This month parents everywhere suddenly found themselves moonlighting as educators as schools around the country shut their doors and school-aged children were sent home. When faced with this new reality, what is a parent to do? If you’re Dr. Jennifer Stratton, Bay Path University’s Coordinator of Undergraduate Education and Associate Professor Of Education, the solution was simple: you start your own virtual school. One short week later, The Stratton School was up and running and online, serving over 50 kids in five states with two literacy lessons a week.
She hadn’t known it at the time, but the seeds of inspiration for this online learning environment had been planted in the fall of 2019 after Stratton read The New Education by Cathy Davidson. The book left her with questions that stayed with her: what role do higher education institutions have in preparing students for a world in flux? How do we prepare our students to contribute to society?
Those questions laid the framework for her Spring 2020 semester EDU323 class, where she focused on her students not only learning reading instruction fundamentals but also on how these students would contribute to their communities and to society at large. Halfway through the semester, these questions took on a new role as schools everywhere closed down, leaving children without teachers and leaving her students without a classroom to teach in.
The Sunday after Bay Path announced their students would not be returning to campus immediately following Spring Break, Stratton had an idea – what about a virtual school? “On Sunday I was making a video to promote the idea. On Monday I reached out to my students to gauge their interest,” she shared. “On Tuesday morning, all of my students, including my students in practicum who had essentially just lost their student teaching positions and I had our first meeting. On Wednesday, we taught our Stratton School students how to use Zoom. And on Thursday we delivered our first classes to 50 children.”
The Stratton School runs on the Zoom platform, where everyone convenes together via video and audio so that the students and teachers can all see each other. Each class, which consists of children of different ages, is held in a Zoom break-out room. This helps limit the number of participants in each classroom, and lets Stratton virtually pop in to monitor each class as needed and privately coach her BPU students in the moment.
Getting The Stratton School running has been an all hands on deck experience, with Stratton’s own two elementary school-aged children being present in team meetings and even running Zoom training lessons for young students getting ready to partake in Stratton School classes. The Stratton family dog has also been known to make an appearance as a guest teacher, which has given some of the shy, introverted students something comfortable and familiar to connect with.
Working off the framework of the EDU323 course, each Stratton School class taught by BPU students is lesson planned and must be culturally responsive, incorporate universal design, and implement all of the best practices that the students have learned thus far in their courses. “Each class had a purposeful objective, which the BPU students must adhere to,” shared Stratton. “But maybe even more importantly they’re helping these kids connect to each other and to books.” Elizabeth Murphy, a Bay Path University senior and practicum student who is teaching at The Stratton School shared, “The students were really engaged. In addition to the content they love to see each other and talk to each other.”
The feedback thus far has been incredible, with 83.3% of Stratton School students rating the school as “Great!” and feedback on how to improve including “make school longer.” When presented with optional homework of bringing their favorite book to share with the class, 100% of children completed the assignment. Many students felt comfortable enough to share their favorite books with their virtual classmates, and the majority of students opted in to a shared poem reading, where each student read a few lines of a poem before passing it to the next interested student.
While her students may be teaching children across the country, Stratton’s students are learning, too, getting a lesson in flexibility and fluidity. “We don’t know the enrollment per day. We don’t know how long this is going to last,” Stratton shared. “It’s just – carpe diem – we are living for every day.” “We teach them, and they teach us. They learn, and we learn,” Murphy added.
Stratton credits both Bay Path President Dr. Carol Leary and Provost Dr. Melissa Morris-Olson for creating a culture that allows for such creativity and quick thinking. While this innate need for online learning may be temporary for most school-aged children, Stratton has long term plans for The Stratton School, including teaming up with local teachers to provide Zoom-based online classroom support to small groups of students, and to eventually teach children who are, for many reasons, unable to attend a physical classroom. “People think online learning is taking what’s learned in the classroom and putting it online, but that’s not it,” she shared. “It’s a place to build connections. I hope we’re helping people re-think what online learning can be.”
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