“What is best for students in this different world?” This question must drive every decision a school makes, now more than ever, according to Marjorie Kuzminski, history teacher and Dean of Students at Highland School. “They come first. And, honestly, in some ways it has made me a better teacher. I have to be so attuned to how students are able to produce evidence of understanding. Distance learning has made me re-evaluate so many of my teaching practices. I’ve become more project-based and synthesis-based in my teaching, necessarily moving away from traditional content-mastery, even though I teach an AP history class.”
Kuzminski, like every teacher, student, and parent, finds herself grappling with a new kind of education during an uncertain time. Kiki Wegdam, a junior from Marshall, Virginia, reflected this unease. “At first I was kind of excited because it was something different, but then I realized how long we’re in this for, and I started to get nervous. I’m not really someone who likes to ask questions, but in online school, you really have to advocate for yourself.”
This is a critical element that Dave Robertson, Highland’s math department chair, focused on in developing his online approach. “This format is hard for students who need a lot of help or who might not feel comfortable reaching out to a teacher. That’s why it takes so much kindness to do this right. As the teacher, you almost become more of a friend in this scenario. You’ve spent the year building a connection and relationship, and now you’ve got to continue to show students that you still care and that you are still there for them.”
Christie Wachtmeister, Highland parent of three, noted that, beyond kindness and relationships, distance learning also means that everyone has to be kind to themselves. “I especially like [how the teachers have] emphasized patience. Kids need to be reminded frequently, but so do all of us. You all deserve high-fives, but those are not allowed right now!”
Ruthie Chierichella, a freshman from Warrenton, was also a bit uneasy with the transition. “At first I was so nervous because it’s different from anything I’ve done before. But, I started to ease my nerves when I realized that we’re in this together. We’re all going through it, and we have to get through it together.”
Susannah Gerhardt, a junior from Catlett, Virginia, agreed. “You just have to go with it. It’s important to remember that everyone, including the teachers, are adjusting together. Even my brother, a Highland graduate and a senior at Wake Forest, is going through this.”
Kuzminski, however, notes that students aren’t just passively going through it. They are actively participating. “When you’re teaching, the buy-in of students is essential. Distance learning, though, is impossible without it. I was nervous at first, but the buy-in of my students has made this experience so enriching. They want to do the work, and they want to do it well. I am so humbled.”
Parents are seeing the same thing in their students. Anne Marie Hauer, a Highland parent, noted her children are “actually excited for this new adventure.” Diana Norris, mother of three Highland students, described her kids as, “open, flexible, patient, and attentive.” Denise Harris, a Highland parent and spouse of a Highland teacher, said, “my son is actually enjoying it!” When she eavesdrops on her husband’s classes, “I can hear the excitement in the kids’ voices.” Parent Ashlea Hopkins said school, “is something [my kids] have looked forward to attending. It has given them a sense of normalcy and kept them to a schedule. There is a purpose in their day. It has also kept them connected to their friends.”
While he has “bought in” to his classes, Matt Hoerner, a senior from Delaplane, has had to rethink how he approaches school. “Online classes force you to own your learning in a completely different way than in-person school. Often, the classes are structured differently; you can’t just sit and listen to a lecture. Instead, you have to become a doer.”
Ben Blunt, a sophomore from Upperville, echoed Hoerner’s sentiments about the need to take ownership. “In school, I spent a lot of time going to my teachers for help, and I was nervous about how that would happen now. I’ve realized, though, that the key is just keeping in contact with them, emailing my teachers when I need help. Teachers have a lot of kids to focus on, but when you reach out they are there for you.”
Blunt still reaches out to his friends for help, almost as if they were still in study hall together. Gerhardt and her friends still Zoom during their study hall periods in order to work on assignments together and to study together before tests. Chierichella checks in with her friends at the end of every day, just to make sure everyone is doing okay.
Harris, the aforementioned Highland parent, said, “ I am so proud of the Highland community and its ability to come together.” Mitchell Hudson noted how his daughter, a senior at Highland has benefitted specifically because her classroom is a community, dedicated to learning together.
Teachers have had to get wildly inventive in order to make this sudden shift into the digital world. Doug Ferguson, a history teacher who has been at Highland for 25 years, discussed how this experience makes him remember what it is like to be a new teacher. “I’ve always wanted to try new things with my teaching, and this gave me an external motivator. In a way, it’s forcing me to go back to how I used to teach middle school because I can’t rely as much on textbooks. I’m now gamifying things, putting students in small groups and letting them compete with each other.”
Ferguson noted how, even when using a more traditional method, his results have still been great. “I had a digital Harkness discussion as a kind of experiment, and it was the best one we had all year!”
Robertson described how he shares his screen over Zoom and then enables a feature that allows students to draw on his screen. He does this because in math, “it’s not so much the answer as the process you use to get there, and I want to see students go through that process so I can see where any breakdown might be. I might know the answer isn’t right, but I need to see where they did something mathematically incorrect.” It is doubly hard, though, because, “everything has to be in duplicate or triplicate for those who can’t be there live.”
Gerhardt is impressed that her teachers are taking the time to individually FaceTime with students for extra help. Wegdam said some of her classes, especially chemistry, make it feel like she is in the classroom because the teachers have taken the time to master the technology. Blunt described how learning ideas in his humanities classes is more difficult because students can’t be there to work through intellectually difficult things with the teacher. He, said, though, that everyone knows how important it is and how much work the teachers are putting in to help get these difficult ideas across. Chierichella said it can be hard to stay organized during the school day when she is at home, but noted how actively teachers are using Google Calendar to help all the students stay on track with their work.
Parents, too, have noticed how the teachers have had to get creative. Jennifer Carter, said teachers have been “thinking outside of the box and helping the students to find their footing as we all navigate this novel situation together.”
Perhaps it is no surprise that Ferguson reports the first thing he did was consult his colleagues. “Problems and solutions to online learning and teaching often go across subjects, and my colleagues are a tremendous community to lean on.” Kuzminski, too, is thankful she was able to lean on the Highland community and all of its expertise, saying, there is, “a large educational community that transcends Highland” and that they are all going through this together, sharing ideas with each other, often through Facebook groups.
Ultimately, for faculty and students, so much comes down to trust in this online environment. For Hoerner, that is trust in the honor code. “Integrity is really important to me, and I worry about the temptations of taking short cuts on your work. But, I trust myself to do the right thing, and I trust the community too.”
Robertson echoed this sentiment. “You have to trust that we have spent the first part of this year putting students in a good position to be successful. Then, you have to trust they will do the right thing.” However, Robertson wasn’t just thinking about the honor code, he was thinking more widely, about the act of staying “bought in,” about students’ continual desire to learn. Ferguson said, “This really makes you trust your students. There is no ‘stick approach’ in online learning. You have to believe in them and trust in them.” And, according to Kuzminski, that belief has been so, so well placed.
While teachers and students across the country have had to adapt to this new way of learning, Ryan Pappalardo, a Highland sophomore from Warrenton summed up everyone’s thoughts the best: “The most important thing is to flatten the curve. There are some difficult things about online school. Like, once I took a nap during lunch and missed the start of a class. Overall, though, the classes have all been really great, and I’ve been able to keep up the high academic standards, in part because the teachers and school started preparing us for this change early on. Again, though, what is most important is that we flatten this curve.”