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Keep Your Feet Planted: How Two Schools Are Staying Grounded During Uncertain Times

Tuesday, April 7, 2020  
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April 2, 2020
By Brent Kaneft, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Park Tudor School, and Nolan R. LaVoie, Dean of Students, Woodberry Forest School

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of brainstorming, collaborating, and communicating, all in an effort to figure out how to move brick and mortar teachers into an eLearning environment smoothly and to create policies and procedures—which possibly didn’t exist 10 days ago—to support this effort.

Some of our teachers have jumped into this world with two feet, excited to try all of the new tech tools they hadn’t had the time to use before. Some of our teachers feel like ducks out of water; eLearning is causing them stress and anxiety at a moment in our world’s history where the excess of either is hardly necessary. When there is a great disruption in our lives and our communities, it is important to have principles that ground us.

We (Brent Kaneft and Nolan LaVoie) are long-time colleagues and friends. We have been in constant contact with each other over the last two weeks, bouncing ideas off of each other and pushing each other to consider every angle. One thing we definitely agree on is this idea of having principles that ground us, regardless of whether we’re in the analog or virtual classroom.

We have both learned that there is no amount of policy you can write that will cover all the scenarios a teacher will face. Leadership teams can’t possibly create a perfect schedule or all-encompassing parameters. That doesn’t mean leadership shouldn’t provide guidance for their community, but eLearning is not meant to be overly structured. The medium is the message, and the message is flexibility.

Here’s what we’ve each learned about staying grounded at our schools.

Park Tudor School

At Park Tudor School, we have grounded our faculty by training them in Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE)-informed strategies that improve learning. We have provided ample and consistent professional development for them; now we must trust them to apply these strategies to the eLearning environment. The definition of learning is applying your knowledge and skills to novel situations, so in this regard, this is a great assessment for us all. 

Here are a few MBE principles that should guide our teachers’ eLearning approach.

  • Be relevant. There is no greater time to tailor your curriculum to be relevant to the moment. When content is made relevant to students’ lives, their ability to remember the content significantly increases. Relevance also increases engagement. Most of our students have never been impacted by a world event like this before. Using the context of this pandemic can not only support your learning goals, but it can also help students process what’s happening in their lives.
  • Limit passive learning (e.g., a Loom/video lecture) to 15-20 minutes. Include some activity at the end of these assignments that asks students to retrieve, reflect, synthesize, produce, or argue.
  • The need for novelty. We may be in this eLearning environment for a while, and there is a danger of trying something new every day. Novelty wears off, but in order to maintain or increase student engagement, we need novelty. So don’t introduce every single tech tool you’ve learned about during the first few weeks. Early adopters are prone to this mistake. Play the long game. Intentionally introduce a new tech tool when the time is right.
  • Use tech tools (e.g., Quizlet) that take advantage of the “testing effect.” Now, more than ever, we have to help our students study over time (“spacing”).
  • Learning can still be social and doesn’t have to be synchronous. “Live” meetings (e.g., on Zoom) are not the only way to connect with your students. There are other options to build a social learning environment—Flipgrid, classroom discussions ((a)synchronous), Loom—where you and your students can express your personality and receive peer feedback.
  • Maintain flexibility to help students manage stress. All of us are trying to manage stress: the stress of the pandemic, joblessness, living in tight quarters, overall uncertainty. We must honor this context and maintain flexibility, whether that’s giving a student the benefit of the doubt when s/he doesn’t submit an assignment on time or whether that’s using low-stakes or no-stakes formative assessments to help students learn without overwhelming them. Student wellness is the priority right now, and our approach to eLearning instruction must help students manage that stress. Too much stress, as we all know, disrupts the learning process.

We are all seeking answers right now, but the worst thing we can do is seek absolutes. We must base our plans on informed learning principles and trust our teachers to do the right thing and provide support and leadership when they need it. As I scan the eLearning plans of other schools, it is obvious to me that none of us know exactly what to do. And that’s OK. We must have a “beginners mind” and be willing to be uncomfortable, try new things, and fail.

