Opportunities at a Distance
by Zak Cohen, Middle School Director at the St. Francis School
On April 5th, 1815, Mount Tambora, located on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia, began its week-long eruption. When we think of volcanic eruptions, we might think of the initial quake and subsequent flowing of lava, but what we might not think about is the pillar of ash that rises from the eruption and enters into the atmosphere.
You see, the eruption of Mount Tambora circulated countless tons of volcanic ash into the upper atmosphere for years after the event, blocking out sunlight and lowering average surface temperatures globally. In parts of North America and Europe, temperatures dropped by more than eighteen degrees.There was snow in New England in July, and dark rain clouds swept over Europe throughout the summer months. It was for these reasons that 1816 became known as “The Year Without Summer.”
It was in this context in 1816 that an 18-year-old named Mary Shelley, her husband, and a group of their friends traveled to Geneva to escape the cold of London. Since Geneva proved to be just as dreary as London, the group of friends sought to pass the time indoors. One night, they decided to have a writing contest to see who could write the scariest ghost story.
Inspired by the cold and wet weather around her, Mary Shelley spent several days—and one sleepless night—crafting the perfect scary story. The result proved to be one of greatest and most famous works of fiction ever written: Frankenstein.
Some of humankinds’ greatest achievements have been born out of times of distancing and seclusion. Sir Issac Newton, for example, developed the law of gravity while isolated at home during the bubonic plague. Dr. James Naismith created the sport of basketball while twiddling his thumbs stuck at home during the recession of 1894. And, let’s not forget that the final stretch of the iPod’s development came in the wake of September 11th, 2001 when Apple employees were working from home.
Learning from a distance undoubtedly looks and feels a bit different than learning at school. But, just as the examples above elucidate, learning at a distance is really just a matter of adjusting to and embracing the distinct opportunities it provides.
A change in scenery comes with increased levels of student autonomy and agency; it necessitates reimagined instructional practices, and distills class curricula to their most essential and content-dense form. When harnessed with intention and creativity, distance learning has the potential to surface new inspirations, spark new thinking, and cultivate new passions. Of course, the question remains, “How can we as teachers and school leaders create the conditions for students to optimize their learning from home?”
When we can’t quickly check in with a student by their locker or hold them back for a quick chat after the bell rings, the way we influence student learning has to shift. There are a few things we’ve done in the St. Francis Middle School that might be useful to others, as well.
Deregulate Learning: when we are at school, it makes sense that learning would occur during certain periods of time throughout the day. However, now that students are learning from home, we no longer have to consider class transitions, lunchroom capacity, and health and safety measures. With the vast majority of logistical considerations no longer a factor in our day-to-day decision-making, we can move learning beyond these traditional in-person considerations and constraints. While we don’t yet live in a post-schedule world at St. Francis, we have begun to explore opportunities and partnerships that position students to extend their learning beyond the expertise we have on our staff. Our students are now engaging in an asynchronous design and engineering project with The Beam Center, building mentorship cohorts with the Black Male Edquity Network, accessing pre-recorded lectures and learning from the faculty at Spalding University, and collaborating with journalists from the Courier-Journal on our student magazine. When students have the wealth of the world’s information at their fingertips day in and day out, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to limit their learning to what we are able to offer. Rather, we want to extend learning beyond St. Francis.
Spark Passions: my beef with passion projects has always been that many middle schoolers are still in the process of discovering what their passions are. So, rather than build time into our schedule for students to explore their own passions, we have sought to provide the faculty with the space and time to go beyond their curriculum to lead a weekly choice-based period on a subject that they are most passionate about. During Project Time, students may explore topics such as Black Music in America, Race in Film, and Introduction to Italian. The fluidity and openness of this time allows students the chance to span their interests a mile-wide before deciding where they want to dive a mile deep.
“Off-duty” time: In the course of a regular school day, students engage with other students or adults dozens, if not hundreds, of times. These social interactions include turning to a peer to exchange a thought or idea, participating in small or large group discussions, asking questions for clarification, collaborating on group projects, and countless other moments. While some of these social interactions will be recreated on virtual platforms, others will not. Humans learn best when they have opportunities to process their learning with others. Students need time carved out in their schedules for these interactions -- time that is intended to be interactional, but not highly supervised or structured. At St. Francis, we’ve set up Meet links for students to use during breaks between classes, links for grade-level chats during lunch, and after-school office hours for informal and organic small-group work sessions with the faculty. While we can’t replicate it exactly, we believe that these social interactions are a valuable and essential use of time during remote learning.
During remote learning, I’ve heard from teachers that we can lead students to water, but we can’t make them drink. While I agree with this sentiment, the question we should be asking ourselves is: Is there water where we’re leading our students?
Zak Cohen is the Middle School Director at the St. Francis School in Louisville, Kentucky. He has taught Social Studies, Language Arts, and English as a Second Language in independent and international schools in the United States, China, and South Africa. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Education Leadership and Management at Drexel University.