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School in a Sitcom Structure

25 minutes. In the length of time it takes to watch a sitcom on Netflix, I’m expected to engage 25-30 students in physics. Time has a funny way of shaping our priorities.

This week I started reading Ainissa Ramierez’ book The Alchemy of Us. It is a new release and if you are the kind of person who loves fascinating connections I strongly recommend this read. In the first three chapters Ramierez focuses on time and clocks, steel and the railway system and the telegraph and communication. What endures for me is the thread within these three chapters of time. Modern transportation and telecommunications effectively shrink our world, bringing all of us closer together by reducing the time required for an interaction.

The time permitted for interactions with our students has been slashed dramatically. In a normal school year I would have 50×5=250 contact minutes with each class. In our pandemic model that time has been cut in half.

Teachers have panicked about “getting through” material and wondering how much more they can sacrifice from their curricula. Meanwhile administration and society continues to discuss the “learning loss” or COVID-slide, which, mark my words will end up being measured by some new costly exam from Pearson.

When time is stolen from us, we have the opportunity to recognize what is important.

As a teacher it’s important for me to recognize that the enduring teachings and understandings my students will walk away with have little to nothing to do with physics content. It would be arrogant to think otherwise. Who would I be, to think that my teaching of physics content is so life-changing that it is absolutely critical to a student’s future? The sheer diversity and variety of curricula attest to this fact. Yet, students can choose to pursue whatever field they desire, provided the opportunities, the awareness, and most importantly, mentorship.

What is enduring?

Problem solving skills. The ability to question. Discernment. Attention to details. Skepticism.

If we can teach our students to think like experts, and masterfully tackle a challenge, does it really matter the volume of content we use to teach these skills?

I’ve had similar conversations regarding final exams. At 20% of the overall grade, finals do very little to move a student’s letter grade. Final exams provide me with little information I already know from weekly assessments, except for showing me who studied for finals and who did not. Our administration has directed us to give “holds harmless” finals, meaning a final exam cannot hurt, but only help a student’s grade. Many teachers are insistent on giving their traditional finals, even though the district is not providing us with a traditional finals schedule. Add to the fact that the PSAT has taken away one day during finals week (because, clearly the answer to learning loss is running the PSAT/SAT not one, but five times this year), and a second day is purely for enrichment and student support, yet teachers are going to force this upon students anyway. I cannot help but ask “to what end?” What is engrained so deeply in our own academic culture that we feel this is the only way learning can and should happen? Is it, perhaps, a byproduct of the Puritan mentality that every minute must be spent in productivity, that “time is money?”

There have been numerous reports that black and brown students have thrived in remote learning. Many of these reflect specifically on microaggressions in schools, but I cannot help but wonder if perhaps a component has been the ability for students to take ownership of their own time through asynchronous learning opportunities. I consider how, in my own circles, we often joke about “Greek time” or “Arab time” and wonder if the strict, factory-like bell schedules and “on time every time” mentality potentially creates another layer of hostility to the learning environment.

In a time of great opportunity to shift the narrative of what it means to teach and learn, so many have dug their heels into the ground of a crumbling system. If Schitt’s Creek and Arrested Development can tell a compelling story in 30 minutes, why can’t we teach meaningful academic lessons in the same time?

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