Spreading the Love as We Wave Goodbye to 2020

One of our 2021 i2 New Year’s Resolutions is to get this blog active again, reinvigorated with regular bursts of faculty voices and ideas. But make no mistake.  The low quantity of verbiage in the Fall 2020 i2 blog in no way correlates with the quantity and quality of innovation that has been going on in the SA community. Just look at the sprinkling of photos above for evidence.

The past eight months have been a veritable marathon, one that we sometimes sprinted and sometimes slodged our way through.  We have figured out ways to allow students to collaborate while staying physically distanced. Our assessments have morphed from physical to digital form nearly overnight. Chapel services and our signature lower school performances have shifted from stage to video, in some ways affording even more varied participation and access. We have much more intentionally utilized outdoor spaces and tables and created new school traditions. The idea of simultaneously teaching students at home and students in person, once unfathomable, has now become just another (albeit still extra exhausting) Tuesday.  We have all been very much in the business of innovation.  But it hasn’t always been pretty, and all of the reinventing most certainly hasn’t left us time to blog about it.

So how about we end the i2 2020 blog with a little bit of inspiration? 

We asked you to send in a note about who in our community inspires you.  You had things to say.  These tidbits are just samples of some of the goodness that makes our shared institution a supportive community.  Of course the list below is non-exhaustive. We know that many, many stories and names here are left unsaid and uncelebrated.  Our gratitude extends to each and every one of you at St. Andrew’s.  May these stories of inspiration send you into the holiday with warmth, light, and hope.

Our Fourth Grade Team!

Val is incredibly organized and always on the ball. She’s stuck across an ocean from her family (Thanks Covid!) yet doesn’t complain. She is so good at developing relationships and making sure to foster those relationships with regular time for fellowship and fun – not just work!

Susan joined our team this year and immediately got to work making sure we made time to have fun as a team to get to know one another. She has eased into her new role seamlessly, and watching her interact with students is awesome. She is also juggling being a teacher and a mom to two kids, which I know from experience is not always easy. 

Mary Grace jumped right in to teaching a whole new subject area this year and hasn’t batted any eye about it. She knows what she wants to do and gets it done in all things. I have not once her heard her complain or blame anything on the fact that she is in a whole new territory this year. And, she put on a rescheduled wedding on a Saturday, and was back in the classroom by Tuesday – that’s impressive! 

Anna Frame

My team! What an amazing group of ladies I get the opportunity to work with in fourth grade! Val, Mary Grace, Anna, and Huma are a blessing to work with because they encourage each other and help to find ways to solve problems that arise. Go 4G!

Susan Pace

Ruthie Taylor!

Even though she has a full teaching load and is also Department Chair, she has created opportunities for the students, like the Middle School Film and Theatre Club, where they can have creative outlets while we are void of usual performances. And she always, always answers my texts/calls/emails right away whenever I am in need…which has been often this year since there are so many wonderful new things on my plate. And she loves teaching students so much that those days full of classes are what actually energizes her!  She is, to quote her, Awesome Sauce!!!

Catherine Bishop

Kathy Vial!

I have had the pleasure of watching small bits here and there of Kathy Vial’s teaching, as she has found a way to bring science to my classroom, to my students. She comes with a cart full of experiment supplies, equipment, and always in covid-friendly, individually prepared setups. She has, in the midst of a bizarre year, maintained impeccable work ethic, and a true passion for teaching. She lays an opportunity for discovery learning at the feet of every lower school student at St. Andrew’s, and brings a little magic with her each and every time. She does this with both in-person students and virtual students, which is challenging. Kathy even brought to life a replica of the solar system in our cafeteria, one of two rooms our students get to visit (every other week). She uses her space well, and has demonstrated dedication on a level I admire. When I pick up my class from the lab, they are all busy, engaged, and happily exploring in an environment outside of their homeroom. In a time when many might opt for less, I have watched Kathy opt for best. For more. 

Dalton Howard

Kathy Vial never quits! I walk through her space every day, and she is ALWAYS working on a lesson, prepping for a lesson, finding new resources for the lesson, teaching a lesson, or working on her tech skills to better share the lesson with our friends at home. She is so dedicated to her students, the school, and her discipline, and she is not afraid of a new challenge. Tucked over in the Discovery Center, not everyone gets to see it every day like I do, but I hope others know her dedication and are also inspired!

Kate Dutro

Linda Rodriguez, Emily Philpott, Julie Rust!

 These three kind souls have spent countless hours helping me learn new programs, especially Google Classroom, among others, and making me feel competent. They always took time, even when they are busy, to help me, and they always did so with smiles on their faces.

Jim Foley

Kim Sewell!

She is always approachable and has creative, thoughtful, student centered ideas and materials to share. She is an excellent friend, coworker, and teacher!

Erica Smith

Kim  has given of herself and her time to the PK4 team without hesitation. She has been our fearless technology leader and continues to keep us on target as we navigate these uncertain times. We could not function as well as we do without her! She is a true team member and blessing to us.

Betsy McKee

Jessi Crawford!

 I have seen how Jessi has totally redone admissions because of Covid and have adapted screeners, meetings, and tours to make everyone feel as comfortable as can be in a very high-stress situation when applying to a new school. She is wonderful at making connections for families by remembering friends, family, or work connections. She is such a calm and warm presence amongst such unknown times. Admissions has been busier than ever this fall and Jessi never acts flustered or exhausted. She is thoughtful in thinking about teachers’ schedules as well as visiting families. She walks teachers through every step as we do virtual meetings with new families. She is a true gift of gentleness and kindness to all who encounter her. St. Andrew’s is so blessed to have her as one of the faces of St. Andrews that families first get to encounter.

Kim Sewell

Susan Pace!

Susan Pace. Susan does scholastic book orders with her 4th grade classes every once in a while. She then receives points for each book ordered. Susan selflessly spends these points on books for ALL 4th grade classes, not just her own classroom library. She picks great books that are diverse or talk about current events. My students are always THRILLED when these book arrive. What an amazing way to encourage and inspire our young readers!

Val Dembny

Linda Rodriguez!

 Boundless optimism. Consistent willingness to try new things as a teacher. Generosity in listening. Confidence in asking for help or to trade ideas.

Matt Luter

Robyn Touchstone!

Robyn is truly inspirational in her enthusiasm and love for her students.  Her excitement about the special things the students do and say is contagious.  She helps all of us remember the true wonder that these students have and what a beautiful time it is to be a part of their little lives.

Honey May

Rob Rennie!

 Rob is a champion. In the same way that Tom Brady is GOAT, Rob is GOAT. I know this sounds a bit cheeky, so let me explain. When 2019 was rounding the corner into 2020, Rob looked cancer in the face. Did he buckle in the fourth quarter? No. He looked at cancer and said, “come at me, bro.” And when cancer tried to get even more aggressive as fall turned to winter, Rob toughed it out, like The Patriots did in 2017 when Tom Brady led them to a 34 – 28 win in overtime against The Falcons. The only time in history a team has come from behind to take the Super Bowl into overtime and win. Not only that, Rob survived cancer into the start of what would become one of the worst pandemics in recent history. Through it all he’s managed to stay positive, work hard both in and out of school, (we were regular gym buddies before COVID hit hard and the gyms closed) and be a loyal friend to those were also struggling with isolation & stress. He has been there for me, but more importantly, he has been there for Mr. Lowe, who has battled with the anxiety of a tumultuous year. To have colleagues like Rob, friends like Rob, is something I think all of us can only hope for, and I am so grateful and fortunate, frankly, to have him as and example. 2020 has asked for a lot of grit, patience, and courage from all of us, but it has asked for a hell of a lot more from some of us. And Rob has taken those 2020 punches in stride and, in my view, is winning the bout.

Dean Julius


I can’t pick one person! Our entire community (especially LS) inspires me! Seeing everyone working so hard and supporting each other this year has been amazing and inspiring! 

Saana Watson

Library Programming When We Can’t Get Together

TL;DR: The Lower School Library has put together a three-part program to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. Fourth grade students created an interactive timeline exhibit that shares the history of the 19th Amendment, including prominent suffragists, allies, organizations, and events that led to the historic amendment 100 years ago, as well as what has happened since 1920. Next, faculty on both campuses participated in creating a virtual library of read-alouds to go along with the project. Lastly, the library is offering a book giveaway for classroom libraries who visit the virtual and in-person space. 

COVID has required all of us to adapt and innovate, and that has proved no different in the library this year. Despite knowing that my day-to-day was going to look drastically different than in previous years, this summer I applied for a book donation from the American Library Association and the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. If I got the books, I was agreeing to do displays and programming, neither of which I was entirely sure I could accomplish with a limited schedule that did not involve students using the actual library. 

And… of course… I got the books. 

For libraries, programming usually involves guest visits or read-alouds or crafts, but we aren’t accepting visitors, and I didn’t really have time in classes to go into the history and depth of what these women (and a few friends) did to make the 19th Amendment happen and still have time to check out books. But, necessity breeds creativity, or innovation, or invention, or desperation, so instead, I got creative, innovative, and inventive, and collaborated with and called on a lot of colleagues in the process. 

Program #1: Interactive Timeline Exhibit

I teamed up with fourth grade to create a visual timeline of the 19th Amendment. The fourth grade teachers were incredibly gracious and willing to devote some of their “frozen” block time to allow students to research and create the project. As Anna Frame noted, this did not align with the current content, but she and her team “knew it was important and worthwhile for students to learn more about this important anniversary, and our frozen block made it easy to work it in without disrupting other classwork.” 

The project was loosely modeled on John Spencer’s PBL model, which encourages choice and exploration. Students were given time to explore the topic, and then they chose a topic. Because the exploration time was so limited, I prepared a list of about 80 suffragists, allies, events, and “other” important ideas centered on the 19th Amendment. Students could choose from those or pick their own; for instance, two girls became interested in Kamala Harris from hearing her name in the news, and another was interested in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg after her passing. Students were then given access to a customized note-taking sheet that helped them focus their research on how these topics related to the 19th Amendment. Two of the books donated, The Woman’s Hour and Women Making History, were perfect for some of the student research, along with a website I curated to help guide them to appropriate sources. The note-taking sheet was in Google Docs and uploaded via Google Classroom, so it made it incredibly easy to give feedback to students and link them to information they may have missed, whether they were in school or virtual.

For the actual project, students were allowed to pick the method in which they presented their research. In order to facilitate this, I created a Project Planning Guide that helped students plan and set realistic expectations for their project – including whether or not it could be done in the limited time frame. If students asked if their project was done, it was so easy for me or the teachers to tell them to refer to the checklist on the guide, putting them in charge of their own work!

Our collaboration was a huge success! The timeline transformed into an interactive exhibit made for kids by kids right here in our own hallways. No need for special guest presenters or field trips, and it is available around the times classes have to come engage without disrupting the entire day or routine. The posters and print outs are bright and filled with so much information. Videos were turned into QR codes, so when teachers and students come to view the “exhibit,” they bring iPads to watch the movies. Jessica Farris and John Taylor helped put it all together and fill it out to look more like an exhibit. Students shared with me over and over again how much they enjoyed it, specifically the choice of picking a topic and picking how they presented the information. They have shown their excitement when walking down the hall and showing each other their work and admiring their peers’ work. 

The students also became incredibly invested in their work. Several told me with enthusiasm they were glad I “made” them research this because they would not have known otherwise. Anna shared that when they watched one of the read-aloud videos about Ida B. Wells, two of her fourth grade boys started cheering because they had researched Wells and were so invested in her story. During one of Anna’s Morning Meetings, when she asked students to share about people that inspire them, a student responded, “The women of the 19th Amendment!” 

Program #2: Read-Alouds

The ALA and the Commission also included a suggested reading list with the donated books. It was a great list full of stories of suffragists and a celebration of female leaders. Many of the books I already had, and I was able to order some of the others. But there was no possible way for me to read all those books to students, and I couldn’t have multiple copies for every teacher. 

In the Spring, libraries and our ever vigilant fair-use specialists settled that recorded read-alouds, if unlisted and for students to use for school purposes, were line with fair use, especially since we were purchasing the books for the library. To get as many books to as many students, I decided to create a sort of “read-aloud virtual library.” I pestered my colleagues on both campuses, and the result is an amazing collection of read-alouds based off the suggested list to celebrate this centennial. So many of my colleagues thanked me for including them and shared that they enjoyed the experience, but the gratitude was truly on my side. 

We are also lucky on the South Campus to have parent and member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, Shanda Yates. I asked her to do an introductory video for the site, and she did not hesitate! 

Now, teachers and students can watch the videos and hear these amazing stories when it works for them. This method of delivery also allows for more discussion in the class and  allows students to make connections between the exhibit and the text.

Program #3: Book Give-Away

Also donated were three copies of “Around the America to Win the Vote,” one of my favorite picture books about the 19th Amendment. It is a great book, and we already had a copy in our library. Plus, these were paperbacks, which usually don’t hold up well in library circulation. So, to entice visitors to our exhibit and to view the read-alouds, we offered a giveaway to teachers. The first three to respond to my email with their first read-aloud and favorite project get a book. 


The application specifically asked how I would incorporate other voices who are often left out of the history of women’s suffrage. It is such a tough topic to cover because the 15th and 19th Amendments should have fixed things, but they didn’t, and we have to be mindful of teaching these tough topics in an age-appropriate way here on the South Campus. The fourth graders did not shy away from taking on these topics and accepting that all was not fixed in 1920, and we were able to discuss who was left behind. Students throughout the school will be exposed to this information first through the exhibit, but also through the read-alouds that tell these stories in a way that makes age-appropriate sense, but doesn’t hide the truth.

And though the programs are out in the world, it is not over yet. We’re still working on finding the best ways to share this with students at home. For now, the fourth grade Virtual Saints have an iPhone video I made, but we’re working on a way  our Saints@Home and Virtual Saints can share in this amazing work by our students and faculty. 

This was such a fun journey that I almost didn’t take because I worried about time and stress in this COVID reality. But Shea Egger pushed me and others, and I could not be more excited about the work our students produced and the stories that we are sharing. 

2020 Epic Fails

I swear, every single day of anything virtual seems to fall under epic fail in my classroom: Trip over a cord while in front of virtual and in-person kiddos? Check. Look into the wrong camera while asking students a question and they only see the back of my head? Check. Pencil sharpener going strong while I’m teaching virtual and in person? Check. Have the wrong video pulled up to present? Check. Students not on mute and having yelling siblings in the background? Check. Laugh at the end of every day and know like Scarlett O’ Hara said, “Tomorrow is another day”? CHECK!

Carla Kelly, 2nd grade

“2020, am I right?”  It’s become a mantra.  A way of explaining, with a shrug and an eye roll, that the whatever wildly unpredictable disaster that just ensued had less to do with us and more to do with the chaos that is this year.  And in this particular year, no one has a better excuse to claim the mantra than K-12 teachers.  What other occupation has been so violently disrupted in this pandemic yet remains so vitally important to the future of our society? But sometimes, because we care so deeply about what we do, it is easy to fall prey to the frustration when our best laid plans, things that we used to pull off without a hitch, go sideways because of tech or exhaustion or a combination of the two.    Here I don’t attempt to make any glib comments about how “we learn so much in failure.”  Of course we do; we all do, partially because our brains and bodies evolved to go into hyperdrive to remember, learn, and perform in moments of stress.  But that’s beside the point.  Sometimes failure just feels plain bad. And sometimes it helps to know we are not alone.  Without further ado, here are some amazing colleagues with stories of failure.  May we all be encouraged by their good humor and persistence in the face of challenge:

Margaret Clark, MS Latin, shares her story of a perfectly planned lesson GONE WRONG. We’ve all been there, friend. We’ve all been there.

Let’s just say putting a first question on a vocabulary test for third graders that asks for their names is quite important!  I will never forget having to ask 72 children to retake the test because I did not have a place for their names or emails on a Google Form.  I look back at it now and realize it is just funny, but at the time it was so embarrassing!

