Alex Baron is resident assistant principal of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in the District of Columbia. After starting his career as a preschool teacher at KIPP DC, Alex earned his Ph.D. at Oxford. He then returned to the classroom in the Denver public schools before taking up his current post. Alex will be diving into why students hate school, how to enhance student autonomy and curiosity without sacrificing order, and how COVID-induced innovations could actually help us achieve the kind of schooling that allows students to study what excites them.
When I taught math, hard problems arose that made students and me feel intellectually puny. During those moments, I did the cliché teacher thing: I tried to persuade students that tough problems are really just learning opportunities in disguise. You can imagine how that panned out.
Going into Round 2 of COVID-19 schooling, the challenge-as-opportunity ethos is now staring us educators right in the face. Yes, students’ forthcoming school experience will be shaped by scheduling quagmires and fickle tech, but it will also be shaped by the attitude with which educators approach this tough scenario: Whether we model the bravery, creativity, and flexible spirit that we so insistently expect of our students.
James Baldwin wrote “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” With that in mind, we must model some of the wildest problem-solving skills we’ve got.
I’ll say upfront that I think school openings should be fully virtual given safety concerns facing students, families, and educators. Given that, this post is about opportunities afforded by virtual school that may positively change education while also teaching the best lesson we have for kids—how to think creatively in the face of great challenges. Let’s dive in.
First, COVID-19 has revealed the large number of underserved students who lack home computers and internet access. Yes, many students use phones with ninja-like agility, but this doesn’t translate to keyboard skills, software knowledge, or general digital literacy. In a global environment that relies on tech proficiency, kids without home-tech access face profound disadvantage.
However, during COVID-19, schools are distributing free computers and internet hotspots. For classes, students are using professional-conferencing software (e.g., Zoom, Google Meet), online calendars to manage their time, and Google Drive folders to organize their academic lives. Beyond just distributing tech, schools can lead the way in supporting kids, and their families, to hone the tech skills that expand access to the digital professional world. That, in itself, would be a true opportunity in disguise.
But the opportunities extend into the virtual classrooms themselves. Based on observations from the spring, virtual school helps some kids feel less exposed if they make an error because most of their classmates won’t see it. A comfort with error is key to learning, and the relative anonymity of virtual classrooms can be a feature instead of a bug.
Let’s make this concrete. Virtually, a teacher can administer a quiz via Google Form, collect live data, and then create virtual breakout rooms according to student mastery. Teachers can hop across rooms to provide more targeted support; struggling students are more likely to engage with customized support and pay attention by consequence.
For example, at our school, 9th grader James previously wouldn’t risk embarrassment over a wrong answer but now fires away in smaller breakout rooms; 4th grader Brena rarely spoke in class but now types comfortably into Zoom chat; or the 5th grader in New York who finally soloed in her virtual school choir because it was easier to sing into the computer screen than in front of an audience.
Of course, we don’t want students to hide behind technologically protective shields. But, for some students, the virtual experience awakens potential that they (and maybe we) didn’t know they had. It feels like a second chance, or, to them, perhaps even their first chance to show what they’ve got.
I don’t want to sugarcoat the fact that many students struggle tremendously in virtual school. But some students who resist the regimentation of typical school say things like, “Remote learning taught me that I learn better with less guidance, that I thrive when given my own schedule and the ability to move at my pace. It has shown me a world I do not want to leave, in which I have control.”
That sense of autonomy (linking to my first post) can manifest well via tech. For example, students who want to study Arabic but lack that course at school could virtually access an Arabic class at a neighboring school and still get language credit. This could work for architecture, filmmaking, or any niche elective not offered at most schools
The same concept applies to internships (linking to my second post). The constraints of typical internships—physical proximity, transportation, time, safety—are mitigated virtually. Students could intern as volunteers in local government or nonprofits, as medical scribes for telehealth appointments, as capacity for startup companies, and more. Anywhere in the country. Anywhere in the world.
And then there’s project-based learning. A D.C. group called CapX hosted a project-based summer program with students from multiple schools. Students conducted statistical analyses of COVID infection rates across demographic groups, studied basic virus science, and explored the history of prior outbreaks. Ultimately, they created podcasts, social-media posts, and public-service announcements to inform their communities about how to stay safe—all while meeting kids and teachers they never would have met through their typical school.
Again, I don’t want to sound too rosy here. On the whole, virtual school sucks. But while COVID-19 can be hard to diagnose, it, ironically, has helped us identify many ills within our education systems: That most grading systems were and are wildly inequitable; that tech skills are critical but inadequately taught; that academic, elective, and internship offerings are often too limited; and that mental health needs more attention.
The fact is that COVID can make us rethink these systems. For mental health alone, we could reimagine the Kafka-esque absurdity of a single school psychologist for a 1,600-student school. What if, instead, we create a low-cost national network of mental-health providers who provide therapy to students online?
Maybe that’s a wrongheaded idea. Maybe all of these are. But, again, the bottom line is if we ask students to take risks for learning’s sake in our classrooms, then this is our moment to walk our talk and improve our students’ education in the process.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.