A redesigned start

Take a look inside academic life as the fall term develops.

Nicole Pellaton
November 2, 2020
Music Instructor Kris Johnson, in a mask, leads the concert choir in rehearsal under a tent

Music Department Chair Kris Johnson says new music modules are “exploding” with student enrollment this term.

When History Department Chair Kent McConnell asked his U.S. History students in September if they were interested in doing small-group projects such as short videos, one boy responded, “I’d love to do anything that will get me outside and off Zoom!” That comment underscores a significant change in the mood and the realities facing the Academy community as the 240th academic year kicked off.

“In the spring our focus was very different. It was about caring concern for the students in that unusual time,” says Science Instructor Alison Hobbie. “Now, it’s how can we find the rigor and find the engagement at a level that keeps them engaged with each other and keeps them engaged with material.”

With online learning still in place for health and safety reasons, faculty and students returned to campus ready to dig in to Harkness dialogue via Zoom. Boarders are logging in from dorms, day students from cubicles in the Academy Library, and students who chose not to or who were unable to return to campus are joining in from around the world.

At press time, a few weeks into fall term, classrooms remained empty but hopes were pinned on being able to start some form of in-person small-group learning soon. We caught up with several faculty members to hear how their classes were going.

Music Department Chair Kris Johnson conducts rehearsal under a tent.

Solution for aerosols

“We have remade ourselves in a huge way because so much of what we are accustomed to is not OK during this pandemic,” says Kris Johnson, Music Department chair. “We can’t gather singers in a room. We can’t have wind ensembles inside. We can’t have a full, 60-piece symphony orchestra.” To respond to the situation, Johnson and his department colleagues devised a set of 13 academic credit-bearing modules that “blur a little bit about what’s an ensemble versus what’s a class, versus just an experience.” The modules replace traditional ensembles with safer, smaller groups.

They also include many topics that have never been offered before, including Electronic Music Composer’s Collective (EMCC), Music of Protest, Ensemble Leadership, Contemporary Music Listening and Music Theater Workshop.

Students may take as many modules as can fit into their schedules, and sign-ups show that they are loving these options. Participation in ensembles (including the new ensemble-based modules) has increased by 40% over last year. Some of the new topics are “exploding,” says Johnson, citing EMCC, which starts the term with two-week segments focusing on hip-hop, meditative music and electronic dance music. More than 60 students are signed up for EMCC, which is taught in several sections by Eric Schultz, Exeter’s first director of electronic and emerging music, a teaching position that was enabled when the Class of 1959 Music Center Addition opened in 2017 with a high-tech Music Media and Technology Suite.

There’s a raft of things to take care of [regarding] student safety, but they will be singing.”
Kris Johnson

Students continue to sign up for one-on-one Zoom private lessons and are finding ways to leverage the technology to experiment with microphones and use recordings for playback and review. Jazz Ensemble moved into a class block this year and has garnered 25 students, “a phenomenal number,” Johnson says.

Concert Choir and Chamber Orchestra continue to operate, with the choir holding outdoor rehearsals under a tent installed on the Academy Building lawn. “Students will be wearing surgical masks. They’ll get fresh masks for each rehearsal. We’ll limit rehearsals to 30 minutes in small cohorts and then have a time for clearing the air. Singers will be physically distant. There’s a raft of things to take care of [regarding] student safety, but they will be singing,” Johnson says.

The Bowld, Exeter’s recently constructed concert hall, which has eight air changes per hour, will also hold smaller, socially distanced rehearsals for the Chamber Orchestra. “We will be doing things safely in the building, just not things that generate potentially dangerous aerosols like singing and woodwind playing,” Johnson says.

During fall and winter terms, students will also have the opportunity to collaborate with American composer Tanner Porter on her creation of an original piece to honor Exeter’s 50th anniversary of coeducation. “Her compositional voice is cross-genre. It incorporates both style and currency that our students will respond to very positively,” Johnson says. A performance is planned for spring 2021.

Science Instructor Alison Hobbie records a lab on her mobile phone.

Pushing the fulcrum

“In science we’re always trying to balance the amount of content we are providing and the time we spend on problem-solving skills, scientific thinking skills [and] justifying an argument using evidence,” says Alison Hobbie, who is teaching four sections of Accelerated Chemistry, a class that covers two years of chemistry and prepares students for the AP exam.

