A Modest Proposal
Updated: Jun 24, 2021
Elementary schools are learning very different lessons from the pandemic than their secondary and higher education peers. Here's my prescription for the first semester at independent elementary schools next year, particularly the PreK - 2 group.
Make every moment at school in person, real time, 3D. We've spent this year gathering feedback on the ineffectiveness of remote learning for young learners. For the handful of students who thrived academically with remote learning, the question should not be how can we provide them with more isolating screen time, but how can we scaffold the social experience of living and collaborating with others at school so that these students grow socially and academically. There will be much social learning to make up for everyone. Finally, many parents are profoundly worried about how the pandemic drew their children into what seemed like an unhealthy amount of screen time. They're also tired of the unhappy roles the pandemic forced them into with their children--tech support, nag, jailor, surveillance operative. The first grade teacher who in the early weeks of school designs a flipped lesson that casts parents as "learning concierges" or the parent who pops into the classroom midday and discovers all of the second graders staring at laptops will be triggering moments, nuclear caliber in some cases. And for good reason.
We'll leave aside the specious value of homework for young children, and if somehow your school has been badgered over time into providing homework for early elementary kids, now's your chance to ditch it. The pandemic has set a pick for you. Kids will be exhausted in the early going and readjusting to life without restrictions. Families will be recalibrating their internal dynamics. Some will jump all at once back into the long list of after school activities they left behind 18 months ago. . . and regret it. Give them a break.
For many educators, school moved outdoors for a big chunk of the 2020-2021 school year. Teachers found neighborhood resources, impromptu discovery projects, freedom from some of the unhappy indoor spaces to which we artificially restrict ourselves. Let's keep using the outdoors for learning.
Concern about lost learning is the flip side to the respite from overseeing schoolwork that parents will appreciate in the early going. In a recent white paper, "The Impact of COVID-19 School Closures on Student Learning," Tom Rochon and Aaron Shuman at ERB suggest that parents have good reason to be concerned: "Learning growth in Math, Reading Comprehension, and Writing Concepts and Skills was 30% higher in 2018–2019 than in 2019–2020. There was also a 50% slowing of growth in Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning, showing that loss of classroom interaction affected the ability to use knowledge to solve problems more than the ability to acquire knowledge in the first place." The losses were particularly dramatic for students with lower levels of academic achievement. Independent school leaders must communicate how the school will balance the rebuilding of social and academic skills starting with the letters that accompany end of year progress reports, and continuing over the summer, perhaps in a public-facing format similar to the COVID plans that appeared on schools' websites last summer. Independent schools learned a great deal about effective communication this year. We led with empathy and transparency and distinguished ourselves thereby. Schools should go straight back to that playbook this spring and summer.
Forming parent community has always been one of the great strengths of elementary schools (especially if the school is working on this consciously as a retention and marketing strategy), and after a year of relative isolation from other adults, parents are more eager than ever to be together. Why not make it your school? Give them a reason (i.e. bagels) to linger after drop off, or hang out for a popsicle and outdoor dance party at after care pick up (a brilliant, once a month strategy instituted by the after care staff at a school I know), and think carefully about the convenience of remote conferences, curriculum night, particularly in what you'll lose in terms intimacy of the experience and the collateral opportunity for parents to connect. As an elementary head, I always felt the success of curriculum night could be measured in part by the groups of parents lingering in groups afterwards or heading off together for a quick drink before relieving the babysitter.