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The ‘joy of learning’ online – a journey of discovery at Oakhill: Part 2

| January 11, 2021 | 0 Comments

BY JAMES CROSS AND WAYNE PURCHASE

In March 2020, when the South African government imposed a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of COVID19, Oakhill School in Knysna in the Western Cape, was able to adapt to online instruction for our 460 pupils because of a culture of innovation and technology that had already been set in place.

We recognised that the needs of our children as well as the levels of support would vary in each phase of the school.

Early childhood development – Keeping it real

Once the tech-training, planning templates, curriculum vision and our themes for term two were confirmed, the next step was to put together resource packs to be sent to the parents of each child in each grade. This gave us the opportunity to provide age-appropriate resources that we could use in line with our planning, and to share a personalised letter and something special for each child.

In our creative planning, we have had to be cognisant of variables such as resources in the home, time, siblings and access to Wi-Fi. The daily programme was sent through to parents as a PDF file. Teachers also sent a morning video message as well as additional video clips, experiments and songs. Staff received photographs and video clips which served as evidence of learner engagement. We encouraged our parents to connect with us when they felt the need.

We have witnessed special moments of engagement, captured in photographs or videos and interactions between siblings, parents and children. When doing school at home became overwhelming, we encouraged a day of play or doing fun home tasks in which children could participate, with focuses on movement, literacy, numeracy, life skills, wellness and hygiene.

We are indebted to the incredible parents who let us into their homes every day, and we credit our young children for enabling learning to unfold naturally in their homes.

Foundation Phase – staying true to our values

While there was much discussion and debate about distance learning, when we were forced into it, we were delighted by how children, parents and teachers embraced the Oakhill@Home way of learning. The Oakhill@Home programme stayed true to the core values that we try to uphold in our teaching methodology: it is flexible, mindful, integrated, holistic, cross-curricular, differentiated, thematic and, critically, age appropriate.

We went into this process knowing that we would need the parents to partner with us if it was going to work. We had to rely on our parents to assist in communicating our programme to their children. The parents were incredible in this regard and deserve much credit for the success of the programme and the richness of the learning experience.

The programme was asynchronous to allow parents flexibility. Rather than producing packs of worksheets, we went the route of compiling creatively and thoughtfully prepared activities that provided a road map to develop our children’s skills.

We had the opportunity to distribute a bag of resources, tools and books to our parents and this customised distribution helped to freshen up resources and allowed the children to engage with new physical materials.

Care for our children and parents during this time was demonstrated through the availability of our staff and their proactive engagement with children and parents. Google Meets allowed teachers to have daily contact, interaction and teaching time with each child. These ‘meets’ provided meaningful sessions which brought the ‘joy of learning’ back into our lives and gave parents some respite from their busy mornings.

The Grade 1 and Grade 2 groups used Seesaw1 to create digital journals and portfolios of their work. This platform allowed for comments, encouragement, praise and guidance for each individual’s achievements. The Grade 3 classes used Google Classroom. Class teachers kept daily and weekly anecdotal and formative assessment logs, noting how children were coping with the various skills or tasks.

The total commitment of the entire Foundation Phase team, including specialist teachers, interns, cultural and sporting staff, ensured that the programme was broad, rich, and exciting.

There were challenges with issues such as connectivity, but the connectedness between the children and their teachers was enriched during this process, and we managed to retain the way we usually teach and reach our children due to the efforts of all concerned.

Intermediate Phase – an enriching experience

In the Intermediate Phase we had a well-established routine of weekly sessions in which we upskilled ourselves through collaborative and practical teacher training. These sessions were facilitated by our edtech director with input from other staff who shared skills and applications that they had developed. The focus on training in preparation for going online was directed towards using appropriate tools for an enhanced ‘flippedclassroom’ approach, video recording instruction and the use of Google Meets.

Our teachers used Flipgrid2 to maintain student connection asynchronously, this being one of our priorities from the outset. Flipgrid is a social learning platform that allows educators to pose questions to which the pupils respond using video. It encourages high levels of student engagement and also allows participants to respond to one another, creating a ‘web’ of discussion.

