In our professional lives, there comes a time when you recognize and embrace that it is time for change. You suppress emotional attachments, perhaps toss aside your ego and surrender to the wisdom of your inner voice.
That inner voice surfaced for me about a year ago when I informed the Trustees of The Rowland Foundation that this would be my last year as the Executive Director of the Foundation I conceived back in 2008. I remember that day quite well. After 28 years, I was in my final month of being a school principal. I was uncertain as to what I might do next or what lay ahead. I had been reflecting on my career and the school I had come to love, and then sitting in my office one May morning, it came to me! I reminded myself that many great ideas had come out of that very office, often because a teacher simply walked in. Yet the challenge was always the same…where will the teacher find the time and the resources to pursue the initiative? Over the next several weeks, I thought about the issue and as the idea took shape, I approached Barry and Wendy Rowland to fund a foundation that supported visionary Vermont teachers who, in partnership with their principals, wanted to dream big. The Rowlands jumped at the idea and three weeks later in July 2008 The Rowland Foundation was born!
Never could I have imagined back then that The Rowland Foundation would have such a profound impact on Vermont schools… that we would have 90 Fellows, many now in leadership positions changing the educational landscape in our state… that we would have provided nearly $7M in grants to 40 deserving schools… or that we would proudly host one of Vermont’s most widely attended annual conferences anchored with internationally known keynote speakers. Hopefully that will be the case again this fall! Nor could I have anticipated that the past 13 years would become the professional highlight of my more than 40 years in education, first as a teacher and later as a school principal. In each of these positions, I knew when it was time to move on to a new challenge. That moment has come again. As George Harrison once said, “All Things Must Pass.”
After serving in any leadership position, it is human nature to wonder who will carry the legacy forward, be true to the organization’s mission or, in this case, serve as the steward of the generous philanthropy of the late Barry and Wendy Rowland. I am pleased that the Board of Trustees has unanimously approved Michael Martin as the next Executive Director of the Rowland Foundation, effective July 1, 2021. I could not be more thrilled by this appointment. Mike is a dear friend and a well known and highly regarded voice in Vermont education.
Mike has a clear vision, capable hands, and a big heart. Back in 2009, he was a member of our very first cohort when he was a teacher at Champlain Valley Union High School. As one of our two Senior Rowland Associates, Mike has worked closely with me over the past decade guiding our Fellows, planning retreats and our annual conference and facilitating long range planning efforts. With his doctorate in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies and his work as a curriculum director in Montpelier and South Burlington, Mike also brings scholarship and experience to this new role. Mike is a strong writer, seasoned presenter, and early adopter of innovation—all skills that will serve him well as our next Executive Director. He is ideally well suited to guide The Rowland Foundation into the future. And there is still plenty of work to be done!
In closing I want to acknowledge and thank our Rowland Fellows for their visionary work, their passion and their commitment to make our schools better. They are dear friends, and there are no words to describe how much I will miss them.
In this moment, as we come through the pandemic, there has been a great deal of discussion in the press about how students are falling behind. While Vermont students in most cases have lost instructional time, the popular idea that students are “falling behind” is problematic. I would like to take this opportunity to openly challenge this deficit-based narrative which is simplistic, unhelpful, and potentially harmful, to our students and schools.
A Discourse of Failure
We have been here before. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was predicated on the need to close the achievement gap, as defined by standardized test results in Math and English Language Arts. The unlikely allies that helped pass this reauthorization of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act used the language of failure to pursue diametrically opposed goals: some hoped for a greatly expanded federal role in education; others hoped that strict accountability measures would close many public schools and expand school choice. In the end, NCLB and its policy language of “failing schools”, “unsafe school choice option”, “subgroups”, and “supersubgroups” did not significantly improve results for students.
However, this discourse of failure did lead to a widespread misconception that students of color were somehow irredeemable, while steadfastly ignoring the opportunity gap posed by the glaring inequality of school funding across districts—and even within districts, oftentimes those with charter schools and magnet programs that select for certain types of students. Twenty years later, we know that the major increases in federal grants to pay for tutoring, extended school day, and extended school year strategies did not significantly change outcomes for “at-risk” students. It is clear now that this discourse of failure has helped students little, even as it has led to the systematic and widespread pathologization of students. An enduring legacy of NCLB is that many of our students are over-assessed, over-labeled, and too often separated from their peers for a range of interventions of varying efficacy. It is important to note that these practices disproportionately impact our students of color and serve to perpetuate systemic racism in our schools.
What follows is a list of core beliefs that I would like to offer here in opposition to the current discourse of failure around our students “falling behind”. I have also highlighted several opportunities that present themselves in this moment. It is my sincere hope that policymakers will take the present moment as an opportunity to rethink and redesign learning opportunities for all students, instead of advancing old strategies that have proven ineffective in the past.
As it relates to the current discourse about recovery for students “falling behind”, returning to core beliefs can help us critically examine underlying assumptions about educational “recovery”:
Statewide testing gives us a narrow view of student success. Statewide testing is limited to a few disciplines in certain grades, and even then does not give a full picture of a student’s ability. For example, a statewide ELA assessment does not assess all of the skills that we associate with proficiency in literacy. More importantly, our statewide tests, screeners, and diagnostic tools are admittedly imperfect in the way that they are administered to students. Therefore, we need to carefully qualify the claims that we make from these results, instead of over-extrapolating. In short, to serve our students well, we must not reduce them to lexiles and quintiles. Our students are always more than the deficits that we have assigned to them.
The idea of “behind” is a social construct. Our students are not physically behind anything or anyone. This is a mental model, like the “achievement gap”, which is predicated on a linear-sequential conception of learning that is better at picking winners and losers than serving all students. This paradigm of students being “ahead” or “behind” effectively places them in a race through the curriculum. This curriculum race is racialized, and it extends achievement ideology down to our lowest grades and youngest learners. It is important to note that this supposedly neutral competition by which we identify merit in school takes place in educational systems almost exclusively created and operated by white educators. Before we label and sort students on the basis of being “behind”, we need to critically examine the implicit bias of our curriculum and school practices.
The “falling behind” narrative ignores what students have learned during the pandemic. For many students, hybrid learning has led to improved executive function, collaboration, and technology skills—out of necessity. Other students have benefited from having more time to learn from their parents, siblings, or grandparents during this period of disrupted school schedules and working from home. Despite the demands of online learning, some students have actually had more time than usual to learn outdoors, and others have taken on new responsibilities, whether at home or at new jobs. The idea that our students have not continued to learn important skills during this crisis—including through adversity—is not only inaccurate, it is harmful. We do a disservice to our students when we describe them as a generation that was somehow lost to the pandemic.
