This post was originally shared in an email on October 9, 2020. If you would like to receive my next email update, you can sign up here.
Tuesday is my least favorite day of the week — the Germans call it Dienstag, “duty day.” In the arc of the school year, October feels like one long Tuesday. The freshness of the year has dulled, we have a long tunnel ahead, the to-do list and goals seem impossible, and we have not yet seen the progress and accomplishment that warms our educator hearts.
This year the usual October education stress is compounded by health and economic hardship, decision fatigue, political strife, unending childcare, and worry and heartache for students who are struggling.
The New Yorker recently published a powerful article about the students left behind by remote learning. The piece centered around the story of 12-year-old Shemar from East Baltimore. I fell in love with Shemar through the page. Alec MacGillis, the author, documents the forces that make it hard to serve Shemar well, including the dynamics around the virus, the legacy of systemic racism, school budget challenges, the difficulties of adapting to technology, and our own collective desire to “protect” children.
I found Shemar’s story a portrait of urgent challenge. Like so many of the conversations I am having with school system leaders, this article left me daunted and drained by the forces at play. It is tempting to default to “survival mode” and “just get through this chapter” thinking.
But, of course, that won’t do any good for Shemar. If we just try to survive the year, we will, at best, return to a hobbled “old normal.” Our most at-risk students are the very ones the “old normal” was already failing. As our colleague Dr. Phelton “Cortez” Moss wrote in a great article this week: “If we truly desire to improve outcomes for all students — including Black students, we must leverage this opportunity to get Black kids to goal rather than return to normal.” Shemar’s story and this moment call us to rethink solutions to the challenges we have always needed to face.
So, how do we move past surviving and find responses that match the scope of the challenge? The truth is, I don’t know. But like all educators, I signed up to this work to serve and that calls for more than business as usual. Here are the principles motivating the leaders that I see moving:
- Improve where possible. While the sum of the challenges Shemar faces reflect profound systemic problems, as I read his story there is clearly room to problem-solve for logistics. For example, “how do we make it easier for Shemar to have access to his Zoom links?” It isn’t nearly enough, but making next week better than this week would still be progress.
- Look for solutions over time. We work in the construct of school years but matching the depth of the challenge will require time. Shemar may only have one year in sixth grade but the answers he needs are not only going to come this year. I see questions like “How do we help students recover across the next three years” unlocking bolder ideas than “What can we do this school year?”
- Commit to the goal. Promises are powerful — what promises can we as educators make to students and families? For our young learners, we promise, “By the end of elementary school, you will be caught up.” For Shemar, we promise, “By the end of high school, you will be ready.” We may not yet know how we will do it, but we can promise to keep on watching our students’ progress and supporting them until we reach the goal.
- Enlist the village. I was heartened and inspired by the village of people that love Shemar, including the author. Learning can’t happen, progress can’t happen, change can’t happen unless we acknowledge that we’re in this together.
My bishop often says, “Don’t let yourself get weary.” Yes, it is October. Yes, we’ve got a long road ahead. But we will find answers if we have the courage to keep facing how much is on the line, keep solving problems, and stay in it together until we reach the goal.
Here are some of the resources I have learned from this week:
- The Aspen Institute and The Center for Assessment released Special Considerations for Assessing and Advancing Equity, a critical read for all policymakers thinking about assessment.
- EdChoice released fascinating September polling data on parents’ thoughts about virtual learning, in-person classes, and homeschooling.
- The Child Mind Institute released solid strategies for how teachers can support students’ mental health during COVID.
- Fordham Institute released a report on social studies instruction and reading comprehension: “What America needs to do if it is serious about wanting kids to become better readers . . . Instead of devoting more class time to English language arts (ELA), we should be teaching elementary school children more social studies.”