Carolyn Wilmesherr, 3rd grade

For my second unit in World History I this year, I think I tried too hard to shove last year’s Mesopotamia unit square peg into this year’s hybrid learning round hole.  Because planning my first unit had taken so many hours, I tried to save myself some of that time for Unit 2 by adapting old lessons and assignments to the new block schedule and hybrid/virtual environment.  It went wrong at every turn.  I realized halfway through the 2-week unit that my 9th graders were not absorbing much of anything I was trying to teach.  And it wasn’t their fault!  The way I had planned the use of class periods and homework assignments felt choppy and was only detracting from the already-inconsistent and hectic feel of school right now.  And activities that worked in a 50-minute period with all students in person, were taking twice as long in the hybrid environment. They weren’t learning, I was miserable, and by trying to save myself time I had actually created more work for myself. So I did something that felt very un-teacherly…I cancelled the essay they were supposed to write at the end of the unit, let them work on some stand-alone exercises for a couple of days…and then I started over.  I spent a (very long!) weekend rethinking a system that would work better for the kids and for me.  It forced me to break away from some old lessons that, frankly, I probably needed to drop years ago. And I finally implemented some methods I had learned about in the Global Online Academy classes I took this summer.  Things like creating a rhythm for each class period that was consistent from day-to-day and giving the kids a “menu” of assignments that allowed them to have some choice and agency in planning their days and got them off their computers for part of every period.  This time, about a week into the 2-week unit, I realized things were going pretty well!  The kids seemed to be adjusting to the new schedule and assignments, I felt like I had a better rapport with them.  It wasn’t perfect, there are things I will continue to adjust every unit.  But it was working, I felt a hint of “normal” school again.  I’m a person who HATES change. So I’ll confess that only that failure would have forced me to make the substantive changes I no know are necessary for my class to work this year. 

Emily Jones, 9th Grade History

Where do I start?!  First: There was the first 4th grade class where I forgot to turn on the mic and in the middle of class the teacher returned to tell me a parent had called and the kids could see me but couldn’t hear me! Second: Same day as the 4th grade oops! I was in 1st grade and didn’t want to have the same problem so I tried to make sure it didn’t happen and wound up turning off the camera. Third: Again 4th grade and add 3rd to the mix-up.  I had taught 4th grade and “thought” I had left their meeting – went to 3rd grade and began teaching, thinking I had joined their meeting.  15 minutes later Greg Buyon came in and informed me I was still in the 4th grade meeting, teaching 3rd grade science to them.  

Kathy Vial, 1st-4th Science
Emmi Sprayberry, US art, shares her stories of being a “repeat offender” in epic fails. #RELATABLE

I was giving a spelling test to 12 students in-person and 9 virtually. I created a google doc for at-home children to type call-out words, and a space for dictation. I thought I had turned spell-check off for this document, but I hadn’t. I got through 15 call-out words before one of my virtual students sent a message to me in the chat box: “Mrs. Howard, spell check is fixing all of the words I spell wrong”. 100s for everyone. 

Dalton Howard, 3rd Grade

Teaching hybrid is a lot like being a first year teacher.  You plan and plan, keeping in mind that you’re not only trying to engage the kids in front of you, but you also have to have a way for the kids at home to participate in the lesson.  And, of course, all of this depends on a reliable link to the internet, because if you don’t have that, all your best plans come to a screeching halt.  So here I was, working really hard to keep all the balls in the air:  Jamboard link set to “anyone in the network can edit” – CHECK!; computer linked to the apple TV so that the in-person kids can see their at-home classmates – CHECK!; ipad hooked into the google meet and streaming the class view so that the kids at home can feel like they’re part of the in-person action – CHECK!; computer plugged in because battery life is…well, you know! – CHECK!; breakout rooms created and students assigned – CHECK!; Google Classroom, syllabus, jamboard – all the tabs I’ll need set up in a new browser so that I can simply share a window without losing the view of all my at-home kids – CHECK!  And here come the kids, both at-home and in-person!  Suddenly, the at-home kids are saying they can’t hear me…well, maybe every third word.  This is the moment when you can lose it all as a teacher; do you simply “call it a day” and let the kids do their homework in class??  NO!  We’re better than that, right?  Luckily, during workshop week when we were testing the technology, our Upper School Head tried calling into the meeting and then using his phone as the audio communication device.  Of course, it took some trial and error to realize that all other devices had to be muted (the initial feedback was brutal!) but IT WORKED!  The lesson went off without another hitch.  Like we say, “Find a way, or make one!”

Linda Rodriguez, US Faculty & Virtual Saints Catalyst
Catherine Bishop tells the story of her fabulous plan to empower her dance students to help each other. It worked great the first time, but the second time around . . . not so smooth. I literally just had the same problem with a google meet recording last week, Catherine!

Epic fail last week… every time we move classes, we log in to that homeroom’s meet link. One day I was in Frame’s class and logged on to start my class. I was soooo confused… because, I saw Mrs. Pace in my meet! I thought to myself, wow, Susan really got mixed up and is in the wrong class! Turns out, I had logged in to Jimenez’s link instead of Frame’s link and I WAS THE ONE WHO WENT TO THE WRONG LINK! It got both classes, including us teachers, laughing hysterically.

Val Dembny, 4th grade math.

Many thanks to all of you for sharing these (oh so relatable) moments with all of us. May we all hold tight to the fact that we can only do the best that we can, that grace centers us in our imperfections, and that the most glorious part of being human is found not in our flawlessness but our ability to tell the story of our failures to our friends, laugh, and be possessed with the radical audacity to get back up and try again.

5 Big Ideas for Teaching & Learning During this Election Season

Idea 1: Take some time to reflect on your role in helping students navigate these times.

  • PD Café: Reflect on your role as a faculty member in challenging class conversations with these professional development questions/activities from the Fall 2016 issue of Teaching Tolerance .
  • Teach 2016: This feature from the Fall 2016 issue of Teaching Tolerance addresses five common questions and concerns educators have about teaching the election. 
  • Political Discussion Belongs in Our Classroom: Read about one teacher’s belief that classrooms should be a safe space for expressing political opinions. (all grades)
  • Shifting Out of Neutral: A history teacher discusses leaving the struggle for objectivity behind and encouraging students to consider multiple perspectives. (all grades)
  • Join the Heterodox Academy, a group of educators, administrators, and graduate students who believe diverse viewpoints and open inquiry are critical to research and learning.  Explore their tools and resources here. (While this is mostly directed to faculty in higher education, you may find much useful in your own practice.)
  • Check out this piece “Vote of Confidence: When it Comes to Teaching the 2020 Election, Educators Have a Plan”

Idea 2:  Help youth understand the election process. 

  • Center for Civic Education (bit.ly/3eFWd64, K-12) offers lesson plans on voting and presidential elections.
  • iCivics (K-12) has curriculum units and lesson plans on topics including citizenship and participation, the electoral process, voting by mail, and primaries, parties, caucuses, and conventions. Also games: “Cast Your Vote” and “Win the White House.” iCivics produced new material specifically for the 2020 election  and offers remote learning strategies and resources.
  • Library of Congress (LOC) Elections…the American Way (Grades 5-12) provides information about the election process, right to vote, and past presidential campaigns. Another LOC page (Grades 3-12) offers election-related lesson plans created by teachers.
  • The National Education Association (PreK-Grade 12) offers lessons, activities, and resources.
  • The Anti-Defamation League elections resource (Grades 6-12) includes a social justice approach to teaching about elections, a guide to debate watching, strategies for handling difficult topics and conversations, and teaching about the inauguration.
  • PBS LearningMedia Election Central (Grades 6-12) helps teachers and students keep up with election news and learn the history and process of presidential elections, with videos, activities, and lesson plans.
  • PebbleGo Vote (K-Grade 2) will be live in mid-September with lessons about democracy and voting and a platform for students to vote for president in a mock election that begins in October and ends on Election Day. This resource will be available for anyone, not just subscribers. PebbleGo also provides a Voting in Democracy lesson and activity (bit.ly/3eIrs0u).
  • Scholastic Election 2020 (Grade 3-12) has articles, teacher resources, quizzes, activities, candidate bios, and the Scholastic Student Vote, which allows kids to cast their ballots for president.

Idea 3: Foster respectful class conversations.

Idea 4:  Provide tools for students to interrogate their own deeply-held beliefs.

Idea 5: Empower students to be active citizens to make the world better.

  • Dosomething.org: An organization that supports the work of young people who want to make a difference in their world.
  • Educational Video Center: Teachers youth the skills of documentary filmmaking to tell stories about issues that matter to them. 
  • Voting in Your Town:  This action-based task includes teacher instructions, student handouts and a rubric. (middle and high school)
  • Rock the Vote:  This story from the Fall 2016 issue of Teaching Tolerance explains how teachers can involve students in the democratic process—even under the age of 18. (high school)
  •  The Young and the Registered: This story profiles organizations dedicated to voter registration and mobilization and discusses how to inspire the next generation of voters. Includes a related webinar. (high school)
  • Do Something Tasks: Do Something performance tasks allow students to build civic engagement awareness and demonstrate their critical literacy skills. (all grades)
  • Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot  Viewer’s Guide: Included with the Selma film kit, this viewer’s guide provides background information, discussion questions and lessons. (middle and high school)
  • Rock the Vote’s Democracy Class: This interactive lesson plan includes a mock election exercise to equip young people with the skills they need to navigate the political process. (middle and high school)
  • League of Women Voter’s Voter Registration Training: This manual includes a step-by-step guide to help you develop successful high school voter registration programs. (high school)
  • Campus Vote Project’s Student Guides: With this interactive map of the United States, students can see state-specific guides on how to register and cast a ballot. (high school and higher education)
  • The New Deciders: This episode of America by the Numbers with Maria Hinojosa explores the voting power of four demographic groups: black millennials, Arab Americans, Latino evangelicals and Asian Americans. The accompanying lesson urges students to research and support voting in their communities. (grades 6-12)
  • Speak Up At School: This guide offers advice about how to respond to biased remarks and provides guidance for helping students learn to speak up as well. Check out the related webinar. (all grades)
  • The News Literacy Project: Help students become informed citizens with these educational resources created by teachers and seasoned journalists. (middle and high school)
  • OER Commons Election and Voting Teacher Resources (K-12) has a future voter toolkit, curated lesson plans, and classroom materials.

i2: A Year in Review

We are a month in the 2020-2021 school year. It is almost impossible that we are truly one month in. 

One year and one month ago we threw t-shirts out into a crowd of laughing faculty. “You get a t-shirt” we shouted. “Failure IS an option!” we shouted. “I2! INNOVATE. INSPIRE.” We sat next to each other in the CPA, shoulder to shoulder.  We shouted without even thinking about the stream of particles that flew from face to face. We rubbed our eyes without a second thought. We entered and exited rooms without even a nod toward sanitizing surfaces or looking for hand sanitizer.

One year and a month ago we had summer share outs during a Wed morning PD.  We collided across North Campus, smushing into rooms.  We learned about alternative writing instruction, lessons from grading AP tests.  We practiced drum beats and meditation sitting in tight circles. We smiled, high fived, shook hands.  We were busy, we were tired, but we were confident about the year ahead. 

Seven months ago we had an afternoon of faculty-led demos during our “Innovation Exhibition.” We grabbed some soup and sandwiches before beginning from a communal buffet and we split brownies in half to share using the serving fork. Thus fueled, you taught your colleagues the way you taught your students, eyes twinkling at the absurdity of the set up.  You led them, so many of you, across all divisions. We packed into rooms without regard for how many feet spaced out our bodies, chairs, desks. We acted out fairy tales, had robust Harkness discussions, played like we were in space ships, had frenzied gamified competitions on our phones, and huddled around smart boards in the i2 lab to learn about apps. 

Then March hit.  Then Spring Break hit.  Then our worlds unraveled before us. 

Teaching became something different.  We huddled together, though virtually.  We tentatively strapped on masks.  We packed up our stuff and communed through screens, so many screens.  Home became work.  Work became home.  We found ourselves drained.  We found ourselves exhilarated.  Some Lunch & Learns were visceral think tanks of positivity.  Others were slow and sad and “can we do this?”  We relied on our friends.  We relied on Megan, Chris, Ray, Noah.  We relied on our department chairs.  We relied on our students. We relied on anyone more tech savvy than us.  We missed our students.  (They missed us . . . and each other.) We saw them and heard their voices, but they seemed so far away.  We missed our classrooms.  Every day blurred into the next.  Our head’s ached from the screen usage.  We hoped we were doing this right.  So many of us did so much more than we ever imagined we could. (See upper school faculty reflections here and middle school faculty reflections here.)

This summer was strange.  We pledged to refresh and re-energize.  But the constant uncertainty, the inability to imagine the first day of school: the format, the feel, the state of all of us within it . . . it plagued us.  We made copious unit plans.  We erased them.  We read blogs.  We watched the nation around us sizzle and fry in the hot sun.  The heat was indicative of truth and clarity.  The world seemed to wake up to inequity.  Some had been awake for awhile.  Some had never been able to sleep at all.   We watched the numbers.  Oh the numbers.  The numbers played games with our minds.  “Whoa- the spike of cases in July” “What about the positivity rates?” We predicted.  We guessed. We planned because that is what we do.  We plan with no assurances.  We plan to carve out a small world that makes sense.  We plan to survive. 

We are a month in. We have masks stuffed everywhere: our cars, classrooms, school bags, purses.  Our eyes immediately find the hand sanitizer in every room we enter. We feel naked, vulnerable, with our mouths uncovered.  We find ourselves exhausted after one class of talk-shouting through the mask.  We tell children again and again, “let’s leave a little more space.” We are now so good with finding our device’s with audio input.  Our students are masters of making google meets.  Our minds are never just one place.  They are at the very least split in two, bi-polar, one side thinking “what are the students at home doing” and the other eye on the in-person students.  We are doing things with iPads and stands and clouds and platforms that we never in a million years would have imagined.  

We never meant this when we said Innovate & Inspire.  If we knew this is what would come, I would have voted we name the movement something that tempts fate less, like “t2 … tradition and teaching.” And yet and yet and yet.  Born of necessity.  No phrase can better encapsulate the last several months: “Failure is an option.” No two words could better describe what has transpired.  “Innovate. Inspire.”  We have learned in the past five or six months that innovation has less to do with shiny and more to do with survival.  We do not innovate to impress.  We do not innovate because we swim in an excess of privilege.  We innovate because we must continue.  We innovate because (1) sometimes innovation is the only way we can continue to do what we’ve always done and (2) sometimes to continue to do what we’ve always done simply won’t work.  Inspiration looks different than we imagined too, but is no less a transcendent force.  Inspiration isn’t all smiles and energy and gush.  More often, inspiration happens in between tears, brief sunshine poking through clouds of frustration. 

I myself have felt disoriented/untethered until last week when I started a new iteration of my “teacher wall of awesomeness.”  Last year, I blogged about how I began this practice of using the writable surface behind my desk to track just a percentage of the amazing work I saw as I went from classroom to classroom.  This year, though I am a year wiser, I am no less starry-eyed. 

Beginning again: Fall 2020 Teacher Wall of Awesome

I have only been in a handful or two of classrooms, just two weeks of visits, and my concept map celebration already runneth over. Sure sometimes tech lags and audio breaks up. But you all are hosting virtual tours of spaces, empowering youth to do more collaborative work on google docs/slides than you ever did before, and finding ways to sneak in choice and check for mastery all at the same time.

My “Wall of Teacher Awesomeness” reminds me too that although so much has changed since last year, so much has stayed the same. . . namely you all, the incredibly faculty that make it happen every day in every mode and rhythm and schedule that life presents. 

May we continue to share stories on this blog, and may they be equal parts success and failure, equal parts “this is not sustainable” and “may this thing sustain you.”  We are all made up of those parts: the hard truth and the surviving, the drive to make the world a better place and the resolve to demand that others join to make it so.   

i2 Resources for You: Wellness Edition

“We are rescued by love when someone bequeaths dignity, worth, recognition, gratitude upon us, encouragement for us because of who we are and what we do. We simply cannot grasp this alone: that we are precious, and amazing, and of inestimable value, unless this truth is mirrored into our being by another person. We need to give and receive support and encouragement for one another as ‘daily bread’.” 

