Distance learning at St. Ambrose Academy Print
Written by Joan Carey, Executive Director, St. Ambrose Academy   
Thursday, Apr. 23, 2020 -- 12:00 AM


St. Ambrose Student
Originally a group project, the students of Mrs. Ahrom Thompson's Physical Science class at St. Ambrose Academy are now creating and testing their own marble rollercoasters, which use gravitational potential energy as their sole means of propulsion. Here, eighth grader Luke Krebs shows off his creation, which he will demonstrate alongside his classmates later in May. (Contributed photo)

MADISON -- With school taking place in the home rather than in a classroom, St. Ambrose Academy (SAA), like schools everywhere, is having to adapt.

But our classical pedagogy relies on interpersonal communication, Socratic dialogue, and lots of opportunities to present ideas, demonstrate reasoning, or argue a point of view in front of a group. How to deliver these experiences over the Internet?

Finding the best tools for learning in a technological classroom

Though St. Ambrose teachers are duplicating some classroom experiences online, they are also using the new setting to broaden student experience.

Just as in a classroom, teachers illustrate important concepts with electronic whiteboards. Calculus teacher Ahrom Thompson explained, "With a doc cam, I can go back and forth from white paper to graph paper. The students show me their work on their cameras, and they call their classmates to talk over problems. If the answers don't match up, they problem-solve together."

English teacher Katie Behrens is finding that she can more easily gauge student participation online. All students, not just those who raise their hands, post responses to preparatory discussion questions. "I was blown away by the quality and consideration of their interpretation of Aeneas' passage through the Gate of False Dreams in the Aeneid," she commented. "This venue shows me how they are all engaging with the text and articulating their thoughts in a mature way."

While biology teacher Emily Swanson is sending her students into their backyards to look for arthropods, music teacher Josh Vaughn is replacing choral singing with music analysis. Vaughn also teaches gym, and after a few weeks of posting exercise routines, he recently divided students into teams to compete against each other for prizes.

The school musical is always a highlight. While the spring production of Singin' in the Rain is postponed, director Angela Hineline calls the cast twice weekly for live video rehearsals. "These rehearsals have been very fruitful in strengthening individual character work and maintaining a strong sense of community."

Mrs. Hineline also directs Learning Services, and she's providing extra support for students during scheduled video chats with parental oversight.

Guidance Counselor Dr. Mary Skemp has set up a platform for seniors to work through the quarantine's effect on college applications and AP exams. Dr. Skemp also teaches English, and she notes that in poetry writing, "the distance learning model works well: they have the time and thinking space they need to be reflective and creative."

Even while finding creative solutions to the COVID-19 challenge, there are plenty of difficulties. Science teacher Dr. Sean Monahan commented, "Since we are not face to face, I lose those visual cues" -- puzzled looks, curious gazes, delighted comprehension, and, let's face it, zoned-out boredom!

But the real loss, says Mrs. Swanson, is how difficult it is "to show concern and care for the students. During this time of isolation, students need to know their teachers care about them more than ever."

The Academy continues to end the school day together by praying the student-led Divine Mercy Chaplet online, and the teachers then send them merrily off: "Hug the people you love, get away from your screens, go outside, help your folks, and we'll see you again tomorrow!"

Training young people to think for themselves

A classical education aims at training the mind, training young people to think for themselves. Director of Classical Education Dr. Constance Nielsen was delighted to see how well students have adapted. "We plopped them into a new remote-access environment," she noted. "Their classical training, creativity, curiosity, and problem-solving can be seen not only in their classwork but in how quickly they mastered the platform itself, despite not having learned it in school. They are proving that they know how to think!"

Yes, teachers have been delighted by the students' perseverance and commitment, and parents have praised the Academy's efforts. "The speed at which St. Ambrose adopted distance learning technology and coordinated the roll-out while maintaining the high standard was impressive," said parent Sam Blahnik.

"From our perspective, the SAA transition most closely resembles what college-aged students have undergone, and the school continues to exceed our expectations!"


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