Teachers transitioning to HM Online

Talia Winiarsky and Julia Goldberg

Since the start of HM Online, the school has adopted a few guiding principles as the faculty adjust their curriculums, Dean of Faculty Dr. Matthew Wallenfang said. “We want to make sure that we were moving learning forward—and that was important to us, that we not treat HM Online like we couldn’t accomplish anything,” Wallenfang said. “The flip side of that is we knew that keeping learning moving forward didn’t mean trying to replicate what we do in person.” 


The administration also realized that moving forward would differ greatly from discipline to discipline, from class to class, and from teacher to teacher, and as such, they decided to avoid “blanket rules” for all teachers, he said. “This is new for all of us, and so we’re changing things day to day and changing things week to week.” 


Because each department’s plans for the rest of the year is different, departments have been making changes on their own, instead of as an entire division, Wallenfang said. Department meetings have been held on Wednesdays, and other times as needed, since the start of HM Online.


“The request [from the administration] has been that all of the faculty be really thoughtful about our assessments and our curriculum in general, to be creative, and to understand that given that we’re not in normal circumstances, we can’t expect to have a normal end of the year,” Dean of Students Michael Dalo said. “If we cover less, it’s okay; we cover less, and we go into the beginning of next year with that knowledge.” 


English teacher Dr. Jonathan Kotchian said that his department meetings have been helpful. “I’ve been getting a lot of my ideas about how to run classes and what sorts of exercises to do in class from the department meetings,” he said. “[Running classes] is something we are meeting a lot about to plan—not in a mandating way, but in a supportive way.” 


The math department offers each other support, math teacher Brianne Gzik said. When Gzik couldn’t make a video for a class, she used a colleague’s video instead, since they teach the same course. “Everybody’s just really leaning into each other for help, as well as the tech department.”


World language teachers discuss what they believe has or has not been successful, as well as new types of platforms that they may try in the future, Dalo said. “There’s a lot of communication, coordination, collaboration and all of that happening amongst language teachers.”


Kotchian learns ways to improve his classes from teachers from outside the community. He recently joined a Facebook group called Pandemic Pedagogy, which he said supports teachers who are thinking about how to teach remotely for the first time. One specific idea from the group that he has implemented is a rotating schedule in which only four of his 16 ninth grades are responsible for oral discussion. “The other 12 students were listening to the conversation and weighing in via Zoom chat when they wanted to without interrupting the four hotseat people,” Kotchian said. “I think we ended up getting more voices in that way.” Had HM never transitioned to Zoom, Kotchian probably would never have considered the idea; however, the end result impressed him, he said.


World languages teacher Dr. Cornelie Ladd said that although the department has continued to exchange information during meetings, communication during other parts of the week is now less frequent. “You don’t just bump into colleagues and share ideas; that’s different for sure.” 


Communication with students has also become much harder, Kotchian said. “I think typically, there are lots of opportunities for a teacher to reinforce and repeat instructions: ‘Oh, by the way, don’t forget this’ or ‘As long as you’re working on your essay today, let me give you a reminder of that,’” he said.


With the move online, however, Kotchian fears he won’t be able to provide his students with the same consistency. “I’m not only worried about missing something myself, going through the massive volume of emails and messaging and so forth, but I’m also even more worried that my students are going to miss something here or there.” 


Another challenge that online learning poses to teachers is a limitation on regularly scheduled classes. “The reality is we knew that synchronous meetings four days a week was not going to be realistic,” Wallenfang said. Spending too much time on a computer would be unproductive and unhealthy, and as such, the administration knew that some classes would need to make changes in their curriculums going forward, he said.


On the first day back from Spring break, Kotchian asked his eleventh grade class if they would like to see changes in his curriculum, thinking students would ask “How can we sit here and read The Remains of the Day when people are dying?” However, the majority of students said that they would rather not be thinking or talking about the pandemic more than they already were, and so the reading list, which has no connections to COVID-19, will remain the same, Kotchian said.


One major change Kotchian has made is replacing his reading quizzes with a discussion board, in which students post their own 50-100 word blurbs and respond to each other’s blurbs. The benefit of posting is that students will have a record of the conversation, and can access it any time—potentially when writing an essay, Kotchian said.


However, his responses to students’ posts are delayed. “I think that instant feedback on their ideas from the instructor, from me, is important,” Kotchian said. “I can do that on the discussion board, but not in the real time like I would do in a classroom or in a virtual classroom.” 


Computer science and robotics teacher Lester Lee also noted that he can no longer give instant feedback on students’ code. “They definitely miss face time and the fact that everyone is in the same room working on the code at the same time,” he said. “It’s a lot harder for me to grade everyone’s code and give feedback rather than to just walk around and be like, ‘Oh, I know exactly what you’re doing right now.’”


