Englewood STEM Mural

What If We Radically Reimagined the New School Year?

Monday night I sat on my back patio staring up into a rare, starry Chicago night. I squinted and made out each point of The Big Dipper and then turned to see what I decided was Mars, twinkling in the distance. My partner and I sat in city silence, wrapped in a perfect, nearly unrecognizable temperature-and-breeze blanket. For an hour or so we reveled in this brief peace bubble and I gave myself permission to dream:

“What if?” I thought. What if we did something different, on purpose? What if we refused to return to normal? Every week seems to introduce a new biblical plague and unsurprisingly, the nation is turning to schools to band-aid the situation and create a sense of “normalcy”–the same normalcy that has failed BIPOC communities for decades.

In her memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist, Patrisse Khan-Cullors states that “our nation [is] one big damn Survivor reality nightmare”. It always has been. America’s criminal navigation of the COVID-19 pandemic further highlights the ways we devalue the lives of the most vulnerable. We all deserve better than Survivor and I don’t want to help sustain this nightmare. I want to be a part of something better.  

What If We Designed a School Year for Recovery?

“What if?” I thought. What if Chicago Public Schools (CPS) did something radical with this school year? What if this fastest-improving urban district courageously liberated itself from narrow and rigid quantitative measures of intelligence that have colonized the education space for generations, and instead blazed a trail for reimagining what qualifies as valuable knowledge? 

What if we put our money, time and energy into what we say matters most? What if this school year celebrated imagination? In We Got This, Cornelius Minor reminds us that “education should function to change outcomes for whole communities.” What if we designed a school year that sought to radically shift how communities imagine, problem solve, heal, and connect?

What if this messy school year prioritized hard truths and accountability? What if social emotional instruction wasn’t optional or reduced to one cute poster? What if we focused on district wide capacity-building for, and facilitation of, restorative justice practices?

What if the CPS Office of Social Emotional Learning (OSEL) had more than about 15 restorative practice coaches to serve over 600 schools? What if we let students name conflicts and give them the space, tools, and support to address and resolve them? What if restorative justice was a central part of this year’s curricula?

What If We Really Listened?

What if we made space to acknowledge the fear, anxiety, frustration and confusion students, staff, and families are feeling? What if we listened? What if we made space to acknowledge the anger and demands of students? What if our priority was healing? Individual and collective. What if we respected and honored the work of healers and invested in healing justice? 

What if our rising 8th-graders and seniors prepared for high school and post-secondary experiences by centering their humanity and the humanity of others? What if healthy, holistic, interconnected citizenship was a learning objective? What if we tracked executive functioning skills and habits of mind? What if for “homework” families had healing conversations?

What If We Made Life the Curriculum?

What if we recognized that life—our day-to-day circumstances and our response to them—is curricula? It’s the curricula students need, especially now as our country reckons with its identity. What if we remembered that reading, writing, social studies, mathematics, and science are built into our understanding of and response to events every day?

Here are some examples in the humanities. Reading: comprehension and analysis of the perspectives put forth about the twin pandemics (COVID-19 and, as Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III has come to call it, COVID-1619). Writing: thoughtful and supported arguments for equitable allocation of federal and local resources. Social studies: design and execution of public actions that educate and empower communities.

We can do this in math and science, too. Mathematics: calculation of distribution options for COVID stimulus checks. Science: inquiry about virus transmission and the role of vaccines… the possibilities are endless.

When we structure students learning around their lived experiences and present needs, they not only develop content knowledge and skills but they grow to care about and for one another. They are equipped to collaboratively face the world they are inheriting.

This work is happening in pockets around the city. But this moment invites us to expand the degree to and frequency with which social emotional knowledge and skills, restorative practices, and culturally and socially responsive curricula are implemented.

Let’s Stop Policing Our Imaginations

While reading Charlene Carruthers’ Unapologetic a few weeks ago, I highlighted the lines: “Anti-Blackness works 24/7 to kill the Black imagination… The destructiveness is ongoing, chronic, but it is manifested acutely. It tells our children to dream of a better future instead of a better now, in the communities where they live.”

Lately, I am acutely aware of how intentionally I have to work in order to renew my own lost imagination. How much have we snuffed out the what-if imaginations of our students with policies that police their bodies and minds, inequitably and unimaginatively distribute funding to schools, and tolerate out-of-date, counter-revolutionary curricula?

The removal of police from schools, after all, does not eliminate all forms of policing. What if we didn’t police the imaginations of students?

What if enough is enough? No one is coming to the rescue. We can rescue ourselves. We must. As the fifth core assumption/belief of restorative justice states: Everything we need to make positive change is already here. We just have to let our students, families, neighbors, and friends tell us what they need. And we show up. And we learn together.

Photo by Tanesha Peeples. Image is of the mural created by Green Star Movement for Fernwood Elementary School.

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Ashley McCall

Ashley McCall serves as a 3rd grade bilingual English/Language Arts teacher at César Chávez Multicultural Arts Center on the south west side of Chicago and a teacher representative on the Chávez Local School Council. Follow her on Twitter at @ashlm_12.

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