Br. Curtis Almquist, Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Sept. 20, 2019 https://www.ssje.org/

We end this July series of “i2 Resources for You” with the theme of Wellness. Going into this pandemic-clouded, socially ripe but turbulent time, there is absolutely no more relevant, no more crucial, no more challenging call than to nourish wellness within ourselves as faculty knowing that our wellness impacts our students and all individual wellness impacts the whole teaching/learning experience. After all, we can teach students all of the things that we want them to know, but at the end of the day, if they don’t leave our classes feeling more confident, more in control, more able to handle challenges, and more valued than they did before they entered it, then what have we gained? Today’s resources come to you from the amazing Lauren Powell, Upper School Counselor and Director of Wellness. 

We have all been changed in small and big ways by the many current events in the world and our students (whether on a video chat or in-person) this fall will be fundamentally different than those that filled our seats last August.  Anxiety levels are at an all-time high, and youth are quite rational in wondering if their futures will look radically different than they had initially imagined, as are adults.  As faculty we don’t have all the answers, but we can use our fields of discipline (whether they involve statistics, peer reviewed science articles, understanding human behavior, critically analyzing written words, or contextualizing current events by understanding the past) as a springboard for addressing the big questions and uncertainties ahead.  And we can do so in ways that recognize our needs, and the varied needs of the human beings around us. We hope these offerings are a good reminder that ultimately we are “human beings” not “human doings.”  

Things to listen to

Things to read: 

  • Quick read on what you might expect from students (and how you might respond) this fall: COVID-19’s Impact on Students’ Academic and Mental Wellbeing
  • If you feel like you need a boost and are in the mood for some inspirational teaching philosophy, check out this blog: “Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto.”  Although it’s written from the perspective of a history college professor, we think it would resonate with many. 

Things to watch: 

Something to browse:

  • Check out this set of CASEL CARES resources which feature the intersection of SEL (socio-emotional learning) and COVID-19.  Key takeaway: Focus first on secure relationships and emotional safety, and prioritize social and emotional competence alongside academics as fundamental to quality education.

A Thing to subscribe to:

A Webinar to attend:

  • CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) offers weekly webinars.  On 7/31, you can tune in to : “Starting an Unprecedented School Year with SEL to Reunite, Renew, and Thrive”

A personal tool for wellness: Wheel of Wellness Activity

Tools to use for your classroom


Featuring Dean Julius!

Wellness, to me, is more than considering our physical and mental health. Wellness is active. It requires mindfulness of ourselves and others.

I’m an active meditator, it’s something I have found a lot of healing from and I can’t recommend it enough. Meditation saved my life, frankly. There are numerous meditation apps out there to help the newbies among us, but simply taking 10 minutes to sit down in a quiet place and just be, just breathe, is something we can all do without an app. You don’t need to understand zen to find moments of it. And I’m always around if anyone wants a brain to pick about meditating. But if you’re looking for apps to try: Headspace and Calm are both great. There’s also another great app called SuperBetter by scholar and videogamer Jane McGonigal that turns wellness and improving our lives into a neat little video game! Check it out!

The other thing I would recommend is the importance of being mindful of our neighbors and their wellness in these trying times, both with respect to COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter. At the end of the day, in my view, the mental and physical health of others impacts our health. Which means doing everything we can to mitigate the spread of this virus. And educating ourselves to be better neighbors, colleagues, and friends. Some things I watched recently that I think everyone should see: I Am Not Your Negro, 13th, and Detroit were all great films available on Netflix. I’m also reading So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo and have Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi in my docket to read once I’m done with Oluo’s book. 


Have you got a different favorite resource related to teaching/learning with wellness in mind?  Do you want to be featured in any of the upcoming teaching/learning emails with a recommendation of your own?  Reach out!  

With gratitude for all you do,

Lauren, Julie, and Dean

i2 Resources for You: Innovation Edition

This year is going to be interesting. After looking at all the possibilities and combinations of plans, I built a mission statement. Resources are not unlimited. Time is in short supply. Making decisions requires clear and understandable guidelines. This year to be ready for what could happen the mission is for every workflow, resource, and solution to meet this criteria:

Work @Home

Manage @Home

Value @Home

We are innovating outside of the normal spaces we rely on, and developing ideas that transcend physical boundaries to provide a level of access and accountability that are flexible. 

-Tony DePrato, Chief Technology Officer

Sometimes the word “innovation” carries with it an air of the utopian, the gratuitous.  Shiny, sleek, impressive tools merge with brilliant minds and flawless ideas.  But really most of the time, innovation is actually something more down to earth and a whole lot more human.  Innovation is about taking the tools, materials, people, and goals you have, and making do.  It is about adapting to fit ever-evolving circumstances and needs.  Put simply, innovation is about survival.  If this is indeed the case, it seems to me that as we consider the fall semester with all of the uncertainties surrounding COVID, in person instruction, and virtual instruction, we could all use a dose of innovation.

 That’s what today’s email is about — a series of resources to help you think about the various possible challenges that will hit us this fall alongside teaching/learning tools and approaches that might make your job easier and more effective.  Because none of us are interested in innovation if it’s just for show, but we all want to do our job with as many tools and knowledge bases that we can have at our disposal. 

Things to read:

Things to listen to

Things to watch:

  • Take five minutes to check out how educators (from math to history) integrated blended learning, self-paced-structure, and mastery learning  “A Student-Centered Model of Blended Learning
  • Will you be creating short videos for students to view on their own time?  Check out this less-than-two-minute video for some tips on how to make them effective. 
  • Concerned about how you are going to accommodate students that are in-person alongside students that are live-streaming from home? Here is a short example of a very doable class activity that uses a google doc as a central navigation tool. 

 Things to browse:

Things to subscribe to: 

Tools to use:

  • Remember hearing your colleagues talk about the same few tools during last Spring’s Lunch & Learns but feeling like you didn’t have the time or energy to try them out? Maybe this fall is your time!:

Things to do:

  • Don’t forget to “take two for i2” before Workshop Week to share on Flipgrid what you’ve learned from building up your technology skills this summer!
  • Want to try something new that will work well in both in-person and virtual formats?  Considering implementing “playlists” into your fall plans. 
  • Feeling shaky about how to best assess student learning when they are online? Sign up for this Global Online Academy Course Designing for Online Learning: Assessment by 6pm CST on 8/6.
  •  Begin to build out your Google Classroom or MySA pages with these emerging and unfinished guidelines in mind.  As you do so, think about this design as the hub for all of your students, both online and face-to-face, to get a sense of your course and what is expected when.  Ask yourself these questions as you go:
    • Can a student look quickly at my page and understand how the unit is organized?
    • Have I leveraged visual and textual elements (labels/categories, images, white space, icons, lines, etc.) to clearly distinguish between individual tasks (chunks)?
  • Build out assignment sheets and rubrics for the fall with clarity in mind. (Here is a SAMPLE exemplar.)  Make sure you answer the following questions:
  1. Who is doing the work?
  2. What is the intended outcome?
  3. Where is the work done?
  4. When is it due?
  5. Why is it important?
  6. How is it to be completed?


(Featuring Emily Philpott!)

I came across this cult of pedagogy blog post over the weekend and think it is worth sharing.  The title “9 Ways Online Teaching Should Be Different From Face-to-Face Learning” speaks to its relevance. It has some good ideas and echoes much of what we are doing at SA…yay! 

Also, have you heard the term “dogfooding” before? It was used in the post. If not, check this out! I didn’t know there was a name for it, but think it is good practice, especially if students will be completing the assignments on their own during virtual learning. 

Another resource I regularly read is the The Effortful Educator is a blog that focuses on applying cognitive science to the classroom. Written by a fellow AP Psychology teacher, I find his work to be relevant not only to my psychology course but to all teaching and learning. Right now there is a series called “Ask a Researcher”  but it is worth going back to look at some of the blog posts from earlier in the year. If you are looking for ways to innovate, I encourage you to subscribe!

i2 Resources for You: Inclusivity Edition

Every student in our classroom has the ability to engage with the material and ideas we present.  Allowing  choices and student agency in how they demonstrate their knowledge and abilities might just blow your mind–in a good way.  Research has shown again and again that those with learning issues that might prevent them from being successful in traditional classroom models and thus be labeled failures, are often some of our most creative and pioneering contributors to society. Let’s help them build their creativity and passions now.” 

 -Hollie Marjanovic, Upper School Learning Facilitator-

The teaching/learning word of the week is inclusivity.  It’s a big word with a big mission: to work toward a classroom in which all students, regardless of their learning differences, racial identity, cultural affiliation, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, religious preferences, (the list could go on) experience a warm sense of belonging, a certainty that all voices are not only accepted in a school space but are nurtured and supported so they can engage confidently as crucial pieces of the tapestry making up every single classroom. 

 Our St. Andrew’s expert of the week is the wonderful Hollie Marjanovic, our Upper School Learning Facilitator (and so much more), so our special inclusivity focus of the week will be strategies for accommodating students with learning differences . . . specifically ADHD, the most prevalent diagnosis among students at St. Andrew’s.  Below is a short list of resources that can help you better understand the challenges our youth face and cultivate classrooms that set up all students for success.  For more, check out the amazing webpage with curated resources by our Student Support Services Department (MySA/Faculty/Resources/Student Support Services).

A thing to read:

  • Interested in a book that will push you beyond a “one size fits all” teaching philosophy? Mel Levin’s A Mind at a Time will invigorate you to look at each student in your classroom as distinct, with their own specific strengths, weaknesses, and learning patterns.
  • Want to set up predictable routines and communication to help all students succeed but feeling anxious about how to do so with the uncertainty of the fall?  Check out this short Edutopia post:“How to Plan When you Don’t Know What to Plan For” 
  • Want some broader inclusivity strategies? Check out this short piece: “Creating an Inclusive Classroom.” 

 A thing to listen to

 A thing to watch:

  • Only got five minutes?  Watch this Adolescents with ADHD Youtube to get a sense of what it is like to live and go to school with ADHD.

 A thing to browse:

A thing to subscribe to: 

  • For a potpourri of conversations (e.g. what did we learn during COVID-19 distance learning to better support students on the spectrum?) subscribe to  Inclusive Education Project Podcast

 A thing to do:  

  • Make a questionnaire to give to your students on the first day of school. Ask them to share something(s) they wish all teachers knew about them.  


I came upon this podcast [“Hidden Brain”] from NPR, and, just like a wonderful book, I had to share it. The podcast focuses on understanding human behavior to provide a comprehensive outlook on issues arising in contemporary times. This could be a great cultural tool since the podcast also offers study guides for MS, US studentsHere’s one of my favorite episodes on how rules are regarded in different societies.  As conversations on stress, politics, pandemic, and ethnicity have become more relevant in our midst, I thought we could use it to share the stories, people’s perspectives, and the scientists’ take on human behavior. Perhaps we can incorporate it in the classroom or to share it to a wider audience.

i2 Resources for You: Diversity/Equity Edition

 “We as a faculty not only are teaching and preparing our students to be leaders in the world, but want them to know they are seen, valued, and heard in our classrooms. We want them to know that this is not just a safe space but it is also a brave space.” 

 -Sarah Spann,  Diversity & Inclusion Coordinator

This week’s theme is all over the news, but has always been at the heart of our school’s mission: teaching/learning with diversity/equity in mind. Many old-new words coalesce in this landscape: multicultural education, culturally relevant/culturally sustaining education, teaching toward social justice, and perhaps the new favorite: anti-racist pedagogy.  If you are like me you’ve been receiving idea after idea and resource after resource in relation to these aims and that can get overwhelming.  Here’s a short list of some of our favorites:

A thing to read:

A thing to listen to

 A thing to watch:

  • Explore the disparity in educational opportunities in Teach Us All, a documentary currently streaming on Netflix.

 A thing to use:

A thing to subscribe to: 

A thing to do:  

Check your syllabus, required texts, textbooks, or curricula with an eye toward the question: “Whose voices, histories, and production of knowledge are represented/valued?  Whose are not?”  Then, add in a new text/resources/topic into your syllabus or plan for the fall to broaden the perspectives represented in your course.


This spring, in community with the Millsaps College Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Center’s group for educators, I read Dr. Bettina Love’s We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. Weaving together history, memoir, critical theory, and pedagogy, Dr. Love advances the argument for “an abolitionist pursuit to educational freedom,” and abolitionist teaching “built on the creativity, imagination, boldness, ingenuity, and rebellious spirit and methods of abolitionists to demand and fight for an education system where all students are thriving, not simply surviving.” This text pushed me to examine the systems and structures of education and myself as an educator, and how we uphold and perpetuate white supremacy and harm Black students, Indigenous students, and Students of Color. Simultaneously, it taught me about and called me to radically imagine education that supports and uplifts all students. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. You can learn more about Dr. Bettina Love’s book and work at her website and through the Abolitionist Teaching Network.

Safe Spaces Aren’t Enough

In this time of unprecedented challenge to the norms of society, I have been thinking of how to create space in my classroom for discussions about social justice and equity.  Is creating a “safe space” enough?  I think it’s not.  Safe spaces are great in that they allow marginalized students to share their experiences without the fear of being ridiculed or socially punished, but they don’t allow us to have difficult conversations which push us to the edge of our comfort zones in order to grow.  

Authentic learning about issues of social justice is uncomfortable.  It requires risk, discomfort, controversy, and exposure.  For those of us in non-marginalized groups, hearing challenges to our world view can bring emotions such as fear, sorrow, guilt and anger.  In a safe space there may not be room to explore these feelings and the historic genesis of them which can lead to resistance or denial.  Where’s the transformative power in that?

Can we, instead, talk about brave spaces?  These are classrooms where we expect to feel some discomfort; we expect to be challenged; we expect to feel supported.  In brave spaces, the teachers and students collaborate on ground rules and then abide by those rules in discussions.  Students are empowered to pointedly challenge each other and the teacher when topics are difficult; they own both their intentions and their impact on others; conversations are civil and the respect that this civility demands is one generated from mindfulness.

In brave space classrooms, students feel emboldened to leap into discussions with their own perspectives, knowing that the teacher and their classmates will provide them a safe place to land.  Lines of communication flow both from teacher to student and from student to teacher.  We are still in the “driver’s seat” of the class, but the difference is that we allow our students to take the wheel too – we give them the power to learn from each other’s experiences and teach them the value of their own narrative.  In this scenario, we will all have opportunities to feel the breaking of personal viewpoints, but we will also see the power of regeneration as we knit new information and perspective into a more complete version of the truth.

Maybe our classrooms can be both safe AND brave.  In this way we can honor and protect all of our students.



Living Our Motto: Virtual Learning at the Lower School

“We will find a way, or we will make one”.  We at the Lower School have repeated this St. Andrew’s motto in countless meetings over the years, encouraging each other when faced with various challenges or new initiatives.  However, in my 4 years at St. Andrew’s, I’ve never seen our motto lived out quite like I have during these last few months.  I’ll never forget March 16, 2020 and what it felt like as I walked the campus with Dawn Wilson, our fearless head of lower school, to meet with teams in an effort to find a way to move to virtual learning or make one.  Our amazing teachers- folks who find energy from one another through close proximity and collaboration- were spread out along hallways and classrooms, practicing the 6 feet of social distancing that was so foreign to us then.  Hallways were silent, cubbies were empty, and desks– full of students’ supplies, materials, and belongings– looked just as they did when children excitedly scattered for Spring Break.  A sadness hung over us as we walked the empty school buildings, but as we entered every classroom, we were continuously met with determined faculty members, greeting us with smiles and words of encouragement and confidence in our collective ability to launch virtual learning.  My own anxiety about the situation subsided as I met with these amazing people throughout the day who were steadfast in finding a way or making a way to: reach 3- and 4- year-olds virtually, continue morning meetings via Google Hangouts, gather and sanitize chrome books and ensure equity for families, bag supplies so students were prepared, continue teaching content and skills, support every family from a distance, among a multitude of other details that matter tremendously to teachers who dearly love their students.

As we settled into the new virtual world of education in the weeks to follow, I had the humbling privilege of maintaining a continuous line of communication with our faculty who were on the front lines pouring every ounce of energy into serving our students and families. We’ve collaborated on ways to organize online content, build virtual assessments, create projects that are screen-free, create virtual classroom management plans, and sometimes just have venting sessions about how hard this all is. Before the pandemic, I was already aware that I work among the most incredible professionals, hands-down, but little did I know, these creative, talented, and passionate folks could also find a way or make one through a global pandemic.  The teachers will tell you firsthand that this hasn’t been an easy journey, but we’ve made it through together and are finishing this school year with even more confidence to live out our motto, no matter what challenges may lie ahead. 

