Forget about making this school year as normal as possible

As we embarked on a new year in both the Jewish faith and in schools across the country, I’ve thought about Shmita, which literally means “release,” and how we might apply its hopeful principles to our lives today. Students, parents, and educators have spent the past seven months coping with a pandemic that has strained our health, our spirits, and our resources. Now, with growing fears of students falling behind, teachers are facing enormous pressure to somehow maintain pre-pandemic expectations and standards. It is a tragically Sisyphean effort. And it is made worse by our failure to seize this opportunity to “release” ourselves from the erroneous assumptions, outdated practices, and antiquated attitudes that plagued American education well before the pandemic upended our lives.

For decades, our school system has been centered on rote memorization, performance, and measurement, rather than authentic, meaningful learning. An arms race to college has pushed children to compete ever more brutally for high grades and test scores. Our school system is what author and education expert Alfie Kohn calls “an elaborate sorting device, intended to separate wheat from chaff.” A race to nowhere.

Rather than creating a healthy ecosystem that nurtures children during the most tender stage of their human development, and rather than encouraging their individual strengths and talents to bloom, we’ve sought to prune them all into the same shape. We’ve exhausted them, depleted them, and stunted their growth. This harsh, competitive landscape has yielded staggering rates of anxiety, sleep deprivation, and depression among children and teens. Now we find ourselves where we are today, facing immense existential challenges, yet attempting to maintain the broken status quo.

Many of the schools that are online this fall are requiring students and teachers to remain tethered to their screens for hours each day. Students too often sit muted with teachers lecturing about subjects that are largely disconnected from our current moment. If we truly care about the welfare of our kids, we need to do something different this year that will collectively renew us all and provide true educational sustenance.

Instead of struggling to replicate our schools — whether in person, hybrid, or online — I think nature is calling on education for a Shmita year. Let’s release ourselves from the arbitrary timelines and metrics of school; from bell schedules and mandated hours of seat time; from the pressures of homework and competing for external rewards. Let’s instead find inspiration and purpose in this moment; let’s focus on reviving our mental well-being.

As a culture, we’ve always been afraid of “breaks” in education — the dreary semantics of the “summer slump” or now the “COVID slide.” There’s been a widespread belief that if too much time elapses without students engaging in formal education, they will get out of practice and forget what they learned. We have a belief that more is always better — and that saddling kids with extra instruction now will help make up for their pandemic-related learning losses. Yet more isn’t always better when it comes to meaningful and beneficial growth.

In her wonderful book “The Gardener and the Carpenter,” pioneering developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik compares child-rearing to gardening (creating healthy conditions and then getting out of the way) rather than carpentry (attempting to directly shape the young people in our care). Her writing is prescient for this moment: “Our job is to provide a protected space of love, safety, and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish. Our job is not to shape our children’s minds; it’s to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. . . . We can’t make children learn, but we can let them learn.”

Our challenge now should be how to change the conditions of school in order to let students learn as they’re naturally built to do. In order to thrive in the future, young people must deeply and authentically see themselves as learners, not followers or performers. They must be genuinely curious, and motivated, and self-confident about their abilities.

Let’s give students more opportunities to design their own learning around unique passions, to cultivate a love for learning. For a few years now, Shelby Public Schools in Kentucky have given students the freedom to design projects that captivate their curiosity, and the flexibility to work at their own pace. Teachers have found that project-based learning is a great way to integrate standards from multiple grade levels and disciplines, all with more student joy and engagement.

We can embrace a year of service to one’s family or community — helping young people feel connected to the larger world gives them a sense of hope, agency, and purpose. At Leaders High School in Brooklyn, chemistry students experimented with how to prevent lead pipe contamination. They shared their findings with government officials in Flint, Mich., in hopes of contributing to the effort to decontaminate the city’s water supply.

Let’s also transform school this year to have lasting implications for equity in this country. Our pre-pandemic education system was already failing children from historically oppressed and marginalized communities. Now, distance learning is deepening the divide for those without reliable Internet or computer access, or for those whose parents work outside the home and can’t act as co-teachers on Zoom.

This year, let’s be inspired by Shmita to rethink education. All children should have access to learning experiences that validate them as individuals and celebrate their own ideas and contributions. All students should have the chance to love learning. Let them pursue their passions this year and find meaning in their work.

We don’t know what our world will look like in four months or in 10 years, but we know we need to provide a foundation for kids to be healthy, adaptable, open-minded thinkers, and to feel a sense of purpose and connection to community. This year, let’s cultivate a better education system.

Vicki Abeles is the author of “Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation” and the director of two related documentaries, “Beyond Measure” and “Race to Nowhere.”

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