2020-21 A PUNCTUATED SCHOOL YEAR

You can sum up this school year in a variety of ways. However, please don’t use the word “unprecedented.” The challenge isn’t what to say about the past 7 or 8 months – the challenge is how will we end it. Punctuation marks might be the best way to frame this finish.

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Over and done. We came, we saw, we conquered.  Signed, sealed, and delivered. A year like none other and thank goodness it is finally over.  Full stop 

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I can’t breathe with this mask on! Hybrid model of education, I didn’t sign up for this!  Two more months, you got this! Summer time!

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A pause, however continuation as next year is not going to be much different, and this situation/sentence will just continue to go on.

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How will we start in the Fall? But what about graduation ceremonies? How might we go about really getting closure to the year What are the effects for children being in front of computer screens for so many hours? I never did understand, how is it sanitary for students to pass a football but not share a pencil? Do the footballs have an anti-bacterial coating?

A case can be made for the fittingness of each form of punctuation. Yet, a lesser known, unusual mark might top them all.  The ellipsis.  And maybe that is because ellipses do the opposite of what punctuation usually attempts; indicating relationship between ideas.

Ellipsis

The “dot, dot, dot,” usually  is used either for omitting text, for pausing or trailing off in speech or thought.

Perfect.  Even more so, considering the advent of the ellipsis can be traced back to the drama of the 16th century. “Drama was ‘especially important’ in the evolution of the ellipsis,” says Dr. Anne Toner a Cambridge academic.

Our parents and grandparents may have profited or toiled from the Roaring 20s and Great Depression. Unarguably very dramatic times. But, in our own lives, what has caused more stir than COVID-19? No better punctuation mark seemingly lends itself to the drama of the past year (or year and a half!) more than an ellipsis.

How we end the 2020-21 academic year is of our choosing. 

The “rain” has fallen.  I only hope we subscribe to American singer-songwriter Johnny Nash’s optimism, “Look straight ahead, nothing but blue skies.”

Because bright, bright sun shiny days are surely ahead.

To be continued

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Teaching in Three Dimensions

Self-compassion and seeing clearly of necessity as teachers navigate 3-dimensions.
Photo by: Photo by Nonsap Visuals on Unsplash

The start of a new school year resulted in my taking a bit of a hiatus in blogging.  No doubt, being in three places at the same time has provided some challenge.  Three places?  Live with five classes of twenty-something pre-teens wiggling before me in the classroom.  Getting to know students and  putting faces with names is the first order of “business.”  This year I have a student named Whale and another I warily call Honey.  “Good morning Honey!” just does no’t feel right for some reason.  I remain thankful Honey is not in Sweet’s class, or Sweet Honey might just sit alongside each other.  A colleague has Putter’s little brother, Birdie this year.  Thai nicknames often add  a bit of joy to the classroom and it is quite possible to have a whole fruit salad, with students named Apple, Pear, and Peach!  

 

3-D Teaching

Face to face, or dubbed f2f, often focuses the first days upon building routines and  just putting students at ease, so the classroom is a place each child feels comfortable. A second dimension being explored, is “the virtual.”  Back to Zoom and synchronous virtual learning. While the third space is reserved for the asynchronous and for students  currently out of the time zone.  These learners receive a link to the recorded class and sometimes  the addition of more succinct tutorial videos which teachers create.  So, a start to a school year unlike any other.  Three-dimensional!

Though only two or three class periods in, humorous stories already are being amassed.  Of such things as an unaware synchronous student,  broadcasting inappropriate comments  over the classroom speakers for all to hear.  Or, of the student projected on the screen in front of the whole class.  Only, everyone’s attention is on the mother who is behind her and acrobatically dodges out of sight. Dropped Zoom calls, forgotten recorded sessions, audio input/output incorrectly set.  Whatever the case, even with the fumbles and follies, the first two weeks back to school were a definite success.  One that required teachers both compassion for students and themselves.  

