Teaching and Learning Together in the Time of COVID-19

“Our robust iSelectLearning program has enabled us to be nimble, and work both in the virtual model and the hybrid model,” said upper school director Chris Singler P’20, ’22, ’27 of Friends Select’s trademark distance learning platform. Friends Select teachers embarked on this school year’s blended approach to teaching and learning equipped with new tools and skills stemming from their quick shift to iSelectLearning in the spring of 2020. “When it was decided we would continue teaching and learning virtually to some degree this year, it was clear that we would need to try to preserve what was essential to our educational model: strong connections and relationships, engaging lessons, and inquiry-based learning,” Chris said. 

“There was a steep learning curve and it took some time to get used to teaching in a new way last spring, when we pivoted to iSelectLearning,” said middle school director Desiree Harmon P’19. Through her peer middle school director network, Desiree discovered “Reimagining School: the Transformation from Emergency to Planned Distance Learning,” a professional development opportunity offered through the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools. The 20-hour virtual summer course provided Friends Select teachers a portfolio of lessons, tools, and ideas in preparation for the anticipated distance learning phases of the current school year. Additionally, teachers crafted signature SummerSessions courses, allowing them to further refine virtual teaching and learning methods. 

With faculty now more adept at teaching online, Mary Beth Hertz, director of educational technology, developed intuitive packages of technological tools with guidance on how each could be used for varying teaching styles across academic divisions. Faculty identified what worked best for their needs based on their iSelectLearning transition last spring, and Mary Beth offered professional development on the relative hardware and software in each package. “I would not have survived this switch to virtual learning if not for the iPad,” said Sarah Kelly, upper school math teacher and department chair. “It allows me to share my screen, take notes to share with students, make videos to post to our website, access the internet to teach graphing, and makes grading virtual assignments so much easier.” Jessica Hardy, second grade teacher, added, “I have more resources as a teacher now than ever before, and I think both teachers and students have developed new tech skills that could serve them well in the future.” 

The Faculty Planning committee has been crucial to the successful evolution of the academic program, with faculty in every division working together to advance teaching and learning through both in-person and virtual instruction. Jessica, who is a committee member, said, “It has been beneficial to work with and hear the perspectives of teachers and administrators from other divisions, and to see their willingness to work through challenges while keeping the needs of each division in mind.” 

This year, families were given the option to choose iSelectLearning for their student over in-person instruction on a quarterly basis, and faculty members adapted to a hybrid mode of teaching, with some students in the classroom and other students on Zoom. For kindergarten students logging in to their classrooms remotely, teacher Alicia Ronquillo uses a morning routine to engage virtual learners by positioning her camera where students reporting in person sign in each morning; those at home are able to communicate with their peers and feel included. Additionally, lower school teachers have continued to help students increase independence with technology tools. “We want the students to be able to navigate their way around technology so teachers can focus on offering highly engaging lessons,” said Dave Younkin, lower school director. “I think that kids are learning more executive functioning this year than in the past because there are so many protocols and procedures in the classroom related not only to health and safety but also to the use of educational technology.” 

Friends Select’s After School Program (ASP) offered built-in support to lower school teachers, with their staff arriving early each day to help assist in the classroom with remote learning support. “The After School Program and its teachers have become an extension of the day school classroom,” said Pam McCabe P’04, ’07, associate director of continuing programs. “ASP teachers have shown incredible willingness to step in and contribute. Their commitment to the Friends Select community has been really amazing.” 

Partnership with organizations and institutions in Center City is a hallmark of Friends Select’s curriculum that provides learning experiences outside the classroom, but COVID-19 made such collaboration challenging. “The inability to travel in person has been forcing everyone to get more creative with virtual explorations, use of outdoor space, and scheduling speakers to Zoom into classrooms,” said Margaret Smith, director of city curriculum. Michael Gary, head of school, credits Margaret’s commitment to city partnerships with maintaining programming, and added, “She continues to find and share resources virtually with our teachers so they can still provide our students with the perspective of connecting with the institutions here and around the city.” 

In lieu of their traditional trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to support conversations about the cultural inspiration behind Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Dan Consiglio P’31, ’34 and his 7th grade English class accessed the museum’s virtual field trip feature to make observations about photographed artifacts. And in Alexis Flack’s 8th grade class, students explored land use in city-states in Sumer and cities in the Indus River Valley before comparing those civilizations with contemporary Philadelphia. “In years past, students physically walked the surrounding neighborhood, but this year, Alexis and I walked the loop capturing video of what students might see if they looked along the streets, up in the air, and down at the ground,” said Margaret.
In her 9th grade Modern World History course, first-year Friends Select teacher Spring Greeney created a project in the fall in which students built a virtual extension of the school’s existing physical archives. For the project, titled “Build a FSS Digital Archive,” students selected from four options to guide them in their research about previous decades, Friends Select alumni, and school organizations or clubs. Additionally, students had the option to contribute to the archives by documenting their lives as Friends Select students living through historic fall 2020. “Too often, archives include the records of the wealthy and famous but exclude—or were never built to preserve—the experiences of people without fancy titles, family names, or privilege,” Spring said. “I hope this project gives students hands-on experience thinking about whose history we tell, and in the process expanding school archives to more accurately reflect the range of student experiences at Friends Select.” 

Remote learning was no barrier to performing together cohesively for upper school music students. “Our music students are well positioned to honor social distancing because they can play instruments; they can create in a way that is good for bodies, minds, and emotions,” said Heather Fortune P’27, performing arts department chair and middle and upper school music teacher. Heather curated a sampling of online digital music applications for her students, challenging them to choose an application and create a piece of music. For the youngest learners, the inability to sing together during in-person 
learning has posed a challenge. “Students are focusing on rhythm and percussion, but they sing as much as possible when we are in remote mode,” said Colleen Law, lower school music teacher. 

Collaborative, creative approaches to teaching and applications of technology have been high points of this unique school year. The switches between in-person, hybrid, and iSelectLearning have expedited explorations of new schedules, new uses of space, new ways to communicate with families and alumni, new ways to pace units and assess learning, and new ways to think about the function of grades. “So much innovation has happened this school year,” said Amy Segel P’18, ’20, ’23, associate director of lower school. “The things that in some ways are absolutely the hardest to do remotely are the things that teachers have found the most unbelievably creative and rich ways of managing.” 

“We feel immensely grateful for the time students have had in the building this year. Though not entirely like a normal school day, the time with their teachers and friends has provided a much needed sense of normality, connection, and routine that has been missing for so many of us,” said Katie Cavuto P’29, Family Association president-elect.
Liv Coleman ’21 echoes these sentiments, and is grateful for the work of her teachers. “The teachers’ unwavering support and energy have been most impressive to me. Sometimes, as students, we forget that we aren’t the only ones going through a difficult time right now, and that everyone has stress in their lives,” she said. “Yet, through it all, the teachers have always asked us how we are doing and started class with a smile, and for that I appreciate them.”