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Adapting After School Programming to a Virtual Platform: One School’s Story

Wednesday, April 15, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Nat Saltonstall
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Betsy MacIver Neiva, Director of Auxiliary Programming Germantown Friends School

Ian Bartimole, Director of ASPire’s Imaginative Play Program, Germantown Friends School

Nothing has more impact in the life of a child than positive relationships.”

 Julia Freeland Fisher, Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations that Expand Students’ Networks


“In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.”

 Albert Einstein


As independent school closures extend through April into May, auxiliary program teams are uniquely qualified to play a transformative role in the delivery of high-quality virtual programming for children. This programming not only provides a means for maintaining connection with students and continuity with daily and weekly routines, but it also offers fun and entertaining virtual enrichment for families needing to occupy their children at home. 


At Germantown Friends School, we formally transferred our theme-based, choice-oriented program, called ASPire, from in-person to virtual delivery on April 6. To prepare for this launch, we followed nine straightforward steps.


1) Get Team Buy-In: The overall quality as well as the long-term viability of any initiative depends largely on the enthusiasm and commitment of the individuals involved. Working in conjunction with Program Manager Lauren Stenberg and team member Lindsay Freed, we drafted a tentative plan for what an online platform might look like and then asked the other team members whether they would be interested in participating. The response was unanimously in favor of the idea. We also shared how compensation and hours would work while the program was both being developed and delivered virtually. 


2) Secure Administrative Approval: Betsy met with senior administrators to ensure that creating and distributing an online platform would align with the school’s plan for remote programming. Associate Head of School Page Fahrig-Pendse, to whom Betsy reports, was particularly enthusiastic about the idea and even asked to be invited to the classroom so she could keep up with the team’s efforts. The next conversation was with the school’s Chief Financial Officer Rob Marcantuono to confirm the plan for compensation, which he approved.


3) Set Up the Platform and Create Programming: After setting up the online platform using Google Classroom and Zoom, author Ian Bartimole, shared it with our twelve-person team. We next ordered microphones, iphone stands, and a document camera. Each team member then began creating videos related not only to the specific activity “station” he or she normally runs every afternoon, but also to his or her own areas of personal interest. For example, Lauren not only created instructional videos related to the art projects she runs every afternoon, but she also recorded songs (such as Lou the Raccoon) that she and her husband wrote. 


4) Determine a Weekly Template: The children enrolled in our program range in age from five to elevena significant age differenceso we felt it would be important to offer our students a mix of synchronous and asynchronous programming that ideally would include something appealing to each age group. Each day, we post videos created by our team members, online resources, ideas for at-home activities, and various Flipgrid topics to encourage students to actively participate by sharing their own content. In addition, we are incorporating many of our time-tested daily and weekly routines, such as our greeting, birthday song, Fun Friday, second snack, Suggestion Box, and much more. These routines help maintain and reinforce our program’s unique culture.


Every afternoon, we also have several team members online “in the classroom” both to facilitate interactions among team members and students and to keep studentts informed about the new, asynchronous content that has been posted for that day. In this new form of programming we are emphasizing both routines as well as real-time engagement and feedback. To do this, we have designed simple group activities to incorporate into our live programming, including favorite social games like icebreakers, group word games like hangman, and other activities designed to engage the group as a whole.


5) Establish an Operational Routine: To increase the probability that our efforts will be sustainable over time, we created an organizational chart that lays out a management structure based on each team members’ comfort level and skill set. First, we differentiated between positions requiring the creation of asynchronous videos and synchronous meets, and those involved in administrative oversight of our online platform. We then assigned jobs. For example, we put one person in charge of overseeing the programming, another in charge of managing the online classroom and updating the weekly schedule, another in charge of responding to parent feedback and inquiries, and still another in charge of editing and archiving the videos. 


Perhaps the biggest surprise of the whole undertaking was the realization that the month-long process of creating the virtual program has resulted in a completely new bond among the team members that never otherwise would have existed. Members brought their unique strengths and interests to the project, a sense of comradery developed as each new problem was identified, addressed, and ultimately solved. Additionally, they began developing new skills, which intensified the collective sense of pride and commitment. As one team member put it, “I have never been more inspired by my colleagues; we have a 70-year old team member who has now mastered the hand-raising emoji and two of our newest team members now are playing leadership roles.”


