Urban Changes its Curriculum in Light of Online School

Ben Katznelson, Staff Writer

On March 12, Urban students and teachers alike received an email from the Head of School, Dan Miller, explaining that the school would not reopen its doors after the interterm break – that Urban would instead hold classes virtually in the upcoming weeks. However, as Academic Dean Geoff Ruth explained, Urban had been preparing for a virtual scenario since late February 2020. Though Ruth knew that switching to a virtual platform was the best way to keep students safe, he saw that much of Urban’s curricula would require alteration.
“In some departments, [there’s] been a really radical rethinking of what’s happened,” Ruth said. “Cal Studies, One Acts, entomology — these are examples of classes that are pretty radically changed.”
In some cases, Ruth has had to work with department chairs to pick and choose which subject matters to keep and which to drop. “Something that all teachers are grappling with is a question of what matters most in class, and therefore which parts of the class are most important to retain,” he said.
Ruth also realizes that a loss of academic content during this spring could affect students’ preparedness for upcoming courses, a topic he’s brought into conversation with department chairs. “What I’ve told Parisa, Matthew, and Arnaud very directly is to not worry about this. [Addressing lack of preparedness for next year] is an issue that we will need to solve and will need to figure out, and we’re not going to do that right now.”
Matthew Casey, Science Department Chair, has been forced to face the ramifications of virtual school in a department where hands-on learning is key. In reference to a content loss, Casey said, “I estimate a 30-50% reduction in our science classes, and that’s just a fact that we’ve had to adjust to. Just like all of the other sacrifices we’ve had to make due to this crisis, we’ve had to sacrifice some of our content.”
Casey and his department “strategized and talked about the top five concepts that are essential for students to know so that they can take their next science class and be ready [and] able to succeed,” he said.
Due to the loss of hands-on learning, the science department has instead begun assigning smaller activities, while cutting lab reports from its curricula. “We’re trying to skew more toward analysis questions, so you would do an activity and then maybe answer a set of analysis questions about it rather than writing a whole lab report.”
Conducting assessments has also proved challenging, but the department has been “playing around with [them], to give students a chance to still show their understanding, but in a frequent and less cumbersome way,” Casey said.
The Performing Arts department has also been hit hard by the switch to Virtual Urban. “Pretty much all the classes we’re running are ensemble classes that normally operate with group interaction and collaboration,” said Scott Foster, Performing Arts Department Chair. “The fact that we’re all isolated has made that our biggest challenge — figuring out how to have ways for individuals to work collaboratively even though we’re not in the room together.”
Like Casey, Foster has also searched for alternative options to conduct engaging classes and assess students in a virtual setting. “For example, the chamber orchestra is doing directed individual study so that every student in the band knows exactly what segment they personally need to be working on,” Foster said. “For the jazz band…we’ve extended [the playing test, an assessment where individuals play their music and submit it online] over the quarantine so that people are working on that for a much longer period of time during our E periods,” since the ensembles cannot play together.
However, despite the stay-at-home order currently in place, the department has pushed forth with theater traditions such as One Acts, albeit in an irregular format. “They’re still working through the process in the theater, just in a different way,” Foster said. “So we’re still going ahead with making One Acts happen.”
Yet, English Department Chair Courtney Rein illustrated that not all departments were as profoundly impacted by the spread of COVID-19 as Science and Performing Arts.“I think [the English department] is lucky that all of our curricula are still available to students in the form that it usually is,” Rein said. “Whereas in math and science and language, it’s really hard.”
Nonetheless, for Rein, virtual English classes lack a personal connection that she has not yet been able to recreate through Zoom. “I know a lot of my students are really mourning… that sense of a shared, rich, in-person experience,” Rein said. Over Zoom, she finds that there is no longer an “energetic exchange around ideas and around feelings and characters and literature.”
Though all departments are impacted differently by our virtual reality, as Rein said, “a lot of teachers… feel like beginners all over again,” and with changes in how teachers teach come changes in how and what students learn.
But in light of trying times, Ruth looks to the Urban community as a beacon of hope. “Our community has done spectacularly amazing in handling this,” he said. “Our teachers, our administrators, our students, and our parents have been so awesome in accepting that this is a challenging situation and being positive, resilient, and supportive as we try to navigate this the best way that we can. I have such respect and appreciation for literally everyone that I’ve encountered at Urban.”