“This term, because of constraints of contact with students and methods of assessment, I’m pushing that fulcrum a little bit,” she says. “A little bit less content and a little bit more skills, especially in terms of assessment.” Hobbie is changing the balance carefully because there is much that students need to master. “I want them to know what’s going to happen when I mix two things together — if I’m going to get a precipitate, or if it’s going to be bubbles, or if it’s going to blow up and they should run away.”

At least for now, labs are virtual. “The real loss is that I don’t have students in the classroom touching things. That is huge,” Hobbie says. She worked with Anthony Fuda, chemistry lab coordinator, to videotape all the 300- and 400-level chemistry labs. But she remains hopeful: “If all goes well, we might be able to have a small group of students working in the lab and maybe they have lab partners who are on Zoom and they can be engaging with them one-on-one.”

Students are in a different place than they were through the spring. Many are carrying some trauma. … But most are also carrying real excitement to be back, either back here or back in a way that feels different, feels more engaged, feels more energized.”
Alison Hobbie

For the start of the term, Hobbie meets with the entire class synchronously twice a week. “I’m trying to figure out ways to have a lot of synchronous time because in science it’s really valuable to be able to talk through a problem, solve together, be able to hear each other’s thinking,” she says. Hobbie has split each class into two teams. During the asynchronous blocks, one team does self-study, such as balancing equations on their own. “The other team is meeting with me, and we are going over a little lab that they looked at for homework. They will work first with partners, and then as a small group of six, to come up with an analysis. … That will give them enough information to complete the lab on their own.” The next week, the teams “flip-flop.”

Hobbie is eager to return to her pre-pandemic ability to “gauge the temperature of the room.” “It’s such a joy with Harkness to see the eye contact and the body language and know, all right, we got this. Or, it looks like we need to hold off a little bit, spend a little bit more time,” she says. In the meantime, she is creating assessments that help flag when students want or need curricular help. Students may submit ungraded assessments along with assignments indicating whether or not they felt prepared. Tests will have more open-ended questions and will provide opportunities for students to describe their process. “Maybe little videos that they send me at the end of a test … three minutes talking about problem number seven, and how they worked through it,” she says.

Hobbie is ready to respond to the students’ hunger for connection and challenge. “Students are in a different place than they were through the spring,” she says. “Many are carrying some trauma. Many are carrying sadness. But most are also carrying real excitement to be back, either back here or back in a way that feels different, feels more engaged, feels more energized.”

I want students to know that I recognize the conditions they’re in, that I’m flexible, that they’ll do work but I think that the work needs to be fun to some level. … It shouldn’t be beyond what they can achieve, but it should stretch them.”
Kent McConnell

The historical lens

McConnell knew he wanted to change his approach to creating intellectual engagement in his classes this term, Salem Witch Trials: A Global History of Witchcraft and United States History, Colonial Origins to 1861. “At the table, the idea of exploration and experimentation with ideas is present because it’s a corporate thing, and the teacher has a lot of ability to encourage this pursuit of knowledge,” he says. “Last spring it was very clear that in isolation students struggled with that.”

This fall, students will spend more time exploring digital materials during their asynchronous blocks. These materials will be more diverse than in previous sessions of the class, and will include geographic information system (GIS) maps, photos of historic artifacts, and texts from museum and historical archives.

“I’m going to ask them to look at picture artifacts or texts that are not in context. They’ll know they’re in context of the era we’re studying, but they’ll have to make sense of them,” McConnell explains. “I will also use discussion boards in which I give very specific questions for students to consider, which is quite the opposite of what you do in a Harkness class. It’s a much more directed type of approach when it’s asynchronous.”

McConnell aims for high energy in the synchronous Zoom meetings. “There seems to be more resilience and more of a sense of ‘we can make this work,’” he says. “It’s better than it was last spring. … It’s more democratic or more widespread conversation.” He typically starts classes with “general questions oriented toward subjects that I want the students to talk through. … In a physical Harkness session, I wouldn’t be as specific or guiding. I might at times, but not constantly. I’m hoping that a little bit of that can come back to our Harkness discussions that are synchronous.”

