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Cape Town Torah High School: reimagining the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic

| October 30, 2020 | 0 Comments


Cape Town Torah High is a dualcurriculum high school based in the heart of Gardens in the Cape Town City Bowl.

On a day-to-day basis, this ISASA member school delivers a rigorous Jewish and general studies education to students from all over Cape Town. The school is internationally accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.1 Cape Town Torah High is a holistic, values-based learning environment that seeks to challenge students to prepare them to be critical thinkers, and in turn to become change-makers in their communities. Classes are small and centred on students, who are challenged to work at their own pace with individualised academic trajectories. In March 2020, this methodology was put to the test when Cape Town Torah High, along with schools across South Africa, was closed as a precautionary response to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

When we planned for 2020 a year ago, in a state characterised by growth and opportunity, we could not have predicted that in a year’s time, the ground would shift so dramatically beneath our feet and leave us ‘united apart’ by social distancing and mining our creative reserves for ways to keep running in the face of crisis. For Cape Town Torah High, this year saw the largest enrolment of students to date, plus an additional expansion to the campus. All the signs were in place to suggest that in 2020, the growth would be physical and its impact tangible. However, as the first term drew to a close, school leaders found themselves heeding advice to shut its doors. This closure, however, was seen as an opportunity to put the methodology of the school to the test, and we have seen some notable results. The school community has rethought how classrooms are configured, how the curriculum is delivered and assessed, and how the complex needs of children and families can be met in the face of a global crisis.

The pandemic is affecting 90% of the world’s schoolchildren

According to UNESCO,2 the nationwide closures around the globe are impacting over 90% of the world’s student population. We do not know what the lasting effects of the global shutdown will be, but what we do know for sure is that for most schools around the world, learning has either halted or has been completely reimagined.

The current narrative around the impact of COVID-19 on education is that it has been largely disastrous for schools and students, and that we cannot yet fathom the lasting impact of indefinite school closure. This is particularly apparent in a country divided by privilege. In addition to the current uncertainty that we face each day is the sense that when the world returns to normal, things will be anything but. It is within this context that I share with you here how a small school in Cape Town shifted itself without missing a single day of school to operate remotely in homes across the city. Before that point, Cape Town Torah High had prided itself on its comprehensive online curriculum and the digital literacy it inculcated in its students. Before South Africa was shut down, these had been institutional pillars of the school, but when COVID-19 struck, they became the school. Calamity is indeed a great creator and, as days blur into weeks, perhaps there is some hope to be found for schools living in the reality of the new normal for education.

In the wake of the precautionary measures taken nationally, Cape Town Torah High committed itself to continue remote teaching and online learning. Over the last seven years, the school has worked to ensure that every aspect of its inner workings were available online, and that all students and parents were equipped to use them. This meant that when the lockdown hit, the school was able to set itself up quickly, without rushing to piece together an online version of what students were doing at school. Rather, we reconfigured what would have been happening at school on any given day.

Re-establishing social connections

However, what quickly became apparent was that it was not the curriculum that needed attention, but the essence of daily school life that had to be replicated in the homes of students. One of the most important components of the school day that needed to be at the front of every teacher’s mind was connection – between children, between teacher and students, and between parents and teachers and teachers and their colleagues. What we did not expect was that the role that technology was going to play was not going to be to augment the curriculum, but rather to replicate the daily human connections on which schools are built.

Each morning without fail, despite the fact that teachers were locked down in their homes near and far, they all logged into the daily staff meeting. Initially, this meeting had been purposed to plan for the day and troubleshoot possible glitches. However, this meeting quickly became a space to find solidarity and a stronghold from which teachers forged ahead together. Like the staff rooms in all of South Africa’s schools, these morning check-ins were a space for sharing not only what was happening in the classroom, but also in teachers’ lives. In meeting one another’s children, partners and most loved house plants; where tears, laughs and frustrations were shared.

Vital for children to hear and see the teacher

A school is built on the strength of its teachers, in that it is the containment that teachers provide to the children that provides the platform on which learning can take place. There is a case to be made for this daily routine being inextricably tied to the successful operation of a digital school. The Cape Town Torah High curriculum, across both Jewish and general studies, has been written by its teaching faculty, and therefore it was expected that the sustainability of online learning would be at the hand of the faculty. But, in being apart from each other, we learned that teachers do so much more than administer content. In many ways, virtual teaching forces teachers to be more open and to make themselves more vulnerable, essentially opening their homes to their classes. Despite the chaos that surrounded everyone’s lives, our teachers’ commitment to show up consistently each day created a space where it was possible for families to do the same.