Deficit-based thinking leads us to dwell on deficits and ignore potential. Researchers know confirmation bias as the phenomenon whereby we tend to find what we expect to find. If we apply a “recovery” mindset to the current situation, we are much more likely to find student deficits because that’s what we expect to find. This deficit-based approach will require educators to catalogue student needs, and then apply the same intervention and remediation strategies that have had so little impact in the past. Instead, we need to identify new opportunities to redesign school curriculum, schedules, and practices, rather than search for our students’ deficits, just to apply remedies that failed to work in the past. In short, we need to address the shortcomings of our school systems through redesign, instead of locating the blame with individual students, families, and “subgroups”.
Winston Churchill’s “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” may be a more useful idea for equity-oriented policymakers and educators in this moment. Amongst others, the following new opportunities have emerged from the current crisis.
Transferable skills are the core of a rigorous and well-rounded education. During this crisis we have seen where transferable skills served students well in moments when teachers were unable to deliver traditional instructional techniques and familiar learning activities from the front of the classroom. Where students had already received direct instruction and feedback on their problem-solving, self-regulation, and collaboration skills, they were able to adapt more easily to new learning situations and routines. Transferable skills help students connect learning across disciplines and across years of school. Transferable skills also help students connect school to learning that takes place outside of school, and in so doing, increase relevance for students. Finally, transferable skills are often the “hidden skills” of the curriculum, namely, the skills we expect of students, but don’t explicitly teach and assess.
Teachers have been learning new skills too. The hybrid and online learning necessitated by the pandemic accelerated teachers’ professional learning in the area of technology, and also brought about new approaches to collaboration, flipped classroom techniques, and asynchronous learning strategies. As in all moments of change, these innovations are spread unevenly across different classrooms and schools, however, the pandemic has brought about a sea change in many teachers’ instructional strategies, and has brought many educators back to the importance of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in order to keep all students engaged.
White educators’ reckoning with racism demands school redesign. In this moment, white educators have an obligation to check in with our students and families of color to ask them what we need to change to make our schools culturally relevant. This would be a break from the usual practice of presuming to know what students need, and then subjecting them to predetermined remedies. In this moment, we have a unique opportunity to pause and ask our students of color what they need from us so they can show up authentically in school. Put simply, we need to ask our students how school could be more engaging, instead of blaming them for disengaging. This would be a break from past inclusion strategies that aim to assimilate students into a white-centered curriculum, and then find fault with them when it doesn’t work.
Schools must take into account our students’ autonomy and resilience. Our students have been living very different lives during the pandemic, and while their desire to return to school has been palpable, it would be foolish to think that they want to return to business as usual. Through adversity and new lived experiences, our students have learned autonomy, flexibility, and resilience. We must redesign the school day accordingly. It is unlikely that our students will be interested in sitting quietly and listening to lessons for hours on end each day. It is also unlikely that students will want to give back all of the autonomy they experienced through asynchronous learning. We need to redesign learning activities, and expand dimensions of learner voice and choice, so that our students experience agency and take ownership of their learning when they return to school full time.
We need to redefine community in school. “We’re all in this together,” has been a mantra repeated throughout the current crisis, and our interconnectedness and need for community is more obvious than ever. This leads us to reevaluate how we foster community in school. Many schools are turning to restorative practice as a way to strengthen a community ethos and ensure that all voices are heard. Other schools are redesigning their teacher advisory programs or encouraging collaborative practice techniques in the classroom. Above all, schools must critically examine structures that promote academic competition between students, even as we ask students to collaborate and support each other in their learning. Finally, we need to recognize that our parent and family engagement practices serve some of our families much more than others. It is our responsibility to redesign our curriculum nights, parent-teacher conferences, school celebrations, and parent-teacher organizations so that there is representation from the entire school community.
Redesign, Not “Recovery”
To be clear, school leaders are grateful for the significant support coming to schools through ESSER funds and other means. Here in Vermont, we are also heartened to see that the Agency of Education’s (AOE) Education Recovery Memo #1 (Feb. 26, 2021) identifies the following three focus areas for district Education Recovery Plans:
socioemotional functioning, mental health & well-being
academic achievement & success
Educators know from the research and professional experience that academic achievement is only possible when the first two factors of this list have been addressed. I am glad to see the AOE take a whole-child approach in providing these guidelines. Also, I am not opposed to tutoring, extended school day, or extended school year programs, I simply believe they are not the whole answer.
I also recognize the urgency conveyed in “rescue” and “recovery” plans. However, even if unintended, the term “recovery” implies coming back from loss, as in recovering one’s health, which contributes to the current deficit-based narrative about schools and students. There is simply no way for us to get back the lost instructional time of the past year, or for us to “re-cover” our usual units or lessons, and so attempts to “catch kids up” are destined to fail. If we are serious about our students’ social emotional skills and wellbeing, we will need to focus instead on the social belonging and engagement that comes from successful in-person learning communities. This doesn’t mean building back what we had, but rather redefining what we mean by “fostering community” in school.
In this moment, we do not need more remediation for students, but rather high-quality, universally designed reteaching. Instead of trying to “cover” each topic that classes didn’t get to last year, we need to redesign curriculum to have clear, high-leverage concepts that allow students multiple ways to show proficiency. Instead of narrowing the curriculum in response to statewide test scores, we need to engage students with rich, rigorous, and well-rounded learning experiences. Instead of pathologizing students by sorting and labeling them according to perceived deficits, we should be positively engaging them in ways that convey our belief in human potential and hidden talents. Instead of presuming to know how to fix kids, we should ask our students and families to co-design school with educators for a new normal that is better than the old one.
When we think of the different meanings of “recover”—to regain what was lost, to cover instructional material again, or to return to normal—they all lead us towards remediation instead of redesign. Let’s not give our students more of what they like least about school; let’s ask our students to help us redesign school.
We have before us an incredible opportunity. Instead of thinking in terms of recovery, let’s take this opportunity to reexamine, rethink, and redesign school to better serve all learners.
Saying these are challenging times is an understatement. We all have had many times of struggle for various reasons in our lives. Educators are facing what is sure to become one of the most challenging school years in history. No matter how hard we try and how much we collaborate, we will never completely agree on the best steps to take for all children, staff, and families for this school year.
Everyone wants what is best for students and everyone is working the best they can to plan for success for all. It is hard work. The work often is overwhelming and when you feel you are getting ahead, you then get set back at times. We must believe in the good of others. We must remember that everyone has their own struggles that they will bring to their work. Fears about the virus, concerns about childcare, a need for normalcy, a desire to make sure you are doing what is best for yourself, your family, and all those you interact with daily.
We must remember during these unsettling times, the importance of kindness. Be kind to yourself and be kind to others.
Be Kind to Yourself
Self-care is vital and will continue to be so. As the waters will likely roughen, we must all remember that if we are not taken care of, we cannot care of others. Be mindful of your own needs. We all have differing ways we focus on self-care. For me, I find time with my family is what I need. Time to go on a “family adventure” and occasionally time to escape my reality with a good show or movie. Some people prefer to be outside enjoying nature, others shopping, and some in other ways. Make time for yourself, for self-care. Wellness programs have been amped up in some places recently and for a few years now. Take advantage of them. Educators in Vermont have access to many resources to assist with checking your own self care. Invest EAP offers many free resources on their website (https://www.investeap.org/) or through a simple and free call. These resources are available to individuals and family members. If you haven’t done so already check out Stacey Shortle’s August 3 Rowland Blog, Find Your Green which discusses the need for self care to be able to assist others.
