i2: A Year in Review

Julie Rust, Associate Head of Middle and Upper Schools for Teaching, Learning, and Innovation
We are a month in the 2020-2021 school year. It is almost impossible that we are truly one month in. 

One year and one month ago we threw t-shirts out into a crowd of laughing faculty. “You get a t-shirt” we shouted. “Failure IS an option!” we shouted. “I2! INNOVATE. INSPIRE.” We sat next to each other in the CPA, shoulder to shoulder.  We shouted without even thinking about the stream of particles that flew from face to face. We rubbed our eyes without a second thought. We entered and exited rooms without even a nod toward sanitizing surfaces or looking for hand sanitizer.

One year and a month ago we had summer share outs during a Wed morning PD.  We collided across North Campus, smushing into rooms.  We learned about alternative writing instruction, lessons from grading AP tests.  We practiced drum beats and meditation sitting in tight circles. We smiled, high fived, shook hands.  We were busy, we were tired, but we were confident about the year ahead. 

Seven months ago we had an afternoon of faculty-led demos during our “Innovation Exhibition.” We grabbed some soup and sandwiches before beginning from a communal buffet and we split brownies in half to share using the serving fork. Thus fueled, you taught your colleagues the way you taught your students, eyes twinkling at the absurdity of the set up.  You led them, so many of you, across all divisions. We packed into rooms without regard for how many feet spaced out our bodies, chairs, desks. We acted out fairy tales, had robust Harkness discussions, played like we were in space ships, had frenzied gamified competitions on our phones, and huddled around smart boards in the i2 lab to learn about apps
Then March hit.  Then Spring Break hit.  Then our worlds unraveled before us. 

Teaching became something different.  We huddled together, though virtually.  We tentatively strapped on masks.  We packed up our stuff and communed through screens, so many screens.  Home became work.  Work became home.  We found ourselves drained.  We found ourselves exhilarated.  Some Lunch & Learns were visceral think tanks of positivity.  Others were slow and sad and “can we do this?”  We relied on our friends.  We relied on Megan, Chris, Ray, Noah.  We relied on our department chairs.  We relied on our students. We relied on anyone more tech savvy than us.  We missed our students.  (They missed us . . . and each other.) We saw them and heard their voices, but they seemed so far away.  We missed our classrooms.  Every day blurred into the next.  Our head’s ached from the screen usage.  We hoped we were doing this right.  So many of us did so much more than we ever imagined we could. 

This summer was strange.  We pledged to refresh and re-energize.  But the constant uncertainty, the inability to imagine the first day of school: the format, the feel, the state of all of us within it . . . it plagued us.  We made copious unit plans.  We erased them.  We read blogs.  We watched the nation around us sizzle and fry in the hot sun.  The heat was indicative of truth and clarity.  The world seemed to wake up to inequity.  Some had been awake for awhile.  Some had never been able to sleep at all.   We watched the numbers.  Oh the numbers.  The numbers played games with our minds.  “Whoa- the spike of cases in July” “What about the positivity rates?” We predicted.  We guessed. We planned because that is what we do.  We plan with no assurances.  We plan to carve out a small world that makes sense.  We plan to survive. 

We are a month in. We have masks stuffed everywhere: our cars, classrooms, school bags, purses.  Our eyes immediately find the hand sanitizer in every room we enter. We feel naked, vulnerable, with our mouths uncovered.  We find ourselves exhausted after one class of talk-shouting through the mask.  We tell children again and again, “let’s leave a little more space.” We are now so good with finding our device’s with audio input.  Our students are masters of making google meets.  Our minds are never just one place.  They are at the very least split in two, bi-polar, one side thinking “what are the students at home doing” and the other eye on the in-person students.  We are doing things with iPads and stands and clouds and platforms that we never in a million years would have imagined.  

We never meant this when we said Innovate & Inspire.  If we knew this is what would come, I would have voted we name the movement something that tempts fate less, like “t2 … tradition and teaching.” And yet and yet and yet.  Born of necessity.  No phrase can better encapsulate the last several months: “Failure is an option.” No two words could better describe what has transpired.  “Innovate. Inspire.”  We have learned in the past five or six months that innovation has less to do with shiny and more to do with survival.  We do not innovate to impress.  We do not innovate because we swim in an excess of privilege.  We innovate because we must continue.  We innovate because (1) sometimes innovation is the only way we can continue to do what we’ve always done and (2) sometimes to continue to do what we’ve always done simply won’t work.  Inspiration looks different than we imagined too, but is no less a transcendent force.  Inspiration isn’t all smiles and energy and gush.  More often, inspiration happens in between tears, brief sunshine poking through clouds of frustration. 

I myself have felt disoriented/untethered until last week when I started a new iteration of my “teacher wall of awesomeness.”  Last year, I blogged about how I began this practice of using the writable surface behind my desk to track just a percentage of the amazing work I saw as I went from classroom to classroom.  This year, though I am a year wiser, I am no less starry-eyed. 

I have only been in a handful or two of classrooms, just two weeks of visits, and my concept map celebration already runneth over. Sure sometimes tech lags and audio breaks up. But you all are hosting virtual tours of spaces, empowering youth to do more collaborative work on google docs/slides than you ever did before, and finding ways to sneak in choice and check for mastery all at the same time.

My “Wall of Teacher Awesomeness” reminds me too that although so much has changed since last year, so much has stayed the same. . . namely you all, the incredibly faculty that make it happen every day in every mode and rhythm and schedule that life presents. 

May we continue to share stories on this blog, and may they be equal parts success and failure, equal parts “this is not sustainable” and “may this thing sustain you.”  We are all made up of those parts: the hard truth and the surviving, the drive to make the world a better place and the resolve to demand that others join to make it so. 
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