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A safe return to class should be the goal


Anyone who knows me knows that from the start, I have not been a fan of the current administration in Washington, D.C. I am likely to be in fundamental disagreement on almost every issue, from immigration to tax reform to health care. So I’m more than a little surprised to find myself agreeing with President Trump that we should do whatever we can to help our children return safely to their classrooms this month.

I’m not qualified to write about medical issues. Those who are, like the president’s new Covid-19 adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas, have left some significant caveats unaddressed in asserting that such a return is feasible. First, Atlas assumes children’s near total ability to resist the virus “where no comorbidity exists” — in other words, where there is no other underlying condition. Unfortunately, some children do have underlying conditions, and recent data shows as well that they are more susceptible to Covid infection than originally believed, as evidenced by the surge in pediatric cases in countries where children have already returned to school. Atlas also ignores the sizable adult staff in any school that may be infected by asymptomatic children. And students’ and teachers’ daily interactions outside school are not currently subject to systematic contact tracing.

I’m a former public school teacher. From 1988 to 1996, I taught English as a Second Language. I began teaching while living in Europe, where my students ranged from adults needing the language for a variety of professional reasons to students at the University of Vienna.

After returning to the U.S., I taught adult basic literacy in the New York City schools. My students were from dozens of cultural and educational backgrounds — from the Estonian engineer who spoke six languages to the Honduran refugee whose schooling in her war-torn country stopped in second grade. I taught also taught ESL and communications at the La Guardia campus of the City University of New York. CUNY’s open enrollment policy presented similar challenges, although with fewer extreme educational differences. My curriculum had to take such diversity into account.

During the 1993-94 school year, I took a seminar facilitated by mentors from the Barbara Taylor School in Harlem. Students at the school came from all over the city, and many had been judged so incorrigible that they had been permanently expelled from public schools.

Teachers from the Taylor School disagreed with the assessment that such children were “unteachable,” and set about proving it. They adapted pedagogical techniques pioneered by the biologist Lev Vygotsky, who worked with a variety of special-needs children in the early days of the Soviet Union. Vygotsky taught children who, under the old czarist regime, had been almost entirely neglected.

What Vygotsky discovered — unsurprising to any experienced teacher — was that groups of students are much more than the sum of their individual abilities. Their achievements were measurably greater than that of students working alone, and the life experiences they brought to any learning situation provided raw material for a level of creativity not seen in individuals. Students learned from one another, even as teachers crafted lessons from their students’ real-life experiences.

Teachers in New York City schools treated so-called incorrigibles as isolated problems. The Taylor School created an environment that met them where they were and that enabled them to stimulate one another. In most cases, the result was a transformation that had been thought impossible, with students equaling or outperforming “mainstream” students.

The weeks I spent with guides from the Taylor School completely changed my teaching. I learned to see my collection of individuals more as a collaborative whole. For the remainder of my teaching career, what I learned in that course inspired me. It still does.

Students don’t simply learn facts in preparation for a life of productive work. They also learn to work collaboratively and to develop personal relationships — the social-emotional learning that is crucial to any child’s development, and that cannot be nurtured in isolation. They need to study together.

Since the start of the pandemic, the president has often seemed to be living in a world of magical solutions. Simply asserting that students and staff are safe does not make them so. But that doesn’t mean schools can’t find real, science-based solutions.

The safety of students and staff is paramount. But every professional educator I’ve spoken with agrees that collaborative learning in the classroom is superior to distance learning — if it can be done safely. We should make every effort to help them achieve this.

Timothy Denton is the senior editor of the Seaford and Wantagh Herald Citizens. Comments? Tdenton@liherald.com.