Another integral aspect of remote teaching is the manner in which content is packaged. It is not sufficient to simply transfer the curriculum onto a learning platform. What Cape Town Torah High discovered was that the content needed to be delivered in a language that spoke to the child. We created a tool for each subject called a learning guide – a day-by-day outline available online, explaining the expectation for each lesson, embedded with links to every resource needed. Through these learning guides, students knew on a daily basis what they were learning, why they were learning it and how they were going to achieve this learning. The language adopted in these guides was pivotal, as the teacher’s voice was superimposed into the content, addressing each student as if they were in the same room. Having this practice in place prior to school closure provided a headstart, but that is not to say that it cannot be created while on lockdown.

Reaching every child in a meaningful way

Teaching online is a steep learning curve for educators, and this is not only because of the technological skills that need to be mastered. In their planning, teachers also need to recreate the classroom dynamic as mindfully as they can. Children need the space to express themselves while learning and need to have ownership of their learning space. One of the benefits of using Zoom3 as a teaching platform was the unanticipated way in which it allowed for this. Children’s ability to personalise their profiles and teachers’ ability to manage a child’s screen remotely, among other factors, created a version of a classroom experience. As in the real world, where some voices are more dominant than others, teachers needed to master the ability to hold space for every child, making sure that no one was left behind.

One of the most important lessons for us has been learning to manage expectations. Teachers needed to be available constantly in every class that they would have been in on campus, and needed to connect with every student in every lesson. Achieving this struck the balance between keeping things as normal and consistent as possible, while managing expectations for what was and was not possible for each child. It is important to note that academically speaking, many students performed better on tests at this time than before. In unpacking why this was the case, teachers at Cape Town Torah High argue that it was the impetus placed on relationships. Children can achieve remarkable things when they feel noticed, and in many ways the structure of an online school requires teachers to check in with pupils more intentionally than during the traditional school day. Knowing that there was a gap in connectivity, teachers went the extra mile. Knowing that a student had a trying home life, teachers went above and beyond to give them skills to cope with the reality in which they found themselves.

Keeping the structure intact

In times of upheaval, it is natural to shift our routine to accommodate the uncertainty of reality. Schools certainly find themselves needing to bend to the requirements presented by each family. However, maintaining the structure of the school is essential. When asked why they felt the shift to remote schooling was so effective for Cape Town Torah High, time and time again, parents noted that it was the timetable that made this possible. Keeping the school timetable intact and the daily structure consistent gave children and families a sense of order with which to structure their days. Coupled with open-access resources and feedback, this meant that constant communication was possible. As learning was taking place at home, parents became more aware of what learning looks like on a day-to-day basis, providing an uncommon keyhole view into the classroom dynamic and the work put in by teachers. In recent times, there have been countless debates about whether or not technology can replace teachers.4 At our school, the pandemic has taught us that for now the answer is still no, but we realise that technology can bridge divides in ways that have never been historically possible.

Challenges lead to exciting solutions

While screens have provided the answer to many problems, they have also raised new ones. A challenge to keep children active and social during this time arose and with that, the need to take a deep look at the role that schools play in the wider social fabric. In society today, schools are needed to meet not just children’s academic needs, but also their social and physical needs. This time of crisis affirmed that schools are required to teach children to be balanced, active and healthy individuals who can, in turn, contribute to society. During the national shutdown, that need was reduced to the walls of each home and Cape Town Torah High, like all schools, was relied upon to bring an awareness and optimism to children who could then feed that into their homes. The school’s weekly outreach programmes were switched to helping out with chores at home, and extramurals were swapped for student societies finding creative ways of getting students active in confinement. Online yoga classes, baking, creative writing, art, fitness challenges and meditation were some of the weekly offerings to get children off the screen and active in the hours after the school day was complete, enabling them to learn new skills and find opportunities for growth despite confinement. As social beings, reliant on an interconnected world, one of the most challenging aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the resulting social isolation. While we may be on the brink of technological reform in education,5 allowing for social relationships is the primary aspect upon which those developing educational technology should be focused.

We all know we have to move forward

When the curve is flattened and the coronavirus panic subsides, we will not return to what was normal before. Like all facets of society, all schools will open their doors differently. It is possible to look to this future with optimism because the ingredients needed to enter this new age of education are already at our fingertips. The symmetry of a comprehensive digital curriculum written in the language of the child, coupled with online guides in the form of adaptable teachers, provide the platform on which children can learn, no matter when or where in the world they find themselves.


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Category: Spring 2020

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