Community, Care and Children First – the Secret Mantra of Our Successful Primary Online Learning Program

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In March 2020, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 as a global pandemic, the world education leaders were called upon to think of solutions for providing a quality distance learning model that would be in sync with their organization’s vision and mission. This unchartered territory, fraught with challenges, presented a new learning curve for students, parents, teachers and administrators across the globe. Like most educational institutions, B D Somani, a school that has always believed in Being Different, adopted a digital approach and transitioned from in-person classroom instruction to distance learning, , and unlike most schools it did not lose focus of its ethos and continued focussing on the hidden 3Cs – Care, Community and Children first, the mantra that underlined its in-person schooling. With clarity of thought and intention about the purpose of the online schooling environment, embracing digital platforms for teaching and learning, distance learning proved to be a boon for our students ensuring continuity of learning. Easy as it may sound, this transition required students, parents, and teachers to acquire new skills and make new adjustments.

Our teachers were presented with the phenomenal task of making distance learning work in a way that offers the same value as learning in a physical classroom, keeping in mind students’ emotional health and wellbeing. Adequate preparation and training of the faculty, modifications to the existing curriculum, learning about new hardware, software and other online skills, along with maintaining a sound work-life balance, were some of the qualifications they acquired almost overnight.
Most students have also become more familiar with the technology used in classes, learning basic features such as muting or unmuting themselves, joining the break out rooms, and leaving a meeting. With technology being such a critical part of our distance learning program, our teachers have ensured that they’ve picked up the skills to make as much use as possible of all available resources. Our teachers use a combination of books, presentations, white boards, screen sharing, break out rooms, instrumental music and, especially for art sessions, open-ended learning materials. We use our own teaching resources developed over the past years to ensure classes don’t become repetitive for our students. Even household objects are used in playing games and helping students understand different concepts. Block building and field trips, which usually provide first-hand research opportunities, has been challenging to a certain extent in the online mode. Our teachers, however, take our students on virtual field trips as often as possible.
This has been nothing short of a roller coaster ride with ups and downs and twists and turns for Early Years. Starting out with apprehension and uncertainty, but continuing with adaptation, confidence, collaboration and resilience has made the ride a successful one. The existing methods of teaching and learning have been reworked, but not the ethos, and thus we have all transitioned to be part of a different community – a virtual one. Our youngest learners who joined Reception without having seen their school or teachers also managed to attend their online classes with a smile and build a special bond with their teachers and peers. Muting and unmuting themselves, raising their hand, and joining break out rooms are some of the new skills that our young learners have become proficient in. Similar to an in-person classroom, in our Early Years online class, our focus is on communication and building bonds with students. Our classes also aim at developing skill sets for socialization, life skills, creativity, imagination, spatial awareness, fine motor and gross motor development. Our teachers have three to five Zoom engagements during the day, with each session lasting for about 30 to 45 minutes. Each session is interactive and engaging, with many hands-on activities to keep students interested and actively involved. Each day typically starts with a morning meeting, followed by activities related to literacy, math, exploration, visual discrimination, fine motor development or art in small groups. This is usually followed by a block building session followed by story time. The last engagement for the day is usually a call with a buddy. Engagements are spread out through the day so our young students are not sitting at a device for any extended period of time. The whole class meets for morning meetings and story time. All other engagements are in batches of 4 to 5 students at a time, ensuring formation of strong relationships among the class community. Meeting the entire class twice a day helps students get a sense of belonging with the whole class while smaller group engagements help students and teachers focus better in class with fewer distractions. Teachers also have individual or buddy calls with students once a week. These calls help teachers review students’ understanding of concepts discussed in class during the week and further deepen the student-teacher bonding.
Teachers also keep students engaged with constant interaction and communication. Games like I Spy, Scavenger Hunt, Pictionary, Picture Talk and action songs are embedded in the lessons to keep the children engaged. Students are encouraged to participate in the block building planning and execution. They are encouraged to share their understanding of things being discussed and their natural curiosity of the world is nurtured. At no time is the lesson structured in such a way that the children are merely passive listeners. Students have also learned some sign language words such as yes, no, okay, washroom, and thirsty and they use these gestures to communicate, ensuring interactive sessions and hands-on activities can continue without frequent interruptions.
Besides online sessions, our young learners are sent regular home assignments, focussed on developing skills like listening, speaking, reading, writing, social skills, vocabulary, comprehension, confidence, self control, self expression, cooperation, taking initiative and developing curiosity, logical reasoning, problem solving, fine motor skills, hand–eye coordination and visual discrimination.
Cooking continued in the online classes. It truly emerged as a community activity, with family members, be it the helpers, the parents, or the grandparents, all joining in to experiment in the kitchen, following our teacher’s guidelines and cooking healthy nutritious snacks, juices and many other delicious items.
For our primary students, though some of the technical skills were picked up relatively easily, the extent and detail of the concepts to be covered demanded higher-order skills, critical thinking, problem-solving, learning to form a hypothesis, conducting experiments and drawing inferences- skills that come easy when practised in a physical classroom. Challenging as it was, our teachers left no stone unturned ensuring that even the most complicated concepts were presented on screen to students in meaningful ways. The learning time for primary students usually began with a morning meeting, interspersed with specialist and core subject lessons. The individual calls and office hours ensured that we provided a strong foundation to students by clarifying their doubts on a one-to-one basis, personalizing learning as often as required. With unconditional and unwavering support from our parents and students, we successfully transitioned to Zoom classrooms with both synchronous and asynchronous learning. Our teachers, on the other hand, continually reinvented themselves, with online professional development and increasing mastery of the digital tools that could make distance learning more relevant and engaging for our learners.
The transition to the online environment did not lead to the discontinuation of our Arts or Physical Education program. We were firm that we wanted live classes for Arts, Music, Theatre, Capoeira, Tabla-Kathak. Our specialist teachers too very quickly adapted to the online environment and modified the various learning engagements, but never once letting go of the rigour nor the vigour that is emblematic of the BD Primary co curricular program.
The school leaders were entrusted with one of the hardest jobs of ensuring that we continue to provide quality education, consistently, and follow the directives provided by the local authorities. Our Primary School Principal, Ms Minal, our Deputy Principal, Ms Priya and our Early Years Coordinator Ms Pallavi, work together as a team and continue to provide continuous support and supervision to our robust team of primary school educators to ensure that at no point the instruction becomes rote or is reduced to mundane tasks. By providing a balance of curricular and cocurricular instruction each day, we ensure that the instruction stays relevant as we march ahead with our progressive philosophy to following the educational best practices. The school events aren’t forgotten, but ways are sought to afford all possible opportunities for our students to have their Literacy Evenings, Children’s Day celebrations, the Family Math Nights, and the Student-Led Conferences among others allowing students to make personal connections with their learning. Not to forget the live singing assemblies conducted on Zoom that brought together the grade levels and young children joyfully singing their favourite songs.
Happy faces, brainstorming sessions, engaging discussions continue to rule the online sessions. Our young learners continue to learn to communicate effectively, ask searching questions, solve problems competently, think critically and creatively, and act responsibly. We also get to see children flying in space and sitting in front of waterfalls, thanks to virtual backgrounds!
At this juncture, as we venture into another unchartered territory of hybrid learning, with students attending physical school for one week followed by a week of online learning, the hidden 3Cs – Caring, Community and Children First, and the 3Cs depicting our school values – Curiosity, Courage and Collaboration continue to be our North Star.
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