This week on TeachLab, host Justin Reich is joined by Neema Avashia to discuss the recently released Teaching Systems Lab report Healing, Community, and Humanity: How Students and Teachers Want to Reinvent School Post-COVID. Together they reflect on what educators have seen in their classrooms since the pandemic, and how we can learn and grow from these experiences. “I'm a pretty firm believer that the old normal didn't work already for too many young people. And that a lot of our young people, even if they're going through the paces of education or complying, that didn't mean that education was meeting their needs, or providing them with the educational experience that they deserve.” - Neema Avashia
This week on TeachLab, host Justin Reich is joined by Neema Avashia to discuss the recently released Teaching Systems Lab report Healing, Community, and Humanity: How Students and Teachers Want to Reinvent School Post-COVID. Together they reflect on what educators have seen in their classrooms since the pandemic, and how we can learn and grow from these experiences.
“I'm a pretty firm believer that the old normal didn't work already for too many young people. And that a lot of our young people, even if they're going through the paces of education or complying, that didn't mean that education was meeting their needs, or providing them with the educational experience that they deserve.” - Neema Avashia
In this episode we’ll talk about:
Resources and Links
Check out the full webinar Healing, Community, and Humanity
Check out the report Healing, Community, and Humanity: How Students and Teachers Want to Reinvent School Post-COVID
Check out all of Teaching Systems Lab COVID-19 resources
Produced by Aimee Corrigan. Recorded and mixed by Garrett Beazley
Justin Reich: From the MIT Studios of the Teaching Systems Lab, this is TeachLab. I'm Justin Reich. Really excited to welcome you back for another season of discussions about the art and craft of teaching. We've just opened back up this semester here at MIT, and my staff are trickling in, the students are back. It's exciting, even with masks on, being back on campus and being back with each other and also really exciting to be starting up a new season of TeachLab.
To kick things off, we want to talk about some of the research that we've been doing during the pandemic about the experience of students and teachers during remote emergency instruction. Over the last two years, we observed that as most researchers have delved into topics related to pandemic education, there are really two issues that come to the fore. The first is remote learning policy: which schools are open? Which schools are closed? Which are remote? Which are hybrid? What are districts doing? What are states doing? That's been one topic. And then the second topic has really been about test scores: where are they declining? How quickly can we measure it? How substantial are the declines? What do the differences look like between students from different kinds of backgrounds?
I think there are some good things that we can learn from those two kinds of research studies, but from where we were sitting, a big unanswered question was, what is the teaching and learning that's happening right now actually look like? What's going on in the classrooms, the Zoom classrooms, the home offices, the schools where teaching and learning in all these different forms is happening? If we don't understand what's actually going on between students and teachers and technology and the resources they use to learn, we're just not going to be able to get a handle about what students missed, what they gained, and where we should move forward.
So, the Teaching Systems Lab, we conducted three kinds of research over the last two years. The first thing we did is we spent a lot of time talking with teachers. We interviewed 100 teachers in two different chunks from all subject areas, all across the country, public, private, charter schools, elementary, middle, high school, asking them, what was the plan? What actually happened? What was hard? What worked well? What should we be doing moving forward?
We also believe really strongly that it's so important to listen to students and to really encourage teachers to listen to their students. So, we conducted another study where we had about 250 teachers take a beautiful slide deck that we put together and ask their students five kinds of questions: briefly, what's been hard during the pandemic? What's been good about learning during the pandemic? What do you feel like you've lost? What are you proud of? And what do you hope the adults in your school learn from this experience? And we got about 5,000 students to give us some feedback to those questions and for teachers to reflect on what they learned from those conversations. So, that was the second kind of research we've done.
And then, the third is we think it's really an important time design, for imagining new kinds of futures, based on what's been hard, based on what we've learned over the last couple years. So, we've conducted about 15 different design charrettes that bring together students and teachers and school leaders and parents and family members to collaboratively imagine new kinds of futures for schools.
And from those three research activities, the charrettes, the design exercises, interviewing students and having teachers report on it and then directly interviewing teachers, there's about five research studies that we've published over the last year that you can find at tsl.mit.edu/covid19.
For today's episode, we're incredibly fortunate to have Neema Avashia, who is a North Star for our research. She's a long-time teacher in the Boston public schools, a civics teacher, a ethnic studies teacher. And she went through the full cycle of teaching in person, having her students go home, teaching remotely, simul teaching hybrid. And she's really helped us think about, how do we talk to students, understand their experiences, and use their insight and wisdom to help move us forward?
