2020
September
08
Tuesday

Monitor Daily Podcast

September 08, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

When fire relief comes from next door

Kendall Richard wondered when the evacuation order would come, or where the crews that usually camped out in their firetrucks had gone. Fires kept coming closer to her Pleasants Valley Iris Farm in Northern California, but none of the usual help came.

In the end, she and her husband evacuated based on their own instincts. With “the whole northern state caught on fire … you get resource-thin because you’re having to go to so many different places,” one Cal Fire official told Modern Farmer.

That means help has had to come from unusual and extraordinary places. Rancher Cole Mazariegos-Anastassiou knew local fire crews “had their hands full.” So his staff of four and about a dozen neighbors used a tractor to create a firebreak by uprooting trees. At one point, they were fighting 10-foot flames with water buckets. Across the state, fire departments have also rushed to one another’s aid, with the Menlo Park fire chief telling the Los Angeles Times: “It’s just what we do. No questions asked.”

With resources strained beyond their limits, the kindness of others is proving essential. Though Ms. Kendall’s flower farm did not escape the flames, customers have vowed to help, from rebuilding to sending back bulbs they bought in the past. “This whole thing has given us a renewed faith in humanity and the kindness of human beings,” she says.

A deeper look

How a pandemic exposed – and may help fix – inequalities in education

Many American children are returning to school today. They’ll find changes that could lead to innovation and greater equality – through everything from microschools to joy-based learning.

Mark
Cheney Orr/Reuters
Alexa Callander virtually teaches a second grade class for students who are either at home or in a separate classroom at the Rover Elementary School in Tempe, Arizona.

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Ten years ago, most Americans did not believe that discrimination or injustice played a role in the different educational outcomes of white and Black students, according to a study published in 2016. They blamed parenting and student motivation instead. 

This year may be changing that. It may also be opening the door to what some scholars hope could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to revamp one of the most intransigent systems in American life, education; and one of its most intractable problems, inequity.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the reality that some students simply do not have the same resources as others. A recent survey found that 72% of U.S. respondents worried the pandemic would exacerbate inequality at school.

“There are gaps that have always been there that are becoming more visible to a lot of people,” says Jon Valant of the Brookings Institution, who conducted the research on perceptions of achievement gaps. And COVID-19 has delivered a critical disruption to an often inflexible system. 

With this in mind, the Monitor reached out to experts across the country to ask for their ideas of how to rethink education to create a more equitable future for America’s students.

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1. How a pandemic exposed – and may help fix – inequalities in education

In the early 2010s, Jon Valant, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, began researching Americans’ perception of the “achievement gap,” mainstream lingo for the difference in educational outcomes between historically advantaged and disadvantaged students. 

What he found surprised him.

As a scholar of education, he thought it was clear that systemic racism had long impacted the country’s school system. From the days of slavery, when it was illegal to teach Black children, to today, when researchers have found that school districts filled primarily with students of color receive billions less in funding than predominantly white school districts, students of color have faced undue difficulties. 

But most Americans, it turned out, did not see it this way. Indeed, according to a study that he released in 2016 with colleague Daniel Newark, most Americans – particularly white Americans – did not believe that discrimination or injustice played a role in the different educational outcomes of white and Black students. They blamed parenting and student motivation instead.

While respondents were interested in closing disparities between wealthier and poorer students, a majority were hesitant to support policies that experts believed would close the Black-white divide. “Most Americans at the time just did not believe that social injustice or discrimination played a role,” recalls Dr. Valant.

This year may be changing that. It may also be opening the door to what some scholars hope could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to revamp one of the most intransigent systems in American life, education; and one of its most intractable problems, inequity.  

Recent polling shows a dramatic shift in the way Americans see racial disparity. A majority of white Americans now believe policing is racially biased, according to a recent Associated Press poll, and there is a growing sense among white Americans that racial injustice is a continuing problem in the United States – something that most Black Americans have said for years. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the reality that some students simply do not have the same resources as others, whether technological, familial, or institutional. A recent Pearson survey found that 72% of U.S. respondents worried the pandemic would exacerbate inequality at school.

Cheney Orr/Reuters
Alexa Callander virtually teaches a second grade class for students who are either at home or in a separate classroom at the Rover Elementary School in Tempe, Arizona.

“There are gaps that have always been there that are becoming more visible to a lot of people,” says Dr. Valant. 

For decades, educational reformers from all sides of the political spectrum have faced an uphill battle making fundamental changes to the American school system. As John Danner, an entrepreneur who focuses on equity in education, puts it, public schools are a “free monopoly,” a system that is both resilient and resistant to uncomfortable disruptions or innovations.

“But will the next two years of COVID allow some cracks to form in that structure?” he asks. “I think to some extent yes.”

The big question, he and others say, is how to make the most of this opportunity.

With this in mind, the Monitor reached out to experts across the country to ask for their ideas of how to rethink education to create a more equitable future for America’s students – from the bold and creative to the mundane but essential.

Below are five solutions that emerged from those conversations. They are ideas to ponder during a pandemic-induced disruption that David Kirkland, professor of English and urban education at New York University and the executive director of NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, describes as an “incredibly crucial intermission.”

“How can we focus not only on what the disease has taken from us but what it’s given us?” asks Dr. Kirkland. “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Tech, yes, but better

America’s uneven experience with remote online-based learning this year has made many people shy away from the idea of a tech-based education future. Parents are exhausted, students are bored, and America’s digital divide, with Black people and Hispanics far less likely than white people to own a computer or have access to high-speed internet, threatens to exacerbate learning inequities.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Los Angeles students Keiley Flores (left), Andrea Ramos, and Alexander Ramos work on school-issued computers with unreliable internet service as their mother, Anely Solis, looks on.

But many involved in cutting-edge educational technology say there is still huge potential in online learning to both improve education and reduce inequalities.

“It was difficult to watch during the spring how we were not doing it right,” says Jan Plass, professor of digital media and learning sciences at New York University, during a recent webinar about the future of education. “Emergency remote learning was nowhere near what technology can accomplish.”

Done well, Dr. Plass says, technology can engage students by allowing them to pursue their own interests, regardless of the resources or capabilities of their particular school. Through augmented and virtual reality, gaming, and other formats, students can connect to larger networks and delve into interest-driven activities scholars know motivate children to learn.

“The right technology can give you access to the vast amount of information that’s available,” he says. “It gives you access to a wider world.”

This sort of technology can disrupt what he sees as an outdated model of “sitting in a room full of chairs with someone standing at the front talking to you.” And it can be available to students with the technology they have. While the Pew Research Center found a significant racial divide in broadband access, it also found that Black people and white people are equally likely to own smartphones.  

