Student Connection, Engagement, and Support During Online Learning | Part 2 of 2: Redefining Necessity

A DSHA education is more than facts, concepts, coursework, and a rigorous college-prep curriculum. It is about young women finding a place that affirms they are created in the image and likeness of God. It is about being known by teachers, counselors, pastoral staff, administration, and the sisterhood that is only possible in an all-girls environment. It is about finding passion and purpose in the company of a supportive, Catholic community. Over the course of the spring semester of 2020, DSHA learned that while better together, this unique education — at its true core — is still possible when required to be physically apart because of a dedicated faculty and staff, unwilling to settle in order to meet students in their evolving needs.

It is common phrase, first shared by Plato, that necessity is the mother of invention. Perhaps the SOS team and the theme of Student Connection, Engagement, and Support have been the inventions in this case. But what defines the necessity, particularly as it shifts in a time of crisis?

For the DSHA faculty, necessity moved beyond job requirements and into the space of deeply caring for girls outside of a predefined and contractually agreed upon structure. In a time of separation and uncertainty, needs shift — for both students and faculty. And teachers selflessly stretched the bounds of both creativity and expectation in order to keep students motivated and connected to both coursework and community.

One such example of a redefined necessity lies in the DSHA mathematics department.


Mathematics Faculty Libby Wissing, DSHA ’10, currently teaches AP Statistics, Intro to Statistics, Calculus, and Honors Trigonometry/Pre-Calculus. On the surface, math is cut and dry; right or wrong. But to observe Wissing teach is anything but. She’ll pose a question, a student responds, and rather than saying “yes, great job” or “not quite, give it another shot” one might hear her prompt: “tell me more about that.” As she digs into the student’s thought process, both she and the student learn about the student’s understanding of concepts. The result is student growth in knowledge and confidence in the safety of an all-girls classroom.

So how has this translated into a virtual environment?

Wissing has brought it back to “tell me more.” The weekend prior to online learning, she sent an email to her students as she was processing her own thoughts and emotions surrounding the uncertainty.

“It felt important to let them into my world — the weird and scary and unknown,” she said. “I wanted to tell them we are feeling this as adults, too.” She went on to share suggestions about getting outside and getting creative in reaching out to friends.

Thus, girls started to “tell her more”; to share their gratitude for her words and their thought processes on the unknowns; their questions about class, but also their general fears surrounding COVID-19 and the loss that especially seniors were facing.


It began as a letter to herself to assist in processing her own uncertainties, but it set the tone for the balance of the semester. Because of the student response following her first email, and the lines of communication that it opened, Wissing took to writing a weekly communication aside from any curricular instruction. She also began to incorporate some non-academic Zoom meetings for each specific class — things like “show and tell” or “bring something you have owned for half of your life.”

“Teachers and students are missing the little interactions before and after class. These (virtual non-curriculum) interactions help fill that gap,” Wissing shares. “If I can connect with students on a human level, I know they will be more likely to stay engaged in their work,” she shares. “If
they feel disconnected to me as their teacher, they won’t connect to the classroom.”


Because an intentional student connection had been established, Wissing was able concurrently focus on the job at hand — teaching college-prep mathematics: same concepts; new structure.

“We put a deliberate focus on understanding concepts versus homework,” Wissing shares. “For the seniors, we also focused on preparing the girls for the type of calculus they would see in college.”

In an effort to yield the pre-established student learning outcomes (set at the beginning of the year), the amount of problems per assignment were reduced, and students were encouraged to dig into truly understanding the material through concentrated work focused on conceptual comprehension vs. quantity of homework.

“I let them know I was cutting the amount of homework to keep things manageable, so ‘please make sure you are putting in the effort to understand what you have been given,’” she shares.

To guide her students, Wissing created video lessons and was available for group or individual discussions with students each day. Another change was the move to open note quizzes and tests, which she argues have helped aid students’ preparation and understanding of material.


Wissing’s AP Statistics class required some special attention in an effort to assist students in preparation for their upcoming exam. Due to the worldwide nature of the coronavirus, the AP College Board made some swift and deliberate changes to how testing would occur globally. And while this was necessary and best for students, it required in a shift in preparation.

“AP decided they were going to cut content assessed on the exam to reflect material likely covered by most teachers prior to March,” Wissing shares. Being ahead of the game, her class would only have one new chapter to cover. “Because of this, I was able to spread out that final chapter over some additional time during the initial transition to online learning and get it in before spring break.”

Following spring break, she mapped out a five-week content study plan for students including goals and expectations based on new information shared by the AP College Board. Wissing also created an optional study guide with the intention of providing resources without overwhelm.


Kiley Robbins, DSHA ’20, is a student in Wissing’s AP Statistics class and also a member of the DSHA Track & Field Team that Wissing helps coach. Robbins will attend UW-Madison in the fall on a track scholarship and feels prepared thanks to not only the teaching and coaching of Wissing, but the connection they have as well.

“Ms. Wissing has been one of my favorite teachers during this time. She is always checking on us; she is willing to FaceTime or text — it’s not even just classwork. She has been so encouraging,” Robbins shared as she was three days away from taking her AP Statistics exam in mid-May. “In her class you want to learn. She makes hard work fun. If I’m struggling I can easily go to her. She makes sure I’m on track, and that makes me work harder.”

“She has been willing to accommodate my learning style and pace during this time and it has helped me grasp concepts,” she says. “I feel so prepared for the (AP Statistics) test because of the way she has helped us review — together and individually. I’m actually excited to take the test.”


Wissing is one example from a teaching faculty that has evolved the way it is connecting with students. They do this because it matters — the girls matter; not because it is a job.

“Living through a pandemic requires flexibility, but math is the reverse of that,” Wissing shares. “Math isn’t changing — maybe that is a comfort. But it’s the opposite of this world we live in now. I don’t have opportunities to incorporate the current happenings into my lessons (in the way a social studies, English, or science class might be able to.)” Wissing concludes, “If I’m not connecting with students on what we are all experiencing together, they aren’t going to want to watch a video lesson of me talking about sequences and series.”

So that is what they do — connect, support, and engage with students. Because this necessity, though redefined, is still a necessity to each teacher. And the willingness to redefine beyond obligation is simply because their students matter.

Click here to read Part 1 of 2: State of the Students. 
    • Kiley Robbins, DSHA '20, and Mathematics Faculty Libby Wissing, DSHA '10, connect on a Microsoft Teams call prior to Robbins' AP Statistics test in mid-May.


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  • S. Grace Mary Croft
    Kudos to Ms. Wissing and her classes! Thanks for sharing your creativity and your concern for our studentss

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