Typically at this time of year, we would be reaching out to you to schedule your student’s Sneak Peek Day visit to The Children’s School, and also to invite you to our end-of-year picnic so you could start connecting with people in the TCS community. Instead, in this very atypical year, those events have been altered, cancelled. or postponed as we wait to find out what Fall 2020 will look like in Illinois schools.
Given that, I wanted to share with you some of what we have recently shared with returning families about what we are thinking and planning. This is a longer note that touches on the value of progressive education, how we are preparing for next year, and how TCS is helping families financially.
Progressive Education & Remote Learning
Back in March, when our school building closed, it was unclear to us how a play-based, project-based, experiential curriculum like TCS’ could translate into a remote learning setting. After the past two months, and despite challenges, we have come to see that progressive education is more relevant than ever to what we want for our children and for ourselves.
Right now parents and teachers all over the world are asking themselves: Can a remote learning program truly engage children in a way that furthers excitement about learning without creating battles or boredom at home? Does progressive education offer advantages in a remote learning environment?
The answer is yes and yes.
Here’s what conventional programs are finding:
The work of school communities is enormously challenging in any circumstance, but COVID further exposes shortcomings of the industrial design of mainstream schooling. When students have not practiced setting goals or taking charge of their learning, they struggle to self-direct when working remotely. When students work on academic subjects that don’t feel relevant to each other or to real life, it’s harder to stay motivated without a teacher’s oversight. When students are grouped and moved forward by age regardless of what they have or haven’t learned, it is much harder for teachers to meet them where they are. When families are disconnected from students’ learning, it’s harder for them to get involved in moments like this. When school largely focuses on the intellectual side of students’ development, it is challenging to tend to foundational needs like identity affirmation and belonging.
---Transcend (April 2020), “Responding, Recovering, Reinventing: Three Jobs That Matter for School Communities Navigating a COVID World”
This reads like a laundry list of basic principles of progressive education, principles that progressive schools already address and implement. At TCS, our program has always been built on children’s innate love of learning. Whether in a school building or at home, we tap into students’ curiosity to give them the space, personal agency, and tools to forge their own learning agenda. We allow them to meaningfully engage with learning activities based on intrinsic motivation and curiosity instead of the external motivators of grades or artificial consequences. We emphasize community responsibility and group decision-making so that students learn collaboration, communication, and social skills alongside academic learning.
Progressive education practices at TCS nurture lifelong, self-motivated, and resilient learners who know how to set and pursue their own goals, advocate for their own needs, and respect the needs of others. Parents are seen as partners and community members with their own talents, priorities, and needs. Our teachers make an effort to personally engage and connect with each student as well as each parent on an ongoing basis to build understanding and to figure out how a progressive education learning environment can work best for them.
We understand that, especially for families with younger children, remote learning can be difficult. But we are fortunate that progressive education gives us so many great foundations to build on as well as the flexibility to respond to the needs of our students, rather than the needs of a large institution or a standardized testing system.
What Can You Expect for Fall 2020?
Over the past two months, we have had crash course (for teachers, students, AND parents/guardians) in remote learning. We are learning a lot about what works best. Some recent highlights include:
Kindergarten children had large appliance boxes delivered to their homes so that they could continue with their project work creating their Blizzards Town. Children filled out a written order form to order supplies from Ms. Nadine's and Mr. Julio's Everything Shop, a great example of an authentic writing task supporting children's literacy development through a high-interest task. Children are sharing the components of their virtual Town through with photos, recordings, and live interactions.
Second grade students have met with their teacher on-line each afternoon to play a math game together, using hands-on materials distributed to each child's home.
All-school classes such as Art, Library, Physical Wellness, and Music have gone remote. To give just one example, this week students in the Lake (grades 3-5) had a blast creating and sharing their own tap dance routines with props--stuffed animals, toys, and even younger siblings!
Our 6th grade teacher has asked students to find each day something to do that is joyful, something that is important, and something that is challenging. This framework has allowed students to craft their own schedules and goals within a supportive structure--perfect for developing agency and voice in young adolescents.
Our 8th grade students have completed their Capstone projects--on such varied topics as political polarization, hydroponics, antisocial personality disorder, biliteracy, and more--by altering their original ideas to fit the new remote format. They have made us proud with their excellent scholarship, compassion and commitment to social justice, and flexibility and resilience in handling challenging circumstances.
As a progressive school and a close-knit community, the very best things we offer —regardless of external circumstances -- will always be innovation, flexibility, caring and understanding about the whole child/whole family, and willingness to continually reflect and adjust in order to align our practices with our values rather than just doing what everybody else is doing. Even though everyone craves certainty right now, we don’t have a lot of certainty, except that we will use all of our expertise and creativity to create a dynamic, progressive learning environment in Fall 2020.
As soon as we are able to do so safely, including by September 1, 2020 if possible, we will return to having at least some of school happen in person. These could include things like:
Trips to the woods where class meets outdoors and off-site for a half or whole day
Small, staggered groups coming to the classroom for project work (the “flipped” classroom where students do individual work on their own at home and school time is reserved for those things that can only be done together or in person)
Half day or alternate day attendance for small groups of students
In-school activities limited to classroom and outdoor time without convening in larger groups or in shared spaces
Meanwhile, we will continue our robust at-home learning program as needed, including daily interactions with teachers and classmates, provision of high-quality learning materials, live and recorded instruction, and full complement of all-school classes such as Music, Art, Library, Physical Wellness, and Social-emotional Learning.
With our small class sizes and small total enrollment, low student/teacher ratio, and large physical space, we are in many ways well positioned to practice the social distancing protocols that may be necessary to safely return to the building. We will of course follow all CDC, state, and local guidelines regarding group size, attendance protocols, personal protective equipment, cleaning and disinfecting, sharing spaces, etc, and we have already begun planning for these.
We are considering several scenarios right now, because the reality is that we just don’t know yet what will be required in the Fall. We welcome your questions and suggestions and will provide more information as soon as we are able.
Financial Support for Families
As part of our progressive philosophy, we care for the whole student, intellectual as well as social-emotional. We also care for families. We know many families are experiencing financial hardship now, or will do so in the near future. We remain committed to finding ways to make TCS affordable for all families, including those facing financial hardship due to COVID-19. We strongly believe that if we work together as a community, we can make that happen.
As a starting place, we will draw on our financial reserves to increase our budget line item for financial aid by 50%. This will increase financial aid allocations to around 17% of our total budget. And, we will waive the financial aid application fee for those who apply in May, June or July.
We are exploring many other ideas as well, and you will hear more soon!