Hands-on Learning

By Regina Velázquez


When the pandemic closed Williams’ campus in the spring of 2020, Allie Campbell ’21 started tutoring elementary and middle school students remotely from her hometown in New Hampshire. She returned to Williams in the fall, eager to connect with young students in a practical, hands-on way. She signed on as a writing fellow with the Williams Center at Mount Greylock, a 10-year-old collaboration between the local high school and Williams’ Center for Learning in Action (CLiA).

In a typical year, 30 to 40 Williams students, through CLiA, visit classes in person several times per week, helping Mount Greylock students with assignments in all subjects, from writing to Latin to math. The Williams students share notetaking techniques, assist with locker organization or quietly do their own homework alongside a student, among other activities. But with the pandemic restricting travel off campus—and Mount Greylock students alternating between remote and in-person learning—the Williams Center likewise had to pivot to an online model, says Kaatje White, the college’s assistant director for local high school education.

To prepare for the move, Campbell used her remote tutoring experience to help adapt a list of best practices and guidelines for tutors that was previously written for in-person class time. She raised some issues that hadn’t been considered, such as kids repeatedly changing their Zoom backgrounds during a session or playing video games in another browser window. The revised tips and guidelines included recommendations for everything from whether the high schoolers needed to appear on screen during sessions (they did) to ways the college students could best keep their pupils’ attention (periodic breaks for stretching, as one example). At a fall orientation for tutors, Campbell was asked to speak about the guidelines and the challenges of working with students online.

“It’s great having Williams students as partners, because they’re already so comfortable online” and can be a great help to teachers as they develop plans for remote learning, says White.

In September, Campbell joined English teacher Blair Dils in a role similar to a student teacher. Via Zoom, she sat in on his class of nine students, met with them one-on-one to discuss their papers and occasionally led small discussions with three or four students in Zoom breakout rooms. She and Dils took turns commenting on students’ drafts in Google docs.

Recalling a recent unit on race, racism and identity, Campbell speaks excitedly about helping students to see things from a different perspective. “They’re teenagers; they’ve already internalized these messages about race. Our work as educators is more like helping them unlearn—or re-learn,” says Campbell, adding that she admires Dils for having “found ways of teaching standard high school material through that framework.”

Working remotely has had unexpected challenges. A lot of important communication happens in the moments spent together over a paper; writing fellows and high school students can see each other’s faces, read body language and hear tone of voice. Those nuances are lost on Zoom, which “has been really hard,” Campbell says. “I don’t feel like I’ve connected in the way I’d like to.”

Before the college moved to remote learning again in late November, Campbell and Dils met each Sunday at Tunnel City Coffee, outside and masked. The two discussed teaching philosophy, upcoming assignments and student papers—a level of involvement similar to that of a student teaching assignment in a traditional undergraduate education program, but without the pressure of a strict evaluation. “Allie is a perfect example of what can happen” when a Williams student is interested in pursuing a career in education, White says.

Susan Engel, Williams’ Class of 1959 Director of the Program in Teaching and one of Campbell’s professors, says students’ involvement with the Williams Center at Mount Greylock “can dramatically deepen their intellectual growth. Allie is incredibly thoughtful and shows great compassion for young learners. Both of those characteristics will stand her in good stead in a classroom.”

Dils, who plans to have Campbell lead some class discussions on her own in the spring, agrees: “She’s very easy to relate to, so the students are comfortable with her. She’s alert to the students and listens to them, and I think that’s going to serve her well down the road.”

The pandemic challenges don’t seem to have dampened Campbell’s enthusiasm for teaching. She plans to apply for graduate programs in secondary English education or special education, with an eye toward eventually working in education policy or school administration in a big-city public school system. She says she might defer enrolling in grad school for a year in hopes that teaching can get back to some level of pre-pandemic normalcy. “A lot of the program is student teaching, and I don’t want it to be remote,” she adds.

Whether she’s able to work with high schoolers remotely or in person, Campbell says, her work is all about the students: “The kids are all so brilliant, and I want the world to see that.”


Regina Velázquez is assistant editor of Williams Magazine.