School Closure Forces SHP to Rethink Curriculum

  • Andrew Samuels ’23

With just two days’ notice, the SHP faculty were forced to completely rethink the way that the teaching profession has operated for over a century — they needed to learn to teach in a virtual setting. The March 10th COVID-19 order to close SHP campus compelled teachers to change the way they engage their students and also innovate ways to recreate communities they so cherish.  

The challenges teachers face are not only related to the classroom experience. “I really miss seeing my students—not only in class, but also during office hours, lunch, after school, or even in the halls,” said Precalculus AB Honors and Geometry Honors teacher Ms. Kendall Olsen. “There is a different sense of classroom ‘community’ online,” Co-Chair of the English department and English teacher Mr. Jake Moffat added. “What I love most about teaching is significantly reduced in a virtual setting.”

To quickly make the switch to remote learning, SHP administration sought guidance from colleagues in independent schools in China for best practices as schools in China were already practicing online learning. “We sought to build on the lessons they had already learned about effective online learning in high schools,” said SHP Principal, Dr. Jennie Whitcomb. “The Prep’s Director of Teacher Development, Dr. Neebe, and SHS’ Director of Technology, Dr. Joy Lopez created a guidebook that all our teachers have used. In fact, they shared their guidebook, and it has been adopted in schools around the world. I’m very proud of their international leadership.”

Dr. Whitcomb explains that since instituting distance learning, every class has been restructured to have a 3-hour block where part of the class is virtual. “We’re trying to ensure our students are not on screens all day,” she explains. She has encouraged her faculty to integrate different forms of teaching in order for the students to learn outside of the three hour zoom class. 

Principal Whitcomb has also made sure that every teacher is given the freedom to choose their own way of teaching, taking into account their own style and subject matter while maintaining the highest standards. 

“Teachers still have significant autonomy to structure curriculum, lessons, and assignments to reflect their style of teaching,” explains Dr. Whitcomb. “Given that so many teachers at SHP have strong relationships with students and foster strong community among students, we are all finding that moving from face-to-face to virtual community is a different learning experience.”

For instance, Mr. Moffat’s freshman English class begins with a virtual check-in where his students take turns talking about their weeks and answer the simple but fundamental question, “How are you feeling?” This 15-minute activity creates a sense of community for the class even though they are not physically together. He then meets separately with his students in smaller virtual groups. 

“I have tried to break my class into small groups of four or five because I feel like with Zoom, there is a big grid of people which feels disorienting to me. With four or five [students], I feel like there are real conversations to be had and we have more of a sense of being together.”

While Mr. Moffat works with the small groups, the rest of the class works independently on learning vocabulary, writing short stories, or interacting with the discussion boards. Mr. Moffat feels that engaging his students in the discussion boards is extremely effective. “I have tried to reply to every comment or discussion board, so my voice can be present in as many points of connection as I can. I try to build community with those discussion posts,” Mr. Moffat added.

History and Economics teacher Mr. Greg Roig, affectionately known by his students as “Mr. G,” focused on recreating the importance of connection. Like Mr. Moffat, Mr. G. also misses the daily engagement with his students in class. He also begins his class with a “check-in.” However, rather than teaching to small groups of students, Mr. G. uses his block to lecture and ask questions to his class as a whole followed by an activity or assignment to solidify the lesson. “I have tried to give my students moments of normalcy where they feel like they are back in class with me.” 

Mr. G’s philosophy is centered on what he refers to as the “three C’s,” — climate, connection and curriculum. While his curriculum hasn’t changed, in the virtual setting, “You lose the premise of connection, which for me is such a big part of teaching.” 

Mr. G. has tried to compensate for the loss of connection and climate by teaching his virtual class as he would in a normal class. He moves through his presentation and slides and answers all of his students’ questions along the way. 

Mr. Moffat and Mr. G. do share a similar strategy that they feel  teachers can take away from this experience. Mr. Moffat explained, “From a curricular point of view this experience does force teachers to ask themselves what is really important.” While Mr. G. added, “We should continue to strive to teach the things that really matter. [Distant learning] lets you become a better teacher because your one meeting needs to really matter and sink in.”

Students widely agree that their teachers have done a phenomenal job adapting to this new type of teaching. Armin Hamrah ‘23, said, “The teachers are really putting all their energy and effort into this new form of learning. They are making a very enjoyable experience for the students at SHP by not overly pressuring us while still teaching all the material very well.” 

Dr. Whitcomb is also proud of her faculty. “I am in awe of how well our teachers are adapting. We have basically opened the school year twice this year–once in August, then again in March. We closed school for two days and teachers were ready the next Monday. Our teachers pivoted quickly, decisively, and with student learning always at the center. None of us prefers remote learning to being at school, and, no, it’s not all perfect, but overall, I am proud of our teachers and impressed with their ability to create so many meaningful learning experiences.”

By Axel de Vernou

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