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St. Mark's Spring 2020: Embracing a Remote Approach to School

St. Mark's Spring 2020: Embracing a Remote Approach to School
When the news of the Novel Coronavirus (later named COVID-19) was first reported late in 2019, its worldwide impact was hard to imagine. Indeed, the impact on school operations was unimaginable to many of us even in early March when the only question we thought we needed to answer was whether the School's Spring Break travel programs—cultural and athletic—could proceed. Shortly thereafter, of course, the educational landscape changed radically. The focus immediately became how to develop an outstanding remote academic program, an outstanding approach to caring for our students, faculty and staff, and an outstanding approach to maintaining routines that would keep our community feeling together even while apart. We immediately recognized that the focus of our planning for the time of physical separation needed to be comprehensive: academic and personal, individual and collective.

I appreciate the work of our Remote Learning Team, chaired by Dean of Academics Nat Waters, that has led the planning efforts, drawing upon their own expertise about online learning, and researching best practices developed by schools with extensive experience in online learning, like the Global Online Academy (1). The team worked tirelessly throughout the two weeks of Spring Break to develop a program and then rolled it out to faculty during a professional development week in late March.

Above: Dean of Academics Nat Waters
I also appreciate the work of our St. Mark's faculty, every one of whom approached the challenge of putting together remote learning plans with a "can-do" attitude and receptivity to thinking differently. Our faculty listened carefully to the guidance provided by the Remote Learning Team which took a number of forms: video instructions, written material, and most importantly, individual tutorials. Our faculty also benefited from the support of our technology department who deserve great praise for quickly putting new tools at everyone's disposal and for solving the inevitable technical problems with dispatch.

I appreciate, too, the receptivity and resilience of our students to the new way of learning to which they needed to adapt at the end of March. The first week, especially, featured a learning curve for everyone which has continued. Patience and communication have facilitated the necessary refinements in courses as we all continue to learn what approaches work best and what need to be altered or discarded.

Finally, I appreciate the collaboration of parents with the School as we launched the remote learning program. I am well aware that challenging adjustments to home patterns were often required as parents, with their sons and daughters, lived into an approach to a St. Mark's education that is nobody's first choice. I recognize that many St. Mark's parents are confronting their own challenges which make supporting the St. Mark's educational program in the home all the more complex. We continue to benefit from parent feedback as we continue to refine the remote approach to school.

I am heartened by the way the St. Mark's community has pulled together with grace and generosity of spirit during the time since COVID-19 changed so much about our lives. This spirit ensures that the essential learning and the essential strength of our community carries on this spring. Indeed, Age Quod Agis is on display every day across 17 time zones!

I am also heartened by the way many essential elements of St. Mark's have transferred to the new way of "doing school" that COVID-19 thrust upon us. One of those essential elements is intellectual vibrancy.
Granting that the learning looks and feels different in many ways, examples abound of that vibrancy in online classes just as it is evident when we are all together in the Main Building. III Form Global Seminar students, for example, engaged in spirited discussion about the obligations citizens have to each other, in their own communities and around the world, informed by the principles Jean-Jacques Rousseau conveys in The Social Contract. The topic felt very relevant to each participant because of the well-publicized risks caused by ignoring COVID-19 social distancing guidelines on the one hand, and protests in some states about government abridgement of the right to free assembly, no matter the risk. Math teachers are adapting white board technology to Zoom classes so that students can collaborate on complex mathematical proofs, while teachers in all disciplines are using a Zoom feature, "breakout rooms," that allows students to engage in small group exercises that they then bring back to the class as a whole.
Above: Dr. Laura Appell-Warren holds her Global Seminar class via Zoom.
Skill development continues too. Some of that skill development is familiar. Chemistry students must still hone their ability to perform experiments even though the laboratory work can only simulate concepts like boiling points and the movement of molecules. The conclusions drawn from the experiments must still be explained with as precise logic as ever. Discussions of poems, short stories and novels may not flow quite as smoothly when students are looking at each other on Zoom tiles rather than around a seminar table. However, the requirements to speak precisely and to listen carefully to a peer so as to advance a conversation remain at the core of discussion-based classes.

