As I was getting ready to write my year-end post about what I learned in 2020, I stopped to read Jal Mehta’s article, “Make Schools More Human.” I was drawn to the title like a moth to a flame, having felt for years that we have created an overly rigid matrix resulting in stressed out kids, exhausted teachers, and anxious parents, each of which I have been at one or many points. Still, when school shut down for the first time in my lifetime in March — and this was no gleeful string of snow days like what sometimes happened when I was growing up in the 1980’s — I felt both excitement and panic. School is my life. Like Dewey, I believe that being alive is being in school, and vice versa. If being a student and an educator this year meant interacting over Zoom, sitting alone or masked at a safe distance from other people, and rereading words a million times to try to make sense of them amid waves of seismic distraction, then so be it. That was this year’s school of life, this year’s life in school, and it was not only a requirement but an honor to be a part of it.
And yet it was not a lot of fun to learn this year. The learning was uncomfortable and hard in ways that few could have imagined. The discomfort came not just from how we learned this year — sitting alone for hours on end, our eyes drying out, our backsides growing sore, our minds endlessly distracted by texts, emails, news, the desire to snack, to make more coffee — but also from what we learned this year. 2020 was a year of hard losses, lessons, facts.
We learned that we could not, individually at least, safeguard our own loved ones, institutions, communities, or country. It was not in our small, personal power to stop the actual or rhetorical violence around us, just as it was not in our collective power to stop the coronavirus from spreading like wildfire to silence us or steal our breath. We were not unified in or by our beliefs, wants, needs, or hopes, and little holes in the fabric covering us all left us suddenly cold. We learned from this struggle, though; we stopped taking for granted our nourishment and our freedom to socialize, and we rediscovered our heartfelt love for things we thought we didn’t have time for and people we forgot we really needed.
So Mehta is right when he says that when we all go back to school in 2021, we need to make school — and society as a whole — more aligned to our humanity. To make school more human in ’21, we first and foremost need to ensure greater equity for students regardless of their backgrounds and socioeconomic status. This is and has long been true, but now is time for it to be realized since the last nine months has laid bare, perhaps as never before in my memory, our country’s structural inequality. From March to December, some American children received an excellent education, whether remote, hybrid, or in-person. It was far from ideal, but it continued to propel them forward. During that same time period, however, many more American children received a sub-par education, one that fell way short of whatever they had been receiving pre-pandemic. Any number of things worsened their educational experience: they did not have access to technology; they did not have quiet or safety at home; their parent or parents were working on the frontlines, perhaps as a nurse or hospital custodian, and rendered even less available or more at risk than before; or they did not feel happy, well, or connected enough to get anything out of the time they say staring at their computer screen. No matter the reason, the divide has only grown.
To make school more human, we also need to reimagine the ways in which schools set children up to receive and learn information. We have known for some time that people learn differently; now, when we go back to school, we need to let them. To make school more human, we should start school later, at least some of the time, and give children more breaks in the school day, all of the time. Now that we are thinking about it, why should we stick with the semester framework, the seven-period day, the 40-minute class? To make school more human, we need to continue to think about how we use time and space so that learning feels vital to our lives in the sense that it is unique to us and to the specific context and community we inhabit. Standardization belongs to the last century; personalization to this one.
Mehta says, and I agree, that the pandemic did not show us anything that we didn’t already sort of or totally know. The classrooms that thrived during the pandemic were the ones where “teachers built strong relationships and warm communities.” To learn, we need other people — urgently. “Relationships are critical for learning,” writes Mehta. The relationship that was most critical to my learning this year was with my 12-year-old daughter, who has been home more or less since March and who was mostly agreeable every time I asked her to take a walk with me down to the beach near our house. Early in our daily walks, I taught her about the littoral zone, that thin line of sea-smoothed ocean-debris that changes with every tide. Many days since March, we have treasure hunted there, finding everything from sea glass to crabs to iridescent shells so paper thin they snapped in half as we slid them into our pockets.
Something about holding her hand as we passed and filled time, about having her as my companion for nearly every pandemic minute, both grounded me and challenged me. A 12-year-old child can seem like an infinite well of need, want, hope, and feeling. Trying to answer her many questions, trying to think of questions to ask her so that she could talk to someone, trying to motivate us both to push our bodies away from the undertow of our devices, saying yes to another round of cards and another game of Monopoly, saying yes to mid-morning hot chocolate and one more episode at night, saying no to her half-hearted request to see a friend — these were assignments no one wrote for either of us, but we managed to complete and even, sometimes, enjoy. We knew how fortunate we were to learn what we could together.
2020 was a learning year — a year of outrage, confusion, and grief; of listening and watching; of sitting for long stretches of time with discordant thoughts that needed to be processed and synthesized in new ways; a year of discovery and invention. It was a year of noticing, of taking long walks along the same paths and realizing that if we could just pay attention in different ways each time, we were sure to find something new at our feet. In these ways, 2020 was, in fact, a very human year. 2021 will be even more so when together we apply our learning from this year in school and life forward.