As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down companies, offices, schools, and universities across the globe, there was a scramble to conduct business as usual. But there was also a struggle to sustain connections among family, friends, co-workers, peers, and fellow students.
At Penn State Altoona, Alpha Epsilon Pi, the college’s chapter of Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education, was one of many organizations looking to build a sense of community during lock-down and isolation.
Concerned about fostering connection and support for new and standing members, as well as students in the college’s education major, the KDP chapter developed several programs to address those issues.
Two of those programs have won awards from Kappa Delta Pi International for their excellence and success.
“We didn’t feel like the newest members were getting the full KDP experience because of the pandemic,” says chapter officer Alyssa Brumbaugh. “We wanted to bring them together in something that wasn’t a general Zoom meeting or Zoom game night. We wanted it to be personal.”
The chapter’s leadership board asked itself some questions on how to do that. How could they use an online event or activity to build and sustain their community during the isolation of the pandemic? How could it build meaningful relationships between students and faculty in the teacher education program?
After several meetings, they came up with the idea of an improv workshop using Samuel Tanner’s improv background. Tanner, associate professor of literacy education and associate counselor of KDP, was immediately on board to serve as a facilitator.
“It was a fantastic way to get our KDP members and education majors ‘together’ in a way that wasn't just sitting on Zoom and listening to a speaker but was interactive and playful,” he says.
A virtual workshop was held on March 23, open to all Penn State Altoona’s educational community members, including KDP members, current and former students, faculty, and teachers from local school districts.
Tanner opened the event with breathing and mindfulness exercises. He then led them in some improv games followed by collaborative storytelling in large and small groups. He says participants were laughing and being silly but also focused and intent.
“Improv asks you to be spontaneous, but there's a discipline to really listening to each other. In a virtual improv workshop, you cannot turn the camera off, and you cannot have Facebook opened on your second window. You must be present to follow the exercise that you're doing. I saw really engaged people who seemed to be having fun and getting outside of their heads.”
The event also included time for the students to debrief, complain, and commiserate about the pandemic in an open, safe space. “One new member I talked to afterward told me how much she felt appreciated and noticed during the workshop,” says Brumbaugh. “She said it felt good to talk with others about what she was going through and who could relate. It made me so happy we could do that for her.”
Even upper-level students felt lighter after the workshop. Paige McCabe, vice president of the chapter, believes it brought members together in ways regular gatherings wouldn’t have. “In-person meetings were just about organization business and tasks, and we would all just stick with people we knew best. The workshop forced us to really interact with each person and see each other as individuals.” McCabe adds that she came away from the event to understand better the importance of checking in with others—pandemic or not. She now regularly checks in with KDP members and others in the education major.
Tanner believes that while things appear to be returning to something like “normal,” students and faculty alike are still thirsty to connect and interact with each other in meaningful ways. Both he and the KDP leadership board plan to continue and expand their efforts in Connecting Through Improv throughout this academic year with in-person and virtual events.
Connecting Through Improv was selected as an Honored Recipient of the 2020-21 COVID-19-Specific Chapter Program Award presented by the Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education.
The second initiative to receive an award from the International Honor Society is the Teaching Appreciation Surprise program, selected as a 2020-21 Silver Winner for Kappa Delta Pi's Celebration of Teaching project.
Celebration of Teaching is one of Kappa Delta Pi's signature service initiatives, encouraging KDP members to support current teachers, cultivate future teachers, and advocate for the profession.
Penn State Altoona’s chapter decided to recognize the efforts and adaptations of area elementary school teachers who had served as Penn State Altoona Student Teaching Classroom Mentors. These teachers were forced to make massive adaptations in their teaching methods throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, including moving to hybrid and remote instruction.
“Teachers go into the field so they can see their students’ smiling little faces every day, give hugs and real, live support,” says KDP chapter president Emerson Fronk. “During COVID, many were teaching in their houses all alone, their only interaction through a computer screen. They missed being physically with the children. We wanted to show them that we recognized their struggle and valued and appreciated them.”
Members spent dozens of hours picking up supplies and creating gifts for 54 mentor teachers in Blair County school districts. Gifts, delivered in April, included supplies, handwritten appreciation and encouragement cards, KDP stylus pens, KDP lanyards, and pre-packaged cookies.
"Our Celebration of Teaching project was definitely the largest endeavor we had taken on over the last two years,” states Lynn Nagle, instructor in education and psychology and KDP counselor. “I was especially proud of the number of members who took part in the project, despite COVID required social distancing at the time. Seeing their enthusiasm and warm expressions while carrying out the project, even behind masks, was truly gratifying. "
Chapter members hope to continue the Celebration of Teaching National Initiative each year.
Topping off the satisfaction of connecting during a successful workshop and doing good for others, Penn State Altoona’s KDP chapter will be recognized for its achievements during Kappa Delta Pi’s virtual convocation scheduled for this November. The chapter will receive a plaque for each award, be featured on the KDP International website, and receive a cash prize of $100 toward future programming. Further, members will sit on the Celebration of Teaching Panel at the next in-person convocation conference to share stories, strategies, and ideas.
“Our chapter does a wonderful job of making our projects not only efficient but meaningful for those on the receiving end and for those who participate. Our KDP chapter at Penn State Altoona isn't just an honor society—it is truly a family of incredible future educators.”