As school districts across the nation release their reopening plans, teachers sit contemplating what school will look like in the fall. Like many, I am concerned by the push to return to the classroom in person. The plans being put forth provide alarmingly little detail about how schools can mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and show little regard for the lives of teachers. However, I’m thinking beyond logistics. In many cases, districts are spending so much time and energy working out how we can teach in person that they’re ignoring the more important conversation about what we will be teaching. We need to use this pause to envision a drastically different school year; one where we stop focusing on covering the curriculum and instead make schools a place where curiosity is sparked and students learn by following their passions.
To think that we can return to any semblance of a normal teaching and learning is, in my opinion, delusional. Academically, students have missed out on about three months of content, but we’ve also seen that students are not all equally “behind.” The shuttering of schools threw into stark relief the inequities students in our education system face based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, language, and zip code. Despite the Herculean effort put in by teachers across the nation, some students have engaged in no remote instruction at all since March, while other students have essentially kept up with the curriculum. Students will be returning to schools in the fall with wider academic disparities than ever before.
Aside from academics though, we will face another huge hurdle: welcoming back students who have been extremely traumatized. Because of the pandemic, many of our students will have lost housing, financial stability, food security or may have even lost loved ones and support systems to COVID. Some of our students will have become primary caregivers to their siblings and others will have been victims of continued violence and abuse. Even our students who don’t present as obviously traumatized will be coming back scarred: these children have watched the world catch on fire and the normalcy of their lives be reduced to a pile of ash. Our students are acutely aware of the issues plaguing our country, from COVID ravaging their communities to blatant displays of racism in their streets. They are disheartened and scared. We cannot expect them to listen attentively to a lecture as they sit in socially distanced rows in a classroom where group work — or really any interaction with their classmates — will be prohibited. Anyone who thinks students will make Adequate Yearly Progress is kidding themselves.
The first idea I propose is one that is already being considered in many states: a moratorium on high stakes testing. This is obvious: students, teachers, parents, and administrators are under plenty of pressure without the additional worries of whether test scores will lead to students dropping out, teachers losing their jobs, or districts losing funding. Additionally, we have already seen that high stakes testing exposes the system’s inherent inequalities while failing to provide a solution. Keeping these tests in place at a time when the disparity among students has only grown just seems cruel.
Suspending testing is not enough, however. I propose a much larger pause — a year where we take a break from the grind of our system and imagine what teaching and learning could be. Inspired by this article by Hugh Vasquez of the National Equity Project, I am asking: “What if?” What if we let kids follow their passions? What if we help kids learn content that’s relevant to an authentic project they are engaged in? What could happen if we are released from the confines of classroom and curriculum? Imagine what our students (and we!) could learn from spending our time brainstorming solutions to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or determining more equitable voting districts, or writing the next hit historical musical. Imagine the freedom for teachers to focus not on what content standard they are hitting, but instead on whether the content is relevant, applicable, and real. Students have come to realize, even more since COVID hit, that the material we teach them is often disconnected from the things that really matter, both to their present minds and also for their futures. We owe them this perfect chance to explore the real problems and topics that do matter to them and to our world.
What is needed more than the next “hybrid plan” is to reignite the passion for learning that has fizzled over the past few months, or, for many, the past few years. Since 2018, I have been working in a Project Based Learning (PBL) academy within a diverse public high school and we have seen the positive impacts that this model has on all our students. Designing projects that meet all the standards and ensure students are ready to take our state test was always a challenge, but when COVID hit, I decided to finally throw out the rule book altogether. Instead, I spent weeks of quarantine engaging my students in a project where we used numbers and statistics to tell the story of COVID — capturing their experiences for future generations to learn from. (You can check out their incredible work here.) This unshackling was a freeing experience for me and for my students. They were still learning math, but instead of worrying about a future test, we could simply focus on how the math helped them to accomplish their goal of telling a story. Projects like this have helped me realize that we could achieve so much more with our students if we started asking them “What do you care about? What problems do you see in the world? How could you solve them?” As teachers, our role now shifts from imparting knowledge to guiding students through the work, providing them opportunities to learn crucial 21st century skills. With high expectations and careful scaffolding, students can achieve and create more than we could have imagined.
This is our opportunity to change the system. Change in this country only happens when there is a disruption to the status-quo, and COVID-19 is about as big of a disruption as any of us could have imagined. Teachers have known for years that focusing on testing stifles student potential. We know that test scores do not capture the full picture of what students know and can do and they distort students’ self-image by dictating what we deem is valuable. Let’s cancel testing, relax the focus on content standards, and center students as the drivers of their education. The system as we know it has exploded, so instead of trying to put it back together the way it was, let’s recreate it in ways that we know will work better. Let’s let our students’ interests and passions lead the way and do the things we never thought possible.