As Calhoun transitioned to a hybrid model, teachers and administrators took on the challenge of maintaining a sense of community in the face of physical distance. Through deliberate lesson planning and the incorporation of additional virtual spaces for connection, Calhoun students are forging new relationships and nurturing old ones both in-school and online.
First grade teachers Erika Brinzac and Destiny Orr revamped their community building activities to fit the new reality of schooling. “We really got to know our students through one-on-one [virtual] meetings,” says Destiny. To prepare, Erika and Destiny crafted questions for their students in order to learn details about them that they would have otherwise learned organically in the classroom. The teachers share a unique cluster— half of their students attend school physically while half attend virtually. They quickly adapted and found ways to connect students with one another— regardless of location— through buddy interviews. “We were very intentional about making sure that they got to know us and their peers,” recalls Destiny. The results were students who felt connected despite physical distance. With their cluster split between home and school, they have adjusted their planning to ensure that equity remains a priority. For class projects, the teachers send materials home for virtual learners so that all students can engage in the same way. “It's important to us that the kids in school don't have more opportunities just because they're in the building,” says Erika.
For Lower School—Elementary Spanish teacher Daniel Ercilla, community building is rooted in shared routine. Daily cluster meetings, Daniel says, help create a sense of normalcy for students and connect them through a shared experience. Creating opportunities for Calhouners to come together both in person and online is crucial, and thoughtfully planned by teachers and administrators. Remote-only students get together for lunches, and the Lower School—-Elementary affinity group SOCS (Students of Color Society) meets online. Maintaining and facilitating these meetings, Daniel says, creates a sense of closeness among LS-E students by making them feel seen both as individuals and members of a larger community.
This year, the Lower School—Elementary division moved to a new building to facilitate social distancing. Choosing a name for the building — now known as Cougars' Cave — was an important part of creating connection. The division held an assembly to vote on the name, and used it as an opportunity to shed light on the voting process of the 2020 presidential election. In doing this, Daniel recalls, “The members of the community — whether they are students, teachers or staff — felt connected and part of our community.” Weekly virtual assemblies bring the entire division together to learn, celebrate successes and share knowledge with peers.
"I'm so excited about how incredible the sense of community has been under the circumstances." - Middle School Dean of Students Nayantata Mhatre
In Middle School, the reimagined hybrid schedule presented an opportunity to find new ways to connect. This year, students enjoyed an additional advisory period, allowing for more time for peer interaction. At the start of the year, the period was deliberately focused on community building. Students would engage in activities like scavenger hunts and games that intentionally brought the cluster together. Later, advisors used the period to delve into topics related to social-emotional learning and growth. For instance, in the lead up to the election, the time was used to allow students to discuss how to address differing opinions and conflict.
With the Middle School hybrid schedule, sixth graders attend class in person five days a week, while seventh and eighth graders alternate between in-person and remote classes. In integrating the new advisory period, equity remained at the heart of decision-making, says Middle School Dean of Students Nayantara Mhatre. “We prioritized putting advisory on days when [seventh and eighth grade] are fully remote so that it would be more of an equitable experience,” says Nayantara. By doing this, students experience and engage in the period in the same way.
Outside of clusters, Middle Schoolers also attend affinity groups where they connect with peers who share a particular identity. Clubs continue to thrive during hybrid learning and represent a diverse spectrum of interests. This year, club topics range from anime to radio to ludology. “I'm so excited about how incredible the sense of community has been under the circumstances,” reflects Nayantara.
Clubs have also been a key component to building connection amongst Upper Schoolers. Clubs have always been an important piece of the Upper School experience, but this year there is renewed excitement around the virtual spaces, says Martha Fischoff, Upper School Dean of Students. “Students are dedicated. There's a fervor around meeting and organizing that we haven't seen before.” Some students have founded clubs based on classes they’ve taken, wanting to extend their learning with peers. A new Technical Theater club was born out of an Upper School class on the same topic and now meets twice weekly.
Town Meeting has always been a point of connection for Upper Schoolers. Now programming has shifted to foster engagement in the virtual space. During the election, for example, the Upper School hosted a multitude of opt-in programs around voting and other election-related topics to allow students to have important conversations about current events. Changes to the schedule have also given Upper Schoolers more opportunities to meet outside of class periods while maintaining a sense of routine. “Students see their cluster adviser every single day,” says Martha. Having a home base with a cluster, she says, is even more important now given external uncertainty.
Through all of the hurdles of switching to hybrid learning, the strength of the Calhoun community remains unchanged. The connection that Calhouners have with one another is a credit to their own adaptability and the intentional planning of the educators around them who prioritize the student experience. Maintaining a strong community has proven to be essential to the learning experience now more than ever before, and our students continue to thrive because of it. “Where the rest of the world feels unstable,” says Martha, at Calhoun “it has become clearer how we want to show up for each other.”