Innovation is a hallmark of Cary Academy; you can’t have DICE without it! The school’s ability to innovate with grace has probably never been tested so much as in the last six months; the challenges associated with educating students during a global pandemic have forced us to re-imagine both what we do and why we do it.
Some of the adaptations we have made are, if not easy, at least no-brainers: we’ll wear masks, amp up cleaning protocols, stop using water fountains, etc. In the area of curriculum, we have made an array of choices about what material is core, or less crucial, and teachers have done the hard work necessary to translate their lessons into modes of delivery that can span the digital spectrum.
But in case you missed it, we also pulled a rabbit out of the COVID-hat. Along with changes required for easy switching between in-person and virtual learning modes, we also used this time of crisis to accelerate a change we have dreamed about making for years.
I’m talking about FLEX DAY, y’all! (woot, woot!)
It’s a BIG alteration…a quantum leap, really. From a schedule that sometimes groaned under the weight of frequently altered days, the stealing of minutes from core classes for an assembly here, a special program there, we have carved out an entire day in the middle of our busy weeks for…what, exactly?
The answer to that is, at this point, only dimly glimpsed, but we do have dreams, and we now have the ability to make them come true.
Imagine Flex Day operating differently for different members of our community. The variations are myriad:
- The senior who missed out on Work Experience last year might find an internship possibility—virtual or in-person—and find the prospective employer is happy to have her work on Wednesdays each week. Flex Day makes this possible!
- The sixth grader who loves building robots for competition might find that Flex Days are the perfect time to get immersed in that work.
- The Outdoors Club has already used our first two Flex Day to take day hikes in Umstead Park, inviting experienced and novice hikers to begin learning skills they can apply to future overnight trips.
- Our Delta Service Club committees might use a Flex Day to glean potatoes for a food pantry, build houses with Habitat, or host a blood drive.
- A current sophomore has requested Flex Day hours to complete her book on Gen Z and personal finance; she will be interviewing experts and completing the chapter edits.
- Any C.A. staff member with a particular area of expertise (e.g., coding, photography, salsa dancing) might offer a one-shot class or a mini-course over a series of Flex Days.
- An eighth-grader and a group of friends who are thinking about starting a new business might use Flex Day hours for fleshing out their plan and seeking venture capital.
- The Center for Community Engagement, which is coordinating Flex Days, might offer a special program, like a speaker on racial justice, a musical workshop, or an artist-in-residence able to interact with students and entertain their questions.
- Upper School students might teach a skill to or mentor Middle School students. This was difficult before, but it should be easy now!
- And, to be clear, some students will need Flex Day time to catch up on college essays or academic work; if that’s the best use of their Flex Day time, that is perfectly fine with us.
What makes this variety possible is that our Wednesdays will truly be flexible. With no regularly-scheduled classes or other set commitments, students and employees have a big canvas on which to create the kinds of experiential learning that Cary Academy has called for ever since the adoption of our last strategic plan in 2015. We have not stood still since then, but we had virtually exhausted the possibilities in a schedule that was starting to feel a little like a straitjacket.
Flex Day frees us to try new things and to do more of the things that we know are good for students. So, we’re excited and curious to see where we go with this. I would be lying, however, if I said we knew for sure. Some of our colleagues, and maybe some CA parents, have understandable questions about accountability—how can we know for sure where every CA student is on Wednesdays? How can we guarantee these are days filled with learning, not just another 5 hours of Fortnite? Importantly, how can we ensure the benefits of Flex Day can be enjoyed by all students equitably, especially with limits created by the pandemic?
To some extent, the answers to these questions depend on all of us—employees, students, and parents. CA advisors will make time to check in with advisees about their Flex Day plans and whether they follow through. They will be able to know fairly soon which students are taking advantage of the various opportunities offered by employees and their peers, and perhaps which students need additional encouragement or support to engage. We do not want Flex Day to feel like another burden or chore, but we know every student is capable of identifying some activities or ideas worth exploring and giving them a shot.
What does this look like on a practical level? We will get better at this and increase the variety of offerings as we grow into it, but the first week looked like this:
- About 215 Upper School students participated in at least one Flex Day event.
- All MS students participated in either in-person (6th) or virtual (7th & 8th) events. MS events were a mix of required and chosen sessions.
- All MS faculty and about 1/3 of US faculty had a hand in planning or participated in in-person and virtual events
Keep in mind that, for now, we will be hampered by the need to remain socially-distanced on campus. These first Flex Day plans rely more heavily on virtual events than we hope will be necessary for most of the year. (fingers-crossed emoji!) But even while we’re responsibly practicing the three W’s, we can start exploring and creating, discovering and innovating.
As a school, we are always looking for ways for our students to grow. Flex Day will allow students to practice owning their learning every week. Students who own their learning gain skills that allow them to recover from failing, become deeper problem solvers and thinkers, learn how to manage projects and collaborate, and grow into lifelong learners. These are skills that will carry over to college and life beyond.
The deeper goals for Flex Day are profound, and we think worthwhile. In the future, C.A. graduates will have learned to excel not just at tasks set for them by adults, but also in realms they helped to imagine and bring to fruition. In a time of crisis, or when we settle into our new “normal”, those are skills we know our students will treasure.