‘Schooling from home’ impacts reveal need for in-classroom schooling

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As many of us emerge from our pandemic cocoons, sinking into summer schedules that no longer include the daily battles dubbed “virtual learning,” it is tempting to shut the door on the past few months and try to forget them. It would be easy to allow the dull heat to erase the emotional turmoil that accompanied the chaotic springtime shift to social distancing and schooling from home. Especially with all the important social changes being discussed right now, it’s tempting to rely on “someone else” to sort out what will happen with schooling in the fall.

It’s tempting, but it’s also dangerous. Taxpayer dollars directly fund the state education systems that we, as a society, rely on to turn out educated, adjusted, productive citizens. Therefore, as tax payers, we need to make ourselves heard regarding our preferences. 

The lessons learned from our national experiment of virtual schooling from home need to be examined closely before we make any decisions about what is to happen to our children’s education in the fall. Already some public school districts are rolling out plans that severely limit students’ ability to receive in-school education for the rest of this calendar year. But where is the public dialogue that is informing these decisions? Are we critically questioning the data on which these decisions are based? 

We’ve become a nation fascinated by infection rate and mortality statistics, and seem content to let these data sets, flawed as they may be, drive all other policies. Where are the statistics on the impact of “schooling from home” on: 

Students’ educational achievements? 

An NWEA working paper acknowledges that there is little data as yet, but that projections indicate students are likely to have only met two-thirds of expected progress in reading and less than half of expected progress in math as a result of school closures.

Students’ physical and emotional well-being?

Again, calls for research abound but meaningful data is still scarce. A United Nations policy paper reported, “Lockdowns and shelter in place measures come with heightened risk of children witnessing or suffering violence and abuse… . Children’s reliance on online platforms for distance learning has also increased their risk of exposure to inappropriate content and online predators.” 

Additionally, a survey conducted by a British charity supporting mental health for children and youth reported that 83 percent of respondents felt the pandemic had made their pre-existing mental health conditions worse. 

How virtual schooling impacts the disparities between affluent and not-affluent communities? 

A June New York Times article reports on a study conducted by Brown and Harvard Universities that revealed “student progress in math decreased by about half in classrooms located in low-income ZIP codes, by a third in classrooms in middle-income ZIP codes and not at all in classrooms in high-income ZIP codes.”

Parents’ (and especially mothers’) ability to work?

RAND published insights on the U.S. populations group suffering most from the closure of schools and child care, based on data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Current Population Surveys, including that approximately 75 percent of U.S. households have children under 14, and up to 26 million families had no access to in-home child care during the pandemic.

The New York Times took a closer look at the impact on working mothers, highlighting that experts are predicting mothers are “more likely to lose a job and more likely to shoulder the load of closed schools and day care. For many working mothers, the gradual reopening won’t solve their problems, but compound them — forcing them out of the labor force or into part-time jobs while increasing their responsibilities at home. The impact could last a lifetime, reducing their earning potential and work opportunities.”

This article raised troubling questions for me about educator well-being, especially when the teachers expected to conduct virtual classrooms are also parents of younger kids. I’ve watched several friends struggle through this challenge since March, and was therefore disappointed that I could find no research or reporting on this segment of the U.S. workforce on whom so many of us have been depending for so much. 

As a result, I wanted to begin the dialogue on the importance of resuming in-person schooling locally by recognizing the incredible efforts our child’s teachers exerted during the pandemic. To that end, I waited until after the academic year was over and grades submitted, then sent letters to both of our son’s teachers thanking them for their resilience, dedication to their students, and caring. I also sent a letter to the school principal, emphasizing the excellence of the teachers’ performances and also stating my hope that school will resume in the fall. I’m happy to share copies of these letters with anyone who would like to use them. Just let me know in the comments. 

I know others who have written to their local legislators and state officials, and I would be grateful if they felt like sharing their experiences in the comments. I plan to do that too, and also to engage with my congressional representative on this issue. The more widely each of us reaches out, the more respectful dialogue we can promote, the more likely we are to come up with a solution that will serve our children as well as our society. 

