Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Essence of School

As a visual artist, my wife mostly thinks in images, but both my daughters are prolific writers. Here’s a piece from my daughter Talia about what’s essential in school, published in the National Association of Independent Schools magazine. Proud papa!


The word “essential” has taken on a new meaning during this pandemic. Governments are deeming which businesses are essential—on a state-by-state basis. Only essential workers are leaving the house to go to work. We are stocking up on essentials at the grocery store as witnessed by the empty shelves and the products with ration signs, indicating our food biases. We are seeing only the essential people in our lives.

For me, there are 22 of them: fifth-graders who tumble into the Zoom conference much the same way they tumble into the classroom. Their eyebrows relax into their faces once they see me loudly announce their entrance—not unlike a sports announcer—and welcome them. They are arranged in three rows of six and then a row of four that gets pushed to the bottom behind my finder, whom I never call on because I cannot see their hands.

Learning to fly the plane of distance learning as we are simultaneously riding it has been a lot of things. Bumpy. Terrifying. Rewarding. Inspiring. The first couple of weeks, I was firmly in the denial stage of grief. Nope, this is just school. (But it’s at home.) Everything’s the same. (But it’s completely different.) We usually have book club on Tuesday. (Damnit, we will still have book club on Tuesday!) I was fumbling to translate, rather than accepting that I had to actually think in another language.

That was an important moment…for me to pause everything, put away whatever “curriculum” I had “planned” for the rest of the year, and ask the simple question over and over and over again before any teaching decision that I made: What is essential?

As we have been forced to strip everything down to its essential components, it is blindingly apparent that the essence of school comes down to the relationships, to continuing to provide a space where students feel seen and heard and loved and known and where they feel like they belong. That’s all. That is what really matters.

With that at the core, I have asked myself this question over and over. What is essential?

It is having a connection with each other and ample opportunities to mix up with whomever they are interacting. So, I threw out the class lectures about the Civil Rights Movement we were going to have to accompany our book club book set in the late ’60s. Instead, I made a list of questions and put students into hour-long groups of three to discuss the book and lead their own conversations.

What is essential? Joy and laughter. So, I roped my school principal and lower school head into a Google Meet, bombing us on April Fools’ Day. I found a frog puppet, named Kermy, who now makes an appearance almost every class period and gets into some altercation with me.

What is essential? A sense of routine and safety. So, I continue the traditions from our classroom that can translate into starting each morning meeting with four peace-bell breaths, reading a book aloud to them.

What is essential? A feeling of control. So, I put on the schedule that writing starts at 9:00, but I actually assume it will start at 9:15. So, when I am reading aloud and get to the end of a chapter and dramatically act shocked when I look at the clock, I can see their muted screams of “Nooooooo, one more chapter!” and the buzz of the chat starts to stream with pleas. I look to my left and look to my right, lean closely toward the computer microphone, and say, “Okay. Let’s sneak in one more!”

What is essential? Exercise. So, I started a before-school exercise club, where the same five students show up every time, sometimes bedhead siblings alongside them, and we do yoga, sit-ups, and burpees. Sometimes, we bring playing cards, and each suit is a different exercise. Sometimes, we bring heavy items from the kitchen to serve as weights. Sometimes, we have plank-offs.

What is essential? To notice the delights within each day. So, inspired by poet Ross Gay, I start a Tiny Delight afterschool writing club, where we all write about little moments of our days that make us smile and bring us joy.

What is essential? To still feel like part of the greater San Francisco School community. So, we make our last writing project a “Quarantimes” newspaper to share with the whole school. We write reviews of games, recipes, and walks. We write advice columns. We interview students from different classes to find out what’s been happening across the school. We write profiles of teachers.

What is essential? An in-person, live boost! So, unannounced, I drove to all of their houses one Friday afternoon to deliver them the next book club book. Each student ran to the door, ducking under their parents’ arms, and we did a six-feet-away, high-five dance that we used to do with no feet every morning. It felt so good to see them. The real them, not the screen them. Not the muted square in the bottom left.

And, of course, on this journey, I know that exactly what they need is what I need, too. It has been a foggy and bumpy ride, but following my gut on keeping relationships as the central core of every moment has provided a surprisingly clear horizon.   -Talia Goodkin 

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