An Interview with Mr. Looney on COVID-19

May 1, 2020

There are a million adjectives that could be used to describe the time we are currently living through and the way each and every one of us is feeling. Things are uncertain, scary, devastating, and weird, just to name a few. We are beginning to learn more about this virus, and we are beginning to fight it the best we can. So many things within our daily lives are changing. For many students, one of the biggest changes is school. Asynchronous (individual learning) and synchronous (through online classes and meetings) are becoming a language used in our daily vocabulary. I sat down with our Head of School, Mr. Looney, (on a zoom call, of course) to discuss some of the changes and some of his reflections on the crazy time we are living through.

Decisions are beginning to come out for some of the questions we have all been asking. One of the biggest decisions which came out a few weeks ago was for Hawken to switch to pass/fail for the rest of the semester. There have been valid concerns on both sides in an argument to keep or remove grades for the semester and possibly for the whole year. In the end, the reasoning was that it went against Hawken’s policy of equity and Fair Play. Students are experiencing a plethora of emotions and circumstances right now. If we had grades right now, what would they really show? According to Mr. Looney, “[Having grades would be] an inherently unequal situation, and since grades are comparative, it didn’t feel fair to ask the teachers to figure out how to do it fairly, and they didn’t feel comfortable doing it. It didn’t feel fair to the kids whose circumstances aren’t ideal for learning right now to put the pressure of grades on top of all of the other pressures they felt.”

However, not only students are affected by these difficult times. Mr. Looney mentioned that eachers are experiencing the harsh balance of this new world as well. While having to rework plans for the end of the semester and having stresses of their own during this pandemic, it would be cruel to make teachers also determine their new grading systems. It is even more difficult for those with childcare responsibilities. 

The issue is incredibly complicated as there needs to be a perfect balance met in the schooling of younger students. Mr. Looney pointed out, “Kids don’t have the attention span [for synchronous learning]. You can’t have a 45 minute synchronous meeting with a five year old...The synchronous tends to be a shorter duration: more like 20 minutes of doing circle with your friends or doing a very small math lesson.” While this might put the worries of synchronous learning at bay, Lower School teachers cannot then assign more asynchronous assignments because this puts pressure on small children to be responsible. When this does not happen, the pressure is put on parents to maintain their children’s schooling. For teachers, this means less time for class planning and other pedagogical responsibilities. The least of their worries would become grades. This has been one of the biggest challenges in the transition to online learning according to Mr. Looney. In order to help with what seems to be a pretty simple answer, the decision was made to go pass/fail for the rest of the semester.

Of course, the answer is not that simple, but Mr. Looney wanted to put students' minds at ease, by addressing some counter arguments and concerns about putting an end to grades for the rest of the semester. While discussing the argument that many people feel that their grades were going to improve for the end of this semester, Mr. Looney noted, “People have to trust that colleges are smart enough to get the other messages from Hawken...There are lots of ways we can tell colleges that you had a great end of year, better than your beginning of the year, that they will trust besides grades.” Everyone will have to adapt to these changing times. Many high schools other than Hawken and even colleges are adopting pass/fail grading systems. Colleges will need to adapt and many are already. In fact, Mr. Looney believes the new process which will occur next year may change how we see college processes occur forever. He argues, “Grades have out-lived their utility, but people are stuck in a habit. We use grades to make [a lot of decisions], but now [colleges are] going to have to live without them. They are going to get kids all over the United States who are going to have a semester, or [maybe, if pass/fail continues] whole years ungraded.” As we know, Mr. Looney has a progressive stance on grades with his work with the Mastery Transcript. He knows that students can be evaluated without test scores and letter grades. He also believes that this is a better way of evaluating students without “having to run them through a standardization machine that shaves off all their humanity, uniqueness, and personality,” as he put it. Mr. Looney knows that we are each individuals with our own unique stories to tell that cannot simply be told through a number or a ranking. Colleges will learn this through the new college process of next year. Mr. Looney explains, “I think what’s going to [colleges] are going to find out they like their entering classes better, that grade-grabbing kids who are hyper-perfectionistic don’t necessarily make great classes. That there are some kids who might have Bs or B+s but who are much more interesting, engaging beings who learn for their own sake, and it doesn’t always show up in their grades.” There is so much more to each of us than our test scores, and every grade and test score has a story. Even beyond test scores and grades, we all have a story. Some people are just not good test-takers, but may be extremely smart students all the same. In this new college process, since colleges cannot rely on what a pass/fail grade means, they will have to look more thoroughly at what teachers, college counselors, etc. say about a student. Mr. Looney believes they should have the same mentality as it is for grades because, as has been demonstrated by this difficult time, what do grades truly reflect? People can have major stressors within their lives, not just during a pandemic, and grades may not reflect the entire story. In the end, however, we know the college process will surely have major changes for next year. The question is: will this new evaluation continue?

Mr. Looney knows that this is a difficult time for students and the Hawken community as a whole. He wants to acknowledge the resilience that everyone will demonstrate during this time. Although there are many other big issues, it can be hard to just be isolated. Hawken is a community that relies on being connected. Through activities such as the House System’s Fun Friday and Mrs. Becker’s Rock, Paper, Scissors Tournament, we can all come together and continue to maintain our community atmosphere. Community is looking different now: zoom calls with friends, online games like Kahoot!, and social media. Thankfully, with technology we can stay connected as a school.

As a final message, Mr. Looney wanted to tell us to “be patient with each other. Everyone is trying the best they can...Nobody planned for this. Nobody could plan for this. There is no script.” His message is that we need to all come together during these difficult times. We should all check in on our friends (through FaceTime or Zoom of course). We should check in on ourselves and know that this may be a difficult time for our mental and emotional health. !And, above all else, we should know that we can get through this together.



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