Re-imagining The Space Between

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Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

Pandemic rules repeatedly remind me that space is a relative concept. Even when lines have been painted on the floor, to some people six feet apparently looks more like six inches, while to others it appears closer to 60 feet. The measurement is not to blame. Humans seem to have always had a need to define their spaces, and as long as that need has existed, each human being has approached space with his or her unique understanding of what it is, how it should be, and how long they want to stay there.

When I first started this blog, my mental space was very different than it is today. I was stuck in the middle of a transfer from career professional to freelancer, and from one continent to another. I was working from home, with a baby and taking those first daring to steps toward becoming a writer. I was desperate to connect with other people who found themselves in similar situations.

I was incredibly lucky to meet Julie Patton, who could not only empathize, but was willing to take a little risk with me by writing about our experiences trying to find sanity in the spaces between, and stick it online. It felt bold and daring, sharing our thoughts with anyone on the web who would read them. We celebrated each new subscriber (yes, You!) and each new idea that allowed us to vent about something that had been driving us just a little bit crazier than we were to begin with.

However, the space Julie and I created here has begun to feel very small in light of all that has been happening in the world lately. Between pandemics and racially-motivated killings, blatant political corruption, and environmental peril, it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm to write about tips to mitigate PTO drama, or how to use that drama to create realistic antagonists.

Recently, nothing that I felt comfortable writing about seemed worth writing. I’ve been considering whether to thank you all for your support and put this time toward some other endeavor. My farewell post is half-written, and as this afternoon I was fairly certain that today was the day it was going online.

As I stood in the shower trying to resign myself to closing out this fun experiment, I realized that my problem isn’t that I’m lacking for things to say. The problem is finding the courage to say the things that I feel need to be said.

I’m refocusing The Space Between. I want this to be a space to promote the risky, tricky, beautiful process of transformation. I want it to speak to all the spaces we find ourselves between these days.

I was listening to Unlocking Us with Brene´ Brown earlier, in which she interviews Glennon Doyle on her latest book Untamed. In the interview, Glennon tells the story she uses to open the book, that of a cheetah she and her family saw in a show at a zoo. The cheetah performs for the crowd, gets rewarded and is returned to her enclosure, where her entire demeanor changes. Although the cheetah was born in captivity, there is something wild about the feline form pacing the fence line. It’s as if there is some deep instinct within her that recognizes that there is more to the world than she has ever seen, and she yearns for that space.

Hearing Glennon tell her cheetah metaphor brought two things to mind. The first was the perspective-shifting poem from Leslie Dwight that stopped me in my mental tracks the first time I read it.

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The Janus Syndrome of Social Connectivity

Hard question to help you stay sane during a virtual pandemic

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Social media has redefined how the world manages life during a pandemic. For the vast majority of us, it isn’t that our worlds have stopped so much as they’ve taken a hard shift to the virtual. Many of us continue to work, shop, and even socialize at near our usual rates – just online. The explosion of social media into our lives has bloomed as fast as COVID-19 infection rates in NYC. And like the virus itself, it’s been hard to identify exactly where it would next spiral out of control.

Thanks to Google Classroom and Drive, Microsoft Teams, Blackboard, and Zoom (among numerous other platforms) our kids continue with their educations and can now even take tours of zoos, museums, and aquariums – not to mention do yoga, draw with Mo Willems, and engage in story hours or book groups. 

We’re so grateful to teachers who are going above and beyond to teach our children from a distance, or at least keep them occupied for a half hour, especially while we’re burning out in our own multi-hour Zoom meetings and virtual seminars.

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The silver lining of COVID-19 is the opportunity to reconnect with old friends, develop new facets of connection with members of our communities, and take advantage of this “slow” time to do a little online learning or personal improvement. As a result, my evenings are more scheduled now than at any other point in 2020. 

I’m truly grateful for these unanticipated positives. Even as video chats cause me to closely consider which parts of my house make for a suitable background, not to mention blow my ability to covertly multitask (and force me to evaluate my quarantine fashion choices). 

