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COVID Innovations to Keep

Paul Downey, Assistant Director of Marketing & Communications
Although few people want to continue living under the restrictions necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, intrepid educators at Ensworth have learned that going back to the way they used to do things is not always the best course of action.

Collaboration at the Lower School

At the Lower School, the teachers of “Specials”—Chinese, Spanish, art, library, science, technology, and music—have stepped up collaboration in recent years. The restrictions brought about by the pandemic only served to strengthen this teamwork.

In 2019, music teacher Heidi Wolter, librarian Leslea Gaines, and Chinese teacher Caitlin Harris devised a cross-disciplinary project called “Mosaic” for their professional development. Grade 3 students combined lessons from Chinese, music, art, and library to create the stop-motion animated story of Ye Xian, a traditional Chinese folk tale similar to the Western world’s Cinderella. Mrs. Harris explains that, in Chinese, the students focused “mostly on the story of Ye Xian using high-frequency words to tell the story, and expressing emotion through interjections and patterns.” In music class, Mrs. Wolter had her students choose Chinese folk songs to record as the score using xylophones and percussion instruments. In art, students learned about and painted rich backdrops in Shan Shui Hua, a style of Chinese landscape painting. With audio recording and video editing by Terri Schultz and the tech team, the final product consisted of short segments with each student performing the narration and character animation.

In the first year of Mosaic, students and teachers could meet whenever and wherever was convenient and in close proximity to one another, but restrictions brought on by the pandemic changed that. Instead of the students traveling to the library or music and art rooms, they had to remain in their homerooms, with the Specials teachers coming to them. But after seeing in the previous year how much interdisciplinary study helps learning come alive for students, the teachers doubled down on collaboration.

“After COVID and year two of Mosaic and the Peace Project, teachers are more committed than ever to explore interdisciplinary learning,” says Mrs. Harris. “The classroom teachers got to see and enjoy all of the Specials teachers coming into their room, so they could watch those teachers in action, and vice-versa, the Specials got an up-close view of classroom units.”

This year, they were able to produce another Mosaic video telling the story of the Chinese mythological figures of Houyi and Chang’e, as well as an even more far-reaching collaborative project.

The Peace Project brought together the Lower School students like no previous collaborative project for the Specials teachers. Students across several grades produced pieces of art, music, and dance, and all Red Gables students and faculty were able to experience the campus-wide walk-through exhibit. The peace theme also had a practical use. “We thought bringing peace into our curriculum in this difficult year would be a perfect way to enrich our curriculum and develop a sense of community,” Mrs. Harris explains.

The Lower School students have also taken notice of how much the collaborative atmosphere has transformed learning. “Every time we’re all together,” remarks Mrs. Gaines, “all you hear the kids say is, ‘I love that all of our Specials teachers are working together.’ What an opportunity for us to be able to get together and work with these kids across our disciplines.”

Minecraft in the Middle School

In Middle School, students have the opportunity to learn in the Makerspace Innovation Course that incorporates basic coding skills, design thinking curriculum, and 3D design projects. The class involves building and working through problems in a very hands-on, collaborative way.

Jenny Krzystowczyk, Technology Integrationist and Innovation Lab Instructor, explains how her usual way of conducting class was not going to work this year: “In years past, students would use materials like cardboard, hot glue, paper, and other materials to complete design challenges. With COVID-19 came the reality that sharing materials wasn’t going to work. In came Minecraft EDU.”

“There is often a misconception when incorporating gaming and virtual worlds into education,” she explains. “Rest assured that Minecraft is a challenge for most students and one they overcome while learning how to code, build, and collaborate. Hearing students switch from saying ‘I have never done this,’ to ‘Mrs. K. come see what I built!’ is fantastic!”

This year, students used Minecraft EDU to work on projects such as constructing ancient villages, designing the perfect acoustic room, creating environments for honeybees, and learning about coral reef habitats. Mr. House’s annual Trojan Horse project in Latin class, which would have been canceled due to COVID restrictions, was also brought to life by Minecraft EDU. Students designed their own physical model of a Trojan Horse and presented them to generals (Ensworth faculty) in a Shark Tank-style pitch.

“Students are not only thinking, like the Greeks at Troy, about how to overcome ancient city walls and defenses,” Mr. House describes. “They are now designing and building Troy itself. The level of creativity, collaboration, and thought I have seen from using Minecraft has opened my eyes to greater possibilities for this project than I could have imagined previously. That these opportunities have been born from adapting to our new COVID-19 reality is a powerful lesson for all students and educators.”

Introducing Minecraft has also let some students, who would not otherwise shine, take leadership roles. “We have some amazing coders and Minecraft builders who really helped other students in a way that they never had before,” Jenny explains. “All of a sudden, we had new experts in the classroom.”

Minor Changes with Big Impact at the High School

Teachers and administrators at Ensworth’s High School are steadfast in continually assessing the best ways that students can thrive, but they have the wisdom to see how small changes across multiple areas can have a significant impact. Although these gradual innovations might not be cover-worthy for education journals, measured adjustments can have longer-lasting benefits for adolescents.

With the sweeping modifications to campus when students returned to school in August 2020 came the necessity to pivot in several operational areas. Changes to foot traffic patterns meant that getting from one place to another would take longer, having a cascade of consequences in several routines, including morning drop-off. Although much of the high school education world has not adopted the practice, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that high schools start after 8:30 a.m. The AAP explains that “a substantial body of research has now demonstrated that delaying school start times is an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep loss and has a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement.” Since enacting this change in August 2020, the High School has seen these benefits, enjoying an easier morning for everyone with less stress for the community and reduced traffic, both inside and outside the gates.

Similarly, modifications to lunch locations forced the administration to eliminate the requirement that students only eat lunch and snack in the dining hall. As a consequence, clubs and other extracurriculars had more opportunities to meet. Teachers and sponsors learned how to take advantage of spaces in different ways, such as utilizing the Quad for Prom and Rock Band and Encore concerts.

And when faculty were forced to communicate 100% electronically during remote learning in the Spring of 2020, teachers and administrators assessed which communications channels were the most effective. Students began to receive a greater number of emails from their teachers, so some faculty began to mix in other forms of communication such as pre-recorded video for communications and even instruction. This reduces what educational psychologists call “cognitive load” for the students, freeing them up to consume information asynchronously and at their own pace. In this way, Ensworth’s adolescents can learn information in chunks with each lesson building a firm foundation for advanced concepts, a technique known as “scaffolding.”
Doug Magee, Associate Head of High School, explains how the school chose primarily to focus on tools students and faculty already use such as TigerNet, the online learning management system. “We did a lot to organize academic resources for our classes in online spaces to make them accessible to students regardless of learning context,” he recalls. “A lot of work went into the design of this experience.”

“Resources and assignments should help students apprehend content and develop skills efficiently,” he explains. “This takes a lot of coordination across a robust academic and extracurricular program. In the long run, high-quality online presence supports the culture of on-campus learning. We are using our learning management system and integrated resources to build a more cohesive experience for the student.”

In this way, Ensworth educators across the K-12 continuum used the negative experience of the pandemic to create a net positive for current and future students.
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