Storm King’s Dean of Faculty Jeremy Freeman shares his thoughts on the School’s successful transition to virtual teaching and learning
Since the arrival of the novel Coronavirus earlier this year, students, school administrators, teachers, and parents across the nation have been dealing with a hasty switch to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With strong foresight, some quick decision-making, and a tremendous effort, The Storm King School mobilized quickly to keep our community safe and move our classes online. Within a few weeks, our faculty succeeded in transitioning the academic program into a virtual format and began to deliver classes successfully online.
Dean of Faculty Jeremy Freeman was among the team who worked tirelessly to move our academics online. Now that the community has been teaching and learning virtually for one month, Mr. Freeman has also taken on the task of gathering feedback from our various constituents on how to further improve.
Q: How did the School achieve its successful transition to virtual learning?
“I wouldn’t say it has been seamless, but the first month of online classes certainly feels like a success. Consistent student attendance in virtual classrooms and advisories was an initial concern; however, looking at the records, teachers are reporting that they are making contact with all their students, and most students are eager to attend.
Class sizes ranging from 10-15 students have been ideal for making personal contact with students as a group or in individual meetings. Giving individualized feedback on assignments within a 48-hour window is also very manageable. Sending a personal email or setting up an individual conference with a student when necessary is easy to do which helps to maintain more individualized contact using our online tools and platforms.
The Zoom platform has become somewhat of a hero here. The big surprise was how quickly everyone learned how to operate as a Zoom Host and how many ‘grassroots’ types of meetings emerged. We had teachers organizing practice meetings to try out new features in Zoom, such as break-out rooms, the whiteboard feature, and screen sharing. The Math, Science, and Art departments taught each other how to use tablets that are paired with the Zoom whiteboard. These tools make it easier to draw diagrams, demonstrate drawing techniques, or write out chalkboard-style math problem solutions.”
Q: What resources did you rely on while planning?
“There are seemingly endless resources out there about online teaching to the point of being overwhelming. I think the collective effort and research of many teachers helped us narrow down a few things that would really work well for us, and be easy to familiarize ourselves with quickly.
Blackbaud and Google Drive formed a great baseline to begin building what would become remote classrooms. Then, we added Zoom, Google Meet, and Google Classroom to the mix and just about anything became possible.
Many teachers at SKS have taught or taken online classes before, so we had a bit of an experience pool to draw from. My sister taught Latin at an independent school for 10 years before taking a position in the Atlanta School District where she teaches and supervises online instruction. She was a very helpful resource for me. Once we had a collective vision of what we needed to do and how to keep our classes moving, each of us adapted accordingly.”
Q: What were some of the challenges you faced?
“There were a few technical issues and we had some teachers who needed updated or new laptops, but that has now been taken care of. We quickly ordered stylus/tablets which make whiteboarding easier on Zoom, and several teachers have stepped up quickly to master their use.
The question of how to reach students in different time zones, while still keeping the class synchronized took some deliberation. Some teachers arrange for evening classes once or twice a week so that students in remote time zones can join classes earlier in their days. All teachers provide some video component to each class, whether a screencast or a recording of the class. This way, a student can miss a class but still observe and integrate the learning that happened live. Some have opted to set aside a day each week for individual conferences and check-ins to keep the daily connectivity going as much as possible.
There was an initial concern that these methods wouldn’t work, but students on other continents are actually very appreciative of these extra measures. I know in my class, even though they are not required to and that a video of the class will be available to watch during the day, some students still stay up a bit late to join the class.
From a psychological standpoint, social isolation also brings its own challenges. For example, I struggle with the fear of not seeing something important or leaving a student’s email unanswered. I know that isolation and restriction on movement are affecting our students as well. Maintaining regular contact with teachers and friends, even if just a brief check-in or greeting goes a long way, and helps to alleviate the worrying connected to the overall challenge of social isolation.”
Please describe the steps taken to onboard all the faculty members and the students?
“The faculty was outstanding during the ‘onboarding phase.’ As is often the case in a crisis, people can rise to the occasion and embrace the ‘growth mindset.’ With so many questions and unknowns, teachers were extremely proactive in identifying the help they would need and the help they could give. As I mentioned before, there were a lot of teachers who were teaching teachers and then sharing what they discovered and learned in the process.
Blackbaud was used to create a ‘clearing house’ for resources related to transitioning to remote learning. I made several ‘how-to’ screencasts and step by step slide shows on topics like creating and uploading video content and setting up a YouTube channel. I’m looking forward to collecting input from the faculty at the end of the semester which will help us further explore this new platform and make improvements.”
Can you describe your goals for the online academic program?
“If we can continue to keep regular contact with our students, engage them, create new ways of gathering assessments, and cover most of our previously planned curriculum we will meet our goal set for this year. The School’s mission now lives on in this virtual setting where we continue to provide an environment that enables “academic success and confidence in an inclusive and diverse learning environment that embraces character, balance, and trust.
Many students will conduct their own interviews or run meetings through Zoom someday. Many students need to practice brushing up their online presence. Many need to develop their ability to connect remotely. These are necessary skills for anyone’s future. Did we work on these before? Of course, but now we have a chance to truly refine these skills.”