What a Year It’s Been

How challenges shaped the learning... but didn't stop it

Mini-Chapter 1 

What do you get when you cross a map with a dream? A plan. Whether planning a lesson or a luncheon, a wedding or a battle, we make a plan by sliding our minds along the time dimension and describing the world we want to find when we get there. After having lived and worked through the challenges of Spring 2020 — during which Watkinson, like every school, had had to shift, almost overnight, to a new model of online learning — Watkinson Athletics Director Ann Haggerty was determined to plan her way forward into the fall.

“There was so much unknowing,” she said. “And that’s where I had to start, by connecting with the feeling of, ‘What am I even doing here?’ I mean there was a lot that I could be doing there, but the question was — what, actually? What, specifically? And that not-knowing was true for everyone, but for my particular programming there was a lot of it, because athletics couldn’t happen anywhere close to what we would have done pre-pandemic. I teach in the classroom, too, so I had a sense of how classroom instruction had been adapted during the spring. But classroom instruction still happened. With athletics, when we’re fully online, what is it that can even happen? The question of how we could really be here for the students in this new way — that was what we didn’t know.

“I did a lot of planning in the summer, in the reopening committee work, trying to figure out what the program could look like, and especially trying to calibrate where we were with our student athletes’ mental states. I was worried about our activities being not competitive enough — too soft, not enough fitness training and not enough competition and mental toughness, all those things that come with training. Not to even mention team bonding and so on. So I designed this whole program that would take advantage of the time and the format that we had. I planned to use the format to teach a lot about mental skills and exercise science and all of that. A whole plan. And then… we didn’t do any of it.”

They didn’t do it, Haggerty says, not because they couldn’t, but because it wasn’t appropriate to the situation. “It’s very interesting to me, where I went in my head,” she says. “Part of it was being creative and thinking, ‘How can we take advantage of this?’ And that was a positive thing. But some of it was also fear-based, not wanting to disappoint, wanting things to be the same even though things absolutely weren’t the same. And what I could see, once these kids got to school and were sitting in these socially-distanced environments, and it was all so strange — once it was in front of me, I could see what was needed. All we did with the afternoon activities, for example, was just to make sure they were having fun, they had an emotional release and had adults around them who could guide them through it and just be a warm, fun, enthusiastic presence. That was all it was and that was all it should have been. The practice in mental toughness — they were already getting plenty of that.”

As WWII General Douglas MacArthur famously said, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Not just “no plan survives contact”; no plan survives even first contact. Reality diverges, immediately, from that future we’d imagined. And then the question has to become: Okay, what now? What, as Haggerty says, is right in front of us, telling us what is needed?

Furthermore, the COVID-19 situation was far from the only factor shaping the year. Even when there’s not a pandemic raging, each year (each week, each day, each student) brings its own disruptions to the plan, its own invitations or demands to do something differently from the way you’d imagined it working. Middle School Head Jenny Esposito acknowledges another major force influencing her classroom practice this year. “As I don’t have to remind anyone,” says Esposito, “this was a year with a contentious presidential election. That had a dramatic effect on what we had planned to do for the year, or what we might normally do, versus what we ended up doing. On the one hand, we want our Middle Schoolers to know about the three branches of government, the electoral system, how a bill becomes a law, the electoral college, all of that. And, at the same time, this was not just an abstract discussion about the theory of government. We have students whose families are very passionate and students who are passionate themselves. We have students who were informed at a very mature level and wanted to get into details. And we had other students who really didn’t want to talk about it at all.

“The issues and the candidates’ choices felt too personal to many of us to engage in debate. In fact, this year I got rid of any ‘debate’ kind of activity — even around issues, the death penalty for example, which is kind of a classic social studies debate topic. But it didn’t feel right to go there this year. Things were already polarized enough. So we pivoted. We would look at current events and we would read, and learn, and ask questions, and discuss, rather than say, ‘Okay, you pick this side and you pick that side.’ It felt as if it would be less of a learning community if we did it that way.”

Mini-Chapter 2

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