Another key partner in this research has been Jal Mehta, who's a faculty member at Harvard, who is a recent author of In Search of Deeper Learning, with Sarah Fine, a great book that investigates, in the before times, what three really outstanding schools look like as they try to go beyond just teaching to the test and really preparing students for their whole lives ahead.
So, myself, Jal, Neema, a whole bunch of folks from the MIT Teaching Systems Lab teamed up on these series of studies and we're really excited to be sharing with you today a conversation that we got to have with Neema about one of them. The study that we're going to talk about today is called Healing, Community, and Humanity: How Students and Teachers Want to Reinvent Schools After COVID-19.
My name is Justin Reich. And I'm joined by my dear colleague, Neema Avashia, a long-time teacher in the Boston public schools. Neema, can you take a bit to introduce yourself?
Neema Avashia: Sure. Hi, everybody. Like Justin said, my name's Neema Avashia. I'm a ninth-grade ethnic studies teacher in Boston. I have worked here for the last 19 years, but I was born and raised in West Virginia. And I'm glad to be here with you today.
Justin Reich: That's great. So, I would say one of the strongest points of shared belief that Neema and I share is when you face difficult challenges in education, a really important starting point is to talk to students and to talk to teachers. Neema, maybe you can talk a little bit about, over the past year as you transitioned from being a... or a year and a half, from an 18-year veteran, face-to-face teacher to a remote teacher and then to a hybrid teacher, what kind of role did talking with your students play in changing and adapting your practices?
Neema Avashia: Sure. I think for any of you who are educators, this probably will resonate, but when we transitioned in March of 2020 to remote learning, I really felt like I became a first-year teacher again. I didn't know how to be successful in that context. I didn't know what was going to work for kids. I didn't know how to reach kids in the way that I did in person. In person, I felt pretty successful as an educator. And I felt very, very unsuccessful as a remote teacher. And I decided that no one really knew how to be a good remote teacher because no one had done it before and that the only way we were going to figure it out is if we talked to young people about what they needed and wanted and figured out how to build spaces that responded to their needs.
None of us have lived through a pandemic, Justin likes to say. No one alive today, unless you were alive in 1918. No one knows what it's like to be a student during a pandemic that is ongoing. No one knows what that experience has been like for young people. And if we want to create educational opportunities that work for young people, we really have to be listening to them and learning from them about what will and won't work for them.
And so, with Justin's help, I sort of started to design a series of conversations with my students early in the pandemic, like in May of 2020, first to think about what September of 2020 was going to look like. And then over the course of that school year, really continuing to revisit and check in with young people all the time about what was and wasn't working.
And then as we got to the spring of last year, I sort of felt like, well, what would it look like if we did this with more young people? What if we asked these same questions to young people as we faced September and a re-entry into schools? How could we use this sort of model of listening to students to design educational environments that work better for them and were more responsive to their needs and their wants?
Justin Reich: Thank you, Neema. So, one of the things that we were able to do then, and we'll talk about more as we go along, is take some of these questions that Neema had come up with in asking her students and invite hundreds of teachers, mostly around the United States, to ask these questions for their students. So, in the spring of last year, sort of April, May, and June, we had about 250 teachers interview about 5,000 students and then bring their insights, their ideas back to us. In our lab, we had a chance to interview about 60 teachers from across the United States and ask them similar kinds of questions they were asking their students, which were basically, how did last year go? What worked? What didn't? And what do we need to learn to make this year more effective, to make this year more powerful, more meaningful, a richer learning environment for students?
And then the other thing that we did that we think is really important is that we brought together teams of teachers, of students, of school leaders, of family members. And we did these design activities together, a bunch of which I'm going to share with you all today, of conversation starters that we used to help people start thinking about what the future of schools might look like. So, all of that, we want to share today.
If you feel like you and your colleagues haven't yet spent enough time talking to your students about what they think this year should look like, this is a great opportunity to do that. It's never too late to further engage teachers and students in conversations about what the future of schools should look like.
