San Marcos Baptist Academy meeting the challenge in shift to distance learning

by Shelley Henry, Communications Director at San Marcos Academy on June 3, 2020 in News

Academic Dean Bob Wiegand received a call in early April from his cousin who works for the Texas Department of Health and Human Services in Kerr County. She had heard “through the grapevine” about a school in Hays County that was among the first to roll out a distance learning plan after Spring Break. “I know how competitive you are,” she said. “I’ll bet it was your school that people have been talking about.”

Wiegand proudly confirmed her speculation. “You bet it was,” he responded. 

San Marcos Baptist Academy began rolling out its distance learning strategy March 23 thanks in large part to a group of 10 teachers who gave up much of their Spring Break to serve on a planning committee with Wiegand and Associate Academic Dean Steven McCray. 

“We knew that a return to in-classroom instruction after Spring Break was not in the cards, so I asked about ten teachers to join me to produce an outline and develop training for distance learning,” Wiegand said. “The core group broke up into three divisions for the Lower, Middle, and Upper school grades and created specific plans for instructional delivery.”

On the Monday after Spring Break, teachers attended training sessions, both on-campus and online, and several teachers started their DL instruction that day. “By Wednesday, all of our teachers were online, engaging with their students, and they have been at it ever since,” Wiegand said. “I am beyond proud of our faculty and staff for the way they have stepped up to this challenge.”

One early decision for the Upper School courses was the adoption of a college model A-B block schedule. “We knew it would be difficult for students and teachers to manage 7-8 courses online every day,” Wiegand said, “so we elected to offer half of the courses on Monday/Wednesday and the others on Tuesday/Thursday. Fridays are reserved for extra tutoring, online study groups, and individual conferences with teachers.” 

Google Classroom and Zoom have been the primary platforms for online instruction at SMA, although teachers have utilized a number of other resources as well, including Khan Academy, Edulastic, and Kahoots. Administrators established policies for attendance and other checks and balances to ensure timely completion and submission of work. 

In addition to the core classes, SMA students are continuing their elective courses online as well. Visual art students are creating projects at home and sending in photos of the finished products. Band students are sending in clips of themselves playing their instruments, and coaches are sending out podcasts and video workouts for students to complete at home.  

“I have seen some really creative things going on as I log in to view what our teachers and students are doing online,” Wiegand said. 

One example is the “Coronavirus Time Capsule,” a cumulative project Daryl Fleming assigned to his Upper School theatre students. Each week, the students respond to a topic (such as Home Life, Education, or Boredom) by writing a script and creating a 15-second video, which they collate and edit. The same process happens each week, with new videos added to the original. The Academy students will be submitting their final creations to the Company Three Theatre website  which will feature similar work by other young people around the world.

Spanish teacher Janet Barrientos had her students utilize Google Draw to create a city using informal commands and vocabulary from the chapters they had studied. They then presented their design and gave a live Zoom tour for the rest of the class. “I was very impressed with the outcome,” Barrientos said. “Ordinarily I would have students create a 3-D city and bring it to class to present, but since we are in an online setting, I modified it, giving them the option to use Google Draw or Minecraft.” 

In the seventh grade Texas history classes, taught by Karen Wyatt, students are continuing a project that began before Spring Break. “Each of the two classes created its own country, going through all the steps it would take to be successful, much like Texas experienced when it became a country,” Wyatt said. “Having already written a Constitution and designed a flag, the classes are now preparing for a virtual summit to discuss trade, relations and mutual goals.” 

Being naturally tech-savvy and social creatures, students have often taken on a teaching role as they share information and best practices with their instructors. “In physics and math, we have adapted to new technologies for quizzes and tests, and the students often teach me when they find an ‘easier’ way to do something,” instructor Belle Howell said, while Wyatt added, “I have gotten several ideas by simply asking my students, ‘How can we make this more fun’?” 

Wyatt said she has also been taking a few minutes at the end of her classes to discuss anything on the minds of her students during this period of social distancing. “I think it’s important for their mental health to have that safe place to vent,” she explained. “Pets are always welcome to make an appearance during this time, and it’s been nice to get to know the furry angels helping our students along. I think everyone looks forward to that last five minutes of class.”

Bible instructor Jacob Scott has also been providing for the mental and spiritual wellbeing of his students by posting daily devotionals and a weekly YouTube video as part of the Bible class curriculum. “I have had a few students email me of their own volition about how they are seeing God work within the COVID-19 pandemic,” Scott said. “When students are seeing God at work in their own lives, my job is practically done for me.” 

In the Academy Lower School, instruction has been equally inspired and well received by parents. McCray has been personally contacting a different set of families each week to gather feedback, troubleshoot problem areas, and develop ideas for improvement. He shares this information with his faculty each week via a Zoom conference where the teachers can also offer suggestions and encouragement to one another. 

“Our teachers have been absolutely incredible at guiding us through this,” said Kelsey Ybarra, who has two students in the Lower School. “My daughter looks forward to seeing her teacher and her classmates each day on Zoom, and it’s a huge relief to have her teacher giving the math lesson. That has really taken stress off of me and gives me an hour each day to focus on our other two little ones.”

Ybarra added that the opportunity to see a teacher in action is something that parents did not previously get to experience on a regular basis. “There are not many opportunities to watch our kid’s teacher present lessons and interact with the students during a regular school day,” Ybarra said. “Distance learning, however, has allowed us to watch this interaction on a daily basis. We didn’t think we could love our teachers more until this experience!”

With three elementary-age children to monitor, Danielle Ruiz said her family has experienced some understandable bumps in the road as they adjust to a new routine that includes sharing their limited number of devices. “All of my kids’ teachers have done an excellent job in communication and making sure that we can reach them, if needed,” Ruiz said. “My children have all been working hard to complete their assignments, and I am very proud of them adapting and showing grace through it all.”

Jennifer Dillender, mother of a second-grade student, summed up her family’s experience this way: “We valued our teachers before, but this definitely shines an entirely new appreciative light on all the work and patience that is involved in teaching our children.” 

Along with the Academy faculty, others on the staff are staying busy behind the scenes to ensure student success. The IT team, often working from home, take calls and answer emails from parents and teachers to solve technical glitches and provide training resources. Librarian Amanda Robbins and Academic Assistant Jeff Loyd supervise instruction every morning in the library and tech lab for the small number of boarding students still residing on campus. The Accommodated Learning Program staff are providing one-to-one online tutoring where needed, and the Campus Ministers Monica and Clint Followell are providing chapel services via YouTube every week. 

Even traditional spring activities such as class officer and Student Council elections have moved online. Candidates for the top positions have been asked to create a 4-minute campaign video that will be shown to their peers prior to the online vote. 

“It definitely takes a village,” Wiegand said. “We don’t want to have to remediate when the next school year begins. Our objective is for our students to finish on time, fully prepared for the next school term or for college, in the case of our seniors.”

Wiegand was effusive in his praise for the Academy’s faculty and staff. “I tip my hat to this group of teachers and staff,” he said. “They have fully embraced this challenge, and I have seen no drop off in their effort. They have shown great adaptability so far and have truly upped their game. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

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