At the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, Tom Cangiano, Head of School at GEMS World Academy Chicago, decided to teach a ninth grade literature class. If you ask him, it was the best decision he could have made during the unprecedented school year that abruptly switched from in-person to remote learning as a way to flatten the coronavirus curve.
“I also had to make that transition to the remote learning platform, so it really helped me understand from an academic leadership standpoint what the challenges were for teachers and also for students and families,” Cangiano says. “I think that helped us make better informed decisions about things that we could do and things that could be problematic.”
Thanks to a collaboration between faculty and families and the school’s deep heritage of innovation, the shift to virtual learning was a success at this independent school for kids in preschool through 12th grade.
During the first few Fridays of remote learning, families were surveyed to initiate feedback, and, by the following Monday, any adjustments that could be made as a result of parent feedback were put in place.
“It’s that flexibility and adaptability that defines us as a school. We are able to make adjustments on the fly to make sure the program is what it needs to be for our kids,” he says.
But, so much more than flexibility and collaboration went into this school’s successful transition to virtual learning.
Rich, Student-Led Curriculum
GEMS World Academy Chicago offers a unique learning experience for students. GEMS, which stands for Global Education Management Systems — a Dubai-based international education company — is the only school of its kind in the United States, and it is the only private school in Chicagoland to offer the full International Baccalaureate continuum.
“This is a curriculum that was originally designed to serve the needs of children of expats who were living in different countries around the world and going to international schools. They needed a consistent curriculum,” Cangiano says. “It is very globally oriented, so you’re talking about creating global citizens.”
The program is inquiry-based, which helps students harness their own curiosity for deeper study, and puts a strong sense of ownership in students for their educational experience.
The school’s unique Field Studies program
, allows students to establish a deeper understanding of their local and global communities.
“Our teachers are figuring out ways to continue to get our kids learning through examining the city of Chicago,” he says, and they’ve done this through the school’s Chicago curriculum.
It goes beyond visits to the museum, he notes. This is an active engagement around a question the students have established in class, which oftentimes has to do with the environment, social justice or the urban economy.
Through these experiences, they are able to engage with their communities and ultimately learn from those experiences.
“In order to be a good global citizen, you have to be a good local citizen,” Cangiano notes, and that’s why this curriculum is essential.
While the change to virtual learning could have stymied Field Studies, students instead worked on projects a bit closer to their homes and enjoyed virtual visits by Chicago-based experts in a variety of fields that brought their learning to life.
Innovation and Technology
Access to technology has never been a concern for GEMS students. In fact, every child has his or her own device, whether it’s an iPad or a MacBook Pro. This helped make the transition to virtual learning much easier for all. Because of the significant technology platform already in place, both teachers and students were prepared for the shift to virtual learning.
While remote learning looked different for every grade level, preschoolers were the more challenging level to teach because, Cangiano notes, much of the onus falls on the parents to assist their children during virtual learning.
For students in kindergarten through fifth grade, “We had regular morning class meetings, so there was that standard start to the school day where kids came together and met virtually, and then there was discrete instruction via the Zoom platform with supplemental assignments,” he says.
For kids in middle and high school, the class structure was similar to a typical day, but teachers did have flexibility in how they handled the instruction.
Students had a fixed schedule, which was sent out on every Monday. It provided much needed consistency during this inconsistent time. More than just the students’ and teachers’ comfort with technology, is the deep history of innovation, of paying attention to the cutting edge of educational practices and the integration of technology into the classroom in the most meaningful ways. Before the pandemic hit, GEMS had already been using, successfully, many of the tools and platforms that became a vital part of remote learning for schools everywhere.