How a small Montessori school transformed into an online school overnight.

Sze(‘Z’) Wong
Mar 30, 2020 · 7 min read

When Rodney Berthold founded Berthold Academy, he was trying to create the best Montessori school in the area. Never in a million years did he think of turning his school into an online school, let alone doing it in just a few days.

The day was March 12th, 2020. We had our end-of-trimester tech showcase scheduled in the evening. It was a big show in our school’s culture where all the parents gather to observe the students’ tech projects. Around 11 am that day, Rodney came into my class and told me that some families were concerned about the gathering that evening because of the Coronavirus outbreak. We decided to cancel the event. Little did we know that after dismissal that day, our school was going to change dramatically.

Around midnight on March 12th, the Fairfax County public school system declared that all Fairfax County public schools would close on Friday, March 13th. Six minutes later, Rodney announced that Berthold Academy would close on Friday and also the following week.

Rodney announced that on Monday, March 16th, we would have an all-day staff meeting. The goal was to put the entire school online and allow all students to resume learning as soon as possible.

Over the weekend, we started to look for technical solutions. We signed up for Zoom, we looked into Slack, Microsoft teams, etc. One thing became clear, we could not overwhelm teachers with technologies. We needed teachers to resume teaching as soon as possible. Whatever meant they could get back to teaching was what we were going to implement, even if it wasn’t the best technical solution.

We cannot overwhelm teachers with technologies

Monday came, we all got together at school. Many of us had gloves on, and we were separated by at least 6 feet from one another. Rodney’s secondary class had been using technology the most. They had been using the MyHomework app and Google suite all along. We decided that MyHomework and Google suite would become phase 1. We would start with that.

Rodney explained how he used the MyHomework app to assign homework to students and have students turned in homework as Google Docs. In Montessori, students are grouped based on their skill level in addition to their age group. So even though 15 kids may be in the same class, only 4 of them will be in Math 1 and some of them in Math 2 and some in Math 3, etc. To set up the MyHomework app correctly, we would have to set up each sub-class and would need to indicate which student should join which class. Although we all had been using the MyHomework app to some extent, none of us were using its full capacity. After all, up until this point, we could see and talk to the students on a daily basis. In just two days, being able to communicate face-to-face became a luxury.

As we left school, we had one goal: students needed to resume learning the very next day.

It was not going to be full-on schooling, but learning would resume. That night, the lead teachers did not sleep much. They were busy setting up MyHomework classes and shared Google folders.

Tuesday, March 17th, instructions were sent to all parents on how to receive homework assignments and where to turn in homework through shared Google folders. We announced we would have Zoom sessions for parents on Tuesday and Wednesday night. We also started to have daily virtual staff meetings to ensure we shared information quickly.

We worked through Tuesday and Wednesday non-stop in preparation for phase 2: limited live teaching through Zoom. Thinking back on that and reliving those stressful days actually causes my heart to race. We were aiming to have morning meetings with all students merely 2 days after most of our staff were introduced to Zoom.

Tuesday evening, I held my first Zoom session for parents. We were fortunate enough that most of our families were technically savvy. Most of the families were able to join. They asked questions about how to join MyHomework and where the shared Google folders could be found. Kids asked if they would have PE and French.

By Wednesday, students were starting to turn in homework. One particularly great example was the culinary class for the lower elementary group. The assignment was to make breakfast for their parents and take pictures during the process. I was fortunate enough to have a lower elementary student at my house, so I had a great breakfast that morning.

Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Mitesh held Coding Club over Zoom for the first time.

Thursday, March 19, phase 2 started. All age groups had morning meetings in the morning. We also had tech discovery classes over Zoom. It turned out Ms. LucyAnn already had a morning meeting with her class the previous day. She felt her class would have felt lonely if they did not have a chance to talk to their friends for too long. When you have overachieving team members, everything becomes easier.

Staff meeting

During the afternoons of Thursday and Friday, we regrouped to share Zoom’s best practices. Zoom was designed for business meetings and it was designed for collaboration. As teachers, we needed different types of controls. For example, there was a shared whiteboard, that would seem great for teaching, except that everyone in the call could draw on it. Imagine what’s going to happen with eight 10-year-olds on the same call. Rodney showed everyone how to use two devices to have a secondary camera. We were all tired but we felt we were ready for phase 3: full-day schooling.

At this point, Rodney said that we would become a completely online school. We were not looking to ride out the storm. We were going to transform. He sent out a schedule template to all the staff. We were to replicate all classes online. This meant even specials and electives, like art, astronomy, even the new highly demanded make-up elective, would all be offered over Zoom.

We were not looking to ride out the storm. We were going to transform.

That weekend I had another task. To decide and set up a chat system to facilitate faster communication and reduce email traffic. Many people suggested Discord. It was free and flexible. I polled our secondary students as they were already on Discord. Most of them did not recommend using Discord although it fit what we needed. They said it was relatively easy for users to stumble into inappropriate content. If we would eventually allow other students to join, they did not think Discord should be the school’s official communication medium. I ended up going through the trouble of setting up Rocket Chat, an open-sourced chat system.

On Monday, March 23, 2020, phase 3 started. 10 days after the mid-night announcement to close the school, Berthold Academy officially became an online school. All students would have full, normal school days.

10 days after the mid-night announcement to close the school, Berthold Academy officially became an online school.

Monday was a stressful day. Rocket Chat was just launched so most parents were still asking questions over email. We were playing catch-up as we tried to forward the right email to the right people. Some students had equipment issues, some were not sure about their teacher’s zoom link, and some couldn’t find the shared Google folder. By 4pm, we were all exhausted.

As we regrouped on Tuesday morning, many of us felt a week must have passed. It was just Tuesday. Ms. Jaya said her class went on very well. Everybody was on time and engaged. They were going to start having virtual recesses.

By Wednesday, things started to settle down. Students got used to their schedules and teachers got used to how they would teach over Zoom.

Student taking online class

Rodney brought up a new issue: over Zoom, how would you administer tests? We could not control what material the students were using. We could not see if the students were googling the answer or passing answers to each other over their phones. “All tests going forward had to be open book. I will start rethinking how we do that,” Rodney told us.

Remote learning comes with unexpected advantages. One of our students was only coming to school part-time due to physical issues. Now that classes were online, it became far easier for him to join. I invited him to join my tech discovery class. I expect we can integrate him into our class in the future.

Of course, remote learning also comes with a lot of challenges. Younger students require their parents to assist them during classes. This became a burden for parents who also need to work during the day. We also noticed we should teach in a smaller group as it is hard to pay attention to a bigger group of students. In a bigger group, it is very easy for students to become distracted, disengaged and fall behind. The situation is far more difficult to manage than in a physical classroom.

As we march forward, we will continue to explore new ways to engage students and enhance their learning. We have now added a Minecraft server for the students to hangout over weekends. Seeing them swimming together and gather around a campfire warms my heart.

Students hanging out in Minecraft

I feel very fortunate to have witnessed this amazing transformation. As we march toward the unknown, I believe we are going to push education forward. Remote learning is a necessity because of the current situation. As we master this way of teaching, we are going to incorporate the benefits of remote learning and merge them into real-world teaching.

Feel free to share this story. Reach out to me for more details of this stressful but amazing journey. I can be reached at swong@szewong.com

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