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April 23, 2020

By Kevin Ko-wen Chen, Communications Manager; and Julia Sonenshein, Communications Manager

Amid the unprecedented COVID-19 situation, the world has changed in ways that were unimaginable even two months ago. As the Ethical Culture Fieldston School practices physical distancing, it has undertaken a significant challenge: taking education online.

Transitioning the School to a remote setting is no easy task. Teachers are working overtime to find innovative ways to teach online and maintain the intangible aspects that make up the ECFS experience. From online classes to school spirit, here’s how ECFS has gone remote.

Reimagining a yearlong curriculum — twice

At the beginning of the academic year, Fieldston Lower 3rd Grade Teachers Alexa Shikar and Harry Sunshine revamped their longstanding Native American studies unit to make it more relevant to the present. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has required them to re-envision their curriculum yet again — and they’re taking it in stride.

In keeping with ECFS’s emphasis on ethical education, Shikar and Sunshine sought to highlight contemporary Native American culture as a way to counteract the misconception that Indigenous peoples are a relic. During the fall and winter, students met with Louis Mofsie, the director of the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers, and Joseph Bruchac, an Abenaki author whose book about a modern-day Mohawk boy, “Eagle Song,” they read in class. The teachers worked with educators at the National Museum of the American Indian and a consultant at the American Museum of Natural History to ensure their lessons were accurate and inclusive.

Shikar and Sunshine shifted the focus to Native American history in the spring, and they are finding ways to preserve their curriculum. Some pieces — like the research of mammals of the Northeast, which Native peoples would have encountered hundreds of years ago — have remained largely intact, as students practice their note-taking skills at home. Others have required more creativity. For example, Shikar and Sunshine are recording themselves reading alternating chapters of Bruchac’s “Children of the Longhouse” as a way to reintroduce learning about Native cultures.

Though ECFS has needed to adapt, in some ways it’s still business as usual. Shikar has maintained the same level of interaction with her colleagues and students to ensure all children feel supported. “We’re doing it as much as we would in a real school day, within the confines of a computer,” she says. “In our chat rooms, you can feel your students being the same as they’ve always been.”

“Fieldston Lower is a school where there’s a great deal of collaboration,” Sunshine adds. “To witness the compassion and support that people are providing each other is very moving.”

And students will learn the same core lessons, no matter where they are. “There are real central themes that we want the children to take with them at the end of the year, whether they have the curriculum we had in the school building or the curriculum we have [in remote learning],” Shikar says.

Just as Native American cultures have endured and thrived, so too does the spirit of learning at ECFS.

Even the Workshop goes online

Social Studies Workshop at Ethical Culture usually takes place in the sprawling Workshop downstairs, a cavernous room filled with all manner of creative tools. So how do you translate hands-on tasks from this class to a home setting?

Leonard White, Social Studies Workshop Teacher, says the greatest hurdle to overcome is that he simply doesn’t know what materials the kids have at home. He certainly doesn’t want to put any families at risk by making them go shopping, so every assignment comes with a list of alternate materials. 

But what about the curriculum? White adapted a project for his section of the 1st Grade that they would have done in the spring had they been on campus: designing and building the ideal playground using found materials to craft slides, monkey bars, and the like. (Social Studies Workshop Teacher Freya Carlbom has similarly adapted her work with the other half of the 1st Grade, creating a project around sculpture-making with household objects.) “I wanted to do something that would make sense to the overall trajectory of where I wanted to take the kids in the first place,” White says.

The students worked through a series of assignments, getting to know the ubiquitous household materials cardboard and paper, including an “alien garden” wherein they conveyed the colors, textures, and pathways of an invented greenspace, demonstrating an understanding of how to transform flat shapes into three dimensional forms. Next, they’ll use their new cardboard skills to tackle the playground, after spending time together thinking critically about how to design the space. 

In lieu of building a model together on campus, White has devised an inventive strategy: Each student will be assigned a tile — a piece of the playground — and White will stitch together photos into one digital tapestry. It’s a case study in using the innovation and ingenuity students learn in the Workshop, and shows the many tools ECFS teachers are relying on to translate their course — even something completely hands-on — into a remote setting.

