The Community Students Can Count On
by Alex Domine
Lower school teacher Carie Ward began her 20th year of teaching last September, so she thought she knew what to expect — a classroom full of curious students coming into school five days a week, and 107 acres of space for activity and play. Six months later, her routines for the year came to a grinding halt when the campus closed in response to the novel Coronavirus. Carie Ward, along with the rest of the faculty at CWA, demonstrated what a commitment to care looks like in times of uncertainty.
“We all (teachers, staff) are working hard to continue providing excellent learning experiences for students,” said Ward, “Last week was the most demanding week of my professional career – and we will work hard to continue providing excellent learning experiences for students.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Charles Wright Academy moved to remote learning. While school at CWA continues to be in session, the student experience looks different compared to the energetic commotion of learning on a 107-acre campus.
Middle and Upper School Teacher Nikki FastLee explained that the highest priority is for students to stay connected as a community and continue to engage with teachers.
“We are making a point to check in with every single student we have. We reach out to them and check-in that they are personally doing okay,” said Ms. Fastlee. “We’ve all been thrown into this in a way that no one could’ve predicted, but the fact that I can still offer 1-to-1 support is amazing for me and the students.”
In addition to grounding the community through virtual 1-to-1 connections, maintaining structure with routine is especially vital in remote learning. The advent of a virtual classroom in a student’s routine calls for families to re-imagine what a Charles Wright experience looks like from their own homes, which can be a heavy lift for everyone involved.
Reciting a play in the Stice family living room
“Charles Wright has taken the guesswork out for us and managed to maintain the high standard of learning our kids are lucky to have,” said Nicole Stice.
Her children are in third grade, fifth grade, and eighth grade at Charles Wright. This means that two of her children are getting ready to move to the next school division, but remote learning takes these transitions into consideration. For example, in Ms. FastLee’s history class, it is now more important for a student to know how to research and find credible sources than it is for them to memorize the events of WWII.
“I’m making sure students have the skills they need them to have in order to be successful next year,” said Ms. FastLee. “They’re still getting the information, they’re still learning the same skills, they’re just using a different path to get there.”
In the new remote learning paradigm, faculty are connecting the community and ensuring students have vital skill sets, all while maintaining the integrity of a high-standard learning experience. With these combined efforts, students can rely on some sense of normalcy.
“All three of my boys were very excited to see their friends and teachers again through remote learning,” said Stice.
The sense of normalcy is especially true and important for the Corrdry family, who is expecting to see their son Ted begin his senior year in the fall.
“For the parent of teenagers – this has been pretty smooth. I’ve enjoyed listening to the lectures/instruction and hearing people ask questions and hearing the teacher’s voice,” said Jessica Corrdry.
Normalcy isn’t achieved through just virtual instruction. In addition to at-home academic learning, the remote learning program includes daily face-to-face time with teachers, weekly individual check-ins, weekly advisory and community meetings, and virtual P.E. across all divisions.
“Seeing the kids on Wednesday for the first day of remote learning was amazing. I loved being able to see them and see their reactions, it was almost like being on campus,” said Ms. FastLee.
While many components are similar, remote learning must look different for individual divisions to a certain degree with different modes and activities that are developmentally appropriate for each age. For example, in the Lower School, Registrar Mandy Marcellis is providing remote story time every day at noon.
“Remote learning at CWA is more than a worksheet,” said Ms. Marcellis.
“I hope story time grounds them in a world that is not normal right now. This is a time where the kids can unplug and relax. We put everything aside, and we don’t think about anything but the story.”
The faculty have also made sure that club participation is still an opportunity through remote learning. Clubs build community, which is paramount to the Middle School experience.
“They need each other as they start growing in independence and practicing characteristics of who they will become,” said middle school teacher Rob Scotlan. “Their friends and peers feel more central and critical to their day to day life than potentially at any other grade level.”
Clubs and similar specialized activities provide more fodder for building community during remote learning. Lower School and Middle School Technology Integration Specialist Joe Sparano designed a website dedicated to specialized subjects such as art, library, music, P.E, Spanish, and technology, all designed for at-home activities. Activities range from setting up your own art studio to putting on a play in your living room.
“These activities allow kids to live parts of their days as athletes and scientists and artists, and that exploration is essential in helping them discover who they are and who they might become,” said Mr. Sparano. “Our remote activities are an opportunity for kids to continue practicing and developing those interests even when they’re at home.”
The Upper School program comes with its own unique challenges, given students preparing for AP exams. Fortunately, the College Board’s decision to eliminate two major topics from the AP exam affords seniors some breathing room. While CWA students are remote, they can still rely on the same support and care from Upper School faculty.
“Our expectations remain high and optimistic,” said Upper School AP Teacher David Kangas. “Students still know that we want them to shine on that national exam test day and I love the integrity I’m seeing from them.”
Mr. Kangas explained that the College Board’s decision for the May exams reduces the volume for students and created more time for them to find fluency in AP subject matter.
“I’ve sensed an eagerness from students to keep moving and the same sense of curiosity that I saw in them face to face,” said Mr. Kangas. “The support we can offer them is the same as if we were still in regular session, because that is who we are as a faculty.
As outlined in CWA’s Family Guide to Remote Learning, the remote learning program isn’t designed to replicate the on-campus experience exactly. However, maintaining a strong community and engaging with teachers is a priority, and that has been true of the Charles Wright experience regardless of whether a student is on-campus or off-campus.
“Engaging with students and families around the shared experience of being a Tarrier fosters important relationships and partnerships that ultimately lead to valuable experiences and learning opportunities,” said Mr. Scotlan.
Head of School Matt Culberson made it clear in his most recent letter to alumni that the school will continue to keep the student’s well being as the center of gravity for everything the school will do.
“At Charles Wright Academy every decision we make begins with the question, ‘What is best for students?’ Our answer even as we navigate the unchartered waters of a global pandemic was clear. Students need to stay connected and engaged – with their classmates, with their teachers, and with their Charles Wright community.”
So while CWA’s usual reality on-campus is suspended for the time being, its spirit for community and excellence in learning is passing a stress test that no one could have anticipated. Tarriers of all ages are staying connected to one another, which is and always has been the foundation for learning at CWA, remote or otherwise. Students are developing skills and creativity, and their experience continues to nurture and challenge.
“I hope students know we are tremendously proud of their flexibility, open mindset, responsibility, independence, collaboration, and support of each other,” said Ward, reflecting on the last few weeks. “Our teaching really is based on relationships, and I am glad that students are seeing their teachers take risks, learn new skills, think in novel ways, and make mistakes — just like we ask our students to do.”
Regardless of how the COVID-19 situation unfolds in the world around us, the Spring of 2020 will be documented as a moment in CWA history as an example of what it means to navigate the future with confidence.