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Teaching Opinion

Question ‘Structures’ & ‘Privilege’ When Making Fall Reopening Plans

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 31, 2020 12 min read
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(This is the third post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here and Part Two 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.

In Part Two, Lorie Barber, Cathleen Beachboard, Manuel Rustin, and Jeffrey Garrett offered their responses (Manuel and Jeffrey’s comments were presented via video from their must-watch video series All Of The Above).

Today, Sarah Said and Holly Spinelli describe how they see the future.

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

Empathic education ...

Sarah Said currently leads a multilingual learning program in an EL education school in a suburb 30 miles west of Chicago:

I was asked the question, “What should school look like in the fall?” That’s a difficult question to answer when inquiring about the physical state or format of schooling. We don’t know what the summer will bring in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic. For someone like me, it is very difficult to not know what is ahead of me. Many school leaders, teachers, parents, and students will go through the summer with anxieties over how we will start the fall. This affects us all as a community. This pandemic has unfolded and unraveled so many issues that we need to come in strong with a more empathic state of mind as we are rethinking schools.

When I look at the recent events and how they have played out in diverse communities from a health perpsective and an economic perspective, we have a lot more work to do in our system when it comes to structural racism and inequities. To fellow leaders, yes, advocating with Twitter posts about why Black Lives Matter and images of equity graphics is a good start—but we need to move beyond this. It’s not good enough. We need to start to question ourselves as to who we are really serving in our schools. Are we serving the loudest parent who may have an influence on whether our contract gets renewed? Or are we serving those who need to benefit from our schools? Are we being empathic to the quieter needs of our school communities—the ones that people are uncomfortable talking about? Let’s question structures ... let’s question privilege ... Let’s talk about how to reimage a more equitable school community. School leaders ... we need to challenge historical systems that have been in place in this country that have only kept certain communities away from success rather than guided them toward success.

The pandemic has taught me a lot about students and their needs. From my basement office, I have done more “home visits,” Zooming into the homes of students and stakeholders, than I have in my entire career. I have had some of the most honest and intense phone conversations that I have ever had with parents in our school community where I have learned to be a listener as parents have opened up about unemployment and worrying about simple things like keeping their lights on and water running at home. These issues are real in any district in America. So, as leaders, we need to guide families to support or create supports in our schools ourselves.

We need to start to look deeply at ourselves as leaders and educators and try to understand that we need to know how we show up daily to work. How do our students see us? How do we see our students? These are reflective questions we have to ask ourselves before discussion of changes to our system is something we advocate for. I had a good friend say to me, “Even the wokest person can have implicit biases,” and that is true. So we have to learn how to overcome those biases, by self correcting and also not being afraid to gently correct others. Being silent doesn’t really help the situation, either.

As we gradually are coming back from a remote learning setup to our school settings, we need to take the time to create opportunities to view perspectives differently. We have the time now to prepare our schools for a comforting and supportive return for our students.

How Do We Begin to Make These Shifts?

  • Whether you are a teacher or administrator, take more time during in-person and distance learning to really learn about your students. Create safe spaces where students can talk about their lives and you can be an empathic listener. This can be in a classroom setting or a digital space. Our school uses a structure from EL Education called crew that we really hold dearly. Within that crew structure, we have Habits of Scholarship that we hold ourselves as staff and students up to emulating, and we have schoolwide and classroom crew norms that we have to follow. We also have daily crew lessons and meetings that allow students to share more about their lives, values, and beliefs with their peers.

  • Teach your students and school to have more empathy toward each other. Not only do we need safe spaces for students to be able to share, those spaces also need to be spaces that promote listening to each other. Utilize listening protocols in your space to help this.

  • Be more intentional about your restorative practices. Just because you called a parent or guardian when a child misbehaves does not mean you are practicing Restorative Justice. There is much more to it than this.

  • When coming back from this pandemic, it is critical for us to work harder than we did before to create a trauma-informed community. This means engaging teams in professional learning about what is a trauma-informed school. Our school’s dean is in the process of creating a checklist that helps teachers identify symptoms of trauma to equip our school with tools to support us when we return to our building with students.

  • Engage your team in crucial conversations regarding structural racism and implicit biases. Allow the team to have reflective conversations about “how they show up to your school daily.” Also, work with your staff to think about structures in your building that need to change.