Be Kind to Others
We all have struggles and stressors that we may or may not wear for others to see. Some are experiencing significant oppression, inequities, loss, or financial strain. Some of us have more minor stressors but still things that impact us. These things get seen in various ways if at all. Always remember the golden rule, “do unto others as you would want them to do unto you”. In that moment of stress, take a deep breath. Remember to smile at others. Do a kind deed. Help someone. Give. Volunteer. Stand up for an injustice.
One kind deed can turn someone’s day around, it may even turn their life in a new direction. Spread kindness above everything. We are all in this together. We must remember to always Choose Kind.
The unprecedented pandemic event that forced educators and students to transform the classroom to an online learning platform within days took a toll on all of us. As we greet the official end of the 2019-2020 school year, many of us are looking ahead to see how to best prepare to support our students when we reconvene in the fall-however that may look. We’re educators. That’s what we do.
Between July 1 and the start of the 2020-2021 school year, I encourage everyone to take some time to find his or her “green”. What is this, one might ask?
The “green” is the state in Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory that I have begun to look more closely at as part of my 2020-2021 Rowland Fellowship. Porges’s work has been referenced in several of the professional development activities I have engaged in over the past few months. It’s the missing link, for me, in terms of understanding the physiological impact of trauma on student learning and behavior, and as well, the impact of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma on educators. In the simplest of terms, the Polyvagal Theory refers to a person’s fight, flight or freeze response in which the “green” represents a state of calmness, groundedness, clarity, curiosity, compassion and mindfulness. In the “green” state, we are fully attentive and “in the zone” as educators and as students. In the “green state”, our frontal lobes are fully engaged so that we may teach and learn.
During the pandemic, many of-and likely all of us I would argue, drifted further into the “yellow” state, which activated our fight or flight response and challenged our capacity to tap into our frontal lobe ability as we had been so used to doing on a daily basis pre-pandemic. Tasked with converting our physical classrooms into an online format, delivering the rest of our curriculum to students, and keeping our students engaged, oh-all while many of us were trying to manage educating our own children in our homes, dealing with illness in family members, loss of jobs, and a loss of our sense of normalcy, COVID-19 triggered our stress response in ways that we may have never experienced. Referred to as the collective crisis, our “yellow” was manifested through fear, anxiety, rage, frustration, anger, and pure exhaustion. Oh the sheer exhaustion… This pandemic has challenged all of us to a degree that likely none of us as educators have ever seen in our lifetime, and one that I hope none of us will ever see again. Porges argues that most healthy adults fluctuate between “green” and “yellow” on a regular basis, but that during this crisis, many educators may have experienced a heightened state of “yellow” for the reasons stated above. It’s hard to engage our students in learning when we, ourselves, are “yellow”.
Now that the immediate stress of this herculean task is behind us, we need to take time to take care of ourselves before we can begin to tap into our higher order cognitive skills to transform our educational practices as we enter the 2020-2021 school year. To indulge in the self-care we so desperately need to get us back to that state of calm and mindfulness-to the state of creative thinking and innovation. Problem solving and trauma informed pedagogy.
Take these precious summer months to find your “green”-to practice self-care-whatever that may look like for each of us. We need to do this. We deserve this. Our students need this. After all, they’ll be waiting for us to pull them from the “yellow” to the “green” when we get back to school in the fall.
Here’s to a Safe, Green Summer, Everyone.
Find Your Green
Stacy Shortle is a 2020Rowland Fellow and School Psychologist at Rutland High School. Her fellowship work focuses on transforming Rutland High School into a Trauma Informed School
Recently, a couple of things happened that made me reflect even more deeply on the state of dialogue in our world. A community member who I have publicly and respectfully disagreed with on Facebook unfriended me. Normally, this wouldn’t feel like such a big deal, but today it makes me wonder; we haven’t even exchanged words on a post for the past several weeks. So, the timing feels off. Then, I happened to be having a conversation with a family member who said he was looking forward to a conversation about the 2nd Amendment hosted by a local business that has been involved with organizing a vigil in memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmed Arbery. The Zoom meeting was scheduled because community members were upset that the business owners asked people, particularly white people, not to bring firearms to an upcoming protest out of deference for the feelings of those who have had traumatic experiences with guns or who find them frightening. I was so proud of them for hosting this conversation. Yet, I know that people decided not to even ask to attend because they couldn’t imagine that they would be heard, they simply chose not to engage, making the conversation less rich and meaningful for those who did participate. I am so disappointed by these missed opportunities and I am tired – so tired I can’t imagine how hard this time is for people of color, how exhausted they must feel from sharing and carrying too much of the weight of educating people who need to do the work for themselves.
It has made me think deeply about the need to help people sit with the discomfort of hard conversations. How do we teach people to do that? How can young people learn these lessons before they become adults so steadfastly resolved to their own points of view that they are uneducable about other people’s experiences? My own son, at 17 avoids hard conversations and I always find myself striking a balance between respecting his boundaries and pushing him to stay with it just a little longer. Yet, I believe that hard conversations and relationships are the only things that can save us.
Since my colleague Angela and I engaged in our Rowland Fellowship and helped our school transform our Advisory model I have come to believe even more strongly that care, empathy, and dialogue are critical in any community setting and our schools are the communities that educators work in most. Daily practice, whether it’s sitting in circles in Advisory, Socratic Seminars in classes, and being exposed to differing perspectives in writing and in our communities helps our students to be more engaged learners who can explore the ways in which they will use their own voices to make an impact in our world. This is not glamorous, quick fix, education work; this is a day to day grind, and it is often not easy, but it can be done.
Advisory is an important cornerstone of our work at RU. Not only is this the place where students connect with an adult who is the liaison between school and family for several years, but it is also a place where the skills of empathy, listening to hear another person’s experiences rather to respond, and being heard are practiced. We worked closely with the Restorative Justice Center at Suffolk University to determine the best ways to lay a foundation for our community through Advisory. We learned about them after a visit to the Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter and Public School in Adams, MA. The school had recently implemented an Advisory model and was seeing its impact throughout the building. 8 staff members from Randolph Union visited and witnessed conversations that we wanted our own students to be able to have. Regardless of who their advisor was they were having authentic, sometimes emotional conversations, about grades, family struggles, and their own experiences. Not only were they willing to have these conversations with their classmates, but with total strangers from Vermont in the room. Angela had worked with John Kidde and been exposed to Circle Forward in a restorative justice setting, so we decided to make this the cornerstone of our work.
