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Thinking outside the classroom: How private schools plan to teach outside

Salesianum School may add outdoor tents to create more shady spaces for teaching when it opens next month.

When students return to school in a few weeks, outdoor classes – a strategy promoted to reduce coronavirus exposure – will be a familiar thing at  private schools in New Castle County, such as Sanford School, The Tatnall School and Wilmington Friends School.

“Sanford has long encouraged students and teachers to go outside for discussions and activities,” said Head of School Mark Anderson. “Sitting on our quad, poking in the stream, conducting an experiment in the pond … In 2020, the big difference is that now we will see more of this.”

“We’re always outside,” said Page P. McConnel, Tatnall’s director of marketing and communications. “We will be using our campus fully, and we’ll now be outside much more.”

Wilmington Friends’ Outdoor Classroom “is regularly used for Lower School learning,” said Susan Morovati Finizio, director of communications and strategic marketing for the school, which plans to use “as much as possible” of its 30-acre Alapocas campus to teach its 700 students.

Private schools in New Castle County generally favor returning to teaching students in person – outdoors and indoors – with leaders ready to pivot to hybrid or online learning if health reports change. Their outdoor spaces vary in amenities, such as roofs, tables, chairs, electricity and WiFi. 

Salesianum may add outdoor tents to create more shady space for teaching.

Public schools are taking a different approach.

Gov. John John Carney and the Delaware Division of Public Health announced last week that Delaware schools may open under a hybrid scenario this fall, with a mix of in-person and remote instruction – all including significant safety precautions and as much fresh air as possible.

Several districts already have said they are going to an all-remote start to the year that will last at least six weeks. 

Here’s how some private schools, also incorporating significant safety precautions, are planning to use the great outdoors:

Sanford School

“In 2018, Sanford student Alistair Bebbington ’20 built an outdoor classroom for his Eagle Scout project,” said Cheryl Fleming, director of communications, marketing and technology for the Hockessin school, which brings its 600 students back on Sept. 9. “Students and teachers in all three divisions use the classroom for a variety of teaching and learning activities.” 

They also use “spaces throughout our [85-acre] campus, including the Quad, Chapel Valley, our pond and stream and areas that are close to buildings, including blacktop areas and woods.” 

The school is buying outdoor event tents and exploring upgrades to its WiFi. To make the outdoors more comfortable, every Lower School student this year is asked to bring a yoga mat and beach towel.

Visual arts instructor Nina Silverman-Weeks plans to have her seventh and eighth-grade Art Lab students forage the campus for natural substances to make inks, dyes and paints.

Students in all grade levels have practiced mindfulness outside, and Fleming offered more than two dozen examples of different outdoor activities. Here’s a recap for fifth-graders, taught by Coleen Miller and Wendy Nashed.

“Fifth-grade students frequently read outside under trees. They walk to one of our two outdoor classrooms to learn about native Americans in context and read social studies chapters. They write poetry in Chapel Valley. They utilize the blacktop for math activities like jumping the number line, geometry, and interactive homeroom games/get to know you activities/team building, and content-related reviews and lessons. Teachers sometimes read chapter books and mentor texts aloud to children outside. The area has concentric circles where students walk in opposite rotations and then chat with different partners – this year students will be doing this 6 feet apart.”

Tatnall students in white garb on the way to work on school's bees in apiary. Photo by Jim Graham
Tatnall students in white garb on the way to work on school’s bees in apiary. Photo by Jim Graham

Tatnall School

At Tatnall, every classroom up to fifth grade and all science classrooms open up to the outside, and teachers are taking students out to “sketch, have poetry readings and go on the trails for science,” McConnel said. The Greenville school has three miles of trails on its 110-acre campus, which starts Sept. 9 for 525 students from age 3 to 12th grade. 

It’s been upgrading its outdoor facilities, including a “mud kitchen” that allows the youngest students to learn from natural items in an outdoor kitchen setting. It has also started the work to certify its Early Childhood outdoor space as an Outdoor Classroom.

