pretend layer

My reading brain has been pretty functional this pandemic fall, though some weeks the long hours and screen time of distance learning mean my eyeballs need a rest. Sometimes audiobooks fill that need and sometimes I just take a break. (I just finished this audiobook, which was devastatingly good, please read it: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai.)

But, a handful of the books in my pile right now tell a certain story:

And a little tangential, but reading this over the summer made me reflect on how *I* feel and what *I* notice within different school environments:

And then there is “distance learning” itself, a specific shake-up of schooling that has us trying to replicate practices for one context in another, or putting a facade of normalcy on a decidedly not-normal time, or, hopefully, questioning what our goals actually are and how to we work towards them now.

DL this fall has been a jumble of contradictory expectations without valid rationale, for sure, but I’m realizing it is also acting as a highlighter on the text of our inequities. Some of the conversation about returning to in-person school is about the harm being done to students while at home--much of which is very real. Less chance for other adults to notice that students are in unsafe situations, less access to helping adults for any needs...differences in access to wifi, work space, food, etc. These are all very real concerns.

But I’m also reflecting on how many of these inequities were impacting children’s learning and lives before. School may have given children a space away for hours a day, may have provided some extra support, but the base inequities remained. I am realizing how much our being in the same space together for 7 hours created a pretend layer that allowed us to continue to pretend that school is an equalizing space against all of the vast inequities in our communities. We could say, oh, all the kids are in the same room hearing the same information, so if they don’t succeed, maybe they aren’t trying hard enough. We could pretend that standardized tests are neutral measures of neutral beings. We could say all kids have the same chances as long as they have the same pencil, chair, iPad, book for 7 hours each day. But of course--that isn’t how reality works. But having the sometimes scorned, sometimes idealized space of school gave us the out that we were giving this one thing to all of the kids. . .

(Never mind that school buildings are often terrifying or anxiety-inducing spaces for so many kids… kids already had poor mental health, poor graduation rates, poor self-esteem from spending so much time in this very specific type of space. All the rhetoric of “kids have to get back into buildings or their lives are ruined” is leaving out so much lived experience. . . )

From Someone Has to Fail:

“I am not touting the system or trashing it; I’m simply trying to understand it. And in the process of trying to understand this convoluted, dynamic, contradictory, and expensive system, I hope to convey a certain degree of wonder and respect for it. I have to admire how it does what we wanted to do, even as it shrugs off what we ask it to do. In its own way the system is extraordinarily successful, not just because it is so huge and continues to grow so rapidly, but because it stands at the heart of the peculiarly American approach to promoting the public welfare. As we will see, this approach emerged early in our history. Unlike Europeans, who early in the nineteenth century chose to promote social equality by constructing an elaborate welfare system, Americans chose to provide social opportunity by constructing an elaborate school system. We’re still living with the consequences of that choice.”

From the foreword (by Judith Suissa) to If Schools Didn’t Exist,

“‘Cities are not built for children, cars are not built for children, machines do not need them, and adults do not need them…[O]ur society is not structured to accommodate having children around all the time.’ Christie’s discussion of the place of children in contemporary society is clearly informed by his work in sociology and particularly the sociology of deviance. In a society where children are no longer ‘useful’ workers, they will, as he puts it, ‘probably have to be given a larger margin of error for deviance in other areas of life.’ Like Paul Goodman in Growing Up Absurd, Christie viewed the ‘deviant’ behavior of contemporary teenagers and young people as reflecting something important about social structures and values. Yet while Goodman became and advocate of deschooling, arguing in Compulsory Mis-education that it is simple a ‘mass superstition, that adolescents must continue going to school,’ and many young people ‘might be better off if the system simply did not exist,’ Christie seemed more optimistic that schools could be the kind of places that would allow children to experience a sense of meaning and be treated as useful members of society, working and learning alongside adults in their communities...”

(This reminds me of Maria Montesorri’s ideas about adolescence and giving kids real-world work as apprentices to professionals!)

“...For Christie, inquiring into the life of the school is to inquire into the roots and core processes of society’s way of coping with itself.”

And from Christie himself:

“Many things would change if schools didn’t exist. This is probably the main reason they aren’t discontinued, why they continue to function as they have always done, and why we keep getting more of the same. But there are many other reasons for why the school endures. A school is like an organism that continues to grow all on its own and will keep doing so all on its own until some of the elements of its internal constitution are transformed.”

I should add that this book was published in 1971 in Norway, but felt so relevant to here and now. Things have not changed very much. Though the earlier passage claims a distinct difference in the underlying purpose of school in Europe vs. the U.S., it seems schools as achievement systems are still somewhat similar. . .

So, our schools are bound up in our everything else, our capitalism, our manifest destiny, our bootstrap ideals. We know that. And trying to figure out school within the pandemic is highlighting this.

