At this pivotal moment in education, a challenge to balance new practices with past wisdom

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students sitting on a classroom floor doing classwork

A few weeks ago, a group of students in New Brighton sat down to take a spelling test. Their district has spent the past year seeking out the best ways to use new technology. And yet by choice, this spelling test was given with neatly sharpened pencils and crisp sheets of paper.

These kids were working on the core skill of handwriting, says New Brighton Area School District superintendent Dr. Joseph Guarino. And they were reinforcing their knowledge of spelling words through a physical experience that’s long been known to help with learning.

Old-fashioned as it might seem, Guarino says, that “brain to arm to pencil to paper” connection has real value for many children.

But while this test began in a deliberately analog way, it ended with each student snapping a photo of their paper with a digital device. The tests were instantly sent to their teacher, who could grade them without lugging home a stack of papers. While grading, she could reply to each child with as much or as little feedback as needed—something many of us couldn’t have imagined a generation ago when we’d simply see the cryptic words “see me” in red pen on a test we’d struggled to ace.

We’re at a pivotal moment of change in education. As last year’s Remaking Tomorrow report found, the Pittsburgh region “has seen increased exploration of new forms of learning, assessment, support and connection. Funding has been mobilized more quickly than usual, and organizations have been sharing resources and pushing to provide technology access for every student.”

Families and teachers want to avoid going back to what once passed for “normal.” But even as we shake off old, limiting approaches in favor of bold, new choices, Guarino says, we can be thoughtful about what we keep and what we leave behind.

Forging the future must involve building on past wisdom, while also having the courage and vision to know when to start from scratch with equity and justice in mind.

Community members gather around last year’s SHOUT-supported Black Lives Matter rally. Photo courtesy by SHOUT.

Community members gather around last year’s SHOUT-supported Black Lives Matter rally. Photo courtesy by SHOUT.

New levels of student voice, born from traditional mentoring

Last year, an 8th grader at South Fayette wanted to hold a Black Lives Matter rally. She knew about the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and was determined to draw attention to the ongoing crisis of racial injustice.

But there was no history of students in her community organizing events like this. There was no traditional approach for her to follow.

Fortunately, her school is home to the original SHOUT (Social Handprints Overcoming Unjust Treatment) club. This groundbreaking group, which applies to social justice an approach originally developed to combat climate change, was founded at South Fayette during the 2019-2020 school year.

So this 8th-grader connected with a senior student who was a co-founder of SHOUT. That senior drew on the age-old tradition of mentoring and apprenticeship to guide the middle schooler.

She helped the younger student apply for permits and even communicate with the police about plans for the rally, says Dr. Chuck Herring, the diversity and inclusion director for the district and mentor to the SHOUT members.

Perhaps most important, she served as an encouraging voice to help the younger student keep on believing she could accomplish something challenging. That human connection belongs at the heart of even the most innovative and groundbreaking moments.

Outside-the-box scheduling, leading to deeper connections

As Cornell School District in Coraopolis looks to innovate, they are also prioritizing human connection.

They know parents juggle complicated work schedules and can’t always pick up a child who needs to stay after school. And they know teachers juggle their own household responsibilities, so the hours right after school aren’t always a time when they can be available to students—especially if they have their own kids.

What if schools allowed teachers and students to meet up over Zoom on a different schedule if that worked better for them?

“We’re talking with our teachers about this now,” says Cornell superintendent Dr. Aaron Thomas. “Why does it have to be a traditional after-school type of model? Why can’t we do something non-traditional?”

Thomas says it’s important to make sure teachers aren’t overworking themselves and aren’t expected to work during evenings or weekends. But what if they’d prefer to plan an enrichment group or other typically after-school learning session for a Saturday morning or a weekday evening after dinner?

If that works better for the teacher — and for students and their families — why should we let tradition keep us from trying this approach? The priority should be meeting families’ needs and teachers’ needs, instead of feeling so bound to tradition that we can’t experiment.

Technology makes innovations like these possible. And it can serve tomorrow’s learners best if it’s used to build and reinforce human connection.

This article is part of a series for “Tomorrow” powered by Remake Learning. “Tomorrow” will explore – through virtual events, grantmaking, and storytelling – what we can do today to make tomorrow a more promising place for all learners. Follow along or share your hopes for today’s young people using the hashtag #RemakeTomorrow and tagging @RemakeLearning. Learn more about Remake Learning here. And read more “Tomorrow” articles published on Kidsburgh.

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