With online school, teachers are students again, too
Teaching science without a lab is a completely fish-out-of-water experience for veteran biology instructor Theresa Peters. While most of her beloved animals remain on campus in the Hayden Building lab she’s taught in for more than 30 years, Ms. Peters is hunkered down at home, remotely walking her students through key biochemistry experiments using the take-home lab kits she prepared for them.
Over Zoom, she watched students record how fast the enzymes in yeast break down hydrogen peroxide and chatted with her AP Bio students as they calculated the potential sugars in root vegetables.
"Running labs at a distance is new to me,” said Ms. Peters, whose students are improvising simple lab setups in their bedrooms and kitchens. “It feels like an online instructional cooking show, but I am no Alton Brown,” she quipped.
Over the summer, Mayfield faculty members have worked to modify, adapt and reinvent their curriculum and their classrooms to address some of the universal frustrations of online learning. And although it’s almost impossible to replicate the energy and engagement of the in-person experience, Mayfield teachers are determined to conquer the challenges of remote learning— and maximize the unexpected opportunities.
Ms. Peters was one of many Mayfield teachers who returned to campus in late August to spend a socially-distanced day preparing remote learning supply kits. They packaged hands-on independent activities to get students set up to learn in their at-home classrooms, along with low-tech resources to dilute the often draining deluge of on-screen meetings. "I have really been trying really hard to give students more ‘brain breaks’ and working to create quick off-screen activities,” said English Department Chair Leandra Ferguson.
On the flip side, our newfound comfort with online meeting software has opened new doors for engagement with far-flung experts. A meeting with an author in Saudi Arabia? Easy! Just join the Zoom call. A consultation with an engineering expert at the University of Texas? No problem. Just unmute your mic and ask away.
As she continues to shake up her lessons, English teacher Stephanie Pham said she’s been relying on her colleagues more than ever. “I text them throughout the day and we share lesson plans, success stories, and cautions for lessons that don't work well remotely.”
And this need for community connection is stronger than ever—for faculty and students alike. It’s perhaps most pointed for our newest Cubs, who are the first group of Mayfield ninth-graders to begin high school remotely. Freshman teachers have been building in some getting-to-know-you time to forge the human connections that students thrive on. Christina Lara ’14 found that her freshman Algebra 1 students were hesitant to engage in class—not surprisingly, given that they’ve never met each other in person—and came up with a way to ease them into participating more freely.
“I call girls randomly with my popsicle sticks and they've been generous with the challenge,” Ms. Lara said. “It allows them to verbally walk through a problem while giving them the confidence to speak out loud.”
She’s also made time for pre-class chit-chat to break the ice, as has freshman teacher Billy Abdallah, who also incorporates community-building exercises into his conceptual physics classes. “Although we only see each other twice a week, and no minute should be taken for granted, I always take the first five minutes to welcome my students to our class meeting,” Mr. Abdallah said. “I also embed exercises that allow our students to get to know one another even through this remote learning time.”
Not only have they been juggling and modifying their curriculum and communication techniques, they’ve become avid students of educational technology, or “edtech,” software like Notability, Show Me, Explain Everything, Peardeck and Nearpod.
“We have invested a great deal of our resources—and our teachers have spent a great deal of their time—in intensive professional development around best practices for remote teaching and learning,” said Head of School Kate Morin.
Many Mayfield teachers agree that these edtech “summer camps” helped them identify and master the best tech tools for their coursework needs. “They've made a big difference,” said Ms. Pham.
How do you teach without a whiteboard or SmartBoard? For most faculty, this classroom essential is not just a lecture tool—it gives students a central place to brainstorm, solve problems and collaborate. Enter Google Jamboard, an interactive whiteboard system that many teachers say has been a boon to real-time participation.
Mr. Magana, who teaches mostly juniors and seniors, says this online platform has significantly boosted student participation. “Not even when I was teaching in a classroom I would get 20 responses within 30 seconds!”
The immersion into a virtual classroom environment has been the catalyst for some teachers to embrace an asynchronous “flipped classroom” model. “I've become a YouTube star,” joked Ms. Pham, who has created over 15 instructional videos that students can watch, pause, and re-watch on their own time. “This way, our time on Zoom is decreased and more purposefully focused on discussing the texts we've read.”
But, as anyone who has been on a family Zoom call will attest, free-flowing group conversations can be a real challenge. Teachers are finding new ways to facilitate the kind of deep discussions that cement complex concepts and encourage self-expression.
Ms. Ferguson has found a no-tech way to keep her student-led “Socratic Seminars” lively and fluid. By incorporating hand signals into her English classroom, students now have a simple way—even if they’re on mute, which they mostly are during class—to express agreement, ask for clarification, add a relevant comment or raise a new topic. “The [hand signals] really helped keep the discussion moving and encouraged more participation.” said Ms. Ferguson. “I may even use these for in-person discussions.”
Other teachers have found ways to leverage the panoply of “teachable moments” that have characterized this unpredictable and historic year.
Melissa Tighe’s advanced math students are modeling virus transmission and studying trends. “Being able to point out that people are creating these models all the time to figure out what is going on makes our class work very relevant,” she explained. And Ms. Peters is easing her students into the real-world science applications of a pandemic, without panic. “I am slowly starting to discuss viruses earlier in the year and introduce the students to more reliable COVID facts, but am trying to be sensitive at the same time so as not to trigger any undue stress.”
Similarly, photography teacher Paul Tzanetopoulos addresses challenging subjects that are on a lot of students’ minds by easing in with a personal approach. “I'm showcasing my own work on social justice issues that echo the curriculum,” he says. A working artist, Mr. T uses his Zoom background feature to highlight these works while he and his students “discuss interdisciplinary approaches to artmaking while making socially relevant commentary.”
And students are receptive to these deeper dives, says Spanish teacher Mr. Magana. He’s full of praise for his students’ collaboration and time management skills, but it’s their big-picture perspective that really impresses him. “Many times they amaze me, not only because of their language knowledge, but also how they can recognize world challenges and how they can offer great solutions to those challenges.”
Ms. Ferguson observes the same optimistic outlook in her students, as well as an earnest sense of responsibility for taking action. “They are passionate about the world around them, and they recognize that their generation has the power to be a positive force for change.”
Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.