Debate is raging over what to do with the end of the school year. The president has announced that students are to be ushered back into classes with just enough time for them to cram for and take the annual standardized tests (and that tests are to be administered at students at home as well). The way of the world right now is to create and reinforce false dichotomies, so many on the Left are taking up the cause of suspending teaching for the Spring in favor of several months of what amounts to group therapy, popularized by this open letter from a Superintendent published on Education Theorist Diane Ravich’s blog: What Shall we do About the Children after the Pandemic?
Of course, I’m oversimplifying both sides, but sometimes reductionism allows us to see the argument rather than the details. Both sides are claiming to have the best interest of students at their hearts. The former says the children are “falling behind” and that the only way we can hope to “catch them up” in the global race for employability is to measure exactly where each of them they fell, average it, and make them all start again from that average point. The latter says their emotional well being is more important than their academic learning and that the way to ensure emotional health is to provide ample space for students to harp on their problems in school.
Now, if you know be (or if you’ve read my about page), you know I have an extensive background in Restorative Practices, got certified in Prenatal Yoga so that I could offer it to pregnant students, and teach with a form of Project Based Learning that centers the experience of the students, so it’s certainly harder for me to poke fun at Social Emotional Learning than at Standardized Testing. Indeed, I’ve campaigned hard for over ten years against Standardize Testing, and it is the main issue which lead me to reject the Common Core standards, which I have also vocally opposed. (Unfortunately, the site which contains the Baltimore Indyreader archives is down, but I hope to figure out how to link to the articles I wrote there, so that interested parties can see what I wrote on education in my column Future Imperfect: An Education Report for Tense Times, almost a decade ago.)
But my experience with healing from emotional wounds is that school and work were important places of respite. They were places I could go and, if not forget about my troubles, at least have to put them aside for a minute. This can obviously be done to a fault, and some people avoid their problems by throwing themselves into their work full time, never fully healing their spirits. But having some time when you remember that other people exist, that you CAN meet your responsibilities, in short, that there is lots waiting to be learned and done and loved, can be very helpful to the healing process. And in fact, some important healing takes place in the background as we continue to grow and build our bodies, hearts and minds through useful activity.
I have lots of questions about the validity of school curriculum to begin with. However, much of what is taught in school is time tested, useful information and skills that help children grow into adults who can think and reason and who have some shared understandings. Standardized Testing has NEVER helped students gain more of this information and skills, it has always stood in the way.
Social Emotional Learning is a relatively new addition to most schools. While it obviously encompasses a vital set of skills and understandings, they are ones which have, historically, been taught in the home. We have all met adults who were raised by moralistic hypocrites; people who had a lot of punishment for the children when they didn’t live up to (sometimes unreasonable) expectations but who were not setting good examples. This leads to cognitive dissonance for children, where they feel that “being good” is something you do under duress, so as to avoid consequences. These children rarely develop a strong moral compass of their own.
Mandating that teachers implement Restorative Practices, Circles, Art Therapy and other forms of Social Emotional Learning, runs a big risk that those teachers whose beliefs differ from the beliefs they’re required to teach, as well as those who are not comfortable dealing with emotional issues, may do more harm than good. If a child grows up thinking the only reason to learn to read is to get a good mark on a test, that’s bad. It’s bad for the child, their family and society at large. But if they grow up thinking the only reason to talk out your feelings is to earn points on the class Dojo, that’s a whole heap worse.
In this moment, as always, it’s important to slow down and think for ourselves. Getting pulled into seeing the world as a set of dichotomies is very self limiting. We end up feeling forced to chose between two bad options (like voting for a president who will be a jerk while requiring Standardized Testing or a president who will be a gentleman while requiring Standardized Testing). Parents and teachers have a lot of tough calls to make right now, and it’s important that we talk openly with and listen carefully to our children and teens and make decisions based on our own moral compasses, rather than what we read in blog posts. 😉
If you are a parent and/or teacher, and need a listening ear right now, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I always love to hear from my readers! And expect to see more on this topic as the months go on. For now, keep in mind that motivated learners are unstoppable, so find topics that spark the interest of the young people in your lives and let the magic of learning happen!