Part of my work as Advisory Coordinator has been to work with Advisory groups when they struggle. Two years ago a student violated the schools norms related to respect. Using racially charged language he told a “joke.” When it angered his classmates and Advisory mates he suggested one of them should kill themselves. Although the Advisor is a very strong facilitator and had worked with the group for multiple years she admitted she was in over her head when the group said he couldn’t be with them anymore; they were done. And, while I can empathize with the hurt and anger, our job, as educators is to help keep our school community intact. The advisor and I agreed that there should be a cooling off period during which time the student did not work with the advisory. Instead the student worked with a member of our Student Services team who specializes in behavioral support. There, they could process and prepare for restorative meetings that would take place, after he accepted responsibility for his actions.
The advisor ran a few circles with her group, and knew that they were still deeply concerned. They worried that the student would not truly apologize or understand the harm caused. They were tired of explaining how they were impacted by his words, but they also knew that traditional school discipline systems were not effective either. The advisor and I asked them if they would take part in a silent restorative circle. This is a circle pulled directly from the Circle Forward book. They agreed. Students are all given identical paper and pencils, and asked to explain, in a low inference way, what happened, then each question moving forward asks them to share more of what their thoughts and feelings have been since the incident. We collected all of those papers and the advisor and I read them and developed a plan. We learned that there were a variety of thoughts on the situation in the group, from people who knew the student who did the harm well, to those who did not feel like they knew him at all. Some students genuinely missed him while others were still very angry. We decided to take our time and facilitate all of this well. This wasn’t about making nice or prolonging a process just to feel better about it, it was about students knowing that their voices were heard and developing greater understanding of each other.
Over the span of 2 and a half months we were able to carefully scaffold restorative conferences. We also enlisted the help of a school counselor who the student had worked with and trusted. We determined the sequence of events. The first meeting was with the group of students who missed the student’s presence in advisory. This meeting was about re-affirming that the student who offended was a part of the community and that even though things were challenging he was missed and cared for. This allowed him to feel some connection, and it allowed students who he knew and trusted to share their perspective on the events that led to his time away from the group. From there we moved on to a circle with students who had more general concerns about the way communication unfolded and wanted to process with the student who had left the group, before he was able to return. At each of these circles he was able to have one or 2 of the students who supported him with him. In addition to letting all parties be heard and gain greater understanding, we were also building the offending student’s ability to sit through hard conversations and really hear what other people were saying. This was a necessary step before he met with students who have experienced loss through suicide and who were more directly impacted by his words. One of the impacted students chose not to participate, while one of her very close friends did choose to participate. It is important that students are allowed to set their own boundaries and limits. We had one student who had not originally wanted to be a part of the final circle but then decided it was important and asked to join right before the final circle. He was included. We held that final circle in the school counselor’s office, and it was intense. Each student shared their truth and acknowledged each others’. The student who harmed others was able to hear and see the impact his words made. The advisor thankfully planned a lighter activity for the first day that they were all back together and the whole group played basketball, with some of the students who felt they could never accept that student back into their group choosing him for their team.
These skills are challenging for adults, as outlined by Glenn Singleton and Cyndi Hayes, there are four agreements for courageous conversations about race. They are especially necessary for conversations about race, but can be applied in many places when we face challenging conversations today. 1) stay engaged, 2) expect to experience discomfort and settle in with it, 3) speak your truth, and 4) accept a lack of closure. The world is a challenging place full of strife and ugliness but also hopeful signs of people engaging in hard conversations in unprecedented numbers and ways. Fortunately, there are tools and resources available to help us through this process of building a more just future where people feel a sense of belonging and empowerment. We must teach young people how to engage in these conversations and not to shut down or turn away when they get hard. Even when and especially when the adult world does not model this behavior. All of this work does not necessarily make the group into a cohesive unit without struggle, but what it does do is help our students and faculty to understand the utility of staying with hard conversations, listening to one another and growing stronger as a community.
Boyes-Watson, Carolyn, and Kay Pranis. Circle Forward: Building a Restorative School Community. Living Justice Press, 2015.
Singleton, Glenn E, and Cyndie Hayes. Beginning Courageous Conversations about Race. static1.squarespace.com/static/52abb3efe4b0324b1f628a03/t/54d8e3afe4b02e6a5470cc2a/1423500207157/Courageous+Conversations+-+NEW.pdf.
Lisa Manning Floyd is the Head of Lower Grades at Randolph Union Middle/High School in Randolph, Vermont. She lives in Bethel, Vermont with her husband, son, niece, and two pups (they may be advancing in age but they will always be puppies to her!). Her passions in education are literacy, justice, and community building. Lisa is a Rowland Fellow (2015) focused on developing a cohesive, student centered Advisory program. Her principal’s certification was attained throughthe Upper Valley Educators Institute.
Given the tumultuous state of our society right now, I have found myself thinking a lot lately about a basic question: What can we educators do to make our world a better place during these challenging times?
Recently an old debate has resurfaced in the English Language Arts world with a fierce new urgency: What books should students be asked to read in schools? It’s a perennial question, but given the country’s changing demographics, strained political discourse, and growing social activism, it’s an especially important question to ask right now. It’s also complex — it’s not just about which books students should read, but which authors, from which backgrounds, centering on which themes, about which types of characters, from which cultures or eras?
It is also, I believe, an important question for all of us to ask right now — even if we don’t teach English Language Arts. Because it’s a question that is about more than just reading. It’s a debate about how we choose curriculum. Actually, it’s a debate about how we determine our educational goals. What’s the guiding philosophy that should shape our work? Given the state of our country, I think it’s vitally important that we all ask this question of ourselves.
Consider — to what extent should our goals for students be shaped by:
The scholarly knowledge within our disciplines?
The utilitarian demands of the marketplace or higher education (“college and career readiness”), or even the utilitarian necessities of living on your own?
The passions and interests of individual learners?
The social, moral, and even political vision that we have of what makes a good society populated by good democratic citizens and good human beings?
When I ask myself what I can do as an educator to improve our world, it is this last bullet that I find myself thinking about. But the more I think about it, the more I realize how much discussion of that goal happens underground, in an unsystematic, uncoordinated way.
Given the context of our educational environment, that’s not surprising. Both the accountability movement (which thankfully seems to be winding down) and the standards movement (from which Proficiency-Based Learning [PBL] derives) — seem to me to center on the first two bullet points above. PBL is largely oriented toward college and career readiness — a phrase closely associated with the Common Core, from which many of our PBL standards originate, or perhaps even toward “cradle to career education,” as our last two governors have deemed it (a rather dark view of a career, with its echoes of “cradle to grave,” as a place where one “ends up” — one hopes not for eternity!). But beyond the broader context of educational movements, there are even more fundamental reasons the social, moral, and political goals are mostly left out of the official language of standards.
For one thing, they’re hard to measure. Both the accountability movement (with its punitive reliance on standardized testing and official sanctions) and the standards movement (with its behavioristic interest in the precise articulation of what students can demonstrate) have been fixated on assessment, the ability to measure learning. But social, moral or civic values are notoriously difficult to measure. Certainly many schools write such goals into their transferable skills — emphasizing values like empathy, tolerance, or appreciation — but rarely do transferable skills carry the same influence as content standards (if any at all).
