Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, educators have come face-to-face with many unforeseeable challenges. Transforming our brick-and-mortar schools into online portals of successful virtual learning has been just one of the hurdles we’ve had to overcome while navigating our students and faculty through this time. As administrators, we have taken the time to reflect on what we can do to alleviate some of these challenges.
Maintaining a strong school community is paramount to its success in times of need. Together, faculty, students and families are able to use the school’s assets in a new way and explore challenges as opportunities. Two types of infrastructure, tangible and intangible, support our efforts.
The first is tangible––technology. Exposing students and faculty to technology in the classroom can allow for a much smoother and more natural transition into online learning. With this in mind, providing a friendly and familiar centralized hub where students may log on and connect with school can function as an all-important “safe place” in a time of uncertainty.
Summit Learning has been a crucial component of Westchester Torah Academy’s success in the transition from in-school to remote learning. As the primary general studies learning platform for our middle school, Summit has made online learning second nature to our students and has given them the skill sets necessary to adapt to the specific demands of learning outside a physical classroom. Besides ease and familiarity with navigating technology, other vital skills learned in Summit that are serving our students especially well are Summit’s emphasis on self-directed learning, goal-setting and one-to-one mentoring whose continuity can be maintained easily through video chat.
Having all texts, video resources, study materials and assignments built directly into the online platform is another obvious advantage to working remotely once physical books and papers are no longer accessible. Summit gives teachers the ability to exchange materials with students online, dialogue with students about their work through giving and receiving direct feedback, assess students’ ongoing progress and create personalized timelines for students to work at their own level and pace within the platform. Summit’s emphasis on giving students agency over their learning and teaching them how to advocate for themselves equips them with skills that are of essential value in any case, but especially so within a distance learning situation. One of our seventh graders had to travel to Israel with his family; yet through his own initiative, he is able to keep up with his studies via Summit.
The intangible assets a school provides are equally, if not more, important. At the core of what we accomplish is a strong partnership among parents, faculty and administration. Without this foundation, without transparency and clear communication, any challenge seems nearly impossible to overcome. Back in February, parents never thought they would need to help their children learn from home; however, we have all experienced this shift, and a strong and long-standing partnership between school and home has proven to be all the more important.
The skills that schools instill in their students are also intangible resources we can provide. Teaching students to work independently allows for them to own their learning. Over time, they take responsibility for their own accomplishments and experience the satisfaction that comes with completing self-directed work. Teaching students to ask for help is another critical skill. It is important that all students know when in the course of their learning to ask for help––that it not be too soon in the process, nor too late. That they also know whom to ask for help––sometimes a teacher, other times a peer. And that they know how to articulate their questions when identifying the difficulty of the task at hand. Inculcating these skills will lead students to thrive on their own success. Confidence will be built over time as they continue to learn and solve problems in different settings.
Tangible or intangible, a school’s resources should be balanced continuously by its core values. At WTA, one of our key core values is to approach everything with a joyful mindset. This means we teach our students to see all challenges as opportunities. Together with parents we model the attitude needed to accommodate different demands and situations, and above all, we equip our students with the tools and skills they need to achieve success.
Deganit Ronen, the principal of WTA, and Nellie Harris, the assistant principal of WTA have a combined experience of over 60 years in education. Together, they work closely to bring their new school to the next level. They were recently recognized by CM Rubin World as Top Global Educators.