iSelectLearning: Friends Select Develops Signature Distance Learning Platform

An oil painting of a rowing team racing on the Schuylkill River that hangs in Michael Gary’s office inspired opening remarks to faculty and staff at the beginning of the 2019-20 academic year. “The collaborative nature of a crew team served as a metaphor for my vision of faculty and staff working in tandem, each contributing different things toward a unified goal,” said Friends Select’s head of school. “The only way we can accomplish anything for the good of our students and community is to work collaboratively.” In an end-of-year meeting, Christine Jefferson, director of development and alumni relations, reminded Michael of his vision. “It feels as if the dedication 
of our community during the 
pandemic to provide a substitute for in-classroom learning was the realization of Michael’s vision for the year,” she said. “We certainly would not have been able to pull it off if we weren’t all rowing together.” 

In late February, as news of the COVID-19 pandemic traveled as quickly as the virus itself, Michael and Friends Select’s administration began discussing how they could affect Friends Select’s community. Once Philadelphia’s first cases were reported, the school had already established a transition plan to a distance learning model. “Meeting as a team so early and often allowed the faculty to be responsive to a situation that was changing so rapidly,” said Amy Segel, associate director of lower school. And although the decision to close the building before spring break was a difficult one, teachers, students, and families understood it was for the safety of the community. “We were all in a state of disbelief that the pandemic would have us out of our beloved building for the remainder of the school year, but we understood how necessary it was to keep us all safe and knew we could, together, figure out how to offer our curriculum remotely,” said Desiree Harmon, director of middle school and SummerSessions.

Using Friends Select’s pre-existing learning management systems and incorporating new technologies, teachers transitioned their curriculum to a distance learning format that was introduced before spring break; to ensure the conversion was smooth, many teachers even worked through their week off. “Because many technological systems were already 
in place, it felt as if we could flip a switch and be off and running. I was impressed at how quickly teachers were able to put together the technology  
that was appropriate for their level 
and curriculum to make it work,” Michael said. 

The end result was iSelectLearning, a dynamic distance learning platform created and developed collaboratively by faculty and staff and housed on Friends Select’s website.

“The priority in making a switch to remote teaching and learning was to maintain as many aspects of our academic program as possible,” said Chris Singler, upper school director, on moving all Friends Select classes online. With a mix of live and recorded teaching sessions—respectively referred to as synchronous and asynchronous 
learning—and an engaging online space with curated content, additional learning resources, and special messages from teachers and administrators, each division was able to offer a comprehensive program that prioritized students’ ability to maintain a connection with their teachers and classmates while also continuing to learn critical content and skills. “Having both live and pre-recorded sessions offered a balance for students by providing a directed classroom experience in addition to opportunities to work independently,” Chris added. 

Dave Younkin, lower school director, feels iSelectLearning offered students the ability to still have a meaningful relationship with their teachers despite not being physically together. “Students in each division used a video conferencing system that allowed them to see their teachers and friends in real time for lessons, morning meetings, and community- building activities,” he said. “Even the asynchronous lessons that teachers pre-recorded of themselves teaching a lesson provided children with a familiar face and a sense of connection, while also allowing students to pause or rewatch as needed to fully absorb the material.”

Offering the full scope of a Friends Select education applied to more than the academic elements of the school, and iSelectLearning captured the many facets of students’ and teachers’ daily experiences. Everything from faculty and student meetings, club activities and athletic team workouts, lunchtime chats between friends, dramatic performances and student art exhibitions, field trips, and even weekly Meetings for Worship happened with the help of technology. “We realized early on in the transition how manageable it was to stay connected and continue with a routine digitally,” Chris said. 

Students were presented with new, imaginative approaches to complete their assignments. “In my Drama and English classes, we used FlipGrid to upload short videos in lieu of assignments that might traditionally be written down or acted out in front of the class.” said Quilana Castro-Cardona ’21. “I loved trying new activities that were better suited to online learning in classes. These new programs allowed me to not only have fun during uncertain times but to learn and participate in classes in ways I’m not often able to do.” Additionally, many teachers found ways to counter the isolation of quarantine and preserve the meaningful connections on which the Friends Select community thrives. Noah Bonner-Monastro ’23 said, “My upper school Latin teacher, Ian Lockey, would send us ‘Daily Etymology’ emails, but he also included things about his home life during quarantine and funny tweets and videos, which really helped to lighten my spirits.”

One critical component in preserving the Friends Select experience in the virtual world was the school’s deliberate retention of all faculty and staff. “My concern for the job security of our After School program staff was relieved when Michael, Dave, and director of financial operations, Matt Rosen, personally assured the ASP staff that our program would remain viable in the transition,” said Pam McCabe, associate director of continuing programs. “It was challenging, at first, to understand how we could still provide what we consider our strong ability to be there for the kids—not the learning part, but the loving part. Our After School teachers have really been amazing in presenting to the students the same empathic presence that they always have, while still serving the needs of our parents.”

Friends Select parents were especially important in the online learning process as the school relied on periodic assessments from families to modify iSelectLearning. “We surveyed our parents and were given constructive feedback that ultimately led to an improvement in the middle school remote learning schedule,” said Desiree. “Friends Select parents have been wonderful partners who understand the complex work of our teachers in translating in-classroom curriculum to an online platform.” Amy added, “The remote learning experience exposed a new sense of community from a strengthened partnership with Friends Select parents.”

This past summer, Friends Select invested in teachers’ advancement of their digital competencies through professional development, further enhancing iSelectLearning. “Faculty were asked to reflect on the distance learning experience and decipher what tools and techniques they would need to improve iSelectLearning for the future,” Michael said. Teachers were connected to the resources necessary to build their skillset; they then prepared and executed a variety of courses for SummerSessions Online that were open to both Friends Select students and those attending other schools. Course offerings such as “Ear Training for Musicians,” “Youth Entrepreneurship,” “White Privilege and Antiracist Activism,” and “Codes and Ciphers” showcased the broad range of expertise of Friends Select educators while allowing them to perfect their virtual teaching skills.

“I believe iSelectLearning provided the quality education we would have received had we been in the school building,” said Izzy Ebede ’21. “All of the teachers did a great job keeping us engaged, and it was evident they genuinely cared about maintaining the balance between class rigor and our overall well-being.”

Dave reflected on the impressive amount of work, problem-solving, and learning that faculty poured into this effort to create and implement the school’s distance teaching and learning program, and he noted that the faculty’s commitment to putting students first was highly evident this spring. “Throughout the entire iSelectLearning experience,” he said, “it was at once apparent that our educators truly hold children at the center of everything.”