6) Communicate with Parents: Once our plan was in place, we reached out to the school’s Communications and Senior Leadership Teams to ensure that ASPIRE’s correspondence to parents would be consistent and would not overlap or conflict with any other notifications being sent from the school. In our first letter to parents, we let them know that we would be shifting our programming to an online format immediately after Spring Break. In our second letter, which was inspired by an example that Bob Rojee from Wheeler generously shared, we included a sample schedule of our synchronous programming. We also included a link to the Remind App, which we will be using for feedback and troubleshooting, and a link to a Google form that will serve as a waiver through which parents will give permission for their child to participate in the synchronous and asynchronous programming. 


In addition, the evening before the program started, team leader Heather McKelvey sent personal emails to individual parents highlighting some of the exciting content we had created for the children and activities we had planned for the launch. Her efforts were fruitful, as many of those parents enrolled their children immediately after receiving her note. 


7) Troubleshooting & Incorporating Feedback: Even while executing rapidly evolving plans, we knew that the process of brainstorming and creative imagining would play a vital role in determining how the program would develop over time. As such, a large part of our work was devoted to carrying out our initial plan, while another important part was devoted to imagining better ways to configure our program in virtual space. Our virtual classroom will continually evolve as the team learns how to use it, and as we receive feedback from students and parents, whom we have asked to participate in the development of a program that suits their changing needs. The unprecedented shift to an online platform requires a paradigm shift in the ways that team members think about how they create and deliver programming. Consequently, each one of us will have to reflect on how best to deliver our program while simultaneously re-orienting ourselves toward this new mode in which the nature of our duties are fundamentally changed.


8) Enrichment Clubs: During normal circumstances, GFS offers approximately 35 enrichment clubs on its two campuses. Because these activities represent an important component of students’ after school routines and because the majority of our instructors are freelance professionals for whom these classes represent an important source of income, we will be offering a modified season of virtual clubs this term. 


9) Plan Seamless Transition to Summer Programming: Our final step has been to adapt the virtual after-school program’s new format to the summer day camps we are currently planning. If were are unable to offer our summer camps as originally planned, our current strategy is to plan both a hybrid program and a strictly online summer program (hybrid programming refers to a camp that would start online and then shift to in-person delivery). Ideally, the skills we are developing and the models we are tweaking through our online after school program will increase the probability we will be able to offer a fun and engaging online summer program. In addition our hope is that the children who are participating in our vertial after school program will want to make a seamless transition to a virtual summer camp version if external circumstances continue to warrant such measures.


Because members of after school teams routinely spend every weekday afternoon with the children enrolled in their programs (and in many cases have done so for years), these individuals can serve as a valuable source of reassurance for young people who are being asked to adjust to unprecedented--and for some very frightening--change. Yet these individuals can also serve as a valuable source of fun as evidenced by the following text that a 3rd grade teacher received from the parent of a Kindergartener who had participated in the first two days of the program,


I had a long, hard day at [hospital’s name] but the best thing ever was coming home to Connell absolutely laughing and loving the guitar singing Mad Libs led by ASPire Andrew. If you see him, let him know how hard the laughter was and how thankful I was. 

I will also say that Connell loves it in a different way (than school) because he is entertained. He gets to participate in ways where the expectations are just slightly relaxed and he’s fully into it. It’s also at a crucial time point for me bc we need to wrap up the workday or start dinner and this lets us. I thought he would have screen fatigue by that time of day, but I was wrong.

Connell and Ryan dove into all the ASPire video content and it’s really cool stuff- I can tell that they have worked really hard on everything!! Even Jenny making cat pancakes was awesome and Connell said how much he misses everyone.


It is feedback like this that reinforces the ASPire team’s commitment to continue creating meaningful opportunities for play, engagement, connection, and continuity for the children about whom we care so much.