One of the things that we found is that, looking into this year, a question that parents, that students, that policy makers, that state leaders were asking is, what kinds of schools will students go back to? And we found that there were sort of three kinds of answers to that question. One possibility was, because I'm a Latin nerd, called the status quo ante pandemus, that we just go back to what things were like beforehand. Neema, I know you're not a big fan of going back to the old normal. Do you want to talk for a few minutes or a bit about what some of your concerns are about schools sort of going back to the old normal?
Neema Avashia: Yeah. I'm a pretty firm believer that the old normal didn't work already for too many young people and that a lot of our young people, even if they're going through the paces of education or complying, that didn't mean that education was meeting their needs or providing them with the educational experience that they deserve.
I'm especially worried because I think that in our pre-pandemic education, we spent a lot of time focusing on control and compliance. We spent a lot of time and energy on policing young people's bodies and stripping them of their autonomy. We spent a lot of time focused on assessment, as opposed to actually the process of learning. And I personally have a lot of anxiety about going back to that place. That wasn't a successful place for way too many of my students, and really looking across the country, way too many students across the country.
Justin Reich: So, one possible story that, if you were to give the most positive spin on it, it would be something like, the last 18 months were really terrible, and it's kind of normal to have some nostalgia to returning back to what was before. But as Neema said so compellingly, what we had before didn't work for too many kids.
A second story, and for folks who are not in the United States, I'd be really interested to hear whether or not you have narratives like this that are happening in your country. So, folks who are not in the United States, I invite you in the chat to share your perspectives on this. But one thing that US policymakers have been really concerned about is learning loss, this idea that there's a certain amount of standards-aligned content that students are supposed to learn every year and they weren't able to learn that in the past 18 months or whatever it is. And so, that represents some kind of learning loss, and that loss needs to be remediated mostly through some... most of the proposals are sort of through some form of additional schooling, like additional tutoring or after school or summer school or other kinds of things like that.
So, one really interesting finding from our study is we interviewed 57 teachers. We asked 200-plus teachers to share with us what they learned when they talked to their students. And learning loss just didn't really come up. It came up a few times when teachers said, "Here's an idea that I explicitly want to reject." But one of the questions that we asked teachers to ask their students, what do you feel like we lost last year? And a few of them talked about sort of missing some learning opportunities and being afraid that their teachers wouldn't be sympathetic. Overwhelmingly, they talked about social losses. They talked about the people in their lives that they lost. They talked about the connections to friends and families that they lost.
So, there's this sort of really unusual moment in the United States, where people who are education policy makers, who write op-eds in national publications, they're very keen on this idea of learning loss. And then we go ask a zillion teachers about it and they're like, "Eh." And there's not a single teacher that we talked to that said, "You know what we really need to do next year? We need to do a bunch of additional testing and assessing of our students. We need to figure out what kinds of standards-aligned content they missed last year. And we need to use high-dosage tutoring to remediate those gaps." There's sort of no one who said that to us. And so, learning loss, it's this sort of unusual story, which is extremely compelling to national education policy makers, to state education policy makers, and seems to have no salience at all with students and teachers. The-
Neema Avashia: And I would just say... sorry, Justin. Do you mind if I-
Justin Reich: No, please.
Neema Avashia: No, I would just say, I feel like, as a teacher who just started school a week ago, this narrative is totally driving what's happening in our schools right now. We're already being told about the math and ELA baseline assessments that kids are going to have to take next week. People are already feeling this huge press and urgency to jump into content. And instead of kind of going slow and really helping kids reacclimate and helping kids relearn themselves and relearn being in community, people are feeling incredibly pressured to move into content very quickly, largely I think because of the learning loss narrative.
Justin Reich: Yeah. That's really interesting to hear in some of those places. I think across the world, we have more young people with more proficiency around technology-mediated communication than ever before. We had a lot of young people who got some really hard, but really important practice in self-directed learning, in self-motivated learning.
One of the things that we heard from Neema's students, from her colleagues is also when teachers ask students directly about learning loss, "Do you feel like you've sort of lost in your learning?" they take it really personally and as an offense. "We've been doing the work. We've been working really hard over the last bunch of years, last bunch of months. What's this stuff about learning loss?"
I don't want to minimize that, for a lot of students, they missed really important learning opportunities. There are students with disabilities, students who get a lot of services at in-person schools that weren't able to replicate those services that had really hard years. There are folks where if you're a new immigrant to the United States and we're trying to get you as connected to the English language as you can in your first months arriving, if you missed some in-person opportunities to learn that, that can be really hard.
