"Creativity & Empathy:" Back to School 2020

Hybrid classes and outdoor everything: Brooks school students are discovering new ways to study and socialize on campus this autumn. Student prefects share their impressions.

Brooks School's students and teachers got practice adapting during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when campus shut down this spring. This fall, they're building upon all they've learned to create a new Brooks experience — in the classroom and outside on campus — that all can enjoy, whether they're in-person or online.

"We have definitely tapped into our school core values of 'creativity' and 'empathy,' in particular," said Dean of Academic Affairs, History Teacher Susanna Waters. "Creativity,' for having to reimagine what classroom learning looks like with half of the students in front of you and the other at home, commuting via Zoom, and how we might both facilitate and evaluate their learning. And 'empathy,' since we are all in it together and trying new things, with a healthy dose of humility and humor."

Creative Classrooms

In August, all students were offered the option of attending school as either a boarding student or a virtual student. "We make this decision in an effort to reduce the coming and going from campus that increases communal risk of exposure to COVID-19," Head of School John Packard P'18, P'21 wrote in a letter to the community. "All changes to existing boarding or day status would be temporary, and we are hopeful all students will be able to return to their current status later in the year."

Since September 23, classes have been in a hybrid, concurrent mode, with the 75 students who opted to study online from home this fall and boarding students, physically distanced, in-person on campus in classrooms: Separated but connected as much as possible.

Starting school on campus has been all that Emma Fleischman '21 hoped for, she said. "I really missed seeing my friends and teachers everyday, not to mention our stunning campus." And though she recognizes that so much of the traditional experience is different this fall at Brooks — with masks required and athletic games cancelled among other public health safety measures — Fleischman declared, "It still feels like home."

Tyler Whitney-Sidney '21, for one, called the new school year "a blast." He said, "Just being back at school with my friends has been great considering how long it's been. Hybrid classes have been great so far, too." Jack Breen '21 echoed the sentiment. "It had been so long since everyone last saw each other and to actually learn in the same room as other people has been amazing," he shared.

Both teachers and students, reported Dean Waters, "have demonstrated impressive cognitive flexibility in adopting new teaching and learning platforms, respectively."

Step inside Brooks classrooms with Dean Waters in her Deans Den Blog

Take Spanish Teacher Lillian Miller P'14, P'17, P'20, for example. She's using a new technology for the first time in her classroom and credits it with bringing together her students at home and in-person. The Meeting Owl Miller employs is a "smart" 360-degree camera/speaker/microphone device that connects to video conference software and automatically focuses the camera on whomever is speaking. "The OWL has worked very well to integrate virtual students as they are able to see the full classroom," she said. "They can see all the students and when they participate the students in the class can see them too."

Incorporating online students is "getting better with each class," according to Jack Frimet '21."It's getting more natural to talk to a screen. And I love seeing my friends getting projected up on the wall," he said. "We're able to see their faces as if they were here!" added Fleischman, who admitted that, to her, classes "feel much more comfortable and natural in-person. So we're all trying our best to help the virtual students feel that way too."

In AP Biology they're also adapting thanks to technology. On their first day of class, as in-person students learned how to use microscopes, online students participated as well by using a combination of a virtual microscope lab and watching Science Teacher Laura Hajdukiewicz P'15, P'17, P'19, who projected her teaching microscope to Zoom.

Outdoor Opportunities

Moving as many as possible on-campus gatherings and activities outdoors is another way that groups have been safely getting together for learning, as well as letting (a bit) loose.

Brooks' college counseling office recently held drop-in meetings in one of the tents by Wilder Dining Hall. Science and other classes have gone alfresco, too. Exhibit A: Honors Physics. Dean of Teaching and Learning, Science Teacher Mary Jo Carabatsos P'17, P'20 said she held her students' introduction to free fall in the Remembrance Garden so they could take advantage of a warm day recently.

"The portability, accessibility and organization of one's learning space and materials has transformed such that a 'classroom,' and access to a teacher, can be anywhere," explained Dean Waters. "The experience of teaching a student in Nairobi and Hanoi in the same hour is invigorating, and a reminder of how important a Brooks education and our community is to all of us."

Plus, making good use of Brooks 270 acres is good fun. "I love watching the whole school hang out and have fun out on the fields, and I'm definitely more appreciative of my time here," said Frimet. "I didn't realize how much I missed the community until I was back in it."

Breen points to the "House Cup" dorm competition that prefects have been organizing on campus including capture the flag and other games, with participation from online classmates, as one positive from the challenging circumstances this fall. "It's created a real camaraderie and everyone is participating in the activities," he said. "It's really fun!"

And it seems the connections students are forming will continue. On campus, "I've noticed more kids are outside after dinner and kids are putting their phones away to spend more time with their friends," said Breen. Sydney Correa '21 is one of those students, relaxing each night on the field. "I have found that more people than I have ever seen in my time here at Brooks are hanging outside during this time," she said

The "bubble" of current campus life — which restricts on-campus students from contact with anyone off-campus or leaving 1160 Great Pond Road — "has been such a cool experience," said Elizabeth Packard '21. "I have been able to spend more time than ever with my friends and since we can only spend time with friends outside, everyone has been taking advantage of our beautiful campus. The fields have turned into a place full of energy. The bubble has allowed for us to return to a tiny bit of normalcy, and I am so grateful for that."

Until the school's Thanksgiving Break and planned remote-learning period starting November 21, students on campus will continue to head outdoors and online with virtual students, as well as wear masks. "It's strange doing a daily attestation every morning and washing your hands before class," said Frimet. "But if it means we can stay on campus then I'm all for it."

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