Ashley McCall is a bilingual third-grade teacher of English Language Arts in Chicago Public Schools. She asked in a recent post on her blog whether we might seize this opportunity to reimagine schooling for the future, to break free of a stale and oppressive status quo that stifles both children and teachers.

She writes:

“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?

She goes on to describe how this reimagining could infuse the school and the curriculum and the way teachers teach.

School reformers and billionaire philanthropists say they want innovation. Do you think Bill Gates, the Waltons, Eli Broad, Reed Hastings, and their friends would fund districts that want genuine innovation of the kind Ashley McCall describes?