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Making This Time Count

Author: Dawn Mitchell


Hello everyone!

I know that we are facing a “new normal” of remote learning for the next several weeks. While we are living in unprecedented times, we are also making history, not only in our profession but also in our personal lives as we work to navigate this uncertain time. In collaborating with a high school English teacher to create a meaningful unit of study for her students, I have spent some time these last few days considering what people have done throughout history when their normal lives were disrupted and/or they had to overcome considerable obstacles in their vocation to make a difference across history and connect our lives to theirs.  Take a moment to view these three historical examples of how to make an unexpected time of uncertainty and challenge count.

  1. Sir Isaac Newton — During a pandemic, Isaac Newton had to work from home, too. He used the time wisely.: Take a minute to read this recent article explaining how during the Great Plague of London, Isaac Newton was unable to continue his formal studies at Cambridge and was sent home to work independently on his studies. “Without his professors to guide him, Newton apparently thrived. The year-plus he spent away was later referred to as his annus mirabilis, the ‘year of wonders’. First, he continued to work on mathematical problems he had begun at Cambridge; the papers he wrote on this became early calculus. Next, he acquired a few prisms and experimented with them in his bedroom, even going so far as to bore a hole in his shutters so only a small beam could come through. From this sprung his theories on optics. And right outside his window at Woolsthorpe, there was an apple tree. That apple tree.”  It was during this time without a lecture hall or professors or (computers or online Zoom meetings J) that Sir Isaac Newton developed his ground breaking theories of gravity and motion. 

  2. NASA’s Human Computers – The True Story of “Hidden Figures,” the Forgotten Women Who Helped Win the Space Race:  When our country stood on the brink of a second World War, our country’s need for aeronautical advancement were high and it ushered in the need for human computers.  “Though the pressing needs of war were great, racial discrimination remained strong and few jobs existed for African-Americans, regardless of gender. That was until 1941 when A. Philip Randolph, pioneering civil rights activist, proposed a march on Washington, DC to draw attention to the continued injustices of racial discrimination. With the threat of 100,000 people swarming to the Capitol, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, preventing racial discrimination in hiring for federal and war-related work. This order also cleared the way for the black computer scientists, slide rule in hand, to make their way into NASA history.”  While this order provided an opportunity for these women to use their time and talents productively, it did not end discrimination. Somehow these women persevered and made history, their work paving a way to put a man on the moon.

  3. The Great Zambini – Overcoming Obstacles:  How Louie Zamperini Remained Unbroken:  Many of you may have read Laura Hillenbrand’s award winning novel, Unbroken, or have seen the film of Louie Zamperini’s incredible story of overcoming his B-24 plane crashing in the Pacific during  WWII. He survived forty-seven days on a raft, hoping against all odds of being rescued, only to find himself in enemy territory in a Japanese POW camp where he was beaten, starved, and overworked. His biggest struggles, however, happened when he returned home after many years in isolation. He became a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder.  “Louis’ war experiences seemed to defy hope. Survival appeared impossible during his ordeal on the raft and throughout his inhumane treatment as a POW. He lived with the knowledge that even if he could survive the prison camps, the Japanese guards had promised to kill all prisoners if Japan surrendered. It certainly seemed like a hopeless situation. Yet Louis maintained remarkable hope throughout it all. Hillenbrand writes that Louis’ hope on the raft actually helped him to survive. ‘Louie and Phil’s hope displaced their fear and inspired them to work toward their survival, and each success renewed their physical and emotional vigor. Louie and Phil’s optimism, and Mac’s hopelessness, were becoming self-fulfilling,’ she writes in her book. According to Psychology Today, hope can affect all aspects of life, even academic achievement.”

May these three stories be a source of encouragement and inspiration to you as you work to make the time you have with your students in this “new normal” of remote learning count. 

I really love how my colleague and friend, Ms. Roach, provided a challenge to her students after reading these three stories.  “We are living in an unprecedented time in the world. So many things are uncertain, changing, and challenging. We are living within certain limitations and dramatically altering normal routines. We are remembering or maybe even realizing what is most important. As Gandalf said, ‘All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’ ”



Dawn Mitchell

South Carolina ASCD President


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