PK4 teachers planning for virtual learning, pandemic style.

What have you learned generally about best practices in teaching during the past few months?

Getting the chance to check in with students who struggle one on one has been impactful not only on their learning but also on my teaching. I’ve imagined keeping a line open for students as we transition back to in-person. They could email me and, when appropriate, we could meet on a Hangout to discuss their concerns. (Susan Pace, 3rd Grade)

The past month has reinforced the benefit of having a working knowledge of your curriculum and a long-range plan for implementing it.  With this current and in place, when moving to distance learning – although challenging – I could navigate through a framework and outline already in use.   Additionally, archiving online lessons regularly emailed from professional organizations and former clinicians proved to be an invaluable resource when needed. (Susan Lawler, ECC Music)

Face to face time is so important.  Although you can see each other virtually, it’s not the same as being together in person.  Attention spans are not as long as they would be if we were face to face.  I’ve missed the games we played, the carpet time, the greetings and hugs, and so much more that comes with being together in person. (Kerri Black, 2nd Grade)

It is very important for Kindergarten students to learn to communicate with a variety of styles, talking, body gestures, and face expressions as they learn to read speakers’ body languages along with speaking words. Students missed opportunities to recognize some of the communication expressions. As a  teacher, it is so hard to pick up immediate reactions and responses from students on small pictures of their faces. (Junko Bramlett, Kindergarten)

This past month has been a learning curve for all of us, but we needed to remember to stay positive and adjust in such a quick turn around. I am super impressed with what we have put together as a team and am very proud of how SA accommodated the new situation and navigates online learning. Virtual learning has made me appreciate the simple things, like getting a good morning hug from my students, eating lunch in the cafeteria and not having to think about what to cook, sunshine during recess, or simply the socializing in the hallway after school. (Valerie Dembny, 4th Grade Math)

The past month or so has reshaped my teaching in many ways. One important thing Distance Learning reminded me was to “keep it simple.” Even though I wouldn’t wish for a pandemic for such a reminder, it was necessary to filter out distractions that took away from the main goal. What was left was exactly what our students (and teachers) needed to continue education during this time. Most importantly I’ve learned that my introverted self needs people, especially young people. (Mary McCall McArthur, 1st Grade)

I have some of the most wonderful conversations with some of the children in a one-on-one Meet. My takeaway on that is to remember the importance of utilizing all these (full group, small group, and individual time) also in the classroom. I know this is always the goal but sometimes we are so busy with 19 students it feels like there’s not enough time. There’s always a way to rethink how to secure those group and individual times. (Saana Watson, Kindergarten)

What platforms have you tried that you loved?

I think the power of a Google Hangout meeting, with which all my students will be quite familiar, will be a handy tool to use in addition to, or in lieu of, synchronous learning on campus, if a situation arises that warrants it. In addition, a Zoom meeting could also be particularly useful with dance. (Catherine Bishop)

I have loved hearing the children’s learning when they turn in activities on Seesaw. A lot of the activities have voice recording so I hear the learning going on with the child and the interaction with their parents. It has been so beautiful to hear the excitement, inquisitiveness, and sometime frustration in a child’s voice, but then to hear the parent’s love and guidance with their child has been a gift. (Kim Sewell, PK4)

Something I’m excited about is incorporating technology for future classes. Using an app like FlipGrid will be a fun way to show parents snip-its from the class day. Using voice-to-text in a Google Doc will be an excellent tool for my young writers who have marvelous ideas but lack the writing or spelling stamina to physically write such stories. (Mary McCall McArthur, 1st Grade)

Teaching 3 year olds virtually is very challenging! Having lots of games ready to go was key! In PK3 we used the SeeSaw app, and in our class we encouraged everyone to post. It was amazing to see what my students did! (Cab Green, PK3)

One thing I would like to continue doing is Google Forms! They are a quick and easy assessment and can be graded automatically- how cool! (Mary Grace Jimenez, 4th Grade Math)

Using Google Classroom/Google Meet has been something I will continue to incorporate in my teaching. I also will continue Screencastify. But the face to face time is so important in making those connections with students. It’s just as important for them as it is for me! (Carla Kelly, 2nd Grade)

My favorite tool to use these days is screen share, as it is an easy way to see each other’s screens and things make a lot more sense when you can actually see what the other person is talking about. (Valerie Dembny, 4th Grade Math)

Students use Flipgrid to post assignments, give and receive feedback, and stay connected with friends.

Now it’s on to your favorite subject, bragging about your students!  How have they responded to the past few months?

One of my favorite things is from a writing lesson Mrs. Morris planned for the first grade. The directions stated their stories had to be a fantasy/fictional piece that contained a main character, problem, and solution. The assignments built upon each other over two weeks. I was surprised to see my students sticking with the process. Because they did, there were some quality and imaginative stories. One student wrote “Steve Makes a Mistake.” It’s about this villager who undergoes a series of unfortunate events, ultimately ending with a “respawning” from a tragic death and an apology from Steve. It was an emotional rollercoaster of a piece, but again, a nod to technology giving my students a chance to whole-heartedly commit to a writing piece they are proud of! (Mary McCall McArthur, 1st Grade)

Here is just a short list of new skills these 9- and 10-year olds have gained within the brief time span: sending and receiving emails, using Google classroom, posting assignments, utilizing Google slides/Google docs/Google sheets, submitting photos of their work, recording videos explaining their thinking, typing, FlipGrid, Google Earth, creating and using chats and hangouts, holding small group virtual meetings, and and and… We are proud of our students’ desire to continue to do well, persevere through technical difficulties, and have a positive attitude. We have felt an overwhelming support from parents in most cases and hope that given the circumstances, we were able to give our students exactly what they needed: enough challenge without being pushed too hard. These fourth graders have earned not only the courage award, but any other award that is out there! Keep it up little friends! (Valerie Dembny, 4th Grade Math)

Ms. Dembny’s students are all smiles as they connect during synchronous class time.

Students really did an outstanding job of creating their ocean research project presentations! Parents recorded them presenting their research and their creativity was really exciting to see. (Carla Kelly, 2nd Grade)

This past month has shown me that our students are capable of SO much. Once they are taught anything tech related, they can do it after. (Mary Grace Jimenez, 4th Grade Math)

My students have surprised me with the detail they have put into their work.  Much of our work is “May Do’s”, but I have found that so many of mine have really gotten into them.  I have seen creativity expand immensely because students now have the time to be creative.  There’s no rushing to after school activities or birthday parties or everyday tasks and duties.  While I know we all miss that, this time to slow down has resulted in truly amazing moments that I hope all of my students will look back on fondly for years to come. (Kerri Black, 2nd Grade)

I was surprised anytime a student completed any of our suggestions for the week, especially since co-curricular classes were optional. (Catherine Bishop, 1st-4th Grade Little Chapel)

Students creating a cooking challenge video for our math measurement unit were fantastic. We’re also beginning to see some different ways students are toying around. with the geometry challenge. I’ve noticed they are hungry for “away from screens” projects. As much as I’m ready for summer, I wish I had another week to try some new things with them. (Susan Pace, 3rd Grade)

It has been a real challenge in some ways but rewarding in talking with the children and seeing how resilient they can be. The change has been good in that they have risen to the new way of doing things.  Responsibility has taken on a whole new meaning for them. (Carolyn Cloud, 3rd Grade)

Any other thoughts as we wrap up the school year?

I’m so proud of the work our school has done.  While it hasn’t been easy, I’m so thankful for the time and effort everyone has put in to remain connected.  We have truly banded together and because of that I sincerely believe our students are ready to take on the next grade level. (Kerri Black, 2nd Grade)

I’m grateful for the amount of training and help that was available throughout this experience. We couldn’t have done it as effectively without the support! Some of my other educator friends abruptly ended their school years in March and that broke my heart for them. While it’s been challenging and I plan to fully embrace the summer break, I’m forever thankful our school gave us the gift of staying connected. (Mary McCall McArthur, 1st Grade)

I have been so thankful to have the team of amazing women in PK4 to go through this with me. We have laughed, cried, been mad and grateful, and all held each other with grace and love.  I am also grateful for the leadership I have seen and continue to see in the administration during this time. The communication and support have been wonderful. A personal shoutout to Megan Whitacre as well. She is awesome! (Kim Sewell, PK4)

I really miss the children but it has been great to be on Google Classroom each day with our students. We have done fun activities and have had funny moments. All to be said, it has worked out better than I thought! I appreciate all the support from Mrs. Menist and  the administration staff! (Jane Hildebrand, 1st Grade)

I am so proud to be a part of the St.

Andrews community!

Carolyn Cloud, 3rd Grade

Playful Experimentation: Middle School Faculty Take On Virtual Learning

I have three children, and, despite the fact that it has largely been debunked, I still find the literature on birth order fascinating.  And although middle children often get a bad rap, I have found that my cream-in-the-middle-of-the-oreo son has reaped all sorts of benefits from entering the world between two very opinionated sisters.  He is both laid-back and incredibly empathetic.  He is willing to take risks, bounces back quickly if he fails, and he can negotiate/make friends with just about anybody.  It turns out that a lot of the traits I associate with Zander Rust align with the reputation of our Middle School faculty, the beloved middle child of our St. Andrew’s faculty.

Known to be our most quirky and our most tech savvy body of faculty, this team of folks took on virtual learning in stride, in no small part due to Clay Elliott’s quick thinking in structuring “on” and “off” days and grade level weekly plan spreadsheets.  Due to our middle school faculty’s ingenuity and collegiality and the flexibility of middle grades curriculum, our 5th-8th grade students were more likely than not to be treated with a wide variety of transformed learning tasks and assessments during the past few months.  I’m sure these faculty would be the first to admit it wasn’t all smooth sailing, but the reflections below featuring voices that range from 30 plus years of teaching experience to those that are in their first year of teaching, elucidate the spirit of playful experimentation that is often described as the hallmark of middle school itself.  

What have you learned generally about best practices in teaching during the past few months? 

I have been much more specific in daily and weekly planning and intentional in how I integrate various media resources, learning activities, and assessments throughout the week. . . Without afternoon and weekend responsibilities of productions and tournaments, I have been able to keep up with feedback and grading much more quickly. I hope I will be able to continue this habit when we return to campus as well. (Ruthie Taylor, 7th and 8th grade drama and speech & debate)

I think this virtual learning experience has made me be more conscientious about my own work flow. I have to be even more organized in terms of my files, deadlines, etc. I think that has a net positive for my classes and for my own mental health! (Margaret Clark, MS Latin)

Surprisingly, I have really enjoyed this virtual learning adventure. It forced me into trying some things that I’ve been thinking about trying. In particular, I’d been considering trying to flip some of my PowerPoint lessons, so that we could do more interactive stuff in class, but I had never got around to that before being forced to! (Meriwether Truckner, 6th Grade History)

This past month has made me realize just how much of an impact we have as educators when we’re in the lives of kids every day, physically–in addition to how important students are to us, as teachers. Gosh, I miss them, even in all of their awkward, sometimes (often >.<) frustrating, 7th grade angsty-ness! I’ve also come to realize how important adaptation, change, and professional growth is. Teaching isn’t the place or profession to become “set in your ways.” I have to admit that I DON’T always know what I doing or how to do it best, but I’m learning, and that’s what matters. It’s what I teach, how to keep learning, so I should practice what I’m preaching. (Dean Julius, 7th Grade English)

I have actually learned how to be more hands-off with my students (in a positive way!). In the past, I have had the habit of always jumping in immediately to help a student who I see struggling in the classroom and answering student emails throughout the night. Because we were forced to create asynchronous activities and I couldn’t hold daily classes, I had to let my old habits go – and it was great! Students knew they could still email me and see me during office hours and they knew that I was their biggest supporter, but being able to allow more independent work has let my students understand themselves as learners more: When do I really need to ask for help? How do I best learn? How can I work through a problem that I don’t understand? It has also lowered my anxiety as a teacher (big plus!). (Jan Michael, 8th Grade History)

I have had the strangest school year in all of my 33 years of teaching.  To have spent only one semester in the classroom, stayed home on medical leave, return for two weeks prior to spring break, and then be catapulted into distance learning has blown my mind.  Yet, it has also given me a great patience and flexibility because I never knew all winter long what the next day would bring in my healing.  So, now, when none of us knows what tomorrow will bring, I have found to my amazement that I am keeping that flexibility and patience with the distance learning.  I am truly blown away by myself and my new-found talents in technology.  I refuse to be an old dog learning new tricks, but I am definitely an Old Cat purring with my own pride in what I have learned.  All that being said, what has been important to me has been the ministry to the kids.  I have seen this time as my war work, and sustaining the students throughout, guarding and guiding and reaching out to them, gathering them in, have all been critical to me. The tech is the tool for this human outreach.  (Harriet Whitehouse, 6th Grade English)

I fell in love with my content. Teaching is such a multilayered activity, going online really isolated the different aspects of my craft. I love my students and missed seeing them daily dearly, but I have come out of this with a new understanding of my love of lesson planning and content. . . I also think this made me far more organized in my lesson plans and succinct in my instructions and expectations.  (Margaret Taylor, 5th Language Arts)

Definitely value the face to face more. I think this whole distance learning has impacted me in a way to use the classroom time to go over material, and any question, and leave the workbook and extra activities for home as a review of what is done in class. Creating more meaningful conversations in the classroom, and group projects will be the main thing in my teaching in this coming year. . . This has made me value what I do A LOT more! Those kids, my kids are the reason why I enjoy working at St. Andrew’s, I have learned to even be more patient, and understanding, and we really have terrific kids! I think that if we all SA teachers just focus in making great connections with our kids, and developing a fun, engaging, and welcoming environment for our kids, that will minimize the little issues of bullying, kids getting in trouble, etc. We must love them, because once they feel loved and appreciated, they will be more open for constructive criticism. (Simon Barinas, MS Spanish)

Virtual learning has been an invaluable time of reflection for me, and it’s made me really rethink the way I teach English. As a St. Andrew’s graduate, I very much value rigor, as I have always believed it prepares students for the demands of college and the “real world.” However, this time of “slowing down” has made me wonder if there is a better way of balancing in class work and out of class work. I am not an advocate for no homework or even light homework (force of habit???), but I think we can be more intentional about the kinds of demands we place on kids. I was the student who got up at 6:00 a.m. and proceeded through a daily ritual of unending destinations: to school, to varsity track practice, to piano lessons, to club soccer practice, to dinner, to shower, to homework. I believe my grades were more reflective of my energy levels, organization, and time management than of my abilities. And yes, as mentioned, those were very valuable life lessons that I needed to learn. However, I wonder if I would have retained more knowledge and grown my passions more had I had the time to really soak up what I was learning. To me, I think this is less an indictment of the homework load than it is of the short class periods combined with the long days kids have at school, but that’s obviously an entirely other tangent/issue that we are not close to resolving as a country, let alone as a school! The way this translates to my class is about being more intentional about what I do with my instructional time. I now believe that the most valuable use of my time is actually no longer direct instruction but guiding and coaching. A lot of the things I thought I needed to handhold my students through are actually things they can discover on their own if given the proper scaffolding and resources. Virtual learning, I have discovered, goes hand in hand with differentiation and reaching individual students’ needs–something that I fear we all overlook in the mad rush to “cover everything” before the end of the year. Though most of my students dearly miss being in school with their peers, a number of the overloaded kids (like I used to be!) are the ones who are thriving because they can work at their own pace while still carving out time for the things they enjoy/are passionate about. TL;DR–I’ve done a lot of thinking these past six weeks! 🙂 (Hannah Halford, 8th grade English)

What platforms have you tried that you loved?

