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What August means to me

It’s August again. Yes, already.

As a former student, teacher, and parent, August has for decades meant the start of school to me. I was kind of startled when a news item about LeBron James’s new I Promise School in Akron, OH mentioned James had come to speak there for the first day of school, in late July. Did it really start that early?

A new experiment in education begins: I Promise School in Akron, OH, with special funding from LeBron James. (Photo courtesy of Akron Public Schools)

Well, yes and no. Akron schools (including I Promise, which is a public elementary school) don’t start regular classes for real till August 4. Still, that’s earlier than they traditionally have begun where I live.

For most of my life, there’s been a good, practical reason why school didn’t open in mid-summer. Where I grew up in Missouri, and where I spent my teaching career(s), it was usually hot as blazes in August, and for most of that time the public schools were NOT air-conditioned (believe it or not, SOME STILL AREN’T!). As far back as I can remember, the administrative offices had AC, but normally not the classrooms.

Priorities. After all, where was the most important work being done? Sometimes that old Paradigm of Control becomes a matter of prioritizing who has to sweat, and who doesn’t. Here’s where we see a barometer for the true level of concern over optimizing student learning conditions!

This illustration by Ellen van Engelen perfectly sums up my dominant impression of starting school in August.

Right up there with not being hungrynot being in physical pain, being able to see and hear, and not living in terror, it really helps learning outcomes if you’re not so hot you can’t breathe or think. Trust me. I know this.

My experiences with starting school in August inevitably have led me to associate the month with being uncomfortably hot. Ask me what August means to me? Straight from the gut, the answer comes back: for me, August means heat exhaustion. As the effects of climate change grow more profound, this will only get more important.

Are your local public schools air-conditioned? If so, the children and teachers of your area should thank you and all the other taxpayers who made it possible, as well as the wise school leaders who made it a priority. If not, there’s something desperately wrong with the local funding priorities!

IMAGES: Many thanks to Akron Public Schools website, Akron, OH, for the photo from the I Promise School, newly opened for the 2018-2019 school year. I also deeply appreciate the artistry of Ellen van Engelen, and her extremely apt illustration for Sara Mosle’s New York Times op-ed piece, “Schools are not Cool.” You captured it, Ellen!

A time of new challenges–and then some

Although my children now are grown and I am no longer either teaching or enrolled as a student, this time of year has always felt like a pivot-point for me.

For most of my life, August has been the time when my family (Mom and Dad were both teachers) and I would shift from a summer of differently-structured time, to plunge back into the challenges of the new school year.

Headed back to school: What should we prepare them for?

My time at the helm of a classroom probably is over, for well or ill. But at this time of year I can’t help thinking about the challenges today’s teachers and students face. Our picture of the future is continually in motion, but the age-old job of teachers is to prepare their students for it as best they can. That’s one of the few things that hasn’t changed!

But what should teachers prepare them for?

Our immediate future contains a massive range of possibilities. Technology that seemed remote only a few years ago now is imminent. From personalized medical care based on an individual’s genome to advances in brain-computer interface technology, our picture of living, working, and learning in the 21st Century is changing rapidly.

We’re beginning to feel the effects of climate change in shifting weather patterns and greater environmental hazards, from more intense storms, more widespread flooding, and hotter, less controllable wildfires.

More intense storms are only one of the environmental hazards kids will increasingly face in the future.

The news tells us the USA has officially recovered from the Great Recession of the last decade–though some of us will never make up the lossesAutomationsome aspects of globalization, and a shifting dominance of industries in the economic sector have taken away some jobs and transformed demand for skilled labor.

Learning new skills throughout life to remain employable is a new feature of the employment scene, a trend that isn’t likely to change in the future.

Our political and social landscape has been changed by economic and demographic shiftsphilosophical polarization, and new social norms about what is and is not acceptable. The so-called “bathroom bills” that have recently targeted transgender students are only one example of the lengths laypersons with no understanding of problems sometimes try to meddle in school affairs.

As if all of that wasn’t enough of a challenge for teachers, consider that there is now literally more history to teach than there was several decades ago, and the best pedagogical standards demand the inclusion of a range of ethnic and socio-economic viewpoints, not just “old dead white guys.”

New scientific knowledge is developed every year, and a quality science education demands that teaching adjust for newly-discovered facts or risk teaching erroneous information (there’s enough of that already).

School breakfast programs provide essential nutrition for millions of kids who otherwise might come to school too distracted by hunger to learn.

Educators also are now expected to accommodate a wider array of needs than they’ve been asked to do in the past, from feeding kids breakfast and lunch so they can be alert in class, to crafting lessons for differentiated learning and individual learning styles, despite often-overcrowded classrooms due to budget shortfalls.

It all adds up to steeper challenges for teachers and school systems every year. I wish them all the best of success, and good luck.

They’re going to need it.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Apple Country Living, for the “back to school” bus-and-kids photo; to CNN, for the photo of the Plaza Towers Elementary School, after a massive tornado hit Moore, OK, in 2013; and to the Eau Claire WI Leader-Telegram for the photo of employment seekers at a local job fair. Many thanks are also due to the Kansas City Chiefs for the photo of a “Wake Up” School Breakfast spread they helped promote for National School Breakfast Week at a local middle school (this photo is from their 2016 project).

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