Education in a Time of Upheaval: What Can We Learn?

By Peter Smagorinsky

Two stories have dominated the news since late May. One began quietly in January and took off with urgency in early March: the Covid-19 pandemic. The second occurred suddenly on May 25 and nearly blew the virus off the news: The killing of George Floyd, the culmination of a series of spring murders of Black people that included Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia.

In the background, other stories were reported, if obscured by the immediacy of these larger events. Among them were the questions of how schools would open in August, and how ordinary citizens could help address the systemic problem of racism in the US beyond issuing noble statements of support and participating in protests.

I’ve helped draft one such statement myself, although my vulnerabilities to the virus (age group, blood type, and pre-existing medical condition) along with chronic severe anxiety have kept me off the streets as Athens, Atlanta, and other cities have been sites of public protest. I’m sure that what I’ve done is not nearly enough.

The burning challenges presented by the confluence of the virus and the civic outrage over Black people being killed by police and vigilantes ought to converge in how school is conducted when it opens in the fall. But that can only happen if school is conducted quite differently from how it’s typically been run this century.

One commonly invoked concern about the coronavirus is that students are falling behind in their academic development in the absence of in-person schooling, amplifying “deficits” in their learning. But they’re learning a lot right now that could make school an important educational site moving forward.

It’s likely true that with schools being reduced to erratic online instruction since March, students will lose track of the distinction between a gerund and a present participle. To many people, this “learning loss” can be measured against what a curriculum says kids should be learning.

But if they are at all tuned in to what’s going on around them, they are probably learning about something quite different: the critical issues that will surround them for the rest of their lives. The opportunities for schools to address them are extraordinary.

Schools have often had a head-in-the-sand approach to cataclysmic events. On 9-11, when the nation was in an immediate and terrifying crisis, some school administrators instructed teachers to keep the news hidden from their students. In one of history’s most teachable moments, they chose to lock down knowledge.

If, however, school is for learning, the events and lessons from the summer of 2020 ought to be central to the curriculum. Returning to instruction oriented to formalism, the most easily testable aspect of literacy development, seems hollow. Answering multiple choice questions about topic sentences and indirect objects has been the student’s task in corporate schooling in which curriculum and instruction are driven by tests that measure what’s easy to reduce for the sake of measurement. The times, I believe, call for reconsidering the prominence of such lessons as part of a broader reflection on the purpose of education.

Let’s imagine that teachers have the authority to use their own judgment in deciding what a curriculum should include. Some might take the position that in August, 2020, students should indeed return to formalism: memorizing dates, distinguishing prepositions from infinitives, knowing the difference between first-degree and second-degree dramatic irony, and other knowledge that will serve them well on tests.

There are other possibilities, however, provided that schools liberate themselves from the assessment straightjacket that limits them to testable knowledge. I’ll confine myself to the only field I know reasonably well, English/Language Arts, which I taught in public high schools in Illinois from 1976-1990. Much of what follows comes from my own teaching, albeit in schools that gave their faculties far greater latitude than most schools today allow.

In the 1980s, I coauthored a book on the English curriculum that began as a summer project for our school. We identified topics and outlines for units of instruction, originally derived from a scope and sequence chart developed by George Hillocks. Since I put the material online a few decades ago, I’ve developed and updated it continually. These units follow an organizing principle such as theme or archetype. Many of these units would be very appropriate for study in this era of turmoil.

I’ll begin with a simple list of possibilities, with links to unit outlines, that could provide the basis for an exploration of topics that could fit with the current social environment: Alienation, The American Dream, The Banality of Evil, Bullying, Censorship, Community, Compassion, Conflict with Authority, Courageous Action, Cultural Conflict, Discrimination & Civil Rights, Efforts at Equality, Friends and Enemies, Immigration, Justice, Living in the City, Loss of Innocence, Patriotism, Progress, Social Responsibility, Success, Taking Perspective, Terrorist or Freedom Fighter?, Utopias and Dystopias, and Values under Stress.

There are also genres fitting to the occasion, including Heroes and Villains, Personal Philosophy, and perhaps most fittingly, Protest Literature. Students might learn how to read strategically through such topics as Critical Thinking, Fake News, Real News, and Media Literacy, Persuasion, Point of View, Propaganda, Reading Media, and Social Media.

Each of these topics potentially provides possibilities for students—and teachers—to learn about the events surrounding them, reflect on their role as citizens, and consider ways to take constructive action. How to go about exploring them in ways that honor multiple perspectives would be a major challenge in many classrooms and communities. Nobody said this would be easy.

One method I would advise against is using the classroom podium as a pulpit for professing the teacher’s preferred ideology. In my view, the best educational opportunity would follow from placing students in the role of inquirers and explorers so that they can arrive at their own conclusions. They’ll do that anyhow, so I see the teacher’s role as providing a structure within which students can work at developing stances toward inequity that they develop through reading, discussion, writing or other composition such as media productions, and other generative activities.

But this approach to schooling would require a reconsideration of the institution’s very structure. Although schools typically announce their commitment to diversity in their mission statements, in fact they are dedicated to conformity to what I’ve called the deep structure of schools. This deep structure is designed to maintain the status quo by policing students’ hair and clothing styles, punishing cultural ways of speaking, maintaining a literary canon founded in European-descent authors, and so on.

The current protests have come in response to deadly police and vigilante actions against Black people acting harmlessly. The outrage is real and justified. But it’s only the most extraordinary example of injustices routinely imposed on people of color, particularly Black people.

Schools should surely be addressing them. But unless that “conversation about race” becomes a hard inquiry into a school’s humanity and fundamental design, we’ll be back in the same place before long, as we have done before. We need to address the problem of inequity as a systemic, relentless problem that requires constant interrogation and attention.

Or, we can go about schooling that has been scripted by people from another place and time, as students are gripped by current events that will, in many ways, shape their futures. If you’re concerned about a learning gap, returning to business as usual is the best way to create one.

Peter Smagorinsky is Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at The University of Georgia. Among his awards, Smagorinsky earned the Horace Mann League’s 2020 Outstanding Public Educator award. The league gives the award to an educator who has supported public education throughout their career.

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