BB&N Community Rises to the Challenge of Remote Learning

Necessity is the mother of invention, so the age-old adage goes, and the BB&N community's transition to remote learning has proven this in spades.

Following the mid-March decision to close campuses amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty, staff, administrators, students, and parents have partnered to adapt BB&N's focus of meaningful learning to an online model. Now, with four weeks of remote learning under their belts, in addition to Governor Baker's mandate that schools remain closed for the remainder of the year, BB&N students and teachers are well into the process of embracing their "new normal."

The school's senior leadership group and teaching teams across all three campuses spent Spring Break focused on translating BB&N's curriculum and pedagogy into a virtual platform. The task of developing a remote learning model on the fly came with significant challenges—not only organizing an online school day and converting course work in a meaningful way, but also assembling the technological nuts and bolts required to make remote learning accessible to all.

"The biggest challenge early on was ensuring that there was equitable access to resources at home so that all students and faculty could engage in remote learning," notes Chief Digital Officer Andrew Marcinek. "This included wireless access at home, what kind of device they were using, and what familiarity of platforms everyone had. So, early on we wanted to limit superfluous access points for connecting with students and instead concentrate on leveraging tools and platforms we had already been using." 

Along the technological ramp-up, the school also launched the Online Learning Hub for Families, a centralized portal to act as the "go to" spot during remote learning. The Hub houses sections for each campus for student and faculty course work and interaction, links to technology resources for families, health and wellness activity videos, and much more.

Following two days of intensive preparation by faculty coming out of Spring Break, the first day of remote learning launched on Wednesday, April 1. Teachers and students then spent the week figuring out the fine points of participating in Zoom and Google Meet video conferences, how to combine synchronous learning with asynchronous assignments, and most of all, how to balance life, home, and school when they all take place under the same roof.

In order to get an early read on the balance and pace of remote learning, BB&N conducted a survey after the first week, soliciting feedback from parents, faculty, and students. The largely positive responses were encouraging, and even more helpful were the suggestions for how to improve across all three campuses moving into future weeks.

In determining how to best optimize the learning experience for students moving forward, the campus directors used the first-week survey findings, combined with other feedback and observations, to refine their online learning plans in several ways, including:

  • refining the workload expectations on each campus;

  • creating more consistent schedules, including predictable lunch times;

  • moving to later start times in the Middle and Upper Schools, in an effort to support the school's emphasis on well-being;

  • A ramp-up in opportunities for students to build and maintain community connectedness beyond class work, including clubs, after school programs, and lunchtime "hangouts".

At the Lower School, Director Anthony Reppucci is pleased with the engagement of LS students and the partnership with LS families. "What's worked well has been the flexibility of the faculty to re-envision school differently for children," Reppucci says. "We had a two-week plan in place to start, which was really an on-ramp to get people acclimated to this new learning model. Going forward from that point, our guiding principles have been ensuring academic continuity for our students, maintaining community connections for our kids' social and emotional well-being, and developing appropriate schedules for the day. We have such a wide range of age groups at the Lower School...we really need to be aware of the approach and what is most important for each grade."

While the shift to remote learning has affected everyone in different ways, grade four homeroom teacher Louisa Connaughton has been pleased by some of the unexpected surprises it has manifested in some of her students. "The balance of power in the classroom has been shifted on its head," she points out. "I don't think I fully realized how much power students with high verbal capacity have in a traditional classroom setting. In the online setting, students cannot shout out or talk over others. They can communicate one-on-one with the teacher in private and personal ways. I have seen some students show their humor, interests, and passions more openly in their Google Classroom comments than I ever had them share with me directly."

The Middle School has already begun tweaking their model to ensure the well-being of their students. Beginning the third week, online class times began starting 30 minutes later, and faculty continue to stay vigilant that the right balance is being struck as their students continue to get used to their new school routines. "In some ways, the kids need less—fewer transitions—so we are streamlining the process to make certain that no one is overwhelmed," says Middle School Director Mary Dolbear. "The arc of online learning is complicated, but we are definitely on the right path and I'm really proud of these students and teachers who are really outside of their comfort zones."

Utilizing Zoom platforms to teach their classes, many Middle School faculty are embracing the opportunity to reinvigorate their own academic journey. "In many ways, I feel like a first-year teacher," says English teacher Ethan Rossiter. "Each day I am forced to think about creative and interesting ways to engage the kids, and it's impressive the way they are adapting. I find it interesting that some of my students who were less likely to participate in class discussions on Sparks Street are a bit more vocal over Zoom. And I love that they are engaging so well with each other through discussions on our class blog."

Mirroring the comments of his fellow directors, Upper School director Geoff Theobald is also very pleased with the early returns of the online experience. "The core tenets everyone worked so hard to put in place are good. Since the second week, we have been in tweak mode, not major adjustment mode. We are vigilant about students and their learning styles, along with teachers and their learning styles. These are the things we need to keep monitoring and adjusting as we move forward, along with curricular balance and weighing the right interplay between synchronous versus asynchronous learning."

Theobald noted that the school is keen to respond to feedback from students regarding not just academics, but their social experience as well. "What we've heard is that 'classes are going well, but what I really miss is hanging out with my friends in the hallway.' So, we want to find ways to layer in social connectivity to the process." One small step in this direction has already been implemented by making everyone's lunchtime the same to allow for more peer-to-peer interaction and to mesh free time more equitably.

Upper School science teacher Paige Kemezis has been impressed with her students' willingness and ability to embrace new routines. "My students have been able to adapt quickly to this new style of learning. When we check in, the most prevalent comments have been how they enjoy being able to sleep more and being able to work on their own time—the autonomy and choice that come with distance learning are empowering. They understand that they are driving their learning through this process and have decided to take full control."

Another key aspect of the Upper School curriculum that has been dramatically impacted by the pandemic is college counseling. With SATs and other standardized tests canceled, colleges closed for campus tours, and any number of other road blocks, BB&N has stepped up in helping students navigate the landscape. Dedicated web pages for seniors, juniors, and underclassmen were quickly created, featuring up-to-date resources for all college-related activities, and students have been set up with opportunities for one-on-one Zoom conferences with counselors. In addition, the College Counseling staff held an online webinar for juniors and parents on Thursday night, April 23rd.

Throughout the entire transition to online learning one overarching theme has consistently emerged: the reciprocal gratitude and thanks among administrators, faculty, students, and parents. Theobald spoke for many when he lauded the entire community, and especially teachers, for the "creativity and good grace displayed by everyone under unexpected and trying circumstances."

As Head of School Dr. Jennifer Price noted in a mid-April letter to families, "I have always said that difficult times bring out the best in our caring and connected community." Dr. Price repeatedly hailed the patience, flexibility, and most of all, compassion being displayed by members of the BB&N community throughout the pandemic. "We're all in this together," she has reminded teachers, staff, students, and parents, emphasizing consistently that the most important priority we all share is the collective safety and well-being of our community members.

On April 24th, Dr. Price sent another survey to the community to check in on how everyone is faring as the school prepares to enter its fifth week of remote learning. She and various campus leaders are also busy evaluating the best options for end-of-year events and ceremonies.