Keeping it Real: Upper School Faculty Make Strides in Virtual Teaching & Learning

Many Upper School faculty forged connections with their students the past few months with the help of Google Hangouts. [Dr. Bramlett’s class pictured above.]

In my past life, the one in which people called me Dr. Rust and visited my office hours and I was always grading-grading-grading, I would often lament the fact that my undergraduates in Jackson, MS were just so dang polite.  It wasn’t the repeated “Ma’ams” that made me feel ancient or the way people rushed to open doors for me. . . it was the resistance of confrontation.  It was the eager nods of head.  It was the reluctance to ask questions out of fear that they should already know the answer. But it wasn’t just a symptom of Southern gentility. It was something many of my eighteen-twenty year old students couldn’t help; they didn’t have teaching experience to serve as a measuring stick for just how accurate or doable my crazy ideas about education were.  So, the default (not in all cases of course) was often enthusiastic agreement.  Such deference feels good in the moment, but it really isn’t all that generative.  Because education is a socially-situated backbone of society that intimately concerns the future of the world, best practices should absolutely always be complicated and contested with the constant reexamination of: “For whom might that work?  For what purposes? Why?”

Enter stage left St. Andrew’s Upper School Faculty, a balm to any soul that is craving authentic, critical dialogue. This body of faculty, by and large, have kept it real with me since my first day on campus.  Their gaze is so firmly situated on creating rigorous yet relevant experiences for their students that I’m pretty sure no one could ever convince them otherwise.  And why should they? When virtual learning hit like a lightning bolt this March, they reached deep to make sense of the tools that could help them continue that work.  Not easily taken in by the shiny-digital-new-new-new, they stuck with the heart of the matter: continuing relationships with students while still upping the game of disciplinary-steeped skills and content. I am better for having worked with this body of faculty this past school year, and reading their responses about the pivot to virtual learning below will make it pretty clear why.  They don’t sugar-coat.  They tell the truth.  They care deeply.  They aren’t going to tell you everything was roses and flowers, because it simply wasn’t.  Nevertheless, the strides they made as a body of faculty was a joy and privilege to behold.

What have you learned generally about best practices in teaching during the past few months? 

I have been reluctant to change my teaching since I had to get comfortable with the technology so quickly. Really, the only thing I changed was having students create videos in lieu of writing papers. I, and my students, miss face to face contact and discussions around the Harkness table. (Carolyn Brown, English)

As for face to face, I cannot stress how important this is for language learning. My style has always PBL activities and this has always been the most effective in my classroom. I can’t do the interactive PBL really without the face to face. I love technology but unless my students don’t see the importance in human contact and interaction, there really is no value in using technology to enhance it. (Wesley Saylor, French)

I’ve definitely learned that my strength as a teacher is a personal (actually in person!) interaction.  So I’ve really missed the immediate feedback student and teacher can give each other in a classroom. BUT I think we’ve all been forced to adapt, and in that process I’ve found some tools I’ll definitely keep using in the future.  (Emily Jones, History)

I learned the importance of human contact.  I miss the the noise of everyday class and the emotional bond that is formed from everyday interactions that take place in a classroom.  (David Bramlett, Math)

I see the benefit of doing short videos and having kids watch them before class as part of their homework.  In the past, I have viewed flipped classroom as having no real benefit.  I’ve enjoyed this. (Price Chadwick, Science)

Ensemble work cannot be done online, so we took a step back and worked on individual skills (scales, exercises, rhythms).  That has gone well, but it can only motivate for a short time.  Part of the excitement of being in a band is playing music together! . . . My virtual class time for ensemble classes has grown to be almost all one-on-one instruction (10-15 minute segments).  (Dennis Cranford, Band)

I mainly learned that there is no reason to be afraid of Technology….and that “an old dog can learn new tricks.”  (Ray McFarland, Theater)

This experience has taught me more and more about the value of face to face teaching.  There is no 100% equal experience online replacement for a lab based science class.  Technology helps us in science in so many ways (data probes, analysis programs like excel, scientific calculators) and the technology of video chatting and document sharing has allowed us to keep the kids learning in the last 8 weeks of the year.  BUT, for a percentage of our kids this is a difficult ways to learn, those that relay on an adult or partner to refocus them, those kids that are more engaged when their hands are active (like in the lab), those that need the cue to turn some things in.  We need to be face to face to teach them these skills so that when they go into the world they can successfully manage the demands of being more independent.   I am biased, of course, but I see a HUGE value in having kids learn through investigation, exploration, and analysis.  Figuring out what to do when things fail or when you were completely wrong is such a life skill.  (Kristan LaFon)

From teaching in classroom to Virtual Learning was a big change. It required a lot of time for presentations and checking assignments online, etc. It is different, but it has been fun to teach online. [For one project, see this student’s fabulous work.] (Grace Pei, Mandarin)

What platforms have you tried that you liked?

