The Marshall School adapts its strategic approach to learning in a pandemic

by Emily Freehling

School is much more than a building where students go to learn facts and multiplication tables. At the Marshall School, a small private school in Spotsylvania County, it’s an environment where students feel connected to their educators, and where mental and emotional health are just as important as academics. The Marshall School focuses on helping children build the learning and thinking strategies needed for a lifetime of learning and real-world success. The school’s smaller environment and customized learning programs are good for all children and have been found to be particularly helpful for children diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia, auditory processing disorders, learning disabilities, and executive function disorders.

This small size and customized approach were also an asset as the school shifted to virtual learning this spring in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Christina Carson, the school’s founder and director, shares her thoughts on what will be most important as we return to structured schooling in the fall.

Q: How did learning happen at the Marshall School as schools shut down this spring to slow the spread of the coronavirus?

In normal times, we talk about how we take a common-sense approach to education. I think this was also true of how we approached virtual learning. Our students have access to accommodations and options that match their own learning style every day. For our virtual learning, we wanted to make sure that continued. Our students had a set daily schedule because routine is important. We wanted to make sure we did not overwhelm parents or students. Our days consisted of about three hours of instruction, with breaks in between each class. We taught the concepts to our students and didn’t ask parents to take on that added burden. We continued to emphasize social and emotional learning, which is foundational to how our school is designed. In addition, we continued doing the one-on-one brain training activities with students to help remediate learning challenges.

Q: How did you maintain the social and emotional component in a virtual learning environment?

It meant maintaining those touchstones that are already built into our normal school days. Every day included a morning meeting where we checked in and gave our students the opportunity to process their feelings. We focused on building strategies to cope with the fact that things were different. We communicated that, even though it felt hard, we could work together to figure it out. Some of our students get stressed during instruction. We feel it is important to help them deal with that. We still did this during distance learning. As one example, a student was starting to panic because he wasn’t getting a math concept. Instead of trying to push the math, I stopped and said, “I notice you are starting to feel anxious. Do you recognize this? What can you do when you feel that way? What is your self-talk so you can overcome it?” By giving him space to address it, he is learning a skill that will help him overcome other challenges he might encounter. This is important to us, and it helps the other students to observe this as well.

Q: How are you approaching the return to school in the fall?

We intend to be back here in the building. We are watching the latest guidelines and directives very closely. We feel confident in our ability to meet the governor’s requirement to teach our students in person. Our class sizes are already small, and being a small school gives us a lot more ability to protect the health and safety of our students and staff. We have a full plan to have a hybrid model, offering students the ability to join their classes virtually. If a family member gets sick and needs to quarantine—or if schools are ordered to shut down again—students will be able to get online and stay a part of our classroom via Zoom. We are also evaluating how school went this spring and looking for ways to improve. That means smaller groups for morning meetings. It will definitely mean spending a lot of time at the start of the school year providing orientation to both students and parents to help them understand how virtual learning—should we need to use it—will work, and what our expectations are for students.

Q: In what way will teacher preparation for this school year be different?

This isn’t really a change from previous years, but we are emphasizing as a staff the need to be intentional about making sure each child feels connected and encouraged and known. Our staff is doing trauma-informed classroom training. We have all been traumatized, shell-shocked, by this experience. We are also spending time becoming more efficient with technology.

Q: Did you see any unexpected benefits to your students from the shift to virtual learning?

While we would always prefer to be here in the classroom, the shift to virtual provided an opportunity to help our students learn life skills—both to help them and to take some of the burden off parents. We talked about how to set a schedule, making sure they set their alarm clocks, getting them in the habit of checking their e-mail every day. We did a lot of one-on- one Zoom calls focused on these kinds of skills. But let’s be clear—online learning is hard. I was so impressed with my staff and the way they adapted to students’ needs as the weeks went on. Online, it is harder for us to see exactly who is getting the material and who is getting lost. Teachers quickly learned that if they had the class work in a shared document online, they could track who was following and who wasn’t, and they could use the chat feature to have students quickly chat answers back to help teachers monitor understanding.

Q: What are some of your biggest priorities for the return to school? 

I believe with all my heart that the things we do will be critical to the mental health of our students. We have to be safe, and we will figure it out in a way that is respectful and common-sense without allowing a spirit of fear to invade our learning environment. My focus is on meeting our students’ academic, physical, and emotional needs – even in an ever-changing environment.