Starting this school year, no one could have predicted the global crisis that would soon force school closures with barely a warning.
Campus closure has provided a fascinating case study that put Cape Town Torah High’s unique methodology of independent and progressive learning to the test, and in a way, lockdown closed a circle — it returned the school to its homeschool origins. Despite the obvious challenges, what actually occurred surpassed our most optimistic expectations. Learning continued with barely a glitch, and the feedback has been remarkably positive. Students are showing tremendous discipline and motivation, producing excellent work, and continuing to achieve, in some ways more than before!
Here are a few lessons that we have learned from our experience:
School did not close — it migrated
We made it clear in all communications to stakeholders that only the campus closed. The school had migrated to an online format. This set the tone for students and parents that attendance, accountability, and assessment would continue as before.
Consistent and familiar schedules
One of the great challenges of studying at home is the lack of structure, setup, and schedule. Keeping a fixed and predictable timetable helps provide a sense of stability and discipline in the chaos. At CTTH, we kept our exact daily and weekly times tables providing familiarity and stability.
All curriculum resources are on the cloud
Migrating an organisation as complex as a school online cannot happen in a day, a month, or a year. Over the last seven years, CTTH has always ensured that every aspect of the curriculum was available online via Google Education Suite and that all students and parents were equipped and set up to access them.
Social learning and classroom dynamics
Online interaction can never replace the relationship between teachers and students, and between students and their friends. That said, Zoom is an incredible teaching tool, and allows teachers to recreate the classroom dynamic somewhat. It is important to balance Zoom teaching with project-based independent and off-screen learning, and at CTTH we have found that balance by making Kodesh subjects primarily social (live on Zoom), and General Studies more independent.
Learning guides and projections
An integral aspect of remote teaching is the manner in which content is packaged, and it is not sufficient to simply transfer the curriculum onto a learning platform, the content needs to be delivered in a language that speaks to the child. The CTTH curriculum has a day by day outline laying out the expectations for each lesson embedded with links to every resource needed, and the projected deadlines for the work in the module. The language adopted in these guides is the teacher’s voice addressing each student as if they were in the same room.
Academic results in lockdown
Fascinatingly, we have found many students performed better on tests in the remote learning system than before! In unpacking this, teachers felt that this was due to students taking the time to do less, better, and the new impetus placed on relationships.
Another silver lining is that as learning is taking place at home, parents become more aware of what learning looks like on a day-to-day basis, providing an uncommon but hugely valuable keyhole view into their child’s academic lives. This allows them to listen in on lessons, engage their children in discussion and debate about what they are learning, and provide positive feedback and praise for a job well done.
Challenge of excessive screen time and ‘extra murals’
While technology provides many answers to the problems created by distance learning, it also raises new ones. With children spending more time on devices and on the internet, internet security and filtering is of paramount importance for their physical and spiritual wellbeing. One big challenge is keeping kids active so extra murals were exchanged for ‘student societies’ to find creative outlets in confinement, like online yoga classes, baking and creative writing. The school’s weekly outreach programmes (Chessed) were switched to helping out with chores at home, and weekly calls to a senior who may be feeling isolated or lonely.
Our new normal
As schools begin to tentatively re-open their campuses, and resume in-person teaching, it is clear that so much has changed, but that many of the lessons from lockdown, and the effective and creative new teaching modalities will continue long after Coronavirus is a distant memory. Hopefully, school communities will emerge from this with newfound appreciation and solidarity, and we pray that the ‘Brave New World’ we are entering should be one with more kindness and sensitivity, with more good and more G-dliness.
By Rabbi Avi Shlomo
Cape Town Torah High www.cttorahhigh.org
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