 I love using Google Slides to create a hyperdoc week-at-a-glance for each class, and will certainly continue to use this tool in the future in addition to my daily class slides that I had used previously for live, in-person class meetings. I had not used Google Classroom prior to this shift and plan to continue using Google Classroom next year. (Ruthie Taylor)

 I used Screencastify to record myself talking through our PowerPoints, and I think that worked pretty well. I guess I cannot say for certain whether the kids watched them or enjoyed doing it that way, but I didn’t hear any complaints from them. Normally we would take about two class periods to get through one PowerPoint because the kids were copying down the information. With this process, I was able to get through so much more material, and for the first time I haven’t had to skip material at the end of the year. In fact, I have been able to add in some material this year. I do feel like it is important for them to learn how to copy down information from a PowerPoint in class, but this process has definitely made me question how important that is. Perhaps the right answer would be a mix of both in class PowerPoint note-taking and at home recorded PowerPoint video watching. (Meriwether Truckner)

I’ve tried some interesting new tools and was beginning to try some interesting new tools before we hit COVID. Membean’s online vocab has be life-saving and helpful. Google Sites blogs have helped empower my kids to share their experiences in this social distance nightmare we’ve all found ourselves in. I’m confident that I’ll move in the direction of digital journals from now on. It’s more relevant to how students create content in 2020 already e.g. Snapchat, TikTok, social media. But being with kids, face-to-face, matters. We want to be in contact with other people, even the introverts among us. And I’m more than eager to get back to that. I’m confident we all are. Even the kids who think this model is “better” still want face-to-face time with their peers. (Dean Julius)

Google Classroom has been a lifesaver, and, as I think to next year, I know I want to be able to turn on a dime if we return to distance learning.  First thing out of the box next year:  Google Classroom!  I have also loved the magic of Google Meet.  It seems rather Harry Potterish in that we have moving, living portraits of each other in our own settings.  I am charmed by Flipgrid and the versatility it provides for literature analysis.  I would judge myself to be very much a novice, and these are all baby tools.  Now that I have gained my confidence, I will reach for more next year. (Harriet Whitehouse)

Virtual learning has taught me many new platforms that I, honestly, have been wanting to try but never took the time to pursue them.  The Google Classroom was a huge learning curve for me but a tool I will always use from now on.  The fact that I  can give feedback almost immediately is a big advantage over waiting on a whole class assessment to be graded and returned.  Flip grids will change my assessments in the future, too.  Having a student explain in his or her own words how to solve a problem gives me more insight to their depth of knowledge than any five page test with fifteen problems.  I immediately know  exactly what they know and what part of their solution may need tweaking and then, again, the immediate feedback, either by video or written word, can give students timely coaching, encouragement or applause as needed. (Virginia Buchanan)

Now it’s on to your favorite subject, bragging about your students!  How have they responded to the past few months?

In my 8th grade debate class students continue to submit assignments even though they have earned the 50 points required for the quarter through course work in the first 4 weeks. Their research, speech development, and class discussions concerning philosophy, moral frameworks, and the current debate resolution (Resolved: Predictive policing is unjust) has been amazing! . . . In my drama class, some students who usually contribute less or get into conflict with other students during collaboration have been contributing more through our virtual learning platforms. In particular, it was really great to see everyone creating back-and-forth fictional monologues (kind of like pen-pal Vlogs) responding to their current struggles and creating movement/dance combinations by themselves. We hope to have compiled a final performance film collaboration to distribute to the community by the end of the quarter! (Ruthie Taylor)

Some of my 1st year Latin students did the coolest illustrations of a story. I had them skim (not translate word-for-word) a story about the encounter between Aeneas and the cyclops Polyphemus and then choose a scene to illustrate. They had to label 5 people/objects, including 2 labels of new (neuter gender) vocabulary words and write one line of original dialogue. I forgot to specify that the dialogue should be in Latin, so some of them wrote it in English. There produced some really cute and creative illustrations! (Margaret Clark)

I have been SO PROUD of what my students have created this last quarter. I have lots of pictures of tableaux, castle building, medieval weapons, artwork, Earsketch remixes of medieval music, and Flipgrid videos of persuasive Renaissance biographies. I’ve shared some of the pictures, but I can share more, if needed. I don’t know how to share the Earsketch or the Flipgrid, but can try to figure that out. 6th graders can be pretty self-conscious and can hold back due to fear of how their classmates might react. However, so many of these kids were willing to be brave and create some fun, out-of-the-box things. I think that going forward, seeing how the kids connected to the material will stand out in my mind. It’s easy to get bogged down in the rush to get through content, but I think that giving the kids time and space to connect to the content is really important. And hopefully, connecting to the material in these fun (and sometimes silly) ways will be something that they will remember in meaningful way. (Meriwether Truckner)

7th Graders can be vulnerable and sincere if given the time/space. These journals (see here or here) are an excellent example! (Dean Julius)

I think the quality of the work is what has surprised me most. My students are rockstars. They still want to learn, they still want produce good work, they still want to be ENGAGED! I have not had one student miss a class. Plus, I’ve put up extra credit assignments every week and have had lots of students who have decided to do them! It’s been awesome seeing my students recreate famous works of art with household items, create marble races, go on an “artifact hunt,” and write thank you notes. It keeps everything positive and reminds me of what fun creative people I get to work with. . . .For their final project, my students are going to interview a relative about a challenging historical event that they lived through. Part of the idea behind it is for them to understand that people have always had to find a way through difficult times, and today with COVID-19 is no different. I’m encouraging my students to record the conversation so that they have a copy of it forever! The final part of the project involves students writing a letter to their future selves about what life is like right now. I’m very excited about this project and am actually doing it myself – in part to model it for the kids, but in part because it’s an excellent exercise (Jan Michael)

I have loved the way my students caught fire with the literature responses while reading Crispin.  Being home in their safe environments has allowed them to cut loose just a bit while creating their Flipgrid videos, and I have been able to assess their understanding of the deep issues of the book through their vibrant expression. (Harriet Whitehouse)

Oh my gosh the GRIT. I was shocked how well my 5th grades took on the challenge and rocked it. This was a completely new experience for them and all their teachers- but they found a way.   (Margaret Taylor)

My students have really been great throughout the whole distance learning with reading instructions to complete their assignments, they really just come to me for questions regarding material and not on how to do an assignment. My 6th and 7th graders are doing a project using everything they have learned this year, so I am excited to see how those videos turn out! (Simon Barinas)

Students are taking their assignments, class meetings and advisory meetings seriously and coming to office hours for advice or clarity and I am very proud of them!  We celebrated two birthdays in our Advisory hangouts back in March with candles and balloons and music!  They remembered Flip Grid from a very little experience back in 5th grade and have recorded many explanations for all their subjects. (Virginia Buchanan)

The students who have surprised me the most are the ones who have not been performing as well in a “normal” classroom environment but are blossoming under the seemingly unwieldy constraints of virtual learning. This includes the girl who is very shy and has not spoken up the entire year finally opening up during a virtual discussion; the kids who barely ever turn in work on time now submitting everything by the due date; and the students who never took the time to conference with me during the school year joining my virtual office hours and finally understanding a writing mistake that they have been making all year. (Hannah Halford)

Any thoughts as we look ahead to the future fall semester? 

I think we need to be ready to move right back into distance learning next year.  I can’t conceive the shape of next year as yet.  To be discovered and determined!  The more flexibility we begin the year with, the better we will all be, us and the kids together, in the event we all head for the hills again. (Harriet Whitehouse)

All in all, I think this was a great thing to happen in terms of education and the way we think about it. It’s opened my eyes to the resources online but has also made me treasure that in person time with my kiddos.  (Margaret Taylor)

One of my favorite takeaways from these months is the we have had the opportunity to look almost daily at the other classes in our grade levels and see assignments, platforms, assessments, etc. to help balance the learning load of the students.  I have learned so much about the curriculum of 6th grade this year that I probably would have missed in regular time.  I can use that new knowledge to look for ways to integrate curriculum next year and also to relate to students as to what they are learning. (Virginia Buchanan)

None of us are grateful for this global pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.  But I hope it is clear from the faculty reflections above that are middle school folks did what they do best.  . . experimenting and reflecting to push ahead in small and big ways in our commitment to teaching and learning, both face to face and virtually.  Thank you for filling out those reflection forms.  Thank you for being there for our fifth through eighth graders. Thank you for sharing what did and didn’t work with your colleagues in Lunch & Learns and google chats.  Thank you for always being the people in the room that remind us that school is more than academics . . . it is about the socio-emotional, the learning how to be together as citizens in the world. Thank you for all of it, Middle School Faculty.

Keeping it Real: Upper School Faculty Make Strides in Virtual Teaching & Learning

Many Upper School faculty forged connections with their students the past few months with the help of Google Hangouts. [Dr. Bramlett’s class pictured above.]

In my past life, the one in which people called me Dr. Rust and visited my office hours and I was always grading-grading-grading, I would often lament the fact that my undergraduates in Jackson, MS were just so dang polite.  It wasn’t the repeated “Ma’ams” that made me feel ancient or the way people rushed to open doors for me. . . it was the resistance of confrontation.  It was the eager nods of head.  It was the reluctance to ask questions out of fear that they should already know the answer. But it wasn’t just a symptom of Southern gentility. It was something many of my eighteen-twenty year old students couldn’t help; they didn’t have teaching experience to serve as a measuring stick for just how accurate or doable my crazy ideas about education were.  So, the default (not in all cases of course) was often enthusiastic agreement.  Such deference feels good in the moment, but it really isn’t all that generative.  Because education is a socially-situated backbone of society that intimately concerns the future of the world, best practices should absolutely always be complicated and contested with the constant reexamination of: “For whom might that work?  For what purposes? Why?”

Enter stage left St. Andrew’s Upper School Faculty, a balm to any soul that is craving authentic, critical dialogue. This body of faculty, by and large, have kept it real with me since my first day on campus.  Their gaze is so firmly situated on creating rigorous yet relevant experiences for their students that I’m pretty sure no one could ever convince them otherwise.  And why should they? When virtual learning hit like a lightning bolt this March, they reached deep to make sense of the tools that could help them continue that work.  Not easily taken in by the shiny-digital-new-new-new, they stuck with the heart of the matter: continuing relationships with students while still upping the game of disciplinary-steeped skills and content. I am better for having worked with this body of faculty this past school year, and reading their responses about the pivot to virtual learning below will make it pretty clear why.  They don’t sugar-coat.  They tell the truth.  They care deeply.  They aren’t going to tell you everything was roses and flowers, because it simply wasn’t.  Nevertheless, the strides they made as a body of faculty was a joy and privilege to behold.

What have you learned generally about best practices in teaching during the past few months? 

I have been reluctant to change my teaching since I had to get comfortable with the technology so quickly. Really, the only thing I changed was having students create videos in lieu of writing papers. I, and my students, miss face to face contact and discussions around the Harkness table. (Carolyn Brown, English)

As for face to face, I cannot stress how important this is for language learning. My style has always PBL activities and this has always been the most effective in my classroom. I can’t do the interactive PBL really without the face to face. I love technology but unless my students don’t see the importance in human contact and interaction, there really is no value in using technology to enhance it. (Wesley Saylor, French)

I’ve definitely learned that my strength as a teacher is a personal (actually in person!) interaction.  So I’ve really missed the immediate feedback student and teacher can give each other in a classroom. BUT I think we’ve all been forced to adapt, and in that process I’ve found some tools I’ll definitely keep using in the future.  (Emily Jones, History)

I learned the importance of human contact.  I miss the the noise of everyday class and the emotional bond that is formed from everyday interactions that take place in a classroom.  (David Bramlett, Math)

I see the benefit of doing short videos and having kids watch them before class as part of their homework.  In the past, I have viewed flipped classroom as having no real benefit.  I’ve enjoyed this. (Price Chadwick, Science)

Ensemble work cannot be done online, so we took a step back and worked on individual skills (scales, exercises, rhythms).  That has gone well, but it can only motivate for a short time.  Part of the excitement of being in a band is playing music together! . . . My virtual class time for ensemble classes has grown to be almost all one-on-one instruction (10-15 minute segments).  (Dennis Cranford, Band)

I mainly learned that there is no reason to be afraid of Technology….and that “an old dog can learn new tricks.”  (Ray McFarland, Theater)

This experience has taught me more and more about the value of face to face teaching.  There is no 100% equal experience online replacement for a lab based science class.  Technology helps us in science in so many ways (data probes, analysis programs like excel, scientific calculators) and the technology of video chatting and document sharing has allowed us to keep the kids learning in the last 8 weeks of the year.  BUT, for a percentage of our kids this is a difficult ways to learn, those that relay on an adult or partner to refocus them, those kids that are more engaged when their hands are active (like in the lab), those that need the cue to turn some things in.  We need to be face to face to teach them these skills so that when they go into the world they can successfully manage the demands of being more independent.   I am biased, of course, but I see a HUGE value in having kids learn through investigation, exploration, and analysis.  Figuring out what to do when things fail or when you were completely wrong is such a life skill.  (Kristan LaFon)

From teaching in classroom to Virtual Learning was a big change. It required a lot of time for presentations and checking assignments online, etc. It is different, but it has been fun to teach online. [For one project, see this student’s fabulous work.] (Grace Pei, Mandarin)

What platforms have you tried that you liked?

This past month has helped me develop my capabilities with regard to online educational tools. I have been making extensive use of Gimkit to help my two sections of AP United States History review for their exam. In addition, I have used flipgrid in Honors United States History to have students reflect on the role that technology plays in their lives. By the way, in the latter exercise students watched two videos, one from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (the factory scene) and a short video on scientific management devised by Frederick W. Taylor. Some of the responses were well done and thoughtful.  I do miss face-to-face teaching, because I prefer having discussions with my students. These tools have helped me bridge the gap in this uncertain period. (Jim Foley)

I will continue to go down the video route, especially with FlipGrid. It has been the easiest to use, prepare, and grade. It’s easy to just get in, watch the videos, mark them and get out. (Wesley Saylor)

 I love Edpuzzle!  I’ll definitely do some homework assignments with that even if we’re back in the classroom.  I also like sprinkling in some Back Channel Chat discussions for those kids who are more shy to speak in Harkness discussions (but I miss real Harkness discussion!!).  I’m also a tactile/visual teacher, so I miss my whiteboard and my AppleTV 🙁 (Emily Jones)

 I will continue to use Go Explain and PDF Expert to prepare lessons and keys and for further student support.  I also started the video of the week where student blogged online and I have enjoyed reading their comments and I feel that this is a way to bring about real world aspects of math along with cultural and historical aspects of math.  I plan to continue to do this next year.  I will continue to look at alternative forms of assessment for next year and will use some developed during this online session.  (David Bramlett)

I will continue using online platforms as a supplement to face-to-face teaching (SmartMusic, Google Classroom).  I will post more things online (GC or MySA) instead of relying only on paper handouts. (Dennis Cranford)

The Google Meets has been such a lifesaver…I knew it would work for my Acting class…the ability to record the meetings was excellent…we record everything in class so that the students can get immediate visual as well as verbal feedback on their performances…so there was not “too much” of a change when we proceeded to distance learning.  For my tech class, the main thing we all missed was the hands on activity of the class…but the distance learning literally forced me to rethink the possibilities of the class.  Again the Google meets, combined with the ability to see every class members face as we talked was an excellent tool.  Being able to have all of the research materials at my fingertips and also to know that each of the students had immediate access to copies of these materials that we talked about in class , as well as being able to make short supportive videos that they could watch between classes, made the class work far better than I had ever expected. (Ray McFarland)

I have enjoyed screencastify.  I teach 5 sections of the same thing so when I gave notes or needed to explain how to complete an assignment I could make a video where I could use my smart software or a youtube video which I could explain and I knew that I was giving the same information to all the sections.  In brick and mortar teaching  I wouldn’t rely on screencastify as heavily as I have but I still see ways for it to be very useful in flipped learning.  (Kristan LaFon)

I learned a lot by doing this virtual learning, for example, I had to learn some virtual tools in order to make virtual learning effectively. Flipgrid and Pear Deck are the powerful apps I use. I will definitely continue to apply them into future teaching.  (Grace Pei)

Now it’s on to your favorite subject, bragging about your students!  How have they responded to the past few months?