Technology can also boost equality when it comes to educational opportunities outside of school, says Amir Nathoo, co-founder of Outschool, a burgeoning marketplace of online classes and camps.

“Supplemental education before was the reserve of the wealthy, people who could afford private enrichment programs,” he says. “With small group online classes, you’re getting much lower price points.”

Christina Rothermel-Branham/AP
James Rothermel-Branham does schoolwork at home in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. His mother is considering home-schooling him if remote learning goes poorly.

At Outschool, weekslong lessons for everything from piano basics to video game design cost as little as $10 an hour. Outschool has also pledged $3 million to provide financial assistance to families. Because the classes are online, Mr. Nathoo says, they connect children of different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds more regularly than in-person schools, which tend to cater to students who are demographically similar.

“I’m not advocating that anyone learn online every day, all day,” Mr. Nathoo says. “The future of education is going to be hybrid. Teachers, parents, and kids will use a combination of in-person and online resources. The mix will depend on the subject, the kid, the particular availability of resources.”

Forget grade school 

If you start with the idea that education in the future could be hybrid, then it doesn’t take long to question some of the long-standing structural aspects of school itself.

Why are children grouped by age? Why divide schooling into elementary, middle, and high school? And what about the calendar – why should children go to school when they do?

“Parents for the first time are getting a front-row seat into schooling and are asking questions they haven’t asked before,” says Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and co-author of “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.”  

Take child care, he says. Perhaps more clearly now than ever, working parents who have struggled through remote learning recognize that schools play a significant role in child care. But even in the best of times, Mr. Horn points out, schools are not particularly well designed for that.

“I’m not sure a lot of two-working-parent families want child care from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and not during the summer,” he says. “What are the opportunities to create a much better set of coverage for families that is more flexible?”

This is an equity issue, says Elena Silva, director of Pre-K-12 for the education policy program at New America, because parents with more resources can compensate for the inadequacies of school structure. They have jobs that allow them flexibility to be at home in the afternoon, or they can enroll their children in after-school programs.  

They are also able to offset the ways that the current school structure, set up for a host of historical and institutional reasons unrelated to children’s needs, disconnects with childhood development.

Adam Robison/The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal/AP
Middle school staffers in Corinth, Mississippi, pass out lunches to students in classrooms instead of serving them in the cafeteria.

For instance, studies question the traditional elementary-middle-high school format. Rather than grades one through five being treated as a cohesive group, she explains, it would make more educational sense to focus on birth through third grade, which experts see as a unique developmental phase. At the same time, high schools typically offer the same structure for ninth grade through 12th grade. But during those final two years of school, adolescents are ready to embrace far more independence – and responsibility. And middle school? There is a reason it seems such a mess, she says, and it’s not just because of issues surrounding puberty. 

“Nobody ever sat down to say, ‘How should we educate a child from birth to age 25?’” she says. “The weaknesses in the system ... are made up for in households that have a lot of resources.”

Changing the calendar could help with learning loss. “Every single summer some kids fall behind,” Dr. Silva notes. “Other kids gain. They’re going on trips and they’re going to summer camp and they’re having experiences and exposure. It’s covering for those weaknesses in the school system so you don’t see them.”

Some organizations are already trying to tackle this problem. Sora Schools, an education startup based in Atlanta, offers a virtual learning-based high school that adjusts its model as students get older. Rather than classes, students pick among small group “learning expeditions” tailored to match their development, says co-founder Garrett Smiley. Mr. Smiley started Sora after running a nonprofit to teach financial literacy to children in foster care. It became clear to him, he says, that traditional education wasn’t working.

“The kids who were entirely dependent on the system are just being failed,” he says. “We have to fix the system itself. That’s what Sora is doing. We are trying to do a full-fledged replacement that is more equitable and also offers better education.”

Rise of the microschool

Another way to make education more equitable, some experts say, is to look small. 

During the pandemic, a growing number of families have banded together to create “pods,” or “microschools” – basically small learning groups led by a private instructor. Critics say this is inequitable: Pods allow wealthy parents to bypass imperfect remote learning while lower-income and students of color languish.  

But many who have been involved in the microschool movement for years say that these small, alternative learning arrangements have the ability to create more equity. 

Kelly Smith, founder and chief executive officer of Prenda, a company that helps run microschools, says it is a misconception that only white or wealthy parents are involved in creating alternative educational opportunities for their children. Equity, he says, is central to Prenda’s model. The company has partnered with the Black Mothers Forum of Phoenix to bring microschools into primarily Black and lower-income neighborhoods, and it has brought a microschool to the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona.

Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images
Students work on an assignment in a “learning pod” that parents have put together to help with schooling during the pandemic at a home in Woodland Hills, California.

“Our goal is not to help the rich get richer,” Mr. Smith says.

In Prenda’s microschools, there is a “learning guide” who organizes students’ academics. This could be a student’s parent or another trusted adult in the community. That person is not responsible for teaching all subjects, but coordinates students’ learning, making use of both online and community offerings. This model allows for more investment and ownership on the part of parents who may otherwise feel marginalized by school systems.

It also is easier to recognize and avoid the sort of baked-in racism that happens regularly in larger school districts, experts say, from the way school administrators interact with Black parents to the well-documented disparities in the disciplining of Black and white students. 

“Schools are such complex ecosystems. The way they are designed right now, it’s so hard to get anything but incremental progress,” says Michael Finnegan, founder and CEO of QuantumCamp, a science camp and educational program that grew out of Dr. Finnegan’s work with underserved youth in Oakland, California.

Focus outside of school

As schools closed in response to the pandemic this year, it became increasingly clear just how many services they provided to children and families beyond education. There was child care, for sure. But there was also food, with some 20 million children across the country receiving free lunch at school. Mental health counseling is big, too. And child protection services.

“Everyone is worried that someone is going to go hungry because schools aren’t going to provide free lunch,” says Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a renowned educational and neighborhood renewal program in New York. “America should just stop right there and say, ‘How is it that we have so many students who cannot afford to eat?’”

Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images
“Everyone is worried that someone is going to go hungry because schools aren't going to provide free lunch. America should just stop right there and say, 'How is it that we have so many students who cannot afford to eat?'" – Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, an educational renewal program in New York

When he began running the Harlem Children’s Zone in 1990, Mr. Canada realized quickly that there was no way to separate school from the rest of children’s lives. Everything about their experiences – where they lived, what was happening with their family, how much violence took place on their street – impacted what happened in the classroom. 

“Traditionally, we have separated education from the rest of the environment. ... But there is no evidence at all that for the most disadvantaged students in this country that works,” Mr. Canada says. 

Indeed, to Mr. Danner, the educational entrepreneur, it doesn’t work. He notes how in Palo Alto, California, considered one of the best public school systems in the country, lower-income students attending from other districts do not achieve better test scores than in their home schools.

