Twenty-two eighth graders finished their careers at the Ancona School Friday evening after a year marked by coronavirus-necessitated remote learning during a period of social justice protests that the school incorporated into its lesson plans.
At the virtual ceremony, Head of School Nancy Nassr welcomed guests to "a new tradition born out of our current health crisis" and reflected on the rapid societal change experienced over the academic year, culminating in the protests sparked by George Floyd's death.
"It's hard to imagine but beautiful to see that where we started is so different from where we have come," she said. "Many people may look at this year and think of everything they lost or the things they missed out on, and perhaps there's some truth to that. But when I look at this truly remarkable year, I am overwhelmed by the richness of opportunities that have been gifted to all of us, if only we are wise enough to see them.
"I do not believe that we are ever confronted with more than we are able to handle, and those of us strong enough to meet the challenges without lashing out, without causing harm to ourselves and others are the ones who grow most.
"You are strong. You have shown us all what it looks like to meet challenges head-on and to thrive. You have taught one another and the adults lucky enough to teach you what strength and empathy look like, so I want to take this opportunity to say thank you."
After each of the 22 graduates was recognized in turn, and the Zoom ceremony closed with all attendees congratulating them, capping an academic year unlike any other.
"The position that the faculty and I took when it came to remote learning was — and I think this is what's beautiful about being a progressive school — that we saw this was a unique opportunity to consider what might be possible for students," Nassr said in a subsequent interview. "We actively chose to approach this with a lens of curiosity and wonder, which is what we ask our students to do every day."
Ancona, 4770 S. Dorchester Ave., tried to maintain a sense of continuity through the spring: rather than teach lots of new content, they tried to maintain connections with teachers and peers. Nassr said the school met students’ technological needs and that attendance was fairly strong.
In the early days of the pandemic, Ancona teachers sought advice from colleagues in Asia, who were already doing remote learning. Primary Division Head Sarah Noonan, who teaches first and second grades, recalled the effort it took to enlist parents as co-teachers and to teach them and students to use the online tools used over remote learning.
She began taping lessons each day, finding it easier to teach early elementary school students via recordings rather than live. First and second graders got one Zoom call a day, in order to limit their screen time.
"If you've ever been on a Zoom call with six- and seven-year-olds, while it can be entertaining and fun, you may look up and see a lot of feet or a whole lot of people pulling the iPad so close to their faces, just so they can, for the first time in their lives, look up their noses," she explained. "It's a lot harder to read a room in Zoom. It's a lot harder to get a sense of whether kids are understanding or not."
Parents found it hard that their young children constantly asked for help and feedback while doing assignments, just as they did in the classroom, Noonan said. So in addition to teaching them the platforms, teachers established lines of communication with parents to discuss students' learning.
"Getting a way to get past that was that we found we were also educating parents on the teaching we were doing," she explained. "We didn't want them to have to sit and watch the lessons. We knew they had other things to do, but we wanted to give them a sense of what the learning target was and the goals for the lesson as well as the instruction, so they could look at those quickly when their child had a question."
In the past few weeks, teachers have used the unrest and protests following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in its curriculum.
"Our position is that we believe in elevating and responding to these issues of social justice," Nassr said. "For us, it's about making sure that we meet issues in developmentally appropriate ways and support our faculty to do so with intentionality and care."
Middle School Division Head Liz Iverson, who teaches seventh and eighth grade humanities, said students tried hard to connect virtually but missed the intimacy of a shared classroom. Nevertheless, students saw at least one teacher live every day.
"We wanted to focus on flexibility,” Iverson said. “We wanted to focus on maintaining our students' creativity and bringing in moments of joy.”
Serendipitously, the seventh graders were studying the Harlem Renaissance when the protests began, and Iverson was happy to point out parallels between the 1920s and today as her students read personal narratives.
"I deeply, deeply believe that connecting to other people's stories is the way forward," she said. "And it takes us out of our current moment, and it connects us to the human story. In that period, you have so many people talking about that experience of being Black in America.
“We have a very diverse student population, so you have people thinking about these ideas and thinking about how you do get through hard times. What does struggle mean? What does struggle look like? And how do we rise above that?"
Looking ahead to next year, Ancona is developing a number of operational contingency plans in accordance with the phases of the "Restore Illinois" plan.
"The option that we think is most likely will be a kind of hybrid learning model where because someone becomes sick or because we have to move through phases, we'll have to be in person and then remote," Nassr said. "We're planning an in-person return to school in September with contingency plans for if someone contracts the virus and self-quarantining, and we're working on that with our reopening task force right now."
Asked about the state of Ancona's finances, Nassr said she anticipates more families requiring financial assistance with tuition and said the school is responding to those needs today. "We already commit such a sizable amount of our budget to tuition assistance, and that's something we're very proud of, because we believe in economic diversity," she said.
Hiring, frozen over the spring, has begun again this week, filling in positions from retiring teachers.
At any rate, Nassr said Ancona will continue to look at things in the future from the perspective of what is possible rather than thinking about what has been lost.
"I think if anything this has really taught us that we aren't in control," she said. "This virus is going to do what it is going to do, and figuring out how we exist in this new reality is imperative. And if we get stuck with what we've lost as opposed to what's possible, I think that's really detrimental. I'm really proud of the position that Ancona took in this."