A particular joy of my role as Lower Division Head at The Park School is the opportunity to walk the hallways and grounds, witnessing all the learning as it happens every day. It’s a joy that I usually get to share with colleagues and with the many parents who move freely around the hallways, witnessing the day to day magic. This year, amidst COVID-19, our efforts to protect the integrity of our clusters – contained groupings of students and teachers who work together and avoid crossing into other clusters – mean there is much less opportunity for colleagues and parents to visit, and yet the joy that constitutes the Park experience is still palpable.
Five weeks into the new academic year, our students continue to amaze me on so many levels. They have demonstrated flexibility, resiliency, and adaptability in the past weeks that have surpassed what I thought was possible. They remind me on a daily basis that being outdoors is good for all of us, that eating a picnic lunch is fun, and that there are opportunities to collaborate even when sitting at a desk, socially distanced from classmates.
Park students have returned to school to learn – and learning and growing is what they are doing! As I walk the grounds and peer into classrooms, I see students who are curious, observant, and reflective. I also see children who in a short time have built new friendships and feel part of a community.
Early Childhood Classrooms: A Foundation for Discovery
If you could visit PreKindergarten, you would immediately be struck by the industriousness of the students. They are playing in the woods, they are on the swings, or the climbing structure. You can hear them making new discoveries, negotiating how to share a stick or taking turns on the swings. Learning is happening through the play that they are engaged in.
Joining a morning meeting you would quickly be impressed with the level of questioning and the observations made by PreK students after reading a book that prompts them to answer the question, “How are we alike and how are we different?” This question leads to collecting data about characteristics that are shared amongst the students. Teachers seamlessly weave in math, science, and literacy teaching into a single lesson and the children are transfixed.
Whether outside or indoors, our Kindergarteners are sorting collections and asking what is similar about how the shapes are sorted, what are the attributes that they have in common. In science, students are looking at weather and observing how it feels, how it looks, and then taking those observations and creating storm stories during their writing workshop. Children incorporate all that they have taken in and learn how to communicate their discoveries to those around them. Kindergarten students are builders and architects who enjoy time outdoors creating and designing with classmates.
Grades 1 & 2: Applying Foundational Skills
By Grade 1, students are learning the important skill of choosing just the right books to ensure they are reading and understanding what they have read, working on math problem-solving and interpreting what the story problem is asking them to add or subtract. They are refining their storytelling skills and applying them to journal writing and small moment stories. All that noticing, all those details, all that curious gathering – first graders channel all of it into the projects they engage in their classrooms.
By the time students get to Grade 2, the foundational skills acquired through discovery and play become second nature, ready tools for them to apply to increasingly complex academic challenges. Their interdisciplinary focus on global studies launched in these early weeks of school as children delved into the notion of “identity.” Beginning with a close understanding of their own identity, they then consider the identity of their peers, and broaden that to the question of “How are second graders around the world similar to and different from me?,” applying the empathy born of connecting with the individual humanity of people both near and far. In this work, they realize the many shared aspects of people that bring us together, even across differences of language and culture and across borders.
Grades 3 & 4: Advancing with Confidence
Third graders build further on that deep understanding of culture and history with a yearlong study of Native Americans. This fall, the students delved deeply into the meaning of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which challenged them to think about the culture and history of the original occupants of the land we live on now. In art, they are weaving colorful baskets, and in science, they are using a variety of different apps to apply their observational skills in new ways. They are also strengthening their conceptual understanding of multiplication as they build arrays, overlapping two arrays to find a related product (e.g. 8×5 and 8×6). They practice skip counting and write multiplication word problems. The observational skills they practice are put to the test as they work to find patterns and make conjectures, including using a “hundreds chart” to highlight multiples of related numbers and finding consecutive number sums.
Math is a center of creative learning in Grade 4, which begins with a focus on Inspirational Math, a Jo Boaler program designed to challenge and inspire elementary aged students with complex tasks. The Investigations program includes using arrays to find all factors of a number, which numbers are square, prime and composite and how to use an array to depict that number. The students applied their knowledge of arrays, perimeter, and area to create a zoo on graph paper given challenging constraints, and a dog run with a given cost per foot of fencing. This creative problem solving continues as they begin learning to play musical instruments, and finds vibrant expression in their art classes, where they build on observations to create their own mythical creatures. Another important lesson in observation came as part of their Library studies, where they learned to “read” the feelings expressed by other people’s eyes even when the rest of their faces are obscured by masks (see four examples below). This exercise serves as a great foundation for the Empathy Task Force which is getting underway for its third year. Twelve self-nominated fourth graders will work together to propose ideas to build community with younger Park students even as we are challenged to remain contained in our clusters.
As we contemplated the return to campus amidst health and safety-related restrictions, we thought our school community would necessarily feel diminished. The opposite is proving true. Our students are naturally wired to find and build community despite obstacles. Restricted as they necessarily are to working within their cluster, they are bonding more tightly than ever. They are building friendships with peers they might not have sought out before. Elements of programming we thought would be restrictive have instead produced deeper connections than we’ve seen before. Even on a recent rainy day when all the children were contained inside, sitting six feet apart in the hallways to eat their lunch, their playful and creative spirit was undimmed.
On-Campus Learning has, certainly, provided the benefits we expected. Students are thriving in this opportunity to come together with classmates and teachers after long months of separation. We believe children learn best in and through relationships with others, and that this is best supported by joining as a community, and these opening weeks of school have underscored the value of this belief. Our teachers have worked so hard to be there for their students and our parents have risen to every challenge, making for a great partnership.
Our surprise, however, comes from witnessing just how adaptable, how flexible and resilient our students are, and how consistently they find joy and opportunity in circumstances that might otherwise feel limiting. It turns out, vitality is a life force. Park students have shown us that – a lesson in optimism and possibility that surpasses our expectations. For this, we are grateful.