“We look at the data and know it’s not working,” says Mr. Danner. “But we have a lot of loyalty to this system – like it’s this democratic equalizer. ... We’ve all told ourselves a story that if we can just make the system work everything will be good. But, in fact, the system works for the people who have the most political voice in the system.”

What works for students of color, whose communities often lack political or financial power, is wraparound investment, says Kwame Owusu-Kesse,Mr. Canada’s successor.

This is what happens at the Harlem Children’s Zone. The program addresses the needs of the entire community, starting with The Baby College, a parenting and early childhood education course, and continuing through to college, jobs, and mentoring programs and wellness initiatives. The nonprofit runs charter schools but also supports public school students; it uses intense data metrics to measure outcomes and adjust its interventions. What started on one Harlem block has expanded over 30 years into one of the most successful and well-documented experiments in urban education.

Brynn Anderson/AP
Teachers Jennifer Scandle (in bus) and Renee Roberts (right) deliver a lunch to Kelsi Clarke in Cusseta, Georgia.

Critics have argued that the model would be too expensive to replicate across the country. And less well-funded versions of the program have not had equal success.

But this, Mr. Owusu-Kesse says, is a matter of priorities. The organization is calling for a $100 billion investment in the 100 most disadvantaged neighborhoods in America. Over 10 years, it wants each community to invest $1 billion in education, health care, mental health, after-school programming, mentorship efforts, wellness, and various other initiatives. It’s a huge amount of money, Mr. Canada and Mr. Owusu-Kesse acknowledge, but not compared to costs of incarceration, treating poor health, lost economic revenue, and policing.

“The question of investment is about breaking mental models,” says Mr. Owusu-Kesse. “COVID has shed a bright light on this. We need to reprioritize what we are putting money on.”

Brookings Institution researchers found in 2016 that white families had on average 10 times the wealth of Black families. Dr. Valant of Brookings says that “baby bonds,” a proposal that would give every child at birth a bank account, funded in reverse proportion to a family’s wealth, could help mediate this inequality.

“If we were really able to target and address wealth gaps, you close the gaps in resources when it comes to tutoring, digital divides, pods, all sorts of other things that cost money. ... When you invest more, kids perform better,” Dr. Valant says.

Joy-based learning

There is a question, though, at the base of all of this work. How should students – particularly students of color – experience education? What does it mean to go to school? What is the purpose of learning?

It’s an area that Dr. Kirkland, of NYU, has been pondering a lot recently. As tough as this pandemic has been for families and schools, he is conscious that, for the first time, many children have had the opportunity to see what it’s like to not walk through metal detectors every day. It’s the first time that no students have been suspended and the first time they haven’t gotten in trouble with teachers or school police.

The question he’s been asking, he says, is “what does a joy-based education look like?”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Students take a class in media literacy at Match High School, a public charter school, in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston in February 2019.

It’s an issue on the minds of many education disrupters. “You have a system that’s built on the opposite of what we know motivates people,” says Mr. Horn of the Clayton Christensen Institute. “There are very few opportunities to feel successful in it; there are very few opportunities to tackle the problems that are interesting to the students themselves; there are very few opportunities to make learning joyful. It’s why every kid starts off excited in kindergarten, and they get to high school and the word they use about school is ‘boring.’”

The belief in educational joy is why Ryan Delk helped create Primer, an online-based home-schooling network scheduled to launch this year. Mr. Delk remembers how his parents decided not to send him to public school in Florida, concluding that it was better for his father to work three jobs for a time and his mother to teach him at home rather than send him to their struggling local school district. Today he sees it as “one of the most incredible gifts that anyone has given me. My parents’ whole orientation was ‘we want you to love learning.’”

Primer helps parents work through the bureaucracy of home schooling, and then connect to experts and the community. Mr. Delk says he has seen growing interest among parents of color. The National Home Education Research Institute says Black students in 2015 made up the fastest-growing segment of home-schooled children. 

“Giving parents more options is a good way to increase equity,” he says. 

But there also should be joy in traditional schools, most scholars agree. And this is not a straightforward proposition, nor is it apolitical.

In many ways, says Dr. Kirkland, Black children have experienced school as a hostile environment – an institution that is about control and regulation, not expression or pleasure. Joy expressed by Black students has traditionally been viewed with suspicion, he says. Think, for instance, of a group of Black teens laughing loudly together. It often prompts a different institutional reaction from that toward a group of white teens enjoying each other’s company.

“When we see Black and brown bodies in joyful moments there is a collective judgment,” Dr. Kirkland says. “There is a narrative about deviance.”

So it is perhaps unsurprising, he says, that educational institutions catering to students of color have been constructed – consciously or unconsciously – to eliminate joy.

Dr. Kirkland tells the story of a private school on 33rd Street, not terribly far from his work, that serves primarily white and financially privileged students. It has great facilities. The children learn by playing. They have toys and equipment. 

“They have created a setting where they can love the kids,” he says.

Two blocks north, there is a public school, with mainly disadvantaged students of color. “They go through metal detectors. They’re marching in single-file lines. There’s no love of them. It’s about obedience. This is the type of school we have created for Black and brown students.

“We have to radically change education.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we have removed our paywall for all pandemic-related stories.

Back to School: In person, outside

One of the most obvious changes to schools this year will be, in some cases, a lack of walls. Teaching outdoors is one of the ways educators are finding to allow school to feel like school.

Mark
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Students at the private Hartsbrook School attend class outdoors on Sept. 3, 2020, in Hadley, Massachusetts. Some schools in the U.S., including public ones in New York City, plan to use outdoor space to help facilitate in-person learning.

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As many students in the U.S. officially head back to school today, some will be learning in an atypical environment: the outdoors. 

The move outside is a way to bring kids back together during the pandemic, and could become more than a stopgap. From coast to coast, educators in both private and public schools are finding creative ways to plan for learning, from open-air structures to makeshift classrooms in public parks or forested areas. 

Some settings are more conducive to learning than others, with urban educators, for example, competing with ambient city noise like construction. And any outdoor environment is prone to another variable: weather. Still, schools faced with wanting or needing to hold classes in person are undeterred. 

In Hartland, Vermont, the community raised more than $8,000 and counting to create spaces for learning outside for Hartland Elementary, a public school with some 260 students that reopened today.  

Hartland educators will have the option to teach outside, inside, or a combination, Principal Christine Bourne says. “Hopefully it’ll be so successful that once things get back to normal, we’ll continue to use [the outdoor classrooms] and we can adapt our curriculum to have more outdoor learning,” she says. “We’re looking at this as an opportunity.”

