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It Takes a Village to Teach a Child

by Radhika Iyengar |May 28, 2020

At my home in Millburn, New Jersey, I have dusted off my old laptop and have given it to my second-grader. Being a screen time-averse mom, I had to grudgingly allow screen time from 9am to 3pm for my eight-year-old. At 9am, three laptops open-up simultaneously: my husband’s, my daughter’s, and mine. By noon, two of these people have fought over the homework that has not been done, followed by tears and finally some sweet dessert to remediate the situation. Invariably, some software couldn’t be downloaded, or the daughter went from one prescribed Youtube link to seeing all the Youtube links that appeared one after another. Math homework takes extra time, not because the difficulty of the mathematics problems have increased, but because it takes a while to work on the computer screen and slowly type each key. Online classes and remote learning is the new normal, at least for now. So we might as well get on with it.

two kids watching a lesson on a laptop

Photo: Radhika Iyengar

Education these days is left to many chances. Homes must have a spare laptop that the child can work-on, or you must at least own a smartphone. Parents must be ready to become a co-teacher/facilitator. With everything now online, you must have a reliable internet connection. Very few lucky people meet all of these requirements, but education must go on, and we look toward un-conventional pathways for learning.

Just so we understand the magnitude of the challenge, UNESCO statistics say that 70 percent of the world’s student population is out of school, affecting more than 1.2 billion students. One hundred and fifty-eight countries are impacted by school closures. There is a rush in the education community to create new online platforms and create online content in the hope that teachers and students will use them. The technology naysayers are also trying to see what tech “lite” solutions can help the large proportion of students who are at home.

I am grateful to the Millburn public school system, principal and teachers who quickly adapted to the situation and provided learning opportunities for their students. Meetings with the school principal and everyday interaction with the teachers have helped us move forward together. Lesson plans appear on Google Classroom sharp at 8:30am followed by an online meeting with the teacher at 9:30am. The best part about the 9:30am meeting is that our teacher shows up with her cat Shantili. Shantili likes to watch the students and move her tail. At 11am we have another check-in from the teacher who helps to resolve any questions. The teacher’s instructions start by saying “Look here, at the screen, sit tall and pay attention.” I marvel at her capacity to teach so many kids at the same time. I have managed to see my child’s teacher more times during this pandemic than I have seen her in the earlier months. I have also become more involved with my child’s education goals than ever before. I find it a relief to see my child’s teacher appearing calm and composed and wonder to myself, how can she be so calm with so many kids? As we know, parental and child mental health improves when we see a real face interacting with us, rather than cartoons. When Mr. D does his gym class, I also join to do some downward dog and reaching up sky-high. We cannot forget human interaction in this crisis. Technology for us has worked because of the school teachers’ talking to us and our internet service provider’s ability to accommodate high demand in my house.

Meanwhile, my child’s education is not just the responsibility of her teacher. There are many avenues of education that opened up for us. Gardiner moms are Zooming in to show how eco-friendly our yard can become. My kids and I have sown sunflower seeds and tomatoes, thanks to the donations from two moms who dropped them outside our house. We have learned how to pen down our thoughts in a poem with the help from a mom who is a local poet. We have learned how to be a creative writer and become an active advocate for the environment. We have become a good public speaker using the skills of an MIT and Harvard graduate who luckily belongs to our community. We have become more knowledgeable about microplastics because of a Millburn middle school student who shared his microplastic research with us. Our community members ended up in a State of the Planet podcast. Some moms have offered to do yoga sessions on Zoom; others are shaking with Bollywood dance moves, some have offered their senior year kids’ time to make younger ones learn piano. Four moms got together to have a mini-circulating library with 10 children in the community. Two Millburn moms recruited 20 or so other mothers to cook food for the frontline workers. Their children made beautiful cards each time a tray went to the hospital. It is a great way for children to learn empathy. A mom has started an Indian folktale story sessions on Zoom. I have used Pratham’s distance learning program to learn about early childhood activities with my four-year-old. I am using my time to make my kids learn Hindi, their mother tongue, a tip I heard from a new podcast series, The Parent Scoop. Much learning is happening, but it has not followed a linear path.

In an article I’ll be publishing soon in Prospects, a UNESCO journal, I focus on the community’s social capital. The social capital has been an under-utilized resource that has been put to use to create educational pathways in Millburn, New Jersey. Each community member has his or her own expertise. Families come with something unique that they can offer. These resources are underutilized and often forgotten. It is time to re-invigorate this system. This can be done informally using some technology and some neighbors’ help. Or it can be done more systematically, at a federal level, as discussed by Susan Dynarski in the New York Times. She argues that the federal government should tap into unused energy of volunteers who could be unemployed college students and graduates, give them a stipend and ask them to assist teachers or teach online classes during summer. This is a terrific plan that not only exposes the youth to look at teaching avenues, but also helps to divert their attention to a project that is much-needed nationwide. Professor Dynarski is very clear that this should be done by the government and not on a small scale. I have seen a similar educational program in Nigeria, where students do a service project for one year before they join college after their last year in school. This one-year field-based learning is embedded in the education system itself. Some of them opt to teach in a rural school and understand up-close the challenges and needs. This is an excellent way to educate yourself about your own country. Columbia University students and staff are tutoring children of essential workers. Some version of this could continue post-COVID-19. The United States has an international service program, the Peace Corps, whose products I am always very impressed with. Instead of making this an internationally oriented program, the United States could use it and others like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts programs to co-teach their peers.

Let us use this time of the pandemic not only to see which technology or which content helps children to learn, but also to see how can human resources and untapped potential be used to make education seamless from the schools to the communities.

Radhika Iyengar is an education specialist at the Earth Institute, Columbia University, and an associate research scholar at Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development.

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