Virtual Commonwealth: Inside Our New Educational Adventure

The crackling conversation in an English class. A chorus of birthday wishes at recess. A brilliant speaker regaling an attentive crowd at assembly. 

It all felt so normal. And it all happened within Virtual Commonwealth, behind 184 screens in 184 different places. 

With little more than a week of remote learning under their belts, students and faculty seem to have found their footing via Virtual Commonwealth. Adhering to much of our “normal” schedule, each day has retained a familiar rhythm. And though the school continues to adapt and improve upon the online education model with each passing day, the progress has been encouraging.

“It was like being in class.”

Despite the abrupt shift to online learning, many classes went on much as they normally would—albeit with more cameos from small children and pets. For example, in Biology 1 students are now covering evolution and population biology, so the unit’s use of online simulators and paper labs is going forward as planned.

Other course work had to be updated for the virtual experience. History teachers have modified the spring research paper in recognition of the more limited resources students will have access to without the typical use of libraries. And Commonwealth’s art teachers, without the resources of their studios, have challenged students to use the materials at hand and see the world around them in new ways, from composing photographs with their phones to making sculptures from found objects. 

Though some teachers initially reported quiet classes as students got used to the back and forth in an online conference, others spoke of the same lively discussions they knew so well and of enhanced learning through digitally sharing resources. Virtual backgrounds have also enlivened the virtual classroom experience, with many students and faculty appearing before everything from tropical beaches to their real-world classrooms.

Morning recess has become a particularly meaningful touchpoint—a way of gathering against all odds. Students can call to their clubs and shout out birthday wishes as they have all year. In recent days, both students and faculty have taken advantage of April being National Poetry Month, with daily readings at recess featuring both original works and the likes of W.H. Auden and Pablo Neruda.

Commonwealth’s virtual assemblies have been welcome returns to normal as well. The annual Project Assembly featured three students discussing their time writing a novel, drawing a comic book, and working on a goat farm, respectively. And during our first virtual assembly, poet Major Jackson addressed a full “house,” reading his work, diving into poetic techniques, and sharing his inspirations.

Both events sparked the typically insightful questions from students, and for a moment, one could imagine themselves back in the Cafegymnatorium.

“I never realized that this sort of remote experience could feel so warm and fuzzy.”

From the very first day of online classes, it was clear that students and faculty were eager to be back together, if only virtually. As they always have, student clubs have been meeting at lunch. Faculty have opened their classrooms as spaces where students can collaborate, find peer support, or simply be together. Even regular lunch tables have opted to continue eating as a group. 

Since the building closed, and despite the fact that most of their planned volunteer activities were canceled, Commonwealth’s students have been particularly proactive in their community service efforts as well: One student created a tutoring program to support local families. Another raised money ($5,000 in less than a week) to buy 6,000 facemasks for area hospitals. Multiple students have been sewing facemasks and hair coverings by hand. The supermarket drive team shifted all their efforts to soliciting donations via an Amazon wishlist. And the list goes on.  

In the midst of launching Virtual Commonwealth, our admissions team hosted an impressive array of events for admitted students and their families, welcoming them to the school with sample classes, extracurricular panels, and Q&A sessions—all with the support of current students and faculty, who managed to fit these events into their busy schedules even as they acclimated to remote learning. 

As it often is, Commonwealth’s small size has been one of its biggest strengths throughout this ordeal. Faculty and students continue connect one-on-one. Student groups and projects have been able to pivot and adapt quickly. And, perhaps most importantly, our tight-knit community—with its enduring empathy, warmth, and kindness—is a consistent reminder: 

We are not alone.

Learn more about Virtual Commonwealth.