Pivoting and Persevering: Stories of Resilience

As the coronavirus spread quickly across the world, Catlin Gabel pivoted quickly in response. On March 12, 2020, it was announced that the campus would close temporarily, and that school would continue remotely, with every possible activity moving online, including classes, clubs, meetings, performances, and physical education.

Educators moved swiftly to redesign curriculum and social activities, and families shifted to create at-home learning environments and impromptu personal and work schedules. Within days, hundreds of living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, and garages were reconfigured to learning spaces, and a new version of Catlin Gabel School was back in session.

Resourcefulness and resiliency became a way of life. With the shared goal of keeping students engaged and active, the community embraced new challenges and opportunities, pushing through the limitations of technology and isolation to stay connected with one another and sustain the joy of learning and community. Here are reflections of the experience.

Finding Historical Context in Current Events

By Peter Shulman, Upper School Social Studies Teacher

With remote learning, it’s harder to pick up the vibe in the room and to pivot instantly in response. Like music, there’s just no substitute for the live version. But the students made it work—they truly leaned in and showed a genuine interest in learning. They were highly adaptable, and truly inspirational to each other. The real credit goes to the students—they care a lot.

With Seniors in The Rise of the Authoritarians course, we went pretty quickly into small (groups of three) projects, and I jumped from breakout room to room to check in. The project was built around the pandemic, authoritarianism, and good governance, with topics including the “Liberate” movements challenging Covid-19 lockdowns; international case studies such as Rwanda and China; and the role of strategic disinformation in shaping Americans’ view of the virus and appropriate responses. With the U.S. History classes, I think it worked best when I regularly changed the mode (large group, small group, writing, and short video, for example).

This is always gripping material, but civil rights uprisings, the politics of “law and order,” impeachment, women’s liberation, and generational change turned out to be quite the reflective mirror in which to gaze in June of 2020. 

Probably the biggest benefit has been the ability to have longer office hours; more students have taken the time to engage one-to-one or in small groups, as it’s easier to do. And, of course, far fewer fun distractions without peers nearby—a silver lining to this affliction. 

Peter teaches U.S. History, Modern Middle East, and Rise of the Authoritarians courses in the Catlin Gabel Upper School. He has coached the Boys Varsity Soccer team for 17 years, including seven years as Head Coach, during which time the team earned three State titles.

Reimagining Classroom Conversation

By Olivia Morrison, Class of ’24

The main challenge that students and teachers have faced transitioning into online learning is the inability to have fluid conversations as a whole class. One of the things that makes school enjoyable is when we get to have debates and conversations as a whole class, and everyone’s voice is heard. These types of conversations are great ways to learn new things and hear other people’s opinions. However, with online learning, it is difficult to have conversations with the entire class; it always seems like either everyone is talking over each other, or no one is talking at all.

But, as we continued, teachers and students adapted and learned to use breakout rooms more effectively as smaller venues for students to have important conversations and debates, which people were missing from actual school. Working on projects or answering questions in breakout rooms is a good way to engage people, and it gives people space to talk in a less crowded space. Personally, I found that working on a project in a breakout room and then presenting it in front of the class worked well. As long as we had the right amount of time to prep, the presentations usually successfully conveyed the information.

Connecting with other students and teachers is something we all miss about going to school in person, so when we got the chance during class to talk to people more one on one, it really made the whole experience more bearable, and I think the teachers did a good job of trying to get us that connection.

Olivia’s pursuits include taking art classes, playing basketball and tennis, and learning about history and social justice. As she enters Upper School in the fall, she is looking forward to more freedom in choosing her classes and being able to connect with students in other grades.

Sustaining Collaboration in Science Education

By Sheri Cocquio, Lower School Science Teacher

In real life, science class is about investigating by doing. And with remote learning, being able to have all the same resources and materials for 210 students is nearly impossible, which severely limits the kinds of experiments students can do at home.

Switching over to remote learning meant that a lot of the curriculum needed to change so that it could translate to a 30-minute session (as opposed to 60-80.) And collaboration had to change because we weren’t in the physical presence of partners and sharing the same experiment to observe. This meant that the use of the chat box, fishbowl discussions, and individual share-outs were the “new” collaboration components.

Depending on the lesson, I would give some sort of stimulus to evoke responses (questions, hypotheses, or answers), and students could share out in a variety of ways. Sometimes, I would ask for their response in the form of an action or movement; other times I would ask for short answers in the chat box. The students’ abilities to describe things, give an explanation or reasoning for their choices, and use observations to make educated guesses are all part of science practices.

Because it worked well, I plan to continue “Zoom a Scientist/Engineer,” even when we’re all back together on campus. In those sessions, professionals talked with Beginning and Lower School students about the projects they’ve worked on and how they use science or engineering in their lives. Guests included a NASA engineer, butterfly ecologist, deep sea marine biologist, and medical detective. We had great attendance, with 50-70 families tuning in each time, so I think people are hungry for it.