We may feel pressure from parents to create eLearning conditions that replicate the classroom experience. Not only is this impossible, but trying to replicate the traditional classroom experience online causes more stress for all parties—students, teachers, and parents. Most importantly, this “business as usual” approach to eLearning is bad for students and antithetical to what we know about how learning works.

Besides MBE instructional strategies, schools must also consider what values ground their community and then approach eLearning with these values in mind.

Woodberry Forrest School

At WFS, teacher-students relationships are at the center of all we do. One of the biggest sources of anxiety during this move to online learning stems from a fear of losing these relationships. Although we will not be able to hold open doors, wave at a friend, or share a meal in exactly the same way, we can be intentional as a school to put relationships at the center of our online learning.

Our faculty know how to teach and they know how to build relationships. Now is not the time to re-invent our values or mission. These should endure the hardship of this transition and be the center of all choices we make, regardless of place. To that end, we should treasure our synchronistic time with our students as a time to strengthen the connective tissue between students and teachers.  

  • Students need connection, now perhaps more than ever. In order to achieve this, start your day with virtual office hours for parents, students, and teachers to drop in for a quick question or collaboration, and end your day with an hour-long consultation period for academic help. This decision is more than symbolic. It’s a statement that your academics cannot exist unless they are buttressed by time to connect, collaborate, and get help.
  • Limit the time in front of a screen. With all of the technology at our fingertips, it is tempting to continue teaching our lessons live with all of the students in attendance through programs like Zoom or Hangouts. Don’t. Healthy relationships require a give and take. Our students are taking care of siblings, sharing bandwidth, and dealing with great uncertainty. To that end, limit your synchronistic classes to two a week and no more than 30 minutes at a time. Encourage your students to meditate or go for a walk— anything to break up the day.
  • Use systems already in place to support students. Your school has support structures in place to make sure no students slip through the cracks. Double down on them. Solicit the help of faculty and staff who find themselves with little to do when the campus is empty. Have these adults work with your dean of students office and/or academic dean to call students who might be struggling or need a bit of extra encouragement. This is a win-win for adults who want to help and students who need help.
  • Continue your traditions. Don’t give up on chapel, advisory time, daily announcements, dress codes, or assemblies. Figure out ways to utilize tools like Zoom, YouTube Live, or Slack to continue on with your most sacred traditions of rituals. Better yet, delegate this to a team of students to plan and coordinate. Require students to wear your version of classroom attire in your synched classes and continue to do the quirky things with your students that made them love you in the first place.
  • Be flexible. If a student does not show up for class, assume the best. Times are tough and families are struggling. Your student is no different. All of this stress and uncertainty creates havoc on a young person’s mind. After the class is over, check in on the student or pass his or her name to your care team; don’t make them feel guilty for missing the class or penalize them with a bad grade for something out of their control. Relationships require a lot of give and take, and showing a bit of flexibility can go a long way.
  • Be reliable. Now is not the time to try out a new grading system or cancel a class at the last second. The students under your care need predictability and routine. True mastery of a subject is the ability to apply that knowledge in a novel environment. You don’t need to use every new bell and whistle on the first day. Sure, mix it up to keep things fresh, but as much as possible, be you, only in a novel setting. The relationships you built during the first two-thirds of the year are durable, and the students will appreciate that they can predictably rely on you during this time of uncertainty.

What we need to get comfortable with quickly is that we are dealing with unprecedented conditions. Where our students finish this year will be different than we anticipated. We cannot control this situation by courageously keeping the same pace and same expectations we had before we left our classrooms. There is nothing courageous about charging ahead and doing things the way we have always done them; it is an attempt to control an uncontrollable situation, and derives from our own stress and anxiety, not from our desire to provide the best learning experience for our students. What we must do is stick to our informed learning principles and make sure that our relationships with students and their well-being are our top priorities. That’s how we stay grounded in uncertain times.

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