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Surviving and Thriving

As we continue to hunker down in home isolation, it’s easy to get caught up in survival mode. How do we weather this? When will this be over? How do we stay safe? We can trace this mindset back to when the pandemic first arrived in the United States as our first impulse was to load up on toilet paper and paper towels. It is a basic human instinct to react this way. When our home, our health, our children, our livelihood, our way of life are threatened, we react in defensive ways. Simply to survive. And in this high stakes challenge that we collectively face, there are really only two options. Either we survive or we don’t.

Eventually, we will see the end of this battle. Science will lead the way and we will experience a gradual return to something resembling a normal way of being. But, one thing is very clear. When we turn the corner and see what lies before us, it will look quite different from what we expected or what we had known before. It’s too early to know exactly what the terrain will look like other than some obvious consequences of the experience: loved ones will have been lost, the economy will be fragile, we may be a bit wary of venturing out and we will be expected to embrace new challenges.

Such is the human experience. It has been that way through our collective history. The world changes. Circumstances and conditions change. Reality shifts. The variable is always how we choose to respond and elect to behave. At the core of who we are, humans tend to be reluctant when faced with change. We prefer nostalgia and the predictable comfort of “the good old days” or the way things were. However, clinging to the past has never propelled us forward. So, when the world opens up and the time is right, we will get on with the task of redefining “normal.”

We will have the opportunity to move from survivors to thrivers. That’s a good thing.

As I am prone to do, I find myself questioning what public education will look like in our “new normal.” Public health experts are predicting that social distancing will be essential in schools, Students will need to wear face masks as their desks are kept six feet apart. Grouping sizes will need to be kept small, including eating lunch in classrooms rather than large gathering places like cafeterias. Hearing these protocols, I immediately go the structure of schools as i knew them and the ways they functioned the day before they were closed. How can that work? Do schools have adequate space to handle these constraints? The standard American public education classroom is designed to be approximately 900 square feet. Do the math: 900 divided by 36 (6 feet on all sides) equals 25 human beings per instructional space. That’s it. What is the impact on specific curricular areas? I reflect on my own classroom instructional experience. I was a secondary level vocal music/choral arts teacher. My small classes would be at least 40 kids. Typically, my classes would include 90-100 students. (I loved it.) So, now let’s do that math. How large must a space be, under the distancing guidelines, to accommodate 100 students? It approximates the size of a typical high school gymnasium. Six feet between singers? Wearing masks? How in the world?

Eventually, I snap myself out of it enough to remember that those are “down in the weeds” issues that will need to be addressed at some point. But, for now, we should keep our thinking up on the roadway. Rather than speculating on what public education will look like, we must seize this opportunity to be addressing what we hope public education could or should look like moving forward. Our opportunity is one of vision and innovation, one of looking forward to what “might be” rather than staring at what “is.” It is an opportunity to be proactive and creative, rather that reactive. It’s the difference between surviving and thriving.

I open my book, The Education Kids Deserve, with a quote from Tony Wagner. He writes: “Teaching all students to think and be curious is much more than a technical problem for which educators, alone, are accountable. More professional development for teachers and better textbooks and tests, though necessary, are insufficient as solutions. The problem goes much deeper - to the very way we conceive of the purpose and experience of schooling and what we expect our high school graduates to know and be able to do.” Dr. Wagner is 100% correct. Our challenge moving forward is to strive beyond a focus on technical issues. We must also actively embrace the conceptual opportunities that our unfortunate current reality is affording us.

There is something very freeing in imagining possibilities. For one thing, it distracts us from the resentment and worry that we all feel due to the abrupt change to our lives. More importantly, imagining gives our brains permission to be creative, and through this creative thought, to construct innovative solutions to the challenges we faced before, as well as the ones that will surely follow. Here a some critical topics for my readers to ponder that I will be writing about in the coming weeks. Consider these:

  • What should be the purpose of school in our new normal?

  • How might we reconfigure our use of instructional time in our new normal?

  • Should our new normal include “seat time?”

  • What should assessment of learning look like in our new normal?

  • Should the role of teachers change in our new normal?

  • What lessons have been learned during our current experience that should inform practices and decisions in our new normal?

Think of this time as a “reset” button, a time to prepare for a collective shift from surviving to thriving, a time where the overarching question must be “what is the education kids deserve and how do we make sure they receive it?”

Think big. Be creative.

Stay safe.

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