AcademicsDec 22, 2020
— updated Aug 9, 2021
Adapting our schedule
New flexibility prioritizes learning and connection, no matter where students may be
In January 2020, Director of Academic Counseling Sarah Virden and English Teacher Monica Kirschmann attended a weeklong Independent School Management (ISM) conference on student-centered scheduling.
Their trip was particularly timely. The School was about to launch an 18-month process to revamp the daily schedule. The plan was to begin that work in the spring of 2020. So much for the plan.
The coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic forced a transformational reimagining of the entire MHS schedule for 2020-21 — and without the luxury of an 18-month timeline.
“We knew we had to reconfigure all aspects of how we teach and deliver content, and develop a schedule that worked in hybrid and fully remote models,” explains Ms. Virden. She and Ms. Kirschmann followed up with a June ISM workshop, Scheduling for a Pandemic. “The first words out of the facilitator’s mouth were, ‘You have never scheduled for these conditions before, so what previously existed won’t work,’” she recalls.
A task force charged with looking at the use of time and schedule at MHS, hunkered down during the summer of 2020 and went to work. Their efforts produced a schedule of six, five-week terms, a model radically different from the two-semesters of typically five to six classes, and a schedule that prioritizes flexibility, active learning, and deep engagement for on-campus and online learners.
From two semesters to six terms
The new schedule was built around six, five-week terms (rather than the previous two-semester structure). Students took two, in-depth courses per term, meeting twice each week in synchronous, 90-minute classes. The balance of the school day was personalized to each student's passions and needs. Faculty taught every lesson twice, once for students who were on campus and in person, and once for those students who were learning remotely, and time was built into each student’s schedule for individual study or work with other students across time zones.
“From the beginning, the task force made a conscious decision that maintaining community was essential, especially if we were not all together,” Ms. Virden adds. “There was a commitment that anyone who was learning remotely would have an experience that wasn’t just ‘watching school.’ They would have access to live teachers and equal instruction as the students who were on campus.”
The schedule included time for advisor meetings and other key pieces of the MHS program, including College Counseling, Community Meeting, ensembles, essential coalitions and clubs, Horizons, modified athletics, and Student Life programming. The day was also heavy on “asynchronous,” out-of-classroom work.
Though forced to adjust for the pandemic, in many ways, the pump was primed for the changes, notes Dean of Academics and Faculty Lisa Alberti ’73. The School has longstanding relationships with ISM, an organization on the forefront of student-centered scheduling, and with One Schoolhouse, a rich source of pedagogy for progressive online learning, and faculty enrolled in several One Schoolhouse summer courses as they prepped for the 2020-21 school year.
That the MHS daily schedule was revamped three years ago, and more changes were envisioned, made moving away from the existing schedule easier. The move away from Advanced Placement (AP) courses paved the way for even more reimagining. The pandemic forced that hand.
“In the spring of 2020, we triaged and adjusted on the fly,” notes Dean Alberti. “We learned a great deal from that, but we knew that for the fall of 2020 we had to be intentional and explicit in how we scheduled and how we approached the curriculum. These changes were short-term, and our schedule does not look the same post-pandemic, but we learned a lot, and there are some elements that could remain.” A student-centered schedule, asynchronous use of time, and more meeting time with advisors come to mind.
Ms. Virden concurs. “Longer teaching time, rather than frequent movement to many classes in a day, may become more the norm,” she adds. “What Term 1 and Term 2 in 2020-21 have taught us is that we can deliver a robust program in many different ways, and that our teachers are incredibly flexible, while not missing a step in terms of the academic program they are delivering.”