Here in Thailand we consider ourselves lucky to have a chance to be face to face.  This a possibility because of the stellar response of the  nation.  In fact, the end of  July saw Thailand ranked number one in the world out of 184 countries for its ongoing COVID-19 recovery effort.  This,  according to the Global COVID-19 Index (GCI).  Nearly a month later, Thailand remains on top.  As of August 16, the total numbrer of confirmed cases stood at 3,377, where 95 percent recovered and just 58 total deaths recorded.  Further, Thailand had no new domestic cases of COVID for 83 days.

 

New Normal Comes With Some Hard to Reach Directives

Throughout the pandemic, news of COVID stipulations seemingly shifted from morning to night.  However, society was steadfast in being compliant regardless if there appeared to be contradictions. Certain regulations appear to be for perception as the logic is difficult to understand.  For example, in schools students can pass a basketball but not borrow a pencil.  The importance of exercise a priority, while the pencil is deemed a risk that can be mitigated. Keeping account of the dos and don’ts or cans and can’ts can be difficult.  However, more challenging is to break socialization habits learned in kindergarten, where sharing was  “what big boys and girls do.”  First grade began with the importance of washing hands but also that there would no longer be the sharing of anything, toys included.  Then there was the valiant and never-ending  attempt to control for social, or what we call physical, distancing?  Social distancing, a bit of an oxymoron, as we want students to be social, but so long as there remains  1-2 meters of distance between them.  Middle school students huddle around an infographic the teacher probably should not have even printed and handed out.  Yet, the motivation being one of learning, sharing  ideas, and being together.  Laboratory work in the high school can be interesting if physical distance is to be maintained.  Need I even “touch,” no pun intended, what physical distancing might mean to a classroom of 3-year olds who is not yet even proficient in the language of instruction?  

Thai national  schools began the first weeks of July, whereas  the independent international school where I work just wrapped up week two.  However, mid-game (if ever there was a mid-Corona game) yet another measure of compliance was just handed down.  Impossibility absolutely inherent in the “design.”  The Ministry of Education requires all schools to ensure students maintain a daily record of their whereabouts outside of school hours.  The purpose is  to  facilitate any needed contact tracing should a case of COVID be reported (confirmed) in the community.  This means all students need to record where they go daily.  Being a middle school teacher, it often is challenging enough to have a chiild write down their homework when it is written on the board and given as a directive.  

In May Thailand’s government launched a contact tracing app, declaring it vital in reducing a flare up of virus cases. Public buildings required app and temperature check-ins  via prior to entry.  The shopping mall was the first place I encountered this, then the domestic airport.  Unable to mandate the use of the app, because not everyone has a phone, the alternative mirrored how it used to be to make a walk-in restaurant reservation.  A piece of paper on a clipboard and just your name and phone number penciled in. Initially I could not help but question the legitimacy or accuracy of this alternative.  However, Thai culture’s high degree of respect and deference shown to authority likely results in near perfect record keeping. A system like this in the United States would  play host to an array of absurd names and numbers.

 

The Road Ahead

No matter the next edict, law, or measure, Thailand will hurdle, rather than grapple with any ostensible or grey space. There remains a tensile strength in Thailand’s hierarchical structure, one that begets compliance.  Businesses remain shuttered and the entire tourist industry gasps for a breath of fresh air.  Though there is no promise, hope remains and there is conversation about a plan to re-open international borders.  Meanwhile, schools may be in session, but the situation is fragile. Learning could go back to 100 percent virtual at the drop of a hat!  If COVID has taught us anything, it is the importance of flexibility.  This, along with the reckoning of how Thailand’s entire society remains under the auspices of the Kingdom. Yet, herein possibly lies the very reason why the country tops the list of safest places to be right now!

