Oliver Ouyang unpacked a handful of marshmallows and opened boxes of toothpicks. No, he would not make s’mores but create a structure: a “mighty pyramid” for his seventh-grade Science class, during the online learning program at Keystone Academy. It was one of the activities for their Chemistry unit on Form and Function, where students learned the purpose and applications of different shapes. Oliver chose a framework that is reminiscent of the Louvre Pyramid.
It took him two days to build his assignment, from reviewing lessons, to configuring the form to make the triangular layers sturdier. The seventh grader even ran out of marshmallows—because he ate a bunch while creating the structure.
How many triangles are there in that pyramid? Oliver and his dad counted a total of 1,140 using math formulas!
Oliver says he enjoys his current Science classes a lot because of the creative experiments and fun assignments they do even if they are away from the classroom. But he misses his classmates already.
“I want to see them, and my teachers, as soon as possible,” he says.
In a couple of days, Oliver, along with his classmates and students from other grades in middle and high school, will be returning to Keystone after four months of learning online. His ninth-grade peers are already back on campus.
Switching the ‘Center of Learning’
In one ninth-grade Science class, students are watching their teacher conduct a live chemistry experiment on certain food items and their contents to visualize how the human body absorbs different nutrients. A full class experiment is not possible as everyone needs to observe physical distancing.
It is the first experiment that they have done in the laboratory since January. Vickey Zhou likes it so much, especially as she prefers face-to-face discussions and activities that allow her to grasp scientific concepts faster.
Science teacher Ritchie Vergara, who did the chemistry demonstration, says hands-on activities are among the best strategies for students to learn. During the online learning phase of the second semester, Ms. Vergara and her colleagues Karen Temple Beamish and TJ Rydeen in the Middle School (MS) Science Department have endeavored to get their Grade 7 students conducting valid and engaging experiments at home. Now that ninth graders are back, and students from other grade levels soon, teachers are preparing more activities to stimulate the experimental interests of the students.
For Science teacher Ritchie Vergara, science concepts become more meaningful when students see them in action, especially in experiments
“It is our human nature that we learn best by doing,” Ms. Vergara says, “With these experiences, students get to explore by themselves. Especially with the online learning situation where all students are facing computers all day and get tired easily, they experience doing more when they build or work with their hands. It brings science concepts closer to them.”
Learning by doing also rings true to many educators like MS Math teacher Ashley Qiu, who is back to her classroom but still meets her seventh- and eighth-grade classes virtually. Ms. Qiu is exploring a website dedicated to math teaching, which she discovered while trying out other apps at the height of the online learning phase. The website, she explains, allows teachers to track the overall progress of each student, so they can identify which student needs immediate feedback or help. It also has a screen share function so students can explain how they problem-solve in real time.
The classes of Ms. Qiu use Desmos.com, which facilitate math learning and allows for quicker feedback
Ms. Qiu says there have been so many light-bulb moments in her classes. In some sessions when she examines the website’s functions, her students are quick to help her troubleshoot in real time. In other classes, the internet-savvy youngsters introduce advanced computer workarounds to facilitate discussions. These occasions, she said, “switch the ‘center of learning’ to students” and “give opportunities to learn from each other.”
“Some kids have different methods of finding answers to math problems, and they often get very creative,” Ms. Qiu says, “And that’s important for other students to know that there are multiple ways to solve questions. And sometimes, the handwriting of students is so hard to read! So the online interface makes it easier for the class to read those methods.”
Ms. Qiu has shared the website with her colleagues Sarah Firestone and Tina Lium in the Grade 7 Math team. Now, this is part of their tools for delivering interactive math lessons. Ms. Qiu is also preparing her hybrid lessons, saying she is “so excited to have my kids back” in a few weeks.
Keeping Active While Keeping a Distance
In other ninth-grade classes, teachers find ways to blend lessons with reminders on physical distancing—and they can be as quirky as a hula hoop.
Using hula hoops as a physical distancing barrier between students is inspired by the Monkey King’s invisible protective rings
Chinese teacher Wang Yang has employed these colorful rings in her Chinese Language and Literature (CLL) classes, where students sit inside them to observe a one-meter distance from one another. This eccentric idea, she says, came from chats with several colleagues, and it was Chinese teacher Cao Shujuan who first mentioned hula hoops. That transported Ms. Wang to a magical scene in Journey to the West, where the Monkey King outlined an invisible circle with his staff to protect his master and fellow apprentices.
Ms. Wang and her CLL classes are now in a unit where they are rethinking Confucianism and Taoism from a modern and global perspective to see the applications of these schools of thought in social phenomena, including the pandemic. They recently had a debate in the classroom—the first physical session since their return to school.
Other ninth graders have gone out to the Keystone oval to play team games for their Physical Education classes. The students, together with their instructors, are applying the lessons and theories they discussed in the Leadership in Sports unit during the online learning phase. Hank Zhou is one of the students tasked to explain the mechanics of touch ball to his group and tell the roles of his classmates in the game.
Hank Zhou (middle) believes that “everyone can be a great leader” and there are many opportunities for students to practice leadership outside of sports
Hank and his entire crew are filled with an adrenalin rush while throwing balls against each other. Hank, a basketball player himself, thinks that leadership is “the ability to motivate teammates and unite the team.” So for him, his PE classes hit the mark because they bring him “specific ways to apply the leadership lessons.”
PE teacher Aki Mustonen says leadership in sport can be transferred to many areas of life. Aside from developing a strong character, leadership makes students more adaptable and confident and builds their presentation and planning skills, he says.
“The lesson also allows them to understand that everyone has their style of leadership, so students can choose which style will be the best to present their activities,” Mr. Mustonen adds. “And especially, with the events of the previous months, I’ve seen the massive growth in our students. Leadership skills will bring them out of their comfort zones.”
In an assembly to wrap up the first week of back-to-school for ninth graders, Head of Middle School Dr. Maureen McCoy commended the students for showing that learning and having fun can happen while following health and hygiene measures.
“When the other students return, every single one of you,” Dr. McCoy told the ninth graders, “…is going to be a leader in helping them to understand how we can keep Keystone safe so it stays open. If you see your friends or people forgetting [about physical distancing], give them a friendly reminder, because these do not always have to come from the adults—they can come from you, too.”
Photos: Oliver Ouyang, Wang Yang, Hank Zhou