The faces were the same, just much smaller. I stared anxiously at the 12 students on my computer screen as we dug into a challenging poem. It was the first day of our transition to distance learning, and I was nervous. We’d prepped in the upcoming weeks, but would it all work in practice? How would I know they were truly engaged and learning? What tools would I need to help them succeed? A pandemic raged around us, and I was encouraging them to read a poem. A poem? Now?
Yes. A poem. Now.
It was a poem about resilience, and as we worked through it, the words, images, and ideas strengthened our resolve to be our best selves.
Same Learning, New Room
Students knew the Quest Forward Learning platform and easily transitioned to an online classroom without missing a beat. They were obviously engaged. It was our same old learning community in a new room. I was nervous. The students were not.
Lydia Felty, an English mentor, helps to explain why our transition had gone so smoothly: “With students and faculty already used to our online application and independent project-based methodology, our main challenge in transitioning online was simply that we missed being in a physical space together. Because of this, we’ve been able to turn our energy to new and creative methods of learning in the online environment.”
Tried and New Techniques that Work
I am an old dog, but I have learned new tricks. I have taught in a classroom for almost 15 years, but our transition to distance learning at Quest Forward Academy has made me a better teacher.
With Quest Forward Academy’s online platform, I can access and distribute materials with lightning speed; I can tailor specific resources to particular students with particular needs in seconds; I can mix and match student discussion groups with the flick of a finger. I can see students typing in real-time and jump in to help instantaneously to give timely feedback; I can help students share their learning with the whole class effortlessly.
I can see the students thriving because of these new techniques.
Class Sizes and One-on-One Attention Matter
The huge range of learning opportunities online is due in part to our class sizes. At Quest Forward Academy, classes are small, and in many cases, I have fewer than 12. The platform enables the teacher to spend extensive one-on-one time with each student. With the click of a button, I can work shoulder to shoulder with a student on a piece of writing and ensure they fully understand the material and are applying it purposefully.
A new student, Sophia, told me she enjoys the focus of the individualized learning environment. “I like how our mentors support us with one-on-one online learning. For example, when I get put into breakout rooms with my English teacher, it helps me really focus on my learning. When we are alone, we can ask questions that help us understand more,” she says.
Teachers have seen positive outcomes with remote learning too. Max Shafer-Landau, a social science mentor, noticed consistently high quality of work in his students: “We focused a lot on presentations and students really stepped up with the rigor and depth they put into their slideshows and independent research. The new paradigm further incentivized student independence, and I was very impressed with the standards students held themselves to when given more autonomy over their work.”
Cultural Relevance and Choice in the Classroom
While student autonomy and choice are central to Quest Forward Academy learning, so is relevancy. In English, we studied racial relations throughout the year. Most recently, we studied the genre of an open letter—a letter addressed to a particular recipient but published widely—and how it has advanced the fight for equity in our culture.
We read masterpieces from Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin on the topic of racism.
To make the material relevant, we compared and contrasted King and James’ context to our own. As a team, we engaged online resources, texts, video, and images. In small groups, again with the flick of the finger, students collaborated on group projects and presentations. Lastly, students had the chance to apply the teachings and persuasive techniques of King and Baldwin to a topic of their choosing.
Students chose to look at LGBTQ rights, racism, women’s rights, environmental rights, or immigrants’ rights. Then, each wrote an open letter that addressed the inequities of the current situation and called for justice. Students shared over the virtual platform their letters and sought peer feedback. With the online presentation we could zoom in on each author’s sentences and critique constructively not only the thinking but also the writing. The online platform led to collaboration and learning. We could flow between large, small, and individual work sessions.
It was incredible.
The engagement and growth were immense. Everyone echoed Azi’s, a rising senior, remark: “It was the best project of the year.”
A Stronger Community Made from Challenging Circumstances
While online learning has been incredible, so too has been the commitment to maintaining and growing our community. Every day, students check in with each other and support one another through this trying time. We come together as learners and cheerleaders. On Fridays, students have club days ranging from book club to mask-knitting.
We are apart but very much together.
I am very lucky to have a front-row seat to behold young people doing amazing things under challenging circumstances. Our students are engaged and thriving. I am confident that this group is getting the skills they will need to become the change we all need.
You can learn more about Quest Forward Academy’s Seamless learning plans for the fall here.