McConnell has revised assessments and assignments, partly due to shorter synchronous class time, but also because, like many faculty members, he seeks the direct involvement of students in the selection of course deliverables, to ensure excitement and connection. Tests are out. Small-group projects, including documentaries or TEDx-style videos, are in. Readings are reduced. Papers, presented to the class for group discussion, and online discussion boards form more of the assignments.

“I want students to have enthusiasm about what they’re doing, especially during the pandemic, where the last thing I want to do is make education yet another stress and burden for them,” McConnell says. “I want students to know that I recognize the conditions they’re in, that I’m flexible, that they’ll do work but I think that the work needs to be fun to some level. It should be arduous for sure. It shouldn’t be beyond what they can achieve, but it should stretch them.”

The global witchcraft course, for example, has undergone significant restructuring. The Salem component has been lengthened and, for the first time, it will be co-taught by McConnell and Benjamin C. Ray, emeritus professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, author of several articles and a book on Salem, and a longtime research collaborator with McConnell. “Students will not only get a chance to interact with a scholar who has dedicated 20 years or so [to Salem], but they’ll also have the opportunity to ask him questions,” McConnell says. Students will dive deeply into themes of ostracism and violence. They will use the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, a website hosted by the University of Virginia and originated by Ray, as a major research tool. They will also be able to post their own research to the site, for which McConnell is the faculty curator.

“What I like to do is really problematize Salem,” McConnell says. “I try to get students to wrestle with this history, which has this large dialogue with what we’re living today, but try to isolate it to the point of getting it to individuals. As the lives of individuals come into view, students begin to understand the social forces at play and how certain beliefs shaped the decisions that were made. Soon, they recognize that some of the causative forces shaping the decisions made in the past are still alive and well today.”

McConnell adds, “My whole modus of teaching is to present conditions in which the student is almost ensnarled or entrapped in a way that they can’t help but develop some sense of sympathy, and hopefully empathy, for the historical past.”

English Instructor Patty Burke Hickey over Zoom.

Caring for new preps

Exeter opened with a staggered schedule: Uppers and seniors returned to campus in early September, with preps and lowers following in early October. While this afforded valuable weeks to safely roll out and adjust protocols with half of the students, it deferred the campus experience for preps. A big concern for Patty Burke Hickey, coordinator of the English curriculum for ninth graders, was helping these newest Exonians feel part of the community.

“I love ninth graders because they have so much energy and they’re so excited to be here,” Burke Hickey says. “Designing the ninth grade courses this year was about making them feel like they were almost here during the first few weeks of the term” and transitioning them smoothly after they arrived on campus.

This year’s warm welcome extended to re-creating some of the traditional new-student experiences, such as the live Harkness discussion with seniors that typically takes place on a stage as preps watch. The English Department filmed a discussion in Zoom, illustrating how Harkness interactions occur online; new students were able to watch it independently from home.

I want them to feel that I’ve created a space that allows them to be brave and take some chances with ideas. … The questions and the wondering are what lead them to genuine learning.”
Patty Burke Hickey

Burke Hickey projects positive vibes — “Whatever I bring to the class, they feel,” she says — and works to create engagement among the students and with the class materials as quickly as possible. For the first day of classes, she used a storytelling game to get the students interacting with each other. At the start of each class, the students take time to check in with one another, share experiences and ask questions.

“I want them to feel that I’ve created a space that allows them to be brave and take some chances with ideas,” Burke Hickey says. “And to not feel as if they’ve always got to come up with the perfect answer. The questions and the wondering are what lead them to genuine learning.”

After taking classes this summer in online course design, she created interactive, navigation-friendly sites on Canvas, the Academy’s online learning software, utilizing discussion boards, hyperlinks to multimedia, and tools such as Loom and Flipgrid, both video-based interfaces designed to encourage conversation among groups. Students log in to see Burke Hickey’s friendly avatar describe assignments, define expectations and guide them through the Canvas sites.

During the asynchronous blocks, Burke Hickey invites students to meet with her one-on-one if they have questions about homework: “Part of planning the online courses this term for me is using the asynchronous work time to get them ready to make the most out of the synchronous time and really work on Harkness discussions via Zoom.”

For added academic support, all preps, lowers and uppers will have the same English teacher in fall and winter term, to protect what Burke Hickey calls the “arc of their learning.” “It is going to be really important to their sense of community and continuity. And it will help them move forward as writers, as readers, and with their discussion skills on Zoom, until we can get them in the classroom.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2020 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.