Virtual Commonwealth Classes and Learning

Commonwealth’s extraordinary teachers adapted our rigorous curriculum to the online format in the spring of 2020 in light of the pandemic, and they have been iterating on their classroom successes ever since to ensure students receive the caliber of instruction that defines a Commonwealth education. 

Schedule

For the spring of 2020, students followed their “normal” weekly schedule, with four meetings of each full-credit course and two of each half-credit course each week. Some lessons occurred synchronously (live, during allotted class time), while others occurred asynchronously (independently or during other meeting times), as befitting the needs of the class. 

Any future virtual class schedule, including for fall 2020, has yet to be determined. Our contingency plans account for many possible scenarios, recognizing that ongoing management of the spread of coronavirus may require intermittent periods of sheltering and online learning. 

Classes

Remote classes are taught in the Virtual Commonwealth “building” via a personalized overlay onto the Zoom platform. 

Teachers use our existing systems—Gmail and parts of the Google educational suite such as Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Classroom, and Google Hangouts—to communicate lessons and expectations, including the mode of learning for each lesson (i.e., synchronous or asynchronous). In advance of each lesson, teachers provide students with any necessary instructions, links, and learning materials. We encourage students to reach out to their teachers proactively if they have questions or an assignment is unclear. In addition, teachers may set up office hours during a set period or arrange for remote conversations with students as needed or desired.

Lessons themselves can take many forms, and teachers will use a range of tools and techniques to facilitate learning and interaction. To gain a sense of the type of learning activities students will experience during remote learning lessons, here are three possible examples:

  • Example 1: At the start of a synchronous biology class, students click on the teacher’s “room” in Virtual Commonwealth. After welcoming the students, the teacher engages them in a discussion of a homework assignment that students completed individually, asynchronously. During the discussion, students pose questions and share their work with the teacher and with each other electronically (using the “chat” function). Before the end of the period, students take a two-question Google Form quiz that will allow the teacher to assess their understanding.
  • Example 2: During a synchronous math class, students are tasked with working in pairs on a data analysis project—small groups can work together in a “breakout room.” At the start of the class period, each pair undertakes the work on a Google Doc or Sheet, which is also shared with the teacher. The teacher monitors the work of the pairs throughout the period. The lesson that follows tasks each pair with finishing the data analysis project asynchronously, so each pair schedules a mutually convenient time to complete that lesson before the next synchronous meeting with the class as a whole.
  • Example 3: Students begin an asynchronous history lesson at a time of their choosing by consulting materials the teacher has posted on Google Drive. There, they find a link to a primary source, and they are tasked with posting two questions about it. They are also tasked with reviewing notes and developing a thesis in preparation for writing an open-book essay that they will complete individually and then discuss as a class during the subsequent synchronous class session.

Hands-On Learning

Though many student projects were canceled in the spring of 2020 out of necessity, many experiential learning opportunities, both in class and out, have been adapted to the virtual format. 

Biology classes, for example, covered evolution and population biology using online simulators and paper labs. Other supplemental learning activities include group problem-solving, online simulations, and interactive videos. Some teachers have conducted scientific inquiry at home as well, such as using polarized sunglasses to do some experiments with light. Most art classes also adjusted their curricula as needed; the sculpture students, as another example, made works with found objects.

Commonwealth students have also engaged in community service, research, and other traditionally “hands-on” experiences to great effect in virtual formats. We anticipate a proliferation of future opportunities as well, conducted online and possibly in person, as organizations adjust to the unique demands of remote and socially distant work environments.   

Homework and Assessments

Homework and other assessments have also been updated to reflect the remote learning format and may sometimes look different from “regular” Commonwealth homework. Homework may precede or follow synchronous class sessions; teachers will be clear about assignments and remain cognizant of load—given the many uncertainties and variables in our students’ lives at the moment, teachers and advisors will be checking in with them to gauge their engagement, understanding, and well-being.

Grading

The faculty decided to continue to grade work through the end of the 2019-2020 academic year and to calculate year grades for all graded courses. (Only year-end grades appear on transcripts for grades 9-11.) We feel that this will best serve our students when, as seniors, they file college applications. 

Recognizing, however, the challenges students face with the transition to online learning, and the reduction in material covered, teachers adjusted the weight of the fourth quarter work accordingly. In most cases (with the primary exception of students who turn out a strong fourth quarter) significantly greater weight will be given to the cumulative average through third quarter when calculating year-end grades. 

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