A Good Crisis Wasted

Here in my middle class (increasingly upper middle class) suburb of Oak Park Illinois the mom groups are in a tizzy. It’s not the usual tizzy about teenagers without bike helmets, or people putting their poop bags in strangers’ garbage cans, or the difficulties of finding a good haircut for curly hair (with which I completely empathize by the way).

The current tizzy is about how “badly” distance learning went for our schools. Many, many women are completely convinced that other school districts did it better. They offered more synchronous learning, more one-on-one time with teachers, better curriculum. Maybe other districts did, I doubt it, but I don’t know.

School wasn’t going so great for one of my kids before he started doing it from home. I mean, it was fine. He’s a smart kid, he had some good grades and some bad grades both of which were entirely his responsibility. But in the eleven years that my family spent in our K-8 school district, the schools got progressively more rigid and less creative. As block scheduling set in, teachers lost the ability to improvise. Despite tons of research showing it is ineffective, the homework load got heavier. First the ipads and then laptops came to rest heavily in their backpacks. Recess got shorter and shorter, necessitating the addition of something called “Second Step,” which supposedly teaches social emotional growth skills. You know, the things you used to learn by playing with friends at recess.

At our massive middle schools (900 – 1,000 students) there is no outdoor space for playing. Because, 12 year olds have zero need to run around. Every day for three years my son and his friends attempted to play football or catch in front of the school. Inevitably, a ball would go into the street. An administrator on duty would go and retrieve it. Sometimes yelling at the boys for using the 15 minutes of free time they had to play. Sometimes confiscating the ball. It’s good that they had all that social-emotional curriculum squeezed into a 15 minute period once a week. I’m sure it helped them process the idea that the adults at the school did not want them to act like children.

For most of us with school-age children, what we see missing from our kids’ day isn’t the math or the history. There will be other chances to learn the causes of World War I. The Pythagorean theorem can be Googled (I’m assuming, I actually don’t know it or really what it is because I am both math illiterate and a functioning adult). For my kid, there have actually been intellectual benefits to school from home. He has started learning about flags. He has taken a seriously deep dive into politics and thinks he might want to be on a city council one day (this might also be due to our binge watching of Parks & Recreation). He has started and stopped learning Gaelic and Hebrew (mainly stopped). All personal interests that the over-scheduled school day and homework left no time for. Imagine if kids could explore personal interests with the help of a teacher.

What our kids have missed is the social aspect of school. What we have missed is them having the social aspect of school. We’re dying for them to be able to spout nonsense with their friends instead of with us. Honestly, if my 14-year-old explains his views on why West Ham is being unfairly treated by the soccer people, how the NFL draft could be improved, or Libertarianism (thanks Ron Swanson), one more time, I’m going to scream.

We want them to be able to blow off steam with other kids, instead of in our house where things are broken. We want someone else to have to watch them eat (and can someone please explain to me how a kid who at home eats 5 full meals a day, evenly spaced at 8, 10, 12, 3, and 6 has been surviving on one 15 minute “lunch” break at 11 am until now? He has grown two inches since March and I’m starting to wonder if school was making him malnourished).

But in all our eagerness to get “back to normal,” we’ve failed to ask what parts of normal school are worth getting back to. We’ve sent a clear message to our district that they need to get it together and figure out a plan for the fall, but we haven’t asked them to use this time wisely. We haven’t asked them, or ourselves, if, now that we’ve had this break, now that we’ve seen what’s really important about school, we maybe want to rethink things a little.

Despite being warned by everyone from Machiavelli to Churchill to Rahm, I fear we have wasted a good crisis.

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