The school day began much like any other on 12th March 2020. Students and staff arrived ready for whatever projects or courses they were working on. Some studied in the library, some worked on a puzzle in the kitchen, some played basketball. We were all well aware of the growing concern over Covid-19 in Ireland, but were still confident that our school would remain open, at least for a time longer. Then the announcement came from the Taoiseach and soon the 12th of March became our last day to be physically in school for the foreseeable future.
The question that racked all our minds after a short period of adjusting to the lockdown situation was how do we take our learning community online? How do we move our experiential courses, ever-flowing sense of play and participation, kitchen discussions and conversations, and the like online? How? It took a good deal of research and testing from a few of our dedicated staff before we arrived at an online platform that we felt could support our tight-knit community. Within two weeks of the lockdown, Wicklow Sudbury School had an online presence.
The first, and most attended event online was our daily lunchtime hangouts. Mealtime in our school has always been considered a space for conversation and connection, and it was no surprise to see so many smiling faces on Zoom that day. Everyone got a chance to share how they were doing and what they were up to with the lockdown, stories were swapped, jokes shared. The glue that held our community together was strong.
Courses began to appear online as well. Staff translated the classes they had been offering while we were still physically in the school to the online platform and soon students and staff alike were able to freely engage in whatever peaked their interest for what was on offer. Classes such as music theory for guitar, understanding society, art, learning seminars and more were on offer. Social hangouts still abound throughout the week, with a big favourite being a storytelling hour on Fridays, in addition to the lunch hangouts of course.
In addition to the courses, games and activities began to naturally take shape as student participation increased. The daily drawing challenge as well as online board games occupied many throughout the week!
Staff were able to form up our “home groups”, small mixed-aged groups of 4 or 5 students who met weekly to check in, play a game, plan our weeks etc… And from our homegroups, it gave staff a chance to continue to work one-on-one with students as well.
By a few months into the lockdown, we had found our rhythm and also re-discovered something most of us already knew about our school. That connection was at the core to what we did. It didn’t matter how many courses were on offer, what activities were on, any of that. The baseline for our community was to stay connected to each other, and from that the “school” naturally grew out of it. It’s something we’ve known since the school began, it’s a tenet of our philosophy for learning; but, it’s never something we thought would be tested with something as extreme as a school closure due to the lockdown.
The online platform we established became like a coral reef for the school during lockdown. In the open sea of the web, this one space offered a habitat for connection and community to find purchase and then to flourish in a unique learning environment. Of course there were a few “fish” that preferred to stay in the less tended, social areas of the reef, but we even found that they too were doing well. Self-directed learning had empowered them to follow whatever path they wished over the lockdown and they found a way to thrive.
We’ve learned a lot since coming back to school for the 2020/2021 school year. We are thankful to be together again and feel more resilient for what might come our way. As always, watching the constant evolution of our school environment is incredibly satisfying and our time online was a perfect example of that. Here’s to whatever the future holds!
Written by Marc Barker