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Going the distance at Mokopane Destiny Academy

| January 11, 2021 | 0 Comments

BY JASPER RAATS

While Chromebooks, cell phones, online meeting platforms and social media were key in maintaining a constant beat to the educational heart of Mokopane Destiny Academy (MDA); it was the relationships forged before the hard lockdown in March 2020 that made all the difference.

Like thousands of schools across the globe, MDA in Mokopane, Limpopo, quickly had to find ways to salvage the academic year when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the South-African government to enforce its isolation policy and strict social distancing protocols to keep its citizens safe. MDA’s educators responded by turning the unprecedented challenge into an opportunity to identify what lies closest to its collective core as a school with a world vision.

‘In many ways, the COVID-19 global pandemic made us reassess the systems we already had in place. We already knew what our potential growth avenues were, but the pandemic amplified a single, core strength that proved to be a beacon during this difficult time,’ says MDA administrator, Chris van Zyl.

He explains that relationships were the cornerstone of the academy’s ability to keep its students on the academic path: ‘relationships based in trust, between teachers and students; the relationship of support, cooperation and encouragement between teachers; the relationship of communication and colabouring between teachers and parents; and finally, the relationship of support and motivation between parents and their children’.

What could easily have been a lost year turned out to be a year of growth for students, teachers and parents,’ Van Zyl says. He adds that their story of teacher dedication is not unique. ‘All over South Africa, life-long learners who happen also to be educators, rose to the challenge that COVID-19 created.’

Fortune favours the prepared

At first, MDA’s managing team and educators thought that the initial lockdown would be in place for a short period of time. The March holidays were used to come up with contingency plans for the first few weeks of the new quarter. These plans included setting up the necessary infrastructure to implement a distance learning model. It soon became apparent that the distance learning model would be necessary for more than a couple of weeks, and would possibly continue as part of a hybrid plan for the rest of the year.

Van Zyl says MDA grappled with the same challenge all schools did at the time – getting students to continue learning during lockdown. ‘Some schools handed out printed worksheets along with food parcels, while others placed materials on USB sticks or used social media platforms like WhatsApp to communicate.’

MDA implemented various approaches, depending on the needs of students in each grade. These plans were combined with the available resources to offer parents and students the best possible solutions for continued learning. Van Zyl says it was fortunate that ‘the school implemented a policy of “bring your own Chromebook” in 2019 for Grades 4-9 students. This meant that the educators were comfortable using Google Classroom and Google Meet, both very well suited to facilitate distance learning.’

Some educators were bold enough to create websites to guide their students through the daily learning experiences during lockdown. ‘We made the most of online tools like Jamboard, Padlet and Google Drawings1 to make distance learning more effective and interactive,’ says Elsabé Brits, language and literature educator for Grades 7-9. French teacher, Venant Mwana-Nteba, adds that Google Meets allowed for a lot of interaction, which his students really enjoyed.

Going the extra mile

‘As a small school of about 90 students, we were able to be flexible in our approach and response from the beginning of lock down,’ says Van Zyl. ‘We are a candidate International Baccalaureate (IB) school for the Primary Years Programme and the Middle Years Programme.2 The flexibility afforded by the curriculum frameworks of the IB helps teachers to tailor learning experiences and adapt.’

The school’s Grade RR and R teacher, Idalette Botes, conducted detailed research during the March holidays to see what would most benefit students in her class. Instead of sending worksheets home, she focused on emotional growth, interpersonal skills, fine motor skills and gross motor skills. Botes made a concerted effort to set up one of the rooms inside her home to resemble the Early Years class the children knew. This made her students feel comfortable, allowing them to feel at home with the familiar setting.

Botes made videos of the normal daily morning routine and shared this with parents via WhatsApp. She relied heavily on parent cooperation and communication, which she received from the sterling Grade RR and Grade R parents. Later, after the hard lockdown ended and the parents returned to work, she was able to accommodate their individual needs in terms of completing tasks and learning experiences with their children. Her success reiterates the importance of strong relationships – each student’s success was closely related to parent involvement, support and collaboration with the teacher. This was true for all grades.

WhatsApp videos, Zoom meetings and one-on-one telephone calls with parents or students were used as teaching tools throughout the school. The Jolly Phonics app3 was used to ensure that the important foundational work of learning to read in Grade 1 was not entirely lost during Term 2. ‘The basis of good literacy skills is reading, but reading is not a natural process. The human mind is not innately “wired” for written information – therefore learning to read is fundamental,’ says Minda Marshall, director of the online programme for cognitive development eyebraingym.4 ‘If students cannot obtain adequate skills by Grade 4, they will continue to struggle throughout their school career, and more than likely end up leaving school without the skills needed for further study, or the ability to function in a decent job,’ adds Marshall.

With the realisation of the importance of this learning phase in mind, MDA worked hard to create a safe environment that would not see any of their learners falling victim to the pandemic’s threatening legacy.

Keeping in touch

For MDA it was crucial to maintain the social, emotional, and mental wellbeing of students and teachers throughout lockdown.

Grade 6 teacher, Lourina van Zyl, said that the pandemic has led to a closer relationship with her students and their parents. COVID-19 provided an opportunity for her to gain knowledge about students she didn’t have prior to distance learning.

