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“The Pandemic is a Portal:” Looking Back and Planning Ahead

by Zak Cohen, Middle School Director at the St. Francis School


The first Saturday in April marks the start of the St. Francis Little League season in Brooklyn, NY. There’s a parade down 7th Avenue in Park Slope, with players from all teams dressed in their cleats, jerseys, and baseball pants.


In April 2001, for the first time in my memory, I wasn’t marching in this parade. Instead, I ate a hurried breakfast, loaded my backpack with waters, and headed out to my first very first job. In one pocket, I had a pen and pad; in the other, I had a strike counter. Emblazoned across the chest of the shirt was the word “Umpire.” I was no longer a player in the St. Francis Little League; instead, I was on my way to ump my very first game.


Though I was only 13-years-old, I had been playing baseball my entire life. I knew the intricacies of the game, and I was confident in my ability to discern a ball from a strike, safe from out, and fair from foul. In our brief umpire training the day before, we had reviewed the handbook and discussed some of the basic, universal hand signals for calls like homerun and timeout. What they didn’t teach us, though, was how to manage a game.


The first two innings of the game went smoothly enough. The 8-year-olds I was umpiring for were relatively competent, understanding how to pitch, when to run, and where to throw, with each team having a couple of vocal and instructive dads as coaches.


They say that a good umpire should be invisible. For the first two innings, I was just that. But then, in the 3rd inning, I became an all-too-visible part of the game. A player hit a flyball out past the cones that demarcated a homerun. One of the outfielders tracked the ball past the cones and made a diving catch. Both teams’ parents erupted in applause. Because the ball had cleared the cones, I signaled that it was a homerun. Now, only half of the parents cheered.


Quickly, elation turned to ire, and I was the target. From behind the pitcher’s mound, I tried to defend my call, but by this point things had escalated into a full blown multilingual screaming match. Brooklyn truly is a melting pot, and on that day, I learned how to say, “Ump, you suck!” in several languages.


With limited authority, I wielded what I had without thought or direction. I was reactive to the moment, and, in an effort to regain control, I sent parents back 50 yards from the field. They gladly obliged, knowing that their shouts would only cause more of a stir from 50 yards away.


I’ve had some low moments on a baseball field, but none lower than this one. I couldn’t tell you how the game ended or how long it took for this hubbub to calm down, but I can tell you that I look back at this moment every now and again, and I breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the experience has long since passed. But most of all, though, when I reflect on this incident, I consider how delicate a balancing act it is to maintain order. How fragile peace actually is. And that’s when I’m reminded of just how challenging teaching actually is.


Consider that in a single classroom, there are as many students as there are players on a baseball field; then, consider that every teacher has about five “games” per day, each of which consists of quite different teams. The ability to manage subject matter, age, proficiency, size, mood, ethos, personality, and learning aims all at once is what Guy Claxton refers to as “the delicate craft of teaching.” And, given both the number of variables and their ever-shifting dynamics, we are reminded that teaching is a “one-size-fits-no-one” profession. There is no perfect pedagogy, no such thing as “best practice.” This is why our commitment to continuous learning is so vital.


After 14-months of pandemic teaching, we are finally able to look ahead to a school year that will hopefully resemble a pre-pandemic normal. The thing is, we learned too much over these 14 months to ever return to the way things were. We updated our toolkits, reimagined learning, and supported students like never before. Now, with this notion of “normal” on the horizon, we have to figure out what we want teaching and learning to look like next year.



In April, Arundhati Roy wrote, “...Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. 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. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”


Arundhati Roy is right to suggest that the pandemic has the potential to compel change. As powerful a draw as a return to a pre-2020 normal is, there is an equally powerful current pulling us in the direction of progress -- a steady drumbeat reminding us to not allow all that was lost and sacrificed this past year to be forgotten. Where Arundhati Roy is a bit off-base, though, is the implication that this portal is one that we have yet to walk through -- one that is still ahead of us and one that we have a choice to enter.


As educators, the portal for change has long since been in our rearview mirrors. I think about the mere days’ notice that we had to bring our curriculum online, and I know I certainly never felt as though I had much choice in the matter. Educators are the last group of people who need to be convinced that the pandemic is an opportunity for change -- we have been living it. And, as exhausting as this year has been, we should feel energized by the knowledge that our successes in the pursuit of change have vastly outweighed the failures.


