Annual Report 2020-2021
During the 2020-2021 school year we celebrated Walden’s 50th anniversary. Walden faculty’s resilience, intrepidness, creativity, and intentionality during this year of reopening school amid a global pandemic crystalized what we celebrate when we think of Walden’s longevity: that in community with a common mission, we can do anything.
We began the year preparing for online learning with 16 separate cohorts, Pre-Kindergarten through 6th grade. While the world was shifting around us, we held fast to our belief that consistency and predictability was crucial for children. We knew that having the same teacher and cohort would create the stability that would allow them to learn, grow, and take risks. Families chose a pathway: the Walden@Home program, in which students would engage in remote learning throughout the school year, or the Enhanced Hybrid program, which would participate in a carefully phased reopening according to Health Department guidelines. In either program, students were thoughtfully placed in ten- to twelve-student cohorts that remained consistent throughout the school year.
Pre-K paved the way
The Pre-K program returned to campus first, based on Health Department guidance, and led the way in the re-opening process. Tina Riddle, our Pre-K Director, researched best practices for pandemic schooling and combined these with Walden’s commitment to developmentally responsive teaching and centering the whole child. The Pre-K team translated this into a program that maintained the hallmarks of Walden’s Pre-K: developing student autonomy and honoring their “work,” which is play. In lieu of shared materials, each child received their very own shelf with enriching games, activities, books, and the materials they would need for project work. Individual stations for activities and play were distanced throughout the room, and colorful pictures of class animals on the floor reminded students where to sit and line up to go outside.
New pedagogies and platforms for virtual teaching and learning
In preparation for the school year, our K-6 teachers trained in online pedagogies for our math program, Bridges in Mathematics. In March of 2020, the Bridges team at the Math Learning Center had leapt into action, translating their lessons into a virtual format with colorful digital interactive apps and platforms. Teachers explored these resources and then applied them throughout the year to provide engaging Bridges lessons. Teachers also learned strategies from a trainer from Teachers College at Columbia University for teaching Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop virtually. Kindergarten to 3rd grade teachers reviewed SeeSaw, and 4th to 6th grade teachers learned Microsoft Teams, translating their class notebooks and systems onto the new platform that would provide more flexibility for our older students. Teachers worked meticulously to create schedules with Zoom links and to translate lessons and curriculum into our online platforms in ways that would foster connection, engagement, and critical thinking. They leaned on each other for ideas and support and built their virtual classroom communities with commitment and care.
Specialty classes provided in-depth, hands-on learning across learning environments
Specialists adopted an entirely new structure, seeing one grade level at a time in a block schedule. In this new structure, students worked with their specialist teacher every day for a period of three weeks. This allowed teachers to create in-depth projects that supported classroom learning and to develop strong relationships with students. Specialists had the most changes to their teaching format throughout the year, and they rose to the challenges of each change! Specialists moved from online teaching during remote learning to teaching online to students with laptops in classrooms when hybrid students moved back to campus, to teaching in outdoor spaces all across the campus, all the while maintaining their online teaching practices with Walden@Home cohorts. Specialists planned with homeroom teachers to integrate curriculum as much as possible. Carolyn Hancock implemented the new design thinking and maker space strands of the Wonderlab curriculum. Students were building, designing, and inventing, at home and at school alike!
Boomerang Bags for learning materials and connection
At the beginning of every new Specialty block, homeroom teachers and specialists alike designed, planned, and assembled Boomerang Bags filled with learning materials for the upcoming weeks. We had ten Boomerang pick-up days in all, with teachers volunteering to hand out the materials to families as they drove through.
Virtual assemblies and community events brought us together
Cohorting across a remote learning program as well as an on-campus program created unique challenges that we came together to overcome. Buddy classes met online, and the Ponderers had their first-ever virtual "Camp-In." Our sense of community thrived through weekly assemblies with guest speakers, classes, authors and activists presenting. The 6th grade mentors read books aloud at assembly and presented online performances of their mentor books! And perhaps one of the most powerful online moments was Grandparents and Grand Friends' Day. On this day, elders from all over the world zoomed into classrooms and shared stories of family and culture that became part of our identity and diversity studies in every grade.
