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School Stories

Creativity Abounds During COVID-19

In August 2019, I gave each Lower School faculty member a small succulent. We discussed how succulents could thrive under adverse conditions such as small amounts of moisture, poor soil conditions, and lack of nutrients. I asked the teachers to think about how they would “thrive” in the upcoming school year, even if adversity came their way. 

Little did we know that March would bring a whole new meaning to “thrive” under adverse conditions. With COVID numbers on the rise, last spring brought school closures all over the state. Teachers were asked to teach their curriculum through an entirely new platform, work from home while tending to their families, and create materials that could be used electronically. These circumstances challenged even the most experienced teachers, and teachers worked tirelessly to fulfill Graland’s mission.
During a faculty meeting in May, I asked teachers to share photos of the succulents they were given in August. We oohed and aahed over those that had tripled in size and had colorful blooms, and we laughed together at the pictures of brown, shriveled plants. Teachers asked each other questions about how much water was required for the succulents to thrive, how much sunlight was needed, and did they fertilize their plants?  

While there was fun and laughter associated with the photos, the more significant takeaway for me was that they were still looking for ways to care for their succulents. Their need to continue to improve, find answers, and make changes was also what I observed within our faculty as they stepped up to meet the challenges of COVID. Graland teachers sought out innovative ways to teach remotely, reach their students, even when wearing masks and socially distanced, and continue to show their love without hugs.

As you read these excerpts from teachers, you will see how their teaching has evolved under the challenging parameters of COVID. You may even see some succulents thriving on their windowsills!

Morning Meeting
Courtney Menk, Grade 4 Lead Teacher 
How do Lower School students learn to collaborate, cooperate, and connect with one another while maintaining social distance? In past years, our “Morning Meeting” has provided a platform for teachers to build community and purpose within their classrooms. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has taken away our ability to gather around the classroom rug and share this valuable time with everyone. 

Throughout the school year, I’ve had to find innovative, new ways to replace this important routine. Creating new activities that maintain a safe barrier while simultaneously encouraging teamwork has driven my Morning Meeting planning this year. My repertoire has expanded immensely. Many new classroom favorites involve transforming the plexiglass shields on each student’s desk into game boards to play strategy games and solve puzzles. Every morning, students work together to discover patterns, learn tricks, and scrutinize moves in engaging ways that prepare them for the rest of the day’s lessons. In addition, in-person students especially love jumping onto Zoom to interact with their classmates who are learning from home. COVID has taken so much away from us; it is important that we appreciate what still remains. For me, watching kids interact, laugh, and make discoveries together is what school is all about.

Justine Hall, Grade 2 Lead Teacher 

In my opinion, innovation is now synonymous with COVID for teachers worldwide. We have had to brainstorm, problem solve, pivot, and iterate everything we do—from setting up the physical classroom to planning and executing each and every individual lesson.

In my classroom, engaging students in this process has allowed them to be part of the solution and to feel safe and comfortable, despite the new COVID guidelines. While our Morning Meetings are no longer shoulder-to-shoulder around the patterned rug, and instead involve students sitting on chairs around the outside of the classroom, they still feel safe to share openly and honestly. 

Reading quality picture books no longer happens from my rocking chair. Instead, images are “air-played” from the iPad camera to the Apple TV, and students are still able to engage in challenging, thoughtful, and authentic conversations about a variety of topics, including identity and social justice.

Learning new math concepts with the help of a game no longer involves students sharing a die and a game board. However, students still feel the thrill of successfully beating an opponent or collaborating to achieve a goal, as they use their own individually assigned and stored materials.

The list of creative changes that have been implemented is endless, and students have demonstrated their resilience by adapting. This pandemic has reinforced the importance of the social and emotional wellbeing of our students. I will continue to innovate every day to ensure that students feel safe and accomplished while achieving academic success and developing skills to thrive in the 21st century. 

Abbie Digel, Librarian

No amount of experience can prepare a person for teaching during a pandemic, whether in-person or remotely. Part of my role as a librarian is to help match students and teachers with appropriate resources. My team and I were excited to share ebooks and databases with our community during Virtual Graland in the spring. My background in publishing, along with my master’s degree in library science, provided me with many of the skills needed to adapt to a virtual teaching world. I know my way around copyright and reuse laws in terms of sharing content with teachers and students, and I found enjoyment in developing online learning modules. The return to in-person learning this fall, though, was appropriately challenging as our wonderful library space had to close to students in order to reduce potential exposure. 

