Dr. D, as she’s commonly known, gets an unexpected kiss from one of her dogs during a “Zoom” interview.
Mt. Hope High School Principal Deb DiBiase has an office familiar to most …
Mt. Hope High School Principal Deb DiBiase has an office familiar to most educators these days — some variation of the dining room, kitchen table or bedroom, surrounded by family photos, with barking dogs, loud kids and competing classrooms within arm’s reach.
She spends every day at home with her daughter (herself a teacher leading a classroom), her granddaughter, and four dogs. From there, she tries to motivate and lead an enormous team of teachers, special educators and support personnel, as well as about 1,000 students who are alienated, stuck at home and adjusting to a life where everything they’ve ever known is upside down.
With coronavirus-induced distance learning in full swing, Dr. DiBiase, or “Dr. D” as many students refer to her, sat down this week for a live interview via the video conferencing software Zoom, when she answered questions about the high school program, staff morale and monitoring the emotional health of her students.
What do you miss most about being in school?
“I miss the kids. I miss the face to face. I miss the life and energy,” she said.
She “sees” them as often as possible, because she logs into their online meetings, typically referred to as “hangouts” because the district uses the Google Hangouts platform, throughout every school day.
“When I pop into the hangouts, I try not to be too intrusive, but I can’t help it, I’m like, ‘Hello! How is everybody? I miss you all!’ I really miss seeing the kids.”
What is the Mt. Hope program?
By design, Mt. Hope developed a rather simple and consistent program for teachers and students. They go to “school” five days a week, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. They have attendance every morning, and then they follow a schedule with four classes per day.
On Mondays, it is periods 1 through 4. On Tuesdays, it is periods 5 through 7, plus an advisory block. Those two days then repeat on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
For the past few Fridays, students have followed a full-day, seven-period schedule, but beginning this week, that is going to change. They solicited feedback from teachers and students, some of whom said they don’t have enough time during the 9 to 2 schedule to get all their work done, so Mt. Hope is adapting. Fridays are now going to be more open, less scheduled, with teachers available for one-on-one followups or help; students free to work on extended projects; everyone allowed to cut back on their screen time.
“There has been an overall level of anxiety with distance learning, but that’s not unique to us. That’s affecting everybody in the world with this pandemic. Everybody has a level of stress. That’s one of the reasons we’re looking at doing these virtual support days on Fridays,” Dr. DiBiase said.
How do you teach online? What is most important?
“You can’t plan to teach virtually the way you would in a classroom. Don’t try it, it won’t work,” Dr. DiBiase said. “So it’s a very different way of thinking about teaching and thinking about learning.”
Mt. Hope personnel have been spending a lot of time simply talking to kids, listening to them, and supporting them.
“There’s a lot going on in our kids’ lives right now. Teaching and learning are really important. But those connections, and feeling supported, take priority over everything else. Keeping it simple, but effective, is the most important thing to do.”
Teachers have been spending a few minutes at the beginning of every class just “hanging out” with kids, checking on their wellbeing, listening to them, hearing the problems and giving them support.
“We all feel it’s very important to connect with kids, so they don’t feel like they’re isolated or out on a deserted island somewhere. So the expectation is that teachers are doing a hangout with students, at least for the first 5 minutes of every class, so they at least can connect with students, check in, see how the kids are doing, and give any instructions for the day.”
After the “hangout” is done, some teachers switch to an online slide deck, with the day’s lesson. Others deliver written assignments for the kids to work on during that class block. Some break the students into small groups to work together on problems or exercises.
Dr. DiBiase will often pop into those small groups. “The kids are really working,” she said. “They’re working together. They’re doing a great job. The teachers are being very creative.”
Praise for the teachers
“They’ve really stepped up. Many of our teachers have children at home. They’ve got infants, toddlers, teenagers … and everybody is figuring this out. The teachers have been working really, really hard. They’re putting in more time than they even were before into planning and working through this,” she said.
Though the school day officially ends at 2 p.m., Dr. DiBiase said most teachers are logging many more hours. The majority stay on Hangouts with students for hours after school ends, up until dinnertime, and they log hours more preparing for the next day.
“I am beyond impressed with how the teachers have stepped up, having been thrown into this, but really stepped up. They’re doing amazing things with the kids, virtually.”
How do you test or grade students?
Getting the program launched was a Herculean effort. Now that it’s running, new issues are coming to the surface.
Assessments? There’s no easy answer yet on how to test, grade and measure students.
Final exams? Not sure what to do yet.
Graduation? They don’t know yet.
Last Friday, students had the day off, but staff took part in a professional development day. There were numerous breakout sessions on a variety of topics, and one of the most popular was on assessments
“What does it look like in the virtual world?” Dr. DiBiase asked. “You can’t give a paper and pencil test like you do in the real world.”
She said some teachers have been experimenting with short quizzes in this format. “There is a way to do short quizzes on a Google Hangouts, so you can see the kids working on the quiz.”
Other than that, they are brainstorming creative ways to measure student achievement.
“As an example, in lieu of giving a 10-question multiple choice, maybe the students are applying something they learned where there’s a unique solution, so it doesn’t matter if they’re looking something up online, in the end they’re developing something unique.”
Special plans for the Class of 2020
Dr. DiBiase is meeting this week with a group of students, parents, teachers and administrators to talk about the seniors in the Class of 2020, who are all losing their traditional activities like prom, Senior Week and graduation (most likely). They want to brainstorm ways to still celebrate these young people, within the constraints of a global pandemic and social distancing.
“I tell the kids, ‘We’re going to make it special. Whatever it looks like, we don’t know what it is yet, but we’re going to make it special for you, and we are going to celebrate you,’ ” Dr. DiBiase said.
“My heart goes out to them. They’re really feeling it right now. This is the time they should be out with each other and celebrating, and unfortunately that can’t happen.
“We’re going to do as many little events as possible, to let them know we’re here, we support them, we love them. The big thing is, when they look back on this, if they can say that through this pandemic they were able to get through, persevere, graduate, and say that they did it … No one else in history is going to be able to say they did it.
“They don’t realize it, but these kids were born in the year of 9/11, and they are graduating in the midst of a pandemic, and I keep telling them, this is something you’re going to tell your grandkids about someday.”
“As difficult as this has been, I think our district has shown an incredible team effort and done an amazing job … The teachers have been so amazing. The students have been amazing, as always. We have an amazing group of kids.”
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