From the Director: Two Questions … Of Many

When will we return to face-to-face classes on campus? How long will major school events be postponed? How long will the community disruption last? What are students learning? What are administrators and faculty learning about what school is and what school could be?
First, special thanks to the several dozen of you who Zoomed in (neologism intended) for this week’s Tuesday coffee break experiment. Vaguely reminiscent of something we did years back on that same day of the week, once monthly, ostensibly to provide a chance for direct concerns to be raised and, in hindsight, not a great vibe much of the time. At any rate, attendance dwindled, we created other discussion venues, and the whole thing faded into nonexistence—but that’s for another column. This iteration proved heartwarming and affirming, and I’m grateful enough to look forward every Tuesday at 9: 30 a.m. to try again, to learn, to improve.
The time I claimed as we gathered focused on the two most prevalent questions crossing my path of late, and in the spirit of finding out what you think by trying to write about it, indulge me in a few reflections. The first of those broad inquiries lands on me as The Crystal Ball Question. Briefly stated, it goes like this: “How long will this go on?” A more long-form version would include wondering when we will return to face-to-face classes on campus, how long we’ll need to postpone major school events, and how long the community disruption will last.
What those variants of the core question have in common is they’d all require definitive knowledge from tools we don’t yet possess. Sure, it’s easy to say we will support guidelines from the mayor and Metro Health officials, now extending at least through the 24th of this month, and we undoubtedly spend at least enough time reviewing epidemiological models indicating the peak incidence of the virus and the projected date for zero new cases. Fair to say that we feel a strong commitment to be part of the solution, to minimize risk for all concerned, and to be part of a larger, coordinated effort when it’s time to return to school—we just don’t know when and we are singularly focused now on doing remote learning better every week.
An interesting aside—my eldest daughter (USN alumna ’07) lives and works in Singapore, now managing its second COVID-19 wave and home to some of the strictest mitigation measures on the planet, yet schools there have never closed, even with confirmed cases identified on a continuing basis. I am still trying to understand how that works. But we’ll be focused on our realities here in Nashville, and we will make every effort to neither surprise you nor to sound like we possess more certainty that we do, meaning that we’ll know a few weeks ahead and communicate assiduously when we anticipate changes in our new routines.
The other biggie on the interrogative front could be called The Golden Mean Question, or perhaps more familiarly, The Goldilocks Question. What it gets at is the elusive perfect balance we’re working to strike between the right amount of real-time (synchronous) instruction for a class and the right amount of independent, self-scheduled (asynchronous) learning based of materials provided in timely ways for students. Correspondingly, it’s the blend of structure and choice, of mandating and suggesting, of familiar and new, of flexibility and direct accountability, that makes sense given these surreal times and given the range of circumstances in more than 700 USN households. The porridge has been too hot for some, too cold for others, and we all want it to be … just right.
Please know that we’re calibrating and recalibrating, almost daily, with these considerations in mind. Listening to our early-adopting remote learning colleagues in Seattle, Shanghai, and Seoul, among others, we’ve heard that synchronous time is precious as a social link and at the same time demanding, not least of all for teachers, who tend to prepare for hours in order to present for minutes. And we still worry about all the screen time, no? Remember those concerns? Thanks for both the grace you’ve bestowed on faculty and students so far and for appreciating the widely varied preferences of our beautifully complex school community. We’re building this plane as we fly, and we need to get sufficient mileage for what may be a long journey.
What’s coming into view already is what I’m seeing as the next big question, complete with layers of meaning as well—What are we learning? At an immediate level, we need to know what our students are gaining via this experience, both in the familiar curricular sense and in the realm of things they would never have known or been able to do otherwise. There’s a who lot of assessment and adjustment ahead, most likely, when we resume on Edgehill Avenue.
More generally, what are we learning about school, about what school is and what school could be? The shift we’ve made with so little lead time, essentially inventing a new model given the exigencies of this historic moment, will yield a treasure trove of insights, once we have time to reflect. Urgent though our present needs may be, there will be time to reflect one day. We may be living through the disruptive change that educational futurists have predicted or even longed to see, though never in this form.
That’s where my thoughts are tending, with a topic percolating in advance for next week. Thanks for letting me feel there’s a destination for these words.
Probably enough for now.
Stay well and stay home,
    • Like students and faculty, Director Vince Durnan has spent time learning how to navigate Zoom.

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