Rethinking high school during COVID

We’re going remote, so let’s think outside the box

FOR 20 YEARS, I’ve taught in an adult ed program in Dorchester. Every year we tweak things, adjust the schedule, hire new faculty, tinker with syllabi. Change happens gradually.

This past spring, with the advent of COVID, we had to scramble. Many of our students do not have laptops or good internet service and our class sputtered out. Around the end of June, my fellow teachers and I thought about what we would do for this coming year. What we did is, we tore up our schedule, our comfortable ideas, our expectations, and started fresh. Change happened suddenly.

Which is why I wanted to write up some ideas for the coming school year, specifically for the suburban high school where my children are enrolled.

I, like every other parent I spoke to, and like the teachers and School Committee members who wrote and spoke publicly — like everyone in town — was disappointed with the agenda for this school year — remote learning. The truth is, it’s disappointing because it’s not like previous years, and it’s not close enough to previous years to placate us.

But let’s tear up “previous years.” If we were to rethink high school for 2020-21, in this era of COVID, what would it look like?

And let’s be honest with ourselves. Allergy season is upon us. The flu is next. Every time someone sneezes in school, people will freak out. I was looking forward to a hybrid schedule for my kids, but when I think about what that would actually look like — desks spaced 2 meters apart, teachers behind a plastic shield, only a third or a half of your classmates in school with you — it’s not like it would be a great experience.

Furthermore, let’s stop comparing ourselves to neighboring towns. Yes, other towns are saying they are assessing when they will institute hybrid learning, perhaps in October, or November. I don’t believe it. I would be very surprised if come November any high schools are operating face-to-face for any amount of time — everyone will be remote, including expensive private school options. (The one exception may be residential boarding schools where the environment can be more closely monitored.)

In other words, we’re going remote.

If we’re doing that, and there are no school sports, let’s do one thing right and start high school at 9 or even 9:30. That constitutes progress and we can all pat one another on the back (metaphorically, keep your germy hands to yourself).

Then, let’s figure that this is going to be really hard for teachers and reconfigure some schedules. How about, for core subjects, math, English, science, history (the ones that are required for graduation) we have classes four days a week.

Math and sciences probably need demonstrations and explanations before students can do independent work, so we’ll have live Zoom classes for those on Mondays and Thursdays. On Tuesdays and Fridays, the math and science teachers will have given students packets to work on and be available for “office hours” on Zoom.

English and History would be flipped. On Mondays and Thursdays, students would have readings with reading guides to fill out, videos to critique, or poems to annotate. On Tuesdays and Fridays, those classes would meet on Zoom and discuss what they thought about the class materials.

What about Wednesdays? Teachers could use them to prepare for their week ahead, meet with each other, and do professional development. Or, yeah, just take a day off. (What do you say, teachers union? Wednesdays off sound like a good concession for the fact that you’ll have two days of non-stop Zoom each week?)

So what would Wednesdays be for the kids? Field day, and field trips, every Wednesday of every week.

Yep. Field days with socially distanced activities. Phys ed teachers and sports coaches could organize games of HORSE at the basketball hoops, run 5ks, use the spectacular ropes course that is rarely used. Art teachers could make huge, collaborative parking lot murals with sidewalk chalk, or set up life model drawings with student model volunteers. Drama teachers and speech coaches could set up stages and have the kids do monologues or stand-up routines, original or cribbed. Musical soloists or safely collaborative chamber groups could perform. Environmental studies teachers could take the kids for walks through the woods, identifying trees and birdcalls and scat. Cooking classes could man gas grills. At lunchtime, food trucks could be invited on campus to support local businesses.

For field trips, there could be organized meet-ups around town to do walking tours, study architectural styles, or do outdoor sketches. Students could visit construction projects under development and talk to real estate developers and city planners and environmentalists about how and why they made their urban planning decisions. Do a bike mob through the city. Organize a scavenger hunt to try to photograph as many works of public art as you can. Clear a section of park of invasive species. Clear a section of street of litter.

Yes, this would take a crap-ton of planning and organization. But if you’re only working Wednesdays, maybe you could take that on.

And yes, it’s going to get cold in New England. I would argue that a hike through the woods in multiple seasons is always rewarding. Or… set up some tents and heat lamps. Do TED talks for high school students. Have parents or other citizens volunteer their time to spend anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes explaining their expertise, or their passion. We have journalists, artists, academics, doctors of every specialty whose kids attend our high school. Small business owners, restaurateurs, elected officials. Are you a lawyer? Team up with an IP specialist, an immigration lawyer, and a family lawyer and have a roundtable explaining what you do in common and how your jobs differ.

How long could this last before everyone in town burns out? I don’t think we can say until we try.

Let’s get back to the core of what high school is for. The kids need to learn academic fundamentals, math, English, science, history. They need to socialize and have fun. They need to explore the physical world, explore the universe of the mind, embody a sense of wonder and possibility.

I’m not insisting on the model of the school year that I’ve just described, although it sounds like fun to me. What I’m advocating for is creativity. This year is not going to be like any year that’s gone before. So do we do a sub-par version of past years, or do we try something new and amazing that would be spectacular — even if it results in a spectacular failure? (Hey, at least a spectacular, nationally recognized failure would give our kids something to write their college essays about.)

Meet the Author

Jack Cheng

Teacher, Clemente Course in the Humanities, Dorchester
If we want our kids to “think outside the box,” maybe we should lead by example.

Jack Cheng teaches in the Clemente Course in the Humanities in Dorchester, the subject of the upcoming PBS film A Reckoning in Boston. He is lives in Newton with his wife and two teenagers.