“Our goal is to get every class outside every week,” said science teacher John Evans, one of the chairs of the school’s Experiential Education Committee. It is preparing five areas with seating and dry erase boards, modeled on the setup at the Stroud Water Resource Center in Avondale, Pennsylvania, a recurring field-trip destination.

Wilmington Friends

Wilmington Friends is fortunate to have many outdoor spaces that teachers can use for instruction and other activities such as lunch, recess and student club meetings,” Finizio said. “Several years ago we created an Outdoor Classroom, which is regularly used for Lower School learning and remains an integral part of our program. We plan to make use of this – as well as our athletic fields, playgrounds, and green space – as much as possible.”

At Albert Einstein Academy, the art pavilion has a roof and can hold six picnic tables. Courtesy of Albert Einstein Academy
At Albert Einstein Academy, the art pavilion has a roof and can hold six picnic tables. Courtesy of Albert Einstein Academy

Albert Einstein Academy

An amphitheater, an art pavilion, a picnic grove and an courtyard are among the outdoor areas that the Albert Einstein Academy plans to use as classrooms when it opens Sept. 1.

“We have lots of wonderful outdoor spaces,” said, Gerri Chizeck, head of the Talleyville school, which is planning for 32 students in grades K-4. “Being outdoors is a great thing itself for children.” 

Albert Einstein is on the 32-acre campus of the Siegel Jewish Community Center, which is improving the WiFi. Every student has a laptop, either their own or one from the school’s 1:1 laptop program. The art pavilion can hold six picnic tables, and students are asked to bring a lawn chair for outdoor lessons. Chizeck is setting up an outdoor office for socially distanced meetings. 

Ursuline students take advantage of outdoor classes in many ways.

Ursuline Academy

Sam Varano, principal of Ursuline Academy’s Lower School, is “encouraging all staff where possible to take instruction outdoors. Teachers are being creative to go beyond a four-walled space.” 

The Wilmington school, which serves about 400 students from age 3 to 12th grade, plans to use “our outdoor classroom, playground, Ursuline’s Green and Serviam Field … as multi-functional spaces for learning and activities,” said Brittany Keller, marketing and communications manager.

It has bought tables and umbrellas for an outdoor cafeteria so students can get “a midday break to reset,” Varano said. That contrasts to schools keeping students in their classrooms to eat.

Tower Hill School

Tower Hill School already has an outdoor classroom for its Lower School, and it is “putting tents over tennis courts, utilizing open fields and lawns, and potentially even Rockford Park,” said Teresa Messmore, director of communications and marketing. The Wilmington school, which opens Sept. 8, serves about 800 students pre-K through 12th grade on a 44-acre campus.

Archmere Academy

At Archmere Academy, “We have purchased Adirondack chairs to supplement our existing outdoor benches and tables,” said Katie Eissler-Thiel, principal of the Claymont school, where students return Aug. 31.

“We will also be using large tables under our colonnade on campus, which can be used in nice weather or inclement weather. Our Patio building also has a covered porch off the back, which could also be used creatively if needed. Teachers are fairly accustomed to taking students outside for class, so we will encourage them to continue to do so.”

Salesianum School

At Salesianum School“we’re definitely going to do outside any activity where you take off your mask, like lunch,” said Father Chris Beretta, principal of the Wilmington boys school.

That’s why it’s looking to set up tents, in locations to be determined, that will also be used for instruction and non-academic activities.

“Teachers are eager to do it,” he said. “It’s kind of neat to expand our footprint without building a wing.”

Its Abessinio Stadium complex is still on target for opening this fall, he said, offering other spaces that could be used.

When interviewed, Beretta said the school had not yet announced which mode it plans to use when it opens on Aug. 27. Whatever choice it makes, it’s ready to pivot as needed, he said. Yet if students are on campus (even if it’s only half of the 950 enrolled) how usable will the tents be? “What if it’s pouring rain? Cold? It does get complicated.”

St. Edmond’s Academy

St. Edmond’s Academy is planning to use outdoor parts of its 25-acre Brandywine Hundred campus, said Head of School John Jordan. It opens Sept. 1 to about 250 boys, age 4 to eighth grade.

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