  • When thinking about your classroom and digital spaces, allow the time to reflect on culturally responsive teaching and learning. We actually have a tool that we wrote and edited as a team for self-reflection. We self-reflect twice a year and then have conversations about adjustments to instructional practices that we need to make. This tool will be edited again to include practices for distance learning prior to returning to learning in the fall.

  • Listen to all voices when it comes to engaging families in your space, not just the loudest. You need to have multiple modes of communication to do this. And if you can’t get families to come to you to communicate, you need to learn to go to them. You can read my writing about this on www.ellstudents.com. Begin to list the needs of your families and then assess them.

If we can create communities that are knitted tight with the fibers of empathy, we can ease the return to school in the fall (regardless of the format of learning) and be able to support students emotionally and then academically. From these lessons learned, school can be rethought and molded to be more equitable, anti-racist, and supportive to provide all students with a successful academic experience. We won’t be able to do this until we become the change makers. This change making starts with rethinking our classroom, schools, and systems, and it goes beyond a Twitter post about equity.

Safe, inclusive, and culturally responsive

Holly Spinelli is an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English’s Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English, who began her career as an English teacher and student-rights activist in the New York City public schools and continues this work in a public high school in the Hudson Valley of New York and as an adjunct instructor at SUNY Orange County Community College:

After months of distance learning, it is difficult to conceptualize what education, especially if and when we all return to physical school buildings, will look like in the fall. The current realities of online planning—synchronous and asynchronous teaching and communicating with students, colleagues, administrators, parents, and community members—is daunting. The current distance learning format, even with ongoing adjustments, is not sustainable. It is not equitable. How many students and staff members lack proper technology and access to the internet? How many families are facing health issues or financial struggles? What will happen to those folks if distance learning continues in the fall and for the foreseeable future? If I must imagine schools in the fall, my first instinct is to ask more questions. What measures are taken to ensure everyone’s safety? Who determines what is safe for students, teachers, and all community members? Whose visions of schools are considered? Whose remain in the margins? How will equity and access look for all community members? Who determines what works best for all school community members and why? Who makes the final decisions and why?

Despite the uncertainty, there is a definite vision that I do hope to see for schools this fall and beyond: culturally responsive and equitable approaches and environments that are safe and inclusive for everyone. We cannot and should not return to the pre-COVID-19 “normal.” This “normal” excluded, silenced, and marginalized specific community voices, namely those of people of color, those who were not part of a school community’s majority, and those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. Furthermore, under the previous “normal” circumstances, some school buildings were falling apart and ill-equipped to be welcoming, physically safe spaces for their occupants. These realities are unacceptable. A call to return to “normal” will put us right back into our old predicaments, only this time, with more complex challenges.

The vision for schools’ futures needs to respect people’s mental and physical health and well-being, as well as the specific needs of the larger communities these schools serve. All school community members—students, families, caretakers, educators, staff, and administrators—need the time and space to work together to reach a consensus with reasonable options and plans that work best for all in their communities.

I am hesitant to offer a specific vision for what schools should physically look like in the fall, because a singular vision for schools will cause more harm than good. It is short-sighted. Blanket policies and a singular model of schooling do not consider the nuances within and among communities. What seems best for a school population returning to a century-old school building in a major city may not work for a population returning to a modern school building situated on acres of land in another part of the country. The decisions cannot be one-size-fits-all. Plans for schools in the fall must be inclusive and culturally responsive insofar as the planning centers the community’s voices, circumstances, and concerns. The decisions cannot be top-down orders that leave community voices out of the discussion.

To be clear, hosting a meeting or two to “hear” community members’ concerns and then to have closed-door meetings where administrators and town supervisors are the only ones present in the room for the final decisionmaking is not an inclusive, culturally responsive, community-centered planning strategy. The illusion of inclusion must end. If these practices continue, the consequences could literally mean life or death for some community members, namely those who have physical- and mental-health risks. That is a danger that no school community should face. All voices need to be counted and heard throughout the entire process; especially the final decisionmaking that impacts the whole community. No matter what, all schools cannot look the same. School officials cannot copy and paste policies and strategies implemented by neighboring districts simply because their buildings and demographics are similar. Too many educational spaces fall victim to comparing themselves with other districts. Should neighboring spaces share ideas and work together? Of course. However, when decisionmaking is community-based and inclusive, folks will see that similar is not identical.

We don’t know what schools’ futures will hold, but what is certain is that the educational plans, including those for the school buildings, need to center what will work best for maintaining the safety and well-being of the specific communities they serve.

Thanks to Sarah and Holly 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.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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