Darlington School: Challenge Accepted: Teachers, students embrace flexible learning
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Challenge Accepted: Teachers, students embrace flexible learning

October 12, 2020 | 389 views

Choral Director Ben McVety is always up for a challenge. So when the school began planning a socially distanced version of Opening Convocation to be held at Chris Hunter Stadium, he was already thinking outside the box about what the Concert Choir’s traditional performance could look like.

“It's not every day I get to put together a video presentation of my Concert Choir to show the entire Darlington Community,” he said. “I have COVID-19 to thank for that.”

McVety’s students recorded the audio of Andy Beck’s “In the Dark of Midnight” four at a time, each with their own microphone, which allowed in-person and distance learners to be part of the performance. Then, he spent approximately 30 hours mixing and mastering the audio, recording the video portion with students two at a time, and synching the pre-recorded audio to the video tracks. The final product, which can be viewed at darlingtonschool.org/choir, was broadcast on the jumbotron during Convocation and as part of the live stream.

“Despite it being a bit time-intensive, we had a great time shooting this project,” said McVety. “I have received a ton of positive comments and my students were really happy with the outcome.”

To comply with social distancing protocols, Pre-K teacher Beth (Bagby) Smith (’87, LD ’12) recently reimagined her annual shape tigers lesson.

“This lesson is a great opportunity for our youngest students to interact with Upper School students and we didn’t want to miss out on that, so we gave it a go virtually,” she said. “My pre-K students have become experts at cutting different shapes, so I knew they would be able to give great instructions to the Geometry class. We ‘met up’ via Google Meet and made our shape tigers together. I am all in for working with classes across the divisions, and this showed me that we can still do it. We just have to be creative!”

These are just two of many examples of the ingenuity that is happening daily as teachers and students work through challenges brought on by COVID-19.

“This year has been hard with COVID-19 and the many interruptions, but Darlington’s virtual program has had few to no problems,” said Jennifer Preston, mother of Jackson (’26), who is distance learning because he has a family member who is high risk. “We are so thankful for the teachers and administrators that continue to make Jackson’s daily class time so enriching and truly done with heart. Every day, he is interacting as he normally would with teachers and students. I am only required to supervise and make sure the internet works.”

The Prestons agree that Jackson hasn’t skipped a beat – even when it comes to Orchestra.

“Jackson is playing lead cello in the Orchestra via computer, which sits in his chair next to his classmates,” said Preston. “In Design Thinking, each student is creating a hole for a miniature golf course, so right now he’s building, gluing, and cutting up a storm getting his farm-themed putt putt hole ready for the pre-K to 2 students to play. We all enjoy being part of Jackson’s day and watching him continue to do amazing things thanks to the dedicated teachers that pull him in!”

Darlington teachers spent a considerable amount of time over the summer preparing for the challenges that COVID-19 would bring to the 2020-21 school year.  

“Teaching and learning is at the heart of our college-preparatory program, and we’ve put into place a new set of course standards and lesson templates to create a more consistent and productive learning environment for students, whether they are in the classroom or not,” said Head of School Brent Bell. “Along with this, we launched a new coursework web tool that is better equipped to handle flexible learning scenarios. Words cannot express how thankful I am for the investment our teachers make each day to empower our students, no matter the circumstances.”

In addition to providing teachers with iPads and Apple TVs to help engage distance learners synchronously, Darlington’s Academic Resources Center created and delivered a five-part virtual professional development series to help with hybrid teaching strategies.

“One of my greatest challenges has been redesigning the way I teach to better fit our current circumstances,” said Chandler Cryer, Upper School Spanish teacher. “My once-active and group-focused class has become more static, but that has given me the opportunity to explore other methods I would not have previously thought of. I’ve tried to make my activities friendlier for online learners by making them more technology-focused rather than using paper or white boards. I have enjoyed using Jamboard on the iPad so the students online and in class can see me take notes in real time.

“I’ve also been incorporating more stories into class,” she continued. “These stories are student-driven and 100% in Spanish. The kids have so much fun coming up with hilarious situations, and this leads to an ongoing story that we can come back to every day and a lot of inside jokes. I started trying this method out because of having to keep the students at their desks, and I’ll be using it for years to come. One student recently told me that, even though they had begged before class to be let out early, he was glad that we went the full time and wanted to stay later because it had been so fun!”

Steph Bradshaw, middle grades science teacher, says iPads have been critical to the teachers’ ability to make online learners feel connected to daily life at Darlington.

“On the first day, I had one of my advisees on the iPad and walked the student around Thatcher Hall as we completed our first-day activities,” she said. “We’ve been able to incorporate them into the daily schedule, including Flagpole, Advisory, Exploratory and Enrichment.”

At the Upper School, travel restrictions and visa delays meant that many international boarding students did not arrive on campus until after the school year had already begun, and some will be distance learning for the entirety of the first semester.

“The school has prepared the kids well for the different type of school year they are having, so whether they are online or in person, they’ve come to class ready and excited to learn,” said Cryer. “Keeping the online learners as integrated in the class as possible helps them stay on track and feel included. I have in-class students talk to online learners every day during conversation time. I also try to incorporate games that everyone can take part in, such as Kahoot, and guest speakers from all over the world who come to talk with the class via Google Meet. For asynchronous learners, I make a video each day explaining what we went over and outlining the activities they need to do.”

Leigh Hadaway, Upper School history teacher, has made many of her projects more digital. 

“Regardless of COVID-19, it’s helpful to utilize digital technology because it builds skills that will be useful in an increasingly digital society,” she said. “Having new tools such as the iPad and Apple Pencil has been a great way to digitize things and make them more interactive for online learners. Recently, my Human Geography class and I had so much fun looking at different interactive maps. Although it was a small moment, it was encouraging that all my students were engaged and excited about learning.”

Darlington’s college guidance staff is working hard to provide the same level of support and exposure they normally would by shifting to virtual platforms.

“Seniors still spent the first day of school in College Boot Camp, working with their college advisers and connecting with college admissions representatives via Zoom,” said Ivy Brewer, associate dean of college guidance. “That went really well, despite the new territory. In lieu of our annual, on-campus College Fair, we hosted daily virtual college visits throughout September, and our seniors participated in a virtual college fair set up by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. The students have enjoyed talking to the college representatives and learning how to make themselves stand out while applying.” 
Though many things look different this year, students, teachers and parents alike have embraced the challenges.
“To say that I was feeling anxious about the start of school would be an understatement,” said Melissa Smyly, Upper School English teacher. “I wanted my new coursework tool to be ready, my videos to be recorded, my classroom to be sanitized, my technology to be foolproof, my thermometer to be functional, my mask to be comfortable, and my content to be relevant. During my first actual class, I was working so hard trying to connect the online students with the in-person class that I was literally sweating. I just didn't want to disappoint anyone. Thankfully, my students rose to the occasion. In every single one of my classes, my students have been friendly, compassionate, engaged, cooperative, forgiving, flexible, helpful and in good humor. This is going to be a great year!”

Click here to read more about Darlington's academic program and contact admission@darlingtonschool.org if you are interested in setting up a private campus tour to see flexible learning in person.