We are now many weeks into the most unusual school year any of us have ever experienced. I can imagine that our parents, or maybe grandparents and great-grandparents of those on the younger side, had unusual years marked by wars, or even a similar and traumatic pandemic. They suffered and made the best of the day to day as they could. I must admit, I heard the stories but found them impossible to imagine in our ordered, twenty first century world. Now, daily life is never normal, even though we all work very hard trying to make “normal” days for our children. We want them to laugh behind the mask and find solace with familiar routines. So easy some days. However, we still have some of our amazing students learning from home and each day finds us welcoming students back or packing students up to go home until we know all is safe for them and their classmates. Certainly, this is a new version of normal.
As we are currently enjoying a much needed winter break, I find myself reflecting on where we are and what may lie ahead. Much was prioritized prior to opening for a new school year under Covid restrictions. These became driving forces as we made schedules, hired employees, and prepared classrooms both inside and out. Some themes emerge from these priorities: wellness, outdoor learning, small moments and human connection.
Wellness is at the heart of all decision making this year. The effects of a global pandemic on all members of the school community can not be overlooked. We spend considerable time thinking about the emotional wellbeing of teachers, students, staff, and families at home. It drove decision making regarding daily school life from the time students arrived to the time they departed. The heart of school planning- schedules, curriculum, assessment, communication, was impacted by wellness considerations. In any given year our students’ needs can be great, this year the needs are highly individual and range from minimal to tremendous with both academic and emotional considerations. Our schedules had to reflect emphasis on timing for high focus classes such as reading, writing and math. Morning is core academics followed by an active day filled with much outdoor activity. This is the year to really question what is most important. Cut to the learning essentials, individualize as much as possible, and let the student experience drive the curriculum. We may not get through every lesson with every child, but progress will come as a result of keeping our students wellness at the core of planning.
What a gift to have had such a warm and relatively dry fall season. Emphasis on using the outdoors for health and safety reasons dictated more time outside, and it was lovely. Our school was already well set up for outdoor learning. We used our gardens and backwoods for instruction even in non-Covid years. Children learn from being in the natural world. It is calming, stimulating, and inspiring. A walk through the spacious grounds around school would demonstrate this on any given day. Students are enjoying meals on personal picnic blankets and playing the normal recess games, and in addition, some classes are building in the outdoor makerspace, clipping herbs from the garden or putting the garden to rest by reusing old plants in carefully created compost bins. Some students may be hiking to the backwoods with journals or sketchbooks, learning a new dance or rules to a new game on the school turf, while others are practicing on the recorder in a safely distanced music class. All happy, all experiencing the glory of outdoor classrooms in a time of much upheaval for so many.
We knew from the first day the power of human connection as it related to opening for a new school year. Our normal conditions of Responsive Classroom morning and afternoon meetings would be kept in the schedule and great emphasis would be placed on making sure our virtual students participated in this very valuable part of the day. Each week we would engage in an all lower school Morning Meeting to make sure the connection expanded beyond the classroom. It is a hallmark of our school- genuine community experiences. Even if cross-division would be hard to achieve this year, our lower school division would seek out these community “memory makers”. Halloween was a pinnacle for us as we not only were able to bring some of our involved parents on to campus, but we were able to create an all-school parade, trunk-or-treat event and spooky woods walk, all with Covid restrictions and protocols intact.
Perhaps most meaningful in our planning and construction of a school year that could succeed despite a raging pandemic was our consideration of the “small moments”. We opened most days with bubble machines at the entrance to remind the girls that school can be joyful and playful. These are children living in a complex world. Their smiles and giggles were reminders of the need to keep small moments coming. We ended each week all fall with popsicles. Because- popsicles! It was a promise I made on a ZOOM call last spring, and it has been a welcome reward. A recent diversion from the daily academic activity was a challenge for the girls to create a Marshmallow Dispenser that would be Covid-safe. Maybe popsicles would have to transition to hot chocolate in the colder weather. The challenge to allow for marshmallows to decorate the warm Friday treats was taken on by almost every student. Two winners later, the girls were distracted from the levity of the moment and now anticipate winter treats in community with each other.
Just what we need to keep going into the unknown the remainder of this school year- small moments together that keep us connected, safe, comfortably outdoors, and well.