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2. Back to School: In person, outside

At the Hartsbrook School, a private preK-12 Waldorf school in Hadley, Massachusetts, typical activities – talking, thinking, raising hands – are happening not in a traditional classroom but under waterproof canopies held up by repurposed cedar posts.

The outdoors is always part of daily life for the school’s 220 students, who regularly help care for livestock and gardens. But this year, Hartsbrook has added 16 outdoor classrooms, equipped with desks and blackboards.

The move outside is one of the solutions being used to bring kids back together during the pandemic – and it could become more than a stopgap. From coast to coast, educators in both private and public schools are finding creative ways to plan for learning outside, from open-air structures to makeshift classrooms in public parks or forested areas. Though tempered by logistics and funding, the benefits for students, some advocates say, go beyond preserving in-person education and accommodating social distancing.

“We’re confident that being outside and being in the presence of nature will help begin to heal some of the trauma [from the pandemic],” says Sharon Danks, CEO and founder of the nonprofit Green Schoolyards America, based in Berkeley, California. 

Interest is coming from both rural and urban communities looking to reopen safely. Green Schoolyards America has teamed up with three other organizations to launch the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative to help. Ten working groups are creating an online how-to manual for schools, says Ms. Danks, who expects some schools will continue on outdoors after the pandemic.

For many schools, education outdoors offers a way to resume at least some level of in-person learning, a key element from an equity standpoint. The spring’s rapid transition to remote learning meant students with little to no internet access and no computer were at a major disadvantage. Disparity issues continue. But experts note converting existing outdoor space doesn’t always require a lot of resources, making it an option available to a variety of schools. 

The idea has caught on in New York City, where students can start learning in-person as of Sept. 21. Parents are among those who have been pushing for outdoor options for their students in the country’s largest school district. In late August, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced principals could submit outdoor learning plans that would use either their own grounds or request space in city parks or streets. So far, several hundred have been approved, with the city working on the logistics of such plans, which might affect parking among other things. 

Trish Appel Peterson, the principal of PS8, The Robert Fulton School, which teaches about 650 K-5 students in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, worked with her colleagues to submit a plan, still pending approval, that proposes closing two nearby streets, using tents on each for classrooms. The school would also use outdoor space on school grounds. 

Ms. Peterson sees the potential for creativity to flourish in an outside class, when there is less technology and more talking. “I think it’s going to be interesting to see how things change when we’re outside and there isn’t a screen as a back up,” she says.

Lea Ciavarra, co-founding partner at Lubrano Ciavarra Architects in Brooklyn, helped PS8 build a plan for safe indoor and outdoor learning. Ms. Ciavarra, whose daughter is heading into second grade at the school, says outdoor options are definitely viable, just as they were during epidemics early in the 20th century. 

“You get outside, there’s fresh air and you get reinvigorated,” she says. “Why wouldn’t you weave more of that into the day for a child?”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
First grade students at Hartsbrook School attend class during the first week of school, on Sept. 3, 2020 in Hadley, Massachusetts.

Further north, outdoor classrooms are also a priority at Hartland (Vermont) Elementary School, a public K-8 school with some 270 students. The community has raised more than $8,000 and counting to create these spaces. Ahead of the Sept. 8 reopening, which will include both in person and remote learning, Hartland raised the number of classrooms it has on adjacent, town-owned forest from two to five. On school grounds, carports have been set up to allow for teaching underneath them. 

Hartland teachers will have the option to have class outside, inside, or a combination, Principal Christine Bourne says. “Hopefully it’ll be so successful that once things get back to normal, we’ll continue to use [the outdoor classrooms] and we can adapt our curriculum to have more outdoor learning,” she says. “We’re looking at this as an opportunity.”

Hartland’s kindergarten has used an outdoor classroom on the nearby 17-Acre Wood one day per week. Lauren Skilling, a kindergarten teacher, recommends educators set aside time for students learning outside to explore on their own and build their problem-solving skills.

Parent Jay Nash, a musician who helped with the fundraising effort for Hartland, recalls the positive impact from his daughter being in the kindergarten program. “When kids get outside ... I think that they become the best possible versions of themselves,” he says. “I have observed kids to be more calm, more considerate, and more likely to assimilate and retain new information while they are outdoors.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Rachel Kennedy teaches students in the Forest Kindergarten program at Hartsbrook School, on Sept. 3, 2020. The school featured outdoor instruction, including for Forest Kindergarten, even before the pandemic arrived.

Rachel Kennedy has seen that happen many times. She founded the Forest Kindergarten program at Hartsbrook, the Waldorf school in Massachusetts, where children learn about levers by using boards and tree stumps to make a seesaw or a balance board. She says such activities develop the physical and mental skills that drive creativity – and without leaning on technology.

“It builds such confidence and such agency, and those are other pieces I feel modern children really need,” Ms. Kennedy says, adding that those qualities help older kids, too. 

Some outdoor settings are more conducive to learning than others, with urban educators, for example, competing with ambient city noise like construction. And any outdoor environment is prone to another variable: weather. That makes outdoor learning something that will be limited to certain times of the year in some states. Hartsbrook plans to offer outdoor heat sources as it gets colder, for example, and some schools may follow the lead of previous eras with outdoor learning in the United States, in which students bundled up in the winter.  

Even with the hurdles, administrators around the U.S. are keeping learning outside as an option. One of the districts working with Green Schoolyards America is the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) in Colorado, which includes 56 schools with a total of about 29,000 students. The school year began on Aug. 26 with district-wide remote learning, but planning for the outdoor option is well underway, says Ghita Carroll, the district’s sustainability coordinator. And it’s nothing new for this district.

“What’s new is using it in a more universal way where we can even teach math outside,” Ms. Carroll says.

BVSD’s outdoor classrooms would come into play as part of a hybrid learning model, of both in-person and remote learning, when that option is deemed safe by local authorities. At each potential outdoor learning site, the district has considered various factors, including shading, space, and the location of grassy areas. Ms. Carroll says outdoor classrooms free up space for in-person learning indoors, and they provide a valuable way for students and teachers to connect. “A little bit can go a long way,” she says. 

The Salt Lake City School District, a public district with about 24,000 students, is also starting remote, but is including outdoor classroom spaces in a hybrid learning model to be used when in-person learning is an option again. Shea Wickelson, a teacher at the district’s Salt Lake Center for Science Education, a lab school teaching grades 7-12 on two campuses, headed up the district’s outdoor learning plans ahead of the Sept. 8 start.

“We’re not re-creating the indoor classroom,” Ms. Wickelson says. “Our idea right now is just to be able to identify places we can use outside at the drop of a hat without big infrastructure changes and without a lot of money.”

