April 14 — 3:47 pm, 2020

Schools should use pandemic to teach important lessons

"Now is the time to break the rules [and] plunge students into what will likely be the most important event of their lifetimes."

Huntly Collins

Around the globe, school closures have affected more than 1.5 billion elementary and secondary students, including more than 202,000 in Philadelphia. As the shutdown of school buildings stretches from days into weeks and weeks into months, the question on the minds of many parents is not whether the lives of their children are endangered by the COVID-19 pandemic, but whether their children will lose academic ground when they learn online.

The concern is understandable given our culture’s obsession with academic credentials, but the worry is misplaced. A larger concern should be whether schools are rising to their potential and making the most of the pandemic to teach important lessons.

Judging by the plans put forward by public school systems across the country, the schools are trying to carry on as usual, albeit by computer. They are adhering to state-mandated curricular goals, teaching to the achievement tests aimed at measuring those goals, and taking care to maintain retention and graduation rates.

Although all of that may be important, now is not the time to go by the rule books. Now is the time to break the rules, plunge students into what will likely be the most important event of their lifetimes, and come up with creative ideas for helping students observe and explore the dramatic changes in the culture – and in their own lives – resulting from a virus that has reached every continent in the world.

In Philadelphia, where classrooms will be shuttered until the start of the new academic year on orders of Gov. Wolf, District officials have been racing to distribute some 50,000 Chromebooks so teachers can continue to teach and children can continue to learn during the COVID crisis. But the critical question is, what lessons should teachers be teaching via distance learning?

If it is just the usual, then a major teaching opportunity is lost.

As Paulo Freire and other education thought-leaders have pointed out, students learn best when the learning is connected to their lived experience. Today, the lived experience of students in large urban school districts like Philadelphia’s revolves around extreme dislocation – single parents laid off from work, the cupboard getting bare when the money runs short, the landlord threatening eviction when the rent isn’t paid on time.

Instead of adhering to the standard curriculum, teachers across the District need to invent new lessons that meet students where they are. Creative teachers are already doing this. But most rank-and-file teachers will need encouragement and direction from educational leaders to gear their lessons toward what’s actually going on in the world right now.

Some subjects, such as history, lend themselves to revision for relevance to the current crisis. The yellow fever epidemic in colonial Philadelphia, for instance, holds powerful lessons that apply to today’s pandemic. Back then, the power elite, including President George Washington, headed for the Germantown countryside to ride out the epidemic, while enslaved and free blacks stayed behind to take care of the sick and dying.

Other subjects, like math, require a little more inventiveness. But what math teacher could pass up the opportunity to use the ever-escalating numbers of sick and dead, which students encounter whenever they turn on the television, to teach about percentages, exponential growth vs. linear growth, and graphing?

In English, students might be asked to keep a journal of their own experiences during the pandemic, sharing their stories with one another via Zoom. Or, they might be given writing prompts and asked to use their creativity to respond. An example: write an essay about how your pet (or someone else’s pet) is benefiting from the pandemic.

Literature? For small children, try Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. For older children, Camus’ The Plague, even though often interpreted as an allegory about the French resistance to the Nazis, provides a realistic account of a 19th-century cholera epidemic.

All of these lessons can be delivered via laptop – or, for that matter, via cell phone or traditional radio and television. It’s puzzling why the Philadelphia School District opted for laptops, as opposed to cheaper cell phones, or why it didn’t partner up with WHYY to provide TV broadcasting of lessons.

But beyond academic learning, the pandemic also offers an opportunity to teach some of life’s major lessons. For this, parents, as opposed to teachers, are likely the best mentors. Teach children how to sit with those who are sitting alone. Teach them why it might be important to carry in the neighbor’s groceries. No matter the nasty rhetoric they see on TV or on their social media feeds, teach them how important it is to look for the good in every person. Teach them that, no matter how much we are all individuals, we are all connected by our common humanity and our susceptibility to a virus that doesn’t care whether you are rich or poor, whether you are black or white, whether you live in Philadelphia or Gaborone, Botswana.

Of course, the bean counters will go nuts over this. And some parents, eager for their children to “get ahead,” might object as well. But so be it. This is likely a once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity. It must not be squandered in the interest of the educational bureaucracy.

Huntly Collins, a contributor to The Public School Notebook and former Inquirer reporter, holds a master’s degree in education and has taught in high school and college.

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