RE@LReview:"It Will Take a Village to Open Schools Safely" - Journalist, John Merrow

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RE@L-logo_Corp_TM_New-Tag_8-15-17_CMYK-300x127Given our national concern on how to open our K12 schools to 55+ million students, it’s imperative we all are aware of two, key considerations of “Time” and “Space.”

Einstein can’t help us here, but nationally known journalist, John Merrow, has some helpful insights that can help.

This RE@LReport™ is taken from one of Mr. Merrow’s recent blogs. Time and Space are indeed the keys to maximizing “who, what, where, when and why” needed for optimal teaching and learning. RE@L presents Mr. Merrow’s helpful review of what we need to do! Read on:

merrow Graphic“John Merrow is an American broadcast journalist who reported on education issues starting in the 1970s. He was the education correspondent for the PBS NewsHour program. These features – often under the umbrella heading of “The Merrow Report” – were a staple of education reporting on public broadcasting.”

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“When public schools closed in March because of the pandemic, a different U.S. President would have said to the education community, “Children, their parents, teachers, and the economy will need schools to open in the fall, so please tell me how the Federal Government can help.” Educators must focus on providing safe and challenging learning opportunities–in schools or in other physical spaces.  This desirable and essential goal can be achieved by forming alliances with other public agencies, businesses, non-profits, and politicians. In other words, it will take a village to open schools.

ss-logo-new-2019Two priorities cannot be compromised or negotiated: 1) Keep everyone safe, with frequent testing, social distancing, and adequate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment);  and 2) Create genuine learning opportunities, rather than simply replicating semesters, work sheets, 50-minute periods, and everything else that schools routinely do.  Quite literally, everything else should be on the table, subject to change.

Serious ‘out of the box’ thinking begins with re-examining how schools traditionally use time and space.

Start with space.  No public school was designed for social distancing, and very few public schools have enough extra room–like the gym–to create safe spaces, even with the reduced ‘3 foot spacing’ recommended by the nation’s pediatricians.  That’s why many school districts (including New York City) have announced plans for a ‘hybrid’ approach in which all students are at home at least part of the time, while others (including Los Angeles and San Diego) have announced that all instruction will be remote for the first half of the school year.

UnknownBut there’s an important alternative: find new spaces and convert them for instruction.  Spaces that are empty at least part of the day are everywhere: Houses of worship, meeting rooms at the local Y or Boys & Girls Club, theaters, and–because of the recession–vacant storefronts and offices.  It will take some political leadership, but the 3rd Grade could meet at the Y, the 5th Grade at the Methodist Church, the 9th Grade at what used to be a shoe store, and so on….

By dramatically expanding the spaces available for instruction, social distancing becomes possible and schools are now safe places to be.  What’s more, everyone goes to school at the same time: no split days with noon starts, and so forth.

Now consider time.

Right now schools divide the year into semesters and (except in the early grades) the day into subject periods.  Because these traditional (and convenient) concepts are not based on how children learn, educators should be prepared to abandon them.

For example, those 9th Graders who are meeting daily at the old shoe store can spend a month doing a deep dive into American history, one of their required courses.  Because no one could tolerate an entire day–let alone a month–of reading chapters, lectures, discussion, and regurgitation, teachers and students must imagine new ways to study our nation’s past.

Screen Shot 2020-07-30 at 12.13.22 PMProject-based learning should become the pedagogy of choice. Teams of students might explore their city’s history or dig into the back stories of the men who signed The Declaration of Independence, for example.  They could interview (via Zoom) local veterans of recent wars and use those memories to help write the story of the conflict.  What monuments can be found in the city or town, and what is their history?  Or pick a prominent building in the town or city and dig into its history: who built it, and why?  Hundreds of interesting questions and projects, none of them cookie-cutter.

Other sections of the ninth grade might convene at a different store front or a house of worship for their own deep dive. Ideally at some point all the ninth graders will go back to their high school, where they would dig deeply into another subject but also have the chance to see each other.

Monthly deep dives into history, biology, English literature, and other subjects are a pathway to genuine expertise and understanding; what’s more, this approach has the strong support of the American Academy of Pediatrics.   Immersion will also be the death knell of skimming the surface of subjects, surely an educational outcome we can get behind.

imagesThis Spring’s 3-month shutdown shone a harsh light on glaring inequities. Nationwide, about 14% of homes with school-age children do not have internet access, and in some school systems as many as 40 percent of students reportedly did not have computers or internet access.  But rather than hand-wringing, this is another opportunity for thinking differently. 

Why not do as Third World countries do? Forget computers and rely instead on low-cost cell phones, which will provide internet access and can be set up without long distance calling privileges.  What’s more, the money school districts are not spending on standardized ‘bubble’ tests (which have been cancelled) could help pay for the phones, and many long-distance providers have already expressed their willingness to be part of the solution.

Communities also have valuable resources they can tap into: Well-educated retirees, younger adults who have lost their jobs, and college students whose campuses have closed. After thorough vetting, some can be hired as teacher aides, and perhaps arrangements can be made so the college students receive credit toward their degree.

These are bold moves, but school districts that have already experienced the inadequacies of ‘remote learning’ might now be receptive to new ideas and approaches.

And what about teachers?  Are they willing and able to retool themselves as professionals?  After all, month-long blocks and project-based learning will be as new to most teachers as they are to students?  That’s a fair question, and perhaps some will not be able to meet the test, at least initially.  But many teachers will prosper in situations that demand the very best of them. Moreover, many students will benefit from having more control over their own learning….

images-1….While reopening most public schools is both possible and desirable, it won’t happen unless we think outside the box.  The state reopening plans I am familiar with focus on three options: full open, partial open, and remote learning, with no discussion of looking for new spaces or the use of time.  I don’t think that’s sufficient.  Reopening schools–once it’s safe– will require imaginative and courageous state and local leadership.

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it will take the support of the village to open its public schools.”

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Thanks to John Merrow for his helpful analysis of the changes in Space and Time needed this coming school year. Now is the time to create a plan that works better for the K12 students we serve!

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Tom King & Dale LaFrenz

Dr. Tom King has served for over 40 years as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Saint Thomas in the School of Education. The Saturn School of Tomorrow, formerly a St. Paul Public School, was his visionary response to educational reform needed in K-12 schools. Saturn was a lighthouse on the frontier of school change. Tom served as an experienced high school mathematics teacher, a school administrator at Saturn School and Director of Technology for the St. Paul MN Public Schools. Tom is also a member of the RE@L Team ----- Dr. Dale LaFrenz is Chairman of RE@L, Inc and one of the founders of MECC, Inc - the Minnesota company that brought “Oregon Trail” and more than a hundred products to millions of K12 students across the world. His work in building new paths for MECC’s “consumer” market” was instrumental in the start of an Industry in K12 EdTECH: including school-markets, students, teachers and parents. RE@L Inc continues to serve K12 as a LearningProduct "launching pad" for schools, online learning and the rapidly growing STEM market as a whole.