-level Commission members with their study of US education both across the nation and in comparison with other countries. I was fortunate to be asked to stay beyond my year of fellowship so was able to participate in the full life of the Commission: commissioned papers from experts, hearings across the country, staff and Commission meetings, myself focusing a lot of on issues of language and literacy. At the end of that time, the Commission released its report A Nation at Risk which sparked a national conversation about education. This was the main intention of the Commission during a time that the Reagan administration was espousing the view that there is no Federal role for education, teaching me about the impact of national attention on the importance of education.
The second remarkable experience was a summer at the Harvard Principal’s Center. I have said so many times that I “lived off” what I learned there for years, the readings and presentations by a Who’s Who of researchers, writers, and thinkers on education were so thought-provoking and ahead of what we were doing at the time. Then there was the small writing and discussion group of other principals from around the country. I learned so much about change and culture and for the second time, about the motivation to improve schools that comes from perspectives beyond my own.
In my retirement, the lens has become even wider, from national to international. I had three retirement dreams: to write children’s picture books, to travel to a series of Latin American countries, and to work on my Spanish. It was such luck that I had shared my dreams with a colleague at Lewis & Clark College who offered me momentum toward those dreams. I oversaw a Federal grant to prepare mainstream teachers to serve the growing numbers of ELLs in the Portland area. I asked to participate in the teacher training for an ESL endorsement right along with participating teachers from the 15 urban/suburban schools selected for grant participation.
Those dreams advanced even more when I was pointed toward Partners of the Americas, created under JFK at the same time as the Peace Corps. I shared my interest right at the moment Oregon Partners were considering answering requests to teach English in Costa Rica. I have now visited eight times, coordinating expanding programs to send interested Oregonians to aid in Costa Rica’s admirable commitment to bilingualism. And that led to other work focusing on English teaching in Latin America, in Colombia, Panamá, and the Dominican Republic. I learned of the importance of making a campaign visible and prominent by a country’s political leaders and ministry officials. And I see how the same effort can not only achieve national ends but also the way out of poverty for individual young people and their families
Finally, I not only have ongoing experiences with ELLs but both professional and personal experience with supporting students with special needs. I was principal for a school identified to include children with needs beyond those normally served in a neighborhood school. And more personally, I adopted a child at eight who was identified with learning disabilities and later fought through those challenges along with traumatic brain injury after a car accident as a teenager. Just in the last year, I have tried to be Nana-helping-my-grandkids through their year of distance learning, all smart and interesting as can be but two with attention and autism challenges exacerbating issues with learning remotely.
What do I recommend?
It was at this point that I planned to make three recommendations for our schools going forward — Who should work with our children, What students should learn, and How student performance should be assessed. And I wanted to post this Blog in time for Earth Day 2021.
But what a day yesterday was, with a verdict in the George Floyd case. Like so many, I was stunned that a verdict had been reached already, then waited in fear and hope, then felt both celebratory and sad.
I need more time. I can’t think clearly right now, only feel. How does this symbolic moment move us forward? What might it mean? For sure, education and children are still central. Commentators after the verdict over and over spoke of relief and hope but of the work that faces us. I want to think more about my small part in that future work, making recommendations for an educational system that can either perpetuate or liberate. As a result, I will now write a third Blog on education for May Day.
I chose some time ago to share this Blog on Earth Day 2021. I was a teacher of middle schoolers on our first Earth Day and remember the thrill my class felt when we received a reply on Congressional stationery to a letter we had written about the creation of this special day. Over 50 years later, its importance has only grown. Amanda Gorman expressed that in her poem Earthrise written two years ago for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project:
The time is
Everything is tied together as I tried to communicate with my first children’s picture book We Share our World/Compartimos el Mundo inspired in part by the Trayvon Martin case. On this planet that Gorman calls “earth, a pale blue dot” we need both to save our beautiful natural world and to be more caring with one another.
And we will need a strong educational system to achieve those two ends. I remembered a poster from my time as a Policy Fellow in Washington, DC. It memorialized the creation of the US Dept. of Education just a year or so before. I share it here as the message is so appropriate for our significant challenges and opportunities now. Learning Never Ends.
(Education Part III)
I have been writing on this topic for three months, finding the subject compelling but daunting. So daunting that I have stopped twice, concluding two other blog posts on education without yet sharing recommendations. In Education Part I, I wrote a Valentine’s message to all the people across the country who deserve our gratitude during distance learning. Hearts and flowers to all. In Education Part II, I argued that the schools our kids return to need to be different than the ones they left abruptly last spring—and that this provides us with a great opportunity. I concluded that second blog post on the day of the George Floyd case verdict, part of my reticence to make my recommendations yet simply the enormity of the need for difference.
