We Can Reopen Schools if We Make the City the Classroom by Nikhil Goyal

Along with Dr. Christopher Emdin's "reality pedagogy" about which I just posted, I agree with Nikhil Goyal that we need an epistemology of the City as the Classroom in a time of COVID.  COVID or no COVID, a good education should mean that we all get to know our communities, organizations, cities, parks, restoration projects, and our sites of governmental power. 

I know that our graduate students are always transformed by experiencing either the legislature or deliberations at the Texas State Board of Education. City Council and school board hearings are also powerful spaces to research and learn from. Some of them even get the chance to testify in such high-stakes, public venues and contribute to real-world change while learning about legislative processes, contexts, discourses, politics, and policy agendas. 

They learn about how policies intersect at school board, city, state, and federal levels and how knowing about one level of governmentality is necessary, but insufficient for ascertaining the whole. They learn about the vital role of citizen involvement and the "rules of the game" that establish parameters for voice and thusly, public input and power.

Why not give them the keys to our school boards, city councils, state boards, state legislatures, teacher associations, administrator associations, civil rights organizations, immigrant rights organizations, ecological movements, and university-level politics. For example, what to they think of UT Austin students' "Eight Demands for Transformative Change" in the wake of George Floyd's killing and the ensuing Black Lives Matter movement? The part about "test-optional admissions policies," meaning the ACT and SAT, would seem to intrinsically interest them.  

Making the city the classroom dovetails well with Dr. Emdin's notion of reality pedagogy because both are asset-based, ascribing power to students' voices, gifts, talents, and experiences. What a great time for discovery and to deepen children's intellect by having them engage directly in and with our seats of power. 

With so many hearings and meetings online right now, a paradox is that despite COVID, which places restrictions on our day-to-day movement and activities, students can potentially exhibit greater voice, agency, and power than ever before at local or state, or national levels where they are otherwise not typically present.

Their teachers can take solace in knowing that things are not like they used to be, having to rush to meetings across town, circumventing bottlenecks during busy hours, find parking and barely arriving on time to be present or participate. As important and frequently exciting as this is, the rush of everyday life from which we now have a hiatus means less wear and tear on our cars and bodies and creates an opening for unprecedented involvement.

This fall, the lion's share of this activity will be online, meaning that students can not only attend hearings virtually, but if they're unable to make it on any given day, they can catch hearings at other times since many meetings are also recorded and archived. They could even have "watch parties" and listen to past committee hearings via the legislature online and listen to previous hearings that go back at least to 1989 to learn about legislation that impacts them. It's a treasure trove of state data that few ever take advantage of even if they know about it.

In Austin proper, there is similarly much to learn about the arts, local history, and local struggles like gentrification, land use and development, water politics, the environment, city budgets and how local politics and agendas connect to what's going on at the state, national and international levels. 

In short, rather than our students being on the sidelines as history unfolds, they can and should be part of its unfolding, particularly when their lives and future well-being are at stake.

Please do read Nikhil Goyal's piece as I think he'll inspire you as much as he inspired me. The pedagogical moment is teeming with possibility.

-Angela Valenzuela

We Can Reopen Schools if We Make the City the Classroom

Radical education ideas from the 1960s and ’70s can help us safely teach children during a pandemic.

Recent school graduates take photos in
Washington Square Park as New York
moves into Phase 3 of re-opening.
(John Lamparski / Getty Images)
By Nikhil Goyal | July 21, 2020 | The Nation

The start of the academic year is just weeks away, and the nationwide debate about reopening schools during the Covid-19 pandemic is still raging. The Trump administration has called full steam ahead and threatened to slash federal funding to districts that fail to follow suit. The rationale for reopening schools is rooted not in public health but in politics. President Trump wants parents to return to the workforce and resuscitate the economy to help him win reelection in November.
This comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns about the dangers of in-person classes and as some teachers’ unions urge full-time virtual learning to protect the health of their members and students. Anyone who has spent any time in a public school knows that maintaining social distancing is all but impossible, especially in chronically underfunded schools where staff are in short supply and children are crammed in classrooms that regularly top 30 students. Before the pandemic, public schools were already asking parents to chip in for toilet paper, paper towels, supplies, and other essentials. Without funding to retrofit schools with personal protective equipment, disinfecting measures, trauma-informed care, nurses, and other services, any chance at safely reopening is delusional.
We cannot sacrifice students and staff on the altar of educational achievement and economic growth. Until there is a vaccine, educational instruction should be primarily virtual, supplemented with some physical activities, inspired by existing models of progressive education. In the spring, teachers and students scrambled to adjust to virtual learning with scant preparation, exposing gaping inequities. In 2017, 7 million students, or 14 percent of the school-age population did not have Internet access at home. The federal government needs to provide every child with a tablet or computer and make critical investments in broadband access.
In the 1960s and ’70s, progressive educators such as Paul Goodman, John Bremer, and George Dennison envisioned the city as the classroom. Goodman advocated to break up urban schools into dozens of mini-storefronts that “could combine play, serializing, discussion and formal teaching.”
Cities like Philadelphia saw the birth of “schools without walls.” Dubbed by Life magazine as “probably the most radical of all current high school experiments,” students in the Parkway Program learned in art museums, laboratories, theaters, businesses, newspaper offices, and along the banks of the Schuylkill River. The only physical space was a rented loft where weekly town hall meetings were held. “The schoolroom is the city, the teachers are the city’s employees and businessmen, the curriculum is the day-to-day events of the city,” Life wrote.
With transmission lower outdoors, mayors and governors could allow for classes—in staggered intervals—to be held in parks, streets, churches, stadiums, running tracks, woods, and other spaces. They could enlist the ranks of the unemployed to assist with logistics. It was educator John Holt who argued that the “best place for children to learn whatever they need or want to know is…the world itself, in the mainstream of adult life.”
At a time when families have been pent up at home for months on end, there are worries that children’s behavior and development are suffering from what Richard Louv called the nature-deficit disorder, “a description of the human costs of alienation from nature.” The antidote is outdoor, experiential learning. In Germany, there are more than 1,500 forest kindergartens (Waldkindergarten), where children engage in freewheeling play in parks, ponds, meadows, and wetlands in all the elements—heat, rain, and snow. In the process, they learn self-regulation, critical thinking, risk taking, and empathy. Over the past few decades, the model has been adopted across the United States in more than 150 nature-based preschools. The pandemic provides the opportunity for children to engage in project-based learning to safely explore the natural world. There could be a collaboration between the National Park Service, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and local school districts. In New York City, soon-to-be representative and former principal Jamaal Bowman, whom I have advised on policy, donated to, and campaigned for, and educators are calling on the city to pilot outdoor learning for early childhood students.
Little of this can begin to happen without a multibillion-dollar bailout of public education. The Senate must pass the $3 trillion HEROES Act, which the House of Representatives approved two months ago, to provide immediate relief to families, schools, and communities. The bill earmarks $90 billion for K-12 and higher education.
For months, public schools have been on the front lines, offering meals to poor children and childcare to essential workers. A mix of virtual and outdoor experiential learning can help them ride through the pandemic, while maintaining health and safety for students and staff.