COVID-19: An Invitation to Pause, Reflect, and Embrace the Power of Community

It’s the one “institution” that can be immune to this pandemic

Kelly Young
Education Reimagined

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I have spent the last eight years of my life exploring and advocating for a future where children are seen and valued as unique individuals full of wondrous potential; where learning is a joyful and natural pursuit driven by individual interests and curiosities; and where the purpose of education is for each young person to discover their best selves, realize their potential, and make a difference in the world.

I believe at the heart of every human is a deep desire to belong and contribute good in the world. And, I believe this desire is becoming more visible as the coronavirus pandemic disrupts our daily lives, the economy, our healthcare system, and every level of our education system.

Although much of the headline news induces fear and anxiety, we are also seeing leaders and communities from around the world rise to the challenge and show us what it means to be here, in this moment, for one another. An appropriate question, then, for all of us to consider is what does it mean to be there for one another?

I think it starts by acknowledging the different challenges we face. Although we all feel a sense of disruption, there’s a night-and-day difference between managing remote work and my kids’ at-home learning compared to parents who are now battling unemployment; families facing food insecurity with kids who can no longer rely on free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs from their public schools; or young people who are without accessible internet or internet-capable devices.

These differences (and many others) are becoming more and more visible within every community. And, before we do anything, we need to sit inside this reality for a moment. Whatever action we take next, we must ensure the outcomes we seek properly acknowledge and address these inequities from the start.

Let’s pause, reflect, and recognize the gravity and urgency these trying times are presenting us, and consider how we can work together as a community to be strong in this moment and even stronger tomorrow — ensuring everyone’s needs and gifts are seen, served, and celebrated.

Our communities are ready to reimagine learning

There has never been more need and more opportunity for a new kind of education system to emerge from these incredibly trying times.

In this moment, what if we let the humanity of our kids, families, and communities guide us? Rather than relying on an educational system that selects a narrow range of standardized knowledge every child in this country must be filled with, what if we put trust in a young person’s natural curiosities, help strengthen their self-confidence in pursuing their interests, and honor the unique journeys of each individual learner?

The conventional school day was not designed to enable kids to explore curiosities, develop real world skills, contribute to solving real world problems, be lifelong learners, or connect young people with rich networks of adults in their community and beyond. But, it could be.

It is only after years of being told that learning only happens in a classroom that young people think they don’t like learning. But, get them on an athletic field, inside a music studio, working on a creative project alongside an older sibling, or in a position to make a meaningful difference — and see how eager they are to learn.

When young people are put in a position to explore their interests, the idea of who an “educator” is naturally expands. Teachers, parents, employers, community and religious leaders, business owners, and other young people all become educators — naturally offering their expertise in service of a young person’s learning journey. If this current moment of nationwide distance learning is showing us anything, it is that we all have the ability to help someone learn how to do something, make sense of something, or learn something together.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this thinking is that it’s not based on unrealistic dreams. I have seen this kind of interest- and curiosity-based learning in learner-centered sites across the country; in some cases, it has been going on for decades. These are sites where developing a young person’s ability to own their learning is central; where each learner is known and loved for who they are; where learning journeys are designed with young people and are responsive to their shifting interests, learning development, needs, and aspirations; and where learning is embedded and assessed within real-world contexts.

That reality exists in pockets across the country. But, it didn’t happen overnight. And, it definitely didn’t happen within the context of a global pandemic.

So, what do we do at this moment?

First, to parents, give yourself permission to breathe. Create the space to be with your child(ren) and have a conversation about the chaos everyone is experiencing. Collect ideas for how everyone in the family can feel a sense of “normal” during this abnormal time. It’s only natural that bringing learning into the daily routine will help our child(ren) feel more grounded.

Have your child(ren) lead the design of their weekly learning plan. Let them tell you how they’d like to see their day go. Then, put it into action. Be forgiving of yourself and them when nothing goes as planned.

When I asked my then nine-year-old to do a homeschooling day with me in 2018, he helped me write out a schedule that included math, science, reading, writing, exercise, and lunch. It mirrored his regular school schedule. We then came up with fun things to explore in each of those buckets — some had a direct connection with school and others didn’t.

Cooking, house projects, watching interesting movies and documentaries, and cleaning are all part of learning and applying learning (even if they don’t show up in state standards). The day does not need to look like school, but for my son, that’s what he knew at first. As he began discovering learning could be designed differently, he became more flexible and creative in his thinking as time went on. So much so that when asked two weeks ago what he wanted to learn and do if school was cancelled, he said build a desk. With the help of a neighbor and his grandmother keeping him safe with power tools, today, I am writing this at the desk he designed and built.

When we, as parents, invite our child(ren) to design and map out their learning journey, we learn it’s unreasonable to expect kids to sit and learn in ways we normally associate with conventional school for more than two or three hours a day. We see the value in sleeping in — being completely refreshed to tackle the new day. We see the value of taking on real responsibilities in the household. We see the value in writing and revising plans. Overall, we see the value in being vulnerable with one another and discussing how we can be each other’s support.

Educators, free yourselves from the constraints that school put on your classroom. Whether or not you are in a place where learning over the next month or three months will “count,” use this time to connect with the young people you serve. Build relationships with them and among them. And, build a love for learning, encouraging them to create, build, read, and write things that matter to them. Use phone or video conferencing (Zoom is free) to give yourself and your kids the chance to process what’s going on, share your and their fears, concerns, needs, successes, and joys.

School and district administrators, this is a time to focus on the safety and wellbeing of your students and their families. Food, safety, and care are the first priority. Second comes digital access — making sure all of your kids and families have computers and internet access. Third is giving educators the freedom and support to connect with their learners and create the conditions for learning to happen online and at home. Partner and open up opportunities. You can’t do this all yourself — none of us can.

For everyone, when you think about learning online, resist the temptation to imagine kids in solitude staring at a computer program. Imagine rich conversations happening via phone or video conferencing; kids doing projects in their room and collaborating with their peers via video or speaker; older kids tutoring younger kids or reading a story online before nap time. Even when the physical constructs of community seem inaccessible, remember the power of seeing and hearing from your family and friends.

The coronavirus pandemic is challenging the stability and effectiveness of nearly every institution we interact with on a daily basis. But, it can’t touch the strength of our communities if we choose to work together, treat each other and ourselves with grace, and explore this moment with curiosity and open-mindedness. Let’s include everyone, especially children and young people, in creating a world where we all rise to help one another, regardless of the severity of the moment.

Kelly Young is the President of Education Reimagined — a national non-profit committed to making learner-centered education available to every child in the US, regardless of background or circumstance.

During this unprecedented moment, Education Reimagined has created a Distance Learning Resource Center for young people, parents, and educators. Check it out and let us know if there are resources you think we should add!

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Kelly Young
Education Reimagined

Kelly Young is the President of Education Reimagined—a national non-profit committed to making learner-centered education available to every child in the U.S.