This past month has helped me develop my capabilities with regard to online educational tools. I have been making extensive use of Gimkit to help my two sections of AP United States History review for their exam. In addition, I have used flipgrid in Honors United States History to have students reflect on the role that technology plays in their lives. By the way, in the latter exercise students watched two videos, one from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (the factory scene) and a short video on scientific management devised by Frederick W. Taylor. Some of the responses were well done and thoughtful.  I do miss face-to-face teaching, because I prefer having discussions with my students. These tools have helped me bridge the gap in this uncertain period. (Jim Foley)

I will continue to go down the video route, especially with FlipGrid. It has been the easiest to use, prepare, and grade. It’s easy to just get in, watch the videos, mark them and get out. (Wesley Saylor)

 I love Edpuzzle!  I’ll definitely do some homework assignments with that even if we’re back in the classroom.  I also like sprinkling in some Back Channel Chat discussions for those kids who are more shy to speak in Harkness discussions (but I miss real Harkness discussion!!).  I’m also a tactile/visual teacher, so I miss my whiteboard and my AppleTV 🙁 (Emily Jones)

 I will continue to use Go Explain and PDF Expert to prepare lessons and keys and for further student support.  I also started the video of the week where student blogged online and I have enjoyed reading their comments and I feel that this is a way to bring about real world aspects of math along with cultural and historical aspects of math.  I plan to continue to do this next year.  I will continue to look at alternative forms of assessment for next year and will use some developed during this online session.  (David Bramlett)

I will continue using online platforms as a supplement to face-to-face teaching (SmartMusic, Google Classroom).  I will post more things online (GC or MySA) instead of relying only on paper handouts. (Dennis Cranford)

The Google Meets has been such a lifesaver…I knew it would work for my Acting class…the ability to record the meetings was excellent…we record everything in class so that the students can get immediate visual as well as verbal feedback on their performances…so there was not “too much” of a change when we proceeded to distance learning.  For my tech class, the main thing we all missed was the hands on activity of the class…but the distance learning literally forced me to rethink the possibilities of the class.  Again the Google meets, combined with the ability to see every class members face as we talked was an excellent tool.  Being able to have all of the research materials at my fingertips and also to know that each of the students had immediate access to copies of these materials that we talked about in class , as well as being able to make short supportive videos that they could watch between classes, made the class work far better than I had ever expected. (Ray McFarland)

I have enjoyed screencastify.  I teach 5 sections of the same thing so when I gave notes or needed to explain how to complete an assignment I could make a video where I could use my smart software or a youtube video which I could explain and I knew that I was giving the same information to all the sections.  In brick and mortar teaching  I wouldn’t rely on screencastify as heavily as I have but I still see ways for it to be very useful in flipped learning.  (Kristan LaFon)

I learned a lot by doing this virtual learning, for example, I had to learn some virtual tools in order to make virtual learning effectively. Flipgrid and Pear Deck are the powerful apps I use. I will definitely continue to apply them into future teaching.  (Grace Pei)

Now it’s on to your favorite subject, bragging about your students!  How have they responded to the past few months?

My students have done great work this quarter–some assignments were inspired by the current crisis, others by the literature we have read. Standouts include writing monologues in the voices of those on the front lines right now and soliloquies for characters in Hamlet who did not get one. I asked some students to video themselves reading their monologues and shared them with their classmates. I can send you samples if you like. I am also teaching 1984 right now to my 10th graders, which is a surreal experience as an online text. (Carolyn Brown)

My students have surprised me with their participation in the FlipGrid activities. This has been the most successful. I’ve even had a student dress up to play a “part” in an add to sell their invention that will revolutionize the future. It was my favorite activity and I think I will do it this way next year as well!  (Click here to view one example.) I’ve also been impressed with the students with how they’ve been managing all of this. Just that alone means a lot to me. I appreciate them and love everything they do for me! (Wesley Saylor)

Gimkit contests have allowed me to see another side of student success. Some students who might struggle in discussion can thrive in this digital world of competition. (Jim Foley)

This is sort of basic, but their ability to understand material when forced to learn somewhat on their own has surprised me.  Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised – there’s a reason we call it learned helplessness!!  Their Back Channel Chats have also been really good. I think Harkness style set them up with the tools for polite discourse, they quickly translated that to written discussion form. (Emily Jones)

I have been most impressed by the students’ comments on the videos of the week.  It allowed me to get to know my students even better.  I was also quite pleased with the Interactive Scrapbook Project for Precalculus. (David Bramlett). [To access a full slideshow of incredible videos Dr. Bramlett’s students produced, click here.]

