In the time of COVID-19, kids can keep learning if we build the village | Opinion

Today I begin with an apology to local educators who might have taken some of my criticism of our school apparatus personally. Such is often the case, and this emotional reaction blocks any meaningful thinking about complete restructuring. I’ve been critical. I’ve made an attack. I have only praise and admiration for any teacher who can succeed in the current environment. 

It isn’t difficult to succeed under the current criteria, especially in our region, where “all the kids are above average,” so my proposal likely won’t fly easily, and if we were to actually get it off the ground, we might only see it as a stopgap until we get back to normal. On the other hand, this is the perfect moment to try it, because normal isn’t possible right now, and who knows? We might actually realize we’ve discovered something better.

I’m in no way criticizing our teachers. Some of them are beyond heroic, overcoming and working through the obstacles present in the current education regime. My plan would make their jobs more rewarding, more logical, thorough, less difficult, and free of disciplinary problems that take up so much of their valuable time. 

I also see why they will leap to defend the current situation. I have never met a person involved in professional education who wasn’t partially or completely entrenched. We’ve had these schools for nearly seven generations, and we’ve come to believe this is just the way we do it. Perhaps that’s why I jumped on this subject last month with the proverbial guns blazing. 

I can’t expect the towns around here to suddenly embrace all the possibilities I’ve written down, but currently, we are at a crossroads. We have no place for the kids, because we don’t want them to get sick and die. For weeks, the national news has been full of ruminations over what to do about school, beyond Zoom. We can only hope the kids don’t find Zoom as impersonal and unsatisfying as I do. Last month I said home-schooling isn’t going to be the answer. Ditto for the new term they’re using, “distance learning.” 

The answer now is to spread out the sources and add more kid-to-adult interaction. It isn’t an easy thing to do, initially, but the effort must be toward more people taking more responsibility in supporting their community, and to accommodate a daily hour of 1-3 local students, while sharing what they know. Around here we have a great advantage in the number of churches we have, and the communities that grow within them. No, I’m not suggesting that churches take over education. I’m only naming a source where reliable communitarian people can be discovered and included in forming villages surrounding our kids.

Part of this plan includes individuals realizing their strengths and finding ways to share that. A reader of novels has something to teach; a house painter has something to teach; a McDonald’s server has something to teach; so do physicists, farmers, architects, boat builders, potters, religious scholars, mechanics, piano tuners, tech geeks, printing press operators, floral shop managers, Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions, retail salespeople, dentists, jazz musicians, librarians, tennis coaches, bankers, artists, grocers, lawyers, and military veterans. The list is infinite. It is the case that every person has something valuable to teach, share, demonstrate, or discuss.

If you have a job, consider what you would do with 1-3 teens or ‘tweeners for an hour or three. How could your business become a place where these kids could spend time and help out? As a mechanic, what sort of routine could you put together where you’d spend time installing brake linings and let students watch and help? Or any other kind of project?

I can’t write all there is to say about this in 800 words. We all have to pitch in this year. We have to get someone to write an app for paraprofessional trackers to start keeping records on what the kids are learning. We must throw out the traditional spoon-fed curriculum, because now it’s going to be individualized for every student. We have to give up our faith in the apartheid system, and become assertive, imaginative, and courageous. Our teachers (pathfinders) have to toss everything out and start meeting at social distance with individual students in an advisory/guidance situation, and spend their prep time researching material to enrich their students’ current paths and passions. This is not impossible. We are all teachers. 

In the village, students will get more adult attention than ever. Everyone is both teacher and student, forever and always. We’ll have to take a hard look and ask, “What is education for?”

How will students travel? Just like Elizabeth Warren, I have a plan for that. 

Available on Kindle: “It Takes the Whole Damn Village”. 

Sandra Barnhouse is a local artist, author and retired university publications editor.

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