Students may have walked in the doors at Killington Mountain School on August 29, but school actually commenced for the 2016-2017 year on August 8, when all student-athletes were invited by their teachers to log into their Google Classrooms for each of their courses and begin completing work. That meant that the students arrived on campus ahead of the game this year, a trend that should continue both during the school year and over subsequent summers.
“With all the traveling that our students do all year long, it’s only logical to find a way to help them both receive and progress in their academic content when not in the building, and also to help them get ahead in their work,” comments Amy Allen, the school’s Academic Dean. “If we can utilize all tools available to us to aid the students so that they get to a place where they are caught up or ahead in their academic work, it means that when they are on the road competing, they can direct their focus solely on the pursuit of athletic excellence, or that on a day with spectacular conditions, they can perhaps stay out on the hill in the afternoon and get in a few more runs with their coaches before returning to school; this opens up a lot of doors to our student-athletes.”
Alpine athletes who were in training Saas-Fee over the summer, spent time in the evenings logged into their Google Classrooms and completing academic work, with some of the assignments pertaining directly to the geography, history, and geology of the Swiss glacier upon which they were training. Students of all athletic disciplines logged in and began completing work, whether at home, at the beach for vacation with their families, or traveling the world.
Head of School Tao Smith explains the blended learning approach, “Blended learning, which takes the best of bricks and mortar instruction and combines it with the use of technology and various online platforms, enhances our ability to deliver content to students and makes learning more fun exciting and engaging; what makes blending learning blended, is that it allows students to control to some degree, the time, place and pace at which they learn. For our students at KMS this is critical because they spend so much traveling, and under pressure from competition and training which could otherwise hinder their ability to learn. We are really exited about the possibility that blended learning opens up for our student-athletes at the Killington Mountain School.”
Inspired by an academic summit at the school this spring featuring Charles Fadel, the founder and Chairman of the Center for Curriculum Redesign, KMS embarked upon the process of evolving the school’s curriculum toward a 21st Century approach. In doing so, Smith and the faculty also re-imagined the school’s Seminar Series project, a multi-year investigative program that engages all KMS students in the study of the world around them. The Seminar Series is broken up into faculty-led groups by grade level, with each grade focusing on a different overarching theme. The middle school’s focus will be local, taking a look at Vermont from a historical and current lens, with the ninth grade examining the Geography Lottery, exploring what it means to be born in a certain area. Sophomores will look at Technology and the Environment, Juniors at Disruption and Social Change, and Seniors will complete an independent study. The Seminar Series curriculum is supplemented by various publications such as The Week, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Wall Street Journal, and students will ultimately be responsible for written synthesis of material from the program along with presentations which will give them the opportunity to practice public speaking, making use of software like Google Slides.
In addition to implementing a blending learning approach to the curriculum, a block schedule was adopted, resulting in longer class periods. With 90 minute classes, teachers now have time for group projects, longer labs, experiments, excursions around or even off campus, time to get students going with their homework while being close by to help and guide them, and even cross-curricular work with other faculty members and students. In addition, the adoption of ”flex Wednesdays” gives students the time to sign up for extra help with teachers, review video with coaches, tune their skis or bikes, schedule time with Strength and Conditioning Coach Alex Denny, to meet for Student Council/BEAR Ambassadors/National Honor Society, complete community service, or schedule college counseling sessions; the possibilities are countless.
Several faculty members shared stories of how both the blended learning approach, the early academic start to the year, and the new schedule have all enhanced their courses already this year. History department chair Courtney O’Keefe commented, “With students actively logged in and working on their course work beginning in the summer, I am the most excited about the opportunities for our in-class time as we proceed into this school year. We hit the ground and running with our studies as a result of this early start. It seems like every year we are having to fast forward our way through history at such a fast pace that we cannot take out time and really delve deeply into all the material we’d like to cover. It is the whole “breadth vs depth” issue, with breadth being the winner. With our course work having started sooner and with longer class periods, I am finally able to not only slow down our studies, but I also have the opportunity to allow students to deeply explore concepts that truly interest them.” O’Keefe continued, “Last year, I had a student ask if it was possible to take some time to look at some Viking history. Unfortunately, with our time crunch it wasn’t possible, and it disappointed both of us. Now, we have the opportunity to tackle requests like this, rather than just picking one or two topics to explore and being forced to ignore the others due to time constraints.”
When it comes to the blended approach, O’Keefe shared her excitement at moving from a more traditional, “teacher as expert model,” to a realm where the teacher becomes the guide, helping and engaging with students along the path to discovery, “Overall, the implementation of Google Classroom opens up a great means to not only give students new outlets for learning, but also to increase the students’ accountability for their own learning. The traditional means of simply giving students information and having them memorize it isn’t effective in this day and age, where students crave and have become accustomed to some sort of interaction with what is in front of them. From social media to video games, students spend their free time actively interacting with information. So why shouldn’t they in the classroom? My students will find that they will be more responsible for learning about specific events, people, and topics on their own through their own research, whether it be via Google, YouTube, or any other medium online. They will gather information, decipher the credibility of this information, analyze it, and share it with their classmates and me. This will lead to more accountability, as they will be not only play an active role in their learning process, but also in the learning process of the class a whole. I am excited to see what they will come up with as we use class time to discuss these assignments together.”
New to KMS this year, Science Department Chair Terri Isidro found the early start to course work and the impact of technology to be helpful in getting her acquainted with her new students, “I assigned students a video to watch about the nature of science, and then I asked them to look around and find something of wonder around them. Since I had not yet met the students at this point, I asked them to take a photo of themselves with the object/phenomenon that sparked their curiosity. It was great! I got pictures of students with butterflies, bicycles, and mountains, of course. The other part of the assignment was to outline how they would envision setting up a scientific study about this thing that sparked their interest. Not only did I learn a great deal about my new students, but also I was able to assess their current understanding about how to approach scientific inquiry.”
Isidro continued, commenting on the flipped model of instruction, a common method used with blended instruction, “In the ‘flipped classroom’ model, we don’t spend valuable class time watching slides or hearing lectures, but instead we focus on questions and feedback concerning the topics that students have already covered at home or in study hall; then together, we can bring these concepts to life through investigations and activities in the classroom and lab. In the end, this frees up much more time for group and individual investigations and also activities in class that extend upon the basic understanding imparted through initial exposure to scientific concepts.”
There is no limit to the courses that can take advantage of the blended model, evidenced by Eric Kuntz’s digital photography students who were able to complete assignments over the summer and post them to his Google Classroom. Lizzie Degraw took a picture of two pairs of skis for an assignment where students were asked to photograph something related to their environment, focusing on a design element or line. She posted this description as part of the assignment “This photo shows speed skis gliding over soft snow on the Poma in Saas Fee. I put a horizontal focus on the skis, excluding the boots. I also used an app called FastEdits to tune up the contrast, sharpness, saturation, and tuned down the brightness. This added more depth to the photograph. The mood of the photo is fast, fun, and colorful. This photo is personal to me because I love alpine racing and speed, so the photo speaks to me on a personal level.” (See Lizzie’s photo below).
The success of both athletics and academics at a school like KMS depends upon communication, open-mindedness, flexibility, the maximization of time and all available tools, and a unity of purpose. With coaches and teachers unified in assisting students as they achieve their academic and athletic goals, anything is possible. The blended learning approach, combined with an early academic start to the year and an effective daily schedule, offers clear-cut benefits to students that will ultimately allow them to continue to raise the bar in all aspects of their KMS education.
Below: Alpine athletes engage in academics from Saas Fee