Our Kids
Glen Herbert - Editor

Glen Herbert
Editor/Writer, Our Kids Media

January, 2021

We are prone to thinking that all the changes we’ve seen aren’t lasting, and that someday everything will be like it was, the vaccine serving as a time-machine taking us back to 2019. But of course it will never be the same. On the other side of the pandemic, we’ll be changed. We’ll think of what we’ve lost—time, people—but there will be lots of new behaviours, new tools, and academic postures, that we’ll take with us as we move away from all of this.

We’ll have a renewed sense of what a classroom is. “Covid has hastened the pace of a shift toward trying to take better advantage of the outdoors,” says Maria Libby, a superintendent in Rockport, Maine. Her board mandated that classes be held outside. “The outside provides much more flexibility,” said Sharon Danks with the National Covid-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative. “You can have a six-foot-apart seating chart, and have enough space to move around.” Rain and shine, many—kids and teachers alike—have been reluctant to head back inside.

In a sense, the Danes have been doing it for years, and schools in Canada, such as Rosseau Lake College and Meadowridge, have as well. The day I visited Meadowridge pre-COVID, James Willms was preparing to take the Grade 3 students out for a mindfulness program based on the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing.” But that’s different. What we’ve learned is that being outside isn’t necessarily about being in nature, or at least only about being in nature. It's about not needing walls in order to convene a classroom.

Ironically, Zoom has taught us the same lesson. A year ago, most of us—me at least—had never heard of it, let alone knew where the microphone button was (this despite the fact that it was launched in 2012, which seems a bit implausible). But now we’re all Zoom-literate, and that means more than simply being able to navigate the interface. We’re comfortable reaching out, calling meetings that include people who are geographically remote. It seems that a classroom isn’t a room after all, it’s a group of people asking questions and discovering things together. This seems obvious, but why didn’t we get out more? Why did we wait until we had to?

We’ll have more tools to use to ask questions, to animate curiosities, to grade exams—the list goes on—than ever before. “You can’t say, ‘I left my paper at home,’” said a ninth-grade student recently. “Everything is in OneNote for teachers to see. I have to stay on top of my work.”

Fair enough. The principal at my son’s middle school recently wondered during a parent council meeting that maybe we’ll always have the quarterly council meetings on Zoom, given that, if nothing else, attendance was more consistent. She has a point. Scheduling, assessment, communication between school and home has grown in new ways, and it’s perhaps inconceivable that we’ll want to go back, in every case, to the way things were.

We’ll understand the value of connection if not in new ways, then at least more deeply. When I was writing the review of Branksome Hall, I asked Deputy Principal Karrie Weinstock what it means to be a good school. “It’s a million small conversations'' she said. “It’s not all about you, it’s about you in relationship to others ... No child learns math before she learns the connection with her teacher.… I believe every girl comes to school every day wanting to be the best she can be. And then to meet adults and peers in that environment who are similarly aspiring.”

If the past year has reminded us of anything, it’s just that: we need those million conversations. There was a time that people thought all you needed to learn was to read a book. Perhaps there are some who still think that. After the experience of 2020, we know that’s not true. We’re best when we’re together. We learn best with those who are similarly aspiring. And, yes, we’ll be back there again, in some ways better than ever.


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