Doors at the American School of Milan open at 7:00 a.m. for teachers. On any weekday, if you were to walk into the school, you would find lights on in classrooms before the sun has even risen. Even on Saturday, Ms. Kress, Mrs. Lichaj, and Ms. Elise are rehearsing with children on campus for the elementary musical. We are grateful for the commitment and versatility of all of ASM’s teachers this year more than ever.
Our youngest children have been assigned to specific learning pods as a result of our Covid protocols. Their teachers have found that these pods have developed a stronger sense of community than existed before Covid, when children had the freedom to automatically gravitate to playing with their friends. Now three- and four-year-olds have expanded their social circles and language skills have improved as children are obliged to express themselves in English with others who they may not ordinarily chat with.
Likewise, our Kindergarten teachers have had to reinvent how students play with toys and interact with learning centers during free play. They have engineered a way to offer a limited number of learning centers and toys that change on a weekly basis. The results have exceeded their expectations. Our teachers have found that the students persist in collaborative play for longer periods of time in these centers, working out differences with one other and stoking their imagination, rather than losing interest and looking for alternatives that are not currently available.
All of our primary school teachers have developed ways to inspire and engage their students in their learning of core subjects from the isolation of their desks. For example, you will find young children reading with their book box at their desks, quietly concentrating while their teacher sits with a smaller group socially distanced on the floor to develop a specific literacy skill. Every one of these calm and structured classroom settings is the result of hours of planning and adjusting to ensure that our students continue to learn and reach their potential.
Upstairs in the intermediate classrooms, during science, students are exploring the solar system and using their ability to multiply decimals they have learned in mathematics to create a model of the solar system to scale.
Every child has an iPad and calculates independently before checking their answer with a socially distanced partner. One child is home quarantined, so joins the class via a Zoom call and is projected onto the interactive white board so that she can take part in and follow the lesson. Students in Grade 3 have made remarkable progress in their writing and are now able to integrate quotations to denote when a character speaks in their story. The children have even noticed this learning progression themselves when they compared their first and latest attempts at writing a personal narrative story.
If you ask any of our elementary teachers, they will tell you our children are so happy to be back on campus and our sense of class families is now stronger than ever. They attribute this to the self-contained classes we have been obliged to create to respect Covid protocols. A Grade 4 teacher says, “Students are more patient than perhaps in previous years. They are more independent when it comes to technology, but also to learning.”
None of this happens by accident; thought-provoking learning continues, and these community bonds develop owing to the expertise and tireless attention invested by our teachers as they consider how to organize learning and how best to structure collaborative groups.
In the upper school, if you drop into Digital Age Learning, you will see students reflecting on a unit called Digital Citizenship and E-Safety. They have created a digital poster using the software Kami with guidelines about how to live with technology judiciously. Added to that, each student has negotiated a Family Agreement with their parents. One parent had written, “I will try to limit my time on Netflix.” Addiction to technology is not only a problem of youth!
Voices singing in French can be heard a little further down the corridor. All the children are standing by their desks, wearing their masks and warming up for the class. They throw an imaginary ball to their friends—even those in quarantine, present via Zoom—to invite them to practice feminine and masculine nouns. The teacher speaks in French with a charismatic energy. These children are beginners, but the teacher is so encouraging that it's safe to try to speak, with mistakes being deftly turned into moments for the whole class to learn from and repeat as one together. On every desk, the children receive their rubric on the presentation they did in the previous lesson, with a list of strengths and list of areas in which to improve. They quietly read, take notes, and glue the rubric into their notebook. It's clear this is a learning routine in this class. But it’s not over. Now the teacher asks every child to share one thing that they have learned and will implement, “pour le reste de la vie.” Naturally but purposefully, the teacher has created a moment for reflection, so students establish a goal before moving forward in their learning journey.
And finally, for the last lesson of the day, you can drop into Chemistry class. The teacher has posted the learning objective in Schoology. “According to VSPR Theory, lone pairs affect bond angle.” The teacher is alone in the classroom and all the students arrive on time on Zoom. Student government has arranged an aperitivo for the last period of the day on Friday, inviting all upper school students to bring an appropriate drink or snack to class. The teacher has a cold cup of coffee, one student has cookies, another has a Coke. They greet each other and then it’s down to business. Every camera is switched on, as are their brains. In 18 minutes, the teacher asks 23 questions, expertly calling on every student to ensure that everyone is involved. He reviews the challenging concepts introduced during the previous lesson through building the understanding together. Not only does he ask questions, but students also ask questions that demonstrate they are thinking deeply about these ideas.
Across the world, teachers have had to adapt and adjust to the constantly changing circumstances in which they find themselves. This is stressful, exhausting, and time-consuming. As you walk through the corridors of ASM on campus or visit our virtual classrooms, the atmosphere here is positive, purposeful, and apparently effortless. Our leadership team is proud of our teachers, but also recognizes international educators’ courage, diligence, and empathy around the world as they ensure that their students continue to flourish in these challenging times.
Jane Segre is Director of Teaching and Learning at the American School of Milan, in Milan, Italy.