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Innovation through connection and coherence
By Erin Kelly, Director of Education, Greater Essex County District School Board

In reflecting upon what I have seen on the innovation front during these extraordinary times, two common themes have emerged. These two big ideas are often at the root of human ingenuity, and I am delighted to be able to pull together examples of how I have seen CONNECTION and COHERENCE in action.

1. Innovation comes from the human need to connect emotionally in a time when physical distancing and isolation are the norms.  

Connection is demonstrated through action that responds to the needs of others. Haven’t we all seen some amazing examples of this? Sharing personal protective equipment with hospitals, supplying trays to long-term care homes, assisting with food banks, and distributing school supplies to newcomers are just some of the examples that I have seen in my own community.
Teachers have been helping their students stay connected to those who matter most by crafting messages of connection and support, like Mme. Chaouali’s Grade 1 class at Forest Glade Public School who created cards, virtual high-fives and other messages for their “Grandpals” – their senior penpals. Students have been sharing with their teachers the most incredible videos – check out this geography lesson in song! by 7-year-old Cooper – and also sharing their artwork (thanks to a collection drive by Windsor Essex EMS) with local hospitals.
And schools have created videos from teachers to students. Below are just a few examples.
Some administrators and teachers, like Principal Susan Moroz and Vice-Principal Teresa Hoffman-Sartor at A.V. Graham Elementary School, have even started making their regular daily announcements by video on Periscope – a live video streaming app – and Twitter. These innovative approaches are creating both connection and routine. (Online videos and morning announcements for some Windsor Essex students, CTV Windsor, April 21, 2020 and Educators strive to keep school spirit alive, Windsor Star, April 22, 2020).

Part of Greater Essex County District School Board’s strategic plan includes engaging community partners to support student learning. One of our amazing partners is the Windsor Symphony Orchestra (WSO). The WSO has partnered with Windsor Public Library to create a Read Aloud series for educators, students and families during this school closure period. A Read Aloud has been prepared for each week for the remainder of the school year, and there are suggested lessons for each of the books. Check out Robert Franz reading The Book with No Pictures by B. J. Novak and The Remarkable Farkle McBride by John Lithgow. Both are truly delightful for parents and children alike.

2. Innovation comes from the need to have order in the uncertainty and coherence in the chaos – on the fly. 

We have found that regular communication with all staff has helped create structure and order, and has helped us all realize just how much we are doing. It also lets others know what we are planning. Here is just one of my latest updates. It is impressive to see that the business of the board continues across departments. We are producing podcasts that support mental health, creating professional development, looking after our facilities, and ensuring continuity of staffing, human resources and finance processes. Staff have risen to make things happen.
Hearing the voices of our teachers and parents has informed our work. The GECDSB’s parents’ survey returned double the expected rate of responses and they are rich in learning, which we are implementing now. For example, we have responded with a set of Distance Learning Guides, one for teachers and one for parents. We recognize that some families are comfortable embracing technology but others are struggling. Juggling work demands from home with children trying to do schoolwork can be challenging. Not all parents have the technology, capacity or supports they need to sustain the level of “home schooling” that is being asked of them.
Distance learning means that children and youth can continue learning with support from their teachers. The support being provided by the GECDSB educators – as with educators across Canada who are doing similar things – is not intended to replicate the school day. These are temporary measures in response to the school closures. Families can support their children with learning activities provided by the educators as much as possible, given individual circumstances, but are not expected to take on the role of the classroom teacher.
That said, “necessity is the mother of invention.” Or at least the expediter of it. The coronavirus pandemic has escalated our approach to implement blended learning while also taking care to leave no student behind. We need to be fast and flexible, comprehensive and inclusive with consideration of ALL learners’ needs including more vulnerable students, those with special education needs, those learning English, and Indigenous students.

Here in GECDSB, I’ve seen teachers, parents and students dig deep to respond to the immediate crisis situation and school closures with a tremendous energy and creativity. I feel absolutely confident that today’s innovations in education will become tomorrow’s standard practices.