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Lofty Suggestions From the Other Side of the Screen

I am not generally a complainer. If I see a problem, I immediately want to solve it or find a better way. Remote learning has been taxing for me mentally and emotionally because I am constantly wondering what I could/would do differently or better if I were on the other side of the screen. It’s a limited view, because I can only see through my own lens, but it gets wider every time I talk to a teacher, parent, or educator willing to share a small piece of the puzzle. In that spirit, I humbly share the following lofty suggestions.

Lofty Suggestion 1: Plan from what matters most.

There’s a reason the phrase “Maslow before Bloom” was on the verge of overuse in education, even before COVID-19. We must not only acknowledge the importance of basic needs before academics, we must also prioritize and plan from this understanding. I’d argue the continuum of need in remote learning/hybrid learning and safe return to school should look something like this in terms of priority:

What does it look like to create a plan and daily schedule using this continuum of priorities? It may mean restructuring the schedule significantly to ensure all students have an optimal chance of meeting their basic needs first.

I could also mean changing the lens from which we plan. For example, students overwhelmingly expressed the benefit of starting high school at a later time of day. Many districts are shifting the schedule back to the traditional early start because of other factors like transportation. What if instead we said, "Sleep is important. If children are tired, they cannot learn." We heard them say they learned better when they started later. How can we reframe our thinking about transportation to accommodate this need?

Finally, it means scrapping (then redesigning) any element of the plan or schedule that actively impedes students meeting their basic needs. If they are not getting enough hydration or movement, it is imperative that we redesign. We owe this to children and their families.

This thinking process could and should continue through the other elements. If we are going to engage in live instruction, it should first be focused on care and support and guaranteeing that kids feel safe and loved by their school and teachers. Anything that threatens this sense of care and support should be scrapped, then redesigned. The activities we design should invite curiosity, interest and action so kids understand why we learn and what that learning should look like. Anything that contradicts this message should be scrapped, then redesigned.

I fear that schools started where they are most comfortable, expert, and in control: academic skills. Yes, the explicit purpose of public schooling is to teach, but the calculus has changed and educators must take responsibility for how that change reframes their purpose. Most great teachers and leaders know this, yet our system actively prevents it. I suggest we refuse to allow that to continue to happen, now and in the future.

Start here: Say to families, We care about your children and their needs. Please make basic needs a priority. If you must make exceptions to our learning plan based on basic needs, please know our answer is always “Yes, of course, we understand and support you.”

Lofty Suggestion 2: Stop comparing to what might have or would have been and optimize our current situation.

What is good about our current learning environments? What matters most in each setting? What do people need? What new opportunities have presented themselves? What can be better now because of this disruption?

I believe the time is over due for a deep re-evaluation of what matters most in learning. Students and families are demanding flexibility and choice. What might it look like to provide that in this environment and what can we learn from it?

It starts with listening. We need to talk to each other more and spend less time policing or creating rules. We need to consider which classes and content are ideal for online environments, determine who is great at delivering those classes and content, and let that continue for some forever. We need to provide a balance of schedule and live instruction (for those who prefer it) and flexibility and permission (for those who need or want it). We cannot allow the system to swallow up the needs and hopes of the people the system is designed for until the system meets the needs of no one and we fight to maintain it anyway.

Start here: Create a pro/con list of courses that can be taught well in a virtual environment. Courses with a long list of cons and short list of pros, such as electives that can be taught safely, should be priority for in-person learning for secondary students. Consider offering permanent online courses for teachers and students who need or want to learn online for part of the day.

Lofty Suggestion 3: Respect and protect teacher planning time as much as instructional time.

When teachers have time to thoughtfully plan, their lessons are more effective, students learn more in less time and the overall quality of the learning experience improves. At the same time, students need more breaks. This should be an absolute no-brainer. True fact: we consider “planning time” inferior to time teaching. It’s time to put an end to that. What if we allowed an equal amount of planning time to instructional time in every teacher’s schedule? This may mean a shorter day for students, but the quality of the time they do spend would be significantly better.

This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. What if we divided up the most critical content and skills among the most capable teachers and paid them to create absolutely dynamite, universally applicable lessons as our Tier 1 instruction? We could create a bank that could be flexibly accessed. Students needing structure could be provided with sample schedules.

We could create a school day where mornings are exclusively for live instruction, focused on building relationships, offering electives that require a hands-on component, and providing remediation, enrichment or 1:1 support. Afternoons could be reserved for planning time for teachers while students complete recommended asynchronous activities that are masterful because the people who created them had the time, energy and passion to develop them properly.

Start here: Allow at least one teacher on each grade level to opt into a half-day schedule and let families volunteer to choose this option. Ask teachers to produce and share one high-quality asynchronous lesson per week, then share across the district. Create a structured but flexible schedule for families to follow in the afternoon when the students return home and spend mornings building relationships and independence so afternoon schedules can be followed with minimal parental supervision.

Lofty Suggestion 4: Evaluate and explicitly communicate what schools are responsible for and what society is responsible for.

I was strangely disappointed through the spring and into this fall by the “We got this!” message from schools. Districts scrambled to provide daycare for children of first responders, serve meals, check in on children with health conditions, and hold the weight of their entire regional economy in their hands as they made decisions.

For far too long, schools have been de facto childcare spaces, health clinics, mental health facilities, food distribution centers. Let me be clear: these services are sorely needed and the distribution of these services is tragically unequal. I just don’t think schools have the resources or public support (financially or otherwise) to change this.

The problem is, the more schools do take responsibility for these problems, the more they claim them. If they claim them, they can be blamed when the problems are not solved.

If schools are the primary source of childcare, we should be providing better childcare. If schools are the primary source of healthcare, we should be providing better healthcare. If we cannot, perhaps we must stop taking responsibility for those problems and punt them to other agencies. Perhaps we should become advocates for those services and their equal distribution, rather than attempting to provide them.

Defund our schools is certainly not a phrase I expect to be popular, but what might it look like to outsource those services so schools can truly focus on educating children?

Start here: Create a community-wide “Schools are for…” survey to identify community priorities for what schools can and should provide. Survey parents, caregivers, teachers, students, administrators, government officials, business owners - everyone. Report results by groups and host a community conversation about consensus and discrepancy. Then design some small facet of the complexity of opening schools in the COVID era focusing on the highest ranked items at the expense of the lowest ranked items. Invite city government and local nonprofits to assist with the lower ranked items.

At a time when so many are craving a “return to normal,” it's past time for radical redesign. Let’s begin that redesign while it’s still our choice.


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