Dear Outer Cape friends (and the rest of yooz who live where city folk have country homes),
I’m a New Yorker, who has spent part of every summer in Wellfleet since 1965, and lived there for an all too brief year in the early 90s. It’s my favorite spot on the planet (and I’ve traveled far and wide). When I’m sad or anxious and need to picture my happy place, I’m swimming across Slough Pond. I’m a teacher, so a house of my own in your lovely town has always been out of my range; I’m a perpetual renter. But Wellfleet is as close as it gets to a home away from home, for me.
I’ve been following the charge by full-time residents that non-resident homeowners stay away during this pandemic. I've been following the angry comments on social media. And I understand. NYers escaping to their second homes are spreading the virus. Buying up precious food and supplies. And soon, taking hospital beds and ventilators from locals who have nowhere else to go. I get it. But. Hear me out.
I need to backtrack for a second. New York City is like a giant a cruise ship. We live on top of one another, and we can’t get away from each other. Buying groceries or descending to the communal laundry room requires pushing elevator buttons or working door handles touched by many. It’s abnormally quiet, here, without honking horns or the cacophony of voices that normally drifts up to our windows. But the silence is constantly punctured by ambulance sirens. We're indoors, in small apartments with no outdoor space. (A fire escape puts you in the one percent, these days.) We're allowed to go out for a little air and exercise, but the parks are often too crowded to practice safe social distancing. Those asshats on fancy bikes in spandex shorts who race up and down the back route from Wellfleet to Truro in August? Their exercise is more important than staying six feet away from you in Central Park. And our essential workers--the supermarket clerks and handymen and other heros--are riding public transportation to work. We’re infecting each other. We’re getting sick. And there are long lines outside every hospital to get into the ER. Once inside, there are no beds or life-saving equipment left. Our doctors and nurses have no protective gear. I’m scared to dea--well, maybe that’s not the best turn of phrase to use, right now.
So, I can also understand why second home owners are leaving town. I might do the same, in their pretty shoes.
What about making some new rules that work for everyone?
Full-timers and summer people working together (social distancing style) to keep everyone fed, sheltered and healthy, might even help shake off some of the town-gown tension that simmers beneath the surface of those gorgeous summer days.
And yes, I know this is simplistic. And idealistic. Downright dumb. Irresponsible. And it wouldn't work. (Even in Wellfleet, where I’ve watched the community model how to take care of its own.) I know any movement spreads the disease. And in the real world, we all need to stay the fuck home.
So. Maybe I wouldn’t decamp to my second house, after all. Maybe I’d be an upstander and stay put. Close the bridges, if you must. But please understand that we're terrified, and do it without rancor.
Stay well, friends in my little Paradise. I hope we’ll see each other this summer, if it’s safe enough to cross the bridge.
Fellow educators, what are your initial thoughts?
photo credit: Maia Liebeskind
March 18th, 2020
A week ago (which of course feels like a month ago), I interviewed an American tech integrator at a K-12 international school in China, where they have been teaching virtually for more than six weeks. As I listened to her experiences and suggestions, I was struck by how her school’s experiment amplifies the most critical issues in education today: equity, teacher agency, student voice, parent involvement, social-emotional wellbeing, accountability and authentic assessment. I started writing up our conversation, one part how-to, one part editorial, a weird piece for a weird time. (Rough draft linked here, if you care to read it.)
But a peculiar thing happened as I was writing. Passionate educator though I am, I started to feel that perhaps it isn't critical, in the larger scheme of things, to teach online for the next few months. I teach because I fully believe in the power of education to build community, grow thoughtful, active citizens, and promote solutions to the profound issues of our time. I love my work. But if we close our schools down entirely during these difficult months—offline and on—for the greater good, or because online options aren’t working for everyone, it will be alright. Students will learn, as will we, from Italians singing on their balconies. From a parent helping an elderly neighbor. From the ways, both positive and negative, that we respond to this crisis. Some of the learning will be heartbreaking. Some of it will be a light coming through a crack.
And then again... maybe the connections we are facilitating, and the tiny semblance of normalcy are our contribution during this time. Maybe they're consequential. I keep vacillating.
Are you teaching online or about to start? Please weigh in.
photo credit: Stephen Speranza for The New York Times
I am grateful to live so close to Central Park. I don’t know what time Steven Speranza took this photo, showing the park empty because of the crisis, but I am not alone in seeking a little respite there, these days. In fact, every time I've been there this week, the place has been packed. Walking and riding my bike while social distancing has been an exercise (so to speak) in weaving and dodging.
