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John Thompson: What Teachers Should Do When Schools Re-Open

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John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, followed the debate about what to do “after COVID,” and he shares his wisdom here.

I’ve been wrestling with two quandaries regarding post-COVID schools. Yes, in the short-run, the tactical use of digital technology has been prioritized, but the longer term priority must be human-to-human relationships. The last thing we want are 21th century schools driven by screen time. So, what can we do to recover from the pandemic which came on the heels of the corporate school reform disaster that was imposed on teachers and students?

Last spring, I timidly made suggestions but I knew that educators were overwhelmed, and it wasn’t time to be pushy about future visions of schooling. It’s unlikely that many of today’s teachers would be allowed to do so, but I used to start my inner city high school classes’ orientation week with music, poetry, and film clips like Amiri Baraka’s “The X is Black,” Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin,” and Denzel Washington in Cry Freedom, playing Steve Biko, explaining colonialism.

So, if I were still teaching high school, I’d have used much of the spring semester for one-on-one digital and telephone conversations, discussing what each student loves and what each one would love, and get each kid hooked on a genre, artist, musician, or whatever. Surely, it would be easy to sell many kids on great Nature programs, such as the Smithsonian’s new David Attenborough series, or PBS documentaries about the race to the Moon. I’d then focus on each kid learning in depth about the things that enthralled them.

I’d have also started by showing and discussing, and borrowing from great musical and artistic events. I’ve been stunned, and often been left in tears by “Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020,” which also featured President Barack Obama; Jason Alexander’s Passover Seder; One World: Together at Home; and 300 singers from 15 countries singing You’ll Never Walk Alone

We also should have learned from Jill Lepore’s history of education during the Great Depression in the New Yorker. Lepore’s “The Last Time Democracy Almost Died” described School Superintendent John Studebaker’s “ambitious plan to get Americans to show up in the same room and argue with one another in the nineteen-thirties.” Starting in Des Moines, Iowa, his idea spread to schools across the nation. We saw what works in our democracy; discussions where “the people of the community of every political affiliation, creed, and economic view have an opportunity to participate freely.”

I’ve also agreed with Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel about the need for outdoor learning. Moreover, we need a 21st century Civilian Conservation Corps where kids learn about global warming, and solutions and career options for battling it.

Similarly, early in the pandemic, John Merrow reminded us, “Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it will take the support of the village to open its public schools.” Merrow recommended two priorities that could not be compromised or negotiated: 1) Keep everyone safe, with frequent testing, social distancing, and adequate PPE; and 2) Create genuine learning opportunities, rather than simply replicating semesters, work sheets, 50-minute periods, and everything else that schools routinely do. He also urged innovation in terms of developing new, safer, and more educationally beneficial learning spaces. Sadly, those conversations, and the timely reopening of in-person instruction were undermined as the reopening of schools was politicized, first by Trumpism, and then by smart and sincere public health experts and journalists who knew little about actual schools. I must emphasize that the overwhelming harm was done by Trump, politicians like Oklahoma’s Gov. Kevin Stitt, and their COVID denialism, mixed with Social Darwinism. But the demand that in-person learning be quickly restored in urban schools also bore a sad resemblance to the corporate school reforms wars. Both were launched by rightwingers seeking to demonize unions and educators. And just as the attacks on public education worsened after Big Data scholars joined the fray, recently attacks on educators for being too cautious in reopening schools haven’t been helpful.

Researchers working for the Billionaires Boys Club often claimed that their statistical models showed that top-down mandates on teachers can improve student performance while, today, some public health experts argued that their data shows that schools can be reopened safely. The question, then and now, is what will likely happen if schools hurriedly follow their advice.

Below are just two examples. An October New York Times report by Apoorva Mandavilli may or may not have been tilted towards a less cautious approach to reopenings. It led with the fact that “so far there is little evidence” community transmission was high. But, the article distinguished between the evidence that in-person instruction of young students can be safe, and the greater possible dangers regarding high school, citing super-spreads in American and Israeli high schools. And the public health expert the Times quoted, Dr. David Rubin, advised, “Rather than closing schools where community transmission is high, businesses like restaurants, bars or other indoor spaces where adults congregate should be shuttered.” But he didn’t take a stand on the question of what schools could safely do in cities where that public health wisdom was ignored.