Another reason the civic dimension doesn’t make it into the official content language in anything but the most bland fashion is that it’s controversial. When you start talking about what students as human beings need to be exposed to, you’re bound to have strong disagreement. Do you read Huck Finn, or Between the World and Me? Is To Kill a Mockingbird framed as a heroic story of fighting injustice, or as a problematic white savior narrative? (Or is it simply a coming-of-age novel?) What if that new tenth grade teacher wants to get rid of the month-long Shakespeare unit to do a unit on race and privilege? Too often it’s awkward enough to broach these conversations with coworkers at all, let alone to imagine coming to a common understanding about the social or moral goals a curriculum should pursue.
That’s why in English Language Arts the Common Core standards are basically just a list of content-neutral skills: “Determine two or more themes and analyze their development.” Yes, but which themes? “Participate effectively in discussions on grade 11-12 topics, texts, and issues.” Fine, but which topics and which issues? The implication for teachers is, “It doesn’t matter what books you teach, so long as you give students a chance to practice reading skills and . . . administer to any other cultural, social, or moral needs as you see fit. Good luck!” Schools have so many competing priorities, the ones we don’t explicitly articulate or prioritize usually get short shrift. We spend so much time talking about what skills a graduate needs that we don’t focus on what moral or civic questions a graduate needs to think about. Often we allow our materials — novels that work well with students, textbooks that are clear and systematic — to determine this content for us. To me, we’re missing a vital opportunity to be conscious and coordinated about our efforts to foster the development of good human beings and good citizens.
So here is what I propose for teachers next year.
Determine your philosophy and goals: I propose that schools make time for teachers to get together in their departments or teams to flesh out their philosophy, goals, and values. First, what is your guiding philosophy as a department? What approach shapes your goals for students? There are lots of philosophy of education frameworks you can use; the one I like is the four bullets up above.
Then, based on the philosophies that should guide your work, ask what are your goals for students? Who is the ideal graduate in your department? What should that person be able to understand, accomplish, or articulate? Do these goals change based on the state of your society or community? What’s the balance or hierarchy among these goals?
Develop a Mission Statement: Once you’ve clarified philosophy and goals, I would advise codifying it into a mission statement for your department or team. Even if your school has a mission statement already, I think it’s important to create one at more “local” levels. Frankly, it’s easy to feel as though school- or district-wide goals are overly broad or remote from your daily work. But team or department goals I think are much more effective for getting everyone on the same page.
Review Curriculum: Then, start tracing out how you can best achieve these goals. Review the existing curriculum and see if your actual work is in line with your values. This is especially important, I believe, with the social, moral, and political dimension of curriculum. Bring this underground work up into the light of day and reexamine what you’re doing and why. Are your materials (books that you teach, for instance) supporting your content goals, or are they driving them? Which themes or issues are students studying during which years? Are they the right themes, given your departmental goals for students? What big questions are your units asking students to wrestle with — and are they the right ones? To what extent are your efforts coherent across grades 9-12? Are students studying similar themes or topics year after year? Or are there gaps — important themes that are not studied?
Lastly, consider the “hidden curriculum” in your department. What are the unstated messages sent to students, and how can you be conscious about ensuring these messages are in line with your values? There are plenty of good resources to aid in this sort of review.
It’s easy to feel paralyzed at a time like this. The problems in our society sometimes feel insurmountable, our resources scarce, the time to address these problems short. While I am always wary of hanging too much responsibility on schools, I do believe that schools are an important tool in improving society. I think most of us became educators in order to make a difference — not only in individual students’ lives, but in our collective future. I believe one way we can do this is by working together to clarify our goals for students — especially, during this tumultuous time, our moral and civic goals — and to coordinate our methods for achieving these goals.
A student once asked me why I became a teacher. Being an English major, I quoted William Wordsworth. I became a teacher, I said, because I saw such power in each of my students representing “something evermore about to be,” the awesome potential of the future innovator, the future creator, the future advocate in the long arc toward justice — sitting in our classrooms, just waiting to be shown the path. In that magical, mysterious possibility of each young person before us lies the key to a better, more just future. We owe it to them to be as conscious and as deliberate in our efforts as possible — especially at a time like now.
Have a great summer, everyone.
Alden Bird teaches English at U-32 High School, where he has worked since 2011. He is a 2018 Rowland Fellow. He lives with his wife and 18 month-old son in Vermont. This is noteworthy because, until last summer, he lived in New Hampshire and commuted 65 minutes each way to work. He is excited to no longer be doing that.
We’ve had a rough spring. There is no doubt about that. We are faced with uncertainty as we head into the fall. Teachers and administrators are tired and scared. Families are exhausted. Children miss their schools. We don’t even know if we will be at school, or with how many, on what days. So, why would this be a good time to make sweeping changes at your organization?
Now is the perfect time to do a major values assessment and determine what you do that supports those values, and what you do that undermines them. The reactionary approach to this crisis has highlighted the importance of knowing what is important and focusing on those key things. In order to “survive” the spring, many schools had to make policy on the fly, trying as they might to hope their way into a plan. In order to make things manageable for students, families, and teachers caught in a “new normal,” many of our regular structures, systems, educational opportunities, and likely dearly held values, fell by the wayside.
Many things shifted across the state, and in very different ways. Just in my household where we have two teachers and two students, all at separate schools and within two different districts, this manifested varyingly for each of us. I saw differences in the way (and how often) students spent time with their teachers, the amount of time students were asked to work outside of that meeting time, the type of work that was assigned, what was “optional” and what was “required,” the way work was assessed and reported out, and either an overall systemic consistency, or fluctuating change.
I don’t know anyone who wants this to be our “new normal.”
So, how do we plan (and not react) for change in the fall? I suggest that our leaders evaluate what is most important in their organization and take a deep look at these values to guide the work around the most important systems and structures at their school. Adaptive change requires a hard look at the reality of the situation, coupled with new learning and new thinking. Often adaptive change remakes, not just extends or tweaks, existing structures.
During our Rowland Fellowship, Peter Langella and I looked closely at our school’s schedule to determine how to build regular, system-wide, interest-based learning opportunities for all students. We visited many schools and looked at a variety of models, but it was during a pivotal conversation with Chris Lehmann, co-author of Building School 2.0, that a realization dawned on us. Chris said “A school’s master schedule is a pedagogical choice based on it’s values.” This moved our thinking dramatically and set us in motion with our steering committee to do a values assessment. We then built schedules that reflected those values. Our aim then was to find time in the schedule to provide more interest-based learning opportunities for our students, but we did not want to create a schedule that undermined other values that were held dear to our community.
Eventually, our school administration developed and implemented a compromised schedule that didn’t work well. In my best estimation, this happened because there wasn’t an overwhelming perceived need felt by the community for the change we proposed, and there was too much fear within our administration of doing too much, too soon.
