A School of our Own Making

Hey all … welcome back to my pink room!

Grab a seat, get comfortable… we might be here for a little while. I promised a couple of weeks ago that we would get back to the “roots” so today we will do just that. We are jumping right back into our investigation of the “roots” undergirding Pink Valley District, so let’s put our detective hats on and get started.

For those who are new to my pink room, we started this series a couple months ago, in “COVID and our Roots” with the premise that the decisions we make during COVID both at a personal and institutional level reflect our core values and reveal the roots behind our behaviors and systems. Since then in “What is School Really?” and “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions (Part 1-4)” we have zoomed in on Pink Valley District (the school district I grew up in) to investigate the decisions they have made since COVID around schooling. Our hope is that through this investigation we can come to terms with the core values, assumptions and/or beliefs from which public schooling sprouts in this district.

For those who have been following along, I would still encourage you before continuing on to just take a moment to refresh your memory if you haven’t already and check out the last post of this series “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions, (Part 4)” .

Alright, let’s get started…

The plan for tonight is two-fold; (1) introduce the first iteration of pandemic “schooling” that Pink Valley piloted in March 2020 and (2) provide some brief thoughts about how this plan seems to institutionalize empathy. Whenever we chat next, we will return to this first schooling plan and consider how it actually worked in practice and then slightly more personal how my family chose to interact with it. But for today, we will focus our attention to the two aims stated above.

Okay, so before we say anything else I want to be completely transparent about few points:

  1. I am biased (as all subjects are). I believe any kind of schooling that disregards (intentionally or otherwise) the needs of those in my community is fundamentally flawed. As I am sure you realize, everyone will see the world through their particular positioning in the social fabric of it. For me in particular, that means I read everything through the lens of all my identities yes but when it comes to education in particular my blackness and also my proximity to dis/ability.
  2. I will take for granted that historically and presently the most marginalized group in public schooling is students at the intersection of race, ability and class, i.e Black dis/abled poor students. And thus will assess the protection of a marginalized student by first considering the protection of a Black dis/abled poor student. In order to give a complete analysis, I believe a more nuanced approach would likely be necessary but unfortunately it will simply be too much to consider in this particular series. However, please note that I have not arbitrarily chosen to center Black dis/abled poor students but rather this decision is made in light of research done by folks much smarter than I. (If you are interested in finding out more, I would start with anything by Dr. Bettina Love… she is brilliant).
  3. Finally, I use “dis/abled” purposely as a way to visually disrupt notions of ability and ask of us to question the stability and legitimacy of such a category at all. I also chose this wording rather than perhaps the more traditional “special education” to make explicit the connection to ableism and ability.

Alright now for the good stuff. The plan. Let’s call this first version of Pink Valley’s pandemic schooling, the Fixed Common Expectations Approach.

Quickly, one more brief note. My brother is in high school. This means that unfortunately I only have access to a subset of the initial plan, i.e. the high school version. With that being said, we will only be able to consider this version but I do think it should be sufficient to draw some believable conclusions about the plan across all grade levels.

Okay, we finally made it. Below in pink lettering is the letter with the enclosed schooling plan that was sent out to all high school families on March 26th, 2020. As we read through this plan, I will bold a few words or ideas that I think are important to pay attention to, so keep an eye out for that.

Pink Valley’s first attempt at a high school of their own making, the Fixed Common Expectations Approach:

We hope that things are well with you and that you and your family are healthy during this time! The length of our district’s closure has been extended to April 20th and it is now necessary that we begin to provide students with new instruction. In doing so, we will operate from a common set of expectations as we progress in the use of a virtual learning format. Please know that this format of learning is new to all of us and should be considered a work in progress . It is our expectation that all members of the [High School] community interact with one another with empathy and compassion.

