By Joshua Block, author, Teaching for a Living Democracy
I write at a time when those of us who are used to spending our days with young people wonder about when we will return to a daily reality of school filled with the cacophony, joy, and chaos of time spent with students. This time of tragedy and uncertainty is a trigger event and, while some in the world of education view this as an opportunity to profit or increase their status, the reality of the eventual return to in-person classroom learning should be about expanding and deepening practices that make learning meaningful for students.
Arundhati Roy describes the pandemic as a portal: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” She reminds us that “Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.” It would be dreadful for students to end their isolation at home only to return to school scenarios that continue to replicate inequitable social structures while imposing values of learning as a passive, disengaged process predicated upon competition.
This is a time for what Dena Simmons describes as a much needed Equity Check. As a teacher, to focus on equity also means committing to a Pedagogy Check. This check, at a time when so many of us yearn to escape the struggles and deficiencies of online learning, can be a time for us to recommit ourselves to practices and curriculum that respect students’ humanity while guiding them towards understandings of the world they want. While the pathway ahead remains unclear, a pedagogy check reminds me that I am eager to return to the classroom committed to creating learning experiences that will push students to discover new sides of themselves and new understandings of our society and world.
I remind myself that it is not naive to want and expect my students to leave my classroom at the end of a school year better people than when they first entered. In fact this is the work of transformative teachers and the product of deep learning experiences. Knowing that this is a time of collective trauma and that every student’s current lived experience is different, I plan to approach my classes with flexibility while reconnecting with some of my core teaching beliefs. Reviewing three of the ideas from my book, Teaching for a Living Democracy, I am reminded of what is possible when a learning community investigates issues deeply:
Acknowledging and Honoring Students’ Realities
After the election of 2016 it was clear that there was a shift in our society and that there were openings for extreme beliefs that had previously been publicly denounced. This had different impacts on and meanings for my teenage students. It was apparent that some of them wanted to express and explore this while others felt reluctance or fatigue at the prospect of conversations about the changing political situation. Amal Giknis, a colleague of mine, and I designed the Our Philadelphia, Our America project. Creating this work provided students with framework and choice as they wrote and used media to document their lived realities. (A full description of the learning process and project work is in the book.)
Designing Collaborative Experiences
Returning to school only to be asked to work individually would diminish the power of communal learning experiences. Undoubtedly students will be eager for the social connection that can be an integral part of learning. By designing projects that encourage an exchange of ideas and support the work of multiple students in the final product, teachers can support personal growth along with academic exploration. I think I achieved this in our play projects on Systems, Individuals, and Change when students’ writing process became an intensive workshop involving weeks of peer feedback, deep revision, and communal rehearsals and performances.
Reframing Teacher Voice
Certainly no student is missing the feeling of being talked down to or chastised by someone in a position of authority. What will be meaningful when they return to classrooms are feelings of connection, community, and intellectual excitement. In the book I describe my desired teacher voice as using “a combination of flexibility and firmness while keenly reading individuals and the pulse of a group in order to find the best approach for progress” (66).
In a Note to Teachers at the end of the book I quote from student Final Portfolios because of the ways student voices provide insights on what school learning can and should be. According to Ameenah:
In order to understand yourself you have to find out what you believe in and what impact you want to have on the world… I have thought deeply about what kind of person I want to be and how can the actions that I make have an impact on the world.
To all teachers, I wish you strength in this overwhelming time and hope that the eventual return to the real life version of your students can be a time of connection, meaning, and joy.
About the Author
Joshua Block teachers public high school students English and history in Philadelphia and is the author of Teaching for a Living Democracy.
Featured image by Wokandapix from Pixabay