Poise. Dedication. Resilience. These qualities may be built in to the Aiglon experience, but it took a global pandemic to show that, with these skills, our community could thrive in times of challenge.
From throwing yourself into a gruelling expedition to taking on charity work in a country you’ve never visited, the Aiglon experience has always tested both students and staff to the limit. That experience has created a remarkably resilient community: people who embrace challenge, demonstrate responsibility and think globally and creatively to serve others.
And when faced with a crisis on a scale none of us had experienced before, it was our school spirit that enabled us to pull together during the Covid-19 crisis. As we go to press, the Aiglon experience looks radically different – but it’s still very much Aiglon, wherever you are in the world.
In Turkey, Kaan Taskent (Alpina, Year 12) is making the most of the opportunity to manage his own time. Before the crisis hit, he was looking forward to the new football season: now, undaunted, he’s keeping his skills sharp in the garden. “At the start, I was worried, but it’s all worked out,” he says. “The teachers have been great and are putting so much work into adapting their live lessons for online learning. They are always available if you want to ask about something, or need a concept explaining to you. And I think we will learn something from this experience, too. If I wanted to, I could switch my computer off and game all day! But boarding school has taught me to stand on my own two feet. It’s taught me self-discipline. I’m staying motivated by organising myself and getting all my work done effectively so I have time for myself later.”
For Michelle Xie (La Casa, Year 8) in Hong Kong, having a schedule has also been key to getting to grips with the remote learning experience – as has a wide variety of set activities. “If you keep everything under control with a clear schedule, things will be so much easier!” she says. “All our activities have been fun and engaging: in Geography, we were asked to do a research project on the Alps; in English and History we were asked to write essays; and for Science, we did research projects that we picked a while ago, and we were told to make bread and watch the chemical reactions happen.”
Technology is also making it easy for Michelle to stay in touch with her peers. “I think I’m keeping in touch with my teachers and classmates really well. I often chat with them on Google Hangouts, on emails or FaceTime. We talk about our days, where we’re at, and how the weather is in different areas.”
Behind this smooth transition to online learning lies an extraordinary feat of planning – one that began way before school closures in Europe were being talked about. Luckily, Head of School Mrs Nicola Sparrow has long known the value of preparing for the unexpected. In her previous role as deputy head of a school in Bangkok, she helped evacuate an entire campus during floods.
“In Bangkok, we knew that the water was coming down from northern Thailand – we could see it coming,” she says. “I had a similar feeling as we watched events unfold in China around the virus. So, we started planning very early on about how we would manage a move to remote learning. I’m very proud of how we all worked together as a team.”
The school’s management team quickly identified three priorities for remote learning: a high level of learning, maintaining relationships and connections – and, of course, student wellbeing, vital in such an unsettling time. “Our houseparents were absolutely key to making sure that students were looked after before they went away; helping them to understand the seriousness of the situation and get them back to their families as quickly as possible – but without spreading panic,” says Mrs Sparrow.
After school closed, the introduction to the new system was deliberately gentle: a week of learning where work was simply put up for students to complete, two weeks of a scheduled holiday, and only then starting remote classes with teachers on-screen. “We needed that time. Everyone had to get home, get over their jet lag and, in some cases, be tested for the virus or even go to hospital,” says Mrs Sparrow.
So, what does digital teaching and learning provision look like? Luckily, Aiglon was already using Google Classroom, so that has become the main platform through which students access resources, submit work, attend lessons and meet online with their teachers and classmates. The main tweak, says Mr Tom Duckling, Director of Learning, is screen time. “A lesson is normally 55 minutes long. And if you’re doing that six times a day, it’s a long time in front of a screen. Research shows that while online learning is engaging, it is exhausting. So, teachers do a 15-minute introduction live, and then students are encouraged to do something away from the screen or together in a group. Students have projects to do, and the teacher will be on call during that time to help.”
Staying connected is vital for both staff and students, says Mrs Sparrow, and the school is constantly reaching out to students across the world. Staff meet regularly online for both social and school business meetings – and every Monday, the whole staff of 120 people attend a meeting on Google Hangouts. Each house has a regular check-in, too, with whole-house meetups online for students, staff and houseparents.
Students have been keen to keep in touch, says Mrs Sparrow. “I thought we might struggle to get them to log on to engage in online learning, but it’s a lifeline for students, because that’s when they get to see their friends. It’s their social element. I hear my own children doing their online lessons and there’s a lot of laughter.” Time differences are a big hurdle, of course, and the school is finding ways around it, such as designated staff for different time zones and recorded lessons.
Different year groups have had to cope with different challenges. Year 13, for example, had no exams to sit. IB grades will now be predicted using internal assessments, and Aiglon was already ahead of the curve on this – indeed, it was commended for its excellent organisation by the IB board. “We had assessments uploaded and in place far quicker than many other schools,” says Mr Duckling.
But that has brought a new conundrum: how to keep students engaged without exams to push them right to the end of term. Mr Duckling and his team have pulled together a list of massive open online courses (MOOCs) that cover the university courses the Year 13s will go on to. A staff member has been assigned to each course and encourages students to pick different courses to follow. “Staff are doing the courses along with students, and they’re having a discussion forum on them each week,” says Mr Duckling. “I’m doing International Relations – we have about seven pupils on that, and it’s going great.”
These students have also had to cope with the sudden loss of those last few formative months at school. There will be no replacing those, says Mrs Sparrow, and that’s hard. But, she points out, the Aiglon community is extraordinarily strong. “On the very last night, we brought the graduands descent forward, and they skied down the mountain by torchlight. We will do graduation at some point, and it will be the biggest we have ever seen. But they are a fabulous group, and I have no doubt their Aiglon friendships and experiences will endure.”
In Year 11, students faced a similar problem: all their IGCSE exams were cancelled. “We felt that these students have done two years in their classes and needed to have some form of closure,” says Mr Duckling. “Learning is not just about exams: we wanted to make them understand that you still have to show what you’ve achieved and then move on. So, we asked every department to come up with an assessed piece of work that would bring together the whole course. This ended up fitting in perfectly with the exam board requirements, where we need to grade the students. We now have an assessed piece of evidence that can inform our judgment.” They used the summer term as a general introduction to concepts in the IB, and teaching proper will begin in September so as not to disadvantage any students adjusting to remote learning.
For the future, it’s all about constantly tweaking and improving the remote-learning experience – and looking forward to when the school reopens, stronger than ever. “I have been amazed by the resilience of the Aiglon community, staff and students alike,” says Mrs Sparrow. “Whenever I see online lessons in progress I see pupils smiling; I see nothing but positivity. And perhaps we can learn from this. Perhaps we won’t be exactly the same as before, and there are ways in which we can improve. Again, that’s what we’ve always been about as a school: questioning, challenging and responding to change.”
Article by Lucy Jolin
Photos of Aiglon students and staff on video calls.