I have taken more time to think about the recommendations I had in mind and am ready to share them. I would love to see lots and lots of people across the country be part of a grand conversation about the schools we need going forward. What do our kids need? What does our country and world need?
This is my offering for that conversation, three ideas for needed changes that keep coming back to me over and over. Let me take these recommendations in turn, for each, proposing a key change and following that with some What ifs, What if we did even more?
An Assessment Change
When I was working on my Master’s degree, I read about William Glasser’s Schools without Failure. He recommended a schoolwide approach to creating a success-orientation. Recently, I have been thinking so much about how we instead communicate failure messages to kids. There is concern that there are more Fs, more failing grades, during distance learning. But I wonder if we are focusing on the right reason for concern. Yes, this may be an indication of schooling being difficult for kids and families, of the need to go back to schools.
But frankly, I am worried that we as educators give Fs at all, failing grades, so easily interpreted as you are a failure at science or math, maybe even, you are a failure period. How can this possibly be the message we want for kids? Ever? During distance learning? In the future when we want to entice missing kids back to school?
Recommended change: Eliminate Fs.
This can be simple to do, and something we can do pretty quickly. It would be a highly meaningful symbolic act. Yes, words do matter. Get rid of the F for Failure (even if the five-part grading system is maintained at least in the short term).
And what if?
And what if we not only eliminated Fs but abandoned the traditional A-F grades for classes entirely, recording individual progress toward key learnings instead? And what if this was done in such a way that a student could return to a class’s curriculum and add to that progress?
What if we take another look at what are “essential skills” based on the challenges before us now? Reading, writing, applying scientific method, mathematical problem solving, using technology, for sure; maybe perspective taking, design and creation, collaboration through conflict? What if work samples documenting progress in these areas replaced traditional grades entirely? What if we no longer tried to layer this authentic assessment on top of class grades resulting in diminishing focus and overwhelming both kids and teachers?
What if we took the opportunity to rethink all this for K-12 as state departments of education must rethink state assessments and higher education must rethink admissions? What if our three huge systems worked in concert now for more meaningful documentation of progress, increased opportunities for education over a lifetime, a success- orientation for diverse people? What if the joint messages were: You can do important things, it’s never too late, learning never ends?
A Curriculum change
When I was a principal in the Eugene School District, Betty Shoemaker of the Instructional Services Department was a national leader in promoting a concepts-based integrated curriculum. She explained how that aligned beautifully with student assessment. I think of that general approach now, when schools must aid the younger generation with the times we’re in.
Our kids are going back to school when the world surrounding their schools has changed. Pandemic. Calls for social justice. Changing workplaces. Political division. Youth activism. New efforts to halt climate change. We have to help them with skills for those realities.
We can’t kid ourselves. They may go back with a new outfit and new backpack as usual, many wanting to simply connect with other kids and their teachers. But their schools are microcosms. Some families will wear masks while others question them, some will get behind climate change efforts and others will question the need, some will call the same event a protest and others, a riot.
Current controversies will affect class discussions in science and social studies and homerooms. But even more important, kids want to help, to do. And most important of all, when they leave school they will be a generation with tremendous challenges before them, complex problems to address through intention, intellect, and skill.
Recommended change: A Project-Based, Integrated Curriculum on Current Themes.
I propose that there be at least one schoolwide theme per year around a key question, emphasizing essential skills, looked at from cross-disciplinary perspectives, involving parents, and culminating in a project that makes a contribution to the school/community.
Key questions can vary by age level of the students and by the readiness of the school communities. Examples I have thought of:
1. What have we learned during the Pandemic?
2. What should we be learning in 2021 and beyond?
3. What makes a strong, safe community?
4. What does a democracy ask of us?
5. What is “justice for all”?
The question doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that it is relevant to the times, requires everyone to think outside of strict subject matter lines and beyond their own viewpoints. Students can demonstrate their abilities with essential skills. Every discipline can help students with alternate perspectives– through a short story, graphs and statistics, historical documents, a painting, a piece of music, video and film, language used in other parts of the world, book and online research. Students can interview their family and community members. They can design and create something important together.
And what if?
What if we start simple, but ultimately take on gender equity, historic racism, climate change, gun control by building confidence that differences of opinion can be handled respectfully?