 

An Authentic Response to Take Action

(this is draft 2 and to be published)

Photo by Joe Yates on Unsplash

An Authentic Response to Take Action

I was six years old when I first heard how when one points a finger in blame, three fingers inexorably point back. A sort of stepping one foot forward but three back. This is no way is to rebuff the urgency needed in addressing problems and positively effecting minds, hearts, and hands.  The birthing of more fair systems and societies.  But, in doing so, we cannot resort to being six years old.  Instead it behooves us to follow the wisdom of Cathering Pulsifer, “focus on fixing the problem, never focus on the blame. Problems are only resolved when solutions are sought.”

 

The month of June was a wellspring of anger.  In the first week alone, hundreds of thousands of protestors chanted, “No Justice, No Peace,” on three continents.  The boiling point surpassed, no more tolerance of or for “the system.”  Institutions steeped in societal problems and rooted in inequity. By the middle of the month, the protests only gained momentum, giving no sign of yielding. 

 

On a more molecular level and within the scope of international education, on June 8 an article titled,“Black Lives Should Have Always Mattered: An Open Letter to Search Associates,” caused reverberation.  The sort felt all along one’s spine when fingernails drag across slate.  Ironically, even the blackboard replaced by the white board!  The author, Safaa Abdelmagid, was compelled to respond after Search Associates published a letter saying, “we are passionate and determined to continue asking the right questions, joining in the conversations, and striving to be a part of the solution.”  Abdelmagid said she felt the words were neither genuine nor sincere.  Instead there appeared, “borrowed, designing and frankly, audacious…They seem to be an afterthought; the reactionary stance of a traditional, predominantly white male organization that is scrambling to jump on the bandwagon.”

Abdelmagid proceeded to portray Search Associates in the darkest of lights, punishing with blame,

“For thirty years you have helped white male administrators bounce around
the world exchanging headships, uninterrupted, some with heinous scandals
trailing behind. You stood by watching white privileged teachers getting hired
for being in the same fanbase of a football or hockey team as the head of the
school, or the familiarity of shared white cultures, hometowns and cities.
You have witnessed schools operate as mid-twentieth century colonial schools
in order to keep their local expatriate populations happy…”

Before closing Abdelmagid offers a ray of hope, though embittered by her experience.  She asks Search Associates to start being honest and to acknowledge their shortcomings.  In closing Abdelmagid implores, “Ask for feedback and answers from those who know, those who have been crippled by your lack of responsiveness towards them. Own your privilege and use it to serve those who truly deserve it.”

Serendipitously, or not, the international school where I am employed issued a similar statement. The motivation for the titled statement, “The Responsibility of an International School,” feels entirely authentic. In the first quarter of the 2019-20 academic year, I remember being a part of a professional development session where the head of school himself spoke from the heart about how we as an institution needed to better understand the experiences of others but also to ensure far greater diversity of our faculty.  With the feel of a manifesto, it reads, “We are committed to adding our voice and to confronting racism, wherever it exists, through education and advocacy.” A clear focus upon solutions.

 

However, within days if not hours, there was backlash.  This time by former students. 

 

Having taught social studies for over two decades, I am passionate about empowering students to be active and engaged participants and to commit to the ideals of democracy.  Their pointed response a beautiful outpouring of passion.  An honest plea to begin a conversation about how the school might “dismantle systems of oppression that feed into continued racial inequality.” A barrage of questions, 17 to be exact, were issued. For example, the second question challenged, “What steps can the school take to move beyond its Eurocentric social and curriculum focus in order to encourage a more diversified understanding of society that does not stem, explicitly or implicitly, from white superiority?”  White superiority?  Eurocentric social and curriculum focus?  If anything, the school is challenged by maintain balance in demographics as a result of privileged host nationals.  As for the curriculum, parents pay a high price for the International Baccalaureate so students, akin to the authors of the letter, are prepared for next steps in the U.K. or the U.S.  Furthermore, how does Chinua Achebe’s, “Things Fall Apart” Eurocentric?  If anything, it is diametrically opposite, as students examine the effects of European colonialism from an entirely different perspective. Or, how about “Beloved,” Toni Morrison’s masterpiece which earned a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988? I would genuinely be interested in how themes of pain and the psychological effects of slavery, might fall under the claim of such literature being Eurocentric. Nonetheless, student voices are rightly being listened to and we all, as individuals and as an institution, can and need to be better.

