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“Now is the time to weigh who want to be and how we want to move forward,” Vermont teacher Christine Nold writes.
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After a devastating fire, these two questions guide my lesson plans

What’s left of my home has me rethinking what I teach and how. 

It was just after 11:30 a.m. on the last Wednesday of September. I know this because I was in a circle with 11 wonderfully different 10th graders who have somehow established a beautiful advisory community together. My colleague Ali walked in and motioned me into the hallway: “There’s been an emergency.” I don’t remember much else from the short walk between my classroom and the department office, but I do remember hoping my family was OK. They were.

But 30 minutes later, I was standing in front of a fleet of fire trucks and emergency vehicles hosing down the second floor of my house. It turns out that the cheap cell phone charging cable I bought online wasn’t worth the savings. While I was at school, my charger melted from the inside out and created a fire that gutted my home. My mom was quick with hugs and my brother quick with action, buying pizzas for the incredible fire crew and contacting my insurance company.

Christine Nold
Courtesy photo

In the days since the fire, I’ve been sorting through my belongings, trying to figure out what to hold onto. Charred snow pants that cannot be restored? Toss. Mattress covered in soot? Toss. Grandma’s green chair that all of my cousins think is hideous? Keep.

As I move through the charred remains and consider what is most essential, I can’t help but think about this third pandemic school year. In so many ways, our buildings have been brought to the ground. As educators, we have had to rethink what is most essential about education and what we can set aside because it no longer serves us. When weighing these choices, I ask myself these two questions: Is this necessary? Is this just?

When I consider the assignments I’m giving students, I ask: Does it fit with our current learning goals and targets? Will this assignment further my student’s understanding of this specific goal? Will it provide multiple pathways to demonstrate their understanding?

Many of the assignments I’d previously considered formative have fallen away. Instead, I’ve opted for shorter-term exit tickets with longer and more meaningful summative tasks. Now I see that assignments that take place over a series of days require a high level of executive functioning (working memory and organization in particular). So when teaching a multi-day assignment, I need to help my students with planning and organization.

Then I ask myself whether my students have the tools, resources, and time to complete the task. Does the assignment truthfully represent diverse experiences, offer culturally relevant materials, and stay within the scope of what students have received direct instruction around?

These questions have led me to remove assignments that take place outside of our instructional time. Not only do I hope to model a need for balance (taking a “work hard, play hard” approach), but also I recognize that not all students have the resources my assignments had previously required (Wi-Fi, adult support, and executive functioning skills). I also regularly audit my shelves and curriculum. When I find patterns of missing identities or overrepresentation, I work to offer different opportunities for connection.

Our school systems and communities should be asking themselves the same questions about what’s necessary and just. Although I understand the desire to “return to normal,” our pre-COVID “normal” was not serving all students, as many thoughtful educators have observed. Now is the time to weigh who want to be and how we want to move forward. What we hold onto that reveals our values and character.

In the world of fire remediation, I’m learning that many things can be restored. A month after the fire, I picked up my yellow clogs and colored pencils. I’m also examining whether something’s worth bringing back to life, or whether it is time to let it go.

In the wake of a public health emergency that upended how we teach and learn, it’s time to reimagine and rebuild together.

Christie Nold (she/her) is a public school educator on Abenaki homelands in South Burlington, Vermont. When not in the classroom, she organizes alongside the Education Justice Coalition of Vermont and enjoys being outside in all weather.

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