Ms. Kennedy, the teacher from Hartsbrook, expects a lasting, positive impact from more children problem-solving together in the outdoors. “That’s a real pull toward compassion and figuring out how to help each other,” she says. “And I think that’s more needed than ever.” 

Trump boat parades: What’s their political message?

Trump boat parades are a political innovation at a time when the pandemic has limited many forms of campaigning. They’re the newest form of the president’s raucous rallies.

Mark
Earl Neikirk/Bristol Herald Courier/AP
A Trump masked boat rider waves to those on the Hwy 421 bridge during the South Holston Trump Boat Parade on Sept. 5, 2020, in Bristol, Tennessee.

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On his Labor Day boat trip to Pelican Island, Georgia, Shannon Canady flew a new flag depicting President Donald Trump sitting on a tank, muzzle blazing.

He fit right in with other participants in a local version of a 2020 political innovation: the Trump boat parade, also known as a Trump flotilla, or “Trumptilla.”

The Trumptillas have replaced Mr. Trump’s raucous rallies, which can’t be held due to the pandemic. They provide his supporters a way to get together in support of their candidate without violating social distance rules.

Mr. Trump has called them his “beautiful boaters,” and points to them as proof that he can’t be losing to former Vice President Joe Biden.

In person, the boat parades are a mix of pomp and provocation. The engines and the music are loud, the flags enormous. Critics charge that they and Trump truck parades are an implicit threat of violence in a polarized political nation.

Others say they’re just a way of letting off steam at a time when the pandemic has shut many forms of entertainment and expression.

“This flotilla just shows how a lot of people are so emotionally invested in this election,” says Mr. Canady.

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3. Trump boat parades: What’s their political message?

Shannon Canady’s buddies made a to-do of showing him something before their big trip to the beach for Labor Day. They even had him close his eyes.

This is what he saw when he opened them: A large flag showing President Donald Trump astride a tank, muzzle blazing.

On Saturday, Mr. Canady and his crew mounted the flag on a broom handle atop his pontoon boat and lit out from Tybee Island, the easternmost point of Georgia.

Their destination? Pelican Island, a small sandbar and local party spot. There, after a 10-minute steam, they became part of a 2020 innovation: The political flotilla – or, if you will, the “Trumptilla.”

In doing so, they joined thousands of boats flying Trump flags that took to America’s waters this weekend, at one point so enthusiastically that several boats capsized during a rush of horsepower and props at a Texas lake. (No one was hurt.)

The goal, participants say, is chiefly camaraderie and fun, with a bonus of built-in social distancing. The flotillas have in some sense replaced Mr. Trump’s political rallies, from which the president appears to draw political and personal strength.

They are also a floating example of the uniqueness of this presidential campaign, where passions are running high in a polarized electorate but many normal activities remain curtailed amid the persistent pandemic.

“This flotilla just shows how a lot of people are so emotionally invested in this election,” says Mr. Canady. “Honestly, it’s a bit much sometimes. It’s like we’re living in two different worlds.”

“Beautiful boaters”

Trump-flag-flying cruise boats have been landing here on Pelican Island since May. The “Trumptilla” phenomenon emerged in Southern states this spring, then moved north as the weather warmed onto the lakes of the Northern rust belt and the coast of Maine.

The Trump campaign has often referenced the boat parades, suggesting that they represent political energy that the Democrats can’t muster. President Trump himself has embraced what he calls his “beautiful boaters” and implied that the size of the flotillas is evidence he can’t possibly be trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden, whatever polls say.

“It’s a new form of political expression and participation,” says Todd Belt, coauthor of “The Post-Heroic Presidency.” “It’s a little bit of owning the libs, it’s part of being on ‘Team Trump,’ flying your colors, and flags wave really well behind the boat. It’s performative politics.”

Michael Arellano/AP
Riley Brumeister, 18, attends his first Trump rally atop the hood of his 1970 Ford F-250, at Clackamas Community College in Oregon City, Oregon, Sept. 7, 2020.

Is it indicative of anything larger? Republican consultant Tim Miller calls the notion that boat owners could swing the election “farcical.” Yet they are not an insignificant demographic. There are 12 million registered boats in the U.S. States with the largest concentrations of boat registrations are also battlegrounds, including Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida.

The Trump boat parades might connect with some non-traditional voters, says Mr. Miller. They are a kind of blue collar activity that might motivate a few people who sat out last election to vote in 2020.

“It’s part of a broader effort [by Trump] to kind of sink his hooks even deeper into the cultural side of exurban, rural, white communities. That’s his path,” says the GOP consultant.

In a way, the Trumptillas – and other organized flag-and-banner waving events – are a return to the political culture of the 1800s, says Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill.

Back then, before television and smart phones and even cinemas, organizing a parade for a candidate was a big thing.

For the most part, “it’s a great way to celebrate,” says Mr. Hetherington, coauthor of “Authoritarianism and Polarization in America.” “There’s not that much to do [in a pandemic], so we find other things to occupy ourselves, including lots of political expression.”

Pomp and provocation

But there are risks, as the flag-waving Trump performative political movement has come to include armed people in trucks, says Mr. Hetherington.

Trump’s political style includes stoking up his base with images of violence. On Twitter he has unapologetically retweeted video of Trump supporters attacking protesters in Portland, falsely suggested that images of a New York subway assault were connected to Black Lives Matter or Antifa, and defended Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year old charged with murder for killing two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

On Monday, over 1,000 people taking part in a Trump-flag-flying “truck cruise” in the Oregon suburbs clashed briefly with racial justice protesters.

“Passion is great. Passion with guns is another story,” says Mr. Hetherington, though he adds that, “I would think chances for confrontation on the water are pretty low.”

Still, political boat flotillas are undoubtedly a mix of pomp and provocation. The music and engines are loud. The flags are big. Some – such as Mr. Canady’s – have weapon imagery.

“We see [parade flotillas] as symbolic activities, but they send a signal of, ‘We are ready for the oncoming fight,’” says J. Michael Bitzer, a political historian at Catawba College, in Salisbury, North Carolina.

The flotillas, like the overall Trump political coalition, are also predominantly white. At least some of the president’s supporters see themselves as defenders of white America as the country approaches a demographic tipping point where white people are likely to lose majority status within the next half century.

“Is it innocuous to have a flotilla that looks like a battle army? Is it innocent to have these souped-up trucks as loud as trains [rolling into Portland]?” says Jennifer Mercieca, author of “Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump” and a professor of communications at Texas A&M University.

“If you take them seriously, they say, ‘What? We’re just listening to the Beach Boys with Trump flags. You think we’re dangerous?’” says Dr. Mercieca.