The other day my co-teacher and I were strategizing for how to connect with our English learners, students who usually know one or more other languages and now are learning English and the language of U.S. schooling. Particularly we were trying to figure out how to connect with students who have shown up less so far this school year, and to let them know the ways they can get more support. One way is through special google meets with our EL specialist. As we talked about how to communicate this, the issue of student privacy came up. Generally speaking, in schools it is the norm to not publicly call anyone out as a special education student or an EL student or any other of the many labels we put on kids. Which is nice, in a lot of ways--especially in middle school when many kids don’t want to be singled out for anything--and to respect privacy and to not give kids identities based in simple labels.

However, as I wondered if an EL student knows they are an EL student and can access some helpful small group EL made me wonder how in prioritizing this discretion we may also be implying that those labels are something to be ashamed of. We are saying that difference is something you wouldn’t want anyone to notice, and that needing help and being able to ask for it is something that should be done in private. And then my brain went down a whole rabbit hole of what are we really doing here?. . .

Connecting that to the “pretend layer” that the buildings and spaces of school provide, the idea of labeling and not-saying-the-labels also connects to the movement to “inclusion” within special education. This became the dominant trend prior to my entry into the classroom, but as I understand it, the pendulum shifted from spaces like resource rooms for special education students to receive support in smaller settings with dedicated teachers and similar peers for part of the day, to the other end of the spectrum which is generally having all students together all the time. (Unless you are an “advanced” or “gifted” student, in which case you probably have your own special space. See this post.) As the cliche goes, education tends to go from one extreme to another, not as often settling in between.

When I learned about this in my certification program, it was presented in a compassionate and intriguing way. Students would be in the “mainstream” classroom and even if they couldn’t do every activity in the exact same way, they would benefit from being with peers and hearing and seeing the material, etc. They would feel part of the community. “Mainstream” kids would get to know them and vice versa, and so they wouldn’t be a segregated group within the school. People would see difference as part of everyday life, not something to be set aside... This is all pretty wonderful and holds up some of the best ideals of our school system.

However, in practice, as I see it in schools, it is more often like: oversized class populations now with a large proportion of students with wide-ranging special needs. No additional special education staff were added, so the students with special needs are cohorted in their“core” classes. This means sometimes there are two teachers, or maybe a teacher and a paraprofessional, but also over thirty kids in the classroom, so you are contending with crowdedness, increased distraction, noise, etc. For many students with disabilities, anxiety is a part of that, or noise-sensitivity, or needing a break, or needing one-on-one help to decipher instructions, etc. Even with two adults in the room, that is now much harder to do… And add on the fact that no one is supposed to know that anyone is a special education student...the access to support becomes even more muddled.

In the past I worked in a self-contained EBD classroom, and in my student teaching I spent some time in a resource room where kids had space, time, and adults to help them complete their “mainstream” work or simply have part of their day in a quiet room with less people. In both of these spaces I noticed that kids found a safe home base within a large school. They had a little more room to work at their own table. They could engage with adults or take a break from adults. They had a break from the pressure of trying to appear to be exactly like everyone else. They had a sweet sense of community with peers in other grade levels. They had adults who knew their families and their stories. These are all pretty great things that, with the swing of the pendulum, are much more rare now.

And so, again, another case in which the fallacy of “they are all in the same room, so they have the same access and opportunity” becomes so clear. And that is in non-pandemic times. . .

(Then that sent me down a mental rabbit hole of grading...standards-based grading..ableism?...expecting everyone to get to the same level at the same time...grades are essentially ableist? Standards are essentially ableist?...but that is probably another post for another day…)

“...For Christie, inquiring into the life of the school is to inquire into the roots and core processes of society’s way of coping with itself.”


The pandemic, distance learning, the cries of “falling behind”--shining a light on:

  • where we are

  • where we think we are going

  • who we pretend can get there

  • who really can. . .

  • the extent to which we are consciously aware of any of this...

And this, from Nora McInerny’s newsletter this morning. It’s not an education newsletter, but I think it captures how many of us are feeling in trying to push on with schooling amidst a pandemic:

I am a person whose self-esteem is not buoyed by past accomplishments, but by what’s next. Potential is such a loaded term. We want to meet it, exceed it, live up to it. From childhood, we’re caught in an endless emotional Rube Goldberg machine. First, I’ll do this and then I’ll do that and that will lead to this and then I can feel this which will lead me to that and then and then and then…

Was not reaching, not striving, not optimizing always an option?”

Lastly, I want to recommend the instagram account @teachingisintellectual, a space where I am supported and challenged to think about these kinds of questions. Give Jen and Mira a follow! (Oh, wow, in looking up that link I realized they have a website, too!)

A jumble of thoughts, but also a connected thread. Thanks for listening.

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