GCDS News - Magazine

Powerful Teaching & Learning Begins with Strong Relationships

Q: AS WE LOOK BACK ON A UNIQUE YEAR AND LOOK AHEAD TO THE FUTURE, WHAT ARE THE KEY ASPECTS THAT ENABLE GCDS TO OFFER A WORLD-CLASS LEARNING ENVIRONMENT?

I continue to be incredibly proud of our teachers and staff who love coming to GCDS, care deeply about kids, and create the kinds of relationships for and with kids that result in deeper learning in the classroom and beyond. Excellent education starts with every child being known and loved—that has been a hallmark of Country Day since 1926. 

Throughout the decades—even as we’ve adapted how we teach and what we teach, enhanced our campuses, incorporated new technologies, added a high school, responded to local and international events, and faced a global pandemic— the wisdom of our founders has endured: caring connections with teachers and a supportive learning environment are essential to our ability to challenge and engage students to their full potential. 

From the beginning, we’ve known the power of community. We’ve seen the ways that our students more easily take on new challenges and learn from setbacks when they feel supported. We’ve questioned the educational approaches that suggest excellence requires an atmosphere of pressure and competition. We know that the best learning is both joyful and rigorous. 

Q: HOW HAS THIS COMMITMENT TO RELATIONSHIPS AND COMMUNITY BEEN UPHELD THROUGHOUT THE PANDEMIC

The pandemic revealed more clearly than ever the significance of all the small, tangible connection points that weave our community together. We saw anew how much it means to gather together for assemblies or parent coffees or performances, to cheer on our teams at Homecoming or Hoops Night, to visit our reading buddies in the Lower Elementary School or volunteer off-campus at a local nonprofit. 

I’m grateful that our faculty and staff continually went above and beyond to find ways to build that sense of connection despite the challenges. As much as possible, we wanted to keep the joy—even if we couldn’t see the smiles behind the masks!

You can see that commitment to community in a wide range of decisions that were made this year in an effort to find ways to honor and celebrate the work of our students. Rather than cancelling the Middle School musical, we transformed it into a movie production. Filmed over two weeks in locations across campus, “High School Musical” wowed us with a new way to highlight the talent and hard work of our chorus students led by Ms. Kerrick and Mrs. Moye.
For the Kindergarten Circus, whether you’re starring as a tiger who jumps through fire or a pie-throwing clown, it’s not quite “The Greatest Show on Earth” unless your family is there to cheer you on! This year, our Lower Elementary team got creative and found a way to adapt the Kindergarten Circus so that parents could come in person to the outdoor amphitheater to enjoy seeing a show that is not only a joyful celebration but also an important part of the Kindergarten curriculum that is interwoven with their reading, writing, public speaking, and math work in the classroom.

Performances such as these—even in their adapted forms—bring us together in ways that last beyond the two weeks of filming or the two performances of the circus. They are part of the magic of GCDS. They build connections that help us accomplish more in the classroom. They are experiences that decades from now alums will recall as part of what made GCDS feel like home, like family.

This year, that sense of looking for ways to keep connected was part of every aspect of school life, and sometimes included starting new activities. During the fall, the president of the senior class said that it felt like we needed some ways to create fun in the dark days of Covid. Some schools might say, “That’s great, but we don’t have time for that.” Our school said, “What are your ideas?” The next week, the Country Day version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” launched at the morning town hall and the gameshow quickly became something that everyone in the Upper School looked forward to.

Those moments—both new activities and reimagined traditions—are part of our school’s commitment to helping create joy for kids.


Q: HOW DOES THIS SENSE OF CONNECTION EXTEND TO AND INCLUDE OUR STUDENTS’ FAMILIES? 

Parents are our partners in their children’s education and a crucial part of our strong school community. One of the most noticeable temporary changes we had to make in response to Covid was shifting most of the parent experiences to virtual ones

We understand that there is a tremendous difference between seeing the campus through the windshield of your car during drop off and the experience of coming to coffees, parent conferences, math night, chess night, STEAM night, games, lunch duty, helping with costumes at shows, and so much more. And even as we’ve worked to bring the experiences to you—through videos and virtual events—we very much look forward to a time when we can all be back together on campus enjoying events like Walkathon and Homecoming, where we get to experience the joy and connection of being one school. 

Q: HOW DOES COUNTRY DAY’S COMMITMENT TO RELATIONSHIPS, COMMUNITY, AND CHARACTER ENHANCE LEARNING IN THE CLASSROOM?

