Guest columnist Gwen Agna: What if we reimagine schooling

  • Gwen Agna stands near the entrance to Jackson Street School with Jackson, the therapy dog. Agna retired after 24 years as principal and is spending her last months working from home. GAZETTE FIE PHOTO

Published: 10/22/2020 9:26:46 AM

“Everything is everything

What is meant to be, will be

After winter, must come spring

Change, it comes eventually

Everything is everything”

Lauryn Hill — “Everything is Everything”

After 24 years as Jackson Street School’s principal, 30 years in the district, and 45 years in education, amidst a pandemic and schools shutdown, it was an unexpected way to end my time at the school. It has given me an opportunity to reflect on the state of teaching and learning in these troubled times.

I have observed, as others have, that the necessity of remote learning has only highlighted even more the inequities in our society, in schools, and in all aspects of our country. Working with countless dedicated and talented teachers, ESPs, clerical, cafeteria, custodial personnel, and administrators over the years, I know the enormous effort required to make up for lack of support, to respectfully listen to the opinions of the general public, and to try to mitigate the many outside factors that have a negative impact on the lives of children and the ability of schools to succeed.

Educators commit so much of their lives in guiding their students and are accustomed to making do with less, often using their own money to supplement their meager budgets, and standing up to criticism from the sidelines.

Whether there is a pandemic or not, there is the shameful social injustice and disparity that plagues families. Many find the stain of racism impossible to even recognize, let alone make efforts to redress.

Educators try to level the playing field for students, but educators should not and cannot be solely responsible for the disparities. They find themselves, before the pandemic and even moreso now, struggling to fill these gaps, advocating for funding necessary to ensure that schools have sufficient resources, and trying to repair the damage that our society continues to inflict on our most vulnerable.

In these days of separation, isolation and remote or hybrid learning, I am hearing a collective quest to make change.

What if the our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber — from a 1975 poster. In order to achieve this, there must be reprioritizing of our federal budget, as well as major tax reform in which we all pay our fair share. Taxation to fund education should be progressive and less reliant on local property taxes.

What if, in this reprioritizing funding and tax reform, health care were universally available and housing, education (including higher), and availability of jobs were an established part of our social contract in the U.S.? There are examples in many countries — no wheel needs to be reinvented, just strapped onto the American wheelhouse. As John Lennon wrote, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

What if we actualized the intent of assessment in the Education Reform Act of 1993, in the form of the MCAS. The initials stand for Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Systems — yes, that is plural. Originally, the plan as written was intended to encourage holistic assessment — to include portfolio assessment, student exhibitions and self-assessments, narratives from teachers, and other forms of authentic assessment, as well as a state test based on the curriculum frameworks.

I was excited then at the prospect of including student and teacher voice in how schools’ successes are measured and having student work a part of this measurement. Without these voices and a range of assessments, the scores mean little and do not adequately reflect how well schools and their students are performing.

What if we could support educators in enhancing what Teachers College professor, Christopher Emdin calls “reality pedagogy?” Emdin writes in The Atlantic, “it’s about reaching students where they really are, making sure their lives and backgrounds are reflected in the curriculum and in classroom conversations.”

Educators know that this is the way to establish a safe and equitable learning environment and have to overcome the constraints placed on them by government’s accountability systems as well as the lack of funding and acknowledgement of their status in our society.

“The best teachers don’t just keep teaching. Instead, they use their pedagogy as protest: they disrupt teaching norms that harm vulnerable students,” according to Emdin. If the status of educators were elevated — both in terms of financial compensation as well as in social perception (the two go hand-in-hand), then they could assume more effectively their rightful place as leaders in schools.

What if we reimagine what schools could be? I know that all are concerned that a hybrid model that may be safe according to CDC guidelines may not be appropriate for students. Sitting separately, in desks, 6 feet apart, not working together in small groups with teachers may keep COVID at bay, but it is a throwback to a time in classrooms that no longer exists. I know that educators do not want it this way but are faced with the untenable.

Hopefully such models will be short-lived. But while there is this pause in schooling, perhaps reimagining can take place — with all stakeholders participating. We’ve been reminded during this time of shutting the schools that learning outside — on stoops, porches, streets, in woods, gardens, by rivers and streams — must become a larger part of education. Rethinking the concept of the “classroom” — where it is, how it is structured, and what its design is, and how learning happens in it — is the reimagining.

Some educators are now working in person, with small groups of students because their needs dictate this. We are shown again the value of lower educator/student ratios. Emdin’s “reality pedagogy” works best when there are smaller class settings and the time for developing the relationships among learners, between educators and learners, and among educators.

Finally, what if James Baldwin’s teachings and writings and bringing love to the forefront of all that we do became the model? “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you do not see,” he wrote.

Jamilah Pitts writes that love is what anti-racism really means for educators — which I posit is what everything means for educators — “the practice of healing and of restoring: the practice of love.” Educators know this and we all need to seize on this chance to come together to dream.

As Lauryn Hill said:

“To make a better situationTomorrow our seeds will growAll we need is dedicationLet me tell ya that.Everything is everything.”

Gwen Agna lives in Northampton.

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