In a virtual world, Charter School stays the course

Teachers are using the coronavirus pandemic to shape their courses.

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The Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School is continuing many of its educational traditions amid the coronavirus pandemic. — MV Times file photo

While students have had to stay at home, and teachers have had to adapt to virtual classrooms, the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School continues to offer some of its “truly Charter” programs, according to Director Pete Steedman, and students are thriving.

Students are continuing to do their personalized education plans (PEP), and Steedman said the school is working to have virtual project periods. Both the PEPs and the project periods are Charter School traditions, where students pick and explore an area of interest.

PEPs are personal and goal-oriented conversations with students, teachers, and parents that provide students with an opportunity to be involved in their educational experience.

Steedman commended the faculty and staff for their work, and for completing PEPs for every single student.

“The Charter School prides itself on these amazing relationships that happen between students and staff,” Steedman said. “In some ways, I feel those relationships are stronger than ever.”

Charter School teachers are also using current events as a teaching tool for their students.

English and Language Arts teacher Mathea Morais is working with her students on writing memoirs about their lives during the coronavirus pandemic: “Talking about memory and what memory means, and how we remember different situations in our lives,” Morais said. 

Morais has her students “mining for memories,” and talking about how they will tell their story after the fact. The lessons will culminate in a to-be-determined storytelling project where students pick how they tell their quarantine stories.

“They’re learning more every single moment just living through this experience than any of us can ever hope to teach them,” Morais said of her students. “As hard as this is, and frustrating and scary and uncertain, the outcome is they are going to come through this with a different sense of self — a different understanding of who they are.”

Students are not restricted to telling their stories through the spoken word. Some will use fiction, video, or other mediums.

Jonah Maidoff, who teaches social studies, is working with his seventh and eighth grade students on a “facing history ourselves” course, which explores how groups of people participate and resist the horrors of racism by studying the Holocaust, apartheid, and human behavior. With his eleventh and twelfth grade students, he is teaching a social justice class.

Noticing that his students had lots of questions about being isolated and hiding away from a global pandemic, Maidoff created “The Covid Chronicles,” a website that will feature poetry and stories written by students. Maidoff plans for the site to be a presentation of all the work students have done throughout the course.

Deirdre Brown, who also teaches social studies, is working on oral histories with her class. She is using Martha’s Vineyard Museum oral historian Linsey Lee’s “Vineyard Voices” and famed Islander Craig Kinsbury’s book, “Craig Kingsbury Talkin’,” to show students how important oral histories are and what it means to be yourself.

In conversations with museum librarian Bow Van Riper, Brown gathered information for her students on what types of things museums collect. While her classes will listen to Islanders talk about major events throughout history, Brown said it’s also important to document everyday activities. “We’ll have the opportunity to kind of philosophize about those bigger questions, but also kind of really convey to the kids that their day-to-day lives are a part of history,” Brown said.

While adapting to a virtual teaching model has created its fair share of challenges, such as having to unmute students during class discussion on Zoom, or just being in front of a computer screen all day, Maidoff said some students are actually excelling.

“For some kids, [for whom] being in the classroom is really stress-inducing, this is the perfect method for instruction,” Maidoff said. “One system does not float all boats.”

In a follow-up conversation, Steedman said students who are set to graduate do not want a virtual graduation, and are planning to wait to see if larger gatherings will be allowed. The Charter School is known for its specialized graduation ceremony that highlights each graduate’s accomplishments, gives them gifts and scholarships, and lets each student give a speech.

“They’ve been very clear they do not want a Zoom graduation, they do not want a virtual graduation,” Steedman said. “They’re willing to wait and be patient.”