Fieldston Lower takes PE online

With the ECFS community cooped up inside, finding ways to get bodies moving has never been more critical. At Fieldston Lower, PE Teachers Stefanie Sporton and John Dwinell have been finding innovative ways to keep students active. They keep a website updated with new activities for students and parents and break down resources by grade level. Activities are appropriate for each age group: For example, the younger kids in Pre-K–1st Grade do a mix of beginner yoga and dance. Dwinell sifts through countless activity videos to find the right ones for his students: “I’m a film critic for workout videos,” he says. 

The real fun happens on Wednesdays, when Dwinell and Sporton post livestream PE classes for the whole Fieldston Lower community. The two teachers trade off activities: Dwinell did agility training in his living room, demonstrating juggling with socks to teach hand-eye coordination. Sporton is known and appreciated for her crossfit and bodyweight training presentations.

The classes are an opportunity to de-stress, take care of your body, and shed self-consciousness. Dwinell tried to demonstrate flexibility and was felled by the stiffness of his muscles (“tight like a piano wire,” he says), much to the utter delight of the audience. “Keeping it positive is so important and so is having the students see you smile and laugh and try your best at things,” he says. “We have a blast doing it.”

Cocurricular activities remain strong at Fieldston Middle

Cocurricular life remains a vital facet of student education, and members of the Fieldston Middle community are coming up with ingenious ways to keep it alive.

Though the Earth Day Forum scheduled for April 17 could no longer be held in person, the Fieldston Middle Environmental Club, advised by French Teacher Angèle Renard, was determined to engage the community and offer a place to share student work. In time for Earth Day on April 22, the club made a call for submissions inviting all students to submit artwork, writing, songs, or photographs responding to the prompt “We are all on this Earth together.” It also launched a website featuring an interview with sixteen-year-old climate activist Sena Wazer by French Teacher Vincent Lebrun; a reading of the nature-inspired poem “Flames of Memory” by the poet, Chloe K. ’25; and an article on COVID-19 and the environment by Genevieve P. ’24. In addition, the website includes book and film recommendations and resources related to environmental activism.

Meanwhile, the English Department has devised two programs for students to stay engaged with reading. One of these is a standard book club, albeit online: Students read a book and gather over Google Hangouts Meet, where they “share their reactions to the book and participate in a teacher-led discussion to provoke and deepen conversation,” says English Teacher Laurie Hornik.

The other program, titled “First Chapter Fridays,” offers a twist. Instead of reading a book beforehand, students listen to the first ten minutes of a book together. They then share their initial thoughts, speculating on what direction the book might take next. It’s a way to reach a broader range of students who may be reluctant to commit to an entire novel but still hope to participate.

“Book clubs give students the opportunity to chat with other readers about a book they all read, while First Chapter Fridays give students the chance to start a new book in a social and interactive way,” explains Hornik. “Some students will be more drawn to one of these types of experiences, and some may choose to participate in both!”

“The Fieldston News” goes digital

At a time when viewers across New York are tuning in daily to Governor Cuomo’s press conferences, Fieldston Upper students are doing their part to keep ECFS families apprised of the latest developments in the community.

Over spring break, the student leadership of “The Fieldston News” consulted with their advisor, English and History Teacher Bob Montera, about how to proceed now that a print newspaper was no longer viable. Instead of shuttering operations, they resolved to move their publication online.

“We came up with a timeline where, instead of having full issues and installments, we resolved we would publish a couple articles every week,” explains Halle F. ’20, Co-Editor-in-Chief of “The Fieldston News”.

A website edition of the student newspaper already existed, but Halle’s team worked with Carl Smith and Kirk Ruebenson, Graphic Communications Teachers, to restructure it to resemble the print newspaper more closely. Just three days after school returned from spring break, four new pieces were already published online.

