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What did we learn? Gloria Ladson-Billings is not excited about 'going back to normal'

What did we learn? Gloria Ladson-Billings is not excited about 'going back to normal'

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UW-Madison professor emeritus Gloria Ladson-Billings at her home.

This is part of a series of interviews with Madison educators, organizers and leaders looking back at lessons they took from 2020. Find the others HERE.

In April, Indian novelist Arundhati Roy published a series of essays, including one titled “The pandemic is a portal.”

“Nothing could be worse than a return to normality,” Roy wrote in Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction. “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

This idea has been the year’s biggest takeaway for Gloria Ladson-Billings, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor emeritus, author and education researcher. The COVID-19 pandemic is a portal, she said, for educators in Madison and across the country to rethink how they teach.

Ladson-Billings’ year has been busy, from hosting virtual talks and professional development sessions to a podcast training educators in Scotland.  This fall, she was named one of ten distinguished Hagler Fellows at Texas A&M University, where she eventually hopes to conduct research in person.

But much of her focus has remained local, as she collaborated with Mt. Zion Baptist Church on two projects to keep students engaged after the Madison Metropolitan School District switched to virtual learning.

“I’m not excited about ‘going back to normal,’ because normal was the place where all the failures were for the kids I’m concerned about,” Ladson-Billings said. “Going back to normal means going back to the lowest reading group, high rates of suspension, dropping out of school. I don’t want to do any of that.”

During the summer, she helped launch S²MARTLY in the Park, where educators held outdoor classes at Penn Park three mornings a week to help primarily Black students avoid a “summer slide.” Though the program included STEM-focused activities and lessons about prominent African Americans, Ladson-Billings said she was more concerned about students’ social and emotional needs.

“Kids are missing their peers. They’re missing interaction,” she said.

S²MARTLY in the Park then drew Ladson-Billings to a project to help local educators continue engaging students into colder weather. The School Without Walls program launched in September with about 50 students — five distanced classrooms of 10 students each — bringing their remote learning devices during school hours and receiving help from instructors.

Ladson-Billings is excited about technology, which she said will continue playing a bigger role in making sure students don’t go back to “normal.” Not only are parents more involved with their children’s education than she expected during the pandemic, but Ladson-Billings said students are adapting well, too. She recalled a conversation about online learning with a student in Baltimore, when she was surprised to hear him say, “Oh, I absolutely love it.”

“He says, ‘Well, you know, when the teacher gets on my nerves, I just turn her off. Then if she calls and asks where did you go?, I just say I had connectivity problems,’” Ladson-Billings said, laughing. “What that said to me is that here’s an environment where kids are taking control of their own learning. They don’t have that in face-to-face school; they just need to put up with stuff.”

Ladson-Billings analogizes the current state of education to a digital device: “When they stop working the way we want them to, they have to get reset.” One urgent step, she said, is rethinking the national approach to assessment and testing, which she discussed just this month on a three-hour Zoom call with the National Academy of Education.

“They’re all saying we don’t think we’re going to just do the same stuff we’ve been doing. We’re going to think differently about what it means to test kids,” Ladson-Billings said. “Education, schooling, has to get engaged in a hard reset … This is an opportunity and I just hope we don’t squander it.”

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