On March 19th 2020, as New York City’s 1.1 million students prepared to be home for their first full week of Covid-19 school closures, this was also the day when the largest school district in the United States offered laptops to more than 300, 000 students. These laptops, along with acquired WIFI access codes, if needed, were going to be the primary tool by which the district’s distance learning protocols were to be activated. With other districts in New York state closing their schools, as well as other states such as Ohio and California shutting down their schools statewide, New York City, with all deliberate speed, soon followed. All of these, and other school districts, closed their physical doors, and opened up virtual ones to facilitate continued educative processes for the millions of students no longer receiving direct instruction within their traditional walled settings. Given this global crisis, much of what is current societal practice is now being questioned, re-defined, and reapplied to accommodate these local, state, and national closures. Our educational structures are no different and not absolved of temporary and possibly permanent changes to teaching and learning as well as the mechanisms in these pedagogical processes.
As a social studies educator of over 23 years, I, as well as my three children, are home and fully immersed in the distance learning process. In such short notice and pedagogical preparation, my students are receiving work in the Google Classroom platform as well as accompanying videos from www.study.com to support my visual learners. Thankfully, I have been using these two web tools for several years now, in order to facilitate the creation of digital notebooks, sharing of dynamic curricula materials, saving their work in the Cloud, going paperless, as well as providing digital formative assessments. Thriving settings of teaching and learning are going to need time, activities, spaces (physical and/or virtual) and sets of protocols baked into the culture of a district, school and/or classroom that allows for opportunities towards the sustained inquiry needed to deconstruct the material provided. These methods of deconstruction would include formal and informal Socratic discussions and class debates. These deconstructions would need spaces for cooperative learning systems of collaborative group work in order to better process material, practice generating questions of their peers as well as their teachers. Furthermore, these settings would also need to encompass opportunities and space for body-kinesthetic learning where students have opportunities to virtually or even physically move into multiple different groups to learn from a variety of their peers.
Given the large number of students now removed from the physical walls of a dynamic classroom, these virtual walls must be as engaging and accommodating to the needs and wholeness of 21s century students. In this emerging world of distance learning, these new digital settings should be able to address the different learning styles and intelligences of their students. There must be continued opportunities to maximize the different subjects of the school curricula to, what Lisa Delpit extended from Martin Haberman in a description of “good teaching happening”, have students be involved with authentic concerns, deep analysis of human differences, move beyond isolated facts to connect big ideas, develop application opportunities towards equity and justice, be placed in heterogeneous groupings, deconstruct and construct new knowledge, have students collaboratively reading, polishing, and perfecting their work, and provide opportunities for students to reflect on and develop solutions that stem from the curricula and their own lives (Delpit, 2012).
What can’t happen, in the face of these innovative answers to this crisis or beyond, is the maintenance of a provincial status quo of teacher-centered lectures for 45-60 minutes per period, students working and learning in isolation, the curricula not being made to culturally address the audience it serves nor adopt career based pedagogy, and measuring students predominantly through standardized formative and summative assessments. Whereas I am not willing to accept just any innovation that is presented, particularly to triage students in this Covid-19 crisis, I am also not willing to maintain a status quo that could continuously be debilitating to students of all backgrounds and SES levels. Thus, a traditional physical classroom that also incorporates cooperative learning structures such as a formal class debate of whether the social media revolution is successful or unsuccessful, a week-long activity my classes did to connect contemporary revolutions with various 18th,19th & 20th century socio-political and economic revolutions, could take advantage of the ZOOM “Breakout Rooms” in order to incorporate the smaller confidence-building interactions for preparation. A traditional physical classroom that was incorporating Socratic Seminar discussions around a critical video such as “The Storm That Swept Mexico” or contemporary reports from varying perspectives about the Arizona House Bill 2281, proposing the ending of ethnic studies in Arizona, which reflects the audience I serve, in order to render their culture visible in the social studies curriculum, may continue these critical conversations through Flipgrid. This platform would not only allow for the critical inquiry needed for such an activity but do so in a way that creates a possibility of an easier point of entry into the discussion through created video responses to our Socratic prompts.
Nevertheless, there are some elements of attempting to develop the whole child that virtual classrooms may not be able to fully replicate. Body Kinesthetic intelligences and corresponding activities help to support my students who like to move, dance, wiggle, and walk. In the place of body Kinesthetic activities in the physical classroom, breathing, meditating, stretching exercises in ZOOM Gallery View can help to mitigate the lack of full movement opportunities. Also, to simulate movement in these distance learning settings, virtual travel can be incorporated in the learning of the social studies units. When students learn about an area in the world, there are digital platforms that can virtually have them travel and engage in the imaginative walking of the streets within a study abroad. Another way is through students creating video expressions of all types around that which are in their instructional units. Once again, platforms such as Flipgrid, IMOVIE, Kinemsater, Google Sites and others can be options to help students be more agency based and action-oriented towards opportunities to show what they know through project based learning.These are all of particular importance as many of our localities are voluntarily or forced to be more sedentary. It is this lack of movement, especially in these times of increased anxiety and concerns over immune-system health that could work to increase realities of increased social-emotional and physical health risks.
This Covid-19 phenomena has ushered in a set of thinking and practices that are forcing the many sectors of society to re-think the existing norms and re-imagine new norms. Whether it be health care, job security, food insecurity, and certainly education, we are all in a place where the elasticity of our imaginations are being called upon. Even though the traditional four walls of the school building were nowhere near equitable havens for critical pedagogical practices, those engaging in these balanced practices can find solace in many of the existing and emerging platforms that can attempt to help educators develop in getting our students prepared for the thinking world.
Alprentice McCutchen holds a B.A in History and African-American Studies from Wesleyan University, a Masters in Teaching of Social Studies from Teachers College, Columbia University and an M.A in Islamic Studies from Middlesex University. Alprentice has spent a good portion of his 23-year professional career developing curricula and providing workshops that integrate Socratic inquiry, debate, student action, performance based assessments, project based learning and critical writing as part of his work to help develop students who will contribute to the thinking world. Alprentice is currently a history teacher at New Rochelle High School, an assistant Imam of Masjid Sabur Inc. in the Bronx, NY as well as a Phd student at the CUNY Graduate Center in the Urban Education program. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin.
The Caucus is a collective of educational leaders working together to improve equity in education and advocating for what works. This blog series presents our ideas and invites you to join the conversation as a call to take action!