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Innovation Powered by Girls

Innovation in an educational setting should reach beyond new technology and curriculum. It means being highly flexible and prepared for unforeseen challenges like COVID-19. 

When the pandemic struck pre-K–12 schools throughout the region, The Agnes Irwin School stood apart in its response. Led by a three-person Innovation Team, which draws on the work of School’s own Center for the Advancement of Girls, AIS took immediate steps to keep its learning community as connected online as it is in person.  

“We needed to reflect the energy we feel every day on campus, the buzz that’s in the air,” says Camille Seals, Assistant Head of School for Academics and Inclusive Excellence. Research and best practices guide every decision we make. It’s a mindset that allows us to do our best work in innovative spacesIn fact, this is where we really shine.” 

Innovation Team members (left to right) Kim Walker, Julie Diana and Maggie Powers.

Finding opportunity amid the pandemic 

“We like to find opportunity everywhere we can, adds colleague Julie Diana, Director of Libraries and Humanities Innovation for the Upper School. Structuring AIS Online gave us a unique chance to think carefully about what is core in teaching and learning.  

In addition to using Agnes Irwin’s own homegrown research, the Innovation Team actively surveyed the education landscape and plugged in findings which teachers and administrators gathered independently for the community’s benefit. 

Some teachers had already attended prep sessions at a national conference,” says Diana, “and a colleague with a great many contacts in China and Japanwhich the pandemic had impacted first, enabled us to get a running head-start. 

Left: Camille Seals’ second-grader thriving with kitchen-table language arts. Right: Agnes Irwin third-graders meet online with their teacher, Anna Tobia.

Gaining an 
all-girls advantage 

Agnes Irwin’s research and new thinking all seek to answer one question: what do girls need most to succeed and thriveThis shared purpose means the design of AIS Online combined the School’s natural innovation with an intrinsic commitment to girls’ health and wellbeing. 

Balancing care and meeting this challenge is very AIS,” says Seals. “It’s also about who our students are. Girls thrive though connection and are able to be self-directed, but only when we are mindful of the social-emotional piece.”  

This commitment to caring extended to teachers, who benefited from regular check-ins to share what works and what doesn’t, and to families, who ultimately helped refine AIS Online through countless interactions with the School. 

Lower School AIS Online art class assignment — build a color wheel from objects found around your home.

Seeing the results  right at home 

Seals has enjoyed a second vantage point on AIS Online. Since her daughter Astrid is in the second grade, she had the chance to see it in action through a parent’s eyes.  

“Some of my most important work from home was standing in the wings and watching my daughter participate in AIS Online,” Seals recalls. “It confirmed that our approach works. Better yet, it deepened my appreciation for the mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning and how thoughtful we’ve been in tailoring our approach to different grade levels.”  

Astrid’s teachers made the most of the virtual classrooms thanks to a range of novel apps and platforms. But they intentionally chose not to tether students to the screen. Instead, Lower Schoolers found themselves engaged in myriad housebound activities. Astrid’s art teacher, for example, asked students to build a color wheel from everyday objects, inspiring endless possibilities, personal touches, and show-and-tells in a single exercise. 

“The key ingredient to me is that few, if any, assignmentwere one and done,” says Seals. “Astrid received so many prompts to experiment, direct her own learning, and push the level of her work. In second grade. That speaks volumes about Agnes Irwin.” 

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