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School Opening Update -- Learning Plan Overview (7.28.20)

Friends,

Slipping behind just a bit on the communications schedule I shared last week, but hopefully it’s given you a chance to recover from any indigestion lingering from last week’s oeuvres.

So tonight (last night), we are (were) scheduled for an overview of this coming year’s plan for learning. Because it was only for a few hours during our end-of-year wrap-up week last month that our by-then-beleaguered faculty had a chance to actually discuss and collaborate on this, this overview won't have as much meat on the bones as Parts 1 & 2 did, but that’s probably a relief. That said, it seems likely that our approach to learning and discovery will be characterized to varying degrees by these four hallmarks:

  1. All-school theme-based units: Concentrating everyone simultaneously on unifying themes will enable greater opportunity for collaboration and conversation, both between faculty and between siblings in different grades, and it will also be broad and flexible enough to allow for any particular class' explorations to go in a variety of directions that feels true to their interests and developmental stage. These readily available ways to collaborate could be especially important and sustaining for teachers in this year when they will be working during the day largely in isolation with their own learning pod; we hope also that it will be enriching and/or simplifying for our families, as it could inspire or enable convergent conversations at home, and reduce the disparate topics that have to be tracked during any possible periods of remote learning.

    Although our team hasn’t yet finalized our list and order of themes for the coming year, the preliminary progression includes community, commonalities and differences, interconnectedness, kindness & empathy, fairness, and action/agency/making a difference. Many of these themes can be found, of course, in our school’s mission statement, and so in this way their deeper exploration this year will also help to strengthen core elements of our school’s identity, culture, and mission, which will be especially helpful in a year when we will be welcoming quite a few new families into our community.

  2. Project-based learning: From my own experiences as a sometimes cynical teenaged student, I first thought project-based learning (or PBL) was just when a take-home project got substituted for a test at the end of a unit. But good, authentic PBL is not merely the dessert that comes after the entree; it is the entire 3-course meal. In PBL, students work on a project over an extended period of time – from a week up to a semester – that engages them in solving a real-world problem or answering a complex question. They often demonstrate their knowledge and skills by creating a public product or presentation for a real audience, some kind of exhibition of learning that is meaningful to them, either collectively, or individually. Along the way, students develop deep content knowledge as well as critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication skills. To see PBL in action, you could watch this video documenting first graders dispelling misconceptions about spiders through research and book-writing, and fourth graders working with scientists and their community to help clean the Anacostia River, or this video documenting a class of third graders working to address local affordable housing shortages by researching and designing “tiny homes” for families in their community. To help us prepare, many of our teachers are reading PBL in the Elementary Grades, by Sara Hallermann, John Larmer, and somebody Mergendoller.

  3. Integration and synergy of subject areas: When and where possible, the projects being pursued and themes being explored will serve as a point of convergence for various subject disciplines. When learning about communities, for instance, we can use math to count and/or graph the numbers and types of people in our community, or to study statistics about different sizes and demographics and budgets; we can use science to explore and understand the different levels and types and concentric rings of communities, human and non-human; in social studies, we can explore how communities can be governed, how they have evolved and organized in the past, how they resolve or avoid conflict; in language arts, the possibilities are limitless. Learning in this way helps young people to experience and discover how different subjects can be brought together to bear on any endeavor to make that exploration more interesting, more informed, more meaningful, rather than experiencing subject disciplines as superficially compartmentalized and unrelated.

  4. Maximizing the learning potential of the outdoors: While some might envision nature-based learning as simply a transfer of familiar classroom practices to an outdoor setting (like, reading under a tree, or doing a math worksheet on a clipboard while sitting in a field), the experience can be considerably more significant and substantive than that. To tap into the full potential of learning outdoors, we can engage our learners in efforts to discover and document the diversity of species on our grounds; to study, understand, and promote good water quality on our campus and community; to study local ecology, agriculture, and food systems in service to redesigning some of our landscape to help address local food scarcity through permaculture. In this way, the natural world is not merely the setting of our learning, but the actual substrate that forms the basis of learning.

And finally, some words about remote learning: As outlined in the first message last week, we're taking extensive steps to maximize the amount of time that our friends are going to be able to be on site learning at school. However, even at the risk of inducing facial tics and recoiling, we would be remiss not to be preparing also for any periods of time when one cohort or the whole school is required instead to learn from home in order to stem the possible spread of the coronavirus. To help make any such period as robust, successful, and smooth as possible, we have been reviewing and revising according to feedback you shared back in June; taking research-based courses through Independent School Management including How to Make Lower School Distance Learning Effective, and The Art and Science of Blended Learning; and drafting a formal Plan for Remote Learning to articulate cornerstones, developmentally-adjusted practices, and expectations for our diverse learners during any period when they might have to learn from home. A preliminary draft of our Remote Learning Plan is attached below, but please bear in mind that it will probably undergo a good bit of revision and refinement once we have all had a chance to finish the summer courses we're taking and collaborate on the document some more once teachers return in mid-August.

We hope this gives you a better idea of what to expect pedagogically this year.

Good night,
Eric