When I first began teaching, at 22, I was a confident idealist, sure that I could make a difference not just in my students’ lives, but also in public education more broadly. I left college with a near-religious fervor to make change, to transform oppressive systems, and to inspire that same intense passion for change in my students.
It was passion, more than knowledge, which I sought to impart. Not that the two were at odds, in my mind. Teaching in a nearly all-black school in central Brooklyn, I took inspiration by James Baldwin: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
Rage aside, I saw raising that consciousness as my calling. While many years of service in the nation’s largest school system have taught me about the barriers to real reform, I still reflect on the mindset with which I entered the profession.
My commitment to equal opportunity for all of my students requires that I retain at least a hint of that unbridled belief in my own ability to change the world.
There are reasons to be confident. More than half of the students I taught in that first year (at Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn [P-TECH], where I currently teach) have gone on to earn college degrees. My school’s industry partner, IBM, has hired more than a dozen, giving them a ticket to the middle class. I have kept in touch with many, including a number who serve as mentors to my current students.
When I see this maturity and commitment to giving back, my heart swells. I remember why I began teaching, and my resolve is strengthened.
Equity and What a Standardized Test Cannot Assess
Lately, however, I have been forced to question how I have veered so far from my original commitment—not just equity, but inspiration. In that first year, we studied educational inequity, segregation, voting rights, and the military-industrial complex. I asked students to complete 10-page research papers on a political issue of their choice.
Now, while my skills as a teacher have improved, so have my constraints. Back then, I taught civics; now, I teach US History, which ends in a standardized test that is a graduation requirement. The exam, of course, does not assess inspiration.
While I still hope to encourage a commitment to justice, my job security and their future depends on the test, so it would be reckless not to prepare for it. As a result, I teach a fairly standard survey of American history, leaving room to highlight historical figures like Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Emma Goldman, and Rosa Parks, radicals who may offer aspirational examples.
A Pandemic, Attendance, and the Challenges of Online Learning
Now that schools around the world are shuttered due to COVID-19, millions of teachers have begun the shift to remote instruction. After a week of distance learning, I have learned that the traditional structure of school is not going to work.
While bureaucrats continue to insist that we should proceed with business as usual, those of us trying to build this plane as we fly know better.
A number of challenges are obvious, but the key change I have noticed, which affects everything we do as teachers, has to do with attendance. It is no longer meaningfully compulsory, though we are trying to capture attendance and do outreach to students who are not logging in.
I immediately recognized my diminishing authority. My (in)famous look of disappointment does little through a webcam. For many of my students, completing work in my class was a struggle that we got through together, and they relied on the help of classmates, instructional support staff, and/or teachers.
While some of that can be provided remotely, I cannot control the environment. I cannot provide a quiet place to study, and so far, we have yet to provide access to technology for students who need it. Certainly online learning is possible, but it presents novel challenges that ought to push our thinking on schooling even after this pandemic has passed.
Redefining Learning Now and, Hopefully, for the Future
A rumor—unconfirmed thus far—that my state would cancel state tests caught my attention recently. Before I could fact-check, my imagination bloomed with creative ideas. I thought again about that first year, when I spent the lion’s share of class time coaching students on their projects rather than providing direct instruction.
I thought about how to motivate students to complete work from their bedrooms or kitchen tables and how to get them excited about their learning when we have to fight through shaky connections just to see each other.
By the end of my first week of teaching remotely, I was forced to question everything. Formerly excellent students were failing to complete assignments. My “attendance” in online classes was abysmal, and I found that in a number of cases, my colleagues were faring even worse. Something had to give.
To start the second week of class, I sent my students this note, inspired by tweets from Professor Crystal Fleming of Stony Brook, who was herself inspired by Professor Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, who wrote a letter to her students at Brown University on March 15:
After two weeks away from school, I wanted to reach out and try to relieve some of the stress that many of you are feeling. Classes will be online for at least the next six weeks. Given the scale of the outbreak in the city, before long many of us will know people who are suffering, and we all know people who are at risk.
The best advice I can give you is to accept the situation. We are living through a crisis, and at times, that may consume your attention. You should not stress about my class right now. I hope you can find some enjoyment in learning about history and exploring big questions together, but I also want to be realistic with expectations. So, I am changing my approach.
For the rest of the time we are away from school, you will pursue independent research projects. I will walk you through the process step-by-step over the coming weeks, and this will be your only major grade. What that means is if you complete the assignment, you have passed the class. In fact, you should not be concerned about your grades right now. As your teacher, let me assure you: a completed project will earn you a 90 at minimum. I want you to explore this work for yourself and your intellectual development, not for a grade. We will review this project on our next video call.
Student-Centered Learning Opportunities
I have yet to find out how this policy will affect my students, but I am confident that they will recognize how dramatically the power has shifted. Instead of asking “what does my teacher want me to learn?” my students are now being asked to consider “what do I want to learn?”
This is a powerful question, one that is at the heart of all meaningful learning. Because my students are teenagers (mostly 15-16), they will require coaching to develop and execute an independent project, but my experience suggests that they will jump at the chance to make decisions for themselves—a privilege we rarely permit young people.
So much of what I do as a teacher is about compliance and control, but now, my power has largely evaporated. Whatever we teach, our pedagogy must be centered on care, compassion, and supporting our communities in this time of extraordinary need.
High expectations cannot stand in opposition to humanity. I have shelved some of my favorite lessons about World War II, which were scheduled for this week. I urge my fellow teachers to follow suit. This is no time for business as usual!
Asking Students, What Have You Learned About Yourself from a Week of Online Learning?
My students are telling us what we need to know. Every morning I post a question for my students in Google Classroom. Recently, I asked what they had learned about themselves from a week of online learning, and I was dismayed by their responses.
“I learned that it is very hard to stay focused while things are going on”
“I learned that it is going to take some time for me to get used to this new transition. We don’t get this much work in school so it is really challenging”
“I learned that I'm very lazy and irresponsible cuz I haven't finish any of my assignments”
“I learned that online class is actually harder than in real life class. Time runs too quickly.”
“I learned that remote learning is way more confusing and hard than just doing work in school”
In rural and urban communities alike, the virus has laid bare the enormous burdens carried by schools like mine that serve a significant number of students living in poverty.
An Inflection Point for Student Equity
While New York City plans to distribute technology to students in need, many have been unable to secure a device thus far. A greater number lack high speed Internet; most rely on cell phone data. In addition to reconsidering the balance of power in our classrooms, those of us committed to equity must reflect on the structures underpinning this inequality.
Broadband internet should be a right in the wealthiest nation on the planet; no child should be forced to rely on school for enough to eat; and every child should have a say in what they learn in school. I am reminded of a protest slogan, which was popularized by disability advocates in the 1990’s: Nothing About Us Without Us.
Educators who strive to inspire passion—especially a passion that is oriented toward changing the world—must commit to involving students in every step of the educational process and releasing control.
Many teachers who aspire to make this change lack the courage to follow through—including me two weeks ago. We all have constraints, but this crisis offers the possibility of an inflection point. Liberation is impossible without agency. We owe it to our students, especially when the world around them is on fire, to hand over the keys and redistribute power within the “classroom,” even if it is virtual for the time being.