October 23, 2020

Flip the Script

Under the best of circumstances, 98% of school is language arts and the remaining 27% is dedicated to a thing called math. Every other subject is fungible. Under the best circumstances, art, music, drama, and making things are under constant threat of underfunding or elimination. I have been receiving pleas for advice from art, music, and maker education teachers facing a “return to school” in which their programs are being shelved due to safety concerns while their hallowed spaces are being annexed for socially distant small group reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic.

The hastily thrown together plans are based on woefully incomplete data, questionable assumptions, fear, and frankly, exhaustion. Creative teachers are being asked to watch as the curricular programs they built, developed, fought, and fundraised for, are being sacrificed for “School.” While these changes may be made with all of the best intentions, they will narrow the curriculum, denature what the educational experience, and marginalize some of the system’s most creative educators. History suggests that once these programs are eliminated, they will likely never return.

So, here is my advice for the teachers expert in learning-by-doing. Stand your ground. Fight for your programs. Defend your turf – literally and figuratively. Make it abundantly clear that when face-to-face school resumes, you’re not going anywhere.

They call your subjects “specials” for a reason. It’s time to reclaim that term and rid it of its pejorative connotation. What you do is special! It is why many kids come to school. If you work in a private school, your programs are probably why parents pay for their children to attend.

The non-desk-bound subjects are your school’s value proposition. They are what keeps school viable. Many of you just demonstrated that accessing information, writing, engaging in conversation, attending lectures, and test-taking – the meat and potatoes of schooling – may be done online. (The dirty little secret is often in far less time than the school schedule suggests.)

So, here’s my million-dollar idea. If you can stomach attending another virtual committee meeting to plan the coming school year, make the following case. Any hybrid or face-to-face model of schooling in the future should prioritize the preservation of art, music, drama, making, and hands-on science. Start with that goal and work backwards to create plans for realizing that vision of education. Flip the script!

All matters of space allocation, staffing, scheduling, and funding should support the goal of preserving and sustaining the experiences that are best (or only) achieved when adults and children are located in the same physical space at the same time. Imagine what school would look like when committed to helping children realize their fullest potential and emphasizing that which makes us human.

Let me be even less ambiguous. School should be about art, music, drama, science, and making things. Do not settle for keeping your job while your role is diminished, and your programs are marginalized. This is the time for school to expand the experiences children cannot enjoy on the Internet, on TV, or from a book.

I won’t insult readers by reciting the evidence for how these experiences improve “academic performance,” improve attendance, motivate students, or enhance a community. You know all of those things already. The decision-makers who continuously chip away at such essential programs know so too. We should use this moment to do the right thing.

Do not confuse my radical suggestion as a short-term intervention for dealing with the immediacy of the COVID-19 crisis, but rather an exercise in educating for an inevitable future in which today’s arbitrary school schedule will be as impractical as it is unacceptable. In the very near future, children will attend schools more and less than today with flexible schedules based on shifts in parental work patterns, individual student needs, and a plethora of productive contexts for learning – online, in school, and in the community.

The most predictable opposition to my modest proposal is a concern for safety. I am not an epidemiologist and certainly do not wish to jeopardize anyone’s health. My answer to the question, “How can we do this safely and maintain social distancing and proper hygiene?” is “I don’t know. Figure it out.” There appears to be consensus on the practical tactics being employed by those seeking to open joyless schools where children may be minded, fed, and lectured to. Surely, those tips and tricks apply to my humane and vibrant model as well.

  • Maintain appropriate physical distancing as recommended by scientists and medical professionals
  • Wear a mask
  • Wash your hands
  • Do not share tools or musical instruments
  • Reduce class sizes
  • Spend more time outdoors

Let’s explore the last three tips since those relate specifically to the sort of schooling experience I propose. Science classes and maker spaces may need to focus on experiments and projects using a smaller number of low-cost materials than they did pre-Pandemic. Each student can have those materials assigned to them and stored in safe containers. Think of a toolbox per kid. There are a million and one science experiments and explorations one can conduct with household items. Perhaps each kid will build their own microscope as many already do in schools with maker spaces. Classes in making may focus on the protean maker space, computer programming. A great deal of physical computing may be explored via the $15 micro:bit, four alligator clips, and two 10mm LEDs; I could write a semester course for any grade level with those materials. Of course, the richest nation in the history of the world can afford a personal multimedia laptop computer for every child and their own musical instrument.

Class size reduction gets a bit trickier. You may have to lead many smaller music ensembles and choirs. Plays with smaller casts may be produced, phone-based video production can be created, and drama may be represented by socially distant staged reading. The lack of extracurricular activities and other distractions creates a fertile opportunity for students to read, write, program, and practice more than ever before.

There are at least several months during which the weather is pleasant enough for educational activities to occur under the stars (or a canopy). Thanks to climate change, it’s rarely too cold to go outside and kids are not as fragile as schools pretend they are – see football, marching band, Scouts, playing outside, winter sports… Bundle the little kids up and tell yuppie parents that this is a forest schooling or experiential learning. They may even pay more for that. The kids will love it too!

I have infinite faith in teachers, administrators, parents, and school boards coming together to chart a course for realizing this new agenda for schooling when physical school resumes. Things need not be as they seem. Chart a new course! You got this!