As we stagger to the finish line of this school year with our last masked gasps, I asked our CACE editors if I could republish something I wrote four years ago about end-of-year celebrations of learning. Revisiting Celebrate Learning seemed like a well-timed idea. The blog post makes a good case that an authentic audience motivates students to care about the work they do and often inspires their best efforts. I shared examples of ways schools bring the community together to celebrate the meaningful work students have completed throughout the year. My CACE colleagues supported the idea, but suggested that I update it, adding new insights gained since publishing the piece in 2017.
As I scrolled through the archived post to read what I had written, it became immediately apparent that the practices and examples I shared might be useful for in-person learning, but irrelevant for so many teachers who have spent much of the year teaching online and whose end-of-year celebrations would also need to be virtual. I wish I could suggest some outstanding technology that could replicate the spirit of these events in a virtual community. Or even better, share models of schools that created innovative online opportunities for students to share their work with authentic audiences. I am sure that good examples exist.
But I am sorry to confess, I have little to offer. My calendar overflows with webinars I signed up for about teaching virtually. They sounded so promising! But alas: when the time came to log on, I always found something else I had to do. When else would I have time to fold the laundry? Or empty the dishwasher? The new technology or approach wasn’t something I really had to learn. Just as students have technologically surpassed many of their teachers, so have pandemic-era teachers now surpassed me.
After transitioning from 28 years in the classroom to consulting in 2001, I was always sensitive about losing touch with the realities of day-to-day life in the classroom. I had sat through enough professional development workshops led by academics or consultants where it was obvious they had not been in an actual classroom since Madeleine Hunter (no disrespect–she was a revolutionary in her time). During my own presentations, I always looked for signs that I might be losing touch–teachers rolling their eyes or grading papers in the back row. Fortunately, with God’s grace, my years of classroom experience gave me some authority, understanding, and empathy for the challenges and pressures teachers face every day. I continued to feel connected and relevant.
Until this year.
I just might be losing my credibility. This year, I’m certainly not an example of being a good learner, taking on new challenges, or figuring out ways to solve impossible problems.
All my resources for curriculum, instructional practices, assessment strategies, culture building, character-forming ideas, and evidence-based practices are still pertinent. Students need to feel they belong and be invited to do work that matters–real work meeting real needs. (Imagine you’re a kid, the world seems to be falling apart all around you, and your teacher is asking you to do meaningless tasks and worksheets on Zoom. What?! Something doesn’t fit!). And even more so this year, students need opportunities to present their work to peers for feedback and finally to an authentic audience. I just didn’t explore all the ways to incarnate these principles in a cyber world.
I do have overwhelming empathy and respect for teachers who had to figure out what it looked like to teach with integrity during this strange school year. And figure it out, you did. You had no choice! If there is any point to my reflections here, that would be it. God gives you grace to figure it out . . . when you have to. Only when you reach the end of your rope can God reveal the fullness of his perfect strength in your weakness. You just have to believe and persevere, always putting one step forward.
When I was in the classroom, I did whatever I had to do to serve my students. When I entered Room 9 in my first year of teaching 4th grade in a public school, the space was bare bones–desks and chairs. So I did what I had to do: invited the kids on a mission. They wrote letters to a local bookstore explaining how much they loved to read, the specific authors they admired, and that we had no books. Result: the bookstore donated $300 of books to our classroom. Students wrote a local gardening store and explained how important plants and beauty were in learning, and that we didn’t have any. Result: the store donated a variety of plants and flowers. We wrote the local cleaners and sent them a picture of our dingy American flag. Result: the flag was professionally cleaned for free. You do what you have to do. I’ve rarely had to forego or abandon a project for lack of resources. If you are passionate about it, if you inspire your students’ zeal, if the work will make a real difference in the world, there is no end to the resources God can provide.
I didn’t learn all the tech stuff you know because I didn’t have to. But you did, and I want to thank you. Not only have you served your students well: you have renewed my faith that we can rise to meet any challenge. You did it individually in your classrooms, and you supported each other in community. We need each other for support. We need God for strength and hope.
You’ve shown your students that with God’s help, anything is possible. You have demonstrated the most important quality of being a good teacher: to be the learner-in-chief. As an educator, you add value by inviting students to see you grow into something you couldn’t do before. One year while teaching first grade, I spent hours making a colored chalk drawing on the blackboard (yes, the messy, old-fashioned blackboard). I covered it with a cloth and planned to reveal the drawing at the perfect moment in the story. When the moment arrived, I dramatically pulled down the curtain. After a tense moment of silence, they burst out laughing. The first graders were not wowed by my illustration. I was crushed. But I put up a new drawing every week, and by the end of the year I had clearly improved! It is a great gift we give our students when we are transparent in weakness, then with perseverance and prayers, our growth can also be witnessed.
Alongside your students, this year I have witnessed your extraordinary growth. Having started from impossible weakness and vulnerability, you supported one another in educating well. I don’t quote Nietzsche often, but he said, “An artist learns to dance in chains.” Even a pandemic couldn’t hold you back. Our typical end-of-year learning celebrations may not be possible this year, but there is much cause for rejoicing. Educators, “I thank God every time I remember you” (Phil. 1:3).
After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.