We are extremely grateful to all the parents that have provided feedback about their child’s or children’s experiences to date. Know that your suggestions and perspectives were included in the creation of this plan. The period up until March 27th allowed for students to complete make-up and review assignments . Effective, March 30th through April 20th the following expectations are in effect:

  1. Student Learning- Google
    • Google Classroom will continue as the primary platform for all assignments and it will link to other resources used by teachers.
    • Teachers may utilize Google Meet to conduct virtual meetings.
  1. Instructional Expectation
    • Teachers will move forward with new instruction starting Monday, March 30th
    • Each teacher will post two assignments per course per week to the Google Classroom by Monday at 7:30 am of that week.
    • Assignment #1 will be due by 11:59 PM on Wednesday and Assignment #2 will be due by 11:59 PM on Friday of that week.
    • Students will be assigned 2 hours of student work per course per week including the assignments and participation in learning activities.
    • Advanced Placement (AP) courses may require students to work in excess of the 2-hour allotment of time due to the need to prepare for AP testing.
  1. Office Hours
    • Each teacher will have Office Hours per the schedule below
    • Teachers will utilize office hours to conduct virtual and/or passive meetings with a class, answer specific questions, provide instructional guidance, etc
    • Student participation in Officer Hours is voluntary.
    • Teachers will continue to be available via email to answer questions
  1. Grading
    • Students will receive either full credit “completed” or no credit “not completed” for any assignments provided during Online Learning.
    •  Effective March 30th, all assignments completed will be counted within Marking Period 4.
    • Make-up work for Marking Period 3 may be submitted through April 3.
    • There is no change to our established Report Card calendar.
    • The 2019-2020 school calendar is still in effect and as such Spring Recess (April 6-13) will take place as scheduled.
  1. Community Resources
    • [Pink Valley] is proud to share the Continuity of Learning Resources for Student and Families.  In response to the school closure, the District formed a Virtual Learning Team to compile resources and supports for students, families, community, and teachers.  While the site is updated on a daily basis, we wanted to share the links to these valuable resources.  We encourage you to email us at [pinkvalley@email.com] with ideas to post and ways we can support the transition to virtual learning with your child

Last time we spoke I introduced a concept, which we will likely carry with us for the rest of this series, called “institutional empathy”. The core idea behind institutional empathy is that an institution can choose to create a culture, policies and a general praxis that specifically orients itself towards and prioritizes the needs of those most marginalized within that institution. In specific, we said that examples of institutional empathy have three tell tale signs : (1)they prioritize and protect the most marginalized, (2) they discourage punitive control and challenge meritocratic impulses and (3) they place explicit limits on those with historical power over other more vulnerable groups.

Notice that consideration of institutional empathy or lack thereof in school praxis is relevant because it recognizes that historically and presently certain groups of students have not been considered or protected within school and actively works to intervene in further practices of marginalization of these same students. In essence, a school district demonstrates interest in the educational experience of Black dis/abled poor students when it chooses to institutionalize empathy. This seems particularly relevant to a district like Pink Valley situated in a “white suburb” that has increasingly become browner, less rich, and more “special” yet still given the charge to educate all its residents from at least ages 6- 16. This means Pink Valley will only be able to succeed in its job, to educate all its students, including Black dis/abled poor students, if empathy is institutionalized in the very foundation of its schooling praxis.

As we have alluded to several times before, COVID-19 and the invention of remote public schooling has forced districts to completely reinvent school. In doing so, districts, like Pink Valley suddenly had and have this newfound opportunity to establish new schooling praxis but this time with the needs of Black dis/abled poor students at the forefront of every decision. If a district, chooses to do this, then the pandemic schooling that would result from this effort actually has the potential to include and empower students who prior to the pandemic had been actively excluded and disempowered. So the lingering question that remains is this: Does Pink Valley’s first attempt at schooling embody institutional empathy?

The answer to that question like most things is likely complex. But on the face of it, I would say that the Fixed Common Expectations Approach is likely the closest Pink Valley District has ever gotten to creating school intentionally made to include Black dis/abled poor students.