There are some schools that foster a competitive atmosphere between students. Their approach is: you’re going to try and outwork the student sitting next to you and at the end you’re going to learn a lot. That will work well for some children.

There is another vision that says school can be and probably should be joyful—that learning should be something that excites you and that you want to be part of. That’s the direction I hope we are moving with everything that we do.

When I hear the student speaker at graduation describing how much he’s going to miss coming to school and he’s literally in tears that his classes are over—that is the positive impact on learning. We’ve seen that for decades as our youngest students leap out of their cars in the morning so excited to get to school. Now, we have the chance to show how that enthusiasm can be nurtured and sustained throughout a student’s experience, including the high school years. I’ve always believed that deeper, “stickier” learning happens when kids are excited and engaged and passionate about what they are doing.

Q: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE WAYS GCDS CULTIVATES THAT ENGAGEMENT AND “STICKIER” LEARNING?
Our teachers and school leadership dedicate a great deal of time, research, and thought into creating opportunities for students to develop strong skills and foundational knowledge and then apply what they’ve learned in ways that make the lessons more meaningful and memorable.

There are many different approaches our teachers take based on the grade level and the specific disciplines. Presenting your own writing in public speaking, running a chemical analysis on samples gathered from a field trip, learning how to both share your ideas and listen well in Harkness-style discussions, using data to track historical change, building and iterating a physical design to test a physics concept—the range of approaches is too numerous and widely creative to fully list but each is a thoughtful way of increasing rigor through application.

At GCDS, Project Based Learning is one of the many ways we deepen learning and engagement. It is not new, but it is meaningful. Many well-loved projects—the fourth grade study of Mexico, the eighth grade bridge building, the second grade animal study—all have been traditions at GCDS for decades.There are alums in their forties who can still tell you about the Komodo Dragon or the Emperor Penguin because they loved building a detailed diorama and sharing their report at the Second Grade Animal Fair. They became better writers, better researchers, better presenters—and decades later they remember the skills and knowledge because it captured their imagination. Those are the memorable experiences that we are looking to create.

In the same way that an audience matters at a dance showcase or a hockey game, we understand that having an authentic audience for academic experiences matters, too. An opportunity to share what you’ve learned—and to educate others on the topic—is such a valuable part of the learning experience. You can see the joy and pride on the students’ faces in those moments. For example, this year, after working on their country reports, the fourth graders were able to be ambassadors for a day and share what they learned about their country with third and fifth grade students who visited their classroom. In those moments of sharing, everyone wins and everyone learns.

Project Based Learning brings many opportunities for increasing these moments of sharing and of recognizing academic accomplishments. As we’ve become more intentional about Project Based Learning, we’ve been able to make existing projects better by seeing ways to incorporate more cross-disciplinary work or incorporating different kinds of assessments. We’ve also been able to find places where there are natural connections. 

In the Upper School, for example, tenth graders study the concept of freedom and its relationship with empire, progress, and democracy as part of a project that combines literature, history, science, art, and technology. After studying different examples of conflicts of power in history class and through literature, the tenth graders sketch a visual representation depicting changes in power that they connect to on a personal level. In Chemistry class, they create copper etchings of their artwork through a process called electrolysis. By using electricity to remove electrons from the copper plate through an oxidation reaction, the negative space on their artwork dissolves in the water bath, revealing the final etching. In the makerspace, they then build lightboxes to illuminate the positive and negative space in their etching and include a QR code to link viewers to their five-page paper including an explanation of the chemical process and the topic they chose to depict. That level of interdisciplinary connection doesn’t happen by accident. By using the lens of Project Based Learning, we are able to be more purposeful about bridging topics and disciplines.

Q: COULD YOU DESCRIBE HOW GCDS TEACHERS PLAN SCOPE AND SEQUENCE AND MAP PATHWAYS FOR STUDENT LEARNING? 
Within and across grade levels, our teachers are continually reviewing and refining scope and sequence. Currently Jackie Jenkins, Assistant Head of School, is leading several committees in a N–12 analysis of what we’re teaching, how we’re teaching it, and when we’re teaching it. As part of that process, she has been working with the division heads and teachers in each division to create curriculum guides that will be shared with parents this August as part of our ongoing efforts to provide parents with information and understanding.

