Rethinking education, envisioning the future of schools

 

I am an optimist, unapologetic, glass always full, sunshine and rainbows to-a-fault optimist. It annoys people. As my mind begins to clear a little for the first time since the true scope of this pandemic became clear to me, I have the headspace to write down the thoughts, musings, wonderings, and inspirations swirling in my head. That is what typically happens with my writing... an idea begins as a small whisper, something noodling the back of my mind, and then builds and builds until I can’t hear anything else and must write it down. 

So this thought started nudging me a few weeks ago, when most of our nation's schools abruptly sent everyone home — including my own two sophomore boys. There might be something good happening as a result of all this.

I have always been a progressive education champion, practitioner, advocate, and consumer. In my last blog — Rediscovering the Lessons from Progressive Education to Create Trauma-Informed Schools for All — I wrote about my own experience as a high school student in the 80’s at a public alternative high school that was an experiment in public progressive education. It was through this experience that I learned what it means to be in a space that prioritizes relationships, connection, authentic learning, equity, wholeness — real ‘Whole Child’ design from top to bottom. We didn’t have grades. We did projects inspired by our interests. We practiced self-reflective evaluation and peer support. We read deep complex texts together and then co-facilitated socratic seminars with our teachers. We used the community as a learning space. When the anti-apartheid protests began in our city, our teachers stopped and taught us about aparthied. Learning was immediately relevant and we were empowered. With a teacher, we co-designed andtaught classes around our common interests. Learning was interdisciplinary and stretched boundaries for students and staff. My math teacher taught a kickass class on beat poetry and the brilliance of Bob Dylan because that was his passion. Relevance, passion, connection, community, empowerment: These were the driving forces. 

I became that kind of teacher in an ‘alternative’ high school. Over age, under credit, ‘at-risk’ youth (ugh-hate that term) were my kiddos. My co-teacher and I were left to our own devices, ignored by the mainstream system and we loved it. We took our kids, who had been led to believe they were not smart and would not be successful, and we went to the woods and became citizen scientists feeding real data to our local Department of Natural Resources. They felt like they had something to give and it changed their lives. They felt relevant, empowered, relational, connected, hands-on, meaningful. 

I’ve worked in many arenas of education since then — state departments of education, school districts, higher ed, non-profits, and as an independent consultant. Since leaving the classroom I have always advocated loudly for a different way of doing public education, knowing that all of those ‘alternative’ learning experiences were good for all kids — not just those of us deemed ‘at-risk’. I used my voice wherever I was to rail against the antiquated practices of an outdated, inequitable, industrial system that pushed out and caused harm to so many. 

Advocating that we didn't need grades to measure learning, I said we should get rid of high stakes testing — it does not lead to accountability or equity (in fact the opposite). We needed to be interdisciplinary. We needed to consider and attend to the emotional wellness of a child as much as academics. Teachers need to be trusted and empowered rather than ‘evaluated’. But I was always told: It’s not practical at that scale, the system is too big to move, that just won't work in a big school, or in that community, or in a city, or in the country, etc. I was told I was the dreamer, the optimist, unrealistic, told so many times: “You’re not wrong, but that is just not realistic”. It is through this lens, and my unshakeable belief in what is possible, that I see the potential for dreaming something different on the other side of this. 

So many things I was told could not be done en mass have stopped, just.like.that. We got rid of high-stakes standardized tests overnight; we don't need them back. Ever. Many districts across the country no longer assign grades. They have moved to pass/fail. They have begun the conversation around grading and what it means, are talking about learning for learning's sake. 

Let's keep it up! We are having serious discussions around equity and access to the Internet and technology, the digital divide. Keep talking! We clearly see the need for mental health, SEL, and ACEs-science-informed trauma-responsive practices. Advocate and prioritize! I see great discussions brewing around how to incorporate project-based learning, unschooling concepts, student-driven learning. Yes, it is what kids want! Young people are finally getting enough sleep and school schedules are flexible. What can we adapt from this? Teachers are self-selecting the professional development they need. How can we continue to support that? The arts and creativity have played a vital role in maintaining our sanity during this experience — they must be prioritized, emphasised, and funded as much as academics and sports. There are so many bright spots in the dark. 

I am not naive, I know this is complex and hard and messy, I absolutely am aware of my privilege. I am definitely not advocating for everyone to suddenly begin homeschooling their children. Goodness knows, I will be the first in line to send my kids back to school. I am a mom of a child with significant mental health challenges, his therapeutic school setting WAS his therapy and intervention. Now we are trying to figure this out on our own with no services, but that is a whole ‘nother blog. Both of my kids have IEP’s, so this distance learning is a bit of a mess for them. I NEED school and teachers and support and connection, and so do my kids.  

I am not talking about the end of school…..I am talking about the end of schooling as we know it. Normal wasn’t working for far too many and hasn’t been for years. It is now more clear than ever, we need each other, we need physical school for community and connection. The rest is up for debate. Throughout history, plagues and pandemics have forced societies to change, have pressed upon humanity to reinvent itself, fueling our imaginations and ingenuity to rise from the ashes. We must choose how we are to proceed. As author Arundhati Roy wrote so beautifully in a recent article:

“We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

This is our chance, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dream big, start over, do different. Initiatives like this multi-year school redesign project led by the Kansas Dept of Education, focused on relevance and relationships (!) offers lessons learned. Detailed reports and research like this from The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development do the work for us — they’ve put together the research from some of our greatest thinkers, we know what works! Ask youth what they want from school, they will tell you! (Hint: relevance, voice, and connection.) If it’s true that when you “know better you do better” then let’s go! This is our moment! We must fight for what is best for kids, for us, for the future! Onward.  



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