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Marist School Pivots to Virtual Learning

On Wednesday, March 18, Marist School marked both the beginning of Term 3 and the transition to virtual learning. In response to the global pandemic COVID-19 and with just a 72-hour notice, Marist completely shifted academic learning online, calling on faculty, staff, and students to begin a learning journey they had never previously undertaken.
Marist’s virtual learning program consists of a block schedule, with class periods meeting at set times each day. As much as possible, the virtual learning environment has been set up to resemble the in-person classroom. Google Meet, where the students and teachers interact together, provides a real-time environment for students and teachers to connect online during the class. The block schedule has longer class periods, providing time for teachers to lecture and students to complete coursework within the period and have time for questions. This allows students to have a manageable amount of work, without sacrificing their academic goals, as they adjust to this new format. Marist is providing a structure for students, which includes wearing the Marist summer uniform polo shirt to give a sense of normalcy and decorum to the day.
 
The relationship between a faculty member and students, much of which stems from the sustained, in-person contact that occurs on a daily basis in the school setting, is irreplaceable. Virtual learning cannot fully replicate that and requires different tools and a different mindset on the part of the instructor and the student. The goal of Marist’s virtual learning program is to allow as little disruption to the student experience of the academic program as possible by creating a learning environment where the most essential, core material can continue to be taught and assessed with the tools available. This requires teachers to innovate and students to think differently about how they learn and how they will complete the work required of them.
 
Student and parent feedback alike indicate that Marist’s transition to virtual learning has been highly successful, which is due to the tireless preparation of our Technology Department and the open, energetic response of our faculty to making this change. Marist School Principal Mr. Kevin Mullally said, “With virtual learning, it’s like all teachers are first-year teachers; they have to rethink every lesson. I appreciate our faculty approaching virtual learning with a problem-solving attitude. We have been thoughtful about what was important to hold onto and preserve with virtual learning and what could be let go.”
 
Marist also is offering students and their families continued support through resources provided by Campus Ministry and the Counseling Department, as well as through virtual events such as a Parent Coffee Hour recently hosted by Mr. Mullally. He commented, “It’s important to us to think of ways to be alongside each other through this, even though we’re separated physically.” Parents are noting that students themselves are finding unique ways to connect virtually—such as recreating the lunchroom experience by eating together online.
 
After the first week and a half of virtual learning, Marist altered the weekly schedule to make space for necessary student programming, such as course scheduling for the 2020-2021 school year, and to offer support to students through three signature programs: tutorial, Advisory, and Foundations Homeroom. The latter two provide a weekly check-in for students to make sure adults outside of the classroom setting have a chance to support students and the former provides a set time each week for additional academic support.

Social Studies Department Chair Mr. Matt Romano ’95 reflected on how the entire situation has made teachers once again realize how fortunate they are to be teaching at Marist. Mr. Romano said, "Our one-to-one laptop program coupled with a motivated student body has allowed us to make as smooth a transition as possible to remote learning.”
 
In the Social Studies department, most teachers have adopted a pattern of meeting with students for the first 20-30 minutes of class to check in and instruct, then allowing students to work, sometimes independently, sometimes with groups or partners, for an extended amount of time. Classes conclude by meeting again for the final 15 minutes of the period to de-brief, review, and plan for the next meeting. Social Studies teachers also are discovering new techniques and methods for content delivery and assessment. Mr. Romano added, “I’m finding myself encouraging more group and partner work for two reasons. One, it’s effective and replicates what we do in a normal class, but two, and possibly more important, it allows for and even requires some degree of social interaction among students. Teenagers need to connect with one another and, obviously, social distancing measures have become a real hinderance to this. We want to continue to find ways to help our students interact in a healthy and consistent way.”
 
In Dr. Christine Bhasin’s World Literature class, seniors are working in teams to create podcasts born out of their reading of novels and nonfiction books about Afghanistan and the modern Middle East. Dr. Bhasin said, “This project is well-suited to virtual execution through both student and faculty collaboration. I lead the synchronous instruction, post assignments and tools to our G-class, and give feedback along the way. I am grateful to my colleagues, Ms. Angela Williams, who created a library pathfinder and video tutorial to help students with research, and Dr. Justin Horton, who created a video for students on how to use Audacity on their laptops to record and edit their final products. Meanwhile, the students spend part of our class time breaking out into their teams to brainstorm, research, and collaboratively compose their scripts. Who said virtual learning had to be lonely?”
 
Her students have enjoyed the collaborative assignment. JT Termini ’20 said, “Honestly, I’ve had a ton of fun doing this project. Even though we weren't together in class, we had the resources to collaborate and come together with, in my opinion, a great project. I feel projects that use the virtual setting well, like this one, make school much more accessible and help students to learn better overall.”
 
Some classes may be hard to imagine in a virtual format. For example, how does Band Teacher Mr. Mark Craddock lead a class of more than 60 students playing different instruments at the same time? Mr. Craddock is approaching the task with enthusiasm and creativity. He said, “With this new reality, we can’t play live together because of delay and feedback. The way we do it now, they listen to me play, and then I click on them individually to play. I also meet separately with the instrument groups and I have students send me clips of them playing individually so I can evaluate and help them.”
 
Band student Caroline Sheesley ’25 said, “I struggle with finding a good time to play my trombone while my family is also working a few feet away. We have taken on more assignments about listening to and interpreting music, which I enjoy. During class, we spend most of the time reviewing scales and working on music for a concert that might never happen. This can be frustrating, but the songs we get to play are fun.”
 
Conner Abshier ’20 shared, “In Band, it is very important to align yourself with the timing of the conductor and the volume and key with the other players around you. When we are playing at home, we don’t have either of those things. Mr. Craddock is helping us the best way he can.”
 
For Chair of the Modern and Classical Languages Department and French Teacher Mrs. Colleen Cogan Penn ’05, virtual learning provides a great opportunity for the language teachers to do projects and cultural investigations that they may not normally have time for in their curriculum. She said, “In many of our classes, we are using more project-based learning to continue to build students’ skills in the language. I am having my French IV class plan an imaginary vacation for ‘Monsieur and Madame Penn’ to take to a French-speaking country after COVID-19 passes. They are practicing the future tense, and they are learning about different Francophone countries around the world. Mrs. Erica Buchanan’s Spanish students are watching films related to the vocabulary theme they are studying and writing film reviews.”
 
From the parent perspective, current Marist parent and Marist Alumni Association President Megan Stewart ’95 said, “The structure has been helpful for families, knowing that there is a set schedule and accountability for students in place. Students are able to work independently, with the support of their teachers, as they would have during ‘regular’ school. The work has been well-paced, and the students are engaged directly in real time with their teachers and their classmates, which is fostering community and connection at this uncertain time…The faculty and staff have worked hard to do everything possible for students to have a school experience using online tools, and I think the students are benefiting from it. This will clearly be remembered as a challenging time for all of us, but I think that Marist students will remember it as a time when their school and their community stepped up to help them have a sense of normalcy, routine, and connection.”
 
During this time of uncertainty, Marist is committed to doing our part to attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our community and to keep our students, their families, and our faculty and staff safe and healthy. There is comfort in knowing that the school has been through this before. More than 100 years ago, Marist College (as it was called then) closed for four weeks in response to the 1918 influenza pandemic. Marist is facing this current ever-changing situation by continuing to live our mission, doing our best, and working together under the name of Mary.
 
 

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Marist School

3790 Ashford Dunwoody Road, NE
Atlanta, GA 30319-1899
(770) 457-7201
An Independent Catholic School of the Marist Fathers and Brothers