Keep it Fun: Distance Learning at SSSAS

by Indi Clayton '20, Katie Patrick '21, Hadley Boston '21, Ben Silverman '20, and Delaney Moore '20

So, I guess everything is homework now, right? For our community as a whole, distance learning is something that has never been done before. It is clear that students and teachers are equally uncertain about how effective this system will be. Students are dependent on their teachers and teachers are dependent on having interactive, 75-minute classes. As we are all adjusting to the new circumstances, we will take an inside look at where the department chairs' heads are as they have to take on the role of making sure their department is intact and functioning well.


English department: Ms. Cranford 

What specific challenges for English classes do you think will be the hardest during distance learning? 

One of the hardest challenges for an English class will be mimicking discussion time. Having a discussion with fifteen people over Google Meet just doesn't work very well, and while we can have written discussions, losing out on the energy of an in-person discussion will be hard.


Is there anything you're looking forward to about distance learning? 

It has been kind of a fun challenge to think about how to conduct classes remotely and to try new ideas and platforms out. And I'm looking forward to just walking downstairs, getting a mug of coffee, and starting my laptop instead of braving the commute in the mornings. Oh, and having the flexibility to go for a run or a walk in the early afternoon! 


Do you think this will put students at a disadvantage once returning to school? 

I hope not! I think everyone will be pretty excited to be back in school after a few weeks of this. Distance learning isn't ideal, but if everyone pulls together, I think we'll be all right once we return.


Do you think students' productivity will increase? 

Hm, I don't know. There might be more focus during classes since they are much shorter, so students will really need to focus during these instructional times to understand content and requirements. Another reason productivity might increase (or at least not decrease) is if students have parents working from home who may have the opportunity to check in more frequently with their children.


Are your expectations higher for students since they have more time on their hands to do work?

 I don't think so. My day hasn't gotten that much shorter, and I imagine it might feel the same way to students as they meet with teachers and work on both in-class assignments and homework assignments. Plus, students may be struggling with the same distractions and time drains at home that I am: having to make lunches, caring for pets or siblings, etc.


History Department: Ms. Hardwick 

Are there any specific challenges with distance learning in the history department?

I think the fact that we try to be discussion-based and student-led in a lot of classes is made more difficult. Technology is amazing, but it can only do so much for a discussion between 15-16 people. It'd be easy to post a lecture explaining the information, but we aim to have our students grapple with the material and discuss it with each other rather than having us tell them the answer, which is what a lecture would do.


Is there anything you are looking forward to?

Sleeping in! (Just kidding... kind of...) But in all honesty, I think this is an amazing opportunity to experiment with projects and different styles of teaching and really push ourselves as teachers to be creative and flexible. For me, I'm really hoping to think about longer-term projects that can be done now that the students have more flexible time that isn't taken up with class or sports or extra curriculars. I think those things are important normally, but now that they're on pause, I'm thinking about how I can create work for my students that is engaging and stimulating enough for them to want to work on it with all this free time. 


How has your department planned to respond to these issues?

We've spent a lot of time communicating prior to school even being closed about how this would impact the content that we're teaching and then we pulled together resources that would be helpful for distance learning. We worked with the tech department to master the new technology like Google Meet and feel comfortable with it. We've also been doing research from other schools and teachers who have written about and shared resources for distance learning. 


Do you believe distance learning is a long-term plan or more short term?

Not to be fatalistic, but I think we will be out long term; I think we're more likely to be distance learning for the rest of the year than return April 13th (can I say that?) 


How has this setup impacted the teachers? Do you believe it is harder?

Harder is an interesting word choice -- has this made more work for the teachers? Absolutely. But like I said above, I think I'm secretly excited to have the chance to develop new lessons and units and really push myself as an educator, which has also been energizing.

On the other hand, we're teachers because we love our students and coming in every day to work with our students and our colleagues is important to us. I think we are worried about how this is impacting our students mentally and emotionally just as much as how it's impacting their learning. I know that if we are out long term, it's going to be difficult to not be in a classroom for a while -- my classes are one of my favorite places to be, and to not know when we'll be able to reconvene in person is hard.


Do you believe the staff has been fully prepared?

Fully prepared? No. But that's because how can we really be fully prepared for this situation? However, I think the school has done a phenomenal job preparing the faculty, offering support, and being transparent throughout this entire ordeal. They've been very supportive of the faculty, listening to our concerns, providing resources, changing deadlines, and checking in on us. I think this transition went as smoothly as it could have to be honest. 


How long ago did you believe we would move to distance learning before it was enacted?

Hmmmm.. I think I was an early believer. I've been paying attention to this for a while and to schools /teachers in China and Japan that had been impacted and as soon as there were cases reported in the USA I had a little sense that it would happen here too. I think as of 2-3 weeks ago I was pretty certain that we wouldn't return after Spring Break.