But I think one of the things that the learning loss narrative misses is all the things that you all are jumping right on in the chat, which is that very few people are motivated by hearing that they're learning-losers, you know, hearing how far behind you are in the standards that we set for you, you know, that some education policy makers set. Not nearly as motivating as saying, "What did you do that was great? What are you most proud of? What are the great new capacities that you developed that we can build on and learn in these ways?" I mean, none of that is setting aside the really important fact that if there's some core parts of mathematics that kids missed, we got to find a way.
In this interview that we did with teachers, there was one teacher who said, "Look, we're going to do what we do every year, which is we're going to scoop them where we need to scoop them. We're going to keep going this year. We're going to figure out what they know and what they don't know. And every year, kids come in and there's stuff that they don't understand as well as they need you to learn this year's stuff." And I just love that line that she had, "We're going to scoop them where we're going to scoop them."
So, our proposal in this report is to try to create a third kind of story, which is about humane reinvention, which is about saying, what are we going to take that's the best of last year and bring that forward? What did we let go of last year that we can keep getting rid of, that we can keep letting go of?
In the United States, one of the things that we found is that when young people talk to us, when the teachers talked to us about reinventing schools, they weren't just talking about reinventing schools in response to a pandemic, but they were talking about reinventing schools in response to chronic deficiencies and chronic inequalities that we have in our systems.
So, I want to tell you one of my favorite stories from this research. So, Neema and I work together and we come up with a series of questions that we want to ask students. Maybe I'll actually skip ahead here and tell you what sort of the final version of these five questions ended up being. So, one was, what are the aspects of remote learning that you've really appreciated the most and would like to see carried back into in-person schooling? What was really hard about remote learning that you hope you never have to manage again as a student? We did this in a different order with the first group. So, I'm going to do it like this. What do you feel like you missed out on or lost because of the pandemic in school this year? What are you most proud of this year? And then with Neema's students, we tried this, the question that we ended with is, after this pandemic, what do you hope adults will do to make in-person school better for next year? What do you hope they don't do to school next year?
So, this really draws on what Neema was talking about before of when we come to moments in which the path forward is not clear, let's talk to students and have them give us their ideas. So, we do this. We've asked a series of questions about like, "What do you feel like lost? What was hard?" And then we say, "What should adults do next year?" And Neema, do you remember this, that the very first... I think it was the very first student who spoke up in your class said, "We should build a pool."
Neema Avashia: Yeah.
Justin Reich: And Neema was facilitating. And I was taking notes. And I was like, "I want to listen to you." Well, my first reaction was like, "What does a pool have to do with the pandemic? Why are we talking about a pool?" But then I think I was able to do what I think Neema is so great at doing, which is saying, "Let's believe that this kid was giving us his opinion from a honest and serious place. And what does that mean?" Because then some of the other answers we heard, I don't remember... tell me if you remember others of these, Neema, but thinking about-
Neema Avashia: Kids were talking about the bathrooms. They were talking about lunch. They were talking about just things about school that were a problem prior to the pandemic. In a way, kids took it as an opportunity to talk about school in general and were less worried about returning from the pandemic and more worried about, school didn't work for me in all these ways before.
Justin Reich: And your students in Boston know that kids in suburbs go to schools that have pools associated with them. Your student asking for a pool was... he was asking specifically for a pool, but more broadly, "How do we create schools in Boston that have all the same kinds of resources as students in other places?"
We were talking with a group of.... later, Neema couldn't join. I don't think, Neema, you were here for this. But we were talking with teachers in Milwaukee. And, again, we said like, "What should we do next year?" And one of them said, "We need to bring back driver's ed." And we were like, "What does driver's ed have to do with the pandemic?" Well, as someone pointed out on the chat, many, many students during the pandemic got jobs. At this particular school in Milwaukee, their survey suggested that 60% of high school students were wage earners in their family. Not just kids with jobs, but people who are contributing to their family's budgets. And the public transportation system in Milwaukee is not very good. Lots of families have at least one car. And so, getting more kids drivers' ed would help them get to their jobs, get home in time to get their homework done, and things like that.
So, part of what we took from these answers that sort of surprised us, the pool, the driver's ed, was when we talk about humane reinvention, we're not just talking about fixing things that we saw that were broken during the pandemic. We're talking about fixing inequalities and deficiencies in our schools that we see year after year after year. And the young people that we talked with asked us to draw our attention to those ongoing systemic inequalities, not just the problems that we saw that are related to the pandemic in the last 12 months. In a sense, there's a kind of real sort of maturity and sophistication that I was kind of missing behind that first answer of the pool.
