Diving Into Distance Learning

Sophie Shulman, Director of Communications

The following article will be published in The Marker, the school magazine, in June.

How do you move a school online in a matter of days? It's an intimidating question that schools across the world would begin to answer in January 2019 as COVID-19 started to spread. Whether public or private, in rural China or the city of San Francisco, elementary school or university, the challenge was the same--transition from in-person teaching to teaching students from a distance.

At Mark Day School, this work began when Joe Harvey and Fernanda Pernambuco considered the implications of sending our annual delegation of Upper Division students to visit our partner school in Beijing, Beijing #2 Experimental Primary School, also known as Er Xiao. A group of 7th and 8th graders taking Mandarin were slated to travel to Er Xiao over spring break to immerse themselves in the language and culture of Beijing. It's a trip students look forward to, and one that is an important part of students' cross-cultural learning. They stay at Er Xiao families' homes, attend school at Er Xiao, and learn to push through challenges like homesickness and living in an unfamiliar environment. But in January, with the seemingly rapid spread of COVID-19, then more well known as coronavirus, in China, the trip no longer felt like a safe option for our students and faculty chaperones. "Canceling the trip was both an easy and a difficult decision to make," says Fernanda, Director of Cross-Cultural Partnerships and Community Engagement. "Our top priority was safety, but we were also disappointed that those students wouldn't be able to have that important and influential experience."

It was this decision and the conversations with our partners at Er Xiao that prompted Joe and Bonnie to begin envisioning what distance learning could look like at Mark Day School. "Underpinning our work was the belief that we could do it," says Joe. "We knew we were capable of developing a robust and meaningful distance learning program and recognized that we might need to. The 'how' was the question, and fortunately we have Bonnie's incredible experience and vision to rely on." Though at the time they had no idea if or when school was going to close, a few main goals served as the foundation for their early conversations: set priorities, identify and remove obstacles, distribute the right tools, and implement an iterative process.

In early February, Bonnie began her research by consulting the work of Global Online Academy (GOA), "a nonprofit, international learning organization that empowers high school students, teachers, and leaders to thrive in a globally networked society." Because GOA has been engaged in distance learning since 2011, the organization had the knowledge and expertise to serve as a learning model for Mark Day. The most helpful takeaway from her research was the idea of a phased approach to transitioning to online distance learning. "We have always been a learning community," says Bonnie. "So we had to take what we know about learning and apply it to transitioning to an online learning model. That meant not giving everybody everything at once. We took it step by step to give teachers, students, and families time to adjust." If campus was going to close, which at the time was still uncertain, the community wouldn't just need time to adjust to online learning--it would need to adjust to a temporary new way of life. What families would experience and need could be vastly different from household to household, and easing families into this new learning model would be a key part of the process.

As the team began to imagine this multi-phase approach, access to technology was at the forefront of their minds. Whatever system served as the foundation for the school's distance learning program, it was imperative that every student had necessary equipment. In late February, Bonnie began contacting vendors, setting up accounts, and ordering equipment like portable document cameras, USB tablets, and Apple pencils just in case. Fortunately, because of the structure of our technology program, the school already had devices in a 1:1 ratio for students in grades three through eight.

Obtaining physical equipment was a relatively easy challenge to solve. Training teachers and students to use them, however, was a more complicated challenge. On March 3, more than a week before campus would actually close, the idea of moving to online learning was brought to the faculty for the first time, and a few days later, training began. Faculty started learning how to use Zoom, which involved downloading the app, understanding its features, and thinking creatively about translating their in-person lesson plans to an online medium. Bonnie and the Media, Technology, and Innovation team, including Tatian Greenleaf, AJ Cheong and Ray Karter, offered workshops, Q&A sessions, and a tech support ticketing system to prepare faculty. "None of our faculty signed on to become online teachers," says Bonnie. "The skills are different. The time commitment is different. Preparing faculty involved providing those skills but also offering all kinds of support, including emotional support as they navigated through this new reality."

For the working group of Joe, Bonnie, and division heads Dave Hickman and Thad Reichley, maintaining and building on the strong, trusting relationships between students, teachers, and families was a top priority. Working together to develop the distance learning program, the team focused first on community connection and developed a distance learning schedule that would enable faculty, families, and students to gather for live morning meetings, interactive lessons, and asynchronous learning activities. They managed a delicate balance between leading a new initiative and supporting people's unique needs. Anticipating these needs and finding out what was on teachers' minds were central to the process. "We didn't want to overwhelm teachers or isolate students," says Dave. "We thought a lot about how we could make sure everyone still felt like part of a community and had the support they needed." This focus on community is in many ways what makes Mark Day's distance learning program unique. It's not about checking boxes or filling the day with various activities to keep students busy--it's about maintaining the feel of a school community while continuing to learn.

