Good School

It’s August. Time flies when you’re having fun. Or isolating because the world is in the grips of a pandemic. Or trying to stay sane as the culture wars spill onto screens and into the streets. Or making sense of unraveling social orders. Wars and rumors of wars, ya’ll.

But this blog gets away from me. I was writing that it’s August. Suddenly schools is right around the corner. Again.

School feels more important to me than ever, even as I brace for what this coming year means. What it means for me as a professor of teacher education. For teachers and students of all shapes, sizes, and positions in the world. For my two little boys. Samson starts Kindergarten during all of this. Solomon goes into first grade.

It feels like we need good school right now. What’s good school? Here’s something from Paulo Freire:

For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

That’s good school. People inventing and reinventing together. Impatient, restless, and hopeful as we remain in relationship with each other (even though we are different and moreover because we are different) to make and remake the world. That’s the schooling I’m after. You can keep the rest of it.

There’s a song in the Musical Zombie Prom that lampoons the three R’s. Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic? No. Rules, Regulation, and Respect. In fact, writing that last sentence sent me on a Google search. I found the version of that song from the production I directed at Roseville Area High School way back in 2010. It had me howling. Check it out if you’re bored.

***

I’ve been grinding these last couple of weeks in search of making good school. Toying with Google Classrooms. Penn State uses Canvas as an online course management system. I’ve spent hours clicking this and that. Figuring out how to use technology to capture some of what I try to do in classrooms. It’s been ugly work. Moving files around. Trying to come up with tasks that don’t feel forced. That don’t feel silly. Every morning I get a little bit further in preparing for classes. But I don’t feel good about it. Good school, for me, requires people to be in spaces together. Moving and talking and laughing and getting angry and spilling soup or rolling their eyes or whatever. You can get some of that on Zoom. But only some.

State College Area School District has impressed me. They’ve been so careful, so thoughtful as they try to imagine school next year. But we did get hit with an email last week that threw a wrench in things. Turns out the district didn’t have the resources to support their plan to allow teachers and students to choose whether they’d be remote or in-person at the start of the year. According to the email, more families chose to be in-person than they had expected. They’ll still offer a remote option, but they will not have designated remote teachers. Classroom teachers will be expected to teach both in-person and virtual students simultaneously. That’s what Penn State is asking of faculty, too. What a challenge! Manage the students in your classroom while also paying attention to your remote learners? That’s a complex facilitation, especially as all of us struggle to get a handle on this technology or that. This PPE or that.

I brought Samson in to get screened for Kindergarten last week. Masks and reading assessments. I made small talk with the school’s principal as I waited. I like her. I asked for her hot take on something most parents in State College are thinking about. How long will schools remain open after the college kids come back to town in a month?

“We’re hoping to make it two or three weeks,” she told me, “before everything goes virtual again.”

That’s a sobering prognosis. All this talk about opening schools, and most of us expect them to close down again almost immediately. I get it. Major League Baseball with all of its money and resources couldn’t make it a week. And my beloved Twins finally have some starting pitching. Sigh and sigh again!

But back to school: I don’t know, man. People spit this ideology or that as they grumble about what school should be. The culture wars, as they always have, spill into classrooms. Meanwhile, a very real virus continues to function as a very real virus and there seems little in the way of a coherent national response to the aforementioned very real virus. Honestly, I’m more concerned about what this crisis reveals about this nation. It’s not pretty. John Dewey, that old and dead and white and funny looking dinosaur, was pretty convinced that democracy couldn’t happen without good school. I think he was right.

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I want good school right now. For me. For the students I work with. For the teachers I work with. For my sons. A place to talk and think and create with others. To just be with others. A place to invent and reinvent a world that isn’t so obsessed with finding new ways for people to hurt each other. To hurt themselves. To light it on fire and watch it burn.

I want to be in classrooms next month. With people. Impatient, restless, and hopeful spaces that, when I’m around, usually get a little manic. Instead, I’m worried much of the fall will happen in a Zoom meeting or through a virtual course management system. So much harder to be in close relation to others in these online spaces. But, as I’ve always tried to do as a teacher, I’ll go down fighting. I’ll do my best to conjure some of that good school magic. I hope my sons’ teachers will do the same. Doesn’t seem like there’s much else to do right now.

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