Our pre-pandemic social media consumption habits act like pre-existing conditions, making those of us previously plugged into Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (and others) more likely to succumb to pandemic click-bait: everything from how to make your own mask, school from home, keep your family’s morale up, and avoid weight gain while you’re quarantined. As the virus spread, so have recycled news stories on infection rates, fatality statistics, quarantine dates, “expert” analysis of medical trends, and heart-rending accounts and/or horror stories from the pandemic’s front lines. The urge to read just one more article at bedtime is a symptom I have to treat every night in order to fall asleep.

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The Power of Revision, On and Off the Page

The opportunity COVID-19 offers us

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As a writer, I know about the power of revisions. I’d like to believe that every first draft is gold, or at least good, or good enough, but experience has taught me otherwise. A first draft is a starting point, an attempt to craft characters, scenarios, and worlds that create the story I want to tell. 

When I’m done drafting, I read through what resulted from my efforts to translate what’s in my head and heart on to the page – and I’m almost always surprised by the gaps between my expectations and what actually is

Enter the revisions. 

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Some writers approach revisions with a sense of despair or trepidation, but for me they’re a real world chance at redemption. That sentence that came out wrong? Strike it – it never existed. That horrible scene I made? Weave it into the narrative another way, so it becomes a transcendent moment. The protagonist whose actions completely contradict the statements s/he’s making? Rework that character until all aspects of their existence are in alignment. 

Revisions, like the original writing, have a range of qualities directly proportional to the effort invested. A quick read-through lends itself to fixing typos, which may prevent some obvious misunderstandings. Meaningful revisions, however, require more. In fact, to make your story what you want it to be – what you imagined it already was – you need to do three things: 

1 – Closely interrogate the script to identify internal inconsistences.

 Stories, like life, are guided by values and rules. Sometimes these change as a result of specific events, or in response to gradual shifts in character or circumstance. Make sure that the rules and values of your story aren’t just tossed recklessly aside when they create an inconvenient result in your plotline. Trust is built on consistency, and is necessary to ensure your audience is along for the whole ride. 

2 – Take a hard look at character to ensure it’s authentic. 

Character is what people (readers) invest in, so you’d best make sure yours is unimpeachable. If, for example, your character claims to be one thing but is acting in a way that is inconsistent with the claim, it needs to be clear to the reader why that is. You can cook up the kookiest plot, and most folks will shrug and nod with a, “I’ve heard stranger. This one time….” But when your character acts in a way that doesn’t make sense, you can bet that everyone notices and they’re going to want an explanation. So if you’ve got character issues, fix them. Fix them now.

3 – A period of time away from the story.

When your brain is still caught up in the plot, you aren’t going to be able to do either of the previous steps effectively. Your mind will default to what it thinks is there instead of what actually is. Only through distance, and a little forgetting, can we clearly evaluate the story on its actual merits. Is the main character authentic and relatable? Does the plot follow its own internal logic and values? If not, why not? How can we fix it? Time gives your brain the distance it needs to see clearly, and then to begin to work on the solutions.

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Here’s where life imitates art. This strange period of isolation and slow-down that we’re all experiencing – this is your time away from your story. It’s been long enough that we’re starting to forget the minutiae of our lives a month ago, which means we can begin to evaluate how we’ve been living our lives. Have our actions been consistent with our values? Have we been authentic in our relationships with those closest to us? Are we living the story we thought we were living? If not, why not? How do we fix it?

Not only does sheltering in place give us the opportunity to review our personal narratives, the fact that COVID-19 has stopped most of the world in its tracks at approximately the same time gives us an unprecedented chance to conduct evaluations at every level of human social function: personal, familial, communal, national, international, global. Do our practices and policies as a community or a country represent our values? Do our systems function according to logic and rules that are applied consistently, and are they achieving the goals we have created them to achieve? If not, why not? What changes can we make, as individuals, groups, and/or members of society, to correct the character flaws and internal inconsistencies?

There is no doubt that the hard pause this pandemic has caused our world will have long-standing, deleterious effects. However, the results don’t have to be only negative. We have the chance to use this time for reflection, to make sure the lives we’re living match the stories to which we aspire.

Here’s our opportunity to make revisions.

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