Apart, But Not Alone: Immaculate Heart Students Tap Distance Learning and School Spirit



Immaculate Heart sixth graders gather via Google Meet for teacher Suzanne Keogh’s online English class. (Names blurred to hide identities)

 

They no longer sit in campus classrooms, but Immaculate Heart students still learn together, engage with teachers, and, equally important, connect with school spirit – all from the comfort of home.

From Marie Kondo-inspired cleanup challenges to haiku writing competitions, Immaculate Heart High School students are finding ways to remain a close-knit community even as they adjust to distance learning and online classes.

Also showing their “Panda Pride,” Immaculate Heart Middle School students are tackling
poem-a-week challenges, “daily doodle adventures,” and selfie exchanges with family pets. One teacher even hosted a virtual dance party so classmates could let off some energy – together in spirit, if not the same room.

Immaculate Heart High School & Middle School made a seamless switch to distance learning on March 18 largely because teachers and students already use technology in the classroom. Here, high school yearbook teacher Masha Tatarintseva works with a student in the Mac lab before her class recently completed the yearbook’s production online.

 

“We are really working hard to keep that feeling of community going by helping students experience our school culture from afar,” explained Nicole Dunn, the high school’s director of ministry, leadership and service. Even the high school’s student body officers, she noted, are keeping spirits high by creating weekly “Tic Toc Tuesday” videos for everyone’s enjoyment.

Although most activity choices are optional, students seem to relish these chances to destress and connect remotely with friends. One day they share favorite recipes; the next, they show off origami creations. Some have even written the morning school prayer – all while handling their regular classwork.

“If students or teachers wish to contribute in any way, we would love to share your spirit,” Dunn told the student body recently. Her online announcements mark the start of each high school day and reinforce a sense of continuity even as both the high school and middle school have shifted to modified schedules.

Sixth grader Jade Jackson worked with her school-issued iPad in the classroom earlier this year, and now uses the device for online instruction with her teachers as part of Immaculate Heart Middle School’s 1:1 technology program.

 

When Immaculate Heart High School and Middle School made the switch to distance learning on March 18th in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers met the challenge by creating virtual classrooms almost overnight.

“The fact that our teachers and students already utilize technology in their classes made our transition to distance learning a smooth one,” IH High School Principal Naemah Morris said. “Along with the assistance of our director of educational technology and the support of our entire tech team, we have been able to continue instruction and provide much needed structure and normalcy for our students in these uncertain times.”

For years, Immaculate Heart’s 1:1 technology program has benefited students. Each high school freshman, for example, is issued a MacBook Air laptop for use throughout her high school career. In class, students utilize the laptops for online research, collaborative writing, recording data for lab reports, accessing online textbooks and curriculum, and creating multimedia projects. Similarly, every incoming sixth grade student receives a school-owned iPad that provides access to digital textbooks and novels, as well as interactive workbooks and educational apps. Now these same devices enable all IH students to connect, via Google Meet, to online instruction with their teachers.

Despite the school’s success with distance learning, IH teachers like Dr. Elizabeth Binggeli acknowledge the loss of connecting directly with students in the classroom. “It’s been challenging but seeing the students in their homes and talking about Romeo and Juliet somehow brings a little normalcy,” said the English teacher, shown teaching her students last fall.

 

IH Middle School Principal Gina Finer singled out faculty members for their help in creating a successful new learning experience for students. “Everyone has stepped up to the plate with ideas and suggestions,” she said. “Teachers have been working tirelessly to provide our girls with the same high-quality education they would have had here on campus.”

The response from parents to distance learning has also been positive, the administrator added. “I’m eternally grateful for all their patience and support,” she said. “They have continuously responded to our program with complete confidence validating our attempts to find our way through this truly chaotic landscape.”

