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Returning to New


The current unsettled circumstances began mid-March, a mere six months ago. I can’t be alone in feeling like it’s been closer to six years, while simultaneously losing all sense of time. And if one crisis were not enough, we face four (but, who’s counting.) A global health crisis, economic collapse, societal unrest amid pleas for social justice and unprecedented and choking wild fires across much of the western United States. It is a lot to keep up with intellectually and the combination of these catastrophic events is extremely difficult to deal with emotionally and psychologically. As the days creep on, and the news keeps getting worse, we find ourselves quietly wondering, sometimes not so quietly, how long can this go on? When will it all end?

In the early days, weeks, months of our collective experience, we found comfort in the hope, and assurances from some sources, that this would all be over soon. With a little patience and a degree of discipline, the pandemic would quickly be a thing of the past. By simply hanging on, things would soon get back to normal. Yet, here we are, still in the midst of the fog, and none of these predictions have proven to be accurate. There’s no end in sight, so “soon” was a false notion. The discipline required to confront the beast has been applied inconsistently and has morphed into a political football. You’ve probably noticed that people ran out of patience months ago. No, things did not return to normal. Not yet.


Here’s the unbridled reality. Things will never return to what we deem “normal.” The simple truth is that what we know as “normal” is gone. Permanently. We, all of us, young, old, hefty, skinny, conservative, moderate or liberal: all of us have been changed by our common experience. We interact differently. We calculate our actions differently. Our routines have been commandeered. I believe that when we see the light at the end of this very long tunnel, and we will, we will experience a vastly different reality, one that will impact every facet of our society.


And, do you know what? That’s a good thing. Think about this. Prior to March 2020, were things perfect? Were we experiencing a just and fair system of governance? Did social equity prevail? Were we unafraid and free from opposing interests that challenged our values? Did our nation’s children, all of them, attend high quality schools? The answer is clearly no, no, no, no and no. So, really we have no loss to mourn, given that we cannot return to the way things used to be. The only true loss we all share is the demise of what’s familiar. Even though what was familiar was not necessarily that great, it was what we knew and we like familiarity.

Remember: great innovations, discoveries, scientific breakthroughs or other accomplishments that rattled the attention of the world were never products of familiarity. So, rather than clinging to what we may perceive that we have lost, we must accept that our circumstances require a forward movement, focused on new directions. We cannot, and must not, aspire to return to normal. Our challenge is returning to new.


I think about our school aged children every day. (How could I avoid it after serving them and their families over a thirty-five year career.) I think about how they are coping with the four crises mentioned previously. I know they worry about these things. And many of the kids I know would be passionate about achieving racial and social justice, and tackling the suicidal practices humans have ravaged on our planet. I think about how the predictability and normalcy of their educational experience was wrest from them when we saw that the current pandemic was a bigger foe than originally thought. I think about the class of 2020: no prom, no graduation, no traditional rights of passage. And, I wonder what kids are expecting as they anticipate a physical return to classrooms. Are they imagining a return to what they knew? I fear they are. But, in doing so, they underestimate their needs and their potential. We owe them something else: something different, an experience that accurately reflects a changed society.

I continue to plead with educators to look beyond what is familiar. I continue to make the case that a passive and receptive experience pales to the opportunity for an active, engaged and relevant learning model. Three years ago, as I began this campaign that I title The Education Kids Deserve. I based my recommendations on my professional experience and the philosophical premise of doing what’s right because it is the right thing to do. That priority persists, supported by the recent circumstances of our collective experience that cannot be ignored. By all measures, effective instruction toward a truly relevant educational experience must make some deliberate and corrective actions. It’s what kids deserve.


Back in the day, let’s label it the early 1990’s, integrated-thematic learning was a strategy du-jour. This movement suggested that helping students to find meaningful connections between, and among, seemingly disparate areas of study was superior to offering instruction via a traditional content-specific perspective. I embraced this concept readily, and experienced many situations where the application of this approach not only supported the mandated content directives of the local district or state, but also enhanced student engagement while enriching the conceptual understanding and appreciation of key concepts by students. (Talk about a win-win!) This became an influential component of my educational leadership arsenal. The results were truly beautiful to behold. I recall the application of a school-wide theme that embraced a specific movement within American history. All disciplines found areas of application to support this theme that culminated in an all-school field trip to our local art museum that was featuring the leading artistic efforts of this period. It was a rich experience. (I also ruined a pair of Italian loafers coordinating the safe and accountable transport of 575 students, round-trip, in the rain.) I also remember a very simple, yet poignant and dynamic theme of “Water.” One can easily imagine the discovered possibilities for intellectual and artistic representations of a theme so broad, and so provocative. After all, water is the essence of human existence.

I’ll readily admit that a school wide theme was not always an annual component of our instructional efforts. At times, we were distracted by some shiny object or another. More often our thematic interest would be countermanded by the needs or expectations of external decision makers. It’s also a lot of work. The successful execution of a thematic approach requires time for collaborative planning. More importantly, it requires a commitment for the teaching staff to see it through. In years where we experienced political and financial strife, this commitment would be less attainable. But, when we could, and when we did, the results were well worth the effort.


I can easily imagine some incredible instructional themes that reflect our current societal dynamics: the very things that kids may be concerned about or interested in. Consider these:

  • Persistence/Grit: How do civilizations manage and overcome threatening challenges that might otherwise derail them, allowing them to experience forward movement and development? Have pandemics ever offered positive results? Is change a function of initiative or survival?