Make Schools More Human: New York Times Opinion Piece by Jal Mehta
In this New York Times article, Dr. Jal Mehta, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, draws out the lessons we can learn from this pandemic—and the brutal inequities it has made apparent—to ensure that our schools fully benefit all students in the future. Dr. Mehta lifts up EL Education's Make the World Better video as an example of the "spectacular results that are possible."
Read the full New York Times article today or an excerpt here:
Dr. Mehta is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies how to transition from rote learning to deep engagement. This article is part of Let’s Start Over, an Opinion series on what life will look like in 2021.
If a measure of a society is how well it takes care of its young, the past nine months are a damning indictment of our nation.
Parents and teachers have been working overtime under impossible circumstances., and states have prioritized keeping gyms and restaurants open over keeping schools open. A result is that about 48 percent of all students are still in full-time virtual instruction (another 18 percent are in hybrid), according to Burbio, a company that tracks school calendars. These rates are higher among poor students and students of color. This is shameful—private schools holding classes under tents on spacious campuses while poor students are sitting outside McDonalds to get internet access.
There is little doubt that going to school is, on average, better for students. They are frequently tuning out of virtual learning. In higher poverty communities, older students are working to help make ends meet or have simply disappeared from the school rolls. What parents have seen streamed into their living rooms often reflects uninspired curriculums and pedagogy. Students think much of what they are learning is irrelevant and disconnected from their identities and the world around them.
These are not new problems—they are just newly visible because of the pandemic, and in some cases exacerbated by it.
It’s looking as though all schools should be able to open fully in the fall. The pandemic — and the pause in institutionalized schooling—has helped us to see what should change when that happens.
Classrooms that are thriving during the pandemic are the ones where teachers have built strong relationships and warm communities, whereas those that focus on compliance are really struggling without the compulsion that physical school provides.
Creative teachers are allowing students to choose music during breaks, scheduling one-on-one check-ins, and designing assignments that give students agency, choice and purpose in their work. They are taking some questions that Zoom school has raised, such as whether students should have cameras on or off, and inviting students to codesign these classroom policies. They are connecting learning in the classroom to the major events that have happened outside of it: Covid-19, as an occasion to understand epidemiology or political leadership; George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, as a way to explore institutional racism or the power of organizing.
Some of the results have been spectacular. Charlotte Bowder, a student at Casco Bay High School in Maine, had the idea of writing a song that would celebrate community amid social isolation. She recruited her friend Luthando Mngqibisa to sing co-lead, and with the help of the EL Education network of which the school is part, recruited 34 other musicians—from high school string players to elementary schoolers on pots and pans — across 11 schools in seven states to play the song together virtually. The resulting project, “Make the World Better,” is one of the most uplifting, professionally done pieces created during the pandemic. Give it a listen; it will be the best four minutes of your day.
Mehta, Jal. “Make Schools More Human.” NYtimes.com, The New York Times, 23 Dec. 2020. Illustration by Jun Cen