Teaching from a distance

Exeter faculty members reflect on the spring term.

Daneet Steffens ’82
July 31, 2020
Becky Moore seated at her Harkness table

The first thing English Instructor Becky Moore did with her students during spring term was survey their access to technology and the course material.

This spring, Exeter joined almost all other educational institutions in pivoting swiftly to distance teaching and learning. During a period of forced isolation, PEA faculty shifted their classes to provide both synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities and adjusted their teaching to engage their students across the globe. There were, inevitably, moments of not just technical trouble-shooting but trepidation at the prospect of becoming, in effect, novice teachers again. 

There were also new opportunities for innovation and growth as educators. Whether it was discovering how to teach poetry via screen-sharing, finding new ways to engage with students through digital equipment, or rethinking how to assess student learning, Exeter’s faculty, as individuals and collectively, faced a steep learning curve of their own. 

“The speedy pivot from expecting a regular spring term to realizing we would be teaching entirely online placed a premium on resilience, flexibility and improvisation,” says Dean of Faculty Ellen Wolff P’17. “My colleagues are skilled and seasoned teachers who know how to work with adolescents; they are experts in their fields and at the Harkness pedagogy. But there is nothing like sitting with 12 kids around a Harkness table — nothing like it. ... And there are no Harkness tables on Zoom. 

It was our commitment to caring for all students that kept us going. Our charge as boarding school teachers is to take care of the whole child."
Dean of Faculty Ellen Wolff

“It was our commitment to caring for all students that kept us going,” Wolff says. “Our charge as boarding school teachers is to take care of the whole child, to take into account the social and emotional factors that have an impact on their learning and growth,” Wolff says. “Our pedagogy — our work across the board — is built on sturdy relationships between adults and students, so we kept a clear focus on relationships this term. We knew that we probably wouldn’t cover as much academically as we would otherwise. And because we have such a diverse student body, we had students living in varying circumstances. Some had few family responsibilities and ample Wi-Fi. Others were looking after sick family members or, because of the financial impact of the pandemic, taking on full-time jobs. As always, it was our responsibility to do our best to help all students succeed.” 

The importance of engaging directly with students around their various situations and taking those into account was the clear first step for Becky Moore P’03, P’05, P’08. “The very first communication I had with my students was a survey on access,” says Moore, an Exeter English instructor since 1990. Time zones proved to be a particular challenge, so Moore established one weekly synchronous class meeting that everyone could attend together, and two asynchronous learning opportunities that each student could access on their own time. 

While Moore had her frustrations with Zoom, she realized that screen-sharing when it comes to poetry can be an unexpected gift. “If you choose a 14-line poem,” she says, “it fits on the screen. I’d say, ‘OK, we’re going to read the poem line by line,’ and [I would] type their names into the chat box telling them, ‘Here’s the order we’re going to read in.’ There’s a lot to keep track of with all these different features; but we read the poem line by line so you hear everyone’s voices.” Using the annotate feature, students would choose a color and, Moore adds, “mark up the poem: highlight a word, put a squiggle on something they want to talk about, draw brackets if they see a sound parallel.” 

Ellen Wolff seated at her desk

That collective reading clearly empowered the students. Moore listened as they queried each other’s mark-ups — “What about the red squiggle? Who made that? What were you thinking of?” — asking questions of each other just as they would at the Harkness table. In a way, Moore notes, it’s an improvement from projecting a video in the classroom because at that point every head will twist toward one wall away from the table and from everyone else in the room. “[On Zoom], we were all involved at the same time, with the same focus on our laptops, discussing our collective work. The first time we did that was my most satisfying day.” 

Eschewing novels for poetry also spurred Moore to tap into literary resources closer to home, teaching the poems of Ralph Sneeden, a fellow faculty member, who then joined the class for a live discussion online. “I felt responsible to offer learning experiences that were as engaging as possible,” Moore says. “To have the poet join us on screen, rather than just through his words in print, provided the opportunity for real human engagement, which was quite meaningful as we all lived and learned at a distance from each other.” 

Trying to think of ways to keep them engaged, that’s what I focused on.”
Science Instructor Sean Campbell

Computer Science Instructor Sean Campbell also embraced new approaches to teaching, giving fewer assignments but making them meatier, breaking them up into digestible parts so that students who were having difficulty were able to complete them. 

“We can’t practice Harkness the way we do at school,” says Campbell, who has been teaching computer science at Exeter for eight years. “And I didn’t make that a focal point of what I was trying to do with online learning. Rather than try to do something that was not reproducible, I focused more on thinking about outcomes, thinking about engagement of students generally, knowing that not everybody was going to be coming to class — it just wasn’t possible for all the students to be in class each time, whether it was because of time zones or because they were watching brothers and sisters at home, or for [many other] different situations. So just trying to think of ways to keep them engaged, that’s what I focused on.” 

Sean Campbell leaning against the wall of Phelps Science Center

One example was his class in artificial intelligence. You could teach it in a purely theoretical way, says Campbell, but most students want to build something, they want to create. For their final project, Campbell gave them the freedom to choose their own approach. “I said, ‘Just do something that’s related to AI: You can write some code, write a paper, do some research — whatever. If you can connect the dots to artificial intelligence in some way, you can make a project out of it.’ I was glad I did that because it got me thinking about the project differently. Before, I had a much narrower view of what that final project should be; I would probably have expected them to build a software application. Now I can see that there are lots of interesting ways that kids can explore the topic.” 

