When Covid-19 began to hit Georgia hard in March of 2020, The New School found itself facing some challenging questions: How does a school built on its tightly-knit community continue to thrive when its students and teachers are physically scattered? How can we keep students engaged and excited about learning when they’ve stopped coming to school, and don’t know when they might come back? And how can students participate in meaningful community-engaged learning when the community isn’t a safe place to be?
How we answered these questions, and succeeded in the era of Covid-19, says a lot about who we are at The New School, and so I thought it was worth sharing.
Be Prepared – And Act Quickly
While none of us were prepared for a world-wide pandemic a few months ago, when we began to fear that the outbreak could get much worse, we sprang into action, planning for a possible closure of the school building. We worked as a faculty to set up a remote learning system, and we tested it out in real time while students were still at school. Honestly, we thought we were over-preparing, as it seemed incredible that things would move as quickly as they did. But that preparation allowed us to move with great speed once it became clear that it wasn’t safe to continue holding in-person school. While many colleges and other high schools took one or even two weeks on hold, as they prepared to transition to remote learning, at The New School, we took a 3-day weekend, and then we jumped in.
Connect, Connect, Connect
Which isn’t to say we weren’t worried. Because we had committed to a schedule of live classes every day, we were worried about the technology – the possibility of Zoom crashing; of our students’ wifi and cameras and microphones not being up to the task; of our not mastering sharing our screens and using virtual break-out rooms and whiteboards so that we could seamlessly transition our classes. And while we avoided all of those technological pitfalls, it turns out that those weren’t the kind of connections that were most important for remote learning. We quickly learned that we needed to focus our energies on staying connected to our students, in lots of different ways, as they navigated this confusing, uncertain time in their lives. So we doubled down on one-on-one time between students and their teachers (advisory meetings, periodic check-ins, extra help sessions) and we continued to focus on whole group virtual gatherings (like Morning Meeting and Dismissal every day for the whole school). Our goals in the realm of connection were two-fold: to make sure every one of our students was being heard and known, and to give each of them a sense that they were still an important part of a larger community, even though they might not have left their own home in the past month.
Communication – A 2-Way Street
We knew from the start that if we were going to succeed during a stretch of remote learning, we were going to have to communicate with our students and families constantly, and that the best thing we could do was to be transparent about our process – what our thought process was regarding closing in-person school, how we had decided to move to fully synchronous instruction, why we chose to maintain a grade-based system as opposed to moving to pass/fail or no grades, as many schools did. But more than talking to our families, we made sure to really listen to them. There were as many COVID-19 stories as there were students at The New School, and each family had its own set of challenges. From families in the restaurant or movie businesses, who saw their livelihoods disappear, to families of 12th graders despondent over the lack of traditional end-of-year ceremonies, to those with immunocompromised family members who were worried about staying safe, we found that The New School actually turned into a closer, more responsive school during this time, as we really listened to our students and our families’ hopes and concerns.
The Show Must Go On!
At The New School, we’re passionate about Exhibitions of Student Learning, twice-yearly events where students present their work, and talk about it with families, friends, community partners and others. And as we often say at TNS, the best way to get a sense of our school is to interact with our students. But how to do this in the era of physical distancing? Our 12th Exhibition of Student Learning was our first ever Zoom-based, remote Exhibition. What did they come up with during this remarkable time?
Entrepreneurship students worked on their small businesses, like Olivia and Gabe’s drone photography venture Airspace Apertures; Christian, Ajani, and Jamie’s ice cream and sorbet business Joy in a Cup; and Oshun Body Goods, Amar’s natural bath goods company. 9th and 10th graders worked on individual Personal Learning Projects, each of them choosing something that they really wanted to learn, coming up with a plan, and working hand-in-hand with a faculty member for two months. They learned things like stencil-making for street art, or a suit of armor; they developed their own clothing lines, and advanced a project to help stop the exploitation of the Talibe in Senegal, to name just a few. And we had young filmmakers making amazing films, some even in Spanish or stop-motion; artists working in oils, printmaking, and collage; and audio production and theater students recording radio-ready songs, like these from Beyah and Brooklyn and Rafi, and Bye Helen, Ace’s dramatic podcast in the form of a diary.
So, how did your school year finish up? Let us know! Or stop by the Virtual TNS Information Session on Wednesday, June 17th, from 6:00-7:00 PM. Click HERE to let us know you want to join, and we’ll send you the Zoom link, so we can talk face to face. You can talk to Jill Lum, our Director of Admissions, a teacher or two, and even a current TNS student, to learn more about whether The New School would be a good fit for you or your student.