Party on

Meanwhile, on Pelican Island, the party just kept going. There were large tents, dogs playing, kids digging in the sand. The shindig became so popular that anchoring spots dried up.

Floating in the lukewarm sound with a cool drink, Jim Mathews of Dublin, Georgia, took in the scene with a grin.

“I think Trump wins by a landslide,” he proclaims, despite polls showing the president trailing Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee. On Saturday, a smaller Biden counter-flotilla slipped into the Gulf of Mexico.

“It seems like we’re at loggerheads at the moment, but I think once the election is over the country will go back to something approaching normal,” says Mr. Mathews. “I think we’ll be all right.”

One solution to America’s dam-safety problem: Remove them

Many small dams and reservoirs across the United States are deteriorating. The new solution? Just take them out.

Mark

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In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s dams a “D” in its infrastructure report card. Among these are more than 15,000 dams whose failure would threaten lives.

Jim Sperling knows this all too well. On May 19, Michigan’s Edenville Dam collapsed, sending 21.5 billion gallons of water down the Tittabawassee River in less than two hours. Mr. Sperling, whose home was less than a mile downstream from the dam, was forced to flee as the muddy flood waters swept away his boat and inundated his home.

“It was one big wave,” he says. “A massive wave.”

An increasingly popular solution to protecting public safety and restoring rivers to their natural state is dam removal. Last year, 90 dams were taken out in 26 states. That’s a small percentage of the country’s more than 90,000 dams, but dam owners are increasingly choosing removal as an alternative to upgrade and maintenance, especially for dams that have outlived their usefulness.

“We’ve seen a lot more [removals],” says Mark Ogden, a technical expert at the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. “Dam owners are more aware of their liability and the potential cost of repairs.”

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4. One solution to America’s dam-safety problem: Remove them

Jim Sperling was less than a mile downstream when the dam gave way. First came a siren’s wail, then the water, rising quickly as he fled with his wife, Marge. It swept away their pontoon boat, destroyed a shed, and filled their house, all in a muddy debris-filled surge that, in Mr. Sperling’s words, “ripped out everything” – trees, bridges, docks, even houses.

“It was one big wave,” Mr. Sperling says. “A massive wave.”

The collapse of Michigan’s Edenville Dam May 19 sent 21.5 billion gallons of water down the Tittabawassee River in less than two hours. The flood overwhelmed the Sanford Dam downstream and forced the evacuation of 10,000 people in three counties. It also left communities flooded, 2,500 houses damaged or destroyed, and, at Edenville, a shallow, sandy basin where a lake once lay.

The dam’s failure, coming after more than two days of record rainfall, also drew new attention to the poor condition of dams, not just in Michigan but across the country. The American Society of Civil Engineers, which periodically rates the condition of U.S. infrastructure, gave dams a “D” in its last report, and among them are more than 15,000 whose failure would threaten lives. Indeed, federal authorities two years before its collapse had deemed the Edenville Dam, an earthen berm built for hydropower in 1924, inadequate to handle heavy rains and in need of upgrade. Little had been done.

“We see the problem getting worse and worse,” says Larry Larson, adviser to the Association of State Floodplain Managers, a nonprofit that he co-founded. “The dams are getting older, we’re seeing more intense rainfall events, and people are building more in failure areas.”

Less remarked upon was an option for ailing dams that’s quietly gaining acceptance across the country: removal. Last year, 90 dams were taken out in 26 states, the latest in a growing movement aimed at improving public safety and restoring rivers to their natural state. That’s a small percentage of the country’s more than 90,000 dams, but dam owners are increasingly choosing removal as an alternative to upgrade and maintenance, especially for dams that have outlived their usefulness.

“We’ve seen a lot more,” says Mark Ogden, a technical expert at the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. “Dam owners are more aware of their liability and the potential cost of repairs.”

A wave of removals

More than 1,700 dams have been taken out in the U.S. since 1912, according to American Rivers, an environmental organization that has done more than any other to promote and facilitate dam removal. Most were removed after the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Augusta, Maine, was taken out in 1999, marking the beginning of the modern removal effort. Last year, dams were removed in 26 states, the largest number of states that has ever had dams removed in a single year. 

Robert F. Bukaty/AP/File
Fishermen cast into the Kennebec River below the Edwards Dam in Augusta, Maine, in July 1997. Government leaders and conservationists are gathering June 30, 2009, at a park along the Kennebec River in Augusta to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the breaching of the 24-foot-high, 917-foot-wide dam.

“You see a lot of variation state by state,” says Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy, director of river restoration for American Rivers. “A lot of states are fairly new to dam removal. A lot of states have been doing it a long time.”

Most dams removed are small. A typical example is the Burton Lake Dam in Burton, Ohio. In 2014, heavy late-winter rains flooded the ice and sent water pouring over the dam. No one was hurt, but the combination of flooding and the threat to houses downstream brought the dam to the attention of state and local authorities.

“We knew we needed to do something with it,” says Gerry Morgan, a Geauga County official. A study concluded that current standards required the dam to be raised and an emergency spillway constructed. The work would have cost an estimated $3.5 million.

The county looked in vain for help. “There were a lot of people that were more likely to give money to remove it than to upgrade it,” Mr. Morgan says. 

Local homeowners blamed the county for neglecting the dam over the years; others worried that the loss of the impoundment, a shallow lake of about 30 acres, would hurt their property values. But they declined to pay for the upgrades themselves. Finally, in 2019 the county spent $100,000, Mr. Morgan says, to have a contractor with heavy equipment dig a notch in the dam and spread the dirt nearby. The old lake is now a wetland.

Restore or remove?

Some removals happen more quickly. In Pennsylvania, Ms. Hollingsworth-Segedy has helped to dismantle some 125 dams over a dozen years. She recalls many of them in vivid detail, including a dam she and colleagues visited one March day in 2009 on Snare Run, a mountain creek that had been dammed to supply water to a local town. When they reached the dam they saw what looked like a frozen waterfall. They soon figured out that the water wasn’t running over the dam, but seeping through it. 

“It got really quiet,” she recalls. “You could hear tink, tink, tink. We realized those were rocks falling out of the dam.”

The dam was 22 feet high, and there were houses downstream. It took the state less than a week, she says, to take it out.

Experts say several factors combine to imperil U.S. dams. One is age: the average dam is 57 years old. Often, too, new development downstream has made failure far more dangerous than when the dams were built. Finally, climate change is producing more frequent and intense rainstorms of the kind that doomed the Edenville Dam.

“I think the likelihood that we see the events that cause dams to fail is increasing,” says Mr. Ogden. “It’s clear we need to invest in the upgrade and repair of dams – or removal.” 

A powerful argument in favor of removal is money. Taking a dam out costs far less than fixing it up. Plus, dam owners who agree to removal can sometimes get financial help in the name of habitat improvement. 