To the spandex ball-sack cyclist who gave me the finger for suggesting he was a little too close, slow the fuck down. It won’t kill you to brake a little, if it helps maintain a neighborly distance. We don’t need to see the Manhattan spike driven by a bunch of dudes on fancy bikes. (And yes, the spandex offenders I’ve encountered have been exclusively male, and there have been lots of them.)
To the woman yelling into her phone about the virus as she cycled, keeping pace with me no matter how hard I tried to get ahead of her or drop behind, please be considerate; we’re in the park to try to get a little breather—literally—from this thing.
To the scooter ride whom I cut off accidentally, I'm so sorry.
To the Parks Department, thank you for maintaining our green spaces. Always, but especially now.
I'm headed to SXSWEdu in Austin, next week. And I’m nervous that I’ll feel like an interloper at a banquet for the educational industrial complex. I’ve been the lucky teacher who has always had the lead role in the design of my classroom—the curriculum, materials, pedagogy, methods, relationships, values, norms, and expectations. In recent years, however, it’s felt more and more like a radical act, to be the master of my own domain. In an era where the phrase “education reform” has been co-opted by market-forces—testing companies, data collectors, producers of packaged curricula, programs and materials—it feels like everybody who has ever gone to school wants to instruct teachers on their instruction. Some mean well. Some are in it for the money. Some both.
I’ve got a different idea. And maybe it sounds simplistic or idealistic. Compensate teachers like other professionals, like dentists and insurance agents and scientists. Choose the best, brightest and most creative for this critically important job. Pay for it with budgets now used to support top-down, administration-heavy systems, budgets now used to pay for the huge costs associated with standardized testing, budgets now used to purchase packaged, scripted curricula and programs selected by those outside the classroom. Create lots of time and space for national networks of teachers to share best practices, observations, lessons and materials. Put teacher voices first, in every discussion of education reform. Treat us like the professionals and experts we are.
It’s this revolutionary idea that makes me wary about attending South by Southwest’s education conference, where entrepreneurship rules. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been getting messages from attendees who want to meet up and chat about their company’s scalable learning program, or digital solution. SXSWEdu’s homepage says that it “cultivates and empowers a community of engaged stakeholders to advance teaching and learning.” Them’s a lot of buzzwords. And the phrase ‘engaged stakeholders’ tastes like it came out of a neoliberal cookbook. Fewer than 16% of the attendees are actually K-12 teachers, and of those, the majority are locals, with easy access to conference fun, and eligible for the continuing education credits—necessary to maintain certification—that the conference proffers.
On the other hand, the website also states that “SXSWEdu extends SXSW’s support for the art of engagement to include society’s true rock stars: educators!” Allow me to poke gentle fun of the italics and exclamation point, as if this statement is a huge, big-hearted, enlightened surprise. I certainly think it’s the truth. And I’m delighted to have SXSWEdu acknowledge it. I hope I’ll have meaningful conversations about education, and edifying take-aways. I’ve been curious about this conference for a long time. Every year, I attend the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and occasionally the annual conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Program (AWP), both well within my teacher-writer wheelhouse. Maybe this conference, where I feel like the outsider, will bring fresh ideas and perspectives.
Conference attendees, please talk to me about how you support teacher agency. And student agency. About equitable and culturally relevant reading and writing classrooms. About authentic writing instruction. About creating joy in teaching and learning. About growing great teachers. Ask me about my scalable learning program, where scale means knowing the individual approach that each kid needs. Ask me about the digital solutions I’ve crafted with basic, free apps, to foster a reading and writing community that centers student voices. Tell me how you support engaged, happy students and teachers. Listen to the 15.84% of attendees who are the experts. I’m going to come with an open mind. And my best rock star attitude.
[image = Jeb Feldman’s UnSmoke, a former schoolhouse in Braddock, PA that he converted to an art space and home.]
Thank you for reading. By the way, the Weebly 'like' button doesn't show who has clicked. If you care to identify yourself, please leave a quick comment. Thx.
Teachers, do you write? Why or why not?
Over the digital years, I've had a half dozen or so ongoing blogs including a travel blog and a reading blog, both on Blogger, and an all-purpose blog on tumblr where I wrote about education, social equity and anything else that sparked me. I also posted some of my published print work on my website. My shit is all over the internet. I'll be using this space for the occasional blog post, now.