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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Education Opinion

Fall Is a ‘Tremendous Opportunity to Reimagine School’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 29, 2020 12 min read
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(This is the second post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here.)

Today’s question is:

What will our schools like look in the fall (or What should they look like)?

Dr. PJ Caposey, a district superintendent, shared his thoughts in Part One.

You might also be interested in All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis.

Today, Lorie Barber, Cathleen Beachboard, Manuel Rustin, and Jeffrey Garrett offer their responses (Manuel and Jeffrey’s comments are presented via video from their must-watch video series All Of The Above).

An opportunity for lasting change

Lorie Barber is a 5th grade teacher and book lover who lives and works in the westurn suburbs of Chicago:

For me, the school year ended on May 21. I stood a socially-accepted distance away, waving at my students as they stayed in their cars, windows up, dropping off supplies and picking up belongings. Optimistically, we called it a “parade,” but it felt more like a procession. Tears were shed that I could not comfort with a hug or whispered words.

All over social media, there has already been talk of fall. What should it look like? What will schools do? Pundits and politicians seem to have grandiose plans. Teach half the class in person while the other half works from home! Rotate students in and out! Daily! Weekly! Teachers can teach with masks! Take temperatures every three hours!

Then, Brionna Taylor happened.

And Ahmaud Arbery.

And Christian Cooper.

And George Floyd.

Racist actions by White people. Three of the four were assaults by White people (two by police officers) that ended in the untimely deaths of Black people. The other was a White woman calling the police because she said she was “scared” when a Black man asked her to leash her dog.

I thought I knew how I was going to answer the question, “What should schools look like in the fall?” We already know that teachers and students should be part of the teams deciding what schools should look like in the fall. Those voices are imperative.

But. Now we are living in a time with a tremendous opportunity to reimagine school. We MUST do what teachers have always known: Put the kids’ needs first. Throw out all the things we complain about. Let’s start with something easy. Say it with me: STANDARDIZED TESTING. You know it’s the first thing that popped into your head. It was the first to go when we quarantined in March. It should stay gone, as it was never a true measure of the whole child in the first place. Standardized testing is also one of myriad policies that are part of systemic racism in education.

Now for something that might make you bristle, and that’s OK. Reimagining school means that ALL kids need to be taught how to be anti-racist. How to be allies and co-conspirators for their Black, Asian, Latinx, Indigenous, and LGBTQIA+ friends and peers. To be clear, this is based on Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s (author of How to Be an Antiracist) words, “I define an antiracist as someone who is expressing an antiracist idea or supporting an antiracist policy with their actions, and I define an antiracist idea as any idea that says the racial groups are equal.” In other words, stating you aren’t racist isn’t being antiracist, or being an ally or co-conspirator. It’s about actions. Clearly, in the 300 + years since the first African arrived on this continent in chains, words have done nothing to permanently eradicate biases that lead to stereotypes and discrimination. We must teach our students how to uncover those biases and lead a life of active allyship.

In order to do this, social-emotional learning must be put before academics. And teachers MUST be given time, professional development, and resources to begin their antiracist journey. It’s not an easy one. It’s painful. It can be ugly. It will uncover some really uncomfortable truths about ourselves and the way we treat students. But it is EVERYTHING.

Educators need to talk about our biases. We need to LISTEN, especially to Black, Indigenous, people of color, and members of the LGTBQIA+ community. We need to sit in our discomfort. We need to pull back the curtain on micro (and not-so-micro) aggressions toward students of color. Kendi’s aforementioned book (along with his Stamped, written with Jason Reynolds), White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, White Rage by Carol Anderson, and Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness are all books that are—and will continue to be—guides for me as I continue my lifelong journey of being an anti-racist educator and human being. We need to be OK with screwing up. I have. Then I listen, apologize, and vow to move forward knowing more and doing better.

Most importantly, we need to be vulnerable and honest with our students as they grapple with this work. Two books have been vital for me as a struggle through this lifelong work with my kids: Sara K. Ahmed’s Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension and An Indigenous People’s History of the United States for Young People, adapted by Jean Mendoza and Dr. Debbie Reese. We need to not only have books that represent ALL of our students in our classroom and school libraries, but we need to read them aloud, share them, and teach with them.

There will be pushback. You’ll get eyerolls from colleagues, people giving you the “why does everything have to be about race?” side-eye. My answer to this is: because everything is about race. Once my eyes were opened, I couldn’t UNSEE the systemic racism from which I benefit simply due to the color of my skin. As teachers, we have tremendous power to overturn this inequality.

Education is on the precipice. And while we sit here at the tipping point, discussing what to do about buildings and face masks and class sizes, it is imperative that we add anti-racist education to the conversation. It’s time. It’s well past time. As author and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison said, “White people have a very, very serious problem, and *they* should start thinking about what *they* can do about it. Take me out of it.”