My students have done great work this quarter–some assignments were inspired by the current crisis, others by the literature we have read. Standouts include writing monologues in the voices of those on the front lines right now and soliloquies for characters in Hamlet who did not get one. I asked some students to video themselves reading their monologues and shared them with their classmates. I can send you samples if you like. I am also teaching 1984 right now to my 10th graders, which is a surreal experience as an online text. (Carolyn Brown)

My students have surprised me with their participation in the FlipGrid activities. This has been the most successful. I’ve even had a student dress up to play a “part” in an add to sell their invention that will revolutionize the future. It was my favorite activity and I think I will do it this way next year as well!  (Click here to view one example.) I’ve also been impressed with the students with how they’ve been managing all of this. Just that alone means a lot to me. I appreciate them and love everything they do for me! (Wesley Saylor)

Gimkit contests have allowed me to see another side of student success. Some students who might struggle in discussion can thrive in this digital world of competition. (Jim Foley)

This is sort of basic, but their ability to understand material when forced to learn somewhat on their own has surprised me.  Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised – there’s a reason we call it learned helplessness!!  Their Back Channel Chats have also been really good. I think Harkness style set them up with the tools for polite discourse, they quickly translated that to written discussion form. (Emily Jones)

I have been most impressed by the students’ comments on the videos of the week.  It allowed me to get to know my students even better.  I was also quite pleased with the Interactive Scrapbook Project for Precalculus. (David Bramlett). [To access a full slideshow of incredible videos Dr. Bramlett’s students produced, click here.]

Many students have stayed the course, even when things haven’t been as easy as anticipated.  Most have taken the speed bumps in stride and haven’t thrown in the towel.  I’ve been impressed with their diligence and determination, even though the circumstances have been not what they had hoped.  I feel proud of all they have learned this year and they have put those skills into practice in these last few weeks working more independently.  I’ve been impressed with their flexibility in a constantly evolving system with lots of moving parts.  For 9th graders I call that a victory!! . . . For Earth Day the students had a choice of 4 assignments they could complete to honor Earth Day.  I was super impressed with the work that many of them did: painting pictures, drawing sketches, making photographic journals of nature, writing poetry, and writing essays about how the natural world has changed in weeks of the Covid pandemic.  Lastly, we did three labs virtually, where the students worked with a partner to collect and analyze data.  While studying Mendel Genetics and Human Genetics, we explored the role of probability in determining genetic outcomes, both from a basic stance (before we understood genetics in the 1800s), and in a more modern sense human genetics (and all the new discoveries we are still learning about).  The students used coins to represent alleles (versions or choices of traits) and with their partner “made a baby”.  Many said they produced the ugliest babies known to man and they learned that you don’t get to pick your traits! (Kristan LaFon)

I just wrote a student a nice note after she went above and beyond on an assignment and ended up teaching me something. (Price Chadwick)

Some have responded well to the SmartMusic program, using it to play examples, set the tempo, provide accompaniment, record assigned playing quizzes, search the database for new music to tryout. Alas, some students have not used it all, and I have had to chase them down to hear assignments via Hangout. (Dennis Cranford)

The quiet students, the ones that usually do everything you ask them to do, but that SELDOM will volunteer to answer questions unless they are specifically called on and even then are hesitant to answer fully….made GIGANTIC steps forward in their class participation and also in their confidence …all due to the slight “distance” the camera on their computers gave them from their more confident classmates.  Students that never spoke out in class found that they were more able to openly communicate their ideas…to show just how creative they really could be…and I think that this confidence building experience will carry over to their work when we can get back to our regular learning environment on the stage. (Ray McFarland)

Any thoughts as we look ahead to the future? 

I am glad to be forced into the 21st century in some ways, but I feel, more than ever, the need for human connection and interaction. Students speak less online–conversations and discussions are not nearly as robust as in the classroom and around a table. (Carolyn Brown)

I’m ready to get back on campus, I’m a people person!! 🙂 (Wesley Saylor)

I would be lying if I said that there weren’t times that I wanted to collapse on my computer. This has been difficult.  Grading assignments for 72 students online has been a true challenge.  I won’t be here next year but I would strongly suggest that if we are going to use Gsuite as a platform the students need to be taught how to use it.  I was told they used it in MS and they knew how to use it.  I still to this week have students turning in work that I can’t open.  It has taken a lot of energy to manage this situation as it is chasing down a lot of different kids for various assignments. . . More preparation is needed either in MS or at the start of 9th grade to ease stress at the transition.  I allow my students to turn things in in any form (pdf, word, pages, google docs), which also makes it more laborious to grade and still hasn’t solved the issue.  More uniformity is needed. (Kristan LaFon)

Ready to go back to class; I am tired of sitting on a computer all the time. (David Bramlett)

Because of this time, I have spent many hours learning a new subject and I am planning on teaching an online class this summer.  I’m excited because I’ve already had parents email me asking some specifics about the course. (Price Chadwick)

I learned more than I expected…and look forward to learning even more. (Ray McFarland)

All that said, I have survived and my students have learned a lot about themselves and what is important to them during this time, a good life lesson.  We have continued to learn some Biology and continued to sharpen some skills.  I am sad things had to end this way. . . . I have been reminded in this experience that my colleagues are doing amazing work and we continue to provide an opportunity for an excellent education that not only focuses on academics, but also encompasses teamwork (putting the team before yourself), service to others, leadership, and spirituality .  We should always be looking to grow and learn, but to also to be proud of our hard work and numerous successes. (Kristan LaFon)

Ironically, what strikes me the most out of all of these incredible reflections about virtual learning transitions is the repetition of “This has taught me how much face-to-face instruction means to me” and  “I want to be back in person with my student.”  I don’t see this as evidence of virtual learning failure.  On the contrary, the wealth of other reflections from upper school faculty along with student work evidence reveal the transformative ways that they managed to continue engaging and challenging youth, solely mediated through technology.  I appreciate our faculty’s insistence that the best teaching/learning happens at the intersection of in-person and digital opportunities for making meaning together.  This is because the more tools we have for connecting and sharing and navigating ideas together, the better.  We all benefit from the synergy of the digital and the non-digital, or as John Spencer puts it, “the tried and true and the never tried.”  Thank you, Upper School Faculty, for simultaneously fighting for the tried and true while being brave enough to try new things this past few months.  

Remembering Schooltopia: Fostering Inclusive Fifth Graders through Project-Based Learning & Collaboration

Lately I’ve been having a lot of school dreams.  The plot lines are usually illogical and impossible to follow, but they have one thing in common: I am surrounded by lots of people with no need to concern myself with six feet of social distance.  Perhaps this means we are all ready for a trip down memory lane, when our classes didn’t take place over google hangout and when we were all forced to wear actual pants.  Perhaps this means it’s time to look behind us so that we can begin to imagine what is to come.

Fifth graders beam with pride as they show off their research-informed classroom design for students with learning differences.

 At a North Campus Wednesday morning PD session that feels like it took place, not simply years ago, but in a parallel universe, you may recall that our very own Margaret Taylor wowed the room with her innovative approach to integrating project-based-learning, collaboration, and a commitment to inclusivity through an experience she called “Schooltopia.” The PBL unit asked small groups of fifth graders to learn about one focal learning difference and then design a classroom to better accommodate students with that difference, culminating in a student poster exhibition for a mix of upper school students, faculty, and administrators.  We promised to follow up on the blog with more details, and although this follow up was a tad delayed by, well, a global pandemic, better late than never!  Without further ado, here’s the scoop on Schooltopia:

How did you come up with Schooltopia as a concept?

Last year around Thanksgiving I was approached with taking a more of an ethical spin to my writing class and making it a little bit more citizenship focused [with] an ethical base kind of along with the Episcopal tradition of trying to morally instruct kids too. And I got a lot of cool topics about vegetarianism and all these big picture things that 10 year olds could not handle and things that I knew if we talked about them in class they would be saying things they heard their parents say.  So my task was really to try to figure out how to talk about inclusion and all of these big items in a fifth grade appropriate way. And that led me to Zootopia.

One of my favorite kid movies .. . that “Try Everything” song is so catchy!  So how did you use Zootopia as a springboard into some important issues? 

So when we watched Zootopia, they had a little sheet for me and they had to mark what they saw. So like if they saw an example of inclusion, they would put a little “i” and describe the scene. Or if they saw something like discrimination, they would put a little “d,” and then if they knew it was something good, they could just put a “g.”  Or if they knew something bad, they would just put a “b”. And so about every five to ten minutes in the movie, I’d pause it and we’d say, “Okay, what did you see?” And we talked through it. 

Oh interesting.  So what did they tend to notice?

The thing that stood out to me is that the kids mostly noticed the environment more than they noticed characters. So in one of them when Judy Hops first gets to Zootopia, there’s this smoothie stand and it has this little bank teller shoot that goes up to give the smoothie to the giraffe.  And then there’s one that goes down to give it to the hamster. I mean in all of my blocks, they were all like “That smoothie stand though.” And so it really made me realize that they were noticing actual spaces and they’re like, “There isn’t a different smoothie stand for the giraffes or the hamsters. It’s the same one that they all kind of come to.”

Fascinating. But what does all of this have to do with your Schooltopia project?

That kind of started this whole idea of like, well, what if we made a perfect school? Because that’s taking something that they can be experts in, because they go to school and they’re here every day. And then it’s also giving them the power to look at what inclusivity is in the classroom. 

That sounds amazing, like something I would have assigned to college students who are studying to become a teacher. But was this a little daunting for fifth graders?  How did you get them ready to think this big?

We piloted it over Halloween with something called Monstertopia where I gave them little fake profiles of Frankenstein’s Monster and Vlad the Vampire; they all had different needs. And so I gave them the list of these characters and their needs. You know, the mummy wants to be near the werewolf and the witches have to have garlic in their garden so they don’t need to be near the vampire and all of that. Then they had to draw a town square. So they kind of had a little light way to introduce the idea of making an inclusive space for everybody before we actually jumped into the school aspect of it.

Designing Monstertopia: a town that is inclusive of all the monster needs.

Oh what a smart way to ease them into it! Sounds like you had a master plan all along . . . I’m impressed!

One of my mentors in grad school said your first year of teaching, you stay an hour ahead on planning.   Your second year of teaching, you stay a class period ahead, and your third year you get to stay a full day ahead as far as planning. And I think I was definitely in that range.  No need to be an overachiever. 

Fair!  Speaking of time and planning, how many days did students spend on this project?

Wow. I would say I probably spent about three and a half weeks because there was the research component, they had to make a rough draft of their poster for their classroom, they had to make their final draft, you know, their mock up of their classroom, and then there was a written kind of paper component to it, which ended up being like a 12 slide presentation

That’s a huge investment of time!  Well let’s get to nuts and bolts.  How did you initially get them into groups?

So really my thought was trying to figure out how to get groups where there couldn’t be somebody who could railroad the whole thing and take it over because I feel like, especially developmentally in the fifth grade you have the go getter who’s like, “Oh, I’ve got this” and you have the kid that is very eager for somebody else to get this.  So they got to [share with me their preferences for] their groups. They could tell me two people that they really wanted to work with and maybe one person that it would not be a good idea for them to work with. And then they also had to tell me a little bit information about what kind of classroom they were interested in building. But I had the final say and like who went where and how that happened. 

Sounds smart . . . giving them choice but maintaining control.  Managing group work can be really difficult in projects like this.  How did you ensure things went smoothly?

So once they had their groups, I had to figure out how to make there not be [just] one person in charge. And that’s where the idea of the different specialists came in. Most of my groups had four people in them, and that let two people be student specialists and they were in charge of the student needs.  Then there were two people who are my room specialists, and so they were in charge of making sure that the content area that was being taught in that room was on point. 

Another thing that I found to be really successful was the “goal for the day” sheets.  Every day at the start of class, I would give out our marching orders and they’d come up with their goal for the day and they would assign group roles, you know, “so and so is going to do this; I’m going to do this.”  Then the last five minutes of class we spent finishing out the goal for the day sheet: “what did we actually accomplish?” It was a really neat incentive that I wasn’t expecting.  They had to self assign homework. I would be like, “This is the goal for the day.  If you don’t get to it, you need to figure out how to have it done by the next class period.” I would say out of 20 groups, I only had two or three groups actually have homework because they would want to get in and get it done, which was nice.

Love hearing how you helped scaffold this big project into bite-sized chunks with those “goal of the day” sheets! Can you give us examples of the sorts of marching orders you gave for a class? 

I would say they looked different, you know, so some days it could just be like, “Hey, the poster is due in three days; work on your poster.” Or with their articles, they had like reflection sheets for their articles so I could be like, “Hey, read through the article, highlight it up, make notes on it. You know, it would be great if you could finish this reflection on the article.”  In the slide portion of it, each student was responsible for like at least two slides. And so it’d be like, “Hey, do your two sides.” or “Hey, you need to go back and revise your slides. You need to read each other’s slides.”  Things like that. I’m such a big picture person. It’s hard for me to be like, “You need to finish this today.”  And so I think it was a real growth experience for me to kind of think as an educator like, “Okay, at the end of the day what do they need to actually have accomplished?” as opposed to, “Hey, you need to work on this. It’s due in two days,” making it. . . bite-sized.  And if you follow these steps, you’ll get here at the end. I really found a lot of benefit in kind of giving them those concrete marching orders, but also [saying]: “Hey, if you don’t finish it, you can do it for homework.”

Margaret Taylor provides marching orders for the day: find links for the actual furniture and technologies that you would want for your classroom and then go to the library to print out images for your research folder.

Thanks!  That helps.  What else would you do as you circulated during their actual work time?

I would say fifth graders have not quite mastered the art of looking busy. And so there’s a lot of times you can walk around and you can see 75% of the group is all in it. They’re out there and then there’s maybe one kid that’s doing stuff. Yes. As being a bit of a space cadet. And so I think I spent a lot of time walking around and just kind of check up like, “Okay, what’s everybody’s role right now?” Just to check in. “So and so what are you doing? What are you doing? What are you doing?” And then if somebody was honest and said “I’m not really doing much,” then there would be a conversation that was like, “Okay, so like what could we be doing right now?”  Or, you know, to kind of say, “So and so, you’re doing this; is that something that y’all can tag team?”

I would honestly kind of walk around and be like, “I’m hearing so-and-so’s voice a ton. What else are we hearing? Like what else? What else are people thinking?” Because I feel like most of the time I could help the kids who weren’t necessarily doing anything.  They then felt better because they had a task, they felt more involved and you know, maybe the kids that I was like, “Okay, so what have you been doing?” They got their little, you know, 45 seconds to like talk and tell me what they were up to, which was nice.

Great strategies. Now give us some real talk.  How did the kids actually take up working in groups? 

When you have students semi self selecting a group, you can kind of just from knowing them for two and a half quarters say like, “Okay, they’re going to be great, they got this, they’re good.” And then you have other groups that you’re like, “Okay, I’m going to spend a little bit more time hanging out at their table.” So I mean I feel like overall that was the experience. I would say I had a few students who I knew would try to drive the project. But luckily I feel like I put enough limitations where, you know, if they would try to step in, another student would be like, “Hey, no, I’m the student specialist, you’re the room specialist.”  I really encourage the students to take power.  Like you are the expert on this. You need to listen to other ideas, but at the end of the day, [you are in charge of this part.]

It does keep going back to “how can we work in a group together” doesn’t it?  How did you help kids through the inevitable little conflicts that came up?

When they were kind of first in their groups, I made them [write] two ways that they’re going to handle conflict.  And that was fascinating because you had some groups that were like, “Well,  everybody will get 30 seconds to talk about their position and then we’ll vote on it.” Other people were like, “We’re gonna table it and then we’ll come back to it at the end of class.”  With other people, “It’s like rock, paper, scissors. If you lose, you lose.”

 I had a group that had a lot of conflict, and there were tears. And so I was like, “How are we handling conflict in our binder?” And so they opened up their little work folder and it was clear they had not taken that aspect terribly seriously. And so I think that their way to handle conflict was like “yell the loudest.” And so it was funny and none of them wanted to read it.  And I think especially with that group, one of the troubles of self selecting was they were with their friends so they had a level of comfort with each other that they would not have had if they were randomly assigned. So I think students could come off a lot harsher than they meant to by what they called joking, saying things they didn’t necessarily mean.  They would say things to their friends that if they were not with their friend, they wouldn’t have said.  They needed to kind of figure out how to be diplomatic. I think a lot for these kids was just having to like learn other ways to say “no, that’s a stupid idea,” in a kinder way, like “Tell me more about that.. . Do you think it makes sense for there to be a computer in the bathroom?”