Librarians are resourceful by nature, and we put our heads together to come up with a mobile library plan. My team and I visit classrooms daily and deliver lessons to help students engage with books. For younger grades, we created mobile book carts filled with high-interest books and allow students to check out books right from our ‘bookmobiles.’ Older Lower School students and middle schoolers have mastered our holds system, using their devices to reserve books. We either deliver the books to students in their classrooms, or they can pick them up in the Corkins Center. I’ve also noticed many students reading ebooks on their classroom iPads and exploring reading apps like Epic! Books. Our goal this year, and every year, is to keep students engaged with reading. Even though the delivery of books looks different, I strongly believe we are still reaching that goal.
Sarah Jackson, Lower School Science Teacher

Teaching in person during COVID has presented many challenges and opportunities for my Lower School science classroom. The safety restrictions that prohibit sharing materials and require social distancing have made many of our usual hands-on experiments and group work impractical this year. I realized it was essential for me to adopt a new and innovative approach to my curriculum in order to teach effectively during a pandemic.

One easy change at the beginning of the year was moving all of my science classes outside when the weather permitted. The shift to the outdoors not only gave us a safer space for learning but also allowed students to take a break from their classroom space, move their bodies, and experience the science that is all around us! I am thankful for how long we were able to enjoy Colorado’s mild fall weather, Graland’s impeccable grounds, and my past experience as an environmental educator. While learning about energy, fourth-grade students went on a scavenger hunt around the campus to find different types of energy in action. At the beginning of the school year, second-grade scientists enjoyed our bountiful gardens as they learned about the parts of plants and searched for pollinators.

I have also been able to incorporate new virtual experiences into my curriculum this year, which has brought real-world science to my students. Paleontologists from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science led second-graders on an exploration of real fossil evidence that students used to recreate their own dinosaurs out of clay. Scientists from the Denver Zoo took first-graders on a virtual tour of Colorado animal habitats, an experience that helped them design and build their own habitat dioramas at school. 
Sarah Baldwin, Art Teacher

Toni Morrison once said, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” While much has changed in the visual arts classroom this year due to the pandemic, Toni Morrison’s words serve as a comforting reminder that this is a time of great possibility and important storytelling for artists. This year, my Kindergarten curriculum emphasizes just that. With the theme “Art Around the World,” we have been gathering stories from artists from each continent, then telling stories of our own as a means of making sense of the world around us. A lesson on Faith Ringgold’s story-quilts asks students to consider, “If you could fly, where would you go?” While learning about indigenous Colombian artist Abel Rodriguez, students explore how their artwork can also tell a story about, and preserve the memory of, the Amazon rainforest. We all have a story to tell and this year, more than ever, our student artists are contributing to our civilizations’ healing by creating art and telling their own stories. 

Justin Miera, Music Teacher

Music is a powerful tool that helps children feel connected to each other, to their teachers, and to the greater community. Being locked down and teaching virtually have changed the methods I use to help students make musical connections.

For instance, remote tools like Zoom have a time-delay called “latency.” Depending on my ethernet or WIFI signal, I could have up to a half-second delay hearing an initial beat, and then there is another half-second returning my performance to the other participants. Imagine 18 children trying to clap a simple steady beat. Now multiply that complexity to singing or playing an instrument with varying pitches and rhythms.

There are some innovations to this process that make remote music possible. Students can mute their microphones so that the return signal doesn’t confuse the entire group. Echo and call-and-response songs allow for me to at least see the class’ accuracy, or hear an individual’s execution. For culminating performances, students can listen to a pre-recorded reference track and record their instrument or voice independently. That collection of individual recordings can then be combined into a grand ensemble. I can then also assess the singular performances for accuracy and provide relevant redirection.

Making music face-to-face is the ideal circumstance, and we will soon return to that natural system. Until then, we all have to change and adapt to accommodate for these difficult challenges while keeping our focus on what is important...staying connected.  


Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.