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Stritch faculty provide transformational education during challenging times

Students in masks

As the world adjusted to the changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Stritch faculty and students began to navigate new ways of teaching and learning. Prior to March 9, 75% of classes were held in person, but on that day, Stritch quickly transitioned to exclusively online teaching and learning.

“The Spring 2020 semester was like no other in history,” said Interim President Dr. Dan Scholz. “I’m so proud that our faculty, staff and students responded with efficiency, clarity and our quintessential charism rooted in our mission and values.”

Dr. Scholz attributes much of the University’s success to its engrained sense of community. Immediately upon transitioning to online instruction, faculty developed an unofficial and proactive “buddy system” to help each other build courses in Canvas, the University’s online learning platform. In addition, the Center for Excellence in Education and Innovation provided several training sessions and ongoing support for faculty.

The supportive community dynamics, however, extended much further than peer groups. Faculty and students formed new bonds as they worked together to maintain an uplifting “classroom” environment.

“With understanding, flexibility and kindness toward each other, we are all getting through,” said Dr. Barb Spies, communication arts professor.

Lucy Hartnell, '20

Teaching and learning

Several Stritch students had the unique experience of being both students and teachers in Spring 2020, including senior education majors completing their student teaching experience. When Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers issued a statewide mandate closing public and private schools on March 13, teacher candidates worked with their supervisors to develop strategies for online instruction.

“I was stunned and worried about how online learning would work,” said Lucy Hartnell, ’20 (pictured before COVID-19 pandemic), who was student teaching in a fifth-grade classroom. “My cooperating teacher had high expectations of me, and I needed to create several online lessons, videos, assignments and assessments. The workload was tough, but I was determined to do my best and end the year on a high note.”

In addition to creating lessons, Hartnell learned several of her own through the experience.

“I discovered that I should never underestimate my ability to accomplish things when times are tough and that perseverance and grit are essential,” she stated. “I also learned that you can’t serve from an empty cup. It is important to take care of your own needs so you can be your best self for your students.”

Dr. Clavon Byrd, ’02; ’09, chair of the teacher education program, observed tremendous growth in Stritch teacher candidates throughout the semester.

“Our teacher candidates were understandably disappointed with the abrupt changes brought on by the pandemic,” said Byrd. “They did, however, gain critical experience in planning, instruction and assessment while teaching non-traditional students in non-traditional settings. They were grateful to be able to continue practicing their teaching skills and have handled the pandemic with grace.”

Under the guidance of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Byrd and Marie Humes, interim director of field experience and clinical placement, redesigned the necessary evaluation documents to better reflect a variety of subjects and environments, including virtual teaching. The updated materials helped supervising teachers provide consistent assessment under unprecedented circumstances.

“Our students have been extremely creative in making their virtual experiences extraordinary,” said Humes. “I have received feedback from many classroom teachers that our students provided incredible support during this stressful time.”

Cultivating community in online environment

One of the Stritch doctoral program’s hallmarks is its annual Summer Institute, an immersive learning experience that kicks off each academic year. The institute creates an opportunity for students in multiple cohorts to network with each other, as well as faculty and experts. Perhaps the biggest pandemic-related challenge doctoral students and faculty faced in 2020 was recreating the program’s signature sense of community without meeting face to face.

Doctoral faculty engaged in months of planning to develop strategies for increasing instructors’ social presence, encouraging high levels of engagement and setting clear expectations, according to Dr. Eric Dimmitt, ’12, chair of the doctoral leadership studies program.

“Creating community within cohorts is a key element of our learning model,” said Dimmitt. “We did our best to gather virtually by holding the Summer Institute synchronously so our speakers could present in real-time and students could engage with each other. We recognized that students had even more to balance in the midst of the pandemic, so we offered discussions and activities asynchronously as well.”

Plans are already underway for the 2021 Summer Institute, which is expected to take place in person.

Azucena Reyes

The show must go on

The Stritch Performing Arts Department also began writing a new chapter in its history with unprecedented virtual performances including “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “Stritch Shorts,” a holiday concert and “Once Upon a Time: Original Short Fairy Tales for Students.”

“These performances represent not only our resilience of mission and our love of the arts, but also our true commitment to finding a path forward through creative problem solving and teamwork, which is at the center of our Performing Arts education philosophy,” said Mark Boergers, chair of the visual and performing arts department.

In addition to the virtual shows, students performed William Shakespeare’s classic “Twelfth Night” in Stritch’s Heritage Park in October, marking the University’s first promenade-style theater performance. With several COVID-19 safety protocols in place, a limited audience was invited to explore the outdoor setting as actors performed their scenes.

“We were at the forefront of what theater could look like in the midst of a pandemic,” said student Azucena Reyes (pictured). “I’m so thankful we were able to perform and share art in a safe way.”

The inimitable resolve of Stritch students and faculty resulted in unprecedented accomplishments throughout the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lessons learned inside and outside the classroom will continue to have an impact on our University family.