Each morning, I commute by train to Columbia University & 116th Street or to 125th Street in Harlem and then walk to the Klingenstein Center, just a few blocks away. A simple commute: one train, 30 minutes. When I first moved to New York two years ago and began traveling by train daily, though, I felt out of sync. While I was thrilled that I could travel over 100 blocks underneath the city and away from traffic, I was anxious. Other passengers all seemed at ease. They seemed to know instinctively when their stop was approaching, when to rise from their seats to make it through the crowded train car just in time to disembark. A sudden train halt didn’t phase their balance. I’ve since learned to relax into the rhythm a bit and even sneak in a train read without missing my stop. Yet I remain in awe of other passengers’ timing, their ability to move with this fast-paced, ever-moving city.
COVID-19 has shifted the rhythms and habits of the day in New York and throughout the world. We are now living and learning from a distance. I no longer ride the train or commute to work. I teach and meet on Zoom. We are connecting with friends and extended family remotely. We are establishing new rhythms and habits. We are more thoughtful about meal planning and share more meals together. We are finding joy in new ways. My children are beginning online learning. I am just beginning to tune in to the support each of my own children need me to provide as they make their own transitions to being in school differently. And I’m beginning to tune in to the joys that this moment affords me: more opportunities to cook, to play games, to take afternoon family walks on trails near our home, to be grateful for access to all we need so far, to learn of the needs of others in this particular moment and discover ways that we might be helpful.
The rhythm of our days has shifted, in some ways even slowed a bit, as the need for change in schools especially has accelerated. When I think about leading in this new normal, though, I find myself asking the same questions I ask regularly when reflecting on my teaching and leadership, whether in crisis or during calmer moments. How do I need to show up? How do I want people to experience my leadership? What do I need to sustain my presence for my family, my students, my team, and my colleagues? What kinds of habits and plans do we need for shaping student learning, professional learning, and leadership? What lessons will our students and faculties take from our response to this moment?
I keep thinking of Peter Wheatstraw, a character from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and namesake of 1930s St. Louis blues pianist and singer Peetie Wheatstraw. During his first morning in Harlem, Invisible Man encounters Wheatstraw, pushing a cart filled with discarded architectural blueprints — what he calls bluesprints — down the street. Many have never been used, but so many plans are made that, as Wheatstraw explains, “They get in the way so every once in a while they have to throw ’em out to make place for the new plans. Folks is always making plans and changing ’em.” While the inexperienced Invisible Man views these adaptations as failure, Wheatstraw understands that making and changing plans, asking questions and exploring various possibilities, is necessary and even vital.
Like the blues Wheatstraw sings as he walks through Harlem, the idea of bluesprints — discarded, claimed, redesigned, renewed — reminds me of the importance of being rooted while pivoting, of the capacity to adapt and to lead adaptive, iterative, reflective change, even in moments when change is accelerated. The problems — those now amplified and others emerging anew in this crisis — are not only scary, but are likely to reshape the world our students and children will inherit. They are likely to reshape our schools now and certainly the schools new leaders will lead and new teachers will enter. For many of us, it has accelerated our change work. It has amplified issues and inequities we’ve long needed to address. We have deeply transformational questions calling out to us: How do our students long to learn? How might we use this moment of teaching, learning, and leading remotely to create and test those new bluesprints for what and how “school” can be moving forward?
While I feel myself caught in the rush of crisis, Peter Wheatstraw’s bluesprints also remind me, in the midst of the rush, to take time to listen for possibilities. They remind me of the need still to plan and try, mindful of what I know and mindful that uncertainty is a constant presence. I am mindful that this crisis will evolve over time, and so the plans we put in place today will need to remain flexible and evolve. I need to flex and evolve. And I need to practice cognitive patience, as Maryanne Wolf terms it. How will we continue to listen to the various needs that emerge over time during this marathon of a pandemic? Like the blues, how do we both acknowledge the loss we and others are experiencing in this moment while amplifying possibility? How might this moment seed adaptive change toward deeper learning experiences for all of us — change that we want to make stick — long after we return to our brick-and-mortar schools?
Early in Invisible Man, the narrator offers this thought: “The end is in the beginning, and lies far ahead.” We are just beginning the work that this pandemic compels us to do on behalf of our schools, our communities, our families, ourselves. How might we use this moment of teaching, learning, and leading remotely to create and test those new bluesprints for what and how “school” can be moving forward? Invisible Man’s reflection here and our current pandemic ultimately compels me to consider and plan action toward this question: How can we be better audiences for each other?