This year has also seen the launch of our Upper School Course Guide, which clearly presents the vision for the Upper School educational experience. It has been inspiring to watch the process unfold. Three years ago, we began developing a high school curriculum from scratch with a group of talented educators, a lot of research, and a blank whiteboard. That approach is what enabled us to build substantial connections across disciplines from the very start. Each year it has developed, and one of the key points is that the decisions are not a top-down process or driven by a canned curriculum. What I think is amazing is that Andrew Ruoss, our Upper School Academic Dean, sits down with all of the English teachers, for example, and says let’s think about grades 9–12 scope and sequence. What are the skills that are important? And how should they scaffold from 9th to 12th. Let’s think about what kinds of books a student should read throughout their high school career. Is it important for every student to read Shakespeare every year or have two pieces of Shakespeare in their four years? There’s no right or wrong answer to that, but what is powerful is that we’ve had those conversations with all the stakeholders in the room—and I think we’ve settled on some really good responses. We will continue to tweak and refine as time goes on, but there is a strong arch of classes to take from 9th to 12th, different canons of literature that students will read, and skills that we hope they will hone by the time they are seniors. That level of planning and grades 9–12 arch is reflected in each of the key subject areas—as well as across disciplines. 

Next year, with the addition of 20 more new teachers in the Upper School, we have educators joining us with expertise in many interesting disciplinary focuses. The course selections reflect our ability to highlight and leverage when teachers are experts on a subject and can offer a semester elective on that topic. It’s an amazing outcome for our students, and one of the best ways to establish great courses that are offered every year. 

Q: HOW DO OUR TEACHERS PROVIDE BOTH CHALLENGE AND SUPPORT IN PROGRAMING TO FOSTER STUDENT GROWTH?

Built into our commitment to know and love your children is an understanding that they are unique learners. Differentiation—the ability to offer both challenge and support to help students grow and thrive at each stage—is foundational to our educational program. Small teacher to student ratio, communication and collaboration between teachers, care and attention to each student’s journey—these have always been key to excellent education. 

Our teachers continue to review and improve how they design and deliver programming. Next year, for example, the Lower and Upper Elementary Schools are allocating more time in the schedule for core academics so that there is more intentional instructional time in math, spelling, and literacy. 

We will continue to offer advanced math classes for students in grades 4–8 and are introducing a variety of math offerings at the Upper School level. As shown in the diagram from the Upper School Course Guide, a tremendous amount of care and planning has gone into structuring extensive math pathways to provide each student with opportunities that best support their growth. 

Q: THROUGHOUT TIMES OF CHANGE—WHETHER THAT CHANGE IS IN THE FORM OF A TEMPORARY BUT SUBSTANTIAL ADJUSTMENT IN RESPONSE TO A PANDEMIC OR A MORE GRADUAL PART OF THE ONGOING IMPROVEMENT OF CURRICULUM AND PEDAGOGY—WHAT ENABLES GCDS TO HOLD TRUE TO ITS MISSION AND VALUES?

As a school, we are never static but our core principles of character, Tiger Pride, and the belief that academic rigor and joy can live hand-in-hand hold true. That commitment has made GCDS what it has been since 1926. That every child should be known and loved, that learning is best when joyful—these are part of our strong school traditions. They are also, in many ways, still a revolutionary idea. Even after decades of success. That is especially true in the context of high school education. How many of us loved our 10th grade academic experience? How many of us felt like this year’s student graduation speaker who wanted our 12th grade classes to keep going?

For decades, GCDS has been known as the place where kids dash out of their cars in the morning and run to their classroom because they are so excited to be here. We’ve all seen our smallest Tigers with tote bags eagerly on their way to class—and we believe that can be a N–12 experience . . . well, maybe not the little tote bags, but certainly the joy and enthusiasm. 
We believe that joy can amplify learning and our students’ success. What that means is that GCDS graduates not only have the skills and knowledge to be successful, they will also always have a home away from home, a lifelong connection, and the greatest of friends. That doesn’t happen by accident. It is integral to the educational experience at GCDS and offers our students a confidence and sense of connection that will carry forward and make them more resilient when they face new and difficult circumstances. 

GCDS is an exceptional school because we know it is important to be more than a school. As we look ahead to times when we can more easily learn and play and gather together, we celebrate that it will be easier to nourish and experience that feeling of connection. I’m grateful to our teachers, staff, and families who went above and beyond—in effort, in patience, in care—throughout the past year. It is that dedication and commitment to excellence—and to one another—that will lead us forward into the next decade.