While some of the students did build an AI project that played chess or made a neural network, there were others who were curious about AI’s impact on the environment. “They did the research and it almost became like a sociology paper but with a technical bent,” Campbell says. “They were able to discuss the technical aspects because it was a field they had spent the whole term studying, and they could talk about what they knew about it in relation to this social issue or environmental issue. I wanted them to be able to express themselves though the project, and the variety of outcomes was pretty incredible.” 

Similarly, Moore, who has always been focused on students creating written work, began to explore audio- and video-sharing opportunities and, in doing so, expanded her understanding of valid material for student expression. This term, a colleague of Moore’s sent around a link to the StoryCorps website as a resource for the Roots assignment in which students interview family members and then typically produce a written paper. In describing the storytelling site, Moore says, “I could link students to [StoryCorps] and assign them homework like, ‘Spend 30 minutes listening to some interviews. Explore them; choose a question list; choose a relative you have access to; record the interview.’” Other assignments included asking students to record themselves reading a poem to capture their interpretation of the piece’s mood through their verbal pace and tone. Moore also derived inspiration from The New York Times’ 15-second vocabulary video challenge and would ask her students to each select a word and define it for their peers. 

One challenge, she notes, was the loss of certain kinds of interpersonal interaction despite everyone’s best efforts. “In the beginning, with this online stuff, I’d say ‘Goodbye’ to the students and then, clunk, you leave the Zoom meeting, and I’d suddenly be alone in my classroom. It was awful. Exeter students have a lovely habit here of saying ‘Thank you’ as they leave class. In the beginning, I just didn’t know how to end class.” She developed a new strategy: “I’d get scared before every class — I still do — because the technology might not work or something. But I learned that if I said, ‘OK, I’ll stay online if anyone has questions or would like to check in. Great job today, and have a good week,’ they started saying their usual ‘thank you’s and some would even stay and chat.” 

To have the poet join us on screen, rather than just through his words in print, provided the opportunity for real human engagement, which was quite meaningful as we all lived and learned at a distance from each other.”
English Instructor Becky Moore

Campbell missed that face-to-face interpersonal interaction, too. While he worked hard at making videos for asynchronous classes, the in-person feedback was absent. “I would try to be not too dry and a little bit silly and tell my dumb jokes and hope the students would think they were amusing,” he says. “But not being able to interact with them, it just wasn’t the same.”

Even synchronous classes, he says, had a different feel. “Other teachers will also tell you: We’re used to awkward silences at the Harkness table, but this was different.” While synchronous classes were more interactive, Campbell was always aware that they were more interactive for some more than others. 

“They were interactive for those who were in a reasonable time zone, or within reasonable proximity to this time zone, for those for whom it was not 2 a.m. where they were when class was happening, and if they didn’t have other home responsibilities. Teachers love the interaction, sure — that’s what we enjoy about teaching. But we have to keep in our minds what’s working for our students. And particularly now, we can’t forget about the students in difficult situations.” 

Future iterations of distance learning, Campbell says, will require new pedagogical tools that can specifically encourage discussion in a Zoom context. “I was trying to think the other day, ‘What is a good icebreaker in that situation? What’s a good Zoom icebreaker?’ And I was lucky this term to be teaching upper-level classes with five students I knew already. ... I can see having a totally different experience where meeting all of your students online for the first time and then trying to have this discussion class — I can see that being a whole other challenge.”

To collectively tackle some of the hurdles imposed by distance learning, Campbell and the other computer science teachers met weekly; they also met weekly as part of the larger Science Department. “I have a good understanding of what my computer science colleagues did, a pretty good understanding of what my science colleagues did, but outside of that I have less,” he says. “I was also in a cross-departmental group that met daily, and we talked about technology and distance learning through the lens of equity. It was helpful in that it was my chance to hear from teachers in other departments on a regular basis, learning the kinds of things they were dealing with and how they were dealing with them.” 

That continued sharing of experiences and knowledge exchange is key, Campbell says. “I think there’s a lot we can learn from one another in figuring out how to best accommodate students going forward with distance learning. I know somebody else is doing something better than me on campus and I want to hear from that person. And I like to think that there are some things I figured out pretty well, and I’d like to share that with others. That’s the way we move forward. As long as our focus is caring about the students, that’s what they’re going to respond to.”

In June, Exeter enrolled the entire faculty in a weeklong course in designing for online learning. Central to the faculty’s work that week were the cross-departmental discussions Campbell described, in which faculty members considered the online-teaching practices, tools and strategies they were learning through the lenses of Harkness, equity and anti-racism. And every afternoon that week, each department worked to develop a coherent plan for summer work on curriculum, course design, assessment, and pedagogy, so they would be prepared, Wolff says, to offer “top-notch online courses in the fall.”

“To say that spring term was challenging is an understatement,” Wolff says. “But my colleagues’ commitment to doing their best for our students was, as always, inspiring. It was great to come together at the end of the term and talk across departments about what we care about: teaching kids.”

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

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