Do you think students have responded positively and productively during distance learning?

I've had nothing but amazing student responses. It's a bit hard to tell completely, because all of my classes are working on their research papers, so it's not like was trying to give a test or run a discussion, but everyone has shown up to our Google Meets on time, I've met with several students about their work, they've all completed the check-ins I've given them, etc. My other history teachers have also reported an equal amount of engagement and productivity from their students. I think it's been hard on the students, but I'm glad that they haven't seemed to have given up, especially since Spring Break is right around the corner.


Ms. Daly answered questions for the Math Department, since Mr. Weiss was out of town picking up his daughter from college.


What was your reaction when the school decided that we would be moving to a distance learning program amid the coronavirus crisis?

 Having never done anything like this before, I was a little apprehensive. The school provided us with great resources, however, so I definitely felt up to the challenge! Our math department met regularly and exchanged all kinds of creative ideas.  I've been learning a lot about Screencast-O-Matic, EdPuzzle, Doceri, Educreations, to name a few. Our ultimate goal is to continue to provide a high quality education while making the transition as seamless as possible for the students.


Are there any specific challenges that distance learning poses to your department?

 We were wondering how STAT time would work, but it has actually worked out really well! Some math teachers have whiteboards at home, so we can simulate the classroom setting as much as possible.  


Is there anything you are looking forward to with distance learning?

 I like that I can continue to "see" my students. A teacher can tell so much about whether a student is confused or is confident from reading facial expressions. 


How is distance learning affecting the preparedness of AP students?

 We are all using AP Classroom which the College Board rolled out last fall. It is an incredible resource for both students and teachers.


Science Department: Ms. Fusina

What was your reaction when the school decided that we would be moving to a distance learning program amid the coronavirus crisis?

Honestly, I was not that surprised. I could see the writing on the wall that it might be happening, so it didn't surprise me. I was also happy that the school was so proactive on getting our response in place before it became an issue. I have many friends who are teachers at other schools and they were not as prepared as we were for when it came time to close down.


Are there any specific challenges that distance learning poses to your department?

For our department, the biggest challenge will be how to teach science without physical labs. All of our courses are lab based, and that will be a hard part to replicate. There are many online virtual labs and applets, but they still are not as good as the real thing.


Is there anything you are looking forward to with distance learning?

I am glad we have the ability to still "see" each other through GoogleMeet/Zoom. It would have been really sad if we could only do asynchronous learning for the rest of the year.


How is distance learning affecting the preparedness of AP students? 

I have no idea. Time will tell. It will also depend on what the AP decides to do.

Overall, what would you say is the biggest way being away from the physical classroom is affecting/impacting?

 Personally, I think not being able to physically be in the room with our students every day is the hardest. We work from day 1 to build relationships with our students, and we miss seeing you all! Outside of missing you all as individuals, it’s hard to grasp student understanding from a screen compared to in person. There are so many cues we pick up on in person as clues that students do or do not get a subject that are going to be missed being virtual.


Language Department - Profesora Slattery:


"It is difficult to paint a full picture and adequately evaluate the distance learning experience for languages at the Upper School at this point - having just finished Day 1!"

"That said, language teachers felt prepared and comfortable launching today. We spent last week and yesterday working on varied approaches and, as language teachers, it was really validating to see that we were already engaging in multiple modalities and on-line platforms. As you know from AP Spanish, we use a lot of different approaches and platforms to engage in the target language and to access authentic input. Examples include: Fligrid (of course!), Edpuzzle, Yabla, various websites for news from around the world, Voicememo, on line assessments, Passport for Spanish and French 1-3, Google docs and forms, etc."


In response to your specific questions -

Talk a little bit about what distance learning has looked for you and your classes? 

We prepared lessons that incorporated many of the approaches we were already leveraging in language classes (see list above). We are deeply committed to making sure language students listen to and see authentic input from the target languages so finding good websites and resources has continued to be a goal for us. 

Today - Day 1! - language teachers employed a broad range of approaches and platforms: Google Meet to check in and answer questions, Google docs for collaborative work, Screencast videos for sharing our learning goals and activities, Edpuzzle for content and comprehension, Flipgrid for sharing ideas in a video presentation format, Quizlet (Live even!), Kahoot, Padlet. 


Any specific challenges that you’ve come across regarding distance learning?

Well, again, it is difficult to assess the challenges after only one day. Every language teacher shared that Day 1 was productive and engaging, but we also recognize that the novelty and innovation is sort of "fun" at this point - and getting together during uncertain times seemed to be comforting for teachers and students today. 


Anything you’re looking forward to with distance learning?

It has been fun to collaborate and share ideas - as an Upper School Faculty, as language teachers and also from around the country on social media - about how to be innovative, creative, engaging while also ensuring students continue to progress and learn.