COVID Inspires Learning for the Sake of Learning

Gretchen Lee

As we emerge (slowly) from our 3 month long COVID “pause” we will begin to turn our thoughts from questions of how to get through our day, educate our children, and feed our families, to questions of how this unique set of circumstances has affected us and the world around us. Students in the Upper School at Saddle River Day School in Saddle River, New Jersey will be well ahead of the curve in answering these questions and others. They participated in an optional independent research project during which they asked these questions and then did the research to find the answers.

Not long after shelter-in-place was ordered in New Jersey, students in the Upper School were invited to think of a question they wanted to answer in relation to the pandemic that was sweeping the globe and shutting down life as we know it in the United States. A sampling of questions posed by students included: “How has the behavior of humans during the COVID-19 pandemic benefited the environment?” and “How does COVID-19 affect the mental health of doctors and nurses in the hospital?” Other students wondered about the impact of the virus on professional sports now and in the future, the impact of the pandemic on various industries, and the pandemic’s effects on teens who may have already suffered from anxiety and depression. Big questions and deep thinking from kids who, at the same time, were attending daily classes on Google Meet, completing regular assignments on Google Classroom, and preparing for year-end assessments and AP exams.

This assignment was strictly voluntary, no grades were given and no transcript credit was earned. Yet, more than one-third of upper school underclassmen volunteered to participate. Why? Turns out that these astute students realized that the root of their anxiety was in the unknown. So they chose to name their fears, examine them, understand them, and work to find connections and, in some cases, solutions to the problems that were on their minds.

Students worked one-on-one with faculty advisors to choose their COVID-related topics, developed unique research questions, conducted deep independent research, and produced final projects to exhibit their findings. Findings were presented remotely in the spring with the hopes that, once they are back on campus, they will be able to make their presentations live.

Upper School Head Tony Maccarella spoke briefly about the project: “When other students were hunkering down and avoiding more news about the virus, one third of our Upper School students made the choice to face the pandemic, head-on, by engaging in this self-initiated research project. One of our core values at SRDS states that we ‘engender a lifelong love of learning in our students with a caring and committed faculty, staff and administration.’ There is nothing more rewarding to me as an educator than to watch students engage in learning for the sake of learning. The project was a huge success.”

It’s projects like this one that set Saddle River Day School apart. From intellectually curious, self-motivated students adding to their workload in order to investigate a question that was personally meaningful (the root of all good research), to faculty and administrators who took the time to arrange, guide and nurture these projects, to parents who provided their support (and a steady supply of food), the partnership between the members of the SRDS family makes a difference. These kids refused to allow uncertainty and hard circumstances to defy them. Instead, they chose to apply the SRDS core values – Everyone Counts, Love of Learning and Intellectual Risk-Taking to make their time at home count.  There is a lot we can learn from them.