Faraway Freshmen

Freshmen Adjust to Remote High School

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Photo credit: Jacob Boxerman

“Faraway Freshmen — Freshmen Adjust to Remote High School.” How are freshmen dealing with their first year of high school through the screen of a computer?

For most Upper School students, the transition back to online learning this year was difficult, though at least somewhat familiar. But for freshmen, joining the ranks of the upper school this year was a whole new challenge.

Freshman grade heads Tyler Heidtke and Cory Zeller were tasked with the challenge of helping freshmen, both new to Parker and not, get ready for their first days of virtual high school and everything that comes with it. 

Historically, the freshman class takes a retreat to a summer camp in late August as an opportunity to both reconnect with old classmates and meet new ones. But due to COVID-19 restrictions, Heidtke and Zeller had to get creative with a digital freshman orientation. “We designed orientation around trying to take things from the retreat that we could use, and then implemented them virtually,” Heidtke said.

“We split the students into teams,” Heidtke said. “One of the tasks we had them do is to name their team after an alliterative animal name, like the Goofy Gophers … corny stuff, but at least it got them bonding a little bit.”

Heidtke believes that one of the biggest challenges for freshmen, in addition to acclimating to high school, is meeting new people. Freshman Riya Jain, who is new to Parker, says that she has found sports to be a valuable activity in her first weeks of high school, as it has given her an opportunity to get acquainted with classmates outside of Zoom.

The most difficult part is probably not being able to meet people … you have to figure out how you’re going to meet people on your own.”

— Riya Jain

“The most difficult part is probably not being able to meet people, especially at first, because especially since not everyone is new, you have to figure out how you’re going to meet people on your own,” Jain said. “Since I’m doing tennis, that’s a good way to at least get to know people … I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone not even doing a sport.”

Freshman Krish Malhotra, who came to Parker in sixth grade, says that for him, socializing with his peers has not been challenging. Instead, learning how to manage his time has proved to be difficult. “Dealing with the time I have is difficult …  they want you to get up and stretch during free periods. Then I’m also playing golf after school along with clubs and know, other meetings in between all this stuff,” Malhotra said. “So figuring out when to do homework and when to schedule certain meetings, has just has been a learning experience.”

Both Jain and Malhotra would like to see more in-person events for the freshman class as a way to socialize and get to know a broader range of students. However, according to Heidtke, there aren’t plans for that in the future, as doing so is a “logistical nightmare right now.”

“Having more students in the building while your hours are condensed — so it’s just a lot, as much as we would love to do that,” Heidtke said. “We’re exploring all the possibilities, and gonna spit stuff out as it comes to us.”

Jain thinks that some sort of in-person event would allow freshman a chance to connect with their peers, both with those new to Parker and not. “I feel like even just getting together in small groups to get to know each other more, so it’s not awkward in the breakout rooms or in Zoom classes, would make people feel a lot more comfortable,” Jain said.

Binita Donohue, Upper School counselor, agrees that school over platforms such as Zoom limits the amount of spontaneous social interaction — such as students chatting in the hallway — which she believes is important for students and teachers alike, which can be difficult, especially after a lengthy summer recess. “The social isolation of summer has put us all in a place where this is the only way we can connect socially … Because we’re not in the hallway, you can’t just run into people, the way we usually do when we’re in person.”

However, says Donohue, this limited social interaction has had a positive effect on work habits. “What ninth graders have been reporting is that they’re using their off class time pretty productively,” Donohue said. She believes that the absence of easy social interaction means that students are more likely to use their free time to complete work. “That is resulting in some positive feelings about their own academic abilities and time management, that kind of thing.”

Though the negatives of remote learning do seem to outweigh the positives, especially for students new to Parker. Donohue says that freshmen new to Parker may be having a difficult time adjusting to Parker’s classroom environment, coming from a different background.

“The norms at Parker in the classroom are that students will share their opinions. Certainly, by the time you’re in ninth grade most Parker students feel very comfortable if a teacher asks a question, just jumping in and saying what they think,” Donohue said. But if a student is coming from a school system where, says Donohue, “you don’t raise your hand and say, wait a minute, I don’t get that … the student who’s new interprets that as disrespect rather than normal.”

While both Jain and Malhotra wish they could enjoy their first year of high school, neither are worried that they will not get to experience high school properly. “I’m not getting a full high school experience yet. But I don’t think it’ll go for four years,” Malhotra said.