Necessity may be the mother of invention, but at Rivers over the past few weeks, necessity joined forces with hard work, thoughtful collaboration, and just a touch of good luck to give rise to Rivers Remote, the school’s academic response to the coronavirus outbreak. This online-learning program, largely created and put in place over what was supposed to be the school’s spring break, had been up and running for three days as of last Friday, and although it’s still early, the massive effort seems to be paying off.
“So far, so good,” said Dean of Faculty Leslie Fraser late Friday afternoon. “The technology has all worked, and the kids have all been showing up. They’re glad to be reconnecting.”
Rivers Remote is a work in progress and will surely evolve over the coming weeks. But getting it to the point where it was ready to launch on Wednesday, March 25—just a day after classes had been scheduled to restart after break—was at least partly attributable to two factors.
The first was that the school started laying the groundwork early. “Leslie and I began talking about two weeks prior to break,” explains Director of Academic Technology John Adams. The initial thought was to create online protocols for teachers who might not be able to make it to school, but it quickly became clear that a more comprehensive approach would be needed.
On the Middle School side, says Assistant Head of Middle School John Bower, “When it became clear in late February that shifting to remote learning was a very real possibility, [Director of Middle School Curriculum] Melissa Dolan, [Head of Middle School] Mike Kris, and I led a faculty meeting with two main objectives: one, to brainstorm ways in which we could bring as much of the interpersonal relationship and classroom experience to the students while recognizing the need for balancing structure and flexibility, and two, to ensure that whatever we decided to do was developmentally appropriate for middle school students.”
Administrators and faculty members rolled up their sleeves. Fortunately, when students left for spring break, they were told to take home all their materials, including their iPads. That left the tech team confident that students would have the necessary technology to access virtual classrooms.
What would those classrooms look like? Faculty had to tackle every aspect of that, from the nuts-and-bolts of choosing technologies to the mastering of those technologies to factoring in important non-academic considerations. The team designing Rivers Remote initially thought to use Google hangouts as its “synchronous meeting software” of choice. But—like much of the world—they soon realized that Zoom was broadly functional and easy to use, and once it became free to schools, starting March 13, it became Rivers’s chosen platform. Adams quickly created a series of Zoom tutorials; he compiled them, along with a wealth of other online training sites and resources, on a “Teacher Tech Bar” site that faculty can access.
Early preparedness was one key factor. The second was timing. The fact that the need to ramp up Rivers Remote coincided with spring break turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Faculty members, many of them juggling work and children at home, put vacation plans on hold and jumped into learning how to teach in a whole new way. They had a little over a week to master unfamiliar technologies and methodologies, redesign their curricula, and get up to speed on such topics as balancing screen time with offline work. They attended daily training sessions, and some took a course through the nonprofit Global Online Academy on best practices for teaching remotely; those who did the course in turn shared what they’d learned with their colleagues.
Bower gives Dolan credit for thoughtfully redesigning the curriculum at the Middle School level. “She has spent time in webinars, taking online courses, communicating with other schools, and reading articles, all with the laser-focused goal of supporting faculty and students through this new normal,” he says.
Adams says that through it all, he’s seen the very best in his colleagues. “You’re asking them to design a new course, learn new technologies, and remain calm and confident,” says Adams. “And they are just nailing it, keeping relationships with students in the front of their minds. They have learned so much and attacked the challenges. I put the resources in front of them, but it’s only been successful because of the way they’ve gone after this challenge.”
Adams touched on a topic that presented a particular challenge. Relationships are central to the Rivers experience, underlying everything the school does in and out of the classroom. Upper School Dean of Students Will Mills was instrumental in making sure Rivers Remote addressed those aspects of student life and relationships. “Our primary focus was that the academics could move forward while staying true to the relationships that are at the heart of everything we do,” says Mills. “In overseeing student life, our best tool is to get a feel for students, just by walking the campus and interacting with kids. That’s been taken away from us. A big part of the conversation was how we replicate even a fraction of that in a virtual setting.”
One solution was to increase the number of weekly advisory meetings from two to three. And, says Mills, “We’re spending a lot of time making sure the channels of communication are clear. Using existing student life teams, we’re keeping an eye on how kids are doing on a regular basis.” Plans are in the works to restart club activities online, following student input. Other initiatives will evolve in response to the unfolding situation. Student voices, Mills says, have been key in identifying and addressing issues around student life and community.
In fact, says Mills, the crisis has broadly allowed Rivers to capitalize on its unique characteristics. “Rivers is a place that is encouraging and supportive of change, a place that is adaptable,” he says. “This is an extreme case of that, but it plays to our strengths: Being creative and innovative, figuring it out on the fly, and bringing in student voices.”