As our term had ended prematurely, we had the rare and wonderful opportunity to prepare more thoroughly and debate more vigorously when planning our programme. This time was both enriching and exciting. Our learning and preparation continued into the holidays as we learnt from what was happening in other schools around the world and from advice generously shared with us by a global network of teachers.

Because good teachers inevitably do more than is required of them, we deliberately asked teachers to scale content back and keep workflows and expectations clear and simple. We applied a stepped-up approach in the initial roll-out in this phase, which proved to be a wise decision. Focussing on only two core subjects in the first week allowed us to refine processes and workflows, while also evaluating our effectiveness. Additional examinable subjects were added in week two, with the Arts and Life Orientation parts of the programme coming online in the third week. We found that the children were excited about each new phase, as they could look forward to some of their favourite subjects.

Staff would meet each afternoon for a phase reflection of the day’s experiences, and many useful and relevant lessons and experiences were shared. We learnt from what went well and even more so from what went wrong. Following consultation with parents and learning from the feedback gained from surveys, we adapted our timetable when the concession for morning exercise between 06:00 and 09:00 was granted by the government, and we started with the formal school day and meets at 9:00. This window also created a more settled and manageable start to the day, and afforded us the opportunity to refine our timetable and address minor issues that needed tweaking. We kept going back to the principle that in the case of online learning, less is more when it comes to content, and brief and clear instruction is essential.

The college space – getting connected

In the college space, right from the outset of going online, we recognised the importance of teachers and pupils remaining connected and providing each other with support and encouragement during these uncertain times. We were able to continue our pastoral care online: implemented through a mentor system and Web of Care which has been in place for a number of years. Whilst this is similar to the tutor system used by many schools, our mentor system is special in the sense that pupils are not organised into mentor groups based on their grade, but are free to choose any teacher as their mentor. This means that each mentor group or ‘family’ consists of pupils from various grades who share common interests and goals, allowing for cross-grade mentoring. Pupils are also able to choose a new mentor at the end of each year if they wish to move to a new group. We keep our mentor group sizes manageable at seven to 15 pupils.

The first week of going fully online was filled with excitement, as well as heightened levels of anxiety in both the staff and the pupils. There were some initial teething problems which were promptly addressed by our edtech director and academic directors. This ongoing support and care for teachers, pupils and parents ensured a successful transition and enabled everyone to navigate the new paradigm. Regular teacher meets also provided solutions to develop an engaged learning community.

In ensuring that no child was left behind, a deeper understanding of our bursary pupils’ personal circumstances, and their academic needs in the absence of the regular onsite school infrastructure, was critical. Online accessibility for these pupils was resolved when a cost-effective data service provider was sourced and sponsored by the school.

Consideration also had to be given to the assessment process, especially for Grade 12s, who need a certain number of assessments submitted for their Independent Examination Board3 matric portfolios. To ensure the integrity and validity of online assessments, we engaged our parent body as invigilators. Our expectations and school values were clearly communicated to them to ensure the success of this undertaking. If a parent was not able to invigilate, pupils were required to video record their online assessments to prevent any possible fraudulent activities.

Staying connected

After two weeks of adjustment, our online teaching and learning developed a steady momentum. However, it became clear that our pupils wanted to feel connected in the other spheres of school life and as a school community. Our response was to develop opportunities for them to engage by providing activities such as inter-house Kahoot!4 challenges, inter-grade gaming challenges, ‘open mic’ sessions, assembly reflections run by our student representatives, and photo challenges. A connection between parents and the wider community was facilitated by their participation in charitable drives to assist with the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Knysna due to Covid-19.

Staying connected included keeping the flow of communication open with our stakeholders through regular updates, and getting their feedback through online surveys, so that we could reflect, evaluate and effect change where necessary. These surveys covered many aspects of the online journey as well as community well-being. Online parent forum discussions were also facilitated, especially for matric parents, regarding the impact of Covid-19 on the academic programme.

As the weeks went by, staying connected after the initial enthusiastic adoption of online learning by our pupils became a challenge. It was inevitable that there would be a wane in enthusiasm. Arriving late to sessions and absenteeism became more prevalent. Fortunately, Oakhill’s Web of Care, and our excellent relationship with parents, which is built on trust, assisted with reