Teaching and learning from a distance
One NH school’s experience with remote learning across grades and countries
It’s 6:18 a.m. and High Mowing School teacher Rob Yeomans has already enjoyed a cup of strong, black coffee.
It is not unusual to see Yeomans sitting on the porch of his home on the rural 300-plus acre HMS campus in Wilton enjoying his coffee with his six-year-old black Labrador Willow by his side. Lovingly referred to as the “science lab,” Willow is not phased by the unusually quiet campus that is normally home for day students and boarding students from over 20 countries.
“It is like tumbleweeds rolling by watching the quietest campus on the planet,” Yeomans said. “At 6:30 to 7 a.m. the students would be coming and going to the dining hall for breakfast, staff would be coming to work, the maintenance crew would be out, everyone would be getting in to their groove for the day.”
In the B.C. days (Before Coronavirus), the day would also start with his wife, Kate, planning the curriculum and events for the Yeomans’ nonprofit, Merrowhawke Nature School, and their boys Cody, 15 and Jack, 17, getting ready for class.
“They don’t get to see anyone,” he said. “Concessions with technology are the only outlet to see their friends.”
Rob, who has been teaching for more than 20 years, recalls that the start of the Learning Beyond Our Classroom program at High Mowing in mid-March was really hard for the kids.
“Initially I thought we should be online for the entire class period and just run the entire class the way we usually did but just on a screen. The high school students brought their concerns to the faculty, [so] we had faculty meetings and reshaped the protocol and made agreements on the length of class times.”
The shift in class time has altered Rob’s approach. Slight alterations with the online interface resulted in what he refers to as “guided learning.”
He sets the parameters for an assignment, gives the students the instructions, reviews the process, and answers questions. Then the students carry out the experiment, giving them the opportunity to find the answers.
“This is the biggest challenge I’ve ever leaned into. How do we keep it fun, inspiring and worthwhile? I ask myself, how would I feel, what would I want? And am running my classes keeping that in mind.”
At the lower school on the Pine Hill Campus at High Mowing the teachers often stay with their class starting with grade one and continue with the same class through grade eight, a feature of the Waldorf pedagogy created by Rudolf Steiner in the early-20th century. Grade 3 teacher Sarah Azzinaro said, “when you are with a student for an extended period of time, you discover their work habits and learning styles. You have the opportunity to truly see each child and help them awaken their inner potential.”
Azzinaro structures the school day with an online group morning check-in, followed by circle time where Sarah and her students gather together for songs and dances before beginning their morning lesson. After their time together as a class, students have daily assignments that are supplemented with videos, audio recordings and readings.
“My goal during this time is to continue my connection and partnership with the children. Although I am sad that I will not get to see my students in person every day, I am excited to explore a new way of teaching and learning.”
Students also meet for their subject classes like French, Mandarin, handwork, and movement with other specialized subject teachers.
One of the biggest challenges with online group meeting platforms is creating a group dynamic similar to the experience of being in a group that is physically together.
The class play is something students eagerly look forward to, so Azzinaro created ways for the class to experience the production of their play with distance learning.
Instead of getting together in-person to make the props and the sets and costumes, the students are learning flexibility and creativity by making their costumes with things they have around the house. When the play is performed online, the students will hold up hand-drawn pictures of what the scenes look like.
Reflecting on this new approach to teaching, Azzinaro remains positive, and encourages her students to do the same.
“What I am really seeing is the children of the future capable of navigating challenges with reverence and adapting to change with enthusiasm. As we move forward, we can be like the children of the future and tackle changes with warmth and readiness.”
While the 9-year-old students in Azzinaro’s Grade 3 class aren’t overly worried about how they look or sound via a computer screen, the dynamic is different with the older students.
The students in Darcy Drayton’s Grade 7 class are more self-conscious when they see themselves and each other through a screen. A year away from retirement with 30-plus years of teaching under her belt, Drayton has sympathy for her students.
“You have middle school students who are already very aware of how they are changing, and how they may or may not look in front of a camera, and that can be hard. I’m looking at my almost ‘retired’ face, as an older person staring at myself every day, and it’s like ‘Ah! I’ve had enough of that already!’ So I am very sympathetic to what it must be like for them.”
Like her colleagues, Drayton is looking at the current educational context as an opportunity.
“I decided to look at the content of what I am teaching through the lens of what is happening in the world today. I extended the physiology block by a whole section on microbiology exploring the science of viruses and, in particular, the coronavirus.”
For all of the teachers at High Mowing, the main challenge of the physically distanced teaching environment is to stay connected with their students.
At a time when record numbers of students nationwide have logged off from learning, teachers are faced with making the curriculum accessible, interactive and fun for the students with whom they share this life-changing experience.
“We’re social beings,” Drayton said. “We’re meant to be together. We’re not meant to have to relate across screens.”
The community up on the hill at High Mowing is looking forward to an on-campus reunion for the 2020-2021 school year, but the teachers continue to make the most of the Learning Beyond the Classroom experience.
“I have told my students that we can take this time to cherish and appreciate what we love in this world. We can be grateful for this day and enjoy the simple things in life. We can observe the changes in nature, spend more time with our family, and remember what is essential. We will still continue to learn and grow together. Every day is a new beginning full of fresh possibilities and blessings,” Azzinaro said.
Kendal J. Bush is ParentingNH’s longtime cover photographer, and this month she’s a writer, too.