Conversation with Founding Director of SchoolPlus Dr. Olga I. Fookson

Q: Dr. Fookson – you founded SchoolPlus over 25 years ago and have been the Director since
then. Your program has been highly successful, with hundreds of alumni, many classes, and
many locations. Surprisingly, last year you decided to add the ‘virtual classroom’ to your
program. Why?

A: ‘Virtual classroom’ is a new concept in education that fits very well with our credo – to suit
programs to our students, rather than to suit students to our programs.


Q: Can you elaborate?

A: Sure. For one thing, virtual classroom allows us to greatly expand the range of classes we
offer, since the teachers and students are not drawn from specific geographic location, but from
anywhere in the country (and, potentially, the world!). For example, parents of one young girl
told that their daughter is fascinated by Japanese language and wants to learn it. It may sound
strange as the family has no connection to Japan, but I believe that child’s ‘spontaneous’
intellectual interests should be encouraged.


Q: So, do you now offer classes in Japanese?
A: Not yet, but we do have a class in Latin. Study of Latin has always been part of classical
education and it greatly enriches students’ appreciation and knowledge of English and many
other European languages. We offer Russian, of course, which has always been a big component
of our school. We have a class called ‘Mythology and the Greece’. But this is just a start…


Q: What about ‘core’ subjects – first of all, mathematics, ‘the queen of all sciences’, as Gauss
once called it?
A: Mathematics is a foundational subject, no doubt, and a lot of time is devoted to this subject in
school. But despite very considerable efforts in teaching math, we find that students often do not
have a firm grasp of the basic concepts. This applies even to many ‘A students’. They can pass
the course and do very well by memorizing how to solve many kinds of sample problems, but
once you step ever so slightly outside of the familiar turf, they are often lost. At SchoolPlus, our
goal is always to first ‘go deep’ before ‘going high’. We focus on mastery of key concepts that are
already familiar to students before introducing material from the next level. If you want to know
more about our approach, I suggest you read a piece by our veteran math teacher, Mrs. Mary
Marvin. She explains our philosophy with a few illustrative examples. [link to her description]


Q: Is this another example of ‘suiting the program to the student’?
A: Absolutely. Our teachers know what students need to know at their level, but they do not have 
a fixed program to follow. This allows them to individualize their lessons to the needs and interests of the class and to fine-tune them based on students’ performance and feedback.


Q: I want to get back to the virtual classroom. Can you tell us a little more what it looks like – is it kind of like talking to someone on Skype?

A: That gives you the correct image but we expand on that. We use a platform called NewRow, which is specially designed for virtual teaching. It not only allows students and the teacher to see each other and talk to each other but has many user-friendly teaching tools, like the virtual whiteboard, with “chalk”-pen, options for writing and drawing with different size pens, and colors, as well as typing.


Q: Does teaching in a virtual classroom differ from teaching in a ‘real life’ classroom?

A: This is an interesting question. It does. Technology allows the teacher to do some things that are not possible in the classroom. For example, the teacher can break down a math problem into ‘steps’ and ask students to solve it one step at a time. The teacher will see on his screen how each student is solving the problem in real time and where they go wrong. He can then address the step that the students find confusing right there and then. Let me give just one example. All teachers will at some point have to deal with a disruptive student. Virtual reality offers a novel solution to this age-old problem: the student is given a warning that if he continues to disrupt the class, he will be put on ‘mute’! This is virtual reality alternative to being sent to the principal’s office.


Q: This sounds like almost futuristic. What about the negatives? Parents may not want their children to spend more time in front of the screen –they are already on the computer for too long!

A: I can definitely relate to this concern. Here’s my view: children naturally gravitate toward the virtual environment and feel quite at ease in it, so why not take advantage of this? Let technology bring out the best in our students. Instead of playing video games or using Facebook, let them actually interact with a live teacher and fellow classmates who just happen to be sitting in other locations at the same time. Let them look forward to the next virtual class.


Q: Do students like virtual classes? What has been your experience so far?

A: They do. Very much so. I still do not know exactly why. It may because they like the online experience, as we discussed, but I also think there is something quite comforting about being in your own house – each student has ‘the homecourt advantage’. That’s another interesting area for an educator to explore.


Q: Indeed. Now, could you tell me about the age of your students. Is virtual learning something for older kids and high-schoolers?

A: Thank you for this question. Let me first say a few words about our regular SchooPlus program. SchoolPlus has always offered classes for students K through high school. This distinguishes our school from many others because there are a lot of classes for kindergarteners and then there are high school test preparation classes, but there is a big gap when it comes to elementary and middle school students. This is a very important age when the foundation is laid. If a kid cannot count well, or does not know fractions and percentages, or cannot read fluently and has a limited vocabulary, it is difficult to expect great success in high school and beyond. These skills may seem very basic, and that everyone knows it- but this is not the case. Many students have not mastered the basic skills, and then find it difficult to even admit that they do not really know grade school stuff when they are older. We have been working hard on this problem for a long time. We created special programs and taught teachers how to teach students in the in-between age group. At first, I was afraid that we would not be able to translate this wealth of experience into the virtual classes because younger kids would not be able to learn remotely. Fortunately, our children turned out to be much more skillful than we thought. You probably would not believe it, but we have 2nd and even 1st-grade kids who are studying in the virtual classroom. And they enjoy it!


Q. Really? Can such small children use the computer to study? I only see them play with it.

А. We underestimate the new generation. I call it the cell phone generation. Now even a 1-year old knows how to open and close programs on the screen. These kids have no problem figuring out how to use 3-4 buttons in the virtual classroom to communicate with others or write on the whiteboard. They think it is cool that they can wave hello to their friends across the county and learn together. They are very interested in what is going on the screen and participate quite actively in the class. Maybe they think of the virtual class as a kind of game, and this is just fine with us. Of course, parents should be nearby in order to connect their child to the Internet and get them started, or in case there are some problems along the way. We also recommend that students and parents spend about 15 minutes before the first class to familiarize themselves with the program, and then they are ready to go.


Q: You certainly sound very enthusiastic. Is there one thing that you find most exciting about virtual classroom? A: Virtual classroom is a new tool in education. And when you have a new tool, you will make new discoveries. This is how it is in science, just think of the invention of the telescope or the discovery of X-rays. I do not mean to compare them in terms of significance, certainly not, but I do think that virtual learning will lead to a lot of new insights into how to teach our children better.This is what is most exciting to me.

Q: It is exciting. I hope we will have the chance to talk again and you will update uson the discoveries.