Although Brookewood School is a place of learning steeped in the classics of ancient Rome and Greece, the works of Shakespeare and the heroines of Jane Austen’s novels, its faculty and students seamlessly embraced the 21st century’s latest technology and communication platforms during the recent COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
As all academic institutions in Maryland and the District of Columbia closed in mid-March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Brookewood School transitioned well and without interruption to remote education for its 147 female students in grades 1 through 12.
“Our smallness is our superpower,” said Cherie Walsh, Brookewood’s Upper School Director and English literature teacher, praising Brookewood’s effective use of a mixture of live, recorded and written instruction on a number of different platforms that enabled students to successfully complete the 2019-20 school year.
“Our faculty was amazing! Teachers learned new skills quickly and taught one another and maintained their personal connections to students and families throughout,” said R.J. Hawley, Brookewood’s executive director.
“It was also great to see the evidence of how students engaged with their new work in this new format.”
Walsh commends the school’s gradebook/communications platform – Jupiter Ed – for its multiple programs, allowing teachers to implement faculty-wide distance teaching tools, as well as customize certain features to meet students’ needs and class goals.
Despite the expedited shift to remote learning, Brookewood teachers met the challenge creatively and reliably to keep their students on track, using platforms such as Google Classroom, Zoom, YouTube and Microsoft Teams – often doubling the amount of time it usually takes in a regular school year – to prepare for and teach online lessons. The faculty also went the extra mile to offer supplemental and remote resources, such as one-on-one screen time academic help for individual students.
“It’s something we already do – meet frequently with students to discuss progress with papers and give feedback and talk through difficulties,” Walsh said. “The personal relationships we have with our students make it easy to have a conversation via Zoom or to make a screencast to go over a paper in progress, for example.”
Ann Vitz, a parent of a rising 5th grade Brookewood student, said the school’s remote instruction was a positive experience for her family. “Martha so enjoyed the classes on Zoom. Her class size really worked well on the platform. Girls were actively engaged in the discussions,” she said. “It was beautiful as a parent to overhear the girls taking turns reciting a William Butler Yeats poem.”
While some local school districts struggled to rise to the academic challenge of the unprecedented shutdown, Brookewood School parents applaud the school’s faculty for their dedication, flexibility and communication in providing a steady, engaging curriculum in a time of global anxiety.
“The Brookewood difference is that they know these girls so well and they deeply care about both their well being and education. That is a radical advantage in the classroom and on Zoom!” said Brookewood parent Jocelyn Houle, whose daughter, Margot, is a rising 9th grader.
A virtual Medieval festival, vigorous physical education contests, lively poetry competitions, “Wonder Wednesdays,” and fun art projects – all contributed to and remained true to the adventurous spirit of education for the young ladies of Brookewood School.
“As a new family to the school, we were particularly impressed with how Brookewood managed to facilitate the strong sense of community even with the cyber distance,” Vitz said.
Teacher Cherie Walsh recalls a memorable remote 9th grade English class – a table reading in small groups of scenes from a 20th century adaptation of Antigone. Students learned both the limitations and possibilities of Zoom, as they found creative ways to work “together” in performing their scenes.
“They showed vocally that they really understood the scenes’ overall emotional effects, and then they made costumes and props from household objects, used mirrors and Zoom backgrounds, mimed passing props to each other through the screen, added music, etc. They found ways to make the scenes really come alive,” she said. “I was surprised by their excellence and am very proud of how they used creatively the obstacles no one would have intentionally given to them.”
One Brookewood class project that stands out for Ann Vitz was her daughter’s eighth grade art assignment to design a sidewalk chalk mural. She said Martha drew at the end of their driveway a large, colorful butterfly, a subject she chose because of the beauty that comes from waiting patiently after a long period in the shelter of a chrysalis. Underneath the chalk drawing, her daughter wrote the words: “Don’t give up hope,” an inspiring message she said neighbors and passersby found meaningful during the stay-at-home orders.
Eager to return to the classroom this fall, Cherie Walsh said the valuable lessons learned in the pandemic shutdown not only reaffirm Brookewood’s education model, but also will continue to serve the school community well in the future.
“The relationships the teachers had established with the students September to March made possible the successes we have had with online teaching and learning,” Walsh said. “...We were able to take some of the Brookewood magic to the Internet.”
By Maureen Boyle