The real problem was with the article’s title and subtitle which went far beyond the evidence in it presented:

Schoolchildren Seem Unlikely to Fuel Coronavirus Surges, Scientists Say:

Researchers once feared that school reopenings might spread the virus through communities. But so far there is little evidence that it’s happening.

After those sorts of optimistic assertions before Thanksgiving, it would have been nice if experts and newspapers would have acknowledged how much the situations have changed as holidays dramatically increased the super-spread. I also believe educators deserved an apology for those over-simplified commentaries. If anything, however, many commentators have doubled down on their criticisms of urban educators’ caution.

For instance, I respect Nick Kristof, and I loved Tightrope, which he and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn recently published. And he no longer claims to be “infatuated” with Bill Gates, and to trust the teacher bashing “quick fixes” pushed by edu-philanthropists and their data-driven researchers. But Kristof went from his recommendation in May that we “cautiously open some schools” to arguing that we have been “too willing to close schools” in an article entitled, “When Trump Was Right and Many Democrats Wrong.”

So, now we may need to be more blunt in presenting the educators’ case, as Erika Christakes was in her Atlantic article, “School Wasn’t So Great Before COVID, Either.” (I must emphasize that she isn’t making the Nation at Risk or No Child Left Behind case that schools are broken; on the contrary, she wants to fix the damage done by those “Reforms.”)

Christakes begins with the truth that I haven’t wanted to bring up, “Yes, remote schooling has been a misery—but it’s offering a rare chance to rethink early education entirely.”

She writes:

All of the challenges of educating young children that we have minimized for years have suddenly appeared like flotsam on a beach at low tide, reeking and impossible to ignore.” But, she reminds us that beginning with No Child Left Behind, Schools have—quite irrationally—abandoned this breadth [holistic instruction] in favor of stripped-down programs focused on narrow testing metrics.

So, Christakes writes:

A good start would be to include a broader and deeper curriculum with more chances for children to explore, play, and build relationships with peers and teachers. Schools should also be in the business of fostering curiosity and a love of learning in all children, or at a minimum not impeding the development of those traits. This is a low educational bar but one that is too often not cleared, as the millions of American adults who are functionally illiterate might suggest.

Like Emanuel and Merrow implied, Christakes says, “The most obvious demand should be for more time outside.” She draws on the history of the early 20th century, when “tuberculosis outbreaks led many American schools to successfully adopt outdoor teaching.”

As we should have realized before winter, outdoor transmission of COVID‑19 is far less likely than indoor spread, and it offers an alternative to the drill-and-kill that corporate reforms revitalized. Moreover, “Years of accumulating evidence reveal concretely measurable benefits of nature-based learning and outdoor time for young children.” It can be more effective than instruction in the classroom, and it builds on what “we know about nature’s positive impact on mental health, attention span, academic outcomes, physical fitness, and self-regulation.

And that leads to Merrow’s recent advice to “please please please, do not try to ‘get back to normal.’” He suggests the making of “institution more democratic (small d),” and giving students “more agency over their own learning.” Since “social and emotional learning may matter more than book-learning for these first weeks and months,” we must “give kids time and space to get accustomed to being with peers, even socially distanced, for the first time in many months,” as well as “lots of free play.” Merrow would also move away from age segregation and group children instead according to the interests and their level of accomplishment, and “Finally, NO hand-wringing about ‘remediation’ or ‘learning loss,’ because that’s blaming the victim, big time.”

As 2021 begins, I hope the Biden administration can foster the unity that our schools need. I hope we won’t see the revival of corporate reformers’ “blame game.” Regardless, we need a more humane vision of post-pandemic schools and, I’m afraid, we may need to fight for it once again.

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