So I feel like there was also, you know, just natural conflict of being stuck with the same four people for three and a half weeks. You know, somebody accidentally starts coloring the floor of the poster with the light brown and “we were going to do the dark brown and now the whole project’s ruined!” Yes. So also learning forgiveness and talking about groups of, “do you think that that person intentionally is trying to make you all fail this poster project . . . or do you think that like accidents happen?”

Sounds like you engaged in really great conversations.  But are you sure that students always told the truth about how working in the group was going? Sometimes they try to protect their friends from getting in trouble . . . 

The other thing that I did was about halfway through, I made them a private Google Form, a group check-in. It was, “Hey, who are you? Who’s in your group? Do you feel like your voice is heard? What are some things that are going well? What are some things that are not going well? Would you like me to come and just of surprise conference with your group? And if so, what would you like for me to talk about?”  Afterwards we did a think pair share.  I pulled up the anonymous data.  It was like 40 kids that said “yes”; they felt that their voice was heard and it was all great.  This project is awesome. And then I had like 25 kids say like, “I guess my voice is heard. I don’t really think so sometimes.” And so then I had those other 15 kids that were like, “No, my voice is not heard.”  So on one board I asked “What piece of advice would you give to the person who said they don’t feel like their voice is heard?”  And they talked about this in different groups from their Schooltopia group. And then on the other board I wrote: “If your voice is being heard, What are two ways you can help listen to other people today?” 

You know, something I’m noticing is you started this conversation explaining your goal was to help students engage in ethical exploration, and you did that through inclusion themes, but also I think actually a lot of the real ethical socioemotional stuff happened in the micro moment during this group work. So it’s beautiful that it was wrapping around in different ways. What kind of texts and experiences did you use throughout Schooltopia to help youth explore issues of inclusion?

The first thing they had to [do was] research their classrooms. It was important to me to have them actually looking at big kid articles. You know, I pulled articles that as a teacher I would google, you know, “How to Set up a Classroom that Benefits Dyslexic Students”, “10 Top Tips for a Successful Science Classroom.” You know, things like that that I was actually pulling; not necessarily academic articles, but the grownup resources that I [found useful].

Then I feel like we had a really cool discussion about student differences. I tried to set up a like, “Hey, this is a very open thing.”  I start off the conversation because I’m dyslexic. And then my sister wears a hearing aid. She’s partially deaf in her left ear and my brother has a vision problem. He’s partially blind in one eye. So, I mean, in some ways it worked really well to be able to talk about all of these student differences and be able to use real life examples. So I felt like that opened [them] up a lot. You know, all my students who have ADHD were like, “Oh, I have ADHD!” So then we were able to be like, “Well if you don’t mind sharing,  what’s helpful for you in a classroom”. Or you know, if a group picked [ADHD], they would read the article and then be like, “Oh Ms. Taylor I didn’t think about this, but like, yeah, if I sit near a window, I do get distracted.”

Interesting! So this project didn’t just lead to more inclusivity; in some cases, it led to greater self awareness.  What other types of difference did students explore?

One of the student profiles that isn’t the biggest demographic at St. Andrew’s that they had the opportunity to build a classroom for was a refugee from another country or an ESL (English as a Second Language) student. Only a handful of my groups actually picked that student to focus on. But we had some really neat conversations based on that. Most of my teams that picked an ESL student chose a history classroom because they made the connection that that’s where a student would maybe feel comfortable because of talk about cultures and history and geography.  They could teach us so much about their home country and things like that.

So far we’ve only talked about the invisible parts of the project, all the in class work that you and your students did together to prepare for the public event featuring groups sharing their visions for school.  But now let’s talk about the exciting showcase of ideas.  Was it scary to have a real audience for this?

The age old struggle with teaching writing is the notion that you write something, you do something, you’re so proud of it and then it just hangs out in your Google drive. Like I’ll read it, I’ll be like, “That’s so cool. I love this part. The end. Awesome.”  We may have a day where we share with our friends, but you’ve already shared it with your friends. So I really wanted them to have an authentic audience because that’s the whole thing about writing, right, is an authentic audience. And then the other part of me wanted them to have some skin in the game of “Yeah, your group needs to have things together because you’re going to be presenting these to some big scary adults that you don’t know, you know?”  So I really wanted them to take ownership over the project. 

There was a huge crowd of different school stakeholders there that afternoon!  How did you get people to attend?  And how did you prepare fifth graders to be so confident with the crowd?

I had kind of been telling them “I’m going to get some people from my i2 committee to come and see and talk to y’all. But it really snowballed into like this, like Hallmark movie of school community. It felt like the end of It’s a Wonderful Life when everybody started coming in and yeah, Clarence’s bells were ringing beautifully.  It really was so special.   To get this going I sent out a Google invite to a bunch of people and I did a little, “Hey, this is what’s going on.”

Then it occurred to me that if I get a bunch of well-meaning adults and a bunch of really scared children, the depth of conversation is probably not going to reach what I would want it to reach.

So we spent about a class period and a half where I wrote potential questions on the board, you know, little things from like “what are some ways that you incorporated the needs of your students?”  There were two questions about their research and I told them that as an adult, that’s what I would want to know. So you need to be able to be able to pull a quote, tell me about your article. Research is one of the most important things because it makes you sound like you know what you’re talking about, you’ve read actual articles on these things. So they had a class period and a half to ask each other questions and we even did a little mock thing where they would hop around the room and interview each other and all that. And so I printed out those questions and just in a little kind of pamphlet type thing and handed it to my adults when they came in and I said, “Okay, these are the questions, ask them anything and please ask them anything. But also this is what they should all feel very comfortable answering.” 

They were great questions that I appreciated receiving on the audience end as well; conversation starters are the best.  I was just so impressed by how confident the fifth graders were with their answers.

Yes. There’s a little bit of predictability for them. It’s scary, yes. I was joking right before it; I was texting with my sister and I was like, “Man, you know, it’s just nerve wracking giving a hot mic to 79 ten year olds, you know, and they’re gonna walk around and talk to administration and faculty” and it was great. Megan got some upper school students too and that was so much fun. It’s so hard because I can’t be in on 20 different conferences. I just have got to turn them loose for them to tell the people who cut my paycheck every month exactly what they’ve been doing in school this quarter and all that. 

One fifth grade group, ready and waiting for the crowd of visitors to come.

Terrifying, but also doable I think because they didn’t have to stand in front of the entire crowd to formally present.  They were small roundtable conversations.

Yes!  I told my sister, “the good thing about it is if one group really messes up, it will only be with one or two adults.” It’s not like they’re getting up in front of the whole school and that, and I knew the kind of adults I have at St. Andrew’s that they would help it be a good learning experience and would help kind of steer it. So it had kind of a neat little mentorship piece to it. 

What did the students say about the experience after the fact?

So the next class period we were together, I said, “Okay, how’d it go? Tell me about it.” It was really cute because so many students felt heard. I heard from several groups that [the adults that visited their poster] got it. Wow. And then even I had one group who had made a literature classroom and I think it was Ruth Holmes that asked them what their favorite book was.  They kind of did a book swap and she wrote down some of [their recommendations]; it was just a really cool kind of cross generational, I don’t know, just sharing of knowledge and listening.

Going on a trip through memory lane via my months-old conversation with Margaret gave me all the feels.  And while doing a project shoulder-to-shoulder may feel like an impossibility right now, I do believe we can all use Margaret’s advice to inform how we scaffold virtual collaboration for an authentic audience.  After all, technology mediates a host of authentic audience possibilities and the education world is abuzz right now with the possibilities of replacing traditional tests with larger projects.  

Interested in getting some support for designing a large scale, inquiry-based project like this one for the next school year? Here’s a link to some of Margaret’s Schooltopia teaching resources to get you thinking. Also stay tuned: within a week or so, we will be announcing an exciting i2 funded faculty opportunity to support this reimagining!

NOT ANOTHER LIST OF IDEAS!: Information Overload in the Era of COVID-19

In a historical moment when everything is shifting rapidly, it feels good to say that one thing has remained the same: I love free stuff.  And probably the most beautiful thing to come out of this terrible crisis is to see gatekeeper after gatekeeper of content (from audio books to premium workout videos) raise their gates as if to say “can’t we forget the pretense of hierarchy for a moment and just share what we’ve got?”

There’s only one problem with this generosity: information overload.  I can’t keep up with the onslaught of articles and “this is free” and “try this” and “wow you MUST do this” that have taken over my social media feeds. So in full awareness that I am contributing to the problem,  I offer this massive list (which is regularly being updated) from THE (Transforming Education Through Technology) Journal of “Free Resources for Schools During COVID-19 Outbreak.”  

But alongside the list, I offer a caveat: this list (and all lists like this) is meant to help you, not to guilt you into feeling like you aren’t doing enough.  This list is to make your life easier, not infinitely more complicated. Lists like this are trying to help provide some already-made content so you don’t have to invent all of your content from scratch.  Browse the site like you might browse a food magazine, in a non-committal, “hmm what looks good?” sort of way. Think about your needs first (“I need to find a way to use that ground beef in the freezer”) to help you sift through what might actually help.  

And, most importantly, if your eyes begin to cross and you find yourself driven only by FOMO (fear of missing out): step away, step away, step away.  This is not the time to challenge yourself to do all the things in all the best ways. This is a time we collectively decide to do our best with the resources, time, and patience that we can muster.  This is a time when we set small goals, like trying out one new platform each week. This is a time when we practice radical grace with ourselves, our colleagues, our students and families. This is a time when we come to terms with what is the most central essence of our course, and how might that essence intersect in generative ways with this moment via virtual platforms.  

Sure, this is a time of free stuff.  But even free stuff takes time to sift through and apply. Sometimes the content is worth the cost.  And sometimes, we shut our screens, take a walk in the flowery afternoon air, and remember just to be.

What can we do now? We teach.

We have all been blown about by a myriad of feelings these past few weeks.  I have had moments of “Hurray! No more driving to soccer practice!” alongside moments of deep grieving as my children shed tears about long-awaited events floating into oblivion like dandelion fuzz dispelled by the wind.  Some moments the feelings intersected, resulting in a numbing effect. Other times they produced strong disbelief. Sometimes in the middle of the night I found myself rising out of deep sleep and semi-consciously grasping for some sort of wisdom, where is the grown-up that will tell us what is to come in the future, and what needs to be done? Then a sinking sense of fear-laced terror. Oh yeah. I am the grown up.  One of them anyway.  Thank God I’m just one of them.  

Why write except to tell the truth? Especially now.  And the truth I want to tell now is what I observed this week, this terrible-wonderful-impossible week in which faculty were asked to somehow transform their courses from face-to-face to online in the midst of caring for babies and children and displaced college students and worrying about a global pandemic.  You all did this. You did this all the while juggling with news that your spouse’s business lost a great deal of money or their hours got cut in half because of no business. You did this while you watched the stock market plummet and you worried about your retirement savings and you went shopping for your elderly parents and neighbors to keep them out of harm’s way. I asked myself again and again if it was fair to ask you to do this.  I’m not the only one.  Because let’s be honest, we can’t do the same things online we planned to do face-to-face, especially with one small week of planning under our belt and the stress of a pandemic underlying this work.  

Nevertheless, I don’t think we are wrong for plunging ahead in our course offerings. In times of crisis, we are reminded of our inherent lack of control.  In times of loss of control, we reach for the same things and ways of being that sustain us in the everyday ordinary. For me and many of you, that thing, at its kernel, is teaching.  I disagree with those that argue that we should respond to this crisis by closing up shop and giving up with triviality such as teaching/learning. Teaching and learning is at the center of our being human together. Certainly what and how we teach is necessarily shifting in this crisis. But learning, as we’ve always known it, is untethered to the four walls of classrooms. Why stop now?

Besides, when I see my children, I see a sixth grader and third grader and kindergartener grasping for a schedule, for a return to normalcy.  They are missing their friends, their teachers, the feeling of accomplishment upon learning a thing and doing an assignment. As I join my colleagues on those google hangouts, I see faculty-leader after leader after leader step out of the shadows and into the light: Have you thought about this resource? Have you considered this kind of schedule?  This platform might work for that. Remember, our students will need ways to connect with each other and us. I read that blessed google hangout chat box, that miraculous backchannel that I didn’t know I’ve been missing all my life all of our past face-to-face faculty meetings.  There, we help each other when the main speaker in the moment is busy presenting. There, we interject humor and informality and when we hear the whistling of a colleague’s tea kettle in the background, we type “Hey, Dean . . . I want a cup of tea too!”  There, we pose questions for the speaker and they invite us in to put voice to them. There, we share links and resources. There, we cheer on the speaker or presenter so they can somehow feel the warmth even when they can’t see our heads nodding, the smiles on our face, the reassurance of steady eye contact.

Don’t get me wrong.  We have all felt the strain. We have all started one task and gotten distracted by the 52 billion other tasks demanding our attention. We have suffered from  information overload. Some of us shed tears when we are overwhelmed, and some of us get irritated at each other, and some of us just shut down and retreat. Nevertheless, I have been astounded by what I have seen this week. My brilliant office-mate, colleague, and friend, Megan Whitacre, has been the epitome of everything a tech integration specialist could be in a crisis like this.  I have heard pep talks and seen tears and humanity from leadership that have pushed us all into a new realm of authenticity together.  I sent out a call to some faculty members to share some teaching/learning nuggets of gold, and their generosity was only superseded by the legit quality of the information they shared during their webinars and in their new policies , plans, and weekly approaches.  At grade-level and department meetings, our chairs and team leads have inspired all of us to coordinate, collaborate, and keep the students at the center.  I have sat individually with faculty member after faculty member after faculty member and am simply blown away with the care, intentionality, and overarching quality of the experiences that they have planned for their students next week. Faculty at St. Andrew’s aren’t in some kind of denial as they plan; they aren’t ignoring the swirl of chaos around us. Rather, they are acknowledging it in age-appropriate ways and relating it to their curricula in Science, History, English, Math, and more as we move ahead.

Julia Chadwick has said in her emails, again and again, “Innovate, Ready or not, here we come.”  But from my vantage point, this past week’s collaborations prove that we have already come.  We have already innovated. Now it’s time to be with our students in the ways we have designed.

Don’t misunderstand me.  You may not have mastered all the platforms you want yet.  Your plans will certainly fall short. Your tech at some point undoubtedly will fail.  Your students will misunderstand your schedule or your instructions or will miss your office hours and class. We will get back up and try again. 

Let me hold space for you to assert that you all worked miracles last week.  Your hours thinking and planning and attending training and asking questions this past week will serve to forge that “invisible string”  of connection for our students that Chelsea Freeman read about (The Invisible String, by Patricia Karst) in chapel last Friday.  It is continuing this connection that you have already established with your students, not the perfect mastery of all the platforms and things, that is “best practice” in online education.  If your mind is swirling with all that you don’t know, all the articles you haven’t read, all the ideas you haven’t had time to implement yet, please take a deep breath. Do this one thing next week and every week of teaching, online and face-to-face, to come: connect with your students.  Make sure they know you are there for them and there will be new things to fill their minds in the days to come. And during those moments you have carefully designed, as they watch your screen casts or attend your google hangout or fill out that worksheet, they will be reminded of this: the whole world has not shut down.  We at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School are still here, teaching and learning . . . together.

In the spirit of this same invisible string, it is more important than ever that you continue sharing together during our google hangouts, on this blog, through google chat, via email, or on this google doc shared internally for our faculty. Share lessons about platforms you love, about schedule adaptions you’ve made, new routines you’ve established. Share stories about how a student made you cry, made you laugh, made you think differently. Share how you and your loved ones are coping. Share ways that you’ve made room for self-care. Share until the darkness and uncertainty of this strange moment shrinks in the light of the love of our community. You are here. I am here. We are here. Let’s do this.

