Recently, Dr. Kate McKenna, High School Principal, was published in the Association for the Advancement of International Education (AAIE) newsletter for the distance learning wellness program in the High School—Wednesday Without Walls.
Wednesdays Without Walls at the International School of Nido de Aguilas
–By Dr. Kate McKenna, High School Principal
At our High School Halloween Assembly this year, I walked on stage wearing a witch costume. The kids knew that I was coming with bad news, and I got few laughs when I told them that I had dressed the part. Then I went ahead and confirmed the rumors that had been circulating by announcing the cancelation of our annual Week Without Walls program. At that time, Chile was experiencing civil unrest, and our school had just returned from six days of closure due to massive protests and demonstrations throughout the country. Even though we were back in school, travel was deemed neither viable nor appropriate given the context. Behind the scenes, our leadership team scrambled to coordinate with trip providers, travel agents, and airlines. Somehow, our adventurous Outdoor Education Team convinced nearly all of our trip providers to move the dates of our travel with little to no penalty fees due to the unprecedented circumstances. We congratulated ourselves on this feat and selected dates that we were sure would avoid future disruption: May 22-30, 2020.
Unfortunately, anyone reading this article — likely from their home quarantine quarters — knows how this story ends. Needless to say, the second time I cancelled Week Without Walls in the same academic year, it was with much less fanfare and hope. I chose not to dress as a witch. Instead, I made a video from my porch where I expressed my deep and profound sadness to students about this situation. I shared my regret to the seniors for the loss of yet another tradition and concluded that this experience — though central to our school mission — was unable to be actualized given the context.
But still, it felt wrong to give up on the idea completely. Sure, we could not venture into the trails of Patagonia or the deserts of Atacama, but certainly we could engage in experiential education and whole-child learning as a community — even if we needed to do it from the confines of our homes.
So, Wednesdays Without Walls was born. Rather than replacing the days we would have been traveling with more virtual classes, we made a commitment to alter our high school schedule, shifting to a 4 +1 weekly model. Our new distance learning schedule featured four days of academic classes with one day midweek focused on more hands-on learning experiences that attended to our student's mental health while also furthering Nido's mission of developing our students' interests and personalities fully.
Once we had the idea for Wednesdays Without Walls, we put together a team of educators to help us run the program. Every administrator, counselor, instructional coach, curriculum director, athletic and aquatics staff member, and faculty member with courses that had concluded for the year are now responsible for running workshops on Wednesdays. This gives one day a week to our faculty members, who are teaching a full load of five classes, to plan virtual lessons, provide feedback to students, meet as curricular teams, and catch up on emails from parents and students. Our Wednesdays Without Walls program is organized into seven categories: Arts, Community, Fitness, Education, IB Program, Service, and Wellness. Each workshop leader designs a workshop in one of these fields for each Wednesday Without Walls. Creativity and risk taking are encouraged! I modeled these virtues by signing up to lead a session on Bollywood dancing — something that I had never done before — but had always been curious about. Luckily, I was able to bring an expert into our workshop thanks to the free fitness resources now being shared virtually due to the global pandemic.
Our first Wednesdays Without Walls day was held on April 22nd. We loaded the virtual event planning program, SCHED, with 52 options for our 491 students. Each student selected four workshops, one for each block of a normal school day. Students also attend their virtual Advisory class as part of our social-emotional program. Juniors taking the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program were asked to attend their Higher Level classes for half of a block, meaning that they had a mix of academic lessons and workshops of interest. Our WWW team did not disappoint with their creativity and risk-taking: there were workshops on cooking a family breakfast, engaging in a family mindfulness session, practicing yoga, doing a HIIT workout, learning about Earth Day actions, competing in a Knowledge Bowl tournament, discussing articles related to COVID-19, learning basic CPR, creating a stop motion animation video, designing gratitudes for Chile's essential workers, and — a very popular one — learning the important life skill of changing a car tire. We even hosted our first ever Nido's Got Virtual Talent show with live performances from students and over 100 attendees.
Feedback from student surveys demonstrated that the day was a success. Many students commented that they had been sitting in their room for five weeks without engaging in any type of self-care or fitness routine. They realized that they needed to partake in artistic and athletic activities in order to feel 'normal' again. Others were drawn to the idea of learning more about the practicalities of life — they have asked for future sessions on life-saving techniques, budgeting, and resume writing. Certainly, many were excited by the social-nature of the day and the unexpected learning communities that formed as students connected with peers and teachers whom they had not seen in weeks. The day felt exciting and energizing.
As educators, we know that many of our school mission statements invite us to engage in authentic learning that promotes risk-taking, self-direction, collaboration, and personal growth. We cannot forget who we are in times of crisis. Instead, we need to tap into our creativity and adaptability in order to further our school missions and promote our community values through our virtual programs. We also need to ensure that we are caring for our students and attending to their social and emotional health during times when they are isolated and feeling uncertain.
When our students look back on this time in their schooling, I know that they are going to remember Wednesdays Without Walls as a central part of their Nido education. As we head into an uncertain future, I invite your school to ask itself: How can our virtual program further our school's core work and create meaningful and memorable experiences for our students during this unprecedented time?