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The Challenge of Re-Entry

In his book, No Dream Is Too High: Life Lessons From a Man Who Walked on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin offers the following life lesson: “KEEP IN MIND THAT progress is not always linear. It takes constant course correcting and often a lot of zigzagging. Unfortunate things happen, accidents occur, and setbacks are usually painful, but that does not mean we quit.” Aldrin is speaking from the perspective of an astronaut who was integral in one of the greatest human achievements of all time- landing on the moon.  In a similar feat of courage and will, hard-working dedicated educators around the world have DEFINITELY endured a lot of zigzags and course corrections over the last year.  It has been painful, scary, unpredictable, and often thankless, but they do not quit.

You may be wondering how I have come to connect the ‘Moon Race’ to the current plight of educators.  Deep learning, as we know, occurs when we create meaning by connecting new thoughts and ideas to our existing ideas.  Recently a term that has been used by educators is ‘re-entry’.  It is a term used to describe what will happen next, once the pandemic has been controlled and schools can go back to operating in a more ‘normal’ way.

I have, for a long time, been interested in space travel and the race to the moon.  I have read lots of books about the journey and I have reveled in the stories of their genius problem solving, their brave ventures, and sedulous pursuit of success.  The term ‘re-entry’ makes me think about a challenge faced by NASA during the ‘moon race’.  To ensure a safe re-entry for the astronauts, the scientists and engineers at NASA were tasked with the challenge of ensuring the landing capsule would get through the dense, fluid atmosphere without exploding or bouncing off.  If the capsule came in too steep, it would be like doing a belly flop on water, only it would result in a fiery explosion.  If it came in too shallow, it would be like skipping a rock across water and the capsule would bounce back into space.  Even after the challenge of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, there were concerns about the long-term effects of the journey on the astronauts.  Scientists and medical professionals wondered about the potential effects of ‘moon dust’ or prolonged exposure to zero gravity, of the psychological impact of the journey, and many other potential dangers to the astronauts upon their return to Earth.  I remember thinking how disappointing and devastating it would be for them to face the dangers of leaving the Earth, while learning so much about our planet, outer space, lunar objects, etc…, only to face their demise in the final moments of their journey.

As we begin to think about what re-entry looks like for our educators, students and families I have a similar but slightly different thought:  how disappointing will it be for us to endure the suffering and ‘lessons learned’ of the last year only to repeat our past mistakes?  We have suffered numerous setbacks and have done a lot of zigzagging, but we have not quit.  In developing our re-entry plans, we will be challenged to find a happy medium between coming in too steep, therefore blowing up all that we have learned and coming in too shallow while skipping over any opportunity we have for positive change.  We must also carefully consider the long-term effects of the pandemic and the stress associated with the many changes in instructional delivery over the past year on educators, students and families, while at the same time realizing just how flexible we can be in our instructional delivery.

The ‘space race’ was born from the Cold War rivalry between the United States and Russia post-World War II.  The reality is, that throughout history, there have been many innovations and inventions that have risen from tragedy.  During the Napoleonic wars, when looking for ways to preserve rations, the French government discovered airtight food preservation.  World War I united British, Canadian and American scientists who developed the world’s first blood bank and made it possible for blood to be collected and safely stored in advance of the need.  In an effort to protect communications from cyber attacks during the Cold War, the US department created ARPANET, which is the basis for the internet.  Today, we could not imagine life without food preservation, blood banks, or the internet, and yet they might not exist if not for the extreme challenges that led to innovation.

It seems that adversity creates a sense of discomfort that forces us to step out of our comfort zone as we search for solutions to problems that have long existed but have been easily set aside because they lack urgency.  Food preservation and the internet would have, of course, been useful prior to their invention, but it was the adversity and challenges of war that led people to imagine new possibilities.  The existence of a blood bank prior to World War I would have saved many lives, but it wasn’t until there was an opportunity for scientists and doctors to collaborate during a shared crisis that it was conceptualized.

I am excited and hopeful to imagine the great advances in education that will come out of this world-wide pandemic.  We have developed tremendous technology skills that allow us to connect when we cannot be in the same space.  We have learned new ways to communicate and to assess learning.  We have had to reflect on what is important for students to learn, and we have learned a lot about the skills and attitudes that students currently possess as well as the skills and attitudes that need to be developed.  More than ever, we have realized just how different our students are in how they learn, what supports they need in order to learn, and how they are motivated to learn.

As we prepare to return to ‘normal’, I desperately hope that we see this last year as a golden opportunity to be innovative in re-imagining what school is and what learning can look like.  Preparing for re-entry will not be easy or quick.  It will require a clear vision and intentional planning to achieve that vision.  We will all find ourselves in the Learning Pit- leaders, teachers, students, parents- as we attempt to reconcile what we once knew about school with what we have learned as well as what we plan to do moving forward.  While it is a challenging process, the good news is that we will end up in a better place after successfully navigating the Learning Pit.  At Challenging Learning we have worked develop a full range of offerings to support learners in making taking this journey.  So, if you find yourself saying “Houston we have a problem…” please check out the link below to see our offerings and reach out.

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