Jewish Schooling and the New Normal

by | May 5, 2020 | Blog | 0 comments

No one knows exactly how long COVID-19 will be with us. One thing is clear though, its impact on our lives is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Three months ago no one would have believed that the majority of schools across the globe would simply close overnight, that students would be asked to stay isolated for days, weeks, or months at a time, and that parents would be thrust into the role of facilitating school from home. We are looking at a new normal. 

The majority of Jewish schools around the world, both day and supplementary, are in or near densely populated areas, with parents working in professions that require proximity to others. This means that once we emerge from the current lockdown, we will need to contend with occasional random outbreaks and seasonal fears. We will need to be prepared.

While Jewish schools have participated in the current crash course on online learning with varying results, now is the time to strategize about their effective use in the future. As Russel Neiss wrote recently, a strong pedagogue is much more important than technology. This is not something new; a strong teacher has always been the driver of effective and personally meaningful education. Having said that, technology can help teachers, and particularly now, when used correctly.

Here are four ideas to consider when planning with your board and faculty for the upcoming academic year. 

  1. Invest in Training Teachers and Students

Since protecting life is the ultimate Jewish value, as a community, we will likely err on the side of caution, closing schools if there is a potential outbreak. That means that teachers will need to pivot seamlessly between face-to-face and online instruction.

While there is overlap between face-to-face and online instruction, each requires a different set of competencies. Do not assume that because your teachers are strong in the face-to-face classroom that these strengths will automatically transfer in an online environment. Platform knowledge is only the beginning. To be effective in the online classroom, teachers want to know how to foster a meaningful online culture, how to build a community of learners, and how to support students online, academically, and emotionally. There is also the issue of time management – online learning can lead to exhaustion if not properly planned. 

Significant professional development is certainly warranted, but if courses, workshops, or coaching are a budgetary impossibility, here are some hacks: pair up teachers – assign one to observe another’s online classes and share feedback; run a virtual book club over the summer – there are plenty of solid, readable, and inexpensive books that explore the dos and don’ts of online teaching; assign an online learning czar for each grade cluster and reduce their teaching load for a few weeks so that they can learn best practices and teach their peers. 

But students need to learn too. Most schools work hard to help their students build twenty-first-century skills like collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. When we get back to school – and we will get back to school – invest the time in incorporating teaching the online versions of these skills into the standard curriculum. 

When schools reopen, students should be taught how to participate effectively in an asynchronous class. Teachers can help build their independent learning skills by designing activities that force students to problem-solve independently and giving them assignments that allow them to practice collaborating with a peer on the phone, via email, or via web conferencing. Teachers should also talk to students about what it means to communicate effectively online and to give and receive feedback when they are not face-to-face. 

Investing in training, for both teachers and students, will reduce the very real feelings of anxiety and exhaustion many have with this type of learning during this lockdown. Ideally, the training should help the technology and “platform” disappear so that engaging and enjoyable learning can take place. 

  1. Focus on The Essentials 

One of the silver linings of COVID-19 is that it forced us to hone in on what’s really important in our lives. It’s not a surprise that a lot gets left on the wayside. This is true for education as well. When schools go online, there is a need to prioritize what is essential and eliminate what is not. There is no need to mimic a standard school schedule when schools shutter. 

Some schools have tried, for instance, moving a school’s full-day schedule online, using synchronous tools. It is done with the best motivations but makes little pedagogic sense. If planning and running daily synchronous sessions are dominating a teacher’s schedule, there is less time for self-care, not to mention many teachers are parents, with children of their own at home in isolation. Teachers are on the front lines of this crisis, and we need to be supporting them and their work so that they can do what they do best. A full day schedule also means that there is less time to check in with individual students. And these check-ins need to happen because, during a lockdown, there are no chance meetings in the hallways or cafeterias. Now more than ever, we need to ensure that our students are coping. 

If those reasons are not convincing enough, research demonstrates that there are diminishing educational returns for long synchronous sessions. Attention wanes, stress rises. We all need to turn off our devices more. Happily, learning can happen offline, as it did for the centuries before our devices were invented. Teachers can design creative independent and collaborative learning activities that can be done without devices, complete with regular one-on-one or small group check-ins. These can be developed, collaboratively, during the summer prep so that they are ready to go if necessary. Surely connecting with others takes precedent over connecting to a network. 

  1. Take the Time to Listen

Given that schools moved to online learning overnight, not all experiences have been positive, and some have generated grumblings by faculty members, students, and parents. Acknowledge that this was not a planned-for scenario, but then listen to their feedback.

Make sure teachers and students are surveyed about their online learning experiences. What worked? What didn’t? Given the reality, what practical ideas do they have? Call up a sampling of parents to hear their thoughts. They know their children the best and will have creative ideas as well. 

Communicate that online learning is an authentic way to teach to students. Share why distance learning is the reality for some, even pre-COVID-19, and what online learning looks like in its ideal state: a flipped classroom that fosters high-level reflection, communication, and personal growth. Focus on the positives. Hear how people react. What distinguishes the current situation from the “ideal state”? How can you move closer to that “ideal state”? The truth is that although online learning does not work for all students all the time, many flourish learning online because they are able to control the time, pace, and path of their learning. I’ve seen introverts come out of their shells, low-confidence students achieve things that changed the trajectories of their lives, and self-confident students grow humble as they see the depth of their peers.  

  1. Budget in for Digital Materials

Parents send their children to Jewish schools to be in an immersive Jewish environment. They send them to learn Jewish ideas, texts, and history. When a lockdown happens, there are still high expectations. The schools, knowing that they have committed to educating the community’s children and knowing that enrollment is based on parental satisfaction, feel pressured to deliver. 

If the lockdown is short, it’s possible to be successful without serious investment. But teachers are not machines, and if the creating-engaging-materials, running-exciting-classes, grading-assignments-thoughtfully, checking-in-with-students, and participating-in-staff-meetings, becomes a never-ending cycle that continues for more than a few weeks, we will lose them. Teachers enter their profession because they love teaching: they love seeing a child grapple with and finally, overcome a challenge, they are energized when a child’s eyes light up with a connection he never made before, and they feel pride when they see a child grow and flourish. We need to make sure our teachers have the strength to go forward.

A decade ago there were few ready-made materials for Judaics, but today there are dozens of excellent digital Jewish studies materials available for purchase. Purchasing a digital program does not have to mean that the teacher disappears or that students are online all day. What it does mean, is that the teacher has less preparation time, so that the teacher can focus on what’s important: the personal growth of each student. 

Start thinking of Judaic Studies the same way that you would think of math. Every student has a hardcopy math book or a seat in a digital math program. That does not make math teachers any less dedicated to their students, but it does mean that math teachers can take advantage of question pools so that they do not have to create dozens of questions for homework each week. 

When looking for a digital program, look for materials that can move seamlessly from face-to-face classroom use to online classroom use, in case of an outbreak. Look for strong pedagogy, an easy interface, and solid training.

***

History teaches us that, over the centuries, Jewish education has thrived in unlikely scenarios. It is flourishing in this unexpected period as well: we are blown away by the boundless dedication of our teachers and moved to see the raw need of our children to learn and grow Jewishly, despite the pandemic around them. We can keep this momentum going if we plan effectively for the future, a future that is brimming with promise.

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Chana German

Chana German

Chana German is Executive Director of The Lookstein Center at Bar-Ilan University. You can reach her at chana@lookstein.org

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