A video response

Jeffrey Garrett is the Senior Director of Leadership Development at the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a non profit, in-district partner with LAUSD, which supports school transformation in three of LA’s most historically underserved communities. In this role he supports principals, assistant principals, teacher leaders and instructional leadership teams across the Partnership’s 18 schools. Jeffrey spent most of his career working in New York City, most recently as principal of a public secondary school serving grades 6-12 in the South Bronx. He has also served as an AP, instructional leadership coach, and a high school social studies teacher in East Harlem and the Bronx. He began his career as a college admissions officer at his alma mater Dartmouth College, and earned his masters degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Dr. Manuel Rustin is a high school history teacher enjoying his sixteenth year in the classroom. In addition to teaching, Dr. Rustin serves as Chair of the History-Social Science Subject Matter Committee on the California Department of Education’s Instructional Quality Commission, a body that directly advises the State Board of Education on matters pertaining to curricular frameworks and resources. Dr. Rustin is a recipient of the Milken Educator Award as well as the Pasadena NAACP Ruby McKnight Educator Award. He earned his doctorate in educational leadership at UCLA and received his master’s in teaching and curriculum at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

They are hosts of the All of the Above , a weekly video (and podcast) show where they take a deep, critical look at issues in American schooling. Each week, they are joined each episode by guests who are making waves in education.

They have contributed a video response to this week’s question:

Dealing with traumatic stress

Cathleen Beachboard has served for over a decade as an instructional coach, professional developer, and teacher. Cathleen currently serves as an 8th grade English teacher and department chair for her school in Fauquier County, Va. Her book, 10 Keys to Student Empowerment, features tools to unlock student potential and develop courage in learners to face challenges head on:

With schools beginning to create COVID-19 contingency plans for the fall, we must address a secondary crisis that will affect school systems and classrooms everywhere: traumatic stress. Before this pandemic hit, almost half the nation’s children had experienced one or more types of serious childhood trauma, according to a survey on Adverse Childhood Experiences by the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH). This pandemic is only going to increase these numbers with its far-reaching ripple effects from families losing jobs and income, people going hungry, children seeing family members sick and dying, and a looming fear to leave home due to threat of illness. It’s no longer just some kids who have experienced trauma. It’s most kids.

So what needs to change in the classroom once schools reopen? Teachers are going to have to work hard at creating classroom cultures that support mental safety to help students deal with traumatic stress as it happens. Using mental-health check-ins at the start of class needs to become common practice. Teachers can create spaces—even remotely—where every student can check in about their mental state as they start class. This practice allows teachers to gain insight on student-safety concerns, feedback, and traumas right away. Teachers can use a physical bulletin board or a digital space for the check-in (such as a Google form) that inquires specifically about the student’s mental state. Erin Castillo created a great system for a mental-health check-in with her high school students that can be found here, and this is a Google form I use to check in with my students. Mental-health check-ins allow teachers to see if a student is ready to learn. This will help teachers catch traumatic stress as it arises and get kids the help they need quickly.

Schools will also encourage teachers to get students to create self-care plans for bad mental-health days. It’s typical for schools to run drills for possible catastrophes like fires, earthquakes, and tornadoes. With a looming mental-health crisis, it will be just as important that schools help kids make plans for what to do when facing overwhelming emotions. A self-care plan validates a student’s unique mental-health needs and coping mechanisms. In a self-care plan, students identify activities that help them feel better. Some examples might be music, exercise, coloring, art, or meditation. Teachers can support students’ plans by offering suggestions of appropriate cognitive activities based on grade level. Once the calming activity list is complete, students should identify one or two people with whom they have a good relationship and to whom they feel they can turn for help and support.

After completing the support section, a self-care plan has students list stressors that might act as speed bumps to their mental well-being. This section serves as a guide for moments when they might use their self-care plan. Teachers can then help them create a plan to address each of the stressors and barriers using tools from the support section. Self-care plans will help students prepare for bad days and give teachers tools to help students when they struggle. Reviewing and updating self-care plans regularly will help students cement the tools and resources they can use when they feel overwhelmed.

A shift toward more trauma-informed discipline will be necessary as students experience more amygdala hijacking due to traumatic stress, which will cause many to lose impulse control and become more reactionary. Schools must attempt to alleviate this traumatic stress to help students return to a state of learning. Schools must look to using practices of restorative justice, creating focus and recovery rooms, and implementing Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports for student mental health.

In the end, I am confident that schools will do what they do best: help their students learn by whatever means necessary. In order for this to happen, schools need to implement concrete practices to support their students’ mental health as they recover from the trauma of this pandemic. The future may be uncertain, but the mental health of our students shouldn’t be.

Thanks to Lorie, Cathleen, Manuel, and Jeffrey for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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