Looking Up

December 8, 2020

Message from the headmaster



Are we spending too much time on screens? It’s a question we’ve been considering in one way or another for a few years now—but it has become more urgent as we look to engage students for a “school day” online in our hybrid model. There is recent consensus among educators and scientists who study brain development that all the time kids are spending on screens—not just for school but for homework and their own downtime—can have a negative effect on their brains. Early data from a National Institutes of Health study shows that excessive screen use in younger children can lead to lower scores on language and cognitive tests. Indeed, many studies have younger children as their subjects—from as young as 18 months to around 12 years—so we want to be careful when we apply their conclusions to our own students’ experiences with online learning.


All the same, how worried should we be? And to what extent might we adjust what we do to account for these concerns while still delivering on our promises to students? Time on Zoom and otherwise online is woven into any model that responsibly engages students in daily learning and participation. But how can we meet the high teaching standards we wish to meet at St. Johnsbury Academy, while also making sure kids are both looking up from their screens and engaging in healthy, effective ways online?


We are actively considering these questions as a faculty and staff. As we approach the end of the semester, we have much more information about what kinds of teaching and community-building have worked in which areas. What a teacher needs to conduct a rich discussion in English class will be very different from what a Chemistry teacher needs in order to teach lab skills. We know that it’s critical to be able to have Tech Ed students come in person in the afternoons, and that Clay doesn’t work on Zoom. We know that socializing, and fostering the strong school culture to which the Academy is committed, can be done and are happening in many creative ways—but they also continue to pose a huge challenge.


We’ve been proud of being able to stay in person as the semester has unfolded, knowing how important that is for student well-being. But we also know that the online life of our teachers and students remains critical and may become even more so in the coming months. Our challenge is now, and continues to be, to make sure that students are staying engaged and that we are keeping the Academy’s commitment not just to inquiry but to character and community. That means looking up, regarding each other, and being present whether we’re on or off the screen.


Dr. Sharon L. Howell



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