The faculty of The Avalon School draws inspiration from 20th century scholar and poet G.K. Chesterton’s insightful words in forming and guiding the school’s philosophy of a well-rounded classical Christian education. This past spring, however, one of the author’s quotes, “An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered,” took on an unforeseen and greater significance for Avalon’s teachers and students alike.
When all academic institutions in Maryland closed in mid March to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the faculty and students of Avalon rose to the new challenge, transitioning quickly and without interruption to a creative and effective use of written, live, and recorded instruction on various communication platforms for the nearly 200 students of the all-boys school in Wheaton, Maryland.
From a natural history forum in which boys posted their observations, pictures or videos of plants and wildlife to teacher Tom Stroot’s weekly YouTube videos offering practical life lessons, such as “How To Cook An Egg,” to a fictional character – Professor Mortimer J. Cromwell who bore a striking resemblance to lower school teacher Istvan Teleki – reading E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan – are just a few examples of the faculty’s energy, humor and dedication in creating online lessons with an extra dose of true Avalonian “adventure” for their students.
“It’s the beauty of a small school environment. We have a rapport with our families and are able to work together to make (remote learning) much more manageable,” said Istvan Teleki, Avalon’s Director of Admissions and faculty member. “We know our students. Through those personal relationships formed (in the classroom), we were able to maintain them” throughout nearly four months of online instruction.
Tom Stroot, who teaches Upper School math, English, history and religion, said the success of the school’s inaugural remote-learning program is a credit to the commitment and ingenuity of the Avalon faculty, as well as the administration’s trust in its teachers.
“We were allowed to teach using our individual strengths. (Headmaster) Kevin Davern said, ‘You know your students. You know our community. Present the material in the way that works best,’” said Stroot, adding such flexibility allowed for class adaptability and quick fixes if necessary. “The talent of our faculty really shined through.”
Avalon’s faculty praises the school’s gradebook/communications platform – JupiterEd – for its multiple programs, allowing them to implement faculty-wide distance teaching tools, as well as customize certain features to meet students’ needs and class goals.
Despite the expedited shift to remote learning, the Avalon faculty kept their students on track academically, using platforms such as Google Classroom, Zoom, YouTube and Microsoft Teams – often doubling the amount of time it usually takes in a regular school year – to prepare for and teach online lessons. The faculty also went the extra mile to offer supplemental and remote resources, such as one-on-one screen time academic help for individual students.
English teacher Tom Tobin said although he looks forward to being back in the classroom this fall, he found a few silver linings to Avalon’s remote instruction. “I was able to send audio files to each student with detailed instructions about how to revise their papers. I think in some ways it was better than the normal process,” he said.
Avalon Headmaster Kevin Davern said the school’s smaller class sizes, which serve students so well during in-person instruction, now became the school’s greatest asset and advantage in virtual learning.
“As a group of teachers in a smaller setting, we know our students very well. And, while virtual instruction will never be as good as in-person teaching, Avalon teachers were able to tailor asynchronous lessons via screencast or on YouTube in a much more meaningful way than a bigger school could have,” according to Davern.
“Our teachers did impressive work during the shut-down last school year. Whether it was watching Mrs. Kolf call on each child by name, Mr. Teleki telling young Charlie to tuck in his shirt on a YouTube video, or Tom Stroot in a variety of guises presenting math lessons on a portable whiteboard – the conviction and cheerfulness of the lessons was impressive,” he said.
While some local school districts struggled mightily to meet the academic needs of students during the unprecedented shutdown, Avalon School parents applaud the school’s faculty for their enthusiasm, flexibility and communication in providing a steady, engaging curriculum in a time of global anxiety.
“It was fun seeing how the faculty got creative in order to engage their students virtually...The small class sizes at Avalon allowed the teachers to respond more quickly to the needs of their students and parents, and if something didn’t seem to be working, they’d try something else,” said Erica Hayton, mother of rising Avalon 5th grader, Conor.
The transition to remote learning was a challenge for every parent she knows, said Hayton. However, she is grateful for how well Avalon continued, in spite of the “inconveniences,” to provide a strong and “adventurous” education that would make G.K. Chesterton proud.
“Having talked to many parents about their experiences, I am very thankful that my son is at Avalon and appreciate how hard the faculty worked to maintain the strong sense of connection that makes our Avalon community so great,” she said.
By Maureen Boyle
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