A choir of tiny voices sing, the audience applauds, and a group of Grade 1 students visit and joined in the spirit of community and Christmas with residents of Trinity Manor.
It's a tradition for students from Willowgrove School to share the season with elders, and while this year's gathering contained most elements of the usual celebration there was one unique twist — it was all done virtually.
"In previous years we have taken students to a seniors' home to sing, do crafts, have snacks and visit," said teacher Deanna Constantinoff. "The idea of giving back to the community and connecting with seniors is not new to us. However, due to the pandemic, we have not been able to do any of these activities."
While students couldn't sing in person, their visit with residents was the next best thing. The 60 students connected with residents via Zoom for a live conversation and shared the choir's prerecorded performance. Each of the 180 residents also received a student-made Christmas card.
"When the idea was presented to the students, they were very excited. Children love to sing holiday songs and it makes it even more special when they know someone will be listening to their performance," said Constantinoff, whose students were joined by the classrooms of Joanne Madarash-Clarke and Chelsey Braybrook-Higgs to create a mass choir led by music teacher Kerstin Hettinga.
"The card making was so much fun. We provided the students with all the necessary equipment; folded cards, pictures to colour, markers, glitter, and ribbon. They were very excited to create their special cards. The students also printed a holiday message inside the card and signed it 'From a Gr. 1 Willowgrove Friend.' "
Creating an authentic learning opportunity engages students to love what they are doing and to do their best, Constantinoff said, and the project was a perfect connection with the theme of family that runs through the Grade 1 social studies curriculum.
"We are always looking for ways to emphasize the importance of family connections and seniors," she said. "We knew we wanted to do something to teach our young Grade 1 students about the importance of grandparents and great grandparents and giving back to our community. We felt connecting with seniors tied in nicely to what we were learning."
For the teachers involved, it was an opportunity to have students experience the importance of giving to others. Classrooms talked about how difficult the pandemic is for those who have not been able to see their families. Teachers shared the message of how being kind to others spreads joy and how even simple acts of kindness make the world a better place.
The project also came with a personal connection. Constantinoff's parents moved to Trinity Manor shortly before the pandemic started, and she is conscious of how isolation from family and friends has had a big impact on all seniors.
"Watching children perform brings joy to everyone," she said. "We felt it was important for the students to see who they were performing for, to be able to witness their joy and see the smiles on their faces. We felt it was equally important for the residents at the manor to see the children live and to hear them laugh and say Merry Christmas in the closest way to in person as we were able to make happen.
"We knew it would bring joy to my parents and all of the residents at Trinity Manor. The students seemed particularly excited that they would be singing for my parents, they thought that was very cool. We find that having a personal connection is always more engaging to students."
The ways in which students can participate with each other and as members of the wider community have been limited since the start of the 2020-21 school year, but teachers have adapted and innovated to create new ways of learning and building connections between school and community. Constantinoff and her Willowgrove colleagues hope their students' connection to the residents of Trinity Manor has special meaning for everyone.
"There are so many important things that we have done in the past that we have not been able to do," she said. "The pandemic restrictions have forced us to think outside the box to find alternate ways to still provide quality, authentic experiences for students. It fills our hearts with joy to do projects like this. Providing an opportunity for the students to be kind, caring members of our community is one of the most important things we can teach them.
"It is often the simple things that have the biggest impact. The life enhancement team at Trinity Manor were wonderful to work with and very accommodating. It has been a wonderful partnership and it is my hope that next year we can build on this experience and continue to find ways to connect our young learners with the seniors in our community."