During a meeting with parents in September, Head of School Darryl J. Ford explained some of the ways in which teaching and learning are different this year, in the midst of a pandemic, and then he paused, and provided a context.
“We are involved in the biggest worldwide innovation in education, ever. It is not the most important innovation,” Ford said, citing the common schools movement that ushered in public school education, the integration of schools and coeducation. “But this is the biggest, quickest change in how we deliver education to children.”
The vignettes that follow offer a window into six teaching and learning experiences at Penn Charter. These are not a comprehensive view of pandemic-induced change — we will leave that to the PhD candidates and the statisticians. Instead, they offer a glimpse into the remarkable ways in which teachers have pivoted. They illustrate the essentiality of technology.
They affirm the spirit of children excited to learn, happy to be with friends, eager to run in the sunshine.
Students in Seats and in “Boxes”
Liz Jones glides through the open door of Room 234 propped wide for maximum air flow.
“Fri-daaay,” she sings in a vibrato that’s as common as a clock tower chime in PC’s Upper School.
It’s 8:45 a.m. and Jones’s ninth graders, already seated at their desks and spaced 10 feet apart in the sparsely-occupied classroom, have just submitted their first high school English project the night before. Even at this hour, under these conditions, Jones’s entrance elicits the scrunched-up eyes that indicate smiles beneath her students’ protective masks.
She settles in and opens up her laptop to greet “the Blues” – the Blue Team cohort, the segment of the class learning virtually this week – then takes attendance and does some informal check-ins before starting her lesson.
Room 234 is outfitted with a SmartBoard that connects to a large auxiliary monitor. A wireless MacMini keyboard controls this setup, allowing Jones to move freely around the classroom as she teaches. She situates her laptop on a rolling cart for further flexibility.
“All you lovely people in the boxes,” she says to the Blues mid-lesson, “can you see what we’re doing here?” – and wheels them closer to the SmartBoard for a better view.
The project this Block 4 English class has just completed, called “America to Me,” capped off a unit of short stories and class discussions about place and community that was designed to coincide with the 2020 election and PC’s all-school theme of Equity and Empathy.
Today, Jones is asking her students to evaluate how the project went for them.
“I always have you reflect before I give you a grade,” she tells them. “It’s about being honest with yourself and learning how to identify your own strengths and weaknesses.”
In hybrid teaching, Jones always ends one unit and begins the next on a Friday so that she has the chance to see each cohort in person on successive class days. It’s a strategy that helps create more continuity during a school year marked by disruption and disconnection.
Jones feels the PC community has risen to the challenge of this new form of teaching and learning, and even grown savvier for it. “Virtual learning has improved all of our ability to think on our toes,” she said.
Her best advice? “You always have to have a workaround ready. Always.”
A bit of song never hurt, either.
Some Helpful Vocabulary
PC organized cohorts in each division and worked to keep them
separate to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus and to make it
easier to contact trace if a student or teacher fell ill. Cohorts varied
in size from fewer than 10 in Lower School to a Blue cohort and a
Yellow cohort in Upper School. In grades 9-12, the Yellow cohort
studied on campus one week while the Blue team studied from
home, and the next week they flipped.
Penn Charter selected Google Meet for video conferencing:
Students learning from home logged into Meet to attend class,
clubs and even Meeting for Worship. Google Meet integrates
with PC’s school-work systems, requiring fewer steps for students
to switch to virtual. It also was chosen because it runs with less
computing and network resources, so that it is easier to keep
running at home for families.
EDUCATIONAL SUPPORT TEACHER
Penn Charter hired 24 new faculty, some as full-time teachers and
some as support teachers. If medical or family issues required that
one of Penn Charter’s permanent faculty teach from home, the
support teacher was on campus, managing the technology and
Picking Up the Pace
Thirteen-year-old Arielle Willis is happily back at school, practicing how to make origami cranes with her friends, studying French horn, advanced algebra and, especially, science. “I love science,” she said. “It explains how everything in the world works.”
This year Arie, as her friends call her, is in eighth grade and in science with Jeffrey Humble, Middle School teacher and PC Science Department chair, and 13 classmates—plus one student learning virtually from home.
In Arie's judgment, masks make it hard to hear unless everyone remembers to speak up, but, otherwise, she hasn’t noticed a change in how or how much she is learning: “Once we got out the kinks, the pace is like last year.”
Eighth grade science would normally meet in a combined classroom/science lab, but covid required an all-school rethinking of space, staffing, cohorting, grade size and classroom assignments. Humble’s science class meets in what has traditionally been an English classroom, which explains the merry pirate flag on the wall, instead of a periodic table. Instead of desks arranged in collaborative circles or small groups, covid has turned back pedagogical time: students sit in rows of socially-distant desks, facing forward, and Humble stands at the front. He teaches to the class and to an overhead camera broadcasting to his one virtual student. Periodically, he interrupts himself to ask her: “Are you with me, Olivia?”