 

While much of the world appears to be unifying in the spirit of creating a more just world, I look on in wonder as countries begin to open their borders to certain nations but not others.  Where I live, the provincial borders slowly lifted but cautiously international borders remain closed.  Yet, there is talk about countries entering into bilateral “travel bubble” agreements on tourism. The local economy severely depressed as a result of lost tourism revenues.  Moreover, amidst the pandemic it is  paramount xenophobia is not allowed to sneak in.  Instead, a surplus of compassion is what the world needs now.  

 

COVID-19 forced us all to hit the pause button. As we begin to push “play,” might our humanity surface, as leaders are poised to make difficult decisions but based in virtue and solidarity. Seldom do the headlines portray China in such a positive light, however a colleague living and working in China shared how the government graciously continued to extend visas under what was called the Chinese Humanitarian Visa.  A 24-hour hotline, in English, also was available to answer any questions. This, but one example of solidarity.

 

Might 2020 be the nascence of more leadership from the heart.  Passion hangs heavy in the air, as people imagine a tomorrow they long to live in.  Changes bent on solutions, not blame, as  millions get down on bended knee in silent protest.  As if to say, “United we stand,” or unabashedly “kneel.”  Yet, beyond renunciation or humble reverence, a groundswell of people is rising up, set on creating a fairer world for all. 

Is Lilliput the “New Normal”?

What might we expect for the 2020-21 school year?  With the endless possibilities, stringent measures, and unavoidable conservative changes being considered, one word encapsulates what I am feeling.  An omnipotent word that wakes me up at night and during the daylight hours, blinds my mind’s eye.  Lilluput. A fictional island of Gulliver’s Travels, Johnathan Swift’s timeless satirical classic. Lilliputians, symbolic of the excessive hubris we humans often exhibit.  A pride that in effect shrinks our very existence.  Where structure and bureaucracy become too thick to even wade through. Impossible 10-point plans schools hurriedly are designing, so learning can be brought from on-line to in-person once again.

Opening Back Up
The motivation to open schools back up is driven largely by a a desire to allow students human connection.  Some schools even consider an in-person finish to the 2019-20 school year, even if for one or two weeks.  A risk some declare is worth taking, if this means children (families and teachers too!) might feel good about the world again.  Safety of course driving any decisions being made.  There are considerations of student numbers on campus, possibly just 50%.  Question whether or not to utilize cafeterias.  Hands on learning, but only if items are manipulated by single individuals and also disinfected at night.  What type of masks are best?  On-site COVID-19 testing, data protection and self-declaration forms.   Of course, agreed upon social distancing requirements too.  The list goes on.
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Is this how classrooms are going to look?
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Confronting the Pervasive Uncertainty
One cannot help but wonder what this might not only look like, but what it will feel like? Though for many the motivation is to recover their pre-COVID life, a clear recognition of a changed world is imperative.  One that we MUST embrace.  No matter how strange it might feel for a teacher to keep her distance from a pupil, or try to read facial expressions covered a mask. So much is out of our control.  Yet, what is, is how we might respond.  Determinedly, as teachers we have a moral obligation to confront the pervasive uncertainty.  To run full speed ahead in vulnerability.  Trusting leadership.
Next Steps
Lemuel Gulliver, the “gullible” narrator, had several redeeming qualities.  I would argue that chief amongst these was that he expected others to be honest.  Amidst the current pandemic, we might benefit from a similar mindset.   Further, we might add fuel to the fire, by simply envisaging the irony all around us.  Gulliver was a prisoner to men no larger than six inches tall.  What imprisons us?  And, can we move beyond this and positively put our energy to use?  Possibly, even to pursue levity?  An upturned grin?  A chuckle?  No doubt, the world could certainly use a lot more laughter right now!