Credit: Tess Alongi

WHS Department Heads describe how COVID-19 has affected teaching

Brian Keaney (English Department Head):

Has the last couple of years made the English department reassess the way you teach, and your overall outlook on teaching?
Yes, definitely, but I think that we haven’t fully landed on answers with all of that yet because the pandemic is still going on here. We are reassessing our curriculum and what we do in light of not just the experiences during the pandemic, which because we had to shift and do some different kind of assignments, we found that having students do more expressive writing and reflective writing was really beneficial for them, and [they] produced writing that was really powerful to read. We don’t want to lose doing those kinds of assignments and just going back to some of the more ‘schoolish’ writing. The other thing is also reassessing the materials we use, not just because of COVID-19, but also because of events from the past few years. In the aftermath of what happened with George Floyd and other incidents and in diversifying the curriculum. [We’ve been] making some judgements about books we have used for a number of years and perhaps replacing those with newer titles. That’s an ongoing process that hasn’t come to an end, and I don’t know if it ever will come to an end. It’s just going to keep going on and keep being part of our reassessment of what we do.

Are there new parts in the English department that you have implemented during COVID-19 that worked out and that you want to keep afterwards?
Yes, and again, different teachers tried out different assignments that they created based on circumstances and found that ‘wow, this really worked well.’ Maybe they’ve reshaped them to work under the current conditions as well or liked how they took a past assignment, and in the modification saw that it improved something they did. I think one of the things that happened – especially in the shutdown of 2020 – is that we had to draw on a lot of things that were published on the internet in publications like the New York Times and others because that’s what we had access to. People have tried to keep using some of those sources as well as other things for students to read.

Looking back, from the start of COVID-19 in 2020, and then adapting to the different styles of learning, what was the biggest obstacle?
I think that the biggest obstacle was keeping students engaged when you just didn’t see them as much in person, keeping them organized and on top of things, being able to deal with more nuances and reading together. It’s tougher to do when you have people participating via Zoom versus in front of you, in person. I will say that I think one of the toughest transitions for students was losing the Wednesdays in the schedule last year when students had a chance to catch up on work, work on stuff individually and have more time to meet with teachers individually. I think that was really beneficial for students, and I think that one of the things that has been tough on students this year is the return back to five days, full on, without much in the way of little breaks in there to get stuff done.

Kenneth Rideout (Science Department Head):

In the Science classrooms, there are lots of person-to-person interactions. After these two years, have you been able to begin to phase back into that?
That’s been the biggest change of everything, the last year and a half. We basically haven’t had any hands on – or very little hands on – lab activities. Specifically for science class, you can do group work in any class, but science specifically. The majority of our classes are very lab driven, so we did a lot of virtual labs and things like that. This year, from the beginning to the end, we’ve started right in. We have those double blocks like we used to. We’re doing all those hands-on labs that we used to do, and it’s really been kind of interesting because there are two observations I have to make on that. One is the students extra enjoy it after not being able to do it for a year. Sometimes it’s funny because there are some labs that are better to do virtual because they are cleaner, and the students don’t get distracted by the other paraphernalia. In the past, I would say ‘do this one as a virtual [lab],’ and it would be a different experience because they were doing hands-on labs all the time. This year, my students don’t want anything to do with any virtual labs. They are sort of sick of them, you know? I think it’s been good for the teachers, for the students and for their education.

Has the past couple of years, with the unique circumstances, made the science department reassess the way you reach, your outlook and your goals?
Well, it reaffirmed a couple of things that we suspected. It was an unwitting experiment to have this year, where you didn’t get to do labs, and we didn’t get to do traditional assessments. Students weren’t in all the time, or weren’t in at all. Our observations on that were that yes, the labs are very important for the students, and the assessments are, too. If you take the assessments away, even your most diligent student can have this thing called an illusion of fluency like ‘oh, I can do this problem.” It’s easy to convince yourself that you can do it, because it makes sense when you are looking at it, or maybe you had some homework, and you had all these resources. However, it is a different experience, cognitively and metacognitively, to sit there and reproduce it A-Z without all these tools at your disposal.

