Bay Distance Learning: A view from the Zoom classroom

When COVID-19 emerged and upended our normal way of life, Bay’s Educational Leadership Team quickly and thoughtfully developed and launched a Distance Learning program. In keeping with Bay’s ongoing commitment to whole-person education, the goal was to provide both academic continuity and opportunities for community connection, engagement and mindfulness. The team set out to implement an agile, responsive program that strikes a balance between academic rigor and self-care while exploring new ways to connect and nourish mind, body, and spirit. As Bay forged its path forward, program adjustments were made to incorporate feedback from students, teachers and families as well as emerging data and intelligence from educational thought leaders and peer schools in the Bay Area and beyond.

In it Together

Every member of the Bay community has contributed something meaningful during this unprecedented experience. Faculty and staff have quickly pivoted to provide structure, learning, and connection online. Students have risen to the challenge of distance learning, even as they process and grieve what is absent from their educational and social experience this spring. Families are caring for one another and asking what they can do to support the wider community. Although we’re staying home and staying safe, we’re truly in this together!

As the weeks have progressed, Bay’s Spring Academic Schedule and Policies During Distance Learning have evolved to meet the challenges of our new educational landscape. And as students and teachers settle into the new rhythm and pace of life and learning during COVID-19, they are finding innovative ways to learn, engage, and connect.

We are excited to launch a new Distance Learning Bay Blog series to give you a feel for the Bay Way during this time. We’ll take you inside Bay’s zoom classrooms for a glimpse of school life, and we’ll share conversations with students, teachers, families and school leaders.

A Senior’s Perspective

To kick things off, we sat down for zoom a chat with senior Justin Petri to get his perspective on Distance Learning. Justin pointed out that while these unusual times take some adjusting, there are also some surprising benefits.

BAY: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us during this crazy, busy Distance Learning term. How’s it going so far? 

JP: So far, Distance Learning is actually going pretty well! The transition was a bit rocky, but Bay did a good job responding to the situation and figuring out the correct workload – determining what’s too much versus too little. I will say that I think the switch to sheltering-in-place was especially tough for us seniors because we didn’t get to have Senior skip day or many other celebrations we were looking forward to. But [Bay] has been working with us to find alternatives.  Today we met as a class with Nic Fiszman and Aaron Plantenberg to decide when and how we want to celebrate Senior Skip Day, and if should we do a Netflix party for Senior movie night. So it’s getting better. This whole thing is just part of life now.  

BAY: What was is it like in the beginning compared to how school is now?

JP: In the beginning, it was a little much. At first, the school really tried to maintain our schedule like a normal classroom environment. But the thing is, even though we had a newly added break time, it was still difficult because we were spending so much time on the computer, and then we still had a lot of homework to do.  But after the second week they changed things up. They realized that when you’re at home it takes more time to get things done things. That first week there was so much homework and the overwhelm of the changes. It just felt a bit hard to process it all.  

BAY: What has been the biggest challenge thus far?  

JP: I would say it is keeping school engaging and intellectually challenging. For me, a large part of school is about learning. Yes, I want to learn the different principals of engineering and also how to write a humanities paper. But for the most part, a lot of this learning comes through social interaction. And now, with Distance Learning, that’s not possible in the same way. Even when we are doing the same amount of work as we would in a normal class, it’s not stimulating in the same way as an in-person class, if that makes sense. I think a lot of students would agree that [Distance Learning] is not stretching your intellect in the same way because we’re not in contact with one another. But we’re all adjusting.

In engineering, our teacher Brad Niven is giving us projects to move away from spending class time on screens, and instead engage us in cool projects. For instance, for Advanced Mechanism and Design, we used a design software known as SolidWorks to create a sliding-crank mechanism, which is commonly seen in locomotive trains.

In Advanced Mechanism and Design class, students used SolidWorks to create a sliding-crank mechanism that is commonly seen in locomotive trains.

I also spent a good portion of yesterday working on an original Rube Goldberg machine, which is a contraption or device that performs a simple mechanical action in a complex manner, usually including a chain reaction of some sort. These kinds of activities totally work to get our brains engaged in a different way. We work independently, and then we use class time to collaborate and share what we learned from research. We also talk in group chat on our phones so we can ask questions and share discoveries in real-time.   

BAY: Are there any advantages or surprises in the switch to Distance Learning?

JP: Totally!  There are actually a couple.  In terms of personal life, you get more time with your family. For me (and probably a lot of seniors), I am regretting not having more time to spend with family as I’m getting ready to leave for college, and now I don’t have to worry about that.   

From a school and learning perspective, I feel like in some ways I’m learning more. It’s a brand new learning environment, right?  It’s definitely a new challenge for me and other students, and we are being stretched to learn in new ways. I think we’ll be more appreciative when we go back to the classroom. 

Also, there are advantages to using Zoom that you don’t have in the regular classroom. In a normal class, if you have a question, you have to raise your hand and wait to be called upon.  In the zoom classroom, you can type questions in the class chat window and other students can answers. So, you can get feedback and ideas from multiple sources. That’s really cool. It’s also really awesome to see student chat dialog because you learn from what other people are thinking and asking.  This is especially true in math. If someone gets stuck while working on a math problem, they can ask a question and the whole class jumps in to help. When the teacher has the chance to respond, they see we have collaborated to solve the problem and they are happy with that.

BAY: What do you wish was different or what would you change?

Well, to be honest, the teachers and school have been really responsive. At first, I really wanted more collaborative work rather than just coming to class and putting my mic on mute and then doing homework all day. That has changed a lot since the first few days of the program. We’re now working in small groups and that makes a big difference. For instance, our teachers put us in small break out rooms so we can work through problems together. Then they can jump in the small group room and check how we’re doing and answer questions and offer support. It’s definitely been more engaging and enjoyable this way instead of just working on an assignment for an hour and a half.  

If you would have asked me these questions two weeks ago, I would have yes, there are things I would change, but all the teachers have been experimenting and they have responded to our feedback. I think that’s all we really wanted. I honestly don’t think there is anything else I would want. They have done a great job and they’re continuing to listen, experiment and be innovative, and that’s really what we need.  

BAY: Do you have any advice or words of wisdom about Distance Learning?

What I really want people to know is Distance Learning is only as fun and engaging as you make it. On the one hand, it can be very tough and stressful to spend all this time on your computer. But on the other hand, you have to find ways to motivate yourself, maybe take up side projects, and use that extra time at the end of class to meet with the teacher one-to-one. Once you get in the pattern of attending tutorial time and treating Distance Learning as if it’s normal school, it actually gets a lot easier.