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COVID Academy: The Little School That Could

COVID Academy: The Little School That Could

Written by Nicollette Frank
June 18, 2021

Journal Excerpt: Early Fall 2020

There are eight fuchsia peonies lined up on the table in the center of the room, each with a handwritten note, “Can’t wait to learn and grow with you!” As each family arrives, we greet the child, then the adults and open our arms to gesture at the classroom that just one week before was an empty warehouse suite. This is COVID Academy, a temporary school brought to life from the imaginations of six families to serve their eight elementary-aged children for the 2020-2021 academic year. I’m a teacher with experience in mixed-age classrooms. I’ve designed spaces from scratch, curated emergent curriculum, built strong relationships with colleagues and families. This is different (the date says it all). With all my experience, I still feel as though I have no idea what I’m doing. But I’m not alone. We’re doing this together, and I’m hoping that’s what matters.

Journal Excerpt: Mid-Spring 2021

No one told them I’d be there today. I’ve been gone for two weeks caring for a sick family member. Lives really can change in an instant, but my heart ached knowing I didn’t get to talk with the kids beforehand. I just. . .didn’t show up. I know their parents explained the situation to them, but after the difficulties we faced finding assistant/co-teachers this semester, I couldn’t bear the idea of any of the kids thinking I’d just up and left. I opened the hallway door and expected to hear them chant, “She’s here!” like they always did when they knew to expect someone at a certain time. Instead, M (age 6) walked by the classroom door, spotted me in the dim corridor, and froze like a deer in headlights (cliché, I know, but accurate). I imagine shock popped around the room from one child to the next, but I don’t know for sure because I was immediately engulfed. One set of arms after the next until we were all a wobbling mass tripping over shoes as we held each other tight.

The Little School That Could: Late Spring 2021

Looking back, having the opportunity to be a Panda Cares Fellow while teaching at COVID Academy made it all even more special for myself and our community. As a teacher, I was more intentional than I might have otherwise been about frequent and varied opportunities for reading and writing. These children wrote novels, comics, and plays in their free time. They read new books on the recommendation of peers both older and younger than themselves. They spontaneously offered and received feedback because they genuinely admired each other’s work and wanted to keep learning. Originally, I planned to extend our event beyond the “pandemic pod”, but as we moved into the spring semester, it felt like we needed a culminating event, a space for everyone in our pod to create together.

For our Family Literacy Event, I wanted to invite families to engage in a way they hadn’t yet this year. At COVID Academy, we learned via multi-week project-based sessions. Families were invited into the classroom at the end of each session to learn from the kids about the session topic. Students had taken on some of the responsibilities of exhibition planning for recent sessions, so we brainstormed details of the Literacy Event together. We decided there should be opportunities to write and make art because literacy isn’t just about words, it’s about recognizing and communicating with the world around you. We budgeted for snacks, venue rental, and supplies. We decided to spend our remaining money on an artifact, a yearbook that included projects from the year and two full spreads dedicated to the Literacy Event.

Our venue was a local children’s art studio, an open and vibrant space with unlimited materials. Offered across tables were four prompts:

  1. Heart Maps (A prompt I learned about in my own NWP experience.)
  2. Comic Strips
  3. Word Cloud (Write 5 words to describe COVID Academy and use software to create a collective word cloud for the yearbook.)
  4. Denim Jacket (I make jackets, so I got fabric pens and asked them to write/draw to help me design a COVID Academy jacket.)

In addition, each student was offered a canvas to paint for our classroom library/art gallery.

For three hours, we wrote, created, ate, and shared together. Toward the end of the afternoon, as I stood at the back of the room watching students sit in the author/artist chair and share their work, I reflected on our year. Each child seemed so different from the day I first met them. I, too, am different.

It was a difficult year. As a “pandemic pod”, many of our struggles were different from those found in traditional classrooms. The same can be said of our victories. A few weeks after the Literacy Event, I sat with my computer designing our yearbook with photos from the year and work we’d created in those few hours together. A parent’s poem so heartfelt, I felt a catch in my throat and tears sting my eyes. A clever comic written and illustrated by a student who started the year struggling to identify letter sounds. Doodles, patterns, and phrases like “We Stick Together” penned in rainbow ink on denim. One of the things I find most frustrating about teaching is that I can’t know what will stick with my students after they leave my classroom. I can only hope that they learned half as much from me as I have from them. Judging by our collective word cloud, my wish from the beginning of the year came true: teachers, children, and families were all in this together, and that’s what mattered.