As soon as Gov. Northam announced Virginia schools would be closed through the remainder of the school year, panic mode set in for many students, parents and school systems. A big question was looming over everyone: How would schools successfully transition to online learning?
While Fairfax County Public Schools (and many other school systems across the country) have struggled to make the switch, others have conducted a rather smooth transition. We wanted to know how, so we spoke with Director of Studies at Flint Hill School Emily Sanderson, about how the private school in Oakton has been handling educating students through a pandemic. See highlights from our conversation below.
What has Flint Hill learned through this experience thus far?
In the big picture, I see distance learning as our opportunity to pull together a lot of the things that we’ve been working on as teachers for the last 10 years. In many ways through the transition, while definitely not what any of us wanted because we’re still relationship-driven and we love the community, we’re discovering how important being next to each other is to our community. We really miss that and really thrive and crave that. Our teachers are digitally agile, they’re able to move from being in the classroom to being in an online space at a really high level in some ways because we’ve done a lot of work around intentional use of technology and how to check for understanding in small ways before you test or assess kids on their skills. Much of our curriculum is really based in skill development, so effective communication, problem solving, research and having some independence, like being self-directed or bringing that intrinsic motivation to learn. That’s what we’re trying to do all the time. Those pillars can translate really well to online learning.
How are teachers implementing those pillars into the online curriculum right now?
Well, it’s interesting. Some of our curriculum in our high school English and history classes have done projects, instead of having a traditional final, for years now, and those actually translated really well. In fact, maybe in some ways a little better because there’s more space now for individual check-ins and for flexibility with the students. The students have some element of choice built in where they can choose the books they want to cover in their essays and projects. And then, in that context, how well they executed the writing isn’t as important as how well they planned this essay and all the parts of writing revision that include effective communication and skill development, which are part of the pillars I talked about.
How many hours per day are students required to do online learning?
For grades five through 12, we’ve got a schedule where they have about three hours of direct instruction, where teachers and students are dialing in together on Google Meet, and one to two additional hours that we call asynchronous where students are doing work independently. They’re really getting the whole full-day experience as opposed to what a lot of public schools are doing. The work does allow families some flexibility. Maybe some students and families are saying, “You have done three hours and it’s chunked out. It’s not all in a row.” We do know some of the research around online learning. It really does not work for children. It probably works much less for people to be plugged in on Google Meet for six hours as. Then there’s all sorts of interesting articles about the neuroscience behind that and why that’s exhausting. So, we designed our schedule intentionally so that there would be blocks of time where it would be synchronous and blocks of time that would be independent and have a lot of flexibility.
What’s been the most difficult part about distance learning?
One of the most difficult things has actually been less about what’s happening in the virtual classrooms and more about the fact that people are craving the interactions that we have day to day when we’re on campus. Parents miss seeing their division directors and other families and their kids’ teachers and the kids really, really miss being together. I get to do carpool in the morning for our junior kindergarten through eighth grade students and that’s kind of intensive, opening doors, helping getting them out and everything. But that’s such a great moment of connection with a whole range of students. They get out of the car and they’re so happy to be there, they’re awake and they’re like, “I get to do this today,” all these things and they’re bubbling over. That’s an amazing way to start your day, to have that kind of access to that moment of pure joy around learning. I miss that and I miss the connection with my colleagues.
What have been surprising positives to come out of distance learning?
One for me was seeing all of our faculty being able to very quickly embrace this format and jump right in. At the beginning of March, a couple of weeks before the governor closed everything down, we were just sort of looking ahead like, “Oh, maybe we’re good. We may need to figure this out and let’s write a handbook and let’s start putting the architecture in place.” The number of people who jumped to, “The first thing we have to do for our students is create or design a program so that their emotional well-being is at the center of this experience,” was amazing. In education you’re talking social, emotional learning. The very first thing for us was how are we going to make sure that our students’ well-being is at the center. That was the most important thing in this case. This is really crisis schooling. We’re trying to do distance learning in a crisis and make it the best experience. I do a lot with my work around what we know about how the brain works and how learning intersects with that and how being in an emotionally safe place is optimal for learning. That’s the thing that’s been the silver lining because we’re in a community where that is really strong. It’s really solidified and anchored that for every single faculty member and they really understand it at a deeper level. And probably the parents do too.
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