Here, I’d like to remind readers of “Switch” (by brothers Dan and Chip Heath), of the Elephant and the Rider scenario. (If you haven’t read that book, I recommend it highly but I’ll summarize the concept here- the Rider represents the intellectual, logical side who has a mind for strategy and big picture thinking and would like to control our movement, whereas the Elephant is the emotional, reactionary, instinctual side that truly controls our movement.) Try as we might to move the Elephant toward a schedule that we felt as Riders would better serve our community, the Elephant wasn’t ready to move.
Your Elephants out there, now? They (teachers, parents, students) are ready to move. This “new normal” was awful. Elephants are ready to embrace change in the fall. Come up with your organization’s values, and allow those values to guide you as you re-evaluate learning experiences, schedule, equity and access, assessment, and reporting. Your organization’s values may be different now than they were in January. Do the hard work of looking into what they are, ask your teachers, ask your families. Don’t be afraid to make large changes that align with those values. Be mindful that whatever change you make, it will need to be able to fit, without disruption and as much consistency as possible, any learning scenario in the fall: live, hybrid, or distance.
If you find a match to the values of your organization, the hard work will feel easy. The change will feel good. You might even find that the plan for this fall is better than your plan for last fall. You may discover that making an adaptive change could be much more than a patch, but rather a springboard toward a new educational model enriched by the values of your community with long-lasting effects.
Abbie Bowker, a 2017 Rowland Fellow, teaches students Visual Art at Champlain Valley Union High School where she has been teaching since 2004.
“Trust is earned in the smallest of moments. It is earned not through heroic deeds, or even highly visible actions, but through paying attention, listening, and gestures of genuine care and connection” – Brene Brown
Learning is about relationships.
Research on effective teaching and learning and common sense indicates that strong personal relationships with students and the components of social emotional learning are critical for deep learning. Teaching and learning is a partnership, and it is our job to create classrooms that are based on equity, mutual respect, collaboration, and trust. Only then will students feel comfortable to take risks, use their authentic voices to ask questions and let themselves be vulnerable. We also know that creating school and classroom culture must begin the very first day of school. When remote learning becomes the new normal, the task of creating deep learning experiences for students becomes more challenging. How do we create a classroom culture and engaging learning experiences online?
My students have shared with me that in order to get excited about on-line learning they need to feel engaged with the material, and they need to exercise their voice. “I do not like just having to do homework problems and sending in my answers- that is so boring,” one student told me. “Learning by myself is really hard and lonely.” “I miss being connected to my classmates and friends,” one sophomore told me. “I like having discussions as I can see other peoples’ faces and hear from other students- this is more interesting and makes learning easier for me,” another 10th grader mentioned.
This spring I have been experimenting with how to have high quality Harkness discussions in a virtual environment. Some discussions have been great successes, and others can be kindly described as “memorable failures. While the format of and the challenges of running a Harkness discussion on-line are slightly different, here are some suggestions that may be helpful for all types of on-line discussions, not only for Harkness.
1)Limit the size of the google meet or zoom discussion to eight people.
Keep it small to begin with! That way everyone has a chance to talk
2)First, joint create norms with the students for the discussion
Here is an example of the norms that my students developed for our on-line Harkness discussions this spring
· Please mute yourself whenever you aren’t talking to avoid feedback audio. (Unmute if you want to talk (kind of like leaning into the table to talk). We found that it was easiest to ‘lean in’ by unmuting.)
· If you have technical questions, use the chat so as not to interrupt the dialogue.
· Please stay on the Google Meet call window for the entire discussion.
· Please do not communicate with other people, even anyone who is part of the discussion, on other windows or media.
· If you really need to leave, please notify the group through the chat so that you do not interrupt the discussion.
· Please have a printed copy of the materials, your completed prep sheet, and a note-taking sheet if that helps you ready in front of you prior to beginning the discussion. You will also benefit from numbering pages/ paragraphs on any articles.
· Remember to use appropriate and respectful language, tone of voice and body language.- this is ESPECIALLY important online!
· Remember to monitor your airtime, you can still invite others to speak
One of my students developed her additional norms for our discussions:
· The Golden Rule
Treat others how you want to be treated.
· The “Hidden Value” Rule
Look for the good in everyone. You may not see it immediately, but I promise, it’s there. Believe that everyone provides some kind of value, even if it’s not abundantly clear on the surface. Trust that the person standing in front of you has redeeming qualities that, if you knew more about them, wouldinspire, delight and enchant you. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
· The “Everyone Is Special” Rule
Recognize that everyone comes from a different place, and they all bring vast amounts of experience and wisdom with them. Everyone knows something you don’t know. Everyone is capable of doing and being someone completely different from you and that is a worthwhile thing to respect.
3)Post these norms on your google classroom and have students read and agree to them before each discussion.
After a few discussions, ask the students, “Do we need to make any changes to this list? If so, what?” Be open to their contributions.
4)Be clear about the goal for your discussion.
On-line discussion can provide added value for students if they are encouraged to use their voices to engage in learning, wrestle with problems, ask questions, learn from one another and/or gain new perspectives on classroom material. On-line discussions should not be dominated by the teacher or an opportunity delivering information or for “lecture”.
5)Prepare a prep sheet for students to fill in, print out and bring to the discussion.
If you are familiar with how to prepare for a Harkness discussion, you know how to construct these prep sheets. If not here are some ideas you might look at You can shape the discussion by how you decide the construct the prep sheet.
6)Begin with an icebreaker activity, preferable chosen and run by a student
By making personal connections with students and creating an atmosphere of collaboration and trust, we let students know that we care about them and what they say is important. As Brene Brown says, we can show our students that we care about them “through paying attention, listening, and gestures of genuine care and connection.” Take the time to check in with students and begin by an activity which builds community. Here are a few ideas.
7)Plan ahead as to how you will open the discussion. What is the first question you will ask the students? Proceed from the simple to the complex, from the concrete to the abstract. Students gain confidence as they begin to find their voices. One question on many Harkness prep sheets is “What clarifying questions do you have about this reading?” They can read these off of their prep sheets to begin.
8)Keep your eye on the clock! On-line conversations move more slowly and oftentake longer. Having everyone join the conversation, making sure the internet and audio is working and troubleshooting problems takes additional time. If you reserve one hour for your on-line discussion, you may get 50 minutes of talking time.
9)Always debrief the dynamics of the conversation! Ask students to reflect on what they learned during the conversation and what, if any added value the discussion held for them and their learning. I ask the students to unmute while we all talk during the debriefing. I always ask:
What is your big takeaway from today’s discussion? (What did I learn?)
What went well in our discussion went today?
What can we do better as a group next time?
How did I do in my role as facilitator today?
What suggestions can you give me to improve?
NOTE: Students tend to think they have done a great job. Listen to their self- evaluation before you offer your feedback to the group. You can also ask them to respond in a written self-evaluation that you ask them to return, but debriefing all together builds community, collaboration and trust.