Sheri has been an educator for 11 years, and came to Catlin Gabel in 2018. Previous roles include assistant preschool teacher and grades 1-4 elementary teacher for the Hawai’i Department of Education. She is a recipient of Catlin Gabel’s 2020 Renjen Grant for Teaching Excellence.

Connecting through the Power of Music

By Kira Wang, Class of ’22

During Covid-19, cellist Yo-Yo Ma started a movement to share music virtually, known as “#songsofcomfort.” Many classical musicians, myself included, have joined this effort to continue to connect to our communities through music.

I teamed up with several cellist friends that I met at summer music camps, and we put together a composite video of each of us playing a segment of The Swan by Saint-Saëns. Our project included 24 cellists from 12 different countries. Through our Swan Project, we wanted to bring hope to people during this difficult period by showing how music can connect us globally. We posted our video on YouTube for others to enjoy, and the responses were gratifying—they reiterated the power of music. The video has been viewed over 230,000 times.

These days I find it more important than ever to use my music to connect with people, especially with those who are feeling isolated with social distancing. This is especially true for the elderly living in senior centers or nursing homes who are unable to have any family or friends visit. Recently I have been teaming up with other local music students to make more video recordings of short “virtual recitals” for seniors in the Portland area, and the initial feedback has been very positive. We are even thinking of visiting some senior centers and playing a live concert for them outside on the lawn so they can listen through their windows!  I hope to continue to look for creative ways to bring music to people during these challenging times.  

Kira has been playing in the Portland Youth Philharmonic organization since fourth grade, and also enjoys running and computer science. She is looking forward to seeing how the mix of virtual classes and in person classes will play out in the upcoming school year.

Using Story to Kindle Community

By Tiffany Kenaley, Beginning and Lower School Assistant Teacher

Stories are what bind us together as a human family. Imaginative and allegorical flights of fancy are what inform our uniqueness and shape our common hopes and dreams. During these times, it is more essential than ever that we gather together, using the technology available to us, to strengthen our bonds and foster our innate sense of joy and inquisitiveness.

As we launched our remote learning plan in the Beginning School, I brought my foundation in intentional play and the oral tradition to our exploration of the timeless tale of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Innovation and spontaneity became essential learning tools within this new “classroom” dynamic. We practiced telling variations of the story, sharing our work through online drawing, photo, video, and audio projects. Our “Zoom Room” sessions provided a space for peer review and playful inspiration. This unit culminated in a theatrical performance of the story presented by each student, which varied from solo plays to fully-cast productions featuring favorite toys, family members, and even pets. Entirely on their own, students made “tickets” and sent invitations to family and friends around the world. There was a palpable spirit of accomplishment from each student as they owned their lines and stole the screen!

It has been a privilege to see the looks on our students’ faces, knowing that we are guiding them toward their potential as lifelong learners. Our remote learning curriculum continues to celebrate their accomplishments, reaffirm their developmental growth, and connect them with their broader communities.

Tiffany has been at Catlin Gabel since 1999, working with students in the Before and After School Programs before becoming an Assistant Teacher in the Beehive and Lower School. She brings to her a work a foundation in intentional play and the oral tradition.

Pivoting in the College Search Process

By Blythe Butler and William Ouellette, Co-Directors of College Counseling

By the time we all moved into social distancing, seniors were waiting to hear the last of their college decisions and evaluating their offers. Choosing a college challenged many of those who had planned to visit schools once offers came in. But, fortunately, the class of 2020 is a creative, resilient group who gathered their resources, trusted the thoughtful work and good research they had done, participated in the online offerings that colleges pivoted toward, and made well-informed choices.

This season included moments that illustrate the strength of the school community for us, including the eagerness we see in recent alums to connect and share their experiences with current Catlin Gabel students. We sent a single, informal message to college-age Catlin Gabel alumni just after it seemed like the whole country shut down, asking for volunteers to act as touch points for our twelfth graders as they made their final choices, and for eleventh graders as they launched their searches. Though many of these alumni were in the midst of quickly and unexpectedly moving their own academic lives and personal belongings away from their college campuses, over 100 of them generously and eagerly responded to our request and shared their valuable perspectives with current Catlin Gabel students. 

Given the limitations they faced, our students have shown exemplary persistence and patience—their willingness to pivot and manage disappointment is the very definition of resilience. And while colleges are still sorting out what life on campus will look like, we are confident that the Catlin Gabel class of 2020 will be ready to handle whatever lies ahead.

Blythe came to Catlin Gabel in 2009 after serving as Associate Dean of Admission at Lewis & Clark College and Director of College Counseling at St. Mary’s Academy. Bill has been a college counselor for 13 years and an educator for 33 years, with roles that included Pre-school teacher, High School English and Theater teacher, and Dean of Students.