The Reflection Pool

Think Again About Schooling

Reading Time: About 4 Minutes

Her voice rose as she spoke, cracking slightly on the last word. ” I’m juggling working from home, video conferences, wonky internet, planning meals, making sure we all get some exercise and being my kids’ teacher. I can’t do it!”

He struggled too, uneasy about his layoff. “I have no idea when I’ll get back to work. Even though I’ve plenty of jobs to do around our place, I can’t get motivated. And when I log on to the school’s learning platform, I can’t tell what’s happening and if the kids are where they should be. This is hard.”

Parents, guardians, caregivers and teachers worry about our children and what the future holds for them. This global pandemic has us all even more on edge. Now we wonder if the kids will be alright having had to stay inside for weeks. What does it mean that little ones are now using words like pandemic in their imaginative play as they warn each other to stay apart? How will they do in school if they’ve had to miss two or more months? Will my child fall behind? Will they be OK?

Parents* are also wondering about the worksheets, the exams and the comprehension questions. What happens if my child doesn’t finish them? Do they lead to learning? Am I a bad parent if I can’t sit beside my child and help them?

Over the years, educators, pundits, and politicos have written much about the purpose of schooling. Some people point out the quasi factory model of education that we still mostly follow in schools. You know, the desks in rows, punch in punch out mentality, strict adherence to bells and minutes of instruction. There are plenty of educators who have innovated within this structure, however, the sifting and sorting of students has continued. We assign grades at the end of each block of learning time, and those grades have become a proxy for success in life.

Listening to Gretchen Rubin‘s latest podcast, which included a parenting segment with Dr. Elizabeth Schwarz, resonated strongly for me. In their conversation, Gretchen and Elizabeth ask what is important about school. You can listen to the full discussion, but in short, their answer is socializing and learning to learn: “The actual material is not so important.”

We are in a time in Ontario, when grades don’t matter. For once, if Alex doesn’t complete that Math worksheet with 24 multiplication questions, it won’t really make a difference. Samira won’t have to write a final exam where she answers 15 multiple choice questions about the structure and behaviour of matter. Blair won’t need to finish the comprehension questions on that passage from Homer.

I’ve believed for years that grades shouldn’t be necessary and that we do a disservice to children, teenagers and adults by insisting on this ranking of their learning. If we believe that the purpose of school is to learn, that it’s for “students to learn and grow to their full potential in a diverse world” as my district states in the mission statement, then the focus should always be on learning, not on the grade.

So what’s the answer for now? While the pandemic threatens all of us, there are also opportunities. I wonder how learning can look without some of our formalized structures. Parents should feel good about all they’re doing to love, take care of and learn with their kids. Talking about family and our place in the natural and artificial world, preparing meals together, doing some home projects, caring for pets, or going for walks in the neighbourhood mean valuable time with family and also time to learn how to learn. Educators are helping by posting provocations, interesting questions, or problem solving challenges instead of pages of questions and worksheets.

We don’t need to worry so much about our young people keeping up. We need to worry about how they socialize, imagine, play and think.

*When I use “parents”, I mean parents, guardians and caregivers.

How Do You Want Families to Feel on the First Day of School?

With thanks to Pernille Ripp for title inspiration.

My nieces and and nephew just started at new schools in Washington, D.C. after a move across the country. They were excited and nervous, as you would expect. And so were my brother and sister-in-law. They didn’t know exactly what to expect either and wanted their kids to have a great first day. As educators, we often forget how parents may feel approaching a new school year.

Photo Credit: baggyjumper via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: baggyjumper via Compfight cc

I’ve recently read some excellent back-to-school posts by amazing educators Jose Vilson, Pernille Ripp and Stephen Hurley about caring for students, planning for the emotional side of the classroom, and co-creating a classroom with students. This stuff is really important!

And yet… we also need to think about families. We might be able to come up with a list of words to describe how we would like them to feel, like welcome, happy, included, or confident. How do our actions actually achieve these?

I was not always the most welcoming teacher or principal. In fact, when I look back over some of the things I did, I cringe. I acted like I knew what was best for students and their families. But I didn’t, a fact that it took me a few years and experiences and the modeling of some really great teacher and principal mentors to realize.

Have you ever done this exercise after a learning session?  “I used to think…. but now I think…” It’s a great way to give yourself permission to leave behind old ways of doing things that were not the best and commit to making a change. So I’ll go: “I used to think that parents should leave me alone and let me do my job, but now I think that if they know how much I value their child and their input, we can do a great job together.”

So what does that mean for the first day of school and welcoming families? How about a big fat smile that stretches your face and no curt or frustrated words? How about having parents bring students to classrooms for the first day (or maybe a first week?) How about free coffee or tea on the playground for adults as they arrive? Expand on these to fit your school and your context.

I’ll let Maya Angelou have the last word with a quote I always need to keep in mind:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”


My Name Is…

Back to School posts are everywhere! It’s that time of year after all. It’s great to read about caring, relationship building, visioning. That is all super important. We know that if students and teachers don’t feel valued at school or if there aren’t good relationships, success for everyone goes waaaay down. But I think there may be a missing ingredient when it comes to relationship building, at least from the posts I read.

What about the students’ names?  

Rusul Alrubail tweeted this out recently:

The link takes you to a really great post called “10 Ways Well-Meaning White Teachers Bring Racism Into Our Schools” and it’s a must-read. Even though it uses an american lens, we can’t let ourselves believe that these things don’t happen in canadian schools too. It made me uncomfortable, since I recognize myself in some of them, but that was good. How else can I continue to face and question my ingrained biases?

Rusul had a conversation about number 4: Intentionally or Unintentionally Mispronouncing Names on Twitter (you can go here to see the whole conversation) which I jumped in on. I, too, believe that naming is powerful. It is also political. There is a long standing tradition in Canada of changing the names of those who come to our shared country when they don’t suit our English or French tongues. I’m really glad that this tradition has almost died out. When we don’t pronounce student or colleagues’ names properly, we diminish ourselves and each other. It’s a message that you’re not that important. And using the excuse of “it’s just too hard” or “those names are crazy!” (yes, I’ve heard that) isn’t OK. 

Rusul’s post, Growing up with my name, is a window into how it feels. Her humour and gentleness in dealing with this subject is inspiring.  I know I’m going to keep making those efforts to pronounce others’ names correctly. I hope you are too.