10)Monitor YOUR airtime. Again, a discussion is not the time for lecture or providin vast quantities of additional information. Always keep in mind, “It is not MY discussion, it is THEIR discussion”
11)Be aware of potential technical challenges-some of these can be anticipated and some just appear! Here are the most common challenges I have encountered:
Strategies to Address this Challenge
Time lags slow the conversation while people unmute themselves
Prepare for this possibility by addressing it beforehand and asking kids to be patient
Encourage students to use a hand signal when they want to talk next – this speeds up the conversation
Connections freeze up
Use the chat box- you or another student can write to the students whose screen is frozen. Tell them ahead of time that if this happens they should quit and rejoin the meeting
People are not prepared for the discussion and do have their materials in front of them
Be clear AHEAD OF TIME that students need to be prepared-this is also much easier to keep track of if there are fewer students in the discussion. Ask them to hold up their papers for you to see if they have done the prep work you have asked for.
At the beginning of the discussion, ask if everyone is prepared and invite those who may not be prepared to be honest if they are not (we are all doing the best we can, right?) Invite them to participate to the level that they can. Do not chastise individuals publicly in front of others
People not speaking up and/or there are long moments of silence
Rephrase the question to make it simpler and easier to answer (usually this happens if a question is too abstract or high level for that point in the discussion) Return to the TEXT and ask a lower level, more concrete question
“Stop and Write” replaces the “Turn and Talk”. Ask students to take one moment to think about the question and write about it on a sheet of paper- then ask them to read out their responses
Use the chat function. Ask students to THINK for one minute and WRITE their responses in the chat. Have students read these aloud and ask for comments and reactions. Students enjoy this variant.
Reach out and ask one student who you think might have the courage to answer the question, ie., “Marcus, what are your thoughts on this topic?”
Learning how to facilitate virtual conversations grounded in inquiry, mutual respect, collaboration and trust takes practice and patience! We are all still learning how to do this work. Giving students the opportunity to design and engage in these discussions enables young people to express themselves, to be heard, to feel valued and to engage in social connection and deep learning.
“We must be guardians of spaces that allow students to breathe, be curious and to explore”- Brene Brown
When I sat down to write and reflect upon my teaching this spring, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would be sharing that I actually cried when I learned that school was closed for the rest of the academic year.
Nor did I ever imagine that everyone in the entire world would be in the situation in which we find ourselves right now.
Nor is the virtual classroom the format for teaching and learning that I prefer.
And yet, here I am- and here we all are- having to stop, breathe, and rethink what we can offer our students and how we can support them through this global pandemic. School buildings are closed until the end of the academic year, and we are confronted with a new host of challenges, both personal and professional.
We know that learning is deeply grounded in relationships, and this is why many of us love our work so deeply, because we can work with children and watch them grow. So how can we continue to build upon the relationships we have built with students so far in the year and how can we connect with them as human beings in a virtual world? This is the story I feel compelled to share; it is writing itself every day. This story is unfolding, and I do not know how it will end as I am in the weeds of this work right now.
As many of you know, I teach “Strategies in Classroom Dialogue” at my school- a class that is designed for sophomores who are interested in student leadership and school transformation. They become skilled in the Harkness pedagogy, an instructional strategy where students drive the conversation and use critical thinking skills to deeply analyze complex text. These young people become leaders in Harkness and work with faculty and with their peers to teach the skills of civil discourse and Harkness dialogue to everyone at school. Over the course of the year they have become experts at leading classroom discussions, presenting to faculty meetings, giving in-service workshops at other schools and presenting at state and regional conferences.
But now we cannot have face to face dialogue, and like everyone else I have been forced to rethink everything that I was doing with my students in this Harkness class. Harkness is grounded in personal relationships, collaboration, inquiry, mutual respect, trust, and face to face dialogue. My class has built these relationships from the beginning of the year, but now we can only see each other on a screen. I asked myself, “how can we implement continuity of learning when the concept of an “online Harkness discussion” is a virtual oxymoron?” ( no pun intended )
So, I decided to do something radical. I reached out to students to help me design and try an online Harkness.
I pitched this idea to the students, “Hey, friends, want to try a virtual Harkness?” I asked during our first Google Meet session. A few of my students peered at me quizzically from their computer screens. I could see they thought I was crazy, but most of the class responded, “Let’s give it a try!” This is the magic that can unfold when students and teachers work together to craft learning opportunities.
To begin, I asked each student to choose a piece of text that they thought would be of high interest for a Harkness discussion -something that they thought provided an offering or a
message or meaning beyond the text. I told them that they each would be responsible for planning and facilitating a Harkness discussion on the material that they chose. Students selected video clips, newspaper articles, short stories, essays and poems- even an excerpt from the Black Mirror TV series. After deciding what they wanted to Harkness on, I asked them to write a paragraph as to why they chose their particular selection. One student chose an article on wealth inequality in America. She wrote:
“I chose “Privilege is a Privilege, and a Responsibility” because it is a text that questions our culture around privilege in America. In this article, Tony Schwartz highlights that despite their hard work, many people like the man at the deli are barely making it by while others may be born into enough wealth to barely have to ever work. He focuses on what this means psychologically and how our privilege and wealth can determine how willing we are to help those in need and even how difficult it may be for the privileged to see a need. I think this is a good starting point because it zeroes in on America so that people can be more connected to the issue. At a time right now where we are in an economic crisis caused by COVID-19, many people are losing their jobs, their security, their routine, etc., this is going to become an even more prominent issue for Americans. This is one person’s perspective on the issue, but it may guide people to think about their stance on the issue and what opportunities their position can offer them to make a difference.”
Their next assignment was to design a prep sheet for the discussion. The prep sheet is designed to direct students to read closely and consider issues raised in complex text. Here is the prep sheet that this student created:
‘Privilege is Privilege, but also a Responsibility’ Prep Sheet
What are some causes of, and solutions to, income inequality that are outlined in the article? Give three examples and explain.
What assertions does the author make about privilege that relate to your life or our lives in Vermont?
Choose three other lines, quotes, or sections that you think are important for us to discuss. Write them out here.
What questions do you have about this article? Write them out and identify them as clarifying or probing.
How could someone like you make a difference for someone like the man at the deli?
Students then needed to complete their own prep sheet to see if it needed to be modified or revised (note- they had to do this themselves; my feedback came later). They then submitted a lesson plan for their discussion- including ideas for icebreaker, how to open the discussion, a list of essential questions they thought their article raised and a list of strategies as to what they might do if the discussion got off track. They also had to plan for a debriefing of the discussion. Then came the fun part! I asked each student to create a FLIPGRID video to “sell their discussion and create excitement and interest.” We all watched each other’s FLIPGRIDS!
This week, we began our online Harkness discussions, facilitated by the students. Before the first discussion, the students anticipated that we needed new NORMS for online discussions. Here is what the students created and posted on our google classroom:
Hello and Welcome!
Here are the few norms that we are going to ask everyone to follow for our online Harkness discussions. Please read over them and then follow the instructions below:
Please mute yourself whenever you aren’t talking to avoid feedback audio.