Graphic Design, (Re)Designed: How it all went down

Back in late October, we blogged about Emmi Sprayberry’s community-engaged reimagining of Graphic Design.  At that time, we emphasized the steps Emmi took to plan for such a course, and we ended the blog with students in the early stages of working in small groups to come up with products they hoped would impress (1) the owners of Urban Foxes, a local small batch baking coffee and courtyard known for their pies; (2) Daniel Johnson, the owner of Significant Developments who uses art to connect community and businesses through creative engagement; and finally (3) Lauren Shields (Senior Manager of Advertising and Creative Services ) and Jennifer Hill (Graphic Designer), professionals that work for C Spire, a locally owned large network provider.  When we published the blog, neither of us had any idea whether the students’ projects would impress or flop in the eyes of these real-life clients.  Community Engaged Learning often requires leaps of faith in this way; these experiences are nothing if not unpredictable. We ended the blog with a cliffhanger . … and a promise to return with a candid update after the project ended.  So here goes: the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth. (Because the i2 blog always keeps its promises.)

So how did it go, Emmi?

Not only did the students complete the tasks but they succeeded really well.  All three teams had deliverables for their clients, and all the clients were impressed; this was better than what they expected.  They are all using some if not all of the aspects . . . in real life! The students took initiative; it was empowering for them. They enjoyed being trusted. It gave them a confidence boost and [taught them that] they are doing great; they should trust themselves a little bit more.

Okay but let’s get real.  There had to be some struggles, right?

To tell you the truth it just worked really well overall.  They problem solved together, which really was the goal to get them to think outside of the box and work together versus individually.  This was and is a really unique class. They started out not knowing each other that well, and these projects brought them closer together.  Now we have this tight knit group. This brought out a lot of teamwork in them; I loved seeing them giving each other advice. Some rose to the occasion as really great leaders.

But don’t expect this with every group you work with! My fear was that they were going to get discouraged through the process and stay in that place. I expected hair pulling and tension and really it just worked really well. It was a testament to this group. They all had some sort of branding elements that they had to work within – some more expanded than others.  It honestly was great to get to see them wrestle with problems and then come out the other end succeeding. That’s not always the case creatively and just in life. I think for this group it was really awesome for that to be their first experience.

What did they end up producing?

For CSpire they created a branded box with a branded wireless charger, a phone credit card holder, some app recommendations, along with a gift card for $10. 

The branded box with various other goodies that the C-spire group dreamed up.

For DJ Cereal Milk, they delivered their logo. He was so pleased and he already is using it!

Urban Foxes received so much stuff that they’re going to roll out things over the  next year: shirt designs, templates to use for announcing bands and movie nights. Next winter they’ll use some of our designs for a sweatshirt.

What insights did you glean for next time you do something like this?

I could always give them more time, but deadlines within projects just helps relate the real world nature of a project like the ones they worked on.  I did like the idea of starting with three small groups working on different projects stacked together. The next project is going to be much harder; the whole class will be working on ONE project.  I think they will be able to work on strengths they built from these projects.   

What’s next?

My students loved this project because it gave them real world experience that enabled them to build their personal portfolios.  They are going to have more projects that are based on real life circumstances versus projects that are teacher-created . . . more deliverables and experience to pull from.  For example, later this semester we are working in partnership with Professor Kristen Tordella-Williams at Millsaps College on the Midtown Sculpture walk. We are also doing a collaboration with the first graders, taking their drawings and digitizing them and adding to them. They may pull it into a graphic novel that the Middle School is doing. I think it’s going to be fun and exciting to see what they create with the images they are given. I really wanted to create a collaboration that centered on more of the students, as I know with my kids they always loved when older kids came to their classes for some sort of partnership. So I thought this would be a fun way to do an art collaboration and just show one more aspect of the ways in which they can use their craft in a fun way that also speaks to the younger students that they are seen and valued. 

It turns out that Emmi’s leap of faith resulted in some pretty incredible results, both for the students enrolled in Graphic Design and the clients that partnered with them. Perhaps the most important takeaway here is that Emmi’s project didn’t take away time from learning the content of her class; community engagement became the mechanism to propel her students into the relevance-resounding terrain of learning-by-doing. Curious about how community engagement could possibly energize students to master your own curricular goals?  Reach out! We’d love to (re)imagine alongside you!

I am a Meteor: An Innovative Way to Teach Space

I love astronomy, there is something new all the time. But teaching it to elementary students can be a bit repetitive when trying to get the basics: the eight planets, moons, asteroid belts, dwarf planets, etc. The same activities, year after year can become boring or tiring for teachers. The past few years I’ve been approaching astronomy from a different point of view, that of an asteroid.

Asteroids move around the solar system and sometimes bump into one another, cracking and breaking. The students follow some of these broken asteroids/meteoroids around the solar system as they get caught in the gravitational pull of different planets. You can go in so many directions with this creatively, but this year they explored the different planets according to their surface types: inner planets with their predominantly rocky surfaces, but with different types of atmospheres, and the outer planets, mostly gas but others with frozen gaseous atmospheres.

This year the kids took different planets and tried to reproduce them, some with no atmosphere, just dry dust and rock; others with liquid water, small amounts of land and layers of atmosphere made of plastic wrap, and then other planets with thick cloud like atmospheres (shaving cream).  They experimented with creating them and identifying what happened to the meteoroids when they became meteors flying through the different atmospheres and hit the planet’s surface. They enjoyed identifying the unique characteristics of each of the inner planets and the Jovian Planets – Gas Giants and Ice Giants.

The children had to use materials I already had in the classroom: containers, sand, flour, plastic wrap aluminum foil, shaving cream, tissue paper, corn starch, laundry starch, and glue. If I didn’t have something they wanted/needed, they had to come up with something different. They also used materials they found outside – rocks, dirt, and  plants. They placed their planets on the floor, predicting what would happen when the meteors hit. They used small pebbles for meteors and dropped, tossed, and threw them on each planet. Then they observed what happened to the planets and meteors. Some created craters, others formed mountains, and on certain planets they disappeared.

Learning became a student-led adventure. Students had to think, plan, and execute as a team. They had to observe and write about what happened to their meteors. They asked great questions and even found innovative ways to extend the lesson on their own. And the best part, no one in the room was bored with the same old lesson on planets.

Education in the Apocalypse

With all of the “doom and gloom” of corona virus (COVID19) in the news these days, I have been spending some time thinking about how we might be able to continue the great work that we do in our classrooms in the (unlikely) event that St. A should have to close temporarily.  

Enter the wonderful world of Google for the classroom!  Google Classroom is a powerful platform for posting assignments, turning in work, managing grades, and showing demonstrative vlogs. Middle school already uses Google Classroom extensively with great success.  Google Hangout is a skype-like platform in which up to 25 participants can log into a video call together and see shared powerpoints (Google Slides) or lecture notes (Google Docs) in a real time class experience.  For collaboration, students can all link into any documents/slideshows/spreadsheets and work together on assignments or projects, presenting them through Hangouts to the rest of the class. Tests and exams can even be proctored through Google screen sharing apps!

Thanks to our recent “demo day” of professional development, teachers have been introduced to Kahoot!  and Gimkit, as well as many other cloud-based learning games and activities that can be assigned for homework or in real time as part of a class gathering.  

I can imagine a virtual school day where students join their different classes at different times in the day – much like we do in our Malone Classes – and work together through cloud based platforms to learn new information and produce amazing computer assisted projects, all from the comfort of home.  While it would fundamentally change how we interact with our students, virtual school wouldn’t have to change our expectations for excellence.




Making the Move from Teacher Innovation to Student Innovation: Face-to-Face Interviews Bringing Science to Life

Several weeks ago, I got a very welcome email from Perry Goldsbury, 7th grade science teacher.  In it, he wrote:

I wanted to share a quick story of student innovation with you . . . Currently in 7th grade science, the students are working on a presentation related to a nervous system disorder. One of my students, William Burrow, whose presentation is on Epilepsy, reached out to a pediatric neurologist named Dr. Brad Ingram at UMMC who is the director of the Pediatric Comprehensive Epilepsy Program at the hospital. William spent his own time interviewing and meeting with Dr. Ingram yesterday and has 14 minutes of information to breakdown and share with the class. He will be sending me the whole 14 minute interview, and he was extremely excited and passionate about the subject since speaking with Dr. Ingram.  Hope you can use this in some way. It wasn’t quite teacher innovation but student innovation is just as important right!?

Perry’s email really got me thinking.  We in i2 have been doing all this talking about faculty innovation and inspiration.  But in the end, our creative pedagogical design is not an end unto itself; if it doesn’t make space for student innovation or inspiration, what’s the point?  I needed to learn more, so I decided to talk to Perry.

Perry, typically when people think about science class they picture labs and lots of content to learn.  What made you build a project that involved a presentation into your course?

Perry: I built it into the course just mainly because I hated speaking in school. I was a shy kid and when I got to college it was really hard [because of] that. I did a speech class in college and all we did was present. I felt like it totally changed how I was in classes . . . So it is a skill that is really important and students need to practice more. In this society, [presenting] is something that people do less of. So [practicing it in school] helps.

Perry. The shy guy, I can’t believe it. No, that’s so true about speech. So true. And so often kids see it as a, you’re either good at it or you’re not, or you’re brave or you’re not. And it really does impact everything.  I mean, there are so few jobs or like lives in which the ability to formulate words, communicate even like interviews and that type of stuff. . . even like at family outing, finding a partner, you know, it’s everywhere! So how exactly do you build it into your class?

Perry: Each quarter I try and have them present something and it’s ramped up every time. First quarter was like a minute individual presentation, the second quarter we went into groups and presented about climate change. This past presentation was 8-10 minutes and required much more in depth research and then in the fourth quarter they do a research study that they design themselves and present their findings to the group.

So how did the 8-10 minute project turn into interviewing rather than just a traditional set of google slides and Internet research?

Perry: Well last year I did this assignment and it was my first year; it started off as just classic research, using the internet and books . . . It was actually a group of students that had the idea of also doing interviews. One of the students had a family friend that was a neurologist so they went themselves and they brought it up and presented it. I didn’t know anything about it until they did their presentation! So that obviously triggered my mind, so this year I announced it to the class as a possibility: “If you know someone and you want to ask someone [interview questions] you can set that up and that would be a great thing.”   I said to them, “ if you want help in setting up a meeting I’d be happy to do that.” [On presentation day] students think it is cool just seeing their classmate be the one in the interview with questions and interaction.

Do you have a list of topics they could choose from?

Perry: Yes, I give them a list of seven different topics, so, and I said to them it doesn’t matter what other classmates pick; multiple people can do one, whatever you want to pick.  So I like to give them that choice where they can maybe relate to it a little more than just me telling them you’ve got to go study there. It was also a group project.

A lot of times teachers don’t know how to address assessment in these more open assignments.  How did you grade their presentations?

Perry: Yeah, I have a rubric. I focus on five five key areas: presenting, the slides themselves, quality of research, information, and use of time.  They didn’t necessarily get extra credit for going out and doing interviews, but the way it tied in is they were just so engaged that it helped the information, helped them present. Because what I found is those groups [that did interviews] didn’t need notecards, didn’t look at their slides.  They were able to just talk about what they’ve gathered. So it was a major marked difference between them that went out because everyone else off the internet were staring at notecards and you could see them looking in their brain trying to get out, but with these three [that did interviews] they were just able to speak. So it was very cool seeing them presenting. So naturally that increased their grade as well. 

Any tensions or challenges you encountered?

So my challenge with group work would always be [knowing] how much someone did.  Google slides does enable me to see who’s editing but it’s still, you never really know. So that’s one and I probably don’t really know how I could ever manage that. I’ve tried last year doing partner reflections, but some people just maybe didn’t like their partner that day, graded them down and then some are best friends with them so they give them more. Generally the presentation does show who put in more work; you can see who knows it more than others, and I ask questions at the end to each person as another [measure]. But really I think it was a great experience; it went really well this year. They all enjoyed it.

So Perry said they enjoyed it, but I didn’t want to take his word for it.  I decided to reach out to three seventh graders that did pursue an interview for their project: Holden Caraway and Austin Morgan (who produced this interview) and William Burrow (who produced this interview) to get the real story.

So I heard you all chose to do an outside interview for the project Mr. Goldsbury assigned on a neurological nervous system disorder.  How did you find someone to interview?

Austin: So I know my mom knows a lot of people at the Mind Center, so when we got assigned this project I was like, “Holden, we should totally do Alzheimer’s Disease.”  So I asked her if we could get an interview with somebody from the Mind Center . . . and it was about 2 weeks later when she told me we had an interview with Dr. Tom Mosely who is the head researcher at the Mind Center.

William: I, over a period of two days dropped hints to my mom that I wanted an interview. The way we knew we could integrate in an interview was Mr. Goldsbury told us and I was specifically, my group was doing epilepsy and I got an interview with a children’s epilepsy specialist, Dr. Brad Engram.  Actually how I got it was my mom was close friends with him in high school. We took a video. I had 15 minutes of video overall. One was him showing me a model of the brain and one was me asking questions such as “how do you help someone in a seizure”

How interesting that both of you had natural connections through your parents!  Tell me something difficult about this process . . or something that was really fun.

Holden: Difficult . . there was a really bright light on the camera and it kinda got distracting. Mr. Jim Albriten is a photographer and videographer, and it was a perfect day because they were already filming something.  He had this big tripod and big microphone and big light panel and about half way through the video he took it off and held it on his shoulder, and it was really really cool.

William: I just did a video on the phone!

So what do you think you got out of this whole experience that you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t done an interview?   You could’ve just gone on the Internet to look up epilepsy!

Holden: For me it was probably the grade.  Our grade was high!

William: The thing that was interesting to me is I learned so much about epilepsy, like I learned there’s this type of seizure that can last through the night and you don’t get sleep.  One thing that he also mentioned was the recommended medicine for it. [The safe one for like us] is 2 mg. They have to give these kids 30 mg  just to let them sleep, so the brain will relax. But I also know how to keep someone from ruining their lungs in a seizure, just flip them on their side and clean their drool because no one wants to see that.

Austin: So my grandmother has Alzheimer’s and I figured if I did this I would have a better understanding.  Miss Kerri Jones at St. Katherine’s, she told us something they do is therapeutic lying. So if the patient has really bad Alzheimer’s and their mother died 15 years ago, but they’re asking “Have you seen my mom?  Is she coming today” don’t tell them “No, your mother passed away 50 years ago,” because they get mad. You tell them “Yeah, she went to the jewelry store across the street and will be right back.” Because [otherwise] they will get angry and violent and you don’t want them to get violent . . . 

What advice do you have for teachers who want to try this kind of thing in their classes?

Austin: Definitely tell students that they have the option to be interactive, like have an interview, because you could just look stuff up on the internet and write it down and it goes in one ear and out the other and no one understands it. But having an interactive slide where there is a video of somebody talking to somebody else, it explains it a lot better.  

William: The doctor I interviewed, he was very entertaining, and he kept it funny. He kept describing the brain and certain parts of the brain and their functions.  He basically summarized a whole med school class in a joke. It was hilarious. He’d say “the cerebral cortex is the Kardashian of the brain . . it does nothing except spread the gossip” and that’s how I understood what the part of the brain did, it just sorts stuff and spreads it through the brain.

Holden: You could do basic research, but if you go over and beyond even without the choice, one that can help develop traits later on in your life, and also, it could get you a better grade, possibly and show your teacher that you are actually trying yourself. . .

For me, there is much to celebrate in this story.  Holden celebrated his higher grade, but for me, the real kicker is Perry’s observation that the kids that did the interviewing retained the information so much better and were thus able to more clearly present it to their peers.  Isn’t it funny how the best project-based-learning opportunities can support (rather than detract from) the traditional content-driven goals of any classroom?

In that email I am so glad he sent me many weeks ago, Perry put in the disclaimer that his story was about student innovation, not teacher innovation.  But the more I think about it, the more I can’t untangle the two. His pedagogical plans to incorporate student-choice driven presentations invited in the spirit of exploration that pushed Holden, Austin, and William to connect what they were studying in school to real-life careers and professionals.  Perry’s mere mention of the possibility of interviewing experts nudged these seventh graders into a wide world of potential mentors and connections, proving to them that learning is an enterprise that is so much bigger than the four walls of the schoolhouse. In this way, their innovation and his innovation proved inextricable and, together, led to the production of some pretty inspiring stuff.