Let’s take a closer look at the plan quoted above. When I this read this plan, few things in particular stick out to me: (1) its specificity, (2) its flexibility and (3) its simplicity. For sake of time, let’s zoom into one of these characteristics, the specificity. And see if we can draw any connections between it and the three markers of institutional empathy we previously described.

Throughout the entire letter, what really stands out is its specificity. In the opening paragraph, one of the first phrases, I wanted to draw our attention to is the phrase ” a common set of expectations”. This phrase in particular, clues us in that within the plan which will shortly follow, we will find a fixed set of common teaching practices or expectations that should then be followed by all instructors across schools. As a District, they appear to believe that if remote learning is to be successful then learning practices can not be allowed to remain ambiguous or individualized across instructors.

As expected the new plan for school includes very clear and specific guidelines for remote learning instruction. In each course, instructors will upload 2 assignments by Monday at 7:30 AM, and they will be due on Wed and then Friday at 11:59 PM. Students will spend a maximum of 2 hours per course per week, which includes any class time outside of assignments. Students will receive full credit for any assignment that is completed and no credit for incomplete or missing assignments. Students will have an opportunity to make up any assignment for full credit given its within a specified time period.

To me, this formulation of the plan points directly towards empathy, touching upon each of the three markers we suggested important for distinguishing empathic policies.

First, we notice that this plan actively reduces the academic burden that school typically places on student’s time and energy. In essence this plan considers and legitimizes the disproportionate burden that COVID will have played on Black and poor families time and mental energy. At the same time with a clear timeline and fixed set of due dates, this plan also begins to consider the needs of dis/abled students, by taking as truth the unique hardship that online learning will likely create for students ( receiving “special education”) who may during COVID find focus impossible, motivation low and the lack of structure extraordinarily challenging. We might extrapolate from the both clear expectations but also flexible deadlines that the needs of the most marginalize communities in school were placed high in the priorities list of the policy makers.

Second, we notice that the fixed and common instruction expectations established throughout the plan actively work against punitive forms of control and meritocratic impulses. Why? Well as we noted before one common form of punitive control in the classroom is academic penalty for the timeliness of one’s assigned work. With this power completely removed from the hands of instructors we create another form of protection against forms of control that are not relevant to one’s learning but rather their obedience. This assumes that the main objective of every classroom is just to foster learning rather than respectability or compliance. It assumes that a student’s decision to turn in an assignment during a pandemic is a victory and should be celebrated rather than criticized.

We can also see how the grading model and workload actively work against our basic meritocratic impulses. Typically we distinguish good students from bad ones based on a student’s grade on high volumes of assignments. In high status classes like honors classes, students are often distinguished as more deserving of resources because they are assigned typically crazy workloads and apparently more challenging grading systems. This plan basically strips classes of these signs of status by standardizing workload and grading. (Note however, one clear failure and re-inscription of traditional meritocratic understandings is the workload exception for AP level courses).

Lastly, we notice the overall specificity and common expectation approach, historical power that teachers typically can wield over students is explicitly limited. Teachers who may lack the empathy necessary to prioritize the learning of all students over traditional forms of respectability politics in theory will lack the power to enact their own understandings of school since empathic approaches to learning have already been institutionalized at the level of district policy. This is so important centered at the heart the specificity in this plan is the ability for families to hold teachers and staff accountable for their student’s learning. It actually empowers students by giving them the tools to judge their learning experience to against established standards and then hold their teachers. to that standard.

Wow, so overall by just looking at the specificity of this plan we can see the empathy shining through. What is so interesting about the trajectory of Pink Valley pandemic schooling is that this plan was ultimately completely thrown out by the time 2020- 2021 school year rolled around. And like I asked you in the previous post of this series, the question that still lingers is why? Why did they throw out a policy that appears to at its core embody a level of empathy required to educate all students?

We will keep coming back to this question as we continue on with the series but for now let’s just say good night. Next time, we will talk a little bit about implementation as we hope to understand why a new version of school ultimately felt necessary by the close of that new kind of school year.

Thanks for joining me in the pink room and see you back here real soon!

Till then…

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