The idea that “early childhood” and “work from home” could be compatible with one another seemed almost impossible to me just five weeks ago. How could educating preschoolers, which relies on children being present in a classroom community specially designed to enrich and support them, possibly be something that could happen at home? But as I look back on the month that has passed, I can only laugh about how wrong I was. I wake up every morning now ready to further prove myself wrong and show how compatible these two ideas really can be. We have taken the essence of our beloved SAR and infused it into our new distance learning experience, and what we’ve achieved is unique and remarkable.
Though optimism is in scarce supply right now, and we headed into a Pesach this year that juxtaposed the 10 plagues with our current plague-like affliction, optimism is actually the super-fuel that has driven my outlook. I’m reminded of the prayer made at the Seder that Hashem should fulfill his promise to never again visit the world with plagues as He did in Egypt. With that inspiration in mind, I would like to highlight 10 blessings that have emerged from my experiences over the last several weeks.
1. Learning can happen anywhere: Had someone come to me five weeks ago with an initiative for distance learning for ages 2 through 5, I likely wouldn’t have given it much thought. I stand here today looking in awe at what we have accomplished and I can confidently say how wrong my assessment would have been. Our children are learning. Our teachers are becoming more and more proficient at connecting with children through new mediums while delivering incredible content in innovative and meaningful ways. Of course the current situation is not ideal. We desperately miss being together in our school. But our experience over the last few weeks is proof that with motivated, passionate and creative people, and with tools and commitment, meaningful learning can happen anywhere.
2. We are connected: Connection is a funny concept for us. Pre-COVID-19, many of the wisest voices around worried about the ramifications of a digitally enabled hyperconnected world. Shabbat was championed as an ideal way for us to finally disconnect in order to meaningfully reconnect. My perspective today is different from a month ago. I will be forever grateful for the technology that has enabled us to be isolated together. Each day, as I “walk” through all of our classrooms and see children talking to each other about their plans for the day or the activities they did the day before, I breathe a sigh of relief. And when I am able to sit in a Zoom meeting with my teachers, sharing a funny story with them and laughing together as if we were all sitting around one of the tables in our school building, I am reminded how lucky we are that we remain so connected.
3. Prioritize the important stuff: COVID-19 has pushed me to reconsider my priorities and reevaluate my routine. Until March 3, I woke up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to begin my day. I was focused on getting the day started, exercising and beating the traffic. These days, my mornings begin later and I spend more time with my family. Each day I look at my calendar and reassess. Is a meeting happening simply because it is part of a routine? Or is there merit to the time spent having this meeting? Will the meeting be substantive and rooted in the pursuit of progress? If not, it’s no longer on my calendar. Looking at my priority list with a whole new lens has been liberating in a way that has made each day more impactful and more meaningful. I am grateful for this recalibration, and I’m excited to bring this new perspective to my routine when we are back at school and see where it takes me.
4. The power of choice is good: Within the uncharted learning model that we are piloting, choice has been an integral part of our success. Providing choice creates an entryway for every child to thrive even under these challenging circumstances. There is choice in content and choice in schedule. We are creating opportunities for learning synchronously via Zoom and asynchronously on our class websites. We have created daily check-ins to complement the program, depending on what works best for families. And during our specialty slot and our Daily Challenge slot, children can choose from self-directed activities, pre-recorded activities or live sessions including Hebrew chug, music, gardening, recyclable arts, chess and a lively PE class called “Becoming a Superhero.” Allowing for every child to learn in the way that is most befitting for her/him not only brings a central SAR value into our current model, but also provides the children and their families with much-needed comfort and security during these complicated times.
5. Pushing the envelope: From the moment our community was affected by this virus, necessity became my driving force. Our administrative team needed to come up with a plan, and fast. So we signed ourselves up for Zoom and we began moving forward. Far from a “set it and forget it” mentality, we continuously learned through reflection and built on experience, positive and negative alike, as we fine-tuned our skills and our process. The mindset of pushing the envelope and the search for continuous improvement is what led us to learn deeply and explore so many features of our new online learning platform. For example, using Zoom breakout rooms has become an indispensable tool for individualizing the learning experience, and adding background audio into a Zoom session has made exercise classes exponentially more enjoyable!
6. Brilliance in collaboration: Problems are solved most efficiently and effectively when they are approached from many angles and when we build on the experience of others. Collaboration is what is happening in the world of education right now and the students are the biggest beneficiaries. At SAR we had a two-week head start on distance learning, which led to many successes and failures in our attempts to get it right. Ultimately, we shared the whole of our experience with others as they launched their distance learning programs. During times of crisis we are all less proprietary and, because of this culture of sharing and collaboration, we all benefit and we can all come closer to reaching our shared goal of educating children.
7. Resilience of children: When faced with adversity at the micro and macro level, Dr. Shoshana Dachs, our ELC psychologist, often reminds us that “kids are okay, they can really handle it.” Such powerful and thought-provoking words that resonate with me, more now than ever! Children are okay and they help us be okay, too. Of course they look to us and the way in which we experience this uprooting of our usual lives, but their experience of this crisis and the way they transform within it also serves as a grounding force for us. Recently, I asked a student about her experience learning via Zoom and she responded, “It was a little weird on the first and second day, but now, it is so good, I learn so much, I think I like it even more than school school!” Children learn to make adjustments naturally, lean in to changes and remind us to see the glass as half full.
8. You are stronger when you ask for help: I am usually the one in the room who says, “I’ve got this.” I don’t like asking for help because I never want to inconvenience others and I worry that asking for help may make me seem less capable. With so many changes to adjust to so quickly, I had no choice but to lean on those around me, and I am stronger, smarter and better for it. One teacher, who is currently in Alaska with her family, is filling our SAR distance learning website with wonderful content, another is working to create exciting specialty options and a child of another teacher is creating video scavenger hunts for our students. This experience has permanently altered my perspective and has allowed me to think about each teacher’s unique skills and tap into the strengths of the group. I will continue to combine my capabilities with the support and assistance of the amazing people around me in an effort to keep striving for better.
9. Strengthening the partnership: The relationship between parent and teacher has experienced an incredible strengthening as a response to this crisis. In calmer times a strong partnership is needed to achieve success, but during times like these that partnership needs to be even stronger with all partners working overtime to ensure they are in lockstep with one another. As hours run into each other, we are speaking often and regularly. Home has become school and vice versa and there is a tremendous overlap and intertwining of school conversations and home conversations. We now have the opportunity to talk about issues in a context that never existed before. We tackle topics like a child bringing his stuffed animal to Zoom, a parent’s underlying anxiety around math and how that informs the way in which she helps her child, social insecurities around being able to view someone’s private home and more. I have had the chance to speak to more families than ever before, learning their passions, hopes and dreams for themselves and their families and I have been fortunate to develop new and deeper connections that will enhance all we do moving forward.
10. Revitalizing my sense of mission: Each morning I wake up grateful, reminding myself of my personal mission and my professional mission. These first few moments when I wake up set the tone for all that the day has in store. I recommit to supporting growth for all children, knowing who they are, recognizing their individual spark and taking them the distance. The medium through which we make this journey will always be subject to change, but my core values and commitment stay constant, which keeps me present, inspired and always striving.
By Alana Rifkin Gelnick