Here are three kind of big themes that we saw in our report. A big thing students felt like they were missing were missed social connections, missed connections with their teachers, but also a growing sense of autonomy. Kids learned wearing sweatshirts. They learned wearing sweatshirts that had hoods on them. They snacked when they want to. They went to the bathroom when they want to. They did all of the things that we don't let them do in schools. And they were still able to learn. They experienced a kind of growing freedom, a growing autonomy, and an incredible responsibility for their own learning.
From teachers, this was actually a hard one to summarize because when we asked teachers what it is that they wanted to do differently next year, they gave us really different kinds of answers. Some teachers said, "We did way too much technology, and we really got to get away from it." Some folks said, "We did great things with technology this year, and we want to do more of it next year." Some teachers said that they wanted to find more time for individual connections with students and families. Some teachers said that they want to spend more time building community in their classroom, that community wasn't just like a mini-unit that they did at the beginning of the year, but something that really needed to be threaded throughout.
But I mean, again, in contrast to this idea of learning loss, that there's sort of one set of research-guided fixes to all of our problems, that there's actually many, many different problems that people see in different communities. And then an overwhelming common theme was this idea of the pandemic as a window into longstanding school inequities, particularly inequities in ways that we treat and oftentimes overpolice our students.
Neema Avashia: A question that I've been asking a lot in my school community is, why do we have the rules that we have? What is a function of a rule? Do we have a rule because it does something to support student learning? Or do we have the rule because we've all been conditioned to think that young people in our school buildings need to be controlled? And even just pushing people to think about that question has resulted in a lot of really important conversation and reflection.
I've been teaching since 2003, and really came into teaching kind of at the height of what we call, like, the no excuses movement in the United States, which is sort of like a set of rules and expectations around school that really leave very little space for young people to be fully human. We control what kids wear in school. We control where they walk. We control how they sit in class. We control how they speak to each other. We punish them when they don't meet those expectations. And I just think that, for young people, in some ways, they had also become acclimated to going to school in that kind of context.
And what the pandemic did is it showed both kids and teachers that a lot of those rules had nothing to do with learning. My kids were learning in their pajamas. They were learning from their beds. They were learning while they ate. They went to the bathroom when they needed to go to the bathroom. None of that stopped them from learning. And so, as we re-enter schools, I think it's really important that we continue to interrogate what parts of school are about learning and what parts of school are about control.
Justin Reich: As our colleague, Jal Mehta, said, "We learned that, as kids were sitting on their beds, they were sitting on their couches, we learned that the depth of your seat cushion doesn't relate to the depth of your learning." And I like that one.
Almost everyone in the pandemic had a really hard and painful year. And it's tough to go back to a job, it's rewarding and wonderful, but tough to go back to a job where you're then taking on and taking care of lots of other people. It's also hard to feel that the work that you do can be taken for granted. But I think there's also ways that teachers have looked at this year and said, "Oh, there's a whole bunch of stuff that we did better that we ought to figure out how we bring in."
I think families, in many ways, found some new ways to be connected with schools last year that they were really excited about. I mean, one of the core concerns that we heard from families is just getting kids back into schools so that adults can go to work and lead the lives that they were experiencing before the pandemic. But a lot of questions is like, "Oh, I felt really connected with my kids and my teachers this year. How am I going to keep up those connections?"
One of the differences that we saw when we looked at the kinds of posts that admins put up is just so many of them were questions, "How do I help teachers bridge from survival mode to thriving? How do we change our agreements about time, given what we've learned, next year? How do we capitalize on the good learning that teachers have done? How do I spend the new stimulus funds that are coming in the United States?" Doing an exercise like this doesn't solve all these problems, but it gets the problems on the table, and it helps people see how folks from different perspectives see challenges differently. One of the main things probably, if you're an admin, is recognizing that even though you have this big pile of Post-it notes of challenges, that probably some of the first things to think of about are the challenges that your students and teachers are experiencing, what do they need to feel successful and to be connected?