Many students have stayed the course, even when things haven’t been as easy as anticipated.  Most have taken the speed bumps in stride and haven’t thrown in the towel.  I’ve been impressed with their diligence and determination, even though the circumstances have been not what they had hoped.  I feel proud of all they have learned this year and they have put those skills into practice in these last few weeks working more independently.  I’ve been impressed with their flexibility in a constantly evolving system with lots of moving parts.  For 9th graders I call that a victory!! . . . For Earth Day the students had a choice of 4 assignments they could complete to honor Earth Day.  I was super impressed with the work that many of them did: painting pictures, drawing sketches, making photographic journals of nature, writing poetry, and writing essays about how the natural world has changed in weeks of the Covid pandemic.  Lastly, we did three labs virtually, where the students worked with a partner to collect and analyze data.  While studying Mendel Genetics and Human Genetics, we explored the role of probability in determining genetic outcomes, both from a basic stance (before we understood genetics in the 1800s), and in a more modern sense human genetics (and all the new discoveries we are still learning about).  The students used coins to represent alleles (versions or choices of traits) and with their partner “made a baby”.  Many said they produced the ugliest babies known to man and they learned that you don’t get to pick your traits! (Kristan LaFon)

I just wrote a student a nice note after she went above and beyond on an assignment and ended up teaching me something. (Price Chadwick)

Some have responded well to the SmartMusic program, using it to play examples, set the tempo, provide accompaniment, record assigned playing quizzes, search the database for new music to tryout. Alas, some students have not used it all, and I have had to chase them down to hear assignments via Hangout. (Dennis Cranford)

The quiet students, the ones that usually do everything you ask them to do, but that SELDOM will volunteer to answer questions unless they are specifically called on and even then are hesitant to answer fully….made GIGANTIC steps forward in their class participation and also in their confidence …all due to the slight “distance” the camera on their computers gave them from their more confident classmates.  Students that never spoke out in class found that they were more able to openly communicate their ideas…to show just how creative they really could be…and I think that this confidence building experience will carry over to their work when we can get back to our regular learning environment on the stage. (Ray McFarland)

Any thoughts as we look ahead to the future? 

I am glad to be forced into the 21st century in some ways, but I feel, more than ever, the need for human connection and interaction. Students speak less online–conversations and discussions are not nearly as robust as in the classroom and around a table. (Carolyn Brown)

I’m ready to get back on campus, I’m a people person!! 🙂 (Wesley Saylor)

I would be lying if I said that there weren’t times that I wanted to collapse on my computer. This has been difficult.  Grading assignments for 72 students online has been a true challenge.  I won’t be here next year but I would strongly suggest that if we are going to use Gsuite as a platform the students need to be taught how to use it.  I was told they used it in MS and they knew how to use it.  I still to this week have students turning in work that I can’t open.  It has taken a lot of energy to manage this situation as it is chasing down a lot of different kids for various assignments. . . More preparation is needed either in MS or at the start of 9th grade to ease stress at the transition.  I allow my students to turn things in in any form (pdf, word, pages, google docs), which also makes it more laborious to grade and still hasn’t solved the issue.  More uniformity is needed. (Kristan LaFon)

Ready to go back to class; I am tired of sitting on a computer all the time. (David Bramlett)

Because of this time, I have spent many hours learning a new subject and I am planning on teaching an online class this summer.  I’m excited because I’ve already had parents email me asking some specifics about the course. (Price Chadwick)

I learned more than I expected…and look forward to learning even more. (Ray McFarland)

All that said, I have survived and my students have learned a lot about themselves and what is important to them during this time, a good life lesson.  We have continued to learn some Biology and continued to sharpen some skills.  I am sad things had to end this way. . . . I have been reminded in this experience that my colleagues are doing amazing work and we continue to provide an opportunity for an excellent education that not only focuses on academics, but also encompasses teamwork (putting the team before yourself), service to others, leadership, and spirituality .  We should always be looking to grow and learn, but to also to be proud of our hard work and numerous successes. (Kristan LaFon)

Ironically, what strikes me the most out of all of these incredible reflections about virtual learning transitions is the repetition of “This has taught me how much face-to-face instruction means to me” and  “I want to be back in person with my student.”  I don’t see this as evidence of virtual learning failure.  On the contrary, the wealth of other reflections from upper school faculty along with student work evidence reveal the transformative ways that they managed to continue engaging and challenging youth, solely mediated through technology.  I appreciate our faculty’s insistence that the best teaching/learning happens at the intersection of in-person and digital opportunities for making meaning together.  This is because the more tools we have for connecting and sharing and navigating ideas together, the better.  We all benefit from the synergy of the digital and the non-digital, or as John Spencer puts it, “the tried and true and the never tried.”  Thank you, Upper School Faculty, for simultaneously fighting for the tried and true while being brave enough to try new things this past few months.  

One thought on “Keeping it Real: Upper School Faculty Make Strides in Virtual Teaching & Learning

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: