The Foundation for a Meaningful Life
Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA
Fay Magazine: Summer 2020

Closing the Distance

by Daintry Duffy Zaterka '88
When Massachusetts schools closed this spring due to COVID-19, Fay’s faculty and staff launched a distance learning program that preserved many of Fay’s most beloved traditions.
When third graders give their speeches in the spring term, it is always a special event. It represents weeks of work as well as the students’ first formal foray into Fay's long-standing public speaking tradition.

When Massachusetts schools closed this spring due to COVID-19, Fay's dorms, classrooms, fields, and quad fell silent. It would be natural to assume that 
events like the third grade speech presentations would be canceled outright.

But that’s not what happened at all. On Monday, March 30, Fay’s faculty and staff launched a distance learning program that preserved many of Fay’s most beloved traditions while providing students with a 
creative and engaging curriculum, a consistent and balanced routine, and opportunities for community and connection.

New technology, enduring skills

The challenge of distilling the essential elements of the Fay experience into a distance learning program that would be manageable, recognizable, and engaging for students in Kindergarten through grade nine was formidable. "We knew it was important to stay true to Fay’s mission and philosophy and achieve the major curricular objectives for every course," recalls Julie Porrazzo, Director of the Educational Program, "and we also wanted to incorporate the elements that make our program unique, including creativity and design, arts, athletics, wellness, and service learning."

The program would have to harness technology in new and creative ways to engage students and enable them to demonstrate their understanding. The 
program would also have to consider the extraordinary circumstances that students were working under and a variety of potential stressors, including emotional, medical, logistical, and technical issues.

Teachers turned to a host of apps that enabled students to demonstrate their understanding, such as Seesaw and Flipgrid for sharing student-created videos, Screencastify for narrating projects, and Google Forms for quizzes.

For every member of the Fay community, Zoom became a critical tool in making sure that students and teachers could gather virtually to build skills and connect as a community. In Primary School, students continued their lunchtime 
traditions with daily live events like the Joke of the Day and Fun Fact Fridays. Instead of seats filled in Harris Theater, Morning Meetings in Lower and Upper School became screens filled with students on camera, where classmates happily greeted one another, updated others on the news in their grade, or shared musical performances or an inspiring quote of the day.

Third and fourth graders delivered their speeches in front of friends and family this spring via Zoom with a virtual backdrop of Harris Theater, and the second grade even pulled off a virtual class play! "I can honestly say that the 
teachers just ran with this," says Head of Lower School Lainie Schuster. "Everyone was open to new ideas, and everyone was looking at how we could deliver the curriculum with the same learning objectives but a different approach."

Balance and consistency

Creating a program that felt balanced and consistent meant that the distance learning program would have a slightly different look and feel for each division and age group. In Primary School, Google Sites proved to be an easy-to-use format for the daily schedule, with a click-and-play format full of photos, videos, and links for each class and assignment.

"I wanted the class pages to be visually exciting for the kids," explains Head of Primary School Katie Knuppel. "I also wanted students to feel like they could be independent and have a direct connection with their teachers." Each morning, Primary students started with a video message from Katie, followed by a live morning meeting with their grade. Core classes like math, literacy, science, and social studies offered a mixture of live
and pre-recorded lessons so families could create a schedule that worked for them and students could learn at their own pace and rewatch previous classes if necessary.

Just like in the Primary Commons at Fay, lunchtime over Zoom was a live 
opportunity to share, whether it was a song, a poem, a joke, or an update on a new puppy or a lost tooth. In the afternoons, students worked their way through a combination of pre-recorded and live classes in music, art, library, world languages, and P.E. by choosing one or two to do each day, completing them all by the end of the week.

In Lower School, the schedule featured a mix of synchronous Zoom classes and asynchronous pre-recorded classes available through Google Classroom. Every morning started with Homeroom or Homevisory so that teachers and students still had a face-to-face opportunity to check in. While screens were a necessary part of the school infrastructure this spring, teachers were also mindful of “Zoom fatigue” and the necessity of maintaining a just-right balance between live and pre-recorded classes as well as onscreen and offscreen assignments. In fourth grade science, for example, Tim McCauley's students staked out biodiversity plots in their backyards and spent the spring studying and recording the signs of life and animal activity that they found there. To provide Lower Schoolers with an authentic reading experience that didn't involve screens, Lainie spent several weeks in the spring hand-delivering books to the homes of Lower School students.

The Upper School program was more complicated, as it needed to accommodate students across multiple time zones. Core classes met every other day, with an alternating schedule, so that students could focus on just three courses at a time. "We were mindful of the social-emotional component of this experience," says 
Head of Upper School Sarah Remsberg. "We wanted to maintain academic rigor without overwhelming the students." Daily core classes were balanced by projects in music, Creators Class, wellness, and athletics assigned on a weekly basis. Wellness classes focused on mindfulness and self-care, while athletics offered live workouts and fitness challenges. Meanwhile, design missions in Creators Class, active listening assignments in music, and some outside-the-box projects in art helped students find a creative outlet and remain engaged with their passions. "We value arts, athletics, and creative problem solving in the regular Fay curriculum, and the
fact that we continued to offer these options in a distance learning setting demonstrates just how important we think they are," says Sarah.

Meeting academic goals differently
Over the winter, Julie gave each department head a copy of Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom Kelley and David Kelley, two brothers who formed global design company IDEO. Whether it was foreshadowing or mere coincidence, "the spring term was a crash course in creativity," says Julie.

Much of the work this spring was intentionally designed to look familiar to Fay students. First graders still practiced handwriting in their Zaner-Bloser 
handwriting book, fifth and sixth graders took their iReady reading tests, and Upper School students all wrote their Scull essays as they do every spring. However, the faculty also created a range of new and engaging assignments designed to keep students excited about learning. 

In second grade science, for example, students learned how vanilla plants in Uganda have to be pollinated by hand because there aren't enough bees to do the work. Then teachers challenged the second graders to design and build their own pollination tools, and the students uploaded pictures of their inventions to Seesaw, a digital portfolio site.

In fifth grade French, students synthesized everything they had learned about articles, subject pronouns, the verb être, and adjective agreement, and then they created slideshows about their family members, recording their presentations via Zoom or Screencastify.

When seventh-grade Life Science students learned about the anatomy of the muscular and skeletal system this term, distance learning provided the opportunity to incorporate interdepartmental 
data collection and analysis into the experience. For ten days, seventh graders completed the Athletic Department's ‘exercise of the day' and tracked their pre- and post-exercise heart rates; the students then used their observations of how their heart rate changed over time to explain the connections between the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

In Jane McGinty’s art class, seventh graders explored the iconic “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster, along with other examples of iconic propaganda posters. Then the students created their own “call-to-action” posters that reflected the events of the spring, keeping in mind key elements of design such as line, texture, color, and value.

In Lower and Upper School, the consensus was that tests, midterms, and final exams should be replaced by more flexible and engaging assessments of understanding this spring. In Upper School, final exam week was replaced by an assignment for each student to create a digital portfolio. Students selected an assignment from each core class and three of their “specials” (such as world language, art, and music) and explained how each assignment met the course objectives as well as how the students demonstrated traits such as creative problem-solving and perseverance.

“The portfolio project emphasized the importance of skill development as well as habits of mind," says Julie, noting that this was a particularly apt mode of assessment in a term when students' independence, organization, time management skills, perseverance, and creativity were challenged as never before.

Support and Connection
The web of connection might have been stretched across the Fay community this spring, but it remained steady and strong. In Primary School, the traditional weekly events of Primary School Morning Meeting, Class Morning Meetings, and Stars of the Week continued. Katie Knuppel also added new opportunities for students to connect, like weekly one- on-one check-ins with teachers and the Primary School Book Club, which met on Mondays at lunchtime. "Throughout the spring, we have emphasized our strength as a community and the fact that the teachers are here to support all our students," says Katie.
Each Wednesday, Lower School students still gathered for their Morning Meeting with the usual routines of observing a moment of silence, followed by students updating the group on the news from their grade and sharing what they were wondering and noticing. This spring, the “I wonder” questions far outnumbered the “I notice” statements. "If I have learned anything from this, it's how much kids need to be heard," says Lainie. "Sometimes I'll call on kids in Morning Meeting who haven’t raised their hand, and even if they say, 'I don't know,' that's okay—because I want their voices to be heard.”
Upper School students still gathered for Morning Meetings twice a week and within their advisory groups twice a week. Faculty members offered multiple drop-in times throughout the week, and students were encouraged to attend a weekly drop- in session for each class. While faculty members were diligent in reaching out to students, students were also encouraged to reach out to each other. During one drop-in, Sarah urged students to think of a classmate that other kids might not be reaching out to and to check in. "The students knew exactly what I was talking about," she says.
And even though they hadn't been together in several months, on one spring evening, 20 out of 27 students from the Dining Hall Dorm were logged in with Director of Residential Life Max Bogaert and their dorm parents to hang out, just like they would on campus. "Students need that social contact," says Sarah. "They need to remember that even though we're far away, we’re still here to support them."
While everyone is looking forward to returning to the regular rhythms and routines of life on the Fay campus, faculty and administrators agree that many elements of this experience will undoubtedly shape the Fay community moving forward. "The faculty’s understanding of and comfort with new tech tools has grown significantly,” notes Katie Knuppel. “They have been energized by the range of creative possibilities.” And students will also be returning to school next year with enhanced technology skills that they can apply to their learning.
However, some things won't—and shouldn't—change. Recently, some Primary School students voiced their concerns to Katie that the introduction of distance learning meant that students would never miss school again. "I told them that I think some things will go back to the way they used to be," she laughs. "I think we'll have another snow day again."


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