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The Future Comprehensive School staff goes above and beyond, despite lockdown

| January 11, 2021 | 0 Comments

BY CHRISTOPHER DZAMBI

The Future Comprehensive School (TFCS) is a co-educational independent boarding school situated in Ga-Masemola, in rural Sekhukhune, Limpopo.

It is home to 60 boarders, 210 day scholars and a strong staff cohort comprising 25 educators and 12 support staff. It is by the grace and hand of God that the following extraordinary story has unfolded in such a remote part of rural South Africa.

As COVID-19 drove school closures, TFCS moved quickly to transition to remote learning and progress monitoring. At the onset of and during the lockdown, we were concerned about when the lockdown would end, and therefore how the lost time would be recovered in order to complete the 2020 learning programmes. The concern was particularly pressing for the 2020 matric class, especially with the insistence by the parent body that ‘by hook or by crook, matriculants will have to write their examinations this year’.

The school was already implementing some digital instructional tools, which made it easier for teachers and students to continue learning at home after the mandatory closure of schools on 18 March 2020. This fortunate occurrence was due to the information and communication technology (ICT) integration programme which started in 2017, and was meant to empower learners and teachers with 21st century teaching and learning skills, using a BYOD approach. BYOD simply means ‘Bring your own device’. Teachers were assisted to acquire laptops and other information and communication technology (ICT) tools, whilst learners had to buy a specific brand of 2-in-1 laptop1 to allow a seamless implementation of the project.

Despite unprecedented and intimidating socio-economic circumstances, TFCS saw an almost instantaneous uptake of online learning and teaching by all sections of the school community (parents, teachers, and learners), with great exuberance from Grade R to 12.

The challenge

TFCS management needed all 270 learners, including the Foundation Phase (this group’s shift to some regular e-learning was not planned for this year) to transition to remote learning quickly and effectively. TFCS needed a total e-learning solution that could assess students’ learning at home, monitor progress, and provide teachers with fast, accurate feedback and instructional tools. Finding that mix on the run was not easy, given that we had not even attempted remote learning at all.

While the secondary school students had their 2-in-1 devices, no-one in the primary school had access to gadgets, and all shops were on lockdown. This posed a threat to our noble plans. In addition, because we are in a rural area, connectivity and data issues became another challenge for students. The ICT integration team and class teachers worked tirelessly to bring in each student’s whole family. By the beginning of May, almost 80% learners and 99% of educators were online, actively participating in the teaching and learning process.

At first, we printed tutorials for all grades in the primary school and delivered them to students’ homes along with food parcels we received from our social engagement partners, The Lunchbox Fund. Teachers kept communication with parents open through e-mail, phone calls, home visits and WhatsApp. After we trialled many platforms, WhatsApp and Google Classroom were naturally accepted as the preferred platforms for our remote learning programme, while those students with connectivity challenges continued to receive printed tutorials. Our attendance statistics show that over 75% of participating students were using WhatsApp actively at home during school closures.

Hearts and minds

The TFCS ICT team came up with the idea of creating subject-based groups for each teacher, incorporating the executive headmaster (who is also the ICT integration leader), phase heads, heads of department, and parents and learners for easier support of all stakeholders: the parent playing the role of class teacher at home. The parent constituent, as the provider of hardware resources, including data, at home, was considered a critical player if this programme was to be a success. Hence the school lobbied successfully to win the hearts and commitment of parents and caregivers.

TFCS has also made use of the Vodacom e-school,2 https://e-classroom.co.za/, 3 and Mindset.4 The school management team has provided teachers with data so that they can cope with the volume of online work they process as they engage their learners. The learners submit their activities online, and teachers do the same daily, when returning learner feedback.

We have found that the majority of parents are at all times ready and willing to work with the teachers in aiding the learners with their schoolwork; even before COVID-19 this was the case. This attitude prevailed during the extended lockdown, and parents were able to witness at close range the power of e-learning as they took on the roles of class teacher and mentor, by ensuring that learners had data and that they attended lessons according to the class timetable. This is where the fun was: right on their watch, parents saw their children acquire knowledge and skills, not of subject content, but also with regard to responsible internet research, learning how to use apps like the cam scanner, and attaching and accessing documents .

The technological age

We have found that this unplanned acceleration of the use of technology has aided curriculum delivery in all learning areas across all grades, even in our primary school. This has drastically changed the nature of our teaching philosophy. There is so much exuberance and energy that even during the physical contact teaching time, online collaboration is now being used by nearly all teachers.

‘I have created a safe platform on WhatsApp for my classes. This is an easy way to immediately share resources that I receive from other teacher platforms with my learners. Learners can ask questions on the platform over homework problems and learners help each other in the comfort of their homes,’ said one of my teachers.

The WhatsApp groups have remained handy when we communicate with learners and parents. This technological advancement has added a new dimension to our teaching and learning. All teaching staff members have now been trained to use the Vodacom e-school for content, which learners can also access.

Equipping learners

Our vision to empower our learners with world-class knowledge, skills and values has gained more currency during and post the lockdown. The whole school now seems to be on a rollercoaster. The learner excitement and motivation are unbelievable. Apps like Kahoot are being used in mathematics in the Intermediate Phase. Pinterest is being used in the Foundation Phase to create exciting worksheets and workbooks. The Desmos graphing calculator is making the understanding of secondary school mathematics much easier and is readily available on each learner’s tablet. Many exciting stories are being created and curated under the darkness of COVID-19.

In addition to our formal online programmes, all learners have been encouraged to utilise revision programmes on the Sub-Saharan African direct broadcast satellite service (DSTV) channel 317, https://www.siyavula.com/, Mindset and other platforms. We believe that the TFCS is indeed the school of the future. The CEO of the school, Mr Richard Masemola, is impressed with what the school achieved during lockdown and continues to achieve subsequently. ‘This is what we should be doing as we aspire to be a school of choice: to be pro-active in our planning and academic delivery to the future leaders of our country and the world,’ he says.

We are ready to share our experience with other schools during these difficult times, which require out-of-the-box measures.

Never standing still

As with all institutions that have an extensive history, TFCS continues to build on the past whilst always moving forward, never standing still. Whilst the infrastructure and hostel facilities are revamped and improved, the biggest challenge is always the people who live and work at the school. We are now committed to employing millennials and educating Generation Alpha,5 born in the era of android and Google. This means that being literate implies more than just reading and writing. It now encompasses technological literacy. We now have to teach our girls and boys to be discerning about what they read in cyberspace.

Our roles as educators have changed drastically from being information sources to being facilitators and life coaches. We need to build strength of character, analytical and critical thinking, and self-love. As a living organism, TFCS thrives on self-renewal and the Japanese idea of ‘Kaizen’ (ever improving), and also relies on past victories and accomplishments, on the strong and stable foundations of those who have gone before us. This year is a historic one for us as we produce our first class of matriculants, and we will forever strive to produce women and men of excellence, regardless of their generation.

References:

  1. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2-in-1_PC
  2. See: https://www.vodacom.co.za/vodacom/services/vodacom-e-school
  3. See: https://e-classroom.co.za/
  4. See: https://learn.mindset.africa/
  5. See: https://mccrindle.com.au/insights/blog/gen-alpha-defined/

Category: Summer 2020

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