Justin and Sandrine Szlasa, the parents of seventh grader Elodie Szlasa, were quick to share their thoughts about the transition: “Our family is absolutely impressed with the way the Immaculate Heart school community – especially the administration and the teachers – are responding to this virus situation,” they said. “You were obviously prepared, you have responded rapidly, you’ve altered course to improve things in small ways as necessary, and you’ve done all this with grace and communication.”

Among the school’s community-building activities, Immaculate Heart students participated in a haiku writing contest. Junior Vivian Nguyen’s poem was selected as the winning entry, which reflects her first impressions of distance learning.

 

Similarly, Melissa Mills, the mother of sixth grader Maia Mills, wrote, “More than just continued education, the school’s quick response and reaction has provided structure and routine at a uniquely stressful time when those things are incredibly important to the mental and emotional health of our girls.”

Despite the largely seamless move to distance learning, IH teachers acknowledge grappling with the adjustment, especially the loss of directly connecting to students in a classroom.

“It’s been challenging but seeing the students in their homes and talking about Romeo and Juliet somehow brings a little normalcy,” said Dr. Elizabeth Binggeli, who teaches in the high school’s English Department.

“I miss seeing my students, and I don’t like all the screen time,” admitted Suzanne Keogh, who teaches sixth grade English. As a result, the teacher said she looks for ways students can connect with her and each other. “After I take attendance, the students get an opportunity to greet one another and share a 30-second blurb about how they’ve been spending their days and evenings. They need to share something other than schoolwork,” she said.

As a way to tap the school’s community spirit, both high school and middle school students have shown their doodling talents with given starting line on a blank page. Among the winning “Daily Doodles” are drawings by sixth grader Josie Snyder, freshman Veronica Mason and freshman Sadie Kaino.

 

Similarly, middle school teacher Amy Fujimoto said she logs into her classes early so she can just chat with her students. “We talk about how we feel and what things we are worried about,” she said. “I show them my cat, if she is being agreeable, and they show me their pets. It makes me feel at least a bit connected!”

High school art teacher Masha Tatarintseva said her initial classes with distance learning “felt odd,” but no longer. “My students are very eager to participate in Google Meet, and they discuss each other’s art projects with a lot of enthusiasm,” she said.

Tatarintseva is also pleased that the switch to distance learning did not impact her class that produces the high school yearbook. “Only eight out of 152 pages were affected, and students were able to grab alternative and modified content,” she explained. Students have since successfully submitted the publication’s remaining 35 pages to the printer.

As a way to tap the school’s community spirit, both high school and middle school students have shown their doodling talents with given starting line on a blank page. Among the winning “Daily Doodles” are drawings by sixth grader Josie Snyder, freshman Veronica Mason and freshman Sadie Kaino.

 

The switch to distance learning has also been an adjustment for students, but not as much as expected. “Initially, I was absolutely terrified to begin distance learning, because it was a completely new and foreign thing to me, and I treasure being able to see my friends every day at school,” sophomore Stella Lissak said.

However, her worrying was all for naught, Lissak said. “Teachers have been posting our assignments online and have been especially kind in reaching out to check in and letting us know that they are here to help us to learn in the most efficient way possible, even in this difficult time,” she explained.

One benefit of distance learning Lissak did not anticipate: extra hours to sleep. “We now start school at Immaculate Heart about an hour and fifteen minutes later than we did on campus, and there’s no commute time from my bed to my desk, so I’m sleeping an astronomically larger amount than I used to – which is something I am not complaining about in the slightest,” she said.

About Immaculate Heart

Founded in 1906, Immaculate Heart High School & Middle School educates and empowers young women in grades sixth through 12th from its central location in the Los Feliz foothills near Griffith Park. The school has a long and distinguished history, with more than 10,000 graduates. Today’s student body of more than 700 young women is both geographically and ethnically diverse, drawing on students from throughout Los Angeles County. Last year, virtually 100 percent of Immaculate Heart graduates matriculated to colleges, including to the most prestigious schools in the country.

 

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