Campus officially closed to students on Friday, March 13, and a tremendous amount of work happened behind the scenes to sterilize and package materials for family pick-up. The first few days were dedicated to additional planning and faculty training. Then, phase one of Mark Day's distance learning program kicked off on Wednesday, March 18. The primary goal was to get everyone feeling connected, supported, and oriented to being and learning online together. "One of our biggest questions was, how do we translate something like the Mark Day education--which is so founded in connection--into an online arena?" Bonnie says. "Moving online adds a layer of complexity to so many of our normal tools that are central to what makes a Mark Day education what it is, like students' relationships with teachers, the ability to see where students are in that moment and support them in their learning, and our community moments both as a class and as a school." Implementing live, synchronous classes and moments of connection began immediately to preserve these touchpoints. Assemblies continued twice per week, and faculty used a combination of whole-class and small group configurations during live lessons. They also offered "office hours" across grades so students could ask questions and receive additional help. Phase two began the following week, with the aim to set a more robust weekly schedule. And phase three followed, with more integrated assessment and feedback systems. "Formative feedback, which happens while students are working, is so important to the learning process," says Bonnie.

The phased approach also allowed the team to apply a design thinking model, which involved iterating, receiving feedback from all constituents of our community, and iterating again. Wrapping in these opportunities for feedback and making adjustments along the way was essential. At each step, the school's commitment to a diverse and inclusive community played an important role. We recognized that families would have very different challenges to navigate, strove to anticipate as many as possible, and asked for feedback to help understand what we may have missed. "Using data to understand what's going well and how we can improve is crucial to how we think as a learning community," says Joe. "Starting on day one, we surveyed the faculty as a leadership team to better understand how distance learning had launched and identify areas where it could be improved. On day three, we surveyed all parents and guardians for their feedback." Another parent and guardian survey will be distributed soon. Checking in with all constituents of our community in both formal and informal ways offers opportunities to gain multiple perspectives, which, in turn, help contribute to developing the best possible distance learning program.

As with any new program--especially one quickly implemented out of necessity--there were a few roadblocks, like Upper School students' use of the chat feature on Zoom. Under normal school guidelines, this feature would be disabled to remove distraction. However, because connection was at the heart of our online learning program, it became a moment to shape and guide students' appropriate usage of this feature. In many ways, Bonnie says, it was like a crash course in current century skills. For Thad, supporting parents of younger kids as they are home with their kids and assisting online learning was one of his biggest tasks as the program began. "Parents didn't sign up to be a partner in online education," he says. "Helping navigate expectations of school and themselves and being aware of different families' needs and struggles was a big focus."

At the time this article is being written, we are a couple of weeks into phase three of distance learning. Faculty have had the time to learn and dive into new technology, teach synchronous lessons to full classes of students, and discover how to provide feedback and assessment remotely. While every member of the community has charted through unfamiliar territory, learned challenging skills in a short amount of time, and adopted new roles they never could have imagined stepping into, Bonnie is incredibly inspired. "I'm so proud of our faculty for the way they leaned into the process," she says. "They didn't learn just one new tech tool, they had to learn multiple tech tools simultaneously and then put them into practice practically right away. Our faculty are bearing the brunt of this challenge, and the amount of work they've put into it is phenomenal."

In many ways, the success of Mark Day's distance learning program is the result of years--if not decades--of work. To prepare students for the 21st century world they are living in, technology, multi-disciplinary learning, and real world application have for many years been integrated into cross-grade curriculum. Mark Day students understand that technology is just another tool, and most grades (grade 3 and up) use devices on a regular basis. Because of this, students and faculty were able to adopt new tech tools and skills more seamlessly.

"It still feels like Mark Day," says Dave, reflecting on the community's commitment to continuing to learn and be together during this period of social distancing. "Watching teachers help other teachers is such a joy. They're heroes, the way they're learning something new while running their classes at the same time." For Thad, the group effort and watching everyone dive in to help, particularly when putting together individual student's bags of materials, was a heartfelt moment--and also something that is inherently Mark Day School. "Many teachers included handwritten notes and took special care to add items that would make their students feel comfortable, safe, and routined, like their desk pets." What stands out for Joe is the growth mindset of our faculty and students as they rapidly adapted to online learning. "It's not a surprise," he says. "It's always been there, but in moments like this, it's such a shining strength of the school."

At Mark Day School, we face challenges together, guided by the belief in our mission and values as a learning community. We are so proud of our students, faculty, and families for the way they have embraced this new mode of learning--and we look forward to coming back together in person soon.