Unmute if you want to talk (kind of like leaning into the table to talk) We found that it was easiest to ‘lean in’ by unmuting.
If you have technical questions, use the chat so as not to interrupt the dialogue.
Please stay on the Google Meet call window for the entire discussion.
Please do not communicate with other people, even anyone who is part of the discussion, on other windows or media.
If you really need to leave, please notify the group through the chat so that you do not interrupt the discussion.
Please have a printed copy of the materials, your completed prep sheet, and a note-taking sheet if that helps you ready in front of you prior to beginning the discussion. You will also benefit from numbering pages/ paragraphs on any articles.
Remember to use appropriate and respectful language, tone of voice and body language.- this is ESPECIALLY important online!
Please remember to monitor your airtime, and that you can still invite others to speak.
Lastly, but most importantly, we are all in this together, so let’s have fun, learn new things, and try our best!
Our first discussion on “Privilege is a Privilege” went for an hour until I asked the facilitator to wrap it up (I was getting a headache from looking at the screen.) During our discussions, I (mostly) stayed silent and tracked the discussion. We have limited the size of the discussions to eight people so everyone can have an opportunity to speak. After the discussion, we all debriefed what happened and made suggestions as to what might improve our next Harkness discussion.
The map of our online Harkness discussion looked like this:
We will be Harknessing twice a week from now until the rest of the semester. Our first attempts have been a big success. Granted, online Harkness does not begin to resemble face to face interaction. They are a myriad of problems with connectivity, time lag and students’ body language in front of the computer- but we are trying. Students are engaged, and we are learning from one another. They look forward to our dialogues. We are getting better every day.
This new adventure we are all on will continue to unfold, kind of a “choose your own adventure” series–with few choices and no ending in sight. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. But, when we as teachers work to build a strong classroom culture, when we nurture personal relationships, and when we partner with students to create learning experiences that allow them to exercise their authentic voice bits of magic CAN happen…
I don’t know about you but, I am ready for Spring and a vacation from the computer! I will look forward to digging in my garden and staying off the screen. Mostly importantly, I am grateful for my students and this opportunity to work together in the short time we have left together this year.
My principal keeps asking us to look for the bright spots, the subtle and easily overlooked places where things are working in times of tremendous change. The concept isn’t new or unique to our most recent challenges. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of this year thinking about “the early glimmers of something going right” as I’ve been re-imagining how school could work to connect more young people to their communities and the natural world we inhabit. But the last three weeks have brought my year-long Rowland fellowship to what feels like a screeching halt. What does experiential learning and student leadership look like in time of social isolation and distance learning?
It’s a curveball I never could have anticipated when I set out to spend a year with one foot in and one foot out of the traditional classroom. Educators and school leaders often use the metaphor of building a plane might-flight to describe school reform. Now, our airspace is toxic and we’re being re-routed. Time of arrival? Unknown. Turbulence? Expect a lot of it. Will there still be snacks? Don’t count on it.
So I’m taking her advice in finding a new flight pattern: be flexible and gentle with yourself and others, and look for the bright spots. For starters, I, along with literally every teacher in America, am trying to get back to the core of what matters in our craft, the one piece of the formula on which everything else is predicated: relationships. Only now, it’s seeking connection in a time of unprecedented disconnection.
But I’ll admit that I’m looking for bright spots reluctantly. I am doing it because I know that it helps. When you illuminate success you can replicate the conditions and behaviors that made it so. You can study where the magic is happening and clone it. I’m doing it reluctantly, though, because trying to think about positives right now, when it feels like the world is going up in flames, can feel daunting at best, and exploitative at worst. Who am I to get to see bright spots right now? How many of these new learnings and experiences are only possible because of this tragedy?
A Harvard Business Review article published last week suggests that this feeling, ebbing back and forth between deep sadness, fear and loss is actually grief. Grief can be both an immediate feeling—mourning what you just lost, and anticipatory—knowing you’re in for more loss in the future. The steps to managing grief are first to acknowledge it, then deny it, bargain for it, feel angry about it, and finally, finally, to accept it. Understanding this cycle and recognizing my own grief is helping me move into a space where I can, at times, start to see some light.
I won’t be able to feel okay about my parents going to the grocery store or my in-laws and sister going to work for a long time: ok, let go of what I can’t control. I won’t be able to pursue the athletic goals I was on track for this year: alright, adjust and be persistent. I can’t give the most vulnerable young people I know a sense of safety and love in my physical classroom: fine, but I can hold virtual drop-in hours, help with meal delivery and send hand-written notes home in the mail.
Three weeks ago when everything was normal, I asked that my students, all seniors, stand in a circle and share their answer to this prompt: “Imagine… I made each of you an appointment to get a tattoo this afternoon—permanent or temporary is your choice. What would you get??”
Their responses are the bright spots I’m holding close to my heart in this time of school at a distance. Some of my students said funny things, like an inside joke with a best friend. Other choices included a map of a childhood special place, a meaningful symbol, and ones own artwork. More than half shared that they’d brand their bodies to honor their families. A young man rolled up his sleeve to reveal a still-sore real tattoo he’d gotten just days earlier as testament to his dad who passed away. I ended class by telling them how awesome they are and I reminded them to wash their hands. Turns out that would be our last time together.
When we got the call that we wouldn’t return this year I cried in the kitchen for a while. Its all hit me: this isn’t going to be over soon. School without the kids? That’s not what I signed up for. I am going to need those bright spots, those memories of moments where it worked, and the virtual equivalents to come, now more than ever.
My husband gave me a hug and helped me reframe. “How LUCKY you are, to feel such sadness that you can’t go to your job,” he said. And he’s right. I am so, so grateful to love what I do so much that it hurts to do it from my kitchen table. I’m starting to see that the bright spots aren’t going anywhere. In many ways, they’re already shining brighter than ever.
Yesterday, a student who’s an accomplished competitive swimmer emailed me to say that he took up cycling because he can’t go to the pool right now. He sent me pictures of the roads he’s been riding and now we’re trading photos of picturesque open roads. This morning another checked in and let me know that she’s working overtime at her family’s grocery store because they’re the only place in town where people can shop. “I’m going to try my hardest to get my work done, but right now its people that matter most,” she wrote.
My bright spot today is that this circumstance, strange and tragic as it is, is giving us each a window into each other’s humanity that wasn’t there before—even if we can’t see each other physically. Perhaps these limitations are where we grow to new heights in our compassion, kindness, and ability to see each other as the resilient and brave beings we each are at our cores.
And I’m going to keep looking for bright spots, because I know the kids are.
Rachel Cohen is a 2019 Rowland Fellow and humanities teacher at Colchester High School. Her fellowship work explores how Vermont high schools can better utilize the outdoors to expand place-based learning and leadership development opportunities for students. In 2017 Rachel was a Fulbright Roving Scholar in American Studies in Norway. Follow her @Cohen_Noted