According to John Hattie, average reading loss when compared to pre-covid years had only a -0.08 effect size -- an effect size that can be turned around quite simply with some targeted literacy intervention. On average, math scores have remained largely unchanged year over year. And, consider that even if reading and math loss had been extreme enough to warrant claims of a “lost year,” these traditional markers of achievement aren’t necessarily the most relevant indicators of learning any longer.


In just five years, much of what we know about the world will no longer be true. The computers of the future will not be digital. Software code itself will begin to disappear. Predictions for 2025 suggest that about 60% of high paying jobs in America will be able to be done exclusively from home, time spent on current work tasks will be evenly split between humans and artificial intelligence, and 44% of the skills that employees will need to perform their roles will change every 5 years. According to one expert, the most important skill a young learner can develop right now is the ability to “pivot and flourish.” Pivot and flourish. Could any phrase better encapsulate our students’ learning from this past year?


Buoyed by the knowledge that the changes we have made over these past 14 months have been largely successful, let us now tap into, feed off of, and harness the optimism and excitement that is fueled by the time between the end of one school year and the start of the next. Let us use our summers to rest and re-energize. And, when we feel ready to do so, let’s begin to reflect on this past year, look ahead to next year, and start to conceptualize what “normal” will actually look like in our classrooms from here forward.


One tool to help you do this is the “Portal Matrix.” The Portal Matrix is a tool to help facilitate a post-pandemic innovation plan.



Let’s walk through the Portal Matrix together. First, you’ll notice the axes. The y-axis runs from stopped to started. The x-axis runs from ineffective to effective. I think started and stopped are comparatively self-explanatory. We are talking about those practices that you started in the past year and those things that you did prior to the onset of the pandemic but have since stopped. On the other hand, the effective-ineffective scale probably could use a bit of an explanation.


Effective is one of those terms that can mean a lot and mean something different to each of us; so, let’s consider what it means in the context of this exercise. First, it can refer to the structure of your classroom -- the system and design elements that define time, space, and other core elements of the classroom experience. Second, it can refer to pedagogy -- the method and practice of teaching; the way you define learning in your classroom. Finally, it can refer to classroom culture -- the relationships and norms that define the student experience.


As for the different quadrants, let’s start in the upper right-hand corner. This quadrant -- the intersection between started and effective -- is where you will list those things that you will want to exploit moving forward. These are those things that at either a structural, pedagogical, or cultural level are working and you want to keep the good times rolling.


Moving to the upper left-hand corner, this is where you’ll list those things you’ve started but have proven ineffective. Once listed, you’ll then make a choice: do you want to explore these things, tapping into the expertise and experience of your colleagues or PLN, or is it time to eliminate it -- ultimately, our time is finite and we don’t want to invest it in something that we do not feel will ever be effective.


Moving to the lower left-hand corner, this is where you’ll list those things that you stopped as a result of how schooling changed during the pandemic and that you also find to be ineffective. Perhaps, this is something you did prior to March 2020 that you now realize you just don’t miss.


And finally, in the lower right-hand corner, you will list those things that you stopped because of the pandemic but that you do miss. Those things that once we return to in-person schooling at less than six-feet apart, you’ll want to revive.


Of course, jotting down notes across the quadrants is only a first step. How can you operationalize these notes? Well, I think we know that engaging in the change process can be a long journey, with unanticipated hurdles, roadblocks, and setbacks. Rather than map out something in its entirety, let’s strategize with this simple three-step plan to get you started:


Be Targeted: Of all the notes you’ve added, select just one to start with. The change process should be exciting, but it shouldn’t be overwhelming. Change is an iterative process, and the great innovations that I have seen in classrooms have always been the result of small steps, rather than large leaps.


Clarify Your Destination: How will you know you are successful? Create a list of sensory criteria. What will you see? What will you hear? What will it feel like when this change has been implemented?


Identify Your First Step: Now that you know what your destination feels like, it’s time for you to identify the first step. The toughest part of any change effort is task initiation. By articulating the first step, you are halfway to taking action towards it. Remember: A journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step.


There’s a lot of learning still in front of us. There’s also a lot of learning now behind us. How can you use the Portal Matrix to look back and plan ahead?


If you’d like to learn more about this topic, you can attend Zak’s presentation at the ASCD Annual Conference: Empowered and Connected on Friday, June 25th at 11:10am.


Zak Cohen is the Middle School Director at the St. Francis School in Louisville, Kentucky. He has taught Social Studies, Language Arts, and English as a Second Language in independent and international schools in the United States, China, and South Africa. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership and Management at Drexel University.

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