Crucial Literacies in Extraordinary Times
Predicting the future impact of the pandemic on schooling and students is, like most generalities, rife with uncertainty. So much depends upon the social and economic status of children prior to the pandemic and all the other national and global traumas that were cast into sharp relief these last few years. Could families work remotely or not? Could they fall back on investments or did they live by paycheck? Did Covid cut a swathe through a family? What was the quality of remote learning programs? Was a child an introvert or a social learner?
The questions proliferate and show the limitations of most generalizations. Still, those of us who believe in the value of progressive education, and have been steeped in educational reform are banking on the hope that these last years will incentivize dramatic change, but it is also possible that retrenchment and caution will predominate.
Methodical Attention to the Social Emotional
Small, independent schools like Mead operated in-person except for those first three pandemic months. That fact alone allowed us to track the mental health of children and support their families, regardless of circumstances; it allowed us to keep connected with a semblance of normalcy. This was, we recognize, the great privilege of smaller schools with more affluent families.
Yet, we can at least agree on one thing: that we see more clearly how methodical attention to the social and emotional lives of students is a precondition for engaged learning. Schools will likely prioritize this thinking. If schools hold on to this salient fact—hardly a revelation—we will make a good start.
The "How" - Three Interconnected Literacies
So the focus is more on the how than the what. We need to be equally interested in content, though. As we try to establish context for our students, whether Pre-K-8 like ours at Mead, or high school students bound for work or college, certain organizing themes are pushing in urgently from the crises italicized in the past years. Three in particular seem to call out in a kind of existential way, representing three “literacies” that should lay groundwork for stronger advocacy in the post-pandemic era:
1) Ecological literacy—understanding how interdependency works; not only what is happening to our planet, but also problem-solving strategies for adaptation and survival.
2) Civic literacy—what it means for a community to thrive through a better understanding of how our social and political structure works, so that we can address inequity and injustice and understand the struggles and aspirations of different people.
3) Emotional literacy, with a focus on empathy. What does it really mean to understand another person, another belief, another way of life? How do we accomplish this leap to break through more toxic retreat into defensive positions?
Better critical thinking about the impact of digital media should be both a context and outcome for all of the above—the atmosphere in which all three literacies live and breathe.
These are not necessarily skills, but they are thematic competencies; ways of purposefully organizing skills. Each of these deserves its own space. When I try to absorb the last two years as the leader of a school where we already integrate much of our subject matter, these are the interconnected “literacies” that children will need to secure successful futures for themselves. The pandemic did not invent these needs, but it framed and intensified a series of challenges that now feel inescapable. It is time that schools put them front and center.
Peter Herzberg, Interim Head of School
Peter Herzberg has had an extensive career as a K though post secondary educator in teaching, leadership, and partnership building, in independent, public, and charter schools as well as community college. In this partnership and consulting work, he specializes in the innovation and design of curriculum, the building of more robust teaching cultures, media literacy, and cultivating student engagement. Prior to becoming Interim Head at Mead, where he served on the Board for many years, he worked in 7 different schools—more recently as the founder of the first all boys charter Elementary School, Boys Prep, in the Bronx, and prior to that Associate Head of the Brearley School in NY and Academic Dean at Greens Farms Academy. He is on the board of the educational nonprofit Change for Kids, was on the National Advisory Board of the News Literacy Project, and works on collective impact projects with DegreesNYC, a college-career readiness project. Peter also taught composition and writing at LaGuardia Community College, part of the City University of NY, before moving to the Interim Head position at Mead. He has an M.A in literature from Middlebury College and an Ed.M from Columbia Teacher’s College as a Klingenstein Fellow.
"The Mead School has unique potential, in its intimate, lab-like structure, to model what PreK-8 progressive schools might do at their best. Mead has always led the way in this regard, but the current cultural climate makes its work once again urgently relevant. This potential, and its faculty’s thoughtful, loving approach to kids, is what makes this work special." - Peter Herzberg