In fact, the school’s Grades 4-6 teachers made the startling discovery that learners actually learnt a lot more and covered a lot more work during distance learning than they would have done at school.

Many of the teachers were new to posting educational videos on YouTube. Making short and personal videos helped keep students connected to their teachers by seeing a familiar face. MDA facilitated and encouraged one-on-one video calling sessions for lower grades or class Zoom meetings so that students could at least see their friends. Teachers had regular video conference meetings among themselves to discuss issues, share positive experiences, share tools, and solve challenges.

The Grades 7-9 students completed a COVID-19 design task, requiring them to identify a challenge that they or others were experiencing because of lock down. They then had to create a solution to the problem. Choices included the creation of board games to curb boredom, chatbots5 to combat misinformation, ‘Tippytaps’6 to help people save water when washing their hands, healthy meals to boost immune systems and more.

Service learning is always an important part of the curriculum for the Grades 7-9 MDA students. During lockdown, they were encouraged to help with household chores, especially once their parents returned to work. They were also encouraged to call grandparents and family members who might be lonely during lockdown or to make posters or videos to thank essential and front-line workers.

‘Students learnt many new skills, including closing the circle of communication, self-motivation, selfstarting and working independently,’ says Van Zyl. ‘Certainly, there were challenges, like working with parents who did not close the circle of communication, students who struggled to work independently due to the myriad of distractions, and connectivity issues.’

Van Zyl says the school quickly learnt a few home truths, such as costing when making videos. One uses less data to upload the video and watch it on YouTube than to send it out via WhatsApp. ‘We also allowed Grades 7-9 students with internet challenges to switch off cameras during Google Meets, to ensure that they could attend the meetings, and we also investigated the costing packages available from local services providers and communicated that information to parents.’

Shaping up

‘I think one of the toughest challenges during distance learning is implementing a physical education plan,’ says Van Zyl. ‘We asked our physical education team at Marshall Sports Academy7 to come up with a programme that the children could do at home.’

The school introduced a ‘Gym for All’ programme, developed by the South African Gymnastics Federation, to the Foundation Phase. It encouraged the little ones to try their hand at rope skipping and fitness, as well as some fundamental tumbling skills. The students could each do these exercises in their own area with their own apparatus at home. Weekly videos were made for the students to keep them physically fit at home. Fitness programmes were provided to the older students, as well as games that encouraged social distancing while getting exercise at school.

A new beginning

‘Our teachers are using many of the new methods implemented during distance learning in the classrooms,’ says Van Zyl. ‘Aids like keeping reflection journals, which we started in Term 2’s distance learning, are still helping with personal social and emotional wellbeing. They also act as testimonies to which practices worked or not to draw from later.’

MDA will also stick to the practice of working mostly with digital materials instead of going back to paper-based materials. But, says Van Zyl, for younger students printed materials have some advantages over digital materials and the school will maintain a sensible balance.

When physical face-to-face school resumed in South Africa, MDA used a hybrid system with alternating days as an added measure of safety. Grades would alternate between the days they would be at school and the days they would continue to learn at home via distance learning. ‘This was yet another system of teaching and learning to which our teachers, students and parents had to adapt,’ notes Van Zyl. ‘Some parents also opted to continue keeping their children at home, so teachers had to adapt to teaching in class and to those who were online.’

The school is grateful to the parents who were able to continue to pay their schools fees. Some made alternative arrangements directly with the school, allowing MDA to plan and accommodate those who were struggling during the lock down period. MDA’s management board has been as understanding as possible, as this has been a tough time for many families. Additional steps were taken, like an executive decision to reduce the standard development fee by 50% to accommodate MDA’s families.

ISASA a rock solid support

The past six months has seen many mixed messages being received from the South African Department of Basic Education about how schools would be allowed to re-open and function. It presented a huge challenge in communicating with parents, as policies literally changed overnight.

The Minister of Basic Education would say one thing about independent schools on a Friday, but by Monday a different set of regulations would be issued. ‘Fortunately, we had a partner in the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA),’ says Van Zyl. He attended the regular meetings organised by the organisation’s association of heads, the Southern African Heads of Independent Schools Association (SAHISA), which helped to keep the school up to date with the latest developments, even if those developments meant that there were no developments ‘These meetings helped us to grasp issues. The ISASA team really worked tirelessly to ensure that the independence of independent schools was maintained during this time, and also to lobby the relevant government departments for information, clarification and consideration for the uniqueness of the many independent schools in South Africa,’ Van Zyl concludes.

References:

  1. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uBvWCWuuFFM and
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_SRYwmj41Y
  2. See: https://www.ibo.org/become-an-ib-school/timeline-and-stages/candidatephase/
  3. See: https://academy.curiousthoughts.sg/about-jolly-phonics#:~:text=Jolly%20
    Phonics%20is%20a%20fun,seven%20groups%20as%20shown%20below
  4. See: http://www.eyebraingym.com/
  5. A chatbot is a software application used to conduct an on-line chat
    conversation via text or text-to-speech, in lieu of providing direct contact
    with a live human agent. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chatbot
  6. See: https://www.tippytap.org/the-tippy-tap
  7. See: https://www.facebook.com/MarshallGymnastics/

Category: Summer 2020

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