In many math and science courses, some challenging conversations have surrounded assessments, because many of the teachers within the two departments have traditionally relied on proctored 45 minute tests for assessment, Wallenfang said. “Thinking creatively about alternatives to [traditional exams]—I think has been a focus for these teachers.”


For that reason, the administration decided that each class would be required to hold only three major assessments, rather than four. While making this decision, the administration kept in mind that they wanted both to give teachers as much flexibility as possible and to recognize that online learning can take more time for students. “We were hearing from a lot of teachers that they were comfortable with, for example, going into spring break with two major assessments already under their belt, that they really only needed one more in an online environment to get a pretty good sense and to give an accurate reflection in a grade,” Wallenfang said. 


Gzik had to cancel one quiz and postpone another. However, because the quizzes are all averaged together, she doesn’t think it will affect the students’ grades very much. “Sometimes I’ve only had three quizzes in a semester anyway, so I think it’ll be okay, and I think my students are okay with that.”


The math courses held meetings where they decided which parts of the curriculum were essential and which could be taken out if needed, Gzik said. For example, the end of Geometry curriculum aligns with the Algebra II curriculum, so the geometry teachers felt comfortable not covering some of their final material. “We know that if we’re cutting out something this year, we’re lucky in that we’re communicating with the teachers of next year’s course.”


Many World language teachers also understand that they may need to omit a few parts of the curriculum. “When we think about language, we think about actual content, including vocabulary, grammar, and culture, and we also think about skills, including reading, writing, listening and speaking,” Dalo said. 


Dalo’s Spanish 3 Honors class, which is reading and analyzing a play for the remainder of the year, will progress in a similar way over Zoom as it would in the classroom. It’s easier for me to shift the way the class works, because I’m no longer in the traditional grammar-vocabulary based instruction,” he said. However, given that the class is losing many contact hours and that he only wants to assign material the class will be able to cover in 45 minutes, the pace of the class has decreased, he said.


Ladd has also not made many changes to the progressions of her higher-level Latin classes, she said. In a typical Latin 4 class, she projects the text on the board and has students lead the class, all of which is possible to replicate over Zoom. Furthermore, because the students requested to hold frequent Zoom meetings, she believes that they are moving at the same pace as usual. 


But a loss of reference materials, including books which stay in the classroom, has made teaching more challenging for her. “I have all my textbooks here, but I don’t have my shelves and shelves of other stuff that I could just pull in or say, ‘Oh, let me look at this for a moment,’” Ladd said. 


Computer Science 2 usually concludes the year with the “HM Valley” project, a simulation in which students work as a group to code and present a model company. However, the class will not be completing the project this year because of its heavy focus on group work. Instead, Lee will assign independent assignments, which he believes will work well due to the timing on the move online. With under a quarter of the year remaining, his students have a deep enough understanding of their tools and the resources to “go and play” with them individually, he said. 


Similarly, Film/Video and Photography Teacher Jordan Rathus did not have to make many adjustments to her Filmmaking and Photography classes because they were already geared towards applying the skills that her students have learned throughout the year. “In terms of creating a foundation of various skills and concepts, I think we’ve been doing that already for the first big batch of projects, and so I’m hopeful that [my students] are ready to take this next step to work more independently.”


Since receiving feedback from students, Lee has been trying to give his students less work than usual, which entails making deadlines flexible and adjusting the grading rubric to be less rigorous. “They said they felt like overall the workload has been more, because while they were at school, they could do the classwork in class, and then they only had to do the homework at home, but now it feels kind of like more because in addition to all the home stuff, they have to do the classroom equivalent.” 


Gzik instructed her Algebra II and Trigonometry Honors class to stop doing classwork after 45 minutes and homework after 25 minutes. “I would either want [the workload] to be less because of all of the crazy things that are going on in the world, [or] the same, but definitely not more,” Gzik said. She hopes to find a balance in the amount of work she gives—one that is neither overwhelming nor unproductive. “I definitely want us to feel like we’re learning and not falling behind in the curriculum.”


Rathus’s classes occur only once a week and she aims to assign close to the same amount of work as usual and maintain the same structure. “There are bursts of lecturing and information and a seminar-style class that we have when I’m introducing new projects, and then they’re followed by multiple sessions of independent work, but within the group environment of the classroom,” she said. Rathus presents ideas via Google Slides, and has students interact by responding to each other’s work. 


Despite the difficulties of Online school, Kotchian believes it has provided him with a fresh perspective on teaching. “It’s challenged me as a teacher and made me develop more,” Kotchian said. “It’s made me more critical—in a good way—of some of my long standing practices, such as allowing everybody to participate in a free-ranging class discussion instead of limiting an in-class discussion to a few people.”