On the morning of Thursday, March 12, after a rollicking, fun-filled Shushan Purim spent in school, I gathered my teachers for a quick briefing on the possibility of either radical measures designed to keep school open or the real possibility of a complete school shutdown to be announced by the end of the week. Teachers are well schooled in flexibility. Those that aren’t born with the natural inclination learn it on the job. Those who don’t, move on to greener pastures.
But even this veteran group of educators, who were quickly transitioning from the celebratory “Mishenichnas Adar” frame of mind to the very focused “countdown to Pesach” one were thrown momentarily off guard. What could we do, if anything, to keep the kids in school? How soon would word of a shutdown come? How long would school be closed? How will we prepare our students – emotionally, academically, hashkafically, practically? And so, the flurry of preparing 2 weeks of materials to send home with our students by dismissal on Friday, March 13 kept the whole team at full throttle until the last teary farewell.
From the get-go, I have made a very conscious decision to keep looking for silver linings despite the pit in my stomach that threatened as I turned on the news each morning. One, among others, was that Pesach provided not only a laser like focus for teachers and families alike, it also provided a cushion of time between the first phase of knee-jerk planning and the deeper level of planning that was necessary to sustain a rigorous remote-learning schedule that became the post-Pesach reality.
I often jokingly tell prospective parents that the community of Edison/Highland Park is geographically midway between Teaneck and Lakewood, and that accurately reflects our school’s approach to technology. We neither embrace it wholeheartedly – nor do reject it as a completely unacceptable option. Indeed, as we have transitioned our early elementary grades into Blended Learning classrooms, we have very selectively tiptoed into the oft-time murky waters of educational technology. Thankfully, our Blended Learning Leadership Team are of the same mind: We seek data-driven programming that offers adaptability but can be utilized without allowing students unfiltered internet access. And we have found programs that fit the educational needs of our students and align with the hashkafic preferences of our parent body.
When we closed on that fateful Friday, we dived straight into the Conference Call-pool. The technology was readily available and curriculum goals were somewhat suspended as Pesach prep took center stage for Kodesh teachers, supplemented with some Language Arts and Math activities that could be managed as easily as possible with limited visuals. It quickly became clear, however, that this was not a sustainable approach for any of the stakeholders, and with the qualified green light provided by the school’s Vaad HaChinuch, steps were taken to smooth the transition to Zoom classes.
Yikes! Many of our staff members did not have ready access to high-speed, reliable internet. Most of our staff members had never hosted a Zoom meeting. Some had never experienced a Zoom meeting as guests. Many were panic-stricken, others were humbled, all were overwhelmed with upended personal and professional plans, yet all were determined to make this work to the best of their ability. No one in this business needs to be reminded of the tension of those first days as teachers, parents and students struggled to adjust to new realities on every front. But the teachers quickly realized that just getting onto Zoom was not going to be good enough; using it effectively meant going back to the most fundamental premises of the Blended Learning classroom. Students’ needs must be recognized, their voices must be validated, instruction must be differentiated, and student-teacher trust must be bolstered now more than ever.
Our efforts towards training our staff to run Blended Learning classroom goes back three years. That effort was spurred by increasing concern voiced by several staff members about the number of students that were falling through the cracks. Even in a small, fairly homogenous school community such as ours, the needs of the outliers – the anxious student, the passive-aggressive one, the constantly distracted/distracting one was chiseling away at the ability of teachers whose classroom management style had always heretofore been effective. Our school had just completed its 25th year, and seen class size rise, slowly but surely, to average class sizes of 24 plus.
I clearly remember the day that my 2nd grade Limudei Kodesh teacher came into the office depleted after a morning of playing “whack-a-mole.” “I get Sarale settled, and Rivky pops up, I deal with Rivky and Leah needs my immediate attention. By the time I finish with Leah, I need to re-focus Sarale again – something needs to change!”
By that point, there was increased evidence that today’s students need a new approach. Even the most talented and skilled teacher was losing student interest if her repertoire included only frontal teaching. It was our good fortune that Avi Chai was offering extensive training with their Better Lesson partners and agreed to take on our first cohort of teachers ready to redesign both the physical layout of their classrooms as well as the academic restructuring of their sessions. A Blended Learning Leadership Team that included an IT person and a Learning Specialist was created to round out the support needed for the teachers who were leaving behind many, many years of teaching experience to embark on this new venture. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but the rewards of being able to connect with students in small groups, recognizing and responding to their individual needs, was a game changer. But, would we have guessed, when we started that adventure several years ago, that it would be exactly the skillset that we needed, as a staff, to rely on when the doors slammed shut so drastically in mid-March of 2020?
