Growing Connections Through Innovation and Creativity

Relationships can stay strong, even in a virtual learning environment. Discover how Grosse Pointe Public School System is using technology in a mindful way to keep students engaged.

Grosse-Pointe-Public-School-Engaged
Monteith elementary student self-portraits — complete with masks — hang in their classroom so students in the other cohort can get to know them.

When Grosse Pointe Public School System created a strategy to return students and staff to school last fall, they put innovation at the heart of their plan. Because the future of the coronavirus pandemic was still uncertain, they knew flexibility would be important, but even more critically, they wanted to retain relationships and connections in ways that worked for all. And, in some cases, innovation provided the district the opportunity to learn new — and better — ways of getting work done.

Throughout the school year, students, teachers and administrators used creativity and out-of-the-box thinking to help achieve their learning goals, says Rebecca Fannon, community relations specialist and homeless and foster liaison with Grosse Pointe Public School System. “Instruction is less about lectures and more about finding ways to pull students into the learning process,” she says. “It’s been exciting to see how creative the teachers are.”

Innovation for every day

Grosse Pointe Public School System created two main tracks for education to support a variety of family situations. The GP Traditional program started with remote learning in the fall, moving to a hybrid model when it became safe to do so, and OneGP Virtual provided a year-long virtual program for families that opted to keep kids at home. And, for families with caregivers not able to work from home, the Grosse Pointe Foundation for Public Education provided grant funding to establish Kids Club Centers as safe locations for students to engage in their remote learning in small cohorts of no more than 10 students.

To ensure that every student has access to online learning, the district has distributed more than 2,500 devices to students. “With medical issues coming forward from COVID to job losses, we know people are in a difficult place financially,” Fannon says. “We have delivered technology and food and removed many barriers.” With community support, the district has reached out proactively to make sure everyone who needs technology and food can have it. Chartwells, the district’s food contractor, worked with the district to provide thousands of meals through a drive-through service and have even provided food delivery between regularly scheduled times.

“We have worked hard to make sure we took away as many stressors as possible and create a seamless transition for kids,” Fannon says.

The whole district is learning to overcome the challenges in creative ways, Fannon says. From kindergarten teachers creating virtual lessons for 22 students — half in the classroom and the other half at home engaging in asynchronous learning — to seasoned high school teachers trying new methods of engaging with students, Fannon says she recognizes all the ways that Grosse Pointe Public School System can continue to use innovation in the future. “There may never be another snow day,” she says, with a laugh.

“The math department is a good example. They have been phenomenal in figuring out the best ways to test students so there is not the challenge that comes from instructing online. They’ve been working together to make sure the students are providing their own, best work and parents like me are thrilled with the level of contact,” Fannon shares.

Required social distancing didn’t halt the robust music and performance programs of the high schools. Instead, they worked together to create innovative virtual programs, recorded and published on YouTube. Grosse Pointe North’s choir holiday concert brought together many students in a virtual performance that was edited entirely by 11th-grade student Michael Villenneuve. Band directors from both North and South high schools created a collaborative virtual concert of Kinetic Dances, even linking in Arkansas-based composer Randall Standridge to offer insights into his work and messages about positivity and commonality. Virtual concerts for symphony orchestras, wind ensembles and choirs were shared with Grosse Pointe families through weekly emails directly from the district.

New ways to engage in hands-on learning

Teachers in Grosse Pointe Schools’ Career and Technical Education program tapped into creative ways to help students learn in a typically hands-on environment. When students weren’t able to get into the classroom studio to edit their work, high school CTE teachers Brian Stackpoole and Steve Geresy found ways to extend access to complex editing software to students working remotely, and have given students opportunities to create and edit broadcasts across the district. The students have been applying their skills to solve real world problems in creative ways, Fannon says.

“The teachers are some of the most creative people I’ve ever met. People wonder how students can learn chemistry and physics without being in a lab environment, but teachers have students creating pinball machines at home to learn about the pushes and pulls of physics and in TV production, students have created videos to share information for middle school and high school information nights, even providing information about candidates for the superintendent search to replace retiring Superintendent Gary Niehaus,” she says.

Middle schoolers used their home kitchens to create original cupcake recipes in a Cupcake Wars format, then decorated their winter wonderland-themed creations together online. “Teachers have been really thinking about all the different ways to connect that are fun,” Fannon says. “They continually ask themselves what they can do, how they can structure class to make sure they connect with all students. They even create baking shows and record them so kids can interact with them in a way that works for their families’ bandwidth capacities at home.”

Looking to the future

While everyone is looking toward a post-COVID return to normal, Fannon says Grosse Pointe Public School System will benefit from innovation and may even keep some practices in place in the future. “We used sign-up software for virtual parent-teacher conferences for the first time and it worked so well. Parents loved being able to schedule other commitments around the time they’d normally be waiting to talk with their kids’ middle school and high school teachers,” Fannon says. “Several of the elementary schools had 100% participation. We were thrilled to see that they were still able to connect.”

District social workers, counselors, school psychologists and other staff have created Wellness Wednesdays to highlight mental health resources for students and, for those who are new to Grosse Pointe Public School System or who will be advancing to a new school within the district, virtual tours provide a 360-degree view of all of the secondary buildings. “We anticipate these being very popular with students moving up to a new school building, as well as community members who are excited to see inside our buildings and track progress on our bond projects,” Fannon says.

Most of all, Fannon says she’s grateful for all the work the teachers and parents have done to make a difficult year productive. “Relationships and connections are critical in our district,” she says. “We can’t do everything as we did before, but we are continuing to work on building and maintaining those relationships. We care deeply about our neighborhood schools, and we have the support of the community who really see our district as an important resource.”

Learn more about Grosse Pointe Public School System at www.gpschools.org.

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