Why Spring Break was Cancelled in NYC

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On March 30, New York State issued a directive for schools to continue online instruction throughout the spring break, which includes Passover and Easter. There was a possibility of giving teachers and students two days off–for the first day of Passover and for Good Friday–but that ultimately got nixed. Why no spring break? The primary reason given is this: that if students and teachers are busy with schoolwork, they will be more likely to adhere to social distancing, which in turn will help the city overcome the coronavirus. Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a letter, “We are confident that continuing remote learning will help ensure that families adhere to social distancing in the coming weeks, which is imperative to slowing the spread of the virus and keeping ourselves and our neighbors safe.”

This rationale reveals an underlying belief (endemic to American education) that a good part of the purpose of school is to keep people busy and out of trouble. Not only that, but if you are looking to keep people busy and out of trouble, just put them in school.

The assumption that this is a legitimate purpose of education–to keep people from doing other things, to keep them busy–creates plenty of mischief of its own. Leisure, rest, breaks should be part of education, not distrusted. A spring break, far from releasing the masses into the evils of the streets, could actually give families and individuals a chance to catch up with themselves a little, celebrate the holidays, do some housecleaning, relax, and prepare for the coming weeks and months. In contrast, online instruction without a break will contribute to stress, which, beyond a small amount, is bad for the health and for education too.

The idea is not limited to the current crisis. Many U.S. pedagogical models emphasize the importance of keeping students busy at every moment. Granted, most educators will stress that the activities should be purposeful and meaningful, but they still recommend a tight sequence, with swift, well-coordinated transitions. There’s an assumption that if you let up just slightly, havoc will ensue. And so it becomes the truth. Many kids do not learn how to handle pauses, silences, and uncertainties. Why not? Because they are told, from day one, that they must stay “on task.” Teachers are told to keep things swift and purposeful–to remind students of the aim of the lesson, to demand outcomes, and to avoid having students do any one thing (especially listening to the teacher) for very long.

Some of this is fine. But it has turned into a system-wide fear of autonomy, of being left to one’s own devices. This relentless busyness doesn’t help education or those involved in it. Even less does it help those badly in need of rest right now. At the very least, teachers and students could have been given those two days–Thursday and Friday–so that they could celebrate the holidays at home and enjoy a brief respite from online life. Education does not take place in frenzy, nor cures and recovery in exhaustion.

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  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

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