It’s almost Labor Day again. Ordinarily, teachers have received their welcome-back-to-school letters, in which principals dutifully gush about how innovative the coming year is going to be thanks to the cutting-edge canned program the district leadership team purchased over the summer without consulting anyone who’d actually be using it. There’s usually also a memo from the superintendent praising the district leadership team and reminding us we’re all here “for the kids,” as well as a three-volume agenda for the first faculty meeting.
This year’s mailings needed to cover a few additional issues, like whether school will be in-person, virtual or hybrid, whether masks will be required or suggested, and the tentative timetable for encasing students in Plexiglas.
Nobody likes to imagine a 5-year-old — or 50-year-old — behind a mask all day. We need a little perspective, though. If Syrian children can endure Syria, American students should be able to bear cloth masks for a few hours a day.
As for civil liberties, which right is more important — my right to avoid discomfort by shopping maskless at the supermarket, or your right to a reduced risk of catching the virus from me in the produce department? Applying the same principle at school, a child’s preferential right to not wear a mask is less morally compelling than other children’s right to a reasonable chance of health and safety.
My right to drink doesn’t entitle me to drive drunk on the road I share with you.
Anyone wishing to assert their Constitutional right to not wear a mask needs to take their complaint to James Madison because he left that particular liberty out of the Constitution.
This is also the season when generalized back-to-school suggestions fill the paper pages of magazines and the silicon pages of the internet. This year these, too, needed COVID-19 revisions. One preview that caught Poor Elijah’s attention focused on what schools should teach.
Given that we don’t know whether teachers and students will be in the same room, or if they are, how long it will take for someone to test positive and change those best laid plans, it’s not unreasonable to expect that “instruction this fall will have to look different.”
It’s also necessary when planning for this fall to reckon with what students didn’t learn last spring when the virus closed most of the nation’s schools.
Experts spotlighted in the preview caution that teachers should “fight the impulse” to start this year with “quarter four from last year” because that will make students even “farther behind.” The problem is it’s not an “impulse.” Most teachers carefully weigh what we need and want to teach our students.
It’s true that there won’t be time for all the digressions we would have taken and all the supplementary topics we would have covered. Teachers need to accept that unless we create an extra pandemic 13th grade, some things aren’t going to get taught.
On the other hand, there’s a reason last year was supposed to have a fourth quarter. Skipping the skills and knowledge students were supposed to learn then will cost them more than time and really leave them “farther behind.”
Given the class time lost last year and that we’re likely to lose this year, it will be even more necessary than usual to “focus on the most important work.” This will mean compressing lesson plans and moving faster, and leaving things out entirely. Expecting otherwise makes as little sense as believing that the virus itself will one day just “go away.”
It’s easy to say that teachers should “cover only the essential standards,” but deciding in second grade that telling time on an analog clock isn’t essential is how eighth graders writing the time on hall passes wind up staring blankly at my classroom wall clock. Some topics that aren’t dear to reformers’ hearts are nonetheless useful.
The virus offers policymakers an opportunity to select emergency measures and practices from their menu of longstanding reform favorites. For example, even as they cut content to fit fewer class hours, reformers call on teachers to redouble their efforts to “support students’ social-emotional health.”
I enjoy my students’ company. I care when they laugh and when they hurt. But with time so limited, this is the ideal opportunity to restore primary responsibility for students’ social-emotional development to their families.
With regard to academics, the preview equates the knowledge and skills “most important to students’ future success” with classroom instruction that emphasizes “depth rather than breadth,” which is code for reformers’ disdain for content, a bias that explains why so many students know so little.
Depth isn’t preferable to breadth. Both are vital. The key, with or without a virus, lies in establishing a reasonable balance and reasonable expectations.
It’s reasonable to teach a reading unit by doing a solid job with two stories instead of racing through the usual four.
It’s reasonable for teachers in successive grades to confer about what students did and didn’t learn last year, and what they’ll most need to know for next year.
Since parents will be cast in the role of “teacher” more often than usual, it’s reasonable to set aside some of the esoteric math methodology that characterizes the Common Core.
And it’s reasonable to believe that American students can survive an irregular semester, provided we keep a balance between hard work and a sense of humor.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.