With reportage on public health initiatives in New York and nationally, as well as op-eds on topics like the intersection of privilege and pandemics, much of the newspaper’s content is centered on the COVID-19 crisis. “We thought it was pertinent to the community, but also we wanted to integrate the content of our news site to parallel along with the mainstream news,” explains Halle. “We wanted to make it tailored to Fieldston, so we’re fixating on the effects of the pandemic on students in our community.

ECFS students create a new normal

ECFS students — ever resilient and adaptable — are leading the way in creating a new normal. For Fieldston Middle student Chloe K. ’25, that means making a schedule for each day on a white board (complete with a frog illustration).

Chloe is “trying to stay organized and productive during uncertain times, while enjoying myself,” she says, and a recent Wednesday morning was chock-full of activities: reading, chilling, and playing on her Nintendo Switch — all before breakfast. Then she moved onto history class, school work, and lunch, before giving way to a PE period: a sunny bike ride through the park.

The afternoon involved advisory, breaks, more schoolwork, and more time outside. Before she knew it, dinner had come and gone, and at 7:00pm she joined her neighbors in a thunderous round of applause for New York City’s healthcare workers. She shook a shaker and whooped as horns blared outside her window. “NYC sure knows how to be loud and show their pride!” she says.

While every student’s day in quarantine looks different, Chloe is an example of the unique ways in which ECFS students are adapting and making up a new script. Check out ECFS’s Instagram for more remote learning diaries.

Health and Wellness tackle mental health remotely

The Health and Wellness team at ECFS faces major challenges as they work to support the school community, but they are not without hope. KC Cohen, Director of Health and Wellness for Middle and Upper School, says that it’s a struggle for a number of reasons: Technological challenges make it hard for some families to engage, and the Health and Wellness team is working without the in-person connection they often rely on. And they’re attempting to support ECFS students, parents, faculty, and staff while facing an unprecedented set of circumstances. “On top of existing health and wellness conditions we knew about, we are now managing very large numbers of people with anxiety, panic, depression and despair, as well as grief and loss,” Cohen says.

And so the Health and Wellness team is working to address those issues within the limitations of a remote setting. In addition to providing regularly-updated resources like articles about self-care, the Health and Wellness and Counseling teams are providing weekly remote meetings for ECFS families. There are also multiple mindfulness sessions per week aimed at faculty and staff. Counselors have been available for phone consultations and Google Hangouts meetings for adults and Middle and Upper School students with parental consent.

Despite the challenges the team faces, Cohen sees bright spots. “I’ve seen kids show greater resilience than I thought possible. I’ve seen students, families and staff step up in ways that show deep compassion and care. I’ve seen expressions of gratitude that move me to tears,” she says. 

Cheering on the community

Once an ECFS student, always an ECFS student — and Ethical Culture Principal Rob Cousins has found plenty of creative ways to keep school spirit alive.

“School spirit is the sense of collective identity and belonging felt by members of the ECFS community,” says Cousins. “In this moment, when we’re away from school and isolated at home, it’s important to feel that the community is still there.”

Cousins has worked with families and faculty at Ethical Culture to create videos that simulate many of the School’s beloved customs. One video shows Cousins and Assistant Principal Erik Landgren standing in the doorways of their respective homes “greeting” students as they typically would each morning. Birthday announcement videos continue the tradition of 5th Graders reading aloud the names of students who celebrate their birthdays each month. Most impressive of all is a video montage of dozens of families joining in a virtual chorus of the school song, “It’s the Feeling Inside.”

Across each of ECFS’s four divisions, administrators are working hard to ensure the sense of community remains vibrant. At Fieldston Lower, a Virtual Campus spearheaded by Assistant to the Principal Melinda Moore features everything from a podcast by Fieldston Language and Learning Specialist Taina Coleman to recipes by Chef Enrique Vila. At Fieldston Middle, a virtual talent show intends to bring together the talents and good cheer of students across the three grades, while at Fieldston Upper, discussions are already well-underway to reimagine year-end celebrations like Prom and Commencement.

“These are all important ways to demonstrate that, even though we’re not physically together, our school community and the values we hold dear continue,” Cousins explains.