Photo Credit Jan Garrison
Making the transition
April 16, 2020

While he was going through his morning routine on April 2 – the first day of online classes for Culver Academies – Fine Arts instructor Robert Nowalk “felt something I had not felt in many years: the excited full-body shiver of my first day as a teacher.”

And, even though this instructor has decades of experience of preparing for classes and dozens of first days of school, this first day was different, and as he shared, “getting it right for his students would be the most important work of my life.”

He was not the only one experiencing the familiar feelings that come from both the nervousness and excitement for the first days of school. The remainder of the school year moved online after Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb issued the order to close all public and private schools to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Culver faculty, counselors, students and parents were preparing to embark on a new era of learning reliant on technology to maintain the bonds that make Culver a unique educational institution.

After the first day, teachers were pleased with how the classes went and particularly glad to connect with their students in real time. Attendance for the first day of class was at or near 100 percent of the student body, with all students accounted for by their dorm and unit leaders and counselors. Students from China, South Korea, and Australia collected to launch Culver online, meeting together at 7 a.m. EDT with the support Culver’s Department of International Student Achievement, Counselors, and Administration. Faculty will record each class for the students in the Asia and Pacific regions of the World and meet live with their teachers and peers in the region in the early morning or late night when the two time zones a half a world apart are both awake and active.

While the circumstances and the instructional methods have changed, Culver is still Culver.

The new online learning model is designed to “keep our mission central to all that we do,” shared Curriculum Co-Chair Jackie Carrillo. “We will continue to have high expectations of and offer high support to our students,” added Emily Uebler, Curriculum Co-Chair for the Academic Leadership Team at Culver. Carrillo and Uebler were at the forefront of developing the new learning model. “We have developed a daily schedule and set of policies aimed at supporting all members of our community and emphasizing wellness and personal connection, as our relationships with each other are a central part of what makes us Culver.”

As the curriculum chairs, Carrillo and Uebler worked closely with Dean of Faculty Josh Pretzer and Assistant Head of Schools for Learning and Leadership Kevin MacNeil on developing Culver’s expectations and guidelines for online learning. The team of four developed this unique model for online learning, prioritizing time to live Culver’s student-centered teaching and learning model and emphasize community, leadership, and wellness. Carrillo and Uebler will meet regularly with faculty and share best practices while all academic leaders will continue to tune our model to best serve students and facilitate learning.

Pretzer shared this is an unprecedented moment, asking all teachers across the nation to change their practice virtually overnight. As going to online learning looked more likely, many faculty and the academic leaders at Culver engaged in professional development from two sources offering lessons learned as online independent schools, The Global Online Academy and One Schoolhouse. Pretzer, Carrillo and Uebler took the GOA course on designing an online learning program while MacNeil carefully reviewed GOA’s materials and research in the field. Faculty continue to engage in professional development opportunities as they team together to reflect on the students’ experience, Pretzer shared.

Pretzer added that the leadership group is also tapping into the network of independent school colleagues at the Klingenstein Center for Independent School Leadership, The Association of Boarding Schools, Folio Collaborative, and National Association of Independent Schools to crowd source challenges and learn as a collective.

Culver’s model stands out as an exemplar in the crowd, Pretzer said. The various academic and administrative teams are meeting frequently to iterate Culver’s model, expectations, and guidelines for online learning as they learn from our own experience and the experience of other educators around the world.

The results are a new program that allows for increased flexibility in the schedule, knowing that both students and adults will need to “balance their home and school responsibilities.”

Students and instructors meet twice a week via Zoom during their scheduled blocks. There is also an additional closed-quarters (study period) for each class that is supervised by the teacher. Humanities Instructor Brad Trevathan, shared that “I developed this curiosity about what Zoom can do – and the students are fine with me experimenting and they are developing real skills in tech troubleshooting at a distance. Today I shared a Wikipedia image of Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ on my screen and after about a minute, tiny red hearts started to appear all over my screen. Well, she is the goddess of love.”

Brad Trevathan listens to a student’s question.

