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Virtual Learning at Jesuit
Posted 04/01/2020 11:25AM


The hallways are dormant at Jesuit High School. The cafeteria hasn't seen a crumb in weeks. Squirrels outnumber the faculty and staff.

However, school is very much in session. Jesuit's teachers and students have deftly shifted to virtual learning as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has necessitated stay-at-home restrictions. The entire student population is engaged every day in a vibrant, rigorous virtual school, now in its third week.

Academically, Jesuit has stayed on track.  

The faculty made a swift and nimble pivot from live classes to virtual learning in just a few days' time: On Friday afternoon, March 13, Jesuit announced virtual school would begin in five days; on the morning of Wednesday, March 18, it launched. Suddenly, recorded lectures and video chats with students became new standard teaching methods.

(Homepage image: a screenshot of Vindri Gajadhar virtual teaching her AP Human Geography class.)

The school was well-positioned to successfully navigate a virtual learning period. Since 2014, Jesuit has had a fully integrated 1:1 iPad program, with students utilizing their iPads in classes throughout the school day. Along with applications such as Canvas, which is Jesuit's learning management system, and the video-conferencing capability of Zoom, Jesuit students picked up scholastically right where they left off when they returned from Spring Break.

For math teacher Peggy Martin, however, not all that much has changed the past two weeks. Since coming on board at Jesuit in 2013 – she was previously at fellow Jesuit institution Rockhurst High School in Kansas City – Martin has pioneered an expansion into the virtual realm.

After a few years of trial, Martin developed a system where each week she delivers one mandatory live lecture, one mandatory recorded lecture, and then gives the students a choice between another live or recorded lesson. Then she ends each week with an assessment.

Martin, who teaches Pre-Calculus Honors, monitored her students' choices, and a clear trend emerged. About 95 percent of her students prefer the video recorded lessons to the live lectures. Of the 101 students she teaches this year, only four preferred a live lecture (a group she calls her "Live Guys.")

"The reason is because when they do it digitally, they are in control of their education," she said. "They're in control of the pace. They don't have any distractions."

With recorded lessons, students can speed up, slow down, or skip around in her lectures. And with students learning at their own pace instead of adapting to the cohesive classroom pace, Martin said her grades "have never been higher."

Unsurprisingly, Martin has enjoyed an especially smooth transition to going full-virtual, creating three recorded lessons per week plus a question-answer Zoom meeting. The biggest challenge for her with the all-online curriculum is figuring out the best way to give assessments. With the students having the equations and formulas readily available at all times, Martin is plotting new types of questions and avoiding "cookie-cutter" problems that involve plugging numbers into formulas and equations.

Fine arts department head Kevin Ball '03 has undertaken the challenge of teaching studio art classes with ... well, no studio.

"We're incorporating all of the stuff that we have at the studio into an iPad or photography or apps," Ball said. "There's a lot of experimentation going on, a lot of resourcefulness."

Ball and his students work frequently with a drawing application called Autodesk SketchBook; however, he encourages his art students to try new mediums, like photography, or any of the countless artistic apps available to them through the App Store. AP Art student Vincent Girgenti '20 showed Ball a graphic painting app called HEAVYPAINT, a suggestion that Ball passed along to his junior class.

"We're trying things out," Ball said. "And if one app doesn't work for you, there's a billion other apps you can use."

Among the challenges of virtual learning, triumphs have emerged.

Theology teacher Brian Greenfield, who is known for his dynamic persona, said that while recorded lectures and discussion forums have made for a smooth transition to virtual learning, the richness of personal interaction might not fully translate to remote teaching. However, he has discovered advantages to being online.

Greenfield poses discussion questions on Canvas and requires students to respond to the prompt and comment on at least two other students' posts. For example, his Christian Morality class for juniors recently answered and discussed the question, "Under what circumstances might the state have a moral right to impose the death penalty?" Such threaded discussions don't allow quieter students to merely listen, or certain voices to dominate. These online forums have been so beneficial that Greenfield expects to implement them into his plans when Jesuit returns to live lessons.

"Everybody wants to get their opinion out," Greenfield said. "So the threaded discussions have been very good for that, especially for the students who are normally more quiet. They have a platform to say what they think without the pressure they might perceive in the classroom."

For students, the lack of personal interaction imparted by the coronavirus restrictions has been a significant adjustment in their daily lives. And, of course, they have many of the other concerns that everyone is facing during these extraordinary times. Having the opportunity to maintain their academic schedule has been a major benefit.   

Even though he's just a freshman, Caiden Hyer '23 said that he felt well prepared for the switch to school from home. He has fostered better time management skills since arriving at Jesuit.

"If this happened in August or September, I would be so confused," Hyer said. "Luckily, all the teachers at Jesuit have taught us how to be independent, use the websites, manage assignments, and get everything turned in on time."

Jason Kwo '21 said he enjoys the freedom of managing his own schedule. He also thinks this virtual learning experience will help prepare him for the online classes offered in college, such as the ones his older brother, Sylvester Kwo '15 ‒ an engineering student at the University of Florida ‒ has experienced.

"I like that we can decide how we want to manage things," Kwo said. "If we want to get everything done earlier ... then we can kind of work at our own pace."

Zachary Reich '22 enjoys the quick feedback he has received from teachers and the ease of corresponding with other students in Zoom's chat box.

However, as an altar server, soccer player, and member of Jesuit's Key Club, Reich misses the social and spiritual fulfillment that being on-campus at Jesuit provides.

"I feel isolated when I'm at home," he said. "I've done a lot of things since Spring Break that I'd love to talk to people about. I miss my clubs. I really miss going to the Chapel of the Holy Cross."

In addition to virtual school, Jesuit is offering a daily Mass live stream from Sacred Heart Chapel, and regular video Convocation reflections. Director of community service Andy Wood '92 has been pursuing service opportunities within the coronavirus restrictions, things such as virtual tutoring for children in need.

Despite the social restrictions, Reich said he is grateful for the caliber of academics he has experienced during this virtual school period.

"I don't think I can name any other school (that has) been as prepared as Jesuit," Reich said. "I could not have asked for anything better."

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