Superintendent's Column: Students 'building strength in collaboration and communication'

Dr. April Grace, Superintendent, Shawnee Public Schools
Dr Grace

"We've all gained a lot of patience with each other. We've all had to come up with a Plan A, B and C. This mindset will help students in college and beyond.”

Hanaa Saidi, one of our Shawnee High School student leaders, said these wise words during her first meeting as part of Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister’s Student Advisory Council. Hanaa’s statement reminds me that while I grieve what our students have lost during the past year, our young people can still find reasons to celebrate what they now have.

Hanaa reminded me that we all have newly learned flexibility and problem solving skills because of the pandemic. COVID-19 has given us daily - sometimes hourly - obstacles that we have to overcome. I am reminded of last spring when we faced giving our seniors a graduation experience that was safe. Students, administrators, teachers, and community members came together and designed a workable and innovative solution, a virtual celebration. This challenge was one of a multitude we have faced these past months, and our staff and students have always found ways to persist and find solutions.

One positive aspect of education during a pandemic is that our students have more opportunities to practice independent and personalized learning. For example, instead of completing research projects in which every student is assigned a similar topic, our middle school students are engaging in inquiry projects of their own choosing. Their classroom teachers and school librarian are serving as guides to the students as they develop their own research questions and locate information to help them answer those questions. Our students are becoming experts in subjects that interest them while they also learn important skills such as writing, speaking, and analyzing information credibility. The teachers report the students are far more engaged overall with what they are learning and are showing tremendous growth throughout the project. Because of technology resources we were able to provide our students due to CARES Act funding, all our teachers are able to design more independent and personalized learning assignments like these.

Our students are building strength in collaboration and communication as a result of changes the last few months, too. Group projects that could typically be completed in a classroom sometimes require students to engage in online discussion when students cannot participate in person. Learners are becoming more adept at using communication technology and video creation tools with their school work. These skills are imperative for success in our students’ future college and career plans.

I do not want to seem like I am minimizing the loss that all of us at SPS have experienced the last year. We have tragically lost loved ones, time with family and friends, and experiences that we typically enjoy. However, I also can see what our students have gained these past months, especially their tenacity and willingness to adapt and learn. For all of our students and what they continue to accomplish, I am truly grateful.