Even though the students are not living in the dorms or units, Carrillo and Uebler noted, “We emphasize the importance of those relationships and responsibilities by continuing our usual dorm and unit meetings and leadership programing on Wednesday.”

The leadership programming includes the traditional Wednesday unit and dorm meetings with the counselors and unit commanders. For CMA, Col. Mike Squires, Commandant of Cadets, said the boys would read “Legacy” by James Kerr. During the meetings, the boys will break into smaller groups facilitated by student leaders online to discuss the one or two chapters they read.

The traditional preparation for the transition of leadership for next fall will continue, including promotion tests, online face-to-face interviews, discussions on peer leadership, training for team development, Squires added.

For CGA, Dean of Girls M. Lynn Rasch ’76, said the residential workshops and leadership training will continue, with a focus on community connections and global citizenship. To help soften the sense of loss some girls may be feeling, resident directors are holding optional open forums in the evenings with activities; dorm chairs are developing additional connection opportunities; and the CGA senior advisory board and leadership committees are working on keeping “the Culver spirit at the forefront.”

CGA is continuing the freshman leadership training and helping those girls understand the traditions and events unique to the spring term. The sophomores are preparing for their leadership interviews along with receiving additional training for their future leadership roles, and the juniors and seniors will oversee leadership workshops with their adult supervisors. For the seniors, Rasch shared that CGA will be conducting workshops to prepare them for the transition to college along with discussions of global leadership and citizenship “at this critical time in our world.”

Classes will remain highly interactive, Carrillo and Uebler said. While the face-to-face interactions can’t be fully replicated, the digital classes will still allow teachers to do many of the same exercises as they would in the classroom. They will also be discussing texts in small groups, practice concepts with their classmates, and ask questions of their teachers. Maintaining relationships is one of the most important parts of Culver, they added, “and we fully expect that class sessions will offer – in addition to continued academic development – an opportunity for our students to continue fostering these relationships that they cherish.”

The CQ classroom sessions will also offer opportunities for interaction, through small group learning and discussion and one-on-one tutorials with teachers. Students will watch screencasts, view videos, read texts, complete quizzes, and practice skills during these sessions. When journaling, e-journals have replaced pen and paper.

Naturally, some adaptions have to be made, Carrillo and Uebler explained. Since students cannot actually be in the science labs, teachers have been filming themselves performing the labs or found other online virtual labs for the students to watch. They have also found or developed experiments that the students can perform at home, which will allow them to obtain data that they can analyze, make conclusions about, and build understanding in much the same way they do during regular in-class labs.

Other examples include visual arts instructor Jack Williams changing his painting classes to show students that drawing is central to painting. One example he found was that Vincent Van Gogh sketched “Starry Night” before he painted it. He is using inspirations from painters like this to guide his teaching with students, Carrillo and Uebler said.

Ingrid Dehler-Seter with her Dance for Athletes class.

Moving her Dance for Athletes classes online meant instructor Ingrid Dehler-Seter had to spend a week digitally recording new dance movements for her students to learn. Understanding that they will not have a dance studio in which to work, she developed moves that can be done in limited spaces. She is also taking a cue from the social media app TikTok and encouraging students to develop their own dances that “respond directly to song lyrics, musical rhythms and time, a key curricular goal in introductory dance.”

The dances will include smaller movements that can be recorded using a smartphone. They will be shared with Dehler-Seter and to other students in their small groups. Since the dances are not in person, she is encouraging students to “embrace the possibilities of video and editing software.” She is encouraging her students to get creative and possibly splice together their virtual dance experiences as a final project.

She believes that introducing new elements to a familiar structure will “energize a different path of creativity that maybe starts in the body, but enters the world of technology and comes alive on screen.”

The coordination of such an extensive operation involves many hands, including Alexa Gardner ’06 and the rest of the Information Technology Department; Catherine Tulungen, director of the Department of International Student Achievement; and the Huffington Library’s Grace McKay, the leading resource person for Culver’s online learning management system, Schoology.

While hiccups along the way are expected, the community is back together virtually, learning and leading with each other. The faculty, staff, and students will learn, adjust, and come out stronger in the end.

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