David Schmirer (History Department Head):

Has the unique circumstances of the past couple of years made the history department sort of reassess the way you teach and your overall outlook on teaching?
Speaking personally on this front, I know if I got any sort of enjoyment, for lack of a better word, out of last year, it was that for the first time in a while it really forced myself, and this went for the other teachers, to have to really think much more carefully about the best way to make sure that we can help our students to learn the information and content and skills that we were doing because the circumstances under which we were teaching changed so much. I know for myself that last year, and this is my 22nd year at Wayland, felt kind of like my first couple of years teaching. It just took a lot more time and thought and effort to put together lessons that would work not only for students sitting at home, but then you had half of the class who were zooming in, and half of the class that were in person. We had to think about how we can craft lessons and activities that could simultaneously work for some people who were home in their pajamas and other students who were sitting in the classroom itself.

Are there any new parts of the history department that you adapted through COVID-19 that you want to keep afterwards?
I would say connecting with people, in a sense that hasn’t changed. Connecting with people, for me, and I know for my department mates, is whatever way you can forge a one-on-one relationship or connection with a student. I think on the teaching front, the biggest item that all of us encountered and need to think about was the balance between the amount of time spent online and using their laptop, versus the amount of time off of the computer, and I think what a lot of us have done this year in response is we have tried to make efforts to make sure that we are offering and creating activities that can be done without the laptop open. We know and understand how much time students have spent on it over the last two plus years, and [we’ve been] trying to come up with ways to get the purpose of our lesson across without necessarily relying on the technology.

Looking back, what was the biggest obstacle or hurdle?
Probably the biggest hurdle from the teaching standpoint was we could really no longer assess the way that we have before. I think we pretty much all universally agree that attempting to give the exams the way that we used to, to students who were sitting at home, just wasn’t going to work for a whole variety of reasons. I think that’s carried over a little bit into this year, where we think a lot about whether or not a traditional examination is the best way to assess a student and be able to see how much they know, how much they’ve learned and what they’re going to take away from it. I think the assessment piece is probably the one which would kind of benefit that category, and then the personal connection piece would be the other component.

Susan Memoli (Fine Arts Department Head):

Pre-pandemic, everyone was close together, and everyone could hear each other. How has the fine arts department integrated back into that setting?
A musician’s ability to connect visually and orally with the people around them is so critical to blend and balance. When we were forced to separate, we had to go online. Sound on the internet has delays, so that was really challenging, and then once we got to hybrid, we would have half the class on the screen, and half the class in person, six feet apart. We would follow the kids on the screens because the in-person kids had the speaker to listen to. The whole thing was a challenge, but we made it work. Once we were all in person, we were still spaced six feet apart and in separate stands. It was a huge improvement, but still not coordinated.  It was definitely better than nothing, but it was still very challenging. We got to the point where the brass and woodwinds were on the stage, but we had to put the string plays behind so that they weren’t breathing the air that the brass were blowing. Now, we are finally back to where we were. We’re sharing stands of the strings. You can sit wherever you feel comfortable. For some kids, that’s still maintaining a little bit of separation, but by large we are back to a fairly normal set up. It feels so good, and it sounds so good. The reason we do music in the first place is that intangible, indescribable feeling – there’s no words for it. That magic moment, when the hair stands up on your arms. We’re back to that. I feel such a sense of gratitude, and I think kids realize how important it is, and how precious and special it is.

Have the circumstances of the past couple of years made the fine arts department reassess your approach to teaching?
I’ve been teaching for about 28 years. [The pandemic] turned everything that I do, and what I value, on its head. Again, I believe music is for the community, for skill building, digging in and looking at ‘how do you do hard work?’ Those core values of why I think we do music education are still there, but the ‘how’ was different. I think of my colleagues, who started all these beginner third graders online. If you had asked us five years ago if we could do it, we’d say ‘absolutely not, it’s impossible.’ However, now, the current fourth graders are some of the most technically skilled and set up, diligent and focused kids. The weird things about online learning that we didn’t anticipate was that some of the lessons that we took away were very valuable.

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