Finding Normalcy in an Abnormal Year: A Return to Learning

by Mike Peller, Assistant Head of School for Teaching and Learning

In this year described platitudinously now as “a year like no other,” one is more likely to hear “you’re muted” than “you’re welcome.” Those who typically seek dynamic innovation now yearn for “precedented” times, and even positive change right now is felt by many not as progress but instead as volatile and uncertain. It’s easy to think there is no “normal” left. Given that, how do we stay grounded? For me, staying grounded is simple: I return to moments of learning. That is the normalcy I grasp. How lucky I am to be at White Mountain because these moments of learning are rich and abundant. I offer this article as an opportunity to ground you, too.

As a preface, just as a historian sifts through primary documents to understand a perspective in history, I have often found myself sifting through students’ biweekly comments. (What are these, you might ask. Thanks for asking.) The biweekly comments are written by teachers to students every other week, and they include areas of strength as well as opportunities for improvement. Their purpose was aptly described by a parent: “This type of communication is so useful in helping [parents] stay connected with our student and avoid end-of-quarter surprises.”

In reading the following examples of learning and even some of the—dare I say—banalities of school, you will hear our mission echoing loudly. In these excerpts, taken directly from feedback written by our teachers to our students, you will hear words describing inquiry and engagement. You will bear witness, at least through words, to students being curious, courageous, and compassionate. And through this, I hope you too will find comfort in the normalcy.

(Note: I took the liberty to bold and underline certain words in the student feedback to help draw attention to our mission.)

Geometry: Students were working on congruence and similarity in triangles, culminating in a project where they used similar triangles in order to indirectly measure the height of various trees on campus. Sam, the teacher, described one student’s work in the following way:

You've continued to do excellent work. Your most recent assessment (#3) showed true mastery of triangle congruence and a solid understanding of parallel and perpendicular lines. You were engaged and working hard on the Tree Height project, and I'm excited to see what you come up with during our 3-D Modeling mini-LASR!

English II: Students began reading Persepolis, a graphic memoir by Marjane Satrapi. They recently completed their personal or creative narratives as a response to Trevor Noah's Born a Crime. Daria, the teacher, described one student’s work in the following way:

You have engaged in asking questions and offering solutions in class discussion, and you made steady progress in your personal narrative work over this time period. You showed receptiveness to feedback in your narrative drafting process as well as keen self-awareness.

Chemistry: Students finished work on classifying matter during the past two weeks and have moved on to temperature and heat, including specific heat calculations. Emily, the teacher, captured the work of one student as follows:

You continue to do excellent work exemplified by your willingness to ask questions and engage with the material even while remote. I have enjoyed working with you, and hopefully, you are looking forward to our lab this week on micro-rockets.

Spanish II: Students focused on describing preferences. To practice this skill, they have been talking about their preferences in relation to pets, seasons, and activities thus far. The teacher, Leah, described one standout student as such:

You continue to demonstrate the habits of an engaged student. You find joy in your language learning while also improving your skills. In class, you continue to engage actively throughout and bring joy to those around you with your positive attitude and willingness to play in the language. Keep up the great work!

Environmental Literature: After students wrapped up their rhetorical analysis essays, they began reading the class novel Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. Students researched background information for the text, presenting on topics such as "The Sublime,” "Eco Lit,” and "The Ecology of Florida." Students also continued making progress on their self-selected writing assignments, writing on prompts related to Annihilation and major essays from prominent environmental writers (Henry David Thoreau, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Annie Dillard, etc.) Meredith, the teacher, wrote to one student:

You've continued to be a strong, steadfast presence in Environmental Literature. You've been consistent in your class participation in discussion, both in-person and digitally on myWMS, and you have strong ideas about our class novel. Your rhetorical analysis essay was well-organized and contained plentiful examples, but there are places where you can shift into deeper analysis/assessment of what the speaker does rather than simply recounting their methods. If you are interested in revising a section or the entirety of the essay, let me know and we can discuss this in class. 

U.S. History–The Presidency: Students recently explored some of the nuances of historical thinking while researching the president as a problem-solver, setting the stage for our final project, a student-designed stand-alone gallery exhibit relating to the theme of “Presidential Leadership as a World Power,” focusing on an international event which tested the leadership of a president in the years between 1946 and 2005. JJ, the teacher, described one student’s exemplary work as such:

You have found your stride in this class, and the combination of high interest and high motivation is great to see. Your work on Andrew Jackson was of remarkably high quality, bringing in nuances of a fascinating and troubling era with sophistication and control. You make the most of processes and intermediate steps, so you’re never rushed and are routinely deliberate and on-track. As we round out the course with our final projects, I‘m eager to see what you share regarding multiple narratives and the complexity of modern presidential leadership.

As we approach the one-year mark of shutting down in-person school and moving to emergency remote learning, despite the exhaustion that so many of us feel, I am inspired and energized by the amazing work of our students and faculty. So I end with the paradox. While this was written as a way to add normalcy to an abnormal year, the paradox, of course, is that students being able to learn in person with such purpose and meaning during a global pandemic is not at all normal. It is nothing short of miraculous.


Founded in 1886 and set in the beautiful White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, The White Mountain School is a gender-inclusive, college-preparatory boarding and day school for 140 students grades 9-12/PG. Our mission is to be a school of inquiry and engagement. Grounded in an Episcopal heritage, White Mountain prepares and inspires students to lead lives of curiosity, courage, and compassion.