The Golden Opportunity for American Education
As we get closer to September the looming question hanging over every child and parent’s head is: Will our schools re-open? Summer is in full swing and with each sweltering day, the big question remains what is going to happen in the fall?
I have always believed the job of teaching is a creative and dynamic profession. I also believe that a teaching degree⏤regardless of subject or grade⏤should be awarded as a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts (BFA), and Master’s in education be awarded as an MFA. This would also mean that teacher training would include courses in sculpting, painting, creative writing, music, acting, and even improvisation, in addition to your subject related coursework. This may sound crazy, but take a step back and consider the best teachers you had in school. Chances are they were funny, or dramatic, or had a commanding presence in the classroom. The point is: they were probably performing artists of some kind, and this is because teaching, at its core, is an art form.
This perspective is no more lucid than right now. We — and by “we” I do not just mean us Americans, but the whole of humanity — are in the midst of an extraordinary moment. When schools closed in March, teachers, and school districts, were forced into a situation never imagined. Suddenly, teachers were turning our at home living rooms, closets…or bathrooms into classrooms where remote lessons were presented. Trying to translate a lesson through Zoom or Google Hangouts became a challenge teachers everywhere were faced with. We had to get creative in ways never imagined or…taught. In addition, we were faced with the reality that many students didn’t have access to a computer let alone the Internet. I have one colleague who, literally, drove to student’s homes to help their family setup school provided laptops and/or tablets.
As September draws closer, the need to get more creative with education is imperative. This extraordinary moment demands not only creative strategies, but also outside the box thinking. It’s time to look at “school” as more than a structure. We now have to view it as the dynamic ecosystem⏤and process⏤it truly is, and I believe this moment is the opportunity to do so. We love to use the term “thinking outside the box”. Well if this moment isn’t the golden opportunity to do just that…then what is?
One of the biggest questions about school in the fall is in regards to space. My answer to that is: How do we define a “classroom”? Does it have to be inside? Can it be outside in a parking lot? Maybe it can be in a local park or outdoor public space? Can a canopy be set up in an adjacent field? Can multiple canopies or tents be set up? In terms of urban schools, are there any public parks close by? Is there an urban garden? How about a zoo? How about parking lots? I know these suggestions may sound crazy but consider the fact that there’s a really good chance we may not be going back to “normal” for quite some time. I think this moment is presenting the opportunity to turn education, and school, into the dynamic process it really is.
In an earlier post I wrote about how the big puzzle schools are facing is like a backwards engineering problem: Due to social distancing, districts are asking How do we provide more space for less students? I think the answer is expanding our idea of what a “classroom” can be. School districts should spend the coming weeks investigating all of the public and/or available spaces in and around the vicinity of every school, and use them.
This not only makes sense from the perspective of physical space, but also from the perspective of safety. Being outdoors reduces the risk of Covid-19 spread significantly. Also consider how this will open up teaching itself. A science lesson in an outdoor park, or parking lot, can — and should — present teachers with the opportunity to present exciting and interactive lesson plans. An outdoor canopy or tent set up in a parking lot presents a space for the band, chorus, and orchestra to not only safely rehearse socially distanced, but will also provide music for the community. Younger children can not only have music class outside, but can combine it with art class or even science class. The football field presents the perfect grid for math, physics and gym class to be taught at the same time.
Urban and inner-city schools can do this too — if the powers that be are willing to get creative. I taught at an inner-city public school in Newark, NJ and directly across the street is a beautiful public park. Cities are also filled with parking lots that could not only be converted into outdoor classrooms, but would allow local business owners, and even community leaders, to come talk to students which would help create more connection with the community. The sidewalk outside a Chinese (or Italian, Haitian, or Spanish) restaurant provides a cultural lesson as well as lunch. The local mechanic can come to an outdoor lot, or space, to present a demonstration on the internal combustion engine as well as how he started his own business. More importantly, think about the opportunity this presents for local police to come to outdoor classrooms and meet/interact with young students on a regular basis. Again, this could help create a connection to the community. Most importantly, being outside also makes it dramatically safer for the teachers themselves — who would of course also have masks on.
Now, I’m not completely pie in the sky. I understand that in many cities moving outdoors will not be a viable option. So to that I say what about commercial real estate or office space? Right now in New York City there are literal blocks of office buildings and retail space sitting empty. Why not use them for school? Seriously…why not? They’re going to sit there dormant for an indefinite period of time so why not put them to use? In fact it’s no secret that when the pandemic hit there was a big (delayed) shift to working from home. Many companies have said they’re going to keep that policy in place and a lot of commercial real estate is just going to remain vacant. It’s also no secret that a vast majority of city schools are outdated and in need of repair. So why not turn these newly vacant and much more modern office buildings into schools?
Moving outside, or to office buildings, also opens up space inside schools for special needs students who, by and large, not only need to be indoors, but also need to be in school more regularly than their typically developing peers. Having classroom space moved outdoors, or to commercial space, will present more socially distanced options not just for school provided therapies, but also one on one or small group instruction.
Full disclosure: I have a chronic illness and as a result am on immunosuppressive medication. I am nervous about what’s going to happen in the fall. However, my doctor recently gave me clearance to work at a day camp this summer. Being outside (with mask and gloves) was the key element of me being able to work. I will be teaching music outside all day⏤and am excited at the thought of being inspired with new ideas, songs, and games. Music, like learning, is not a singular thing. It is many things happening at one time and can be approached from many perspectives. This needs to be the mentality moving forward for all subjects, and — let’s face it — will probably be so for the unforeseeable future.
It most regions of the US, the weather now stays fairly temperate into November. Moving classrooms outside will allow more students to attend school consistently, and will allow the routine of school to resume wholly on a regular basis. As any educator will tell you: consistency is a key ingredient of not just learning but also growth and development.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal talked about how virtual learning was pretty much a disaster. There have also been numerous studies on how virtual learning was more of a disaster for poor and minority students, as well as those with special needs. One thing that was also proven this school year is that the act of learning is not just intellectual. It’s also (more so?) emotional and social. Being back with classmates and teachers in the fall will be beneficial for all of our kids not just academically, but socially and emotionally. But before we try and get them back, we have to come to terms with the fact that classrooms and schools are going to have to be vastly different, and more creative, than what they were before. This not only means districts and teachers expanding their ideas, but also parents, community leaders — and state as well as Federal governments.
Is mine the perfect solution? No — but it’s a creative one and is the way we need to collectively begin thinking of “school” as we move forward. Again, this is a monumental moment in the history of humanity. It’s going to take ideas that, in normal times, might seem a little crazy.
This is not a normal moment.
I grew up in a rural part of New Jersey and went to school with kids who lived on working cow, horse, turkey, and apple farms. My middle school was (literally) located off a farm road. I had a science teacher in 7th grade who used to take us outside almost every day. He built and kept beehives on the roof of the school and used to take us up there to help tend them (this was in the 1970’s before concepts like “student safety” were conceived). Behind our school was an expanse of woods where he cleared a space and would teach out there regularly⏤regardless of the season. I have vivid memories of sitting on a tree stump in the snow, hat and gloves on, listening to him talk about bird migrations as the wind rattled the bare tree branches above us.
My 7th grade science class was filled with nature walks, leaf collecting, pond water samples, deer sightings and experiments that have stayed with me my entire life⏤and that was because my teacher used more than just a building to teach. He used his passions as well as what was available all around him. This moment presents the opportunity for all teachers and educators to do the same. We can sit this moment out, and shrug our shoulders, or take advantage of it and move education into the dynamic and creative arena its always been a part of.
This moment is demanding a creative approach to what “school” is and, most of all, how we teach.