School and country inform each other

This post was originally shared in an email on January 15, 2021. If you would like to receive my next email update, you can sign up here.

School and country inform each other. Events in our country affect our schools and events in our schools shape our country. Therefore, as I reflect on the events at the Capitol last week, I have been thinking about the ways education may be part of both the cause and the solution.

A colleague described the events at the Capitol to me and my team as “a failing of civics instruction and social-emotional education” and reminded us that “everyone who participated was once a fifth grader.” We can look back at our school experience with gratitude for what it taught us and affection for the people who taught us but also acknowledgment of where it fell short.

As I have reflected on my own education this week, I have thought about how the topic of race was addressed or avoided — the way the atrocities of the Middle Passage were skimmed over; the utter lack of authors of color in the literary canon presented to me; and the difficulty with which many of my teachers, classmates, and I used terms describing race. I’ve thought about the note-catchers I filled in about how an idea became a law and how often I was told I have a voice in my government, but how little I actually understood about the forces that influenced change or even how change was made in my own public school. I’ve remembered how nothing in my education prepared me to experience feelings of hopelessness about the government when the candidate I spent a summer campaigning for lost. I’ve remembered the first time I read a text with an unreliable narrator (Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” — anyone else?) and how shocking I found the experience. And I’ve been thinking about the lessons I was taught on the difference between truth and fiction and the “true/false” questions I learned to answer with ease, and how much more complicated it is to make sense of the news every day.

A generation of citizens will be shaped by how we talk about the events at the Capitol last week and the role race played in leading up to them and in the moment. I am working through how to talk to my young children and have a great deal of empathy for teachers facing classes full of questions. The school and system leaders I talked to this week offered a range of responses when we discussed addressing and processing the events of the Capitol with students and staff. Among social studies teachers, sharing resources seemed like a common starting place. Some principals were making space for conversations with staff to process personally before they had to process with children. Many leaders felt like they had not processed the events themselves and couldn’t imagine finding the time and space to do so given the daily complexity of their job compounded by the needs of their communities during COVID.

The politics of every community led to different feelings of risk in broaching the conversation. Everyone felt and saw the need to talk about it — within a school community and with their own children — but the path towards doing so felt confusing and unclear.

Preparing children for a rapidly changing world is a very hard job. My teachers couldn’t have prepared me to navigate social media at a time when none of us had even heard of the internet.

The current class of kindergarten students will graduate high school in 2033; while we may not know what the world of 2033 will look like, I do wonder what values and essential skills we know will continue to be needed and tested. Surely, on this, we can find some common ground. For example:

  • The importance of seeking out the truth and valuing evidence in confirming truth
  • How to develop and test hypotheses
  • Understanding there are many possible paths to solutions
  • How multiple things can be in tension but still true at the same time
  • How to disagree productively in community
  • The value of perseverance

The year ahead will have no shortage of challenges that give us the opportunity to model these values and skills through the way we make decisions in schools:

  • How we navigate the politics of vaccines in schools
  • How we decide whether students should be promoted or retained
  • How funding is allocated and who has a voice in that decision
  • How we show up for each other every day during hard times

May we keep at the work.

Here are some resources I found helpful this week:

  • Education Week shared a beginning list of resources from experts, practicing educators, and national organizations to help generate dialogue and develop comprehensive teaching units in response to the events of last week.
  • This resource from Facing History and Ourselves was designed to help guide an initial classroom reflection.
  • This guide from Teaching Tolerance is designed for educators working to build their own competency facilitating classroom conversations about critical topics like discrimination and inequality.
  • The Opportunity Scholarship is almost too good to be true. Applications are due in three weeks — spread the word.