Otherwise, the cost is high. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that rehabilitating all the non-federal dams in the U.S. – most dams are privately owned – would cost more than $65 billion. Last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency started a grant program for substandard dams, but it hands out just $10 million a year. “It’s something but not much compared to the need,” says Mr. Ogden.

In Michigan, Jim Sperling and many others are focused on rebuilding their homes, and their lives. There’s been little talk of removing the Edenville Dam but much about rebuilding that, too. Thousands of people own property around the impoundment and three others in the region, and they support reconstruction and rehabilitation. 

If it happens, it’s likely to take many years. The owner of the dams, Boyce Hydro, has filed for bankruptcy, and lawsuits abound. An organization of property owners proposes that the local counties take ownership of the dams and that they, the property owners, shoulder the cost of rebuilding. That’s estimated to be as much as $400 million, most of it for the Edenville Dam.

“I don’t know how they can raise that,” Mr. Sperling says, raising the biggest question hanging over this or any old dam’s future. “If they put it on taxpayers, a lot of people are going to be unhappy.”

Points of Progress

What's going right

New penguin colonies discovered

In our weekly update on progress around the world, we look at voting rights in Iowa, Black candidates for Congress, the power of wind in Scotland, and a welcome surprise for penguin lovers.

Mark
Staff
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5. New penguin colonies discovered

1. United States

Tens of thousands of formerly incarcerated people – also known as returning citizens – have had their voting rights restored by an executive order of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. Iowa was the last state in the U.S. that still banned all people with felony convictions from voting.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Gov. Kim Reynolds grants Iowans who were incarcerated with felony convictions the right to vote on Aug. 5, 2020.

The order restores voting rights for returning citizens who have discharged their sentences, including any parole or probation. Restitution payments related to felony convictions do not have to be fully paid back to vote. About 52,000 Iowans – including 10% of the state’s African American adults – could not vote in the state because of past felony convictions, according to a 2016 report by The Sentencing Project. After years advocating for the restoration of voting rights, the NAACP will now focus on educating and registering returning citizens ahead of the Nov. 3 election. (Des Moines Register, The Guardian)

2. United States

A record-breaking 130 Black women are running for Congress in 2020, including 117 House candidates and 13 aiming for the Senate. This figure is up from 87 candidates in 2018, and includes women who may have already lost their local primaries. Black women make up 4.3% of Congress, but nearly 8% of the total U.S. population. Historically, most Black women have been elected to majority-Black districts, but many of this cycle’s candidates are running for office in predominantly white or mixed areas. “People are becoming more comfortable with seeing different kinds of people in Congress. You don’t know what it looks like to have powerful Black women in Congress until you see powerful Black women in Congress,” said Pam Keith, a Navy veteran and attorney who won the Democratic primary for a Florida congressional seat. (Reuters)

3. Scotland

By using excess wind power to produce eco-friendly hydrogen fuel, the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland have become an unlikely leader in the renewable energy field. The islands have powered themselves with wind farms and tidal turbines for years. In fact, these methods were so successful that local electrical grids couldn’t handle the amount of power being generated every day. To keep the turbines running, officials have started redirecting the surplus energy into various green energy projects, namely producing carbon-neutral hydrogen fuel. Although hydrogen fuel has zero carbon emissions, it’s typically made through fossil fuel extraction. Orkadians are focused on the use of electric currents to separate hydrogen from water molecules, a process that allows them to store additional energy and pave the way for scalable technologies that could reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels. (CNN, Orkney Islands Council)

4. Antarctica

With new satellite images of Antarctica’s coastline, scientists have identified 11 new emperor penguin colonies, 20% more than researchers thought existed on the continent. The 61 confirmed colonies hold about 270,000 pairs of breeding penguins. Emperor penguins prefer to breed on sea ice, making them vulnerable to rising global temperatures. 

Copernicus Sentinel-2/ESA/AP/File
A patch of guano captured by the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite helped scientists find new emperor penguin colonies.

“Whilst it’s good news that we’ve found these new colonies,” said Phil Trathan, who has studied penguins for the last three decades, “the breeding sites are all in locations where recent [climate change] model projections suggest emperors will decline.” The remote and frigid breeding sites make penguins difficult to study, but the images from the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission have provided researchers with an important benchmark to monitor the species. (Science Daily)

5. Bougainville

A record number of women are throwing their hat into the first general election since Bougainville voted to seek full independence from Papua New Guinea in a nonbinding referendum held in December last year. Representatives from the autonomous region of Bougainville must work with the PNG government to negotiate the terms of the separation.

Calvin Caspar/The Bougainvillean/Reuters
Voters cast their ballots at a polling station in Arawa, Bougainville, during the presidential elections on Aug. 12, 2020. This year, 43 women are running for office in Bougainville.

PNG is one of only three countries with no women in parliament, but Bougainville has made steady gains in women’s political participation since its decadeslong civil war ended in 1998. Women have been leaders in the peacemaking process and three seats in the House of Representatives are reserved for women. In 2015, Bougainville made headlines when a woman won an open seat for the first time. This year, 14 women are vying for open seats, 27 are aiming for reserved spots, and two are running for president. (Thomson Reuters Foundation)

Worldwide

With the Kingdom of Tonga’s signoff, the International Labor Organization’s convention against the worst forms of child labor has become the first United Nations labor treaty to achieve universal ratification. Around the world, the number of child laborers has declined by 94 million since 2000, but progress has slowed in recent years. Many advocates are concerned that the pandemic will push more families into poverty, and more children into forced labor. First introduced in 1999 and now supported by all 187 member states, the convention aims to protect children from sexual exploitation, armed conflict, and other illicit work. Universal ratification “reflects a global commitment that the worst forms of child labor ... have no place in our society,” ILO Director-General Guy Ryder said in a statement. (Reuters)

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Muslim lands staking out interfaith coexistence

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The notion of the Arab and Muslim world as a cauldron of perpetual religious strife has been a difficult rap to beat. Yet many countries keep defying the myth. The latest may be Sudan. On Sept. 3, its prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, signed an agreement to enshrine the principle of “separation of religion and state” in the constitution. Sudan joins Tunisia, Iraq, Lebanon, and a few other Muslim-majority countries that are trying to curb their sectarian divisions or the strict imposition of sharia, or Islamic law, on civic and private life. Notions of political equality are rising up, led mostly by youthful protesters who rely on the Arabic term for citizens: muwatinun.

Religious freedom is not yet assured in Sudan. The military has a strong hand in an 11-member council preparing for full democracy in two years. Many hardcore Islamists oppose the idea of religious equality or even peaceful coexistence among faiths.

