When Brenda Montgomery accepted the position of Director of Academic Innovation and Growth at Selwyn House School, she had no idea how much innovating was going to be demanded of her. In mid-March, as the Coronavirus pandemic spread without warning, closing schools around the world, she had to immediately create an online learning system that would maintain the academic excellence for which Selwyn House has long been famous.
Headmaster Hal Hannaford was attending alumni reunions in England and France when the pandemic hit, and had to take an emergency flight home and go into a two-week quarantine. His senior administration team fell into formation and set up an online system to keep students engaged in their education, even though no one knew how the crisis would unfold.
“On March 20, after four days of warming up, we distributed to all faculty an outline of a plan to move forward,” Mr. Hannaford says. “All faculty met with their division heads to discuss ideas to improve, modify, and build upon this plan. It takes both time and patience to get it right.”
Assistant Headmaster and Senior School Head Mike Downey, Middle School Head Carol Manning, Director of Technology J.-P. Trudeau, and Experiential Education Director Courtney Prieur were also instrumental in devising the Veritas Continuous Learning plan.
The learning structure that the team created is now completing its third week, and is proving to be an effective online substitute for the rigorous curriculum that has always been the hallmark of a Selwyn House education.
Students were sent a link to a weekly schedule. They check in online at 8:30 a.m. and participate in four 40-minute periods each morning. The first three are synchronous classes—where the teacher and students are online together. This is followed by a study period with a teacher available for consultation.
Students are invited to attend group sessions on Zoom, a popular video conferencing app. Attendance is taken for these sessions, and homework assigned, similar to a traditional class.
In the afternoon, students take part in online activities, including a check-in with Phys Ed teachers, online school assemblies, or experiential education activities.
The school day ends at 1:45, after which students are encouraged to get some exercise, work on a hobby or help out around the house.
The school may be allowed to re-open for regular classes on May 1, or the Quebec government’s mandatory closure may be extended. “Unfortunately, we just don’t have a lot of answers from the Ministry of Education,” says Ms. Montgomery.
“We will continue to collect marks because that’s a part of how students learn,” she says. Students’ work will be evaluated, and they will receive a report card in June.
Working online is a special skill, she adds; students will have to be very organized. She also stresses the importance of online etiquette, being on time, neatly dressed and polite during sessions.
Also, Ms. Montgomery points out that this system is new to teachers as well, so everybody needs to work together to master this new school reality.
She says she wants students to remember that, “Everybody at Selwyn House is here for you.”
Grade 11 student Jonah Rosen says he finds the e-learning system “at times, chaotic” with “kinks that need to be addressed,” but says he has found most classes enjoyable and engaging.
“I think Selwyn House has done a good job of organizing the classes,” says Jonah. “I enjoy having more control over my day working from home, as I was never very good at working at school. It's been very easy to stay on top of my schedule using Google Calendar.”
Laura Osborne, mother of Andrew Carsley in Grade 6, feels her son works well within the new system but sees room for improvement. “It's been wonderful to see Andrew's Elementary teachers—especially Mr. Kelley and M. Maynard—reach out to the boys one-on-one and, more recently, bring them together as a group. Andrew works well independently and completes his work efficiently.”
“I am very grateful for the fantastic effort that SHS professionals and staff are doing to support my son’s education by creating a stress-free learning system, providing physical education guidelines and promoting values and social connections during this isolated time,” says Maria Cristina Morandi, mother of Grade 6 student Augusto Liberatore. She applauds the “great teacher-student communication” she has seen. She feels that flexible deadlines, special student attention and independent activities are good features of the new system. “My son even received a private email from his teacher that really motivated him,” she says.
Ms. Montgomery says she has been inspired by how everyone in the Selwyn House community has cooperated to keep the school functioning for the benefit of the students. “All the people involved really came together,” she says. “They are being very supportive and understanding of what is really important, that everyone is learning, and that students are becoming more organized.”
“There's nothing like a crisis to accelerate innovation,” she says.