The skill of organizing one's time, while always important for St. Mark's students, has taken on a greater importance because of the nature of remote learning. Fewer hours of a student's day or week are scheduled while we are physically apart. Typically, online classes meet live, "synchronously," for two 20- to 30-minute sessions per week. That pattern leaves many hours of the week open for students to work "asynchronously," as they read assignments, listen to brief lectures taped by their teachers, record their foreign language speaking for the teacher to assess at another time, and as they write. Not surprisingly, many students have found processing the volume of work that arrived in their inboxes very challenging, especially as we began remote learning.

I am very impressed by the way students have, of necessity, built their time-management skills. One of my advisees creates a weekly spreadsheet in which he identifies when he will complete the different pieces of work teachers have assigned. Another uses a notebook to achieve the same objective, and a third creates a work schedule on blank 8x11 sheets of paper. Our Director of Student Support, Sarah Eslick, noted that developing this skill is harder for some students than for others. She is pleased that advisors and teachers are identifying students who are struggling with this skill so that she and others can intervene to provide individual support. "Our students are experiencing an organizational trial by fire, and we are there to be sure they can rise to the challenge," Sarah observed. Developing this skill of managing time will surely benefit our students as they move along with their education and with their life.
Above: Director of Student Support Sarah Eslick
Another element characteristic of our School that has carried over to remote learning is caring for others. Barb Putnam mailed paper to her Studio Art students so they could continue their learning and skill development. "Ms. Putnam knew just the kind of paper I like best," an advisee told me, "and I was so touched that it was there in a package she sent me." Varsity Girls' Lacrosse Coach Channing Warner organized a virtual team meeting so that the customary honoring of VI Form players could happen even without a season.
Above: Barb Putnam, Arts Faculty Member Below: Channing Warner, Varsity Girls' Lacrosse Coach
The caring nature of our School is also on display as we address the fact that, for a variety of reasons, learning in this new mode is harder for some students than for others. Learning conditions for some of our students, for example, are especially challenging, and social and emotional struggles have emerged for some. Teachers and advisors bring information about these students to our Student Support Team, a long-existing group of faculty and health care professionals, who meet weekly and formulate—and track--individualized plans to help.

Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Fernando M. Reimers asserts that in a remote education program, "second only to supporting learning, a key priority...should be the well-being of students and staff. Maintaining effective social relationships between learners and educators will contribute to that goal."(2) St. Mark's is certainly attending to maintaining social relationships. Advisors check in with their advisees weekly, both with one-on-one Zoom calls and with group Zoom meetings. Dean of Students David Vachris organizes periodic 9:30 p.m. check-Ins, where students sign on to a Zoom call, with other members of their Form and simply chat with one another and with faculty, just as boarders would at check-in time on campus. Our Strength and Conditioning Coach Pat Haggerty posts workout plans and offers himself as a resource about progress with the plans. Varsity coaches engage members of their teams in mental brainstorming to keep skills sharp and touch base about individual workouts.
Above: Dean of Students David Vachris Below: Strength and Conditioning Coach Pat Haggerty
For the sake of student and adult well-being in the midst of the pandemic, Reimers advocates, too, "maintaining a sense of normalcy and regularity in an otherwise unpredictable situation." (3) Our twice weekly 8:00 a.m. Zoom Chapel services serve this function very effectively, by all accounts. Head Chaplain Barbara Talcott, Associate Chaplain Katie Solter, and Director of Music James Wallace structure those services in the same way as if we were together in Belmont Chapel. We enjoy opening prayers, a hymn, a VI Form Chapel Talk (each of which has been splendid), remembrance of graduates who have died, silent prayer, meditation or reflection, the School Prayer, the acknowledgement of student birthdays, and even my traditional "Faculty and VI Form" dismissal. A virtual Wednesday School Meeting, run—as usual—by the Monitors, is another regular event that keeps our community strong even though we are physically distant. Also important for maintaining normalcy and connection are weekly meetings of our student affinity groups.
Above: Head Chaplain Barbara Talcott holds Chapel via Zoom.
Recognizing the importance of delivering remote learning in the best possible way, our faculty and our School are actively seeking feedback so we can all continue to improve and refine our approach. Our Institutional Researcher, Sarah Enterline, has developed a survey for students to offer feedback about individual classes. Dean of Academics Nat Waters has developed a survey too that is focused more on trends and can inform overall institutional improvement efforts. We are systematically seeking feedback from parents, with advisors reaching out, with surveys and town hall-style forums. We are also reaching out to parents by telephone so that we can hear what is going well so far and what we can do better.