What if over time more and more of the curriculum is integrated across subject matter fields? What if teachers can experience the energy and motivation that come from team teaching with colleagues in different fields?
What if we added some study of philosophy and ethics to the standard K-12 curriculum so that students find ways to talk with others about alternate viewpoints on what is true? what is right?
What if the school curriculum can provide a model for students preparing for a world where problems are complex and require cross disciplinary thinking, seeking common ground, and cooperating toward desirable goals and the common good?
A People change
I wrote about my early years in a high school that divided the student body into “houses” and within them, advisory groups. The idea was to decrease anonymity for students in a large high school. Each teacher had an advisory group, a mix of kids that changed annually as new students entered, but with students staying for all their high school years. I made home visits, monitored attendance and grades, designed group exercises to build community and increase communication skills, met with my group daily, often talking with a student individually during that time.
I think this advisor experience made a real difference in how I understood the roles of a teacher and a real difference for kids and their parents. I remember to this day a parent I kept calling sort of to no avail, eventually saying to me, You know I finally realize that you are calling because you care about my child. Breakthrough! Anything is possible when we can work in partnership, home and school.
But relationships take time, to know parents and serve the array of needs of very different young people. At the same time, one student may need to be lured back to school after a pattern of skipping; another, a reference to an elite college; a third, encouragement to share a beautiful painting her art teacher has never seen; another asked, Did you know there’s a new book by that funny author you love?
And knowing a student well can’t happen when a teacher has a big student load. And it doesn’t happen in a short period of time.
Various strategies have been used over the years that help ensure caring adults in the lives of young people with different interests and needs. Self-contained classrooms. Homerooms. Advisor-advisee groups. Cohort learning. Boys & Girls Clubs. Sports, theatre, band and choir. Counselors and social workers. Mentors from the business world. Lunch buddies. Volunteer reading assistance. In combination, these have lifted up so many young people and will continue to do so.
But right now Every Single Student in the US is affected by the Pandemic, and students are returning to school in a world that got much more complicated in their absence. This is a time that Every Single Student could use a special adult as a caring helper.
Recommended change: A Helping Adult for Every Child
I have said that some needed changes can start the moment the doors to school reopen and others can wait for more planning time. This is a change that can easily start small. Start with the tutoring focus. Recruit volunteers to meet just two needs to begin with: Students teachers identify as most needing academic support. Children parents identify as needing academic support. And by academic support, this might be a bit beyond classic tutoring but also helping reassure a child who has lost confidence that s/he’ll be just fine.
The process could be as simple as teachers recruiting at the classroom level, then asking interested adults to go through the normal background check established by the district.
And what if?
What if that initial plan is expanded beyond just tutoring to support for the “whole child”?
What if this is expanded to a special helping adult for every child?
What if the initial plan is expanded beyond the immediate or even the school year, to an adult paired with a child on a more long-term basis?
What if we look way beyond the school community for these adults, but to community organizations? What if this included direct appeals to the many organizations advocating on behalf of LGBTQ , special needs, and immigrant communities, people of color? What if a community organization or two even sponsored this effort after initial planning with the district?
What if community folks were assured that past experience in a school setting is not as important as being a caring human being? That specific credentials are not as important as being able to listen and ask good questions?
What if we took all the current national concern about a return to school and directed it at supporting individual children? Certainly they will need different things. This could be seeking out some kids who have not been involved in distance learning, reaching out to them in their neighborhoods, always believing in kids when they don’t believe in themselves, helping them create a homework plan when the work seems too much, coaching them through a particularly difficult assignment, pointing them toward enrichment opportunities, talking about the future with them, work and school… For some kids this may turn out to be the most important adult in their life; for others, it will be a welcome addition to family.
This idea of a tremendous national volunteer effort to support children and teens returning to school after the Pandemic–no single effort seems more potentially powerful to me. Personally, I think this will be my new purpose going forward. And I know there are many like me who want to find a direction and meaning as we work to emerge from the Pandemic in a positive, hopeful way. What a difference we could make!
I end this post with another digital art piece from my granddaughter. She is one of the many great kids returning to school now. Through her art I can summarize my main points over the entire Education Series. Thank you to absolutely everyone supporting students through distance learning. As we return to schools, we need some changes both for the students and our society. This provides a real opportunity to be on the side of building back better. Let’s talk. Let’s plan. Let’s volunteer. And let’s be truly inclusive in this effort to reimagine the schools that are for us all.