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School in Uncertain Times: It Counts. And You're Doing Enough!

Here in Michigan, as in many other states, our Governor has spoken. There will be no school as we knew it for the rest of the school year. Educators and students are grieving the loss of all the milestones for their students and all the “lasts” for their seniors. Districts are scrambling to determine what the rest of this school year will be like, which leaves teachers, parents and students asking questions about credit, grades, graduation, classes and the big one: Why bother offering school at all? What will it count for?

Many of these questions don’t have answers yet, because no one in the entire state has yet figured it out. Each school district in Michigan has until April 28 to formulate a plan which will answer all these questions and more. Districts are currently weighing their options: online classes, meeting with students over the phone, paper assignments sent through the mail, grades, credit and/or pass/fail options, a longer school year, a “balanced calendar," year round school, and many more. Districts must consider all their students in every grade. This will take time!

In the meantime, the questions are still out there: Why bother? Does it count?

The answer is yes! Teachers, keep teaching. Students, keep learning. It’s important and it counts. And here’s why:

School is a safe place

For many of our students, school is first and foremost a safe place to be. They come to school knowing they will be cared for while they’re there. There are adults there they can trust.

This doesn’t change when school is not in session. Students still look to their school for connection with adults they trust, for food and other basic necessities. And I see school districts and educators stepping up to the plate, distributing breakfasts, lunches and equipment and doing their best to maintain connections with their students.

One teacher I know started meeting with her students online twice a week. Her students insisted that they should have class every day. They needed the connection with her and with each other, as well as something with a regular schedule to anchor their day. Other teachers are sending hand written notes (yes, through the mail!) or driving through neighborhoods to maintain connection. I also see students striving to maintain that connection, collaborating on fun videos, meeting in gaming sites, making signs for their windows and yards.

Human connection is hard wired into us. Our mental and physical health depend on it. The connections of school fulfill basic human needs of safety, security and belonging.

Whatever you’re doing to maintain those connections, it counts! And it's enough.

Learning is enjoyable

The act of learning is intrinsically enjoyable; just ask any video game designer. They have mastered the art and science of mixing challenge and learning to create experiences we can’t tear ourselves away from!

As educators, often because of the structure of the system, we long for that sweet spot, where learning is student centered and student driven, serving a purpose and a need, challenging enough but not so challenging as to be a barrier.

This time of online learning is an opportunity to explore learning for learning’s sake and for students to understand better how they learn. Assignments could be as simple as telling the story of their day and their life during this extraordinary time. Work could be written, a video of interpretive dance, or visual art. Class meetings then would be a meeting of the minds, questioning and critiquing each others’ work. Students could then be asking questions, driven by a need to know and understand. Assignments would not only be meaningful, but a way to help students process and communicate their experience. And isn’t that what education should look like?

Recapturing the joy of learning improves all the metrics schools are looking for. Teacher retention, student engagement and achievement all improve when school is driven by student interest. This could be a great time to explore what that could look like.

If you’re exploring new ideas about learning and the world around you, it counts! And it's enough.

Student centered education is the new normal

Ellis Marsalis, the great educator and father to a generation of jazz musicians was asked once how he taught improvisation. He said, “We don’t teach jazz, we teach students.” Right now, we are all improvising, re-imagining what school looks like. The more it looks like teaching students, instead of distributing knowledge, the better it will be. Because then our students will know all the jazz they need to know.

It's tough! And it's messy. And it counts! And it’s enough.

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