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Getting Creative for Human Connection

By Alex Domine

When former Head of School Ted Sanford met with CWA Founders Sam and Nathalie Brown about a vacant headmaster position at a nascent CWA in 1959, the CWA campus was a small building adjacent to a frost-ravaged peach orchard. While the campus was modest with the future uncertain, it was clear that the spirit of CWA was alive through the connection between the Browns and the Sanfords. 

This moment in CWA history shows that the heart of the school never hinged on its physical space. The 107-acres of outdoor scenery at CWA is a feature that the community sorely misses for the time being, but is not the core of the school’s character. The core of the CWA experience lies beyond the boundaries of buildings and geography, and instead, can be found in its resilient community and human connection, especially in times of uncertainty.

“By aspiring to generate ‘active, joyful learning’ every day for every student, we are re-committing to the long-held CWA value of inspired relational work between faculty and students,” said Head of School Matt Culberson in his most recent State of the School.

While school is in session with a newly designed remote learning program, the idea of inspiring relationships within the CWA community is not new. Considering the pivot into remote learning, the latter is now more important than ever. Activities that foster relationships were high-priorities when CWA’s remote learning program was designed. 

“We wanted to be sure kids could connect and talk to each other. How can our community connect in a way that lets kids communicate with faculty, check-in, and feel like there are structures and routines?” said Director of Educational Technology Holly Gerla, who was heavily involved in getting the program off the ground.

Coach Ryan Johnson running a “virtual track meet” route. Students reported back the routes they took. All athletes ran the same distance.

For example, there is an entire virtual classroom dedicated to clubs. Every student is a member of that virtual classroom, which allows students to see the list of clubs available to them so they can interact with one another and build the community. Similarly, there is a virtual classroom for kids who would like to participate in student government. In both examples, community building and connecting with one another remains the priority. The main difference is the remote nature. 

Since the state’s mandate to close campuses across Washington until the end of the school year, many schools are working to replicate their school day via remote technology. Ms. Gerla explains the unique community approach at CWA and the need for balance in order to prioritize the community and maintain strong academics. 

“We are setting up new systems and new technology, and are deeply aware that our kids are trying to learn them,” said Ms. Gerla. “We don’t want the fatigue of learning new bells and whistles to get in the way of the actual human connection that we’re trying to make.” 

While remote learning has an intentional community building element at CWA, it still takes some time to accept, acclimate, and continue into the new model. The inevitable heartbreak at the onset of remote learning was especially hard for seniors who were already savoring each moment this year before graduation. 

“Since I have been away from the campus for a month, I have learned just how much the school means to me. It is so easy to take daily life for granted, and I now more than ever realize how fortunate we are to be a part of such an amazing community,” said senior Claire L.

Students like Claire are finding themselves looking for opportunities to connect with their peers in casual ways outside of school-sanctioned activities. Faculty recognize the need for these social moments, such as recess and lunch, and are finding ways to replicate them by getting creative with remote technology. 

Rachel Rippl has a specific and unique perspective as a faculty member, current parent of a lower school student, and Middle School Assistant Director. 

“We’re trying to create some space that students can opt into because they miss seeing each other,” said Ms. Rippl. “We want them to be able to grab a snack like they normally would on campus, be with their friends, and have a chance to connect before getting back to the academic work.” 

For example, some faculty are implementing “hangout rooms.” Most kids have a spot on-campus where they go to hang out with their friends during breaks. Faculty are now re-creating that social moment by creating virtual spaces that mimic the physical space. For example, there is a “red steps hangout room,” so any student who would normally hang out on the red steps during a break can go to that virtual room and see the people they would have seen if they were on the red steps at school. There is a virtual hangout room for students who hang out in the library, one for the students who play Magic cards in the hallway, and so on. 

Younger students have a similar opportunity during their virtual snack tables. As a parent, Ms. Rippl describes seeing her lower school kid excited for virtual snack tables because it is a time they get to see their friends on Zoom.

“I’ve been watching my kids looking forward to seeing their friends. They can be silly, they don’t have to be in student-mode. This is time they get to play and have fun,” she adds. “Since some of that is lost, we want to find a way to recreate this for kids because we find that it is a motivator for them.” 

Ms. Rippl explains that with everyone at home, faculty don’t want to lose the human interaction and connection, and the longer they stay in remote learning mode, the more important it becomes to retain aspects of CWA’s community-based culture, and that includes casual social time in addition to remote academics.

More examples of virtual community building include virtual track meets where students each run the same distance during a specific period of time, remote improv sessions for young performing arts students, and Lower School town meetings. CWA has the technology to make these moments available, but they wouldn’t be a reality or have the same impact without the community that is already intrinsic to all Tarriers. 

“Our community is so collaborative in this virtual setting, and It’s not because of the technology,” Ms. Gerla said. “It’s because we can’t wait to see each other and that interaction is intentional and it matters, even if we’re behind a screen.”

Ms. Gerla explains that there is a lot that students and faculty can do as a community synchronously (during a face-to-face check-in via Zoom), but faculty are choosing to be intentional about the time students spend together and the time students work independently (asynchronously).

“I’ve seen schools provide a laptop and try to replicate the school day in front of a screen, and that is really taxing on students,” she said. “We want our face-to-face time on Zoom to matter so we can check-in with students, and give them the support they need to practice asynchronously.”

Ms. Rippl explains that focusing synchronous time on check-ins, socializing, community building, and group activities, motivates students and gives them energy for their academic work.

“We’re not looking to cover just more content. We’re looking to be with our kids in meaningful ways and to look at how we can continually adjust our program to new layers and a better overall experience.”

The powerful connection between faculty and students is something that has always been true of Charles Wright, whether the experience is delivered in-person or remotely. It is consistently a fond memory among the alumni community.

“My experience was rich with these teachers that really care,” said alumna J’nai Bridges ‘05, who has been a Tarrier since she was 11 years old. J’nai will be receiving this year’s Alumna of the Year award for her career in opera and advocacy for access to the arts. 

Relationships at CWA remain central. It is one of the biggest differences between remote learning at CWA and simply getting a stack of worksheets to replace a child’s school day.

“We don’t want students to feel isolated or alone, we want them to feel connected and supported. We want them to know that we’re still here for them,” said Ms. Rippl. 

“The teachers really invest in students,” added Bridges. “That’s Charles Wright.”