Op-ed: It’s time to reimagine schools

I am reminded of a quote by John Dewey, a pragmatist, who said: “If we teach today like we taught our students yesterday, we will rob them of their tomorrow”
Bertie Simmons is a longtime educator and school principal in the Houston Independent School District.

Perhaps the present pandemic will open our eyes to a new way of schooling our students. While politicians yell, “Open schools immediately,” teachers cry, “We beg you. Please consider our students and teachers.” Many parents ask, “What will I do with my children when I must go to work?”

This unexpected and unwanted Covid-19 virus has school boards, administrators, and state departments of education perplexed and confused as they listen to the outcries of these various disparate groups. The problem is only complicated when the Secretary of Education and powerful political figures suggest a withholding of funds unless schools open by a given date. Meanwhile, the number of deaths from the invader and those testing positive mount. This has caused an unprecedented dilemma.

I believe this highly emotionally charged and dire state of affairs offers us an opportunity to break from the traditional practice of “straight row desks” inside our brick and mortar schools. Dr. Sharon Gray, a nationally recognized specialist in early brain development, states, “A headful of fears has no space for dreams.”

I believe that, in these uncertain times, all concerned individuals must be dream makers and work to replace fear with possibilities. Could we reflect upon how little our classrooms and instructional practices have changed over the years, while our world has changed dramatically? Could we spend more time considering the needs of the “whole child” and new ways of preparing them for life rather than for a state test? Is it possible to consider providing education outside the schoolhouse? I believe it could be done without being tied to the present methods of virtual learning.

I am reminded of a quote by John Dewey, a pragmatist, who said:

“If we teach today like we taught our students yesterday,

we will rob them of their tomorrow.”

In this new way of schooling, the teacher becomes a facilitator, curator, and resource for students. The following are a few examples of instruction that could be accomplished presently online or face-to-face. They are meant to be examples but not an exhaustive list. This could be a first step toward providing a new way of schooling when the students return to campuses after the pandemic crisis. These and many other strategies could burst open the door to a new way of thinking about providing a real “tomorrow” for students.

  • Use effective problem-solving strategies that would involve identifying a worldwide or community problem, investigating and seeking solutions.
  • Implement project-based instruction that enables the student to create.
  • Provide voice and choice for students where they can create based on their needs, passions, and interests. This might include a weekly genius hour during which students are offered a menu of topics from which they choose.
  • Organize students, using Zoom, into small interest groups to collaborate on an assignment while the teacher works with one group at a time.
  • Define for students the expectations for learning for the week and allow each one to create a calendar showing the order in which the work will be completed.
  • Implement a personalized learning environment and management system where instruction is based on the individual needs of students.
  • Give an assignment requiring the students to define and give examples of how they could show empathy and persistence.
  • Provide a menu from which students will choose how they will complete their assignments. Brooke Conley, my granddaughter, suggested the following as an example of what could be done when teaching a math skill:

1) Create a 3-D rectangular prism using paper and labels.

2) Film a video explaining how to find the volume of an object you found in your home.

3) Write a paper explaining how to find the volume of a rectangular prism.

4) Create a text message chain with a friend explaining an assignment.

5) Write a blog post of new learnings.

Let’s all work together to find ways to give “tomorrow” to our students. Please send your ideas to me at bsimmon82@gmail.com and I will post them to share with others.

For 61 years Dr. Bertie Simmons, Ed.D. author of Whispers of Hope: The Story of My Life, was a dedicated educator in the Houston Independent School District. Simmons came out of retirement to serve as principal of Furr High School in 1999. During her more than 17 year tenure, she was instrumental in revitalizing the school and creating transformational opportunities for some of Houston’s most disadvantaged students. Furr was one of only three schools in the nation identified for the College Board Inspiration Award in 2011 As evidence of Simmons’ indelible impact on Furr High School, education advocate and philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of the late Apple, Inc. CEO Steve Jobs, recognized Furr High School as a recipient of a $10 million grant through the XQ Super School Project. Simmons’ school was one of 10 selected from nearly 700 schools nationwide for “reimagining high school education.”

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