Overcoming challenges and reimagining play and learning for social distance requirements
The Walden@Home program and the Enhanced Hybrid program had different challenges that they rose to meet. Walden@Home teachers channeled their creativity and ideas for connection into the Boomerang Bags as well as into their online classes, seeking to encourage students and tend to both their learning and wellbeing. When the Enhanced Hybrid cohorts began to return to campus in stages, we hosted roundtables to walk parents through all the protocols that would be in place, from hand washing to distancing, from recess to the new air ventilation system. Teachers came together to re-design recess for the six-foot distancing requirements while keeping children’s deep need for movement and play at the forefront. We created recess stations for rock climbing, play on the structure, cardboard construction, sandbox play, nature play, fairy house building, block-building, art activities and group games. We placed round stickers six feet apart in a large grid on the ground so that students knew exactly where to sit when waiting for dismissal, eating lunch, or playing group games. When the Health Department visited, they were so impressed by the grid and how it helped students distance without having to be constantly reminded, that they took pictures of the yards to show other schools who were in the process of re-opening. Teachers also created systems for materials and spacing in classrooms, and redesigned the way we moved around campus to maintain cohorts.
Nurturing wonder and inspiring global citizenship
Through all the stages and changes, we maintained our commitment to child-centered pedagogies that nurture wonder and inspire global citizenship. Pre-K implemented a new and spectacularly engaging design thinking curriculum. The youngest members of our community were dreaming and building big as Pre-K students do best, designing and making empathetic solutions to problems characters faced in stories! In Kindergarten through 6th grade, students dove deep into learning about the complex systems of our city and our world in Imaginative Inquiry units, integrating all of their academic skills in order to solve real-world problems that their imaginary teams of experts faced.
In the Kindergarten and 1st grade Imaginative Inquiry study, students became a team of urban farmers who turned an empty city lot into a thriving community farm based on the needs of the community.
The 2nd and 3rd graders became wildlife organizations that were experts of the flora and fauna of the Los Angeles basin. They had many commissions: helping residents design drought tolerant yards, encouraging Angelinos to get outside and enjoy the nature L.A. has to offer, solving the problem of rodenticide in the food chain, and designing solutions for the mountain lions of the Santa Monica Mountains to expand their territory!
The 4th and 5th graders became an expert team of historical preservationists, working to preserve a building in Boyle Heights, the “Ellis Island of the West Coast” in their study of immigration. They learned from guest speakers from the L.A. Conservancy who shared about their work on Zoom.
The 6th graders were archeologists tasked by a museum to create a “People’s Tomb” highlighting the lives of ordinary craftspeople, artisans, and workers in ancient societies. Themes of environmental and social justice permeated each and every curriculum and problem that students had to solve.
All of this work led up to an Open House that incorporated live presentations on Zoom with vibrant and interactive online presentations in which students shared the incredible work they did in their expert teams. Students' critical thinking and innovative ideas were on display as they shared their learning.
Placing children's wellbeing at the center
At the end of the year, we reflected back to March 2020. The moment that school closed and we shifted our entire program online in a matter of days, we rallied around an idea that became our North star: we wanted children to remain intact. We knew that to carry forth Walden’s mission of nurturing children’s natural sense of wonder into this new landscape, their wellbeing needed to be first in our minds and hearts. We also knew that our own wellbeing would need to be taken care of in order to take care of others. With this in mind, we moved forward, supporting each other so that we could support our students. Teachers brought fun and ease and a strong sense of identity and community into their cohorts. They worked to provide opportunities for students to share and be listened to, to connect with their peers and other cohorts. They built the strong learning communities that Walden is known for. As children delighted in day trips to gardens, arroyos, mountains, and the sea in the 2nd through 6th grade Enhanced Hybrid cohorts and the Walden@Home cohorts came to campus for a day of play, we knew we had reached our goal! Their reflections on the fun they had, the learning they experienced, the challenges they overcame, and the friends they made were our evidence. As the 6th grade speeches rang out through the South yard and into the world through a live stream on graduation day, our graduates' stories of perseverance, commitment, and community synthesized Walden's 50th year perfectly, and their eloquence and poise, tenacity, and joy reminded us what our work is for.