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Johnston: Back to school

By Adam Johnston - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Sep 21, 2022

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Adam Johnston

Back-to-school is an uplifting rhythm and melody to me. It’s a season of fresh starts and new routine, photos with wide smiles and new backpacks. I got new shoes.

A few days before classes started, the elementary school down the street hosted its grand reopening after years of reconstruction. My wife and I walked the same route that our kids had years ago, looked both ways and crossed the street to join families and neighbors in this celebration.

There were dignitaries and leaders standing at the podium at the top of the steps, in front of the draping ribbon. They spoke of the hard work that went into the building and acknowledged the community’s support and patience. Architects and administrators all had their time and words.

They all spoke of history. The school stood in this spot well before most of us. Generations of families attended class, gathered for musicals, even voted in booths that would be staged in the combination cafeteria-gymnasium-auditorium. It’s served a role as if it were one of the cast of characters in our community’s screenplay. Supporting roles were played by many former teachers, parents and students of the school, all excited to see what this next phase would bring.

They spoke of the future as well. This school, with new wiring, innovative tools and bright spaces, would inspire new possibilities in our children. I saw kindergartners-to-be in the crowd, those who were about to benefit directly from all this. They looked antsy, eager to go inside and not entirely impressed with the speeches.

I didn’t blame them. The important grown-ups spoke of distant work that these kids could aspire to. The architects mused that maybe students could be inspired to pursue design work. The principal imagined that the 21st-century technologies would be a bridge for these learners’ future careers.

But I like to think that schools are for students in the here and now, in their present lives and interests. Sure, there’s history and there’s a future that all these school buildings and their employees are a part of. But the real soul and energy of a school and this season are in students, as they are in this moment.

In contrast, go to a district office where the gears of budgets and policies are turned to make the school system work. They’re filled with good people and critical work, but they’re dreadful places — quiet and isolated from classrooms and the vibrance of learning. Besides a few pieces of artwork framed and hung in a hallway, you’d never know the connection to children. These offices carry history and consider the future of schooling. Clearly, they are important. And they’re no place for me.

If I had planned this event, I would have let the adults go on about histories and visions and acknowledgements. But I would have also paused before all that, ushered the students up to the top of the steps, and opened the doors exclusively to the children so that they could go explore their school before the rest of us. After all, it’s theirs. I like to imagine them streaming into new spaces before everyone else, testing out the chairs in the library for the first time, sprinting around the new gym floor, maybe finding their classroom and a desk with their name already written out on it.

Give me a school bursting with learners, whether they’re in a preschool program or an elementary school or even my own university. Let me celebrate the back-to-school rituals of nervous kids finding their classes, living in the moment, sharpening a pencil. Give me a space where we open the doors to kids who wonder about the world around them, pore over new books and pour strange liquids into beakers for the first time. Eyes grow wide as they discover their new worlds opening up in this present, fall colors slowly coming into glow outside, as if inspired by this gentle miracle of learning within the school walls.

Adam Johnston is a professor of physics and director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at Weber State University, where he helps prepare future teachers and supports educators throughout Utah.

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