Graphic by Eric Lechpammer

High school students and teachers adjust to unprecedented switch as school implements virtual instruction

On March 16, head of high school Brooke Wells announced in an email to high school parents and students that, beginning March 18, the school would conduct asynchronous online classes, in which students complete assignments at their own pace.

According to Wells, this was a first step in the development of an online format. “As an initial phase, (an asynchronous model) seemed the quickest and easiest way to make sure that everyone could get content seamlessly,” Wells said. “At that point, we were just (conducting online classes) through spring break.”

On April 14, synchronous Zoom meetings were added to the schedule. According to head of school Lee Thomsen in the Friday email on April 3, the purpose of the new weekly schedule is to “help create structure and contribute to normalcy for our students while balancing the challenges of working from home.”

Wells said the new schedule is “essentially a hybrid model of synchronous and asynchronous, with short, reserved class periods. Synchronous might be a Zoom meeting, a CavNet discussion, a quiz or any number of other things.”

Wells said Country Day worked with other independent schools to devise the new schedule. He hopes the switch will increase effectiveness.

“Having (students) in a classroom is how school works,” Wells said. “Anything separate from that is a little bit different and not quite as effective.”

But he said learning should not be greatly affected. 

History department chair Chris Kuipers said he is focusing on finding the best ways to deliver content to his students. For AP classes, Kuipers said this has been fairly straightforward — simply continuing with the textbook and sharing lecture notes. For his ninth grade class, he has relied more on digital resources.

“In terms of content delivery, these methods have worked fine,” Kuipers said. “I think students can still learn quite effectively. What I miss most is the discussion and contemplation of the content. That’s much harder to do online, particularly in an asynchronous setup.”

Kuipers said he hopes the structure of the second phase of online learning will provide more opportunities to “delve into materials at a deeper level as a group.”

English department chair Jason Hinojosa agreed that in-class discussions are difficult to recreate. Hinojosa said he has replaced most typical class activities with CavNet discussions. 

“Instead of answering analytical questions in real-time classroom conversations, my students are typing responses to questions and responding to each other’s answers,” Hinojosa said. “I think my students and I agree that online discussions are less effective – and less satisfying – than conversations in person, but we all see CavNet as an imperfect but adequate alternative to being on campus.”

Since April 13, Hinojosa has also implemented live Zoom discussions.

Senior Anu Krishnan said that, before the Zoom meetings, the lack of live discussions affected what she could gain from AP English Literature. 

“I didn’t have the same involvement with the book ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ that I did in class,” Krishnan said. “I felt like I was just doing the learning required to complete the homework, but not the class itself.”

But she said Zoom discussions have helped create a class-like environment. 

“They have felt like regular classes, where we have breakout groups to discuss the book and then come together to discuss big-picture questions. We now get the same level of discussion that we did in class,” Krishnan said. 

But this depends on the subject, she added.

“For physics, (Glenn) Mangold posts lecture videos and notes, which replace the learning aspect of class,” Krishnan said. “He also gives us labs and homework, so it’s very similar to what I would be doing in class.”

Krishnan said learning is more difficult away from school. 

“I definitely have a better grasp of the material when someone teaches it to me,” she said. “But I think this teaches people to be flexible, and being able to teach yourself is a good skill to have.”

Freshman Eric Lechpammer agreed.

“It becomes harder to learn when you can no longer do class debates or labs,” Lechpammer said.

Science department chair Kellie Whited said almost everything about her classes has changed. 

“While I still use the same slides and books, how I present the information to my students is different,” Whited said. “I have to rethink every assignment to make sure it’s something my students can access at home. Every lab has been reworked.”

Whited said adapting labs takes the most time and is one of the hardest aspects of the change.

“Being a lab science teacher, this is also what breaks my heart,” she said. “While I can certainly present the same concepts in a virtual way, it’s not the same as actually doing the lab or dissection in person.”

Because labs are many of her students’ favorite aspects of her classes, Whited said she is working to make them meaningful.

“I refuse to let my students’ education suffer because of this crazy situation,” Whited said. “Most of my students have found their own way to navigate online learning, and I am so proud of how hard they are working to succeed.” 

This also means a lot more work for her, according to Whited. “I feel like a first-year teacher all over again because I’m building curriculum from scratch,” she said. “It’s exhausting balancing this huge workload with helping my own children with their schoolwork.”

Hinojosa, meanwhile, said, “It’s less work that feels like more.”