What makes Sudan’s progress worth noting is that a number of scholars have lately tried to revive the memory of Muslim-majority lands having an inclusive society during the Ottoman Empire of the late 19th century. A history of past coexistence has a future.

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Muslim lands staking out interfaith coexistence

The notion of the Arab and Muslim world as a cauldron of perpetual religious strife – and thus a place to avoid – has been a difficult rap to beat. Yet many countries keep defying the myth. The latest may be Sudan. On Sept. 3, its prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, signed an agreement to enshrine the principle of “separation of religion and state” in the constitution. In addition, political parties would not be established on a religious basis.

Sudan joins Tunisia, Iraq, Lebanon, and a few other Muslim-majority countries that are trying to curb their sectarian divisions or the strict imposition of sharia, or Islamic law, on civic and private life. Notions of political equality are rising up, led mostly by youthful protesters who rely on the Arabic term for citizens: muwatinun.

Sudan’s move toward secular governance comes out of pro-democracy protests that felled a dictator, Omar al-Bashir, in April 2019. His three-decade legacy of Islam as the de facto state religion is slowly being overturned in favor of a unifying “civilian state.” An interim constitution makes no mention of sharia. The transitional government has abolished the apostasy laws as well as corporal punishment or flogging of non-Muslims. It allows non-Muslims to drink alcohol. It has banned female genital mutilation, a practice tied to certain religious views of women.

Religious freedom is not yet assured in Sudan. The military has a strong hand in an 11-member council preparing for full democracy in two years. Many hardcore Islamists oppose the idea of religious equality or even peaceful coexistence among faiths. They will have a say in writing a final constitution.

More than 90% of Sudan’s 45 million people are Muslim while 6% are Christian. One member of the ruling council is a Coptic Christian.

What makes Sudan’s progress worth noting is that a number of scholars have lately tried to revive the memory of Muslim-majority lands having an inclusive society during the Ottoman Empire of the late 19th century. An 1876 law, for example, passed under the Ottoman constitution declared the equality of all subjects as citizens. One slogan during the 1919 Egyptian Revolution was “Religion is a matter for God and the homeland is for all.”

It was external pressures, such as Western colonization during the 20th century, that escalated conflicts between Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others, the scholars point out. “Religious diversity does not have to generate a problem of political sectarianism,” writes Ussama Makdisi, a historian at Rice University. It is “simply wrong to analyze sectarianism as if it is age-old and some self-evident phenomenon.”

For scholar Alexander Henley at the University of Oxford, the region’s authoritarian regimes want the United States to believe that “sectarianism is ancient and unfixable so that we will fear democratization in the Middle East as much as they do.”

“Sectarianism is a problem, but let us remember that it’s a new problem, and that what can be made can also be unmade,” he writes in an article published by Georgetown University.

The task for the Mideast is to reinvent the ecumenical coexistence that it once enjoyed, or to “illustrate a far richer reality that we often lose sight of in our despair today,” says Dr. Makdisi. That despair, and along with it the fire of religious hatreds, may be lifting in places like Sudan. A history of past coexistence has a future.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

The power of hope and faith

Jesus said, “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). While problems in the world sometimes seem overwhelming, following Jesus’ example of complete faith in God’s all-power quiets our own thought and enables us to be a healing influence for good.

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1. The power of hope and faith

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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The other day I was driving through a small community and saw this quote posted on the side of a building: “Attitude is contagious … is yours worth catching?” Those words really made me think and ask: How can my attitude make a positive difference, especially during these days of widespread health concerns? Then I thought: I can strive even more to have an attitude of hope and faith in God regarding the healing of sickness, including contagion.

I’ve been nurturing this desire since then, so I was grateful, but not surprised, when I found myself with opportunities to speak with some individuals involved in media and publishing, about how hope and faith in God is so important in addressing public health concerns – and that these qualities of thought can help to bring healing.

They agreed, and I felt as if the light of what I had seen for myself had been shone to illumine the thoughts of others, at least in those conversations. To me, this evidenced how an uplifted thought makes a positive difference – helping to bring hope and faith in God to bear upon issues in which feelings of hopelessness and helplessness might seem to prevail.

Christ Jesus stands out as the prime example of how such confidence in God brings about positive change. Jesus said, “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). These simple but momentous words of his express not only Jesus’ expectation of good, of healing and health, but also his full reliance on and trust in one all-powerful God. And it was his unwavering faith in and understanding of God that brought physical healing to those in great need and reformed those struggling with sin.

Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the Monitor in 1908, was a devout follower of Jesus and also understood the significance of letting God uplift our thoughts. She wrote: “Human hope and faith should join in nature’s grand harmony, and, if on minor key, make music in the heart” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 330). Indeed, hope and faith bring the salutary conviction of God’s all-power and transform thought during our toughest times in life, naturally bringing healing and “mak[ing] music in the heart.”

For instance, the Bible records an account of a blind man named Bartimaeus who called out to Jesus to have mercy on him and heal him (see Mark 10:46-52). Apparently Bartimaeus lived in poverty, as the Bible indicates he was a beggar. His situation certainly seemed desperate – he had every reason to feel hopeless and faithless.

But clearly he hadn’t given up hope! He had faith in Jesus’ healing ability and an expectation of good. When Bartimaeus was told that Jesus had called for him to come over, he rose up at once. Jesus then told him, “Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole,” and he was healed of his blindness.

Jesus’ declaration of Bartimaeus’ health-giving faith indicates the importance of this quality of thought – not a blind faith, but a faith like that described in Mrs. Eddy’s key work, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.” There, she says of faith, “It is a chrysalis state of human thought, in which spiritual evidence, contradicting the testimony of material sense, begins to appear, and Truth, the ever-present, is becoming understood” (p. 297). Bartimaeus’ faith not only contributed to his own healing, but it’s probably safe to assume that his receptivity to Truth, God, enabled him to go on to help others. After all, the Bible states that after he was healed, he “followed Jesus in the way.”

As just one individual among many, we may sometimes ask ourselves, what good can we really accomplish? But it’s helpful to think about the fact that change for the better ultimately begins on an individual level. Letting faith and hope uplift our own thinking makes a positive difference in our families, communities, and the world. And this more spiritually minded thought is “contagious” to others and “worth catching.” A hope and faith grounded in God’s goodness can have a transforming, healing effect in ways we can’t begin to measure.

Viewfinder

Defying gravity

Mohammed Salem/Reuters
Palestinian athlete Ahmed Abu Hasira demonstrates his parkour skills during a lockdown amid the pandemic in Gaza City Sept. 8, 2020.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us. Please come back tomorrow when Howard LaFranchi looks at the question: What happens when the quest for international justice turns its eye on the United States?

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