In October, over a series of classes, Arie and her classmates learned about the three states of matter—solid, liquid and gas—and the transfer of energy. “Does something have to be cold to be frozen?” Humble asks. “Take five minutes and research online, and don’t ask Google. That would be cheating.” Answer: No. (Permission to Google it.)
When it came time for the classic experiment in sublimation—the process by which a solid can sublime directly to the gas state—the class met in the Middle School lower level where Penn Charter’s state-of-the-art IdeaLab has been disassembled to create a vast and more traditional lab space. The laser cutters and 3D printers are packed away, and the lab tables from upstairs were moved down. Two students socially distance across the long length of lab tables that, conveniently, measure six feet.
The middle schoolers reacted with a touch of awe when Humble stops at their table and drops a cube of dry ice into a flask of water, causing it to sublime directly from a solid to a gas. Arie measures the temperature of the water to begin (34 degrees Celsius), then again after Humble dropped in a cube of dry ice (4 degrees Celsius).
And then she shares the results with Olivia, who is conferencing in on a laptop on the table, and they work to complete a lab report.
Middle schoolers also predictably reacted with excitement for the opportunity to be on campus with friends and peers. “After orientation I was excited to see my friends more,” Arie says. “I’m happy we came back.”
Learning, check. Friends, check. Is anything missing?
“I don’t know some of my classmates, and it’s hard to know new people when you can’t see their faces,” she admits. “There is a feeling that nothing is completely the way it was in the past.”
Connecting with Young, 100% Virtual Learners
“Being well prepared—perhaps over prepared—is key,” said Stacy Master, the online teacher for the 100% distance learners in second and third grade. “There’s no time for tech trouble, and every hiccup is noticeable.”
Teaching a 90-minute session with her distance learners from a small office in Lower School, Master uses two cameras, one a document camera that shows students materials she uses in a lesson and one a camera on her laptop that shows her smiling and engaged presence. Master deftly switches between the two to control what students see on their screens at home. She warmly calls students’ attention back to the task at
hand—or to their chair in front of the screen if they wander away—by employing the same responsive classroom techniques her colleagues use in the classroom. But, for the most part, her students are dialed in.
As Master reviews a math assessment with second grade, students talk through their answers, some choosing to share their problem-solving via the online learning tool SeeSaw, and others by holding work done on paper right up to the camera on their own device. Practically touching the camera, a little finger points to an answer, “Can you see it? Can you see what I did?” A student eager to share her work nearly levitates out of the chair in her room. It is at once the same feel of a second grade classroom and completely different.
Master’s students attend a morning checkin in their respective homerooms and then hop onto her Google Meet. “The range of any class—in person or distanced—can be large, depending on the subject. The Lower School curriculum and the nature of this way of teaching demands individualized attention and enrichment opportunities.” Master keeps a Google Meet open throughout the day for her students to pop in and out with questions, or when they’re hungry for more to read, practice and learn.
Master, an experienced classroom teacher, said of distance learning, “It is so different, it is challenging and so brand new. It’s the most challenging year of teaching I’ve ever had, but I really like it.”
Creating Time for Movement
Students bound out of Middle School and across Maguire Field to meet physical education teachers Renee Gunning and Damon LeedaleBrown, shouting happily in the sunshine.
Within moments Gunning explains the coordination and strength-building exercises as she and Leedale-Brown demonstrate; with just 25 minutes, the goal is for less talk, more movement.
Faced with the reality that Middle School sports were canceled because of the pandemic, Gunning struggled to think of a way to get kids moving regularly. Laughing, she said, “I do my best thinking when I’m running and, one day, I had an epiphany; it just stopped me in my tracks. I had a vision of how it would work, but it would mean some big changes. So I called Wilson [Felter, director of Middle School] and said, ‘this is going to sound nuts, but hear me out.’”
Felter, a big believer in the importance of regular exercise for the adolescent brain, was on board. “They need colossal amounts of exercise, nutrition and sleep because of the lighting-fast changes in their bodies and brains,” he said. “It really helps cognition during school to have lots of movement.”
Gunning soon recognized the “insane complexity” of her original schedule and credits veteran teacher and master scheduler Charlie Brown with figuring out a plan that has students in PE for 40-minute blocks, three to four days a week. “Renee and Damon are doing incredible work,” Felter said.
For all the students they very clearly love to teach, Gunning and Leedale-Brown find creative, fun drills that support students’ balance, body control, coordination, and general body strength and endurance. These socially-distanced drills precede a teams-based game, which Middle Schoolers campaign to start immediately. “Who doesn’t want to be outside, running around with friends?” she asks. Quite right.
Technology-Enhanced Science Labs
The hardest part of hybrid learning for junior Liam McLafferty is the discipline that goes into working from home.
“When I’m at my house, in general, I’m less motivated to do school work,” he said. But this nugget of self-knowledge has allowed him to plan accordingly.