One byproduct of the online approach to learning forced upon us this spring is innovation in individual teacher practice that will carry over once we resume a more familiar education. Assistant Head/Dean of Faculty Samantha Brennan told me that "in every conversation with a faculty member this spring, I have heard at least one change to practice that the faculty member will use in subsequent years." Adopting new methods of instruction this spring has been easier for faculty, believes Colleen Worrell, director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, because of their experience implementing the many changes brought about by our Strategic Plan, St. Mark's School: 2020. In recent years, as she notes, we have moved to a long-block Monday to Friday schedule, developed Saturday courses, and created Lion Term programs for each Form. Figuring out how to deliver remote learning in an excellent manner is simply the latest in a series of educational innovations we have undertaken over the last decade.
Above: Assistant Head/Dean of Faculty Samantha Brennan Below: Director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning Colleen Worrell
Regrettably, being unable to gather physically has resulted in the loss of many parts of the St. Mark's Spring Term that cannot be replicated. The athletic schedule has been cancelled, Reunion has been postponed until 2021, Lion Term (including the Lions Roam travel to our partner school in Eswatini, to South Africa, and to the American South) has been cancelled, and hardest of all, we cannot undertake our end-of-year traditions like Prize Day in the normal way. These losses are hard, especially for the VI Form and their families. I have been so impressed by the resilience VI Formers have displayed as they quickly moved to brainstorming about the design of a later on-campus ceremony to replicate some features of Prize Day to complement an online Prize Day ceremony that will still be held on June 6, as originally scheduled.

Also hard, we cannot make very many decisions at this point about how St. Mark's will approach the 2020-2021 academic year. Too much is currently unknown about the conditions that will exist in late August. As always, the health and safety of every member of the School community will dictate the approach we take. The COVID-19 Task Force will continue to monitor health and safety information throughout the spring and summer, and a Return to School Task Force is already beginning the planning for various scenarios for the fall. I will be sure to keep the St. Mark's community apprised of plans for the fall as they are developed.

The happiest scenario, of course, is a return to normal School operations by the middle of August. If health and safety concerns require a different approach, we will design a plan that advances learning and community objectives in an outstanding way until we are able to return to normal School operations. In order to prepare for the eventuality that we continue remote learning in the fall, our faculty will continue their professional development about remote learning techniques. This work is beneficial whatever the fall scenario because some of the newly developed techniques can be blended with in-person classroom techniques after we have regathered physically.

Whatever the scenario in August, we know the time will come when students, faculty, and staff will all be together once again in Southborough. I am absolutely confident that St. Markers will be stronger individually, and we will be stronger as a School, when we do regather because of the growth resulting from the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (4)
(2) Fernando M. Reimers, Global Education Innovation Initiative, Harvard Graduate School of Education & Andreas Schleicher, Directorate of Education and Skills, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, A Framework to Guide an Education Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020. OECD:2020. Thank you to Laura Appell-Warren for pointing out the relevance of this report to my thinking about remote learning.
(3) Reimers & Schleicher, p. 8
(4) Our school historian, Nick Noble has written an excellent article for the School's website about impressive St. Mark's responses to earlier epidemic and pandemic challenges.
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