Embracing Our New Educational Reality

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During the past few months, students at the Glenn Stratton Learning Center in Hinckley, Maine have taken field trips to see the Congo River, New York City’s Central Park and a bagpipe performance of “Amazing Grace” in Scotland.

All they needed was a Google Classroom account (and a few wonderful tour guides).

These virtual field trips are just one of the many tools that teachers at GSLC have used during the school’s move to remote learning, reinforcing the course material in ways that are both engaging and instructive.

Still, the transition hasn’t been an easy one.

Since its founding more than 130 years ago, Good Will Hinckley—the organization that oversees GSLC—has prided itself on an immersive approach to education. Our founder, George Walter Hinckley, was an ardent believer in the power of hands-on learning, from biology and botany to farming and forestry. Even today, much of GWH’s curricula, at both GLSC and the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, is built around this idea.

Like every school throughout the country, the COVID crisis forced us to reimagine—and in some cases completely reinvent—our approach to education. First and foremost, that meant making sure that every student—36 at GLSC, and 197 at MeANS—had access to a computer or laptop. If a student didn’t have one at home, we made sure he or she got one. If they didn’t have reliable internet, we set them up with a Wi-Fi hotspot.

How do you take a curriculum that’s designed to be largely hands-on and turn it into something that’s both engaging and educational?

But the biggest challenge was the one that came next. Specifically: How do you take a curriculum that’s designed to be largely hands-on and turn it into something that’s both engaging and educational?

What we quickly learned is that you can’t always have both. You can show kids a YouTube video about how to prune a lilac bush, but until they learn for themselves, with a pair of sheers in their hands, it won’t be the same. By contrast, you can send all the PDFs you want, but if all students are doing is reading and regurgitating the material, their engagement is bound to suffer.

The hard truth is, there’s no such thing as a perfect plan, a perfect class, or even a perfect lesson. Not when remote learning is still so new to students and teachers.

We cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

But as famous saying goes, we cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Instead, what we should be striving for, above all, is creativity: trying new things, seeing what works, and coming back the next day ready to try again.

Virtual field trips are just one example of how teachers at GWH are using technology in creative ways. At MeANS, one of our social studies teachers asked her students to research various water-collection devices. Once they settled on a device, students were required to do two things: write a research paper, and create a model of the device at their home—and send pictures through Google. It’s this kind of blended learning that will help students prepare for the classroom of the future.

But being a creative virtual teacher is about more than conveying the coursework; it’s also about keeping students connected—to their classmates, to their school and to their own sense of well-being.

When one of our teachers noticed that a student was getting frustrated with the day’s lesson, he asked the student and his parents to grab their phones and join him for a walk outside. Even though they were taking walks in two different places, it was a bonding experience—a chance to step outside the confines of the “classroom” and talk about life. Thirty minutes later, the student felt refreshed and ready to tackle the day’s lesson.

Another silver lining has been seeing how families become more involved in their children’s education. At GWH, where many students come from challenging backgrounds, that participation isn’t always a given.

But as often happens in times of crisis, there’s a belief throughout our community that we’re all in this together. That the best way to ensure the future success of our students is to keep them engaged—intellectually as well as emotionally.

We know we can’t rely on remote learning forever. For GWH to make good on its mission, we need to strike an effective balance between the technological tools of today and the kind of hands-on skills that make our curricula so unique. But we also know that the skills our teachers and students are cultivating will serve them well after this crisis subsides.

It might not be quite the kind of learning that George Hinckley envisioned, but having seen the creativity and camaraderie our community has shown, I do know one thing: He would definitely be proud.