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Head of School Blog: Mind, Body, and Spirit: “FA Remote” Takes Flight

Matt Green
Even as I write this post from an empty and rather chilly Falmouth Academy school building, I do so with full confidence that the spirit of Falmouth Academy is very much alive.  Because at this very moment, I know that somewhere in the cloud, our wonderful students and remarkable teachers are debating and discussing, creating and critiquing, probing and problem-solving, laughing and learning- as they have all year and for generations.  They just happen to be doing so from the comforts and confines of their own home (which some days is indeed comforting while on others day is most definitely confining!)

There does not seem to be a family, business, or community that has not been affected by the current global health and economic crisis; Falmouth Academy is no exception.  To be clear, our collective focus quite rightfully belongs on those most directly impacted. That is why our science department donated its full supply of protective gloves to Falmouth Hospital.  That is why Mr. Scharr is working with Falmouth Community Television to bring a "Live Music to Seniors" weekly program featuring our student musicians right into the bedrooms of seniors in local nursing and senior living complexes.

But like many of you, when the order came from Governor Baker that all public and private schools were to remain closed first until April 7 and then to May 4, we were more than a little anxious about what this meant to our school and our students.  

For over forty years, families have chosen FA for three main reasons: the quality of classroom instruction, the individual attention a child receives in a small class in a small school, and the joyful, caring community and culture so many have built and I have tried to reinforce.  In the current circumstances, It is natural for even the most supportive parent to be wondering, “If my child is not in those classrooms, is not next to those teachers, is not learning in that community and directly absorbing that culture, then, are they really going to Falmouth Academy?”  How could a school that relies so heavily on the personal touch, on the character of its community, on its unique sense of place, reinvent itself in less than a week, exporting its particular brand of special sauce to an entirely different setting?  

To shift the frame a bit,  I told the students and faculty a short anecdote I first heard in a talk entitled The Transformative Power of Classical Music, delivered by Benjamin Zander, a long-time conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra.  Zander tells the story of two shoe salesmen who were both sent by their boss to a remote land in some distant locale,  only to discover that it was the custom for its residents to spend the day bare-footed.  

The first salesman took one look and sent a telegram that read: “Situation hopeless.  They don’t wear any shoes here.” The second salesman also wrote a telegram; his read: “Glorious opportunity.  No one owns any shoes here yet!”

And what a series of glorious opportunities each new day is proving to be. Falmouth Academy’s model, which I sometimes refer to as “FA Remote” has not only been fully informed by extensive research (particularly personal experience our counterparts on the west coast have so graciously shared,) but it was also engineered to be uniquely us.  That is, we have endeavored to construct a virtual school that reflects our commitment to educating the proverbial whole child, tending not only to our students’ minds but also to their bodies and spirits, tending not only to the individuals in our community but to the community itself, which nourishes and affirms those individuals.

To illustrate, let me walk you through a day of FA Remote: upon coming to school each morning, students check “Morning Messages,” where they will find video posts by their beloved Head of School, along with announcements from their teachers and peers.  They attend a series of synchronous classes via video conference, during which they may engage in class discussion, take notes on direct instruction offered via screencasting software, or retire to breakout “rooms” to work in small groups.

“The discussion we enjoyed on Friday morning,” noted history teacher Rob Wells, “about a lecture from 1900 preaching the then perceived “truths” of Social Darwinism was as good as any I have experienced in the past with all sitting around a Harkness table.”
“Last Friday,” adds Interconnected Biology teacher Sarah McCarron, “I was able to do a live physical exam on my cat for the students on zoom. For safety reasons, that is obviously not something I could have done in class at school. I think the students really enjoyed this opportunity. It’s one example of how technology opened the door for something new.”
For many schools transitioning to remote learning, throw in several hours of asynchronous learning (which in most cases is a fancy term for homework) and this is where school stops.  Not so at Falmouth Academy. Each class is followed by an office hours block during which class may continue, students may work together on what they have just learned, or most often teachers can meet with individual students to reinforce important class concepts.  (That office hours also allows most students to take a screen break and get up and move around is no accident.) One week in, Mr. Lott noted. “A simple highlight has been how well my seniors have been using office hours after class. They stay in “the room” and spend much of that hour working together and with me.”
So yes, FA is educating “in mind,” but what about “in body and spirit?”  Consider that we have a dedicated time slot for physical education when Mr. Andrade challenges students to tackle a range of fitness challenges and share via video post what they did to get their hearts pumping.  Consider our daily wellness challenges, during which Ms. DiFalco engages students in interactive activities targeting important themes like resilience. Consider that once a week, we gather at lunchtime for advisory and that advisors continue to meet with individual advisees on a regular basis. Consider that we are even teaching nearly our full slate of electives, including studio art, our musical ensembles, Interconnected Biology, even woodshop! 
And so perhaps it is fitting that I am writing this post from an empty school.  What better place to be reminded that a school is just a building, but that school is a gathering place, a place where learning happens, where a mind comes to life, where a heart feels something for the first time, “where teachers embolden students to take intellectual and creative risks to confidently engage the challenges of our times.” 
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