Academics: Compassion and Engagement in a Crisis

by Mike Peller, Assistant Head of School for Teaching and Learning

At the heart of our academic program is a collection of unique students and their unique curiosities. We know and firmly believe that students are wired to learn, so long as we can provide the right learning environment. That environment, we know, is one that permeates trust, care, and respect, as well as a principal belief that students are capable of doing remarkable things if we give them the space to do so. This has always been understood at The White Mountain School. Thus, our response—which was spurred by COVID, this summer’s renewed reckoning on race and the political turmoil—is grounded absolutely in our history, culture, and mission. Our response meets students with what they need most right now: compassion and engagement.

In early March 2020—as students were off-campus, being inspired by experiential and immersive learning on amazing Field Courses—the senior administrative team was making decisions on how we would respond to COVID, realizing that school as we knew it would radically change. Everything was evolving so quickly. A week later, in mid-March, we communicated to students and families that we would be going remote for the foreseeable future. We extended Spring Break by a week to engage faculty in a weeklong professional development on remote learning, but only so much could be accomplished in a week. Thus, our response to remote learning—like so many other schools—was an emergency response. We knew that our response to this 2020-2021 school year had to be proactive, rather than reactive. It had to be mission-aligned.

Now, as I write this, our campus is mostly full of students. For those not able to be on campus, we set up multiple cameras in each classroom and are using Zoom in ways to virtually connect everyone because we know how important it is to sustain relationships. Students have been immersed in their classes since mid-August, two weeks earlier than normal, in new courses such as:

  • Design Entrepreneurship
  • U.S. History: The 1619 Project
  • The Ethics of Food, Politics & Poetics
  • Advanced Robotics
  • Music Composition
  • Natural Disasters & Humanitarianism in the United States

The students are doing work that is meaningful, relevant, and connected to the world they live in. The learning is active. And more important than that, students feel connected to their teachers and their classmates. Within the School, we are showing up for our students by meeting them with compassion and creating meaning opportunities for engagement.

Compassion and engagement. These words, which anchor our mission, have served as beacons for us during the last seven months when we were thrust into this new normal. As schools across the world looked for ways to remain solvent, at White Mountain, we asked: How might we seize this opportunity not just to survive but to thrive and accelerate? You see, survive is not good enough because, as we see it, we have students now and in the future, who deserve better and need us. For so many reasons, we were not only well-positioned to react, but also to improve. Our commitment to student-driven inquiry and project-based learning, our fundamental belief in our Essential Skills and Habits, and our awareness that an academic program must inspire students to live in a more sustainable and just world coalesced in all the right ways. So, we did what we do so well here: we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. We got to work designing a program to meet the needs of our students. One of the major responses we made was changing our schedule. The process of changing a school’s schedule often takes close to two years. We did not have the luxury of that time. We had a couple of months. But we seized this opportunity to increase our commitment to immersive student-driven inquiry, student care, and student agency.

Immersive Student-Driven Inquiry

We made a significant change to the daily schedule intended to better serve our students in the context of wellness and deeper learning. Rather than taking five or six classes over the course of a year, our students now take two to three “yearlong” courses each semester. The impact of this is significant. Rather than having five or six courses to manage, which means five or six projects and homework assignments to juggle, our students now only have to keep track of two or three. We are meeting them with compassion. We knew that we could reduce some cognitive dissonance with all of the external uncertainty and crises surrounding their lives by allowing students to dive deeply into a few topics. In the same way that our Field Courses provide rich learning because students can channel their focus and attention, we believe this schedule change will give students the space to think deeply, ask bold questions, and engage completely. And with a suite of courses that are tackling topics of social justice, environmental responsibility, and civic engagement head-on, we know that the learning that is occurring is fueling both the curiosity and courage in our students to respond with compassion.

Student Care

While we already had and have many systems and structures in place for student care and, most importantly, a culture of student care, our new schedule provides two new major aspects for student care. First, every course has an hour-long flex block attached to it. Students remain in the class with their teacher and peers during this time and have an hour to begin their asynchronous work (a.k.a. homework.) For so many students in the past, they might begin their work at home, only to find out that they aren’t sure how to begin. With the new flex block, when a student meets this hurdle, the teacher and their peers are there to support them and figure out how to get them started. All students deserve this level of support and care. Secondly, and by design, the new schedule not only reduces the number of courses each student takes at a given time, but it also reduces the number of students any given teacher has at a given time in half. With fewer students to directly “care” for, teachers can provide more meaningful feedback and meet kids’ individual needs more effectively.

Student Agency

We want students to take ownership of their learning. This occurs in so many ways here, both in terms of what a student explores and the type of feedback a student requests. This year, to prevent any student from slipping through the cracks and ensure that all students are being challenged appropriately, we have formalized bi-weekly student conferencing with each of their teachers. Every two weeks, students reflect on their work in each of their courses, have a formal conversation with each of their teachers, and then summarize the conversation in a document shared with their advisor. The advisor then sends the reflections on the feedback in an email to the student and parents/guardians. This purpose is three-fold: first, to provide students with regular feedback on their progress. Second, to give the student agency in their learning. Third, strengthen the student’s triangle of support (teacher, advisor, and parent-guardian). It is one of many support structures at White Mountain intended to both care for and empower our students. What is unique about this process is that it is student-led. Learning should be done by the student, and thus they should not only be inspired to ask brave questions but also to assess their answering of those questions. We expect that the bi-weekly conferences will feed naturally into the end-of-year Inquiry Summit, when students curate a digital portfolio of their best work and defend it in front of their advisor and two other faculty members.

We are a better school because of the work we are doing in response to COVID, the renewed reckoning on race, and the political turmoil that torments our nation. In the face of a crisis, or crises, it is important to lean into what one does well. That is exactly what we did for our academic program. We leaned into immersive student-driven inquiry, student care, and student agency. We leaned into compassion and engagement.

Founded in 1886 and set in the beautiful White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, The White Mountain School is a gender-inclusive, college-preparatory boarding and day school for 140 students grades 9-12/PG. Our mission is to be a school of inquiry and engagement. Grounded in an Episcopal heritage, White Mountain prepares and inspires students to lead lives of curiosity, courage, and compassion.

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