Remote Learning in Boarding School Amid Coronavirus | Midland School

Finding Joy in the (Online) Job Well Done

Reflections on Remote Learning

Spring 2020

When Midland decided to close campus due to the pandemic, it was an all-hands-on-deck circus to get everyone packed up, celebrated, and ready to transition home.  In one afternoon, students had 10-minute meetings with each teacher to gather all they needed for online learning. As students poured anxiously into class, I assured them “I’m not worried about us at all! You all know how to use computers! See you online!” I gave them our US Studies Remote Learning Plan – and we spent our last moments in Playhouse classroom together in a raucous dance party. 

Despite our collective bravado around computer literacy, online classes certainly presented new challenges: a meticulously planned lesson is no match for a random power outage, and Harkness discussions lose some of their dynamic luster when a student’s shoddy wifi connection makes their contributions sound like they’re broadcasting through a wormhole. Alongside the frustrations, however, remote learning has also given us some unforeseen opportunities. If “necessity is the mother of invention,” online learning in the time of COVID-19 might be a catalyst for creativity. 

Inspired by the historic urgency of the moment, Midland teachers have forged deeper connections between content and student experience. In Genevieve Herrick‘s ‘97 World Studies class, students wrote their own “COVID Diaries” modeled on historical pandemic journals. In Dan Susman’s Midland 101 class, students made meticulous study of the anthropods living within their own homes. While dust gathered on the Cornel West quote on the Playhouse classroom whiteboard (“Justice is what love looks like in public”) our conversations around social justice burned bright across computer screens in U.S. Studies. From the sciences to the humanities, teachers have “Zoomed” in outside experts on bugs, poetry, healthcare and social justice to engage our students in high level intellectual discussions. In many ways, students have become more connected to the world outside our Midland bubble, even while desk-bound and “sheltered in place.”

In a school with a long history of being “unplugged but connected,” teachers have stretched our own technological literacy to engage students online with collaborative slideshows, chat room discussions, podcast and video projects. Charlotte Greenblatt and Matt Hagen orchestrated an inter-math-level scavenger hunt contest where Midland students in Zoom breakout room teams (with the help of representative faculty avatars) solved a diverse set of math problems at prominent locations around campus. Our Health Director Janet Willie plunged into the digital world, synthesizing a wealth of resources to support our students in these challenging times. From guided meditations with a Midland bee on the farm to online meetings with our school counselor, she’s capitalized on the tele-health revolution while keeping students rooted in this place. Floating in a new soup of unstructured time, students and faculty alike have built their own schedules to manage their time, noting that Google Classroom has helped them be organized in a new way. Students are honing a whole new set of skills that will inevitably prepare them to be more successful in college and beyond – how to professionally manage and respond to emails, how to use online platforms to build dynamic presentations, and how to keep themselves organized when there’s no bell ushering them from one spot to the next. 

In a parallel spirit of continual growth and improvement, Midland teachers have been reflecting on our own pedagogical practices, and how we can take learnings from teaching online back to the classroom in the fall. John Isaacson ’94 noted that speaking to a screen of muted faces has pushed him to be even more animated in his instruction, making creative use of props and hand gestures and balancing time between talking and doing. Alison Nikitopoulos reminded us that the inevitable glitchiness of the online platform (not unlike the teenage attention span) underscores the importance of explaining assignments and directions with clarity and concision. As a Midland teacher newly desk-bound for entire work days, I’ve gained a sharp insight into the dire need for movement in the class day; Now, US Studies begins every class with a democratic round of “pumps and stretches” where students lead us all in burpees, yoga poses, and plank challenges. In talking to advisees and faculty, we’ve also noticed that students historically reluctant to participate vocally in their normal classes on campus have found online learning a less intimidating platform within which to speak up. Genevieve reflected that remote learning “is an introvert’s dream!” and pondered how to cultivate that same level of comfort back on campus when we return to 3D.

Perhaps most remarkable through this whole process is that our greatest institutional concern as we moved to remote learning turned out to be one of our greatest “wins.” When students rapidly dispersed from campus we wondered how we would be able to hold this community together while fragmented across so many time zones and computer screens. What would advising look like? How could we continue hallowed Midland traditions like assembly? Across the board faculty and administration stepped up to creatively craft an engaging program that would take us to the finish line – together. Advisors met with students individually and as little families, troubleshooting tech woes, empathizing with the isolation blues, and planning classes for next year. Ami Adams choreographed our morning assembly from ding-a-ling, through announcements, to a resounding Midland bell, featuring a cast of characters as whimsical and diverse as Midland itself. Professional musicians put on a live concert. We “baaaaah-ed” alongside Genevieve’s sheep and joined Alison in cacophonous Zoom birthday songs. Rodeley ‘21 and José Juan Ibarra ‘87 DJ’d our mornings with music videos. Charis Adams and Dan issued challenges (and tantalizing rewards), encouraging students to sleep outside, cook for their families, and craft DIY masks. Gloria Murillo, Yessie Uribe ‘04 and Charlotte led Zoom cooking shows. John had a consistent poetry club following. Dan and I donned sweatbands and gold lamée tracksuits in a ridiculous series of “Hans & Franz” impersonation workout routines.  And – whether it was midnight in Hong Kong or 4am in Hawaii or 8am in California – students kept. showing. up. 

One faculty Zoom meeting, Charis echoed the immortal words of Joni Mitchell (“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”) reflecting that alumni so clearly recognize how Midland changed them and now – perhaps for the first time – Midland students themselves got a chance to appreciate this community for all its magic while they were still enrolled. From the props pouring into the virtual props box, to the glitch-y gratitude chat thread, to the dozens of pixelated sleepy Brady Bunch squares miming hearts into their cameras, the love is palpable. Elizabeth ‘20 noted just this morning that she was surprised to feel the impact of Midland so soon; “I thought I’d notice it in college, but this time gave me space to reflect.” As we gather to celebrate our seniors tomorrow, we recognize it is the people in this community that make Midland what it is. Just as the resilience that Midland students built during their time on campus has enabled them to push through online challenges, we are excited to see how the perseverance that students (and faculty!) have been honing in this time will contribute to a richer program when we return to campus in the fall. 

In the immortal words of the class of COVID-19 2020: No distance can divide us. This too shall pass. And we cannot wait to see you all again soon in 3D. 

By Ellie Moore
Dean of Academics

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