The “aha moment” came within the first week of school post Pesach, when we recognized that small group instruction could be transferred to the remote platform. Having moved our resource staff into the classrooms to support small group instruction in our Blended Learning classrooms, it was fairly simple for that model to be replicated via Zoom’s breakout rooms. Classroom aides, reading specialists, In-class support personnel all teamed up to design lessons that provided the safety, comfort and connection that our students had come to rely on in pre-remote days. No longer were classroom teachers expected to edutain a group of 20+ students (some in pjs, others at breakfast tables or stretched out on their beds, some with siblings tugging on their skirts, and others in positions to compromised to mention . . .). Instead, as the teachers became more proficient in their use of Zoom tools, student attendance became steady, engagement solidified and real learning took place. Frustration was replaced by the all-important flexibility and creativity that underscore a highly skilled staff of teachers.
Fast forward to the second week of May. At this point, most of the glitches have smoothed out, families are becoming acclimated to the new normal, technological hurdles have been overcome and school is “zooming along.” But, just as teachers are beginning to feel that they have a reasonable ability to move ahead given the constraints of the remote platform, teachers begin to sense the students’ fatigue and disenchantment with the novelty of their YST@home experiences. By now, the habit of self-reflection is second nature to just about the entire staff – those who practiced it regularly under optimum circumstances, and those who came face to face with the “elephant in the zoom” after feeling on top of their game for so many years. For an administrator who sometimes finds herself in a tug of war when trying to upgrade standards and invite openness to new methods and modalities, this is a luminous silver lining.
As a staff, we collectively got pushed off the diving board, taught ourselves to swim, did an admirable number of laps and now ask ourselves: Where are we going? What begins as a niggling bubble of doubt widens as we grapple with the unsettling questions of what the real goals are as we move into the last weeks of school. Are we sacrificing meeting our students’ most profound need for social and emotional connection in an effort to carry them to some arbitrary academic finish line? In the best of times, each child’s needs are unique. All the more so, when each of our students are sitting under their own roofs, with the background noise of their personal family dynamic an ever-present hum in our shared online space. What about the student who has simply opted-out? Whose responsibility is that student? In what way can the school support that child so that the trials of these difficult times not fester into wounds that refuse to heal. And so, we collectively decide to slow the pace of instruction, limit the amount of homework, minimize summative assessments, stop worrying about year-end report cards, and tune in wholeheartedly to our students’ craving for social connection and their need to understand this seismic shift within the context of our deeply held religious beliefs. The pace of our frenzied efforts to keep swimming has slowed to a sure and steady go-with-the-flow relaxed framework of instruction.
In many ways, it feels like our many years of work together as a cohesive staff working toward a coherent goal, have all been practice runs for this monumental performance. The dawning realization that engaging the heart and soul of our students is vital to their wellbeing and equally vital to the learning process itself is an astounding, albeit humbling, moment in our school’s growth. The kids we teach need us; yes, they need us as educators to excite their curiosity and master new skills, but even more so, they need us to be reliable anchors of compassion that offer stability and a smile. Stripped away from the trappings of the classroom routine, these core values have resurfaced as the most salient features of successful teaching.
As we begin to tinker with classroom design for the upcoming school year, it is as yet uncertain how the demands of social distancing will impact class size, scheduling, and curricular goals. But if we walk away with a strengthened resolve to understand our students, respect the fragility of their young lives, and respond to them as loving adults who are willing to reach out across the divides of time and space, more open to putting the students needs at the very center of instruction, we will indeed emerge stronger, wiser, and truer to the call of chinuch.
Cyrel Brudny, mother of eight, “accidentally” became the principal of Yeshiva Shaarei Tzion when she got involved with a fledgling effort to organize a local kindergarten for 14 local students, 30 years ago. Today, Yeshiva Shaarei Tzion emcmpasses 4 divisions and services over 500 students from the Edison/Highland Park community and its surrounding areas. CBrudny@ystnj.org