Western Massachusetts Writing Project: Using this uncertain moment for educational change

Published: 5/4/2020 2:06:37 PM

At some point, school communities will catch their collective breath. Right now, educators everywhere are scrambling to provide quality online teaching, just as their students participate in classroom learning at home.

Families are feeling overwhelmed by the sudden push into remote learning as a social distancing practice. As educators, we’d be hard pressed to argue that a virtual classroom on video is ideal for teaching and learning or that sending packets of worksheets home via email or doorstep delivery is demonstrative of our best teaching practice. We’re all doing the best we can — educators, families, students.

This moment of challenge brought on by COVID-19 also provides a time to reflect on what the crisis has suddenly and starkly made visible — the socioeconomic and technological access inequities and the inexperience of classroom teachers and families with digital tools.

We also notice that many of our students who come from rural towns and urban centers have no reliable access to the Internet; or their home digital technologies might be one single computer shared by many family members, including a parent now working out of the dining room, or maybe just a phone for communication; or their cultural and linguistic knowledge is not drawn on for online classroom learning; or their home life makes learning remotely irrelevant.

Equally important and in need of deeper attention than can be leveraged in this column is how literacy and power are interconnected with access and technologies: access alone, when discussed only in economic terms, will not resolve issues of racial and linguistic inequities.

This is not to suggest that these issues were not there before. They were, but the scale of these disparities have made them undeniable, even as school administrators and local officials do their best to deliver laptops and Internet hot-spots to remote and underserved communities, and set up grab-and-go food deliveries for students whose reliable breakfast and lunch is at school, and as classroom teachers work the phones to reach the students who have disengaged from school learning or are in danger of dropping out.

The gaps between the haves and the have-nots have never been thrown into greater relief than during this pandemic.

The Western Massachusetts Writing Project, as a site of the National Writing Project, has long supported teachers in designing culturally relevant learning experiences for students, and our mission of “teachers teaching teachers” has never been more significant than now, as educators on every social media platform are sharing resources and advice with each other on a monumental scale.

WMWP’s social justice mission demands that each decision we make in working collaboratively with schools and communities that experience structural social inequities based on race, ethnicity, class, and language, is supported through targeted grants, partnerships and programs.

Even in the midst of this crisis, we want to argue that the field of education needs to deeply reconsider the challenges often associated with diverse communities. The wealth gap is a reality for our communities, and it manifests itself in families’ lack of access to housing, health care, employment, food availability, formal schooling, and, yes, digital tools. We need to focus deeply on children and communities, and the past and present social and educational practices that have produced this situation.

In this vein, WMWP offers the following suggestions for how we might use lessons from today to reconcile the education debt to improve the future of all students:

■We urge school leaders — principals, superintendents, school committee members — to reflect on the “reality on the ground” in their districts, to make note now of the presence of poverty and the gaps in technology access that they are dealing with so that important data does not get lost or overlooked;

■We remind policymakers that since the landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) followed by numerous school reform initiatives, the distribution of education resources has remained unequal. It is time policymakers support educators and local communities in western Massachusetts in the demand for the equitable distribution of education resources, so all children have equal access to schooling;

■We urge policymakers to come up with solutions to mitigate the impact of the Digital Divide, to make sure that rural and urban communities, in particular, have the access they need to reliable Internet, allowing students free or reduced cost access to online learning;

■We urge teachers to be thoughtful in the kinds of technology platforms they choose for their students, to not trade ease of use for student privacy in the rush to get online; take into consideration the technology literacy required in time of distant learning; and also consider the age of students, their developmental needs and how to select both low and high tech tools to support student learning;

■We urge school districts to make a dramatic shift in the types of professional development that are offered to teachers, so that educators fully understand that a mix of in-person classroom instruction for students has to be thoughtfully integrated with complementary digital tools, tapping into the possibilities of technology for writing, collaboration, and projects;

■We urge schools to recommit to implementing the pedagogy of Universal Design for Learning as a way to think about reaching all students — in all digital platforms;

■We suggest school officials have designated Digital Learning Days, for students and teachers alike to practice during the school day what it means to learn online, once our schools are back in session.

We suggest schools devote some resources to digital learning programming that involves not just students but also their caretakers.

This column was co-authored by the executive board of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, a local site of the National Writing Project, that provides professional development and literacy leadership programs by teachers for teachers.


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