Our teachers and students show how to maintain excellence during a pandemic

Feb 05 2021

Our teachers and students show how to maintain excellence during a pandemic

“If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.”
–Gail Sheehy

“Please create a book to teach a first grader about different countries in South America.” “Please discuss one of four themes from the book “The Giver” and provide proof in your analysis.” “How do you determine the square root of five?” “We’re going to take a field trip to anywhere in the world you want so we can learn how to use Google Earth.” “What would you say if you wrote a letter while defending the Alamo?”

These were the kinds of questions I heard teachers asking students last week while visiting classes around campus. Second graders were showing me where they lived before moving to San Antonio, whether it was in California or Lusaka, Zambia, while other students and I used Google Earth to locate their current homes. Fifth graders were so absorbed in discovering square roots that they didn’t notice I was in the classroom, while third graders considered what were the advantages and disadvantages of Texas being a republic. I could go on and on with other examples of the excellent work teachers and students are doing in their classes on both campuses on any given day.

In 6th grade, children were considering the interaction between topography and culture by studying the Andes mountains and the people who inhabit them. In the process, they asked insightful and sensible questions like “Why isn’t Chile part of Argentina?” In their discussion, they also considered how countries being landlocked like Paraguay and Bolivia influences the traditions and cultures of a people. These are sophisticated and interesting queries for anyone, and even more so for children in middle school.

Over the past few weeks, I have had the good fortune to facilitate Ms. Tyroff’s 8th grade English classes as they perform research for their upcoming papers. They have chosen interesting topics and asked thoughtful questions such as “How do mass shootings affect lawmakers and the public’s opinions about gun control in the US?,” “How do the negative stigmas associated with feminism affect the movement?,” and “How does isolation affect children’s physical and mental health?”

This work would be impressive in any year; it’s all the more inspiring in these times. As you may have read in previous posts, teaching today may be more difficult than ever. Balancing the needs of the students physically in front of you with those children who are attending school remotely feels like a tightrope act. Nobody wishes to shortchange either group of children, but it’s hard to divide one’s attention between two groups. It requires incredible skill, flexibility, and creativity.

A line from a Cal State LA Teachers’ Web page called “Teaching in the Time of COVID-19: What to Expect and How to Meet the Challenge of the Unexpected” articulates our teachers’ task by saying, “adaptability and dedication have been tested beyond any reasonable standards in their effort to create a sense of normalcy, to sustain students’ well-being, while still striving for academic progress.

We continue to learn what works well in distance learning and concurrent teaching, and as we do, we seek out opportunities to improve. For example, at Keystone, we could not go through a spring without Science Fair. When I came here, Keystone’s Director of Strategic Marketing and Communications as well as Cobra parent Edmund Tijerina explained to me that the Science Fair at Keystone is like Friday night football in Odessa, TX. It’s kind of a big deal. However, we cannot host a large event in the gym under the current conditions, so thanks to our teachers, we will host Science Fair online this year. Look for more details to come.

Speaking of science, it was delightful to observe some 7th graders engage in a lab last week while in concurrent mode. I asked Mr. Howk, and he explained. “We have been studying DNA, genetics, Mendel’s principles of heredity, etc., so today’s lab was a fun way to put what they have learned into action. For the lab, each partner (“parent”) flips a coin to determine if they pass on a particular dominant or recessive trait to their “child.” Heads means they pass on the dominant trait, and tails passes on the recessive trait. (We have to assume that each parent is heterozygous (ex. Tt) for each characteristic.) This represents the randomness of meiosis and the diversity of sexual reproduction really well. We don’t actually have time to make an entire human, so the students just draw their child’s face as they would appear in my 7th grade class at Keystone in the future, based only on their genotypes from the random coin tosses. This lab is a lot of fun and shows the students that even with only about 20 facial traits that are randomly selected, there is tremendous diversity in just one generation of meiosis and sexual reproduction. No matter how many times they do the lab, their children always turn out looking very different. Luckily, it’s one of the few labs I do every year that worked just as well for the kids at home in Zoom as the kids at school in person. It was such a beautiful day for the kids to be outside, so I was very glad that Coach Vela was able to take them out to the Quad to do their lab today.”

As I enjoyed lunch in front of Founder’s Hall the other day, upper school Spanish teacher Señora Fierro suddenly appeared out of nowhere and began speaking Spanish into her headset microphone; a group of students materialized to begin their lesson. The students seemed ready and eager to start class, and I quietly made my exit from what had become an outdoor classroom.

In the face of all we are facing, our faculty/staff have found new ways to engage and inspire students, and it’s a joy to behold.

Having been in education for over thirty years, I have often wondered if other professions feel as rewarding and meaningful. The day really never ends as excellent teachers like those at Keystone constantly seek out ways to improve. This is even more true in this challenging environment.

For more than 70 years, Keystone teachers have engaged and supported children so they could realize their dreams; this tradition has continued in spite of a pandemic. In responding the way they have, our teachers model not only how to teach content and skills. They also demonstrate how to seize opportunity in the midst of hardship and be courageous and resilient in the face of adversity.

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