Reimagining Collaborative Learning

You can still hear the echo of laughter at lunchtime come 12:30 p.m., but it’s no longer emanating from Alumnae Hall—it’s coming from the courtyard, where girls sit cross-legged on beach towels and eat their lunches in the sunshine. And, unlike in years past, the presence of a tablet or cell phone at lunch is no longer an unfamiliar sight—it’s girls video-calling their friends who are learning at home, ensuring they have a front row seat to their socially-distanced salsa routine or are included in conversations about their favorite Netflix show. Small moments like these make it clear that Middle School girls are embracing their new spaces and schedules to start the school year.
With support from their friends, teachers, and families, students are adjusting to the hybrid learning model and gaining more confidence in their abilities every day. They’re following the one-way arrows in Middle School hallways; logging into classes remotely, prepared and ready to participate; respecting staggered class dismissals, distancing expectations, and mask requirements; and overall showing their incredible resilience and glee at being back together as a school community. 

For all Middle Schoolers, the day begins in a familiar way with homeroom. Remote learners log in via Zoom and are projected onto the whiteboard so their fellow classmates can see and check in with them. Oftentimes, teachers take advantage of their additional laptops to show the classroom environment and facilitate small-group and student-to-student interaction in real-time. They’re also using lapel and Bluetooth microphones to amplify their voices and classroom conversations for remote learners, and encouraging their off-campus students to unmute themselves and participate in classroom discussions with their peers. 

“This is my 25th year of teaching and, in many ways, it feels like my first year,” said Grade 8 Dean and Teacher Shannon Rohr. “We’re utilizing new tools and learning right alongside our students, modeling that together we can do hard things. I think there’s a lot of value in the girls seeing us think on our feet, make mistakes, and try again.”

One such digital tool that has been implemented with great success in the Middle School is FlipGrid. The eighth grade class used the digital app for a class puzzle piece project to begin the year. Each student decorated a puzzle piece that represented themself and their interests (Ms. Rohr and Ms. Simon mailed individual pieces home to remote learners) and then the entire class uploaded recordings of themselves discussing their puzzle piece to FlipGrid. This new way of communal learning allows every student to share, comment, and find common interests with their classmates, regardless of location. 

Another way that students are learning collaboratively from campus and from home is through small-group sessions with Karen Boyer, Ellis’ School Counselor. To support their transition back to school, Ms. Boyer hosted small classes via Zoom that focused on managing stress and anxiety related to school and COVID-19. She emphasized that certain levels of stress are normal and that there are many ways students can manage anxiety and the unknown in a healthy way.

“Beginning the year with this kind of dialogue is so important. One of the key forms of coping is through social connection, and now that school is back in session, there are a lot of opportunities for students to share how they’re feeling with one another,” said Ms. Boyer. “Offering different interventions for students when they feel unregulated in their bodies goes a long way. We’re using language and strategies to remind the kids that this is short-lived and that while it may be hard, we’re learning skills now that we’re going to call upon for the rest of our lives.”

Lastly, it would be impossible to discuss collaboration and teamwork in the Middle School without mentioning a cornerstone of the student experience: House Games. Inspired by the Harry Potter series and the four houses at Hogwarts, students are split into four houses named after noteworthy Pittsburgh women—Rachel Carson, Mary Cassatt, Daisy Lampkin, and Nellie Bly—and participate in a variety of team-building competitions every other Wednesday. This year, House Games are being reimagined by Ellis’ own “Czar of Fun,” Jean Mercier, Middle and Upper School French Teacher. 

“It’s a little bit of a challenge to rethink House Games, but not one that we’re shying away from,” shared Mr. Mercier with a smile. “We’re still doing group activities, safely and outside as much as possible, and finding ways to engage in-person and remote learners at the same time. For the first House Games of the year, we went completely virtual and played bingo. The house that won then chose a teacher to do a lip-sync on Zoom for the entire Middle School. I ended up singing “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley. You could hear the laughter coming from the classrooms from the playground!” 

While learning is happening in new ways and in new spaces, a positive byproduct of school in COVID-times is that our Middle School students are gaining firsthand experience in real-world skills like communication and problem-solving. With all of their assignments and expectations outlined on Powerschool, Ellis’ digital learning software, students are becoming more familiar with seeking out answers to their questions, finding information, and organizing their work in the digital space. As a result, their confidence and capabilities are growing—even the coronavirus can’t stop them.