“I think I now spend fewer total hours developing lesson plans, reviewing and assessing assignments, and communicating with students and colleagues,” Hinojosa said. “But I find myself utterly drained at the end of the day with far fewer moments of connection and epiphany to sustain my spirits.”

Hinojosa said the biggest challenge has been communication, although Zoom conversations during class have helped.

“What might previously have been a quick verbal explanation in class has become a painstakingly crafted email and a series of follow-up emails,” Hinojosa said. “It’s all terribly inefficient. I find conversations with students energizing and nourishing, and communicating via email isn’t the same. Zoom is a much more efficient tool than email, and Zoom conversations are a vast improvement over CavNET discussions, but they are not as fulfilling as meeting in person.”

“I miss eating lunch with my friends, doing homework in the library and just doing things that defined my vision of normal.” 

— Eric Lechpammer

Kuipers agreed.

“I find that it takes a similar amount of time each day to type out detailed instructions for each class and respond to the multitude of emails that come in,” Kuipers said. “Having Zoom classes minimizes a bit of the need for detailed written communication, but the amount of work and time required by remote learning is similar to that of normal school.”

Senior David Situ said communicating with teachers has been challenging.

“Teachers aren’t always great about communicating what we are supposed to be doing,” he said. “Sometimes I’m doing work that I should have done earlier or that I don’t need to be doing.”

However, Situ said the new schedule has helped.“Now that teachers have set guidelines, they have become more consistent in sending out instructions,” he said.

Kuipers said trying to maintain a community online has also been challenging.

“Particularly in stressful, anxious times like these, I think most of us really yearn for the close connections that define Country Day classrooms,” Kuipers said. “That said, I think the school has done well to facilitate as much normalcy as possible through Zoom and other technologies, but it’s obviously still not the same.”

Lechpammer said the community is what he misses most about school.

“I miss eating lunch with my friends, doing homework in the library and just doing things that defined my vision of normal,” Lechpammer said. “I began to realize every little thing that I took for granted. Even not hearing Mr. Wells’  ’80s playlist when I was (transitioning between) classes made my day feel a little more empty.”

However, Hinojosa and Kuipers said there are some benefits to the situation.

“The written record remains in e-perpetuity, either as an email or as a CavNet discussion thread,” Hinojosa said. “There is also the flexibility of asynchronous activity; even with some synchronous class meetings in the new schedule, much of what students and teachers need to do can get done at their own pace and according to their own schedule.” 

Junior Avinash Krishna said he has found it challenging to stay on top of his work.

“It’s harder to keep up with a schedule since I’m pretty much the only one maintaining it,” Krishna said.

Situ, in contrast, said he enjoys learning independently. 

“It’s nice to work at my own pace and at the times that I find it easiest,” said Situ, adding that he prefers working later in the day. “At times, it’s hard to want to do busywork, but some classes have dropped dramatically on the workload.”

Lechpammer agreed that the workload has decreased and he feels less stress.

“Since everyone is on their own schedule, I don’t see many reasons to worry or obsess like I used to,” Lechpammer said. “(A day) with two quizzes and a test would have been pretty stressful. But since I was able to pace myself, I felt pretty good. With the schedule, we have structure but still maintain the advantage of time.”

Krishnan said she enjoys the free time that comes with the flexible schedule. This has also helped her avoid procrastination.

“Now I know that, if I finish all my work early, in the afternoons and evenings I have time to do other activities,” Krishnan said.

There are some positives for the school as a whole as well, according to Wells.

“It’s always beneficial to take a look at how you’re doing things,” Wells said. “Utilizing things like the Zoom platform is fascinating. What does that mean for classes when we return to school? I don’t know. But there’ll be some new efficiencies.”

Wells said this experience may influence which activities take place in the classroom and at home in the future.

“It’s the concept of the flipped classroom,” Wells said. “If you can have typical class (discussions) take place asynchronously, it seems to me there are things you can do in the classroom that go beyond.” 

While Wells said he enjoys spending time with his family, he misses being at school.

“My identity is a teacher,” Wells said. “So if you don’t have any physical teaching, who are you? I would like this to end, but I’m proud of what we’re doing.”

Whited agreed. 

“I miss my students, hearing about their lives, their college acceptances, their wacky stories,” Whited said. “It’s no fun to teach to a screen without that personal connection. (But) I have realized in a more visceral way than ever before how much I truly love what I do, and how much I love my students and coworkers.”

By Anna Frankel

Originally published in the April 28 edition of the Octagon.

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