The Brave New World of Remote Learning

April 9, 2020 — In the first week of NMH’s remote learning initiative, these things happened: 

Mona Seno, chair of the visual arts department, made videos of herself throwing bowls and plates on the pottery wheel to share with her students. Math teachers Tiffany Thiri and Dave Pillsbury rigged their phone cameras so they could write out math problems by hand during their online class meetings and students could see each step in real time. English teacher Richard Sell and his AP Literature students annotated a Derek Walcott poem on a collaborative digital whiteboard even though they were thousands of miles apart.

Zoom breakout rooms, Wacom digitizers, apps like EdPuzzle and Perusall — they’ve quickly become common vocabulary for NMH’s students and teachers. “This has been a huge learning opportunity for all of us,” said Dean of Faculty Bea Garcia. “Our new system has made us challenge so much of what we thought we knew about the teaching process.”

Like schools across the country and around the world, NMH’s academic program went online as the spread of COVID-19 closed classrooms and campuses. Besides Zoom class meetings and online office hours, NMH launched virtual athletic-team workouts and performing arts collaborations, and video versions of community touchstones like Monday Morning Meeting and Student Activities Director Cris Ramirez’s “Weekend Scoop.”

Zach Nachlis ’20 had doubts that his classmates and teachers would be able to replicate “the same intense, collaborative academic environment” of the first half of the semester. But, he said, “my teachers have shown great versatility. And seeing my classmates and teachers again has brought a piece of the NMH campus to my own home in a way I least expected.” While Nachlis lamented that he wouldn’t be able to finish his senior year as he had hoped, he reported that remote learning was helping him “stay connected with the NMH community and continue to foster relationships that form the fabric of the school’s identity.”

No one would call the situation an ideal environment for academic achievement. The logistics of remote learning present challenges for nearly every NMH student, family, and teacher. NMH’s global student community is now scattered across different time zones, which means some students either access their school work without real-time group interactions or stay up late at night to attend classes. Other students are sharing computers, household spaces, and internet access with family members, or have responsibilities at home that they don’t have on campus. And the specter of getting sick or having to care for a sick family member hangs over everyone. 

But there are bright spots. “I have so enjoyed getting to know students in different ways as we check in each day,” said Thiri. One of her students told her about a gecko that has taken up residence in his bathroom in Thailand; another described the flock of baby chicks staying warm in his garage. She reported that at least one spontaneous Zoom dance party erupted in a Calculus-class breakout room. Thiri said, “We will learn the math, and we will support each other and keep each other laughing along the way.”

And when this is all over, Garcia said, every NMH teacher will be wiser and more creative and thoughtful. “Nothing can replace face-to-face human contact between teachers and students,” she said. “But we will get through this, and we’ll be better educators as a result.”