Embracing Community, Equity, and Experience in the Time of Covid — And Beyond

As we enter our eighth week of class suspension in Manitoba, educators, learners, and families are working extremely hard to fill the democratic, emotional, intellectual, cultural, and nutritional voids that education and schools tend to fill. 

We all know that the Covid19 has made wholey visible the inequities in our society — leaving those with less struggling further. We also are highly aware that if we are not careful as educators, we can often end up overwhelming learners and families, even with the best intentions. 

So how do we approach the project of educating learners in a way that attempts to sustain community, addresses the inequitable distribution of resources and justice, and offers all learners the deep and educative experiences they deserve?

In these strange and disconcerting times, many of us have turned to history and literature, or the humanities, as a means for sense and meaning making. I have observed and been delighted that many learners and educators have turned to the 1918 pandemic as an avenue to think historically about Covid. Thinking historically allows us an opportunity to analyze the human experience, reflect on this collective experience, and develop the imagination and empathy required to navigate present-day complexities. Looking to history also brings us reassurance, that yes, pandemics do end. 

It has also been fascinating to see peers and colleagues turn to Albert Camus’ The Plague as a means to help us navigate the uncertainty of these times. Camus speaks about the dangers of a benal life when one gives up asking the big and meaty philosophical questions. — when we don’t think deeply about the human experience or when we try to explain it through systematic responses. The pandemic is arguably a time when many of us are coming to terms with existential questions and agnst. So are our learners.

I believe that we owe our learners the opportunity to fully think about their experience during this time — supporting pursuits that have meaning and that enable them to make meaning. I have noticed the incredible work by educators in our province who have skillfully designed deep experiences for their learners — keeping in mind the experience of the child while developing the necessary provocations and invitations for inquiry and growth. And I wonder how we sustain this energy when we come back as communities?

Philosopher John Dewey argues that creating mis-educative experiences or simply offering disconnected activities for our learners stunts transformation and democracy, and produces what he refers to as bad habits. Dewey’s theorizing of how we learn is fully centered on community, that is the social, and an experience that “arouses curiosity, strengthens initiative, and sets up desires and purposes that are sufficiently  intense to carry a person over dead places in the future….” 

Throughout this time, I have observed a few phenomena that might help us come out of this pandemic event stronger; enabling us to support learners and families with consistency and vigour, while also providing our learners with the knowledge, skills, and ways of being necessary to contemplate the good life.

First, I have witnessed the shrieks of delight when learners are connected with their teachers and friends on phones and screens. I am astounded at the snapping back of the head when a child erupts in laughter and joy when in community. Our learners need us, and they need each other. There is no denying this and no replication. I am brought to tears when I see educators on the sidewalk waving to their kids at the window, watching with glee as this loving adult writes loving messages on the worn cement. 

During and following Covid, nurturing and growing democratic communities need to be at the core of our design. 

Second, I am struck by the anxious desire of educators in Manitoba who struggle with the desire to build foundational skills, steer clear of busy work, offer deep experiences for learners, and provide meaningful feedback to families. The litany of spinning plates is overwhelming when not all families and learners have the means to connect online or have the resources to what we might refer to as “engage.” 

I have witnessed educators who have invited learners to make sense of their experience in this time. Middle Years educators who connect with their learners through developing zines, Kindergarten teachers who invite their learners to talk about how their favourite stuffy makes them feel, and Senior Years educators who tackle a New York Times op ed in community as a means to make sense of ideas such as authoritarianism, xenophobia, and social isolation. In these examples, educators know the experience of the learners, design with this experience and mind, and provide the supports and invitations for learners to reflect on their experience and grow.

During and following Covid, deep and intentional design needs to be at the core of our work.

Last, I am astounded at how quickly and nimbly schools and communities have supported our families in most need. Through hampers, school supplies, laptops, wifi, and respite work, and so much more, our schools have reached out and supported our learners and families. There was no discussion. Folks just got to work that needed to get done.

During and following Covid, equity needs to be at the core of our design and work.

As we live through this experience, there is an opportunity to consolidate our collective energy in Manitoba when it comes to schools and education. Let’s continue to and strive further to build democratic communities that are fully focused on equity and the pursuit of deep questions about the human experience. To do so, is to provide all our learners with the space, knowledge, and skills required to support their growth and transformation. Keeping these at our core will, as Deborah Meier argues, “nurture the two indisepnsable traits of a democratic society: a high degree of tolerance for others, indeed genuine empathy for them, as well as a high degree of tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity, and puzzlement, indeed enjoyment of them.”  

 

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