Gearing Up for Distance Learning

As Shore prepares to transition to remote learning and teaching due to the continued spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, in Massachusetts and throughout the country, teachers are faced with implementing a school model that for many is just as novel and, to an extent, uncertain. Yet all are determined to continue providing students with every element of a Shore education that’s still possible—only remotely, translated into high-quality synchronous and asynchronous online experiences that maintain classroom communities while encouraging more independent student work. To do this, they’re relying on a wide range of professional resources—and each other—to get up to speed quickly.

First among the resources available to teachers is Shore’s own Distance Learning Plan (DLP), which provides guidelines and suggested routines for both Upper and Lower School teachers. According to this blueprint, crafted by teachers and administrators along with Shore’s Tech Team, the key assumption underlying the school’s approach to remote learning is the assumption of goodwill. According to the plan, “It is not possible to deliver 100% of a Shore experience online—but teachers will do their best. It is not possible for each family to pull off a homeschool environment in its ideal state given competing responsibilities at home—but families will do their best. Students will face challenges with work and online accessibility at times—but they will do their best. By assuming the best in everyone, we will help make this experience a positive one that helps us grow as a community.”

Shore’s Distance Learning Plan offers other advice for teachers, much of it focused on the emotional health and well-being of both students and teachers. “The events that led up to the implementation of our DLP find students feeling stressed, lonely or worried. Before you dive into your teaching, take the time to check in with your students on their mental, physical, and emotional well-being. … Years from now, how will your students remember the events that lead to this moment? While distance learning should bring some normalcy and routine to students’ lives, teachers can also grab the opportunities that result from campus being closed.”

According to Head of Upper School Gustavo Carrera, “Though we must acknowledge the magnitude of what we are experiencing—a global pandemic that has shaken the very foundation of our social experience—there is nonetheless a silver lining: the opportunity to care for and connect with each other in new ways. Among Upper School teachers, I am hoping to create and support moments in the school day when we can come together to sustain our community.” By “returning to school” on March 31, explains Carrera, Shore teachers will not just attempt to plow through content remotely. “They will be helping our students retain a healthy sense of connection and community, and importantly, they will be helping families structure their days indoors for what is now an unknown length of time.”

At the same time, notes Carrera, the emotional health and well-being of Shore teachers is also of primary concern. “Many of our faculty members have young children, children who have unexpectedly returned form college, or elderly parents or neighbors they are now caring for. I have urged all teachers to be there for each other and be kind to themselves. Balancing responsibilities to our communities, to Shore, and to their own families will require compromise, flexibility, and compassion.”

Shore teachers are finding support from colleagues both near and far. “I am in awe at the number of e-mail messages I get each day from fellow teachers and others offering tips and free resources for distance learning,” says Upper School Spanish teacher Pamela Torres. “Though it can feel overwhelming at times, I am trying to turn this into an opportunity to find what will work well for my students.” According to Upper School music teacher Jenn Boyum, “Many individual musicians and ensembles around the world have already reached out to others with a show of support and solidarity, including posting musical activities that can help keep students creatively engaged during this time of distance learning.”

Zoom video-conferencing software has quickly become an essential tool for Shore teachers. Says Boyum, “Zoom and other applications have made it possible to reach out to others not only locally but around the world, opening new channels for learning, creativity, and exploration.” First grade teacher and Lower School Humanities Chair Mary Kinahan has found that Zoom enables powerful collaboration with fellow teachers. “Along with our Pre-K and Kindergarten teachers, I participated in a webinar that showed how the app could work with our youngest learners.” Third grade teachers Sam Hamlin and Anne Babcock have already participated in several calls via Zoom, and they say the face-to-face software will remain pivotal in the transition to distance learning. “The most important goal I’ve set for myself in terms of teaching remotely is working to create genuine connections with and between my students as a homeroom,” explains Babcock. “It will be impossible to emulate the experience of living together seven hours a day from a distance, but my goal is to create as many opportunities as possible for the 21 of us to be ‘together.’”

Upper Schoolers, too, will experience a new kind of togetherness as they attend morning meetings and classes with their advisors and teachers via Zoom. According to history teacher Pat Coyle, “I am curious to see how our skills transfer to an online forum, particularly with discussion. We spend so much time working with students on the foundations of good communication and conversation. I am fairly confident that with some practice, our students will be able to move to an online learning community pretty effectively.” Still, says Coyle, some aspects of school will not change at all as distance learning ramps up. “I still have to plan ahead and be thoughtful about pacing, content, and skills,” he says. “I am keeping a keen eye on how to infuse some fun and social time for the kids. We want to have meaningful interactions and think about how to properly assign work while maintaining a responsible level of support and encouragement for our students.”

Many teachers see exciting new opportunities available during admittedly challenging times. Mary Kinahan says, “As teachers, we are always wishing for more time, and now we have plenty. Distance learning will allow students to work on projects and assignments at their own pace. This is a great opportunity to allow kids to engage in an activity without worrying about having to shift to the next class.” New technology, too, brings big benefits, says Kinahan. “It enables families and friends to gather in various ways for meaningful conversations and interactions.” Fifth grade teacher Amanda Berg acknowledges, “While our new normal will look and feel different, I’m hopeful that we can all embrace these challenges as opportunities for growth.”

Head of Lower School Sara Knox also sees remote learning as a big opportunity for both students and families. “It’s exciting that students of all ages will have the time and the space for their passion projects—something they care deeply about or already know a lot about—and the ability get creative with that knowledge.” (Think composing a song and writing lyrics to it, improving their running speed or distance by working out alongside a family member, or creating something that might be useful to an organization in need.) Knox sees this time as a great invitation to be outside for long stretches, with students practicing mindful observation as they look for signs of spring. “At the end of the day,” Knox says, “remote learning should be an opportunity for student growth and for strengthening the connections between school and home.”

No one denies the challenges teachers—and students—will face as Shore’s distance-learning model goes into full effect. Admits Amanda Berg, “I’m nervous about trying something I’ve never done before. I’m worried about how we will juggle our own kids’ school work with my teaching work. I wonder about building community remotely: is it still possible to feel the joy, silliness, hard work, creativity, and togetherness we experienced in person every day in the homeroom?” Some of the challenges are practical. Pat Coyle asks, “Does everyone have a quiet, accessible space to attend or teach classes? Is Wi-Fi going to support the many people using the internet for work and learning in a single household?”

Despite the unknowns, Shore teachers feel up to the task of successfully making the transition to remote learning. History teacher Gwen Sneeden says, “I like the challenge of thinking about ways to deliver a top quality experience using new technology, and I think our focus on discussion-based learning will not suffer one bit. In fact, I have used distance-learning technology for global classrooms in the past, and the students have always enjoyed it.” Fellow history teacher Sarah Sklarsky looks to the past in thinking about the future: “History reminds us that disruption to life as usual is actually very much the norm of human existence. There is something comforting in the resilience that humans have shown in the face of events like this for thousands of years.” And Head of School Clair Ward underscores, “I am excited to see how our repertoire and creativity begin to soar with online teaching and learning. While I know there will be challenges, I am confident we will be a stronger school as a result of this.”
    • Teachers and staff members meeting virtually to learn about distance learning tools

    • A view of a sample virtual classroom on MyShore