A final activity that we did that we describe in the report is to ask people to think about what might be some good metaphors for what we want schools to look like this year and in the year to come. Much of what we have to do to prepare for school this year feels like it's sort of fits on checklists: have you put all of your stuff on your learning management system site? Do we have enough masks? Has everyone agreed to the testing protocol? Have you done this piece and that piece and the third piece and the fourth piece? And I don't want to minimize all those things because they're all important, but ultimately what we want to do is think about, if we were in a school that felt like it was a really powerful, healthy place for healing to happen and for learning to reemerge this year in powerful ways, what might that look like?
To help us sort of step away from the checklist, kind of day-to-day minutia of schools, we asked people to think about metaphors, metaphors that could be sort of tent pole ideas that could organize a school's response. And people came up with some really interesting metaphors. Some of the folks said, "Going back to school felt like a family reunion, a place where family members get together after a long time to reconnect with each other, to celebrate growth, to remember old memories, to pick old fights."
Another group of folks thought about sort of religious institutions and the learning that happens in religious institutions. Where do people feel like their learning is really whole, that they're treated as a whole person? And part of what we then do to sort of break down these narratives is we say, "Well, all right, in the United States, it's not appropriate to turn schools into churches or temples or mosques, but what happens at churches or temples or mosques that we could learn from about building communities?" Well, people eat together at the end of a religious ceremony. What it would look like to find some places to go outside and to eat together at the end of the day? One of the things that people do is they create art for no other reason than the enjoyment of creating the art, when choirs sing or when whole congregations sing. What would it look like to try to do works of collective art that would help us reflect on our experiences and connect with one another?
Other people thought about schools as sort of journeys or schools as transportation stations. How do we have people come to our school, feel like they're getting ready, and then go out and go forward on interesting missions, on interesting journeys, on interesting ideas?
Again, the point of the metaphors is not to say, "Okay, now, we're going to turn our school exactly into a family reunion," but to think about, what are the kinds of cognate experiences that we feel like would be rich and be meaningful for young people, for adults, would help us feel reconnected? I think part of emerged from the idea is the kinds of things that we usually do in schools are not exactly right to get us started this year. The world is different because of the past two years, and our institutions need to adapt to do that.
I mean, I think that connects, Neema, to the theme that you've been writing about and talking about, about schools and their emphasis of sort of getting back to normal. As you've been writing and talking to people, what do you think are some of the key themes of what schools need to be thinking about doing differently from their usual patterns this year?
Neema Avashia: I think this has been really hard because I think everyone's inclination has been to sort of return to what school looked like pre-pandemic, but I really feel like if we were doing this right, we would slow things way down and we'd really ask the question is, what would it mean if schools were spaces of healing? What would we be doing if the goal was to have all young people feel like they were a whole before we jumped into the work of learning? Because overwhelmingly, what I feel like I both heard from kids before they came back to school and I'm seeing from kids now that we're in school is that kids are carrying a lot of hurt with them, and it's manifesting in lots of different ways.
It's not easy for young people to be back in person. There's a lot of challenges of relearning each other, relearning yourself, relearning what it means to be a student in school, losing autonomy. There's a lot to mourn and grieve in terms of what's happened to people over the last 18 months. And so, I feel like the question that I would love for us to be asking is, how might we think about schools as sites of healing as a priority and as the predecessor to being sites of learning?
Justin Reich: So, you're teaching ethnic studies this year. Concretely, in your classroom, what are some of the things that you're doing to try to integrate those themes into your day-to-day?
Neema Avashia: I mean, everything. I'm really lucky. I am teaching a subject this year that doesn't have an assessment at the end of it. It doesn't have a long list of standards that I have to make my way through. So, I really can make my class be about healing.
And so, we started the year with an art project where we talked about the fact that schools don't necessarily feel like safe places right now, and the world doesn't necessarily feel safe right now. There are two pandemics that we're battling: COVID and a pandemic of racial injustice. And so, we talk about shields and what a shield functions for and the idea that shields create safety. And then young people got the chance to build their own shields, where they painted on cardboard pizza rounds, but they painted shields with images and words that evoke safety and comfort for them. And then my job, after I get off this webinar, is to hang them up around the room so that when kids come into this space, their shield is up. And if they're having a hard time in my space, there are things that evoke home and safety and comfort for them. That was the first three days.
