Taking R.E.A.L. Learning Online

Stories, know-how, and guidance from the experts in educating boys.

Taking R.E.A.L. Learning Online
Jacqueline Keller

Taking R.E.A.L. Learning Online:
How Avon Old Fa  Excelled in the Face of a Crisis

Each member of the educational community was faced with a challenge in the spring of 2020: quickly convert your lesson plans to an online platform. And, for a school which focuses on active learning, that order was made even taller. For one long-time member of the school, French teacher Michelle Custer, the proof was in the pudding - or, in the batter - as to why our boys continued to love her classroom, even when forced online.

First, Some Background on Mrs. Michelle Custer

“I studied French, a sprinkling of Spanish and a dash of Italian while at Bowdoin,” she explained. “I studied in Paris the spring of my junior year and I taught American Civilization at the University of Clermont-Ferrand the year after I graduated. My husband and I have traveled in France as well as several other countries.” 

Aside from her own real-world experience with the French language, Mrs. Custer also has her own experience with Avonians: she and her husband are the proud parents of three Avonians: Charlie '04, Tim '05, and Ben '10.

“My experience here as a mother and as a teacher gives me a special appreciation for what the school has to offer its students and its teachers,” she continued. “Avon Old Farms gave each of my sons the opportunity to discover talents that they were unaware of and to enhance and further develop talents they knew they had. Each of them was very bright and each was able to find challenge and success in Avon's academic offerings. We, and they, had expected that. However, they also flourished in vocal music, instrumental music, art, theater, the school newspaper, the literary magazine, the yearbook, the stickball league, and all were vocal and steadfast fans of Winged Beaver athletics. They treasure the rapport they had with many faculty members. Two of them worked here after college and all of them speak of Avon, its campus and its heritage with great pride.” Learning French

As most any foreign language teacher would say, you have to practice a language to really grasp it. It is one thing to complete written assignments from a textbook, and another thing entirely to carry on a conversation. To that end, Michelle Custer always finds a way to bring the elements of R.E.A.L. (Relational, Experiential, Active, Lifelong) Learning into her classes: she traditionally invites her classes over to her on-campus home for a lesson in making crepes. To the boys, it’s a chance to step away from a Quadrangle classroom and enjoy something sweet; to the educator, it is an opportunity to engage students with their material.

“When the boys come over to the Custer home, it is an opportunity to build on the relational learning that we are so proud of. Seeing a teacher outside of the classroom, say over a meal in the Refectory or on the sports field after class, invites students to get to know them as a person, and build trust with them. Cooking a meal in my home does the same thing.”

While we cannot fly our students to Paris for an afternoon of experiential learning, preparing and sharing a French dish while discussing (while speaking French) its origins is a good way to experience a snippet of French culture. And, by having the students take the lead on preparing the meal, they are not only active during this lesson (pouring, whisking, flipping, laughing, and eating among others) they are also gaining lifelong skills.

“I’ve never cracked an egg before!” says one student. Well, today is the day to learn!

“As a teacher here, I'm honored to be a part of the learning experiences of our students,” Custer said. “Boys from very diverse backgrounds come together here to learn, to eat, to sing, to study, to create, to play, and to grow. It is indeed an oasis, as Theodate Pope Riddle described it, a very special place.”

Taking it Online

“When this online school started, I wanted to ‘bring the boys back’ to Avon and thought of several projects to help with that,” she shared. “The first was to do a virtual tour of our local Hill Stead Museum (home of our founder), did a quick study of impressionist art (of which the Hill Stead has an impressive collection), and a little history of Theodate Pope Riddle.”

For an assignment, she had them "re-stage" an impressionist painting in their own homes. Several students included family members in their ‘paintings’ and a couple went above and beyond to re-create the art they had chosen.

The class also took a dive into Pete Seeger '36. While this lesson was more to tie them to Avon and its history, and less focused on French culture, they did learn that Seeger was born in a French hospital in NYC, his mother was from Tunisia, which is French-speaking. The boys’ assignment was to translate a song of his into French. Here, Michelle Custer included a sample instructional video to get the students off and running.

At the end of this spring’s quarter of online learning, Michelle Custer once more turned to the kitchen as an excellent way to engage her students in R.E.A.L. Learning. For the final project, students were assigned the task of creating a cooking video and accompanying recipe, in French!

Here’s a look at her instructions provided to the students in her French IV course:

What sticks out to us are the creative ways students are asked to add details to their submissions - think of the music, think of ingredients, think of your attire! The assignment, which could have been a tough one, becomes a fun opportunity for students to showcase their creativity as well as their French skills.

Here’s a look at some of the student submissions:

“What I liked about the cooking project and the art project was getting their families involved—it was especially fun to hear the moms whisper cooking directions in the background,” commented Custer.

Even while learning online, all of the aspects of R.E.A.L. Learning were accomplished in this final assignment: The conversational video to share the assignment rather than posting a description on the student’s assignment portal reflects the relational learning going on on a daily basis; the act of cooking a French dish is experiential; preparing the dish and filming a video in French makes it active; and many would argue, that in addition to the kitchen skills, the practice of succeeding in learning through an online learning platform is a new life skill many will need to hone.

Key Takeaway

Because our teachers and students had a strong base built on the tenents of R.E.A.L. Learning, the transition to online classrooms may have taken a bit of creativity, but in the end our fourth quarter was a successful one. With strong relationships, and engaging content, our faculty led the students in finishing strong and making the 2019-20 school year one to be proud of.

About the Author


Senior Marketing and Communications Project Manager