During the weeks that he’s off-campus, Liam attends classes from a desk in his bedroom, deliberately
avoiding those cozier locations, like the couch, where it can be easy to forget that he’s in school. And instead of spending his free periods watching YouTube, he pushes himself to start chipping away at that night’s homework just like he would if he were on campus.
Remote learning lends itself better to certain subjects, Liam said, and one that stands out to him is AP Physics. This year, the class has started using a software called Pivot Interactives that allows them to do labs—a critical part of any science curriculum—virtually and in-person using interactive high-speed videos and an array of digital tools.
So when Liam and his peers are tasked with graphing and analyzing data from a video that shows a chunk of dry ice sliding down a ramp, they can pause, scroll forward and backward, choose between different camera angles and even overlay virtual measuring devices to get the information they need. “It’s really easy to use, especially when it comes to graphing data,” Liam said of Pivot.
Before covid hit, Liam’s teacher Corey Kilbane was already learning the software with plans to implement it in his classroom soon. The pandemic fast-tracked that process, but Kilbane said the program will benefit his students long after they return to classroom learning.
“We’ll still do traditional labs,” he said, “but there are all kinds of phenomena that I can’t easily demonstrate in class”—the acceleration of a skydiver in freefall or the rotational motion of a giant wind turbine—“and Pivot helps me fill in the gaps.”
There’s also a practical advantage to these virtual labs, since Kilbane is teaching remotely this year. He’s paired with Shequana Callender, a 2020 Rosemont College graduate and one of the support teachers hired by Penn Charter to meet the demands of the covid era. During hybrid learning phases, Callender acts as Kilbane’s surrogate in the physical classroom, helping to make sure the technology runs smoothly and students stay engaged.
It's an arrangement that works considerably well, according to Liam McLafferty. Still, he pines for the day when we’re all together again. "It makes things a lot easier.”
Seven-year-old Violet Yoo stands with nervous excitement along the wall in her second grade class, with four other classmates.
She is wearing a “Quakers in Quarantine 2020” T-shirt, a pint-sized version of the ones created for last year’s senior class, with “Penn Charter Strong” on the back. Two teams of second graders are playing a math “game show,” and the opposing team is lined up, and spaced apart, in front of the windows.
One at a time, students approach the front of the room and virtually “spin” the colorful wheel on the SmartBoard to get a number to subtract from 20. A correct answer equals a point. The game is popular with the 10 students in Joe Maguire’s second grade cohort. “I’m going next! I’m going next!” Violet exclaims, hopping up and down.
A boy on the opposing team spins for his math problem and gets 20-17. That’s a tough one. He guesses 4. So close!
Violet has a chance to steal the point and guesses 3. Her team is in the lead!
The game takes a series of twists and turns, with steals and “doubles” and leaps in the air for every correct answer. Charlie spins the wheel and gets a tough break: the dreaded 9.
Maguire approaches for a little coaching: “Remember to regroup.”
In the end, Violet’s team maintains its lead, and she and her teammates each get a tiny
pompom, Maguire’s signature reward for good work or acts of kindness. With each pompom comes a bonus: Students get to shoot a basket using a 5-foot hoop in the classroom. (Maguire is Penn Charter’s girls basketball coach, after all.) When students collect 10 pompoms, they get a “Mr. Maguire dollar,” and five Mr. Maguire dollars earns a trip to the class store to select from puzzle balls, finger skateboards and mochi animal squishies.
Violet and her classmates love the high-stakes game show. “I really like math,” Violet explained. “You have to think to solve problems.”
She also likes “bucket work.” Buckets are filled with a combination of different activities from Magna-Tiles (“shapes that you connect and build”) to colored pencils—and some of them contain iPads. “We keep the bucket a whole week,” Violet said, “and then we switch so that we each get turns.” Assigning a bucket filled with high-touch tools to one child for the week, and then disinfecting, also serves a health and safety purpose.
Second graders who learn on campus have adapted with hardly a hiccup to the new safety protocols at school. Aside from the occasional reminder to keep space between them while walking in line, Maguire, in his 16th year of teaching but his first at Penn Charter, said the primary difference for him this year has to do with team learning. “Students engage in more individual work this year,” he said. “Instead of working with a partner, they do more guided independent work and then share with the whole group.”
In readers and writers workshop, Maguire’s class explores realistic fiction, “small moment” stories and folktales like “The Rough-Faced Girl.” Violet loves the task of directed drawing, a step-by-step process for creating an illustration for the book.
“Use pencils,” Maguire instructs. “Everyone makes mistakes.”
When the students move from the carpeted floor to their desks, they are chatty. To refocus the class, Maguire uses language all students are familiar with.
The students freeze.
“Some people are unmuted. Everybody rewind.” They take a few steps back.
“Okay, keep going.”
At her desk, Violet draws the Rough-Faced Girl, a member of the Algonquin tribe, from her bandaged hands to the feather in her hair.
It is a work of art. She shows her drawing to her friend Charlie, at the nearest desk six feet away, and Charlie shows Violet hers. They exchange thumbs up, and their eyes crinkle above their masks.