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Our Free Union Way

2020 Spring Semester: School Was In Session But Not On Campus

Students meeting on ZoomAs a school, we see one of our biggest strengths as that of making and building relationships—math clubs, garden weeders, bird watchers, book groups, basketball shooters, worm and caterpillar rescuers all joined together daily in our interests and pursuits. How does a school that relishes connections teach from afar?

First, we look for ways to help our students stay connected to each other and at the same time, we hope, learn something about resilience, nimbleness, and creativity. In a world that is changing so dramatically, we offer proof that we are still here. All School Morning Meetings, individual lessons, enhanced "thumbs up" skills, shared lunchtimes, and all the regulars: language arts, math, Spanish, music, naturalist, science, and social studies. Maybe not in the same room but definitely busy!

If you are a preschooler, you might tune into a morning meeting via Zoom teleconferencing app, watch your teacher Katie read a book (while chickens roam through the yard and sometimes in front of the book!), compose a story and send it to your teacher Sarah to become part of the “Chicken Tales” podcast, or report on how many birds, worms, flowers, or bees you happened upon.

Our pre-kindergarten class sings their classroom greeting together in Zoom every morning with Christine and Nicole, wiggles a bit, practices taking turns with shares, experiments with numbers, shows the growth of their bean seed experiments, and tallies bird counts—some with great precision, some with great imagination!

Kindergarten and first grade join together every morning with a screen full of faces launched from tables to cozy nooks. They share, they ask questions, they chat—there is lots to say with this crew. We’ve watched dog tricks, learned about an orphaned goat and watched it bottle feeding, discussed our favorite roasted marshmallow temperature, looked at nature finds like rocks and snake skins, and then reconvened for more direct instruction time in language arts, math, and science.

Expect the unexpected at second-grade morning meeting with Beth and Bonnie, baby chicks cracking out of their shells after 21 days complete with a chick-naming contest (Rosey, Pearl, Brutus, and Meatball), or a student living room now hosting the Great Wall of China to complement their study of ancient Chinese culture. There are daily “must do’s” (20 minutes of reading) and a plethora of “May do’s” (including science at home, Spanish lessons, poetry writing, wildflower fun, and much more).

Blair and his third graders were part of a school-wide poetry fest for April as National Poetry Month. Students and teachers recorded poems and shared them online and in class. Blair invites his students into math and writing assignments in fun ways. Applying graphs and rudimentary algebra, the students had four days to determine the number of calories in a bun after studying a menu with calories listed. His students may never look at a menu the same way again! Perhaps a trifecta—a writing assignment about feelings after listening to a John Coltrane jazz rendition while eating a burger? It is quite heartening to hear the students continue to support each other's shares and comments whether in the classroom or on a screen.

Recently the fourth and fifth graders returned from a field trip to South Korea where they visited the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Kidding! It was a virtual field trip, which has become the way we connect with each other and the world these days. Though miles apart, 4/5 joined retirees at The Center here in Charlottesville to share their favorite poetry (If you’d like to join any future sessions, you should drop them a line! ). Zoom classes in math and language arts have inspired students to redefine the three Rs: Reading, Writing, and Research on the web. For a school that has deliberately moderated all things digital, our 4/5ers have found creative outlets for songwriting, flower-identifying, and contest-creating (The Sweet 16 Bird Tournament). Most encouraging has been the explosion of kindness among peers leaving notes for each other on the classroom digital wall.

To sample the breadth of these and other learning endeavors our students have been enjoying at the Free Union “satellite campuses,” take a look at the slideshow on our school website.

Though the school is empty, learning is happening at full tilt. We find that students at home are reading more, sleeping longer, and enjoying the chance to explore their own interests at their own pace. But universally, they cannot wait to return to Free Union, to be with friends, to ask questions of teachers in real time (without being muted), and to enjoy the three-dimensional social and academic adventure of school.

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