Then today, we did an activity that was around mapping the terrain of your life, where we reflected on our highs and lows over the course of our lives, in terms of our relationships, in terms of events that we've experienced, in terms of groups we've been a part of. Really trying to keep centering young people's identities, to give them space to talk and think about their lives pre-pandemic and during the pandemic, to give them time to share with each other and connect with each other about both the sort of joys that they've experienced and the trauma that they've experienced during this time.
I really feel like my job is to continue to think about ways that we are centering identity and centering lived experience and valuing what young people are bringing in, as opposed to in the learning loss paradigm, where we wouldn't care at all what kids were bringing in with them, and we're just going to message to them that they're not enough. My job is to be like, you're everything. You're already enough. And my job is just to sort of nurture what's already in you.
Justin Reich: Yeah. Because I mean, if part of what you're building there is an ethnic studies curriculum, the immigrant experience is a huge part of understanding ethnic studies. And part of the immigration experience is coming to a new and unfamiliar place and figuring out what are going to be the shields that protect you during this place. I mean, I imagine that the kind of work that you're doing in these first few weeks about identity, about safety can be woven into the academic content of what you're doing later on.
Neema Avashia: Yeah. And I think that's an important point, Justin, is I think sometimes people think it's an either/or proposition, that it's like you're either doing social-emotional work or you're doing content. I don't think it has to be that divided. I think there are ways to do both at the same time. I think there are ways to center young people's identities and hold content and be working on content simultaneously. But I do feel like sometimes we're pushed into these corners of like, you're either doing one or the other, and I would really encourage people to resist that and to think about the ways you can hold them simultaneously.
Justin Reich: Yeah. I mean, I teach at MIT, which is full of weird, weird kids. Wonderful, weird kids. And I'm always struck, as we've navigated various kinds of traumas over the last 10 years, that there's certain kinds of academic content-learning that they just find really satisfying and sort of comforting to be part of. And I think that can be true for a lot of kids. There are going to be young kids coming back to schools in ALA classes that are just super excited to be reading novels again, not just alone, but with other people. And so, figuring out that combination of how are we making more time and more space for helping young people feel whole, how are we finding the parts of school that they were sort of most excited about before and giving them space and time for that, be like, "Oh, you're going to get back to some of these things that we really liked about being together." But I think there are... I don't know. Teachers are always trying to find ways to pluck two berries off the bush with one hand. And I think this is another place to try to be creative about that.
So, anyway. It's been really wonderful getting a chance to spend about an hour with you, sharing these ideas. The report is called Healing, Community, and Humane Reinvention: How Students and Teachers Want to Reinvent Schools Post-COVID. You can find it at tsl.mit.edu/covid19.
A useful thing to do every couple weeks is to do a Google search for Neema Avashia and news, and see what new kinds of writing and new kinds of things she's been up to.
Neema Avashia: Only trouble will come if you do that.
Justin Reich: Only trouble will come if you do that. Neema, any final words of wisdom to folks as they're heading out for the rest of the school year?
Neema Avashia: I really encourage you to get as proximate as you can to the people who are directly experiencing this and then to amplify what they're telling you. So, if you work with young people: listening to them and then sharing what they're saying with your colleagues and your supervisors. If you work with educators: doing the same. It just feels like right now, the decisions are being made by people who are very, very far away from the lived reality that we're all in. And so, the more you can do to be a bridge, I think the better off we'll be.
Justin Reich: Yeah. And hopefully, the tools that are in this report are concrete ways you can talk with students, you can talk together with teachers. And, as Neema said, not all of us have power. Like, probably nobody here was a national minister of education. Maybe nobody was a superintendent. But all of us have the capacity to talk to young people about their experiences, to talk to teachers working about their experiences, and share what we're learning. And the more we do that, the more we'll have systems that are really designed to respond to the needs of those folks.
Well, Neema Avashia, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you so much around the world who were able to spend some time with us today. And I hope you have a wonderful afternoon or evening or morning. And I hope these tools are useful for you in the work that you're doing in the future. Thanks everybody.
Neema Avashia: Thanks everyone.
Justin Reich: I'm Justin Reich. Thanks for listening to TeachLab. I hope you enjoyed our conversation today with Neema. Be sure to subscribe to TeachLab to get future episodes. If you link into the show notes, you'll find a recording of the full webinar and links to all of our research about the pandemic at the Teaching Systems Lab. This episode of TeachLab was produced by Aimee Corrigan and was recorded and sound-mixed by Garrett Beazley. Stay safe. Until next time.