Classes have continued over Zoom for Fairfield’s private school
FAIRFIELD — While most schools in Iowa have opted for voluntary distance education during this quarantine, Maharishi School has not. The private school in Fairfield specializing in consciousness-based education has made its coursework mandatory.
That means the school can do everything it would during a normal school year, like give grades, which schools doing voluntary learning have offered options of giving students a “P” for passing instead of typical letter grades.
Richard Beall, co-head of the school, said there were a number of reasons Maharishi School chose to make its classes mandatory, one of which was that administrators believed the students would benefit from sustained structure to their days. But first, the school had to determine whether its students had access to internet and devices to allow for online learning.
“We had to troubleshoot solutions for some families, and there are still instances where signal strength or other problems occur,” Beall said. “But generally our students and families have been able to connect and adjust to this different type of learning.”
Beall said most students strongly prefer the traditional, in-person style of education. Some students actually prefer the online model, while others are struggling with it.
“That is definitely a downside to this, but we’re trying to make adjustments — in collaboration with our teachers, students, and parents — to help these students succeed,” Beall said.
Another reason that Maharishi School is requiring participation is that parents have made a financial commitment to the school, and the school wants to fulfill its responsibility by finishing the academic year to the best of its ability. Academic director Kaye Jacob said a number of parents from other countries have sent their children to Maharishi School to prepare them for entry into U.S. colleges and universities.
“They have entrusted their children to our care and we want to provide them the best support we can, from keeping them safe in the dormitory on campus to offering them a full academic experience even under these circumstances,” Jacob said. “For those students who went home early, that even means setting up synchronous tutorial sessions for them when it is evening here and morning there, just to be sure they are able to keep up with their classes.”
The school’s enrollment director Carol Chesnutt said those boarding students who returned home to China or Korea last month are expected to complete their work just like everybody else.
“Of course, we don’t expect them to stay up until 4 a.m. to attend all the classes but they do need to arrange a separate time to meet with the teacher during the early morning or evening,” Chesnutt said. “This has stretched the workload for many of our high school teachers, but we do what we have to do to get these students ready for college.”
Maharishi School students will receive a full semester’s credit for their work, and most importantly, Jacob said, they will be ready for their next adventure. The school’s seniors have gained admittance to demanding colleges such as Oberlin, Sarah Lawrence, Princeton, Agnes Scott, the University of Iowa and Iowa State University.
“A significant number of our students are taking AP exams in a total of 11 different courses this spring and of course we want them to be fully prepared for those exams also,” Jacob said.
Jacob said the school has worked with families to set them up for distance education, whether by helping them get internet connectivity and even dropping off resources at their homes.
“For us, there really has not been a disadvantage to making school mandatory,” Jacob said. “I think our parents appreciate it also, as their kids are productively occupied all day long.”
In March, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced that classes would be suspended beginning March 16 to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Even before this announcement, Maharishi School was busy preparing for distance learning. It used a professional development day to make a plan, and rolled it out two days before the school’s scheduled Spring Break. The school and its students took that break as planned, from March 23-27, during which time its teachers were preparing for online courses once the break ended.
“The next big reality check was when we knew this wasn’t a stopgap but would be our mode of instruction the rest of the school year,” Jacob said. “That called for some additional changes and adaptations, especially in preschool and Lower School.”
Chesnutt is teaching an AP economics course to upper school students, and she’s found plenty of material on the internet for her students to study. She said she has made use of the “flipped” classroom model, whereby students are asked to watch a video or read an article at home, and then she will recap the concept and discuss the more obtuse issues during class time.
“Because I only have seven students in my class, I can easily attend to each student and be mindful of who is leaning out rather than leaning in,” Chesnutt said. “In Zoom, you can read a student’s face or expressions much more readily than in a physical classroom. As some students are digesting a new concept, they lean in to the screen, tilt their head, and within seconds they are raising their hand with a question. This close-up view on the learning process is a thrill to me.”
Laurie Eyre teaches two mathematics courses in the upper school. The classes last just 30 minutes each, which means Eyre must be “well organized and efficient.”
“Every minute counts,” she said.
The students meet once a day, five days a week. Eyre said she’s fortunate that her classes are relatively small, which makes it easier to interact and communicate with all the students.
“Zoom has wonderful features like ‘chat’ where I can send a message to all students, a few or one,” she said. “The breakout room feature allows for group work or private meeting time with one or more students without disturbing the others.”
In addition to being head of middle and upper schools, Jacob teaches an 11th grade English class. Her students are working on a literary analysis paper, a major assignment, and that means she often holds video conferences with each student individually as well as in a group.
The school’s physical education teachers are assigning homework, too, in the form of a scheduled fitness regimen. Zara Colazio, who teaches PE along with health and math, remarked “While they are doing their fitness routines on Zoom, I can mute their moans and groans if I want to and just watch the workout.”
Lynn Shirai is director of the lower school, covering grades 1-6, and she also teaches third-grade writing. The lower school began its distance education using learning packets from March 18 through April 10, but since then has transitioned to remote online learning through Zoom like the other grades.
The students are receiving instruction in reading, writing, science, social studies, math, physical education, art, and the Science of Creative Intelligence. Shirai said the school is
trying to keep parent-assisted homework to a minimum since so many parents are also working at home.
Shirai said teachers are constantly coming up with innovative ways to incorporate hands-on activities with the students, something that is not easy when they can’t meet in person. For instance, many of the grades performed hands-on projects for Earth Day. Second-graders made their own bird feeders.
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