Who would have thought that when we went off for winter break, it would be spring before we’d be back together again? While we all would have preferred to be together in school, the school community made the best of our time apart. We realise it’s hard to know what we’ve been up to with all the staff and students working away in their individual bubbles, so we wanted to reflect back on these past few months in lockdown while enjoying our lovely community being together again in school this week.
We started up the online school again, on Discord this time to make it more accessible to the students. It was difficult to make a plan because we didn’t know how long the school would be closed, but despite this challenge, we gathered (on Zoom) as a community to discuss what our virtual timetable would look like.
We designed a co-created timetable that incorporated suggestions from staff and students. We had all learned from the previous year’s lockdown and were more aware of our own capacities for online learning, so each day had at least a couple classes or activities with plenty of space for students to self-direct their learning. Students could avail of one-on-one check-ins with staff to help them with their learning as well as to provide support for their wellbeing.
We had some lovely opportunities to connect as a community during this time. In January, we had our family check-ins, where staff members met with families (students were welcome as well) to discuss how each student had been getting on. We appreciate the role a students’ family has in the students’ education, so we were glad to be able to have these check-ins and hear from our extended community members despite the lockdown.
Another chance for connection was our lunchtime hangouts. These regular, unstructured meetings were a space for people to chat about whatever they liked. For one particularly memorable hangout, staff members shared photos and stories from when they were teenagers. Sharing these memories elicited a lot of laughter and also some heartfelt reflections on how the staff members’ experiences of adolescence and young adulthood might have been different if they had been part of a democratic school.
Last, but not least, we had a fantastic Zoom party hosted by our up-and-coming Parent’s Association. The group of parents put in time and effort organising a fun and memorable night for students, staff and family members. There were musical performances, break out rooms with games and chats, and a lovely feeling of community connection.
Refurbishing our Restorative Practices
We have been in the process of making changes to our conflict resolution system for some time now so that it best reflects the needs and values of the whole community. We were able to continue this work during the lockdown and in fact had the opportunity to do several workshops that were open to the staff and students.
To lay the groundwork for these and future workshops, a small team of two staff members and one parent volunteer with extensive experience in conflict resolution met weekly to thoroughly examine specific aspects of the conflict resolution system that needed to be improved and potential solutions to pursue these improvements.
One outcome of these meetings was a series of workshops designed to help students understand what they value about their school community and reflect on how it could be better. We had five workshops, each one using games and small-group discussions to gain different insights on the needs of both individual community members and the community as a whole.
Another outcome was a series of workshops to make concrete changes to the way our JC (Justice Circle) operates. This workshop is also open to the whole school, but more specifically towards JC Clerks and students who are committed to reimagining our conflict resolution system. There have been two of these workshops so far, and the commitment and enthusiasm that the students have shown for doing this work has been inspiring.
Our community also participated in a series of four Nonviolent Communication workshops facilitated by Judith Lardner. Through these workshops, we learned about elements of NVC, like making observations without judgements, how to listen for someone’s feelings and needs, and how to make a request when needs aren’t being met. Developing empathy and learning to communicate compassionately are invaluable skills that will help students navigate conflict and have a better sense of self, not only in our school community, but in their lives now and into the future. It felt exciting to be working on these skills together, and we are looking forward to continuing to learn as a community through future workshops and discussions.
Behind the Scenes
As you may be aware, staff members at Wicklow Democratic School wear many hats. In addition to facilitators, we are also administrators, fundraisers, organisers, accountants and so on, and during the lockdown, we didn’t remove any of these hats. In fact, we were able to jump-start some crucial projects.
We have been working with an organisation called 2into3 who support non-profits with their fundraising goals. Over the lockdown, we had several meetings with 2into3, including two full-staff workshops, to develop our case for funding and determine what funding programmes to focus on. This process is now fully underway and we will continue working with 2into3 in the months to come.
Another exciting project we propelled forward over lockdown is a complete redesign of our website. We want visitors to our website to be able to easily find information and resources that will answer all their questions about our school and help them understand how special our community is. This work has involved re-writing almost all of the text on our website, as well as adding an extensive and up-to-date FAQ that incorporates research about how democratic self-directed learning can help children flourish. We plan to launch our new website before the end of this school year, along with another exciting announcement.
Alongside these projects, the staff team dedicated time to reconnecting with the goals and structures of the organisation. As part of our work with 2into3, we boiled down our mission, vision and values and dreamt into where we would like to see the school in a few years. We also re-evaluated the way roles are divided among our staff team and how we could redefine our roles to be more efficient while also aligning each person’s role with their individual interests and skills.
We also had our regularly scheduled staff planning day, where we carried out a full SWOT analysis of the organisation (SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). We have been reading, researching, discussing and generally buzzing with ideas about the potential we see for the school to keep growing and becoming.
While this lockdown has been challenging for our community in many ways, the time apart will make our reunion in April and the months to follow even more special. We are looking forward to the campus coming alive with the Spring weather as it does each year. We will be welcoming a few new students and holding another School Evolution Week, where we will co-create our curriculum for the last term and discuss what is working well in the school along with what could be better. In June, if the restrictions allow, we will hold our graduation event as usual, and will hopefully be able to invite the whole community to attend.
We will continue to work on our conflict resolution system and overall school culture. JC Clerks and staff will continue to meet and decide on proposals for making changes to the JC. Staff members have started a reading list and will be discussing the first book on the list, Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion, and five staff members are in the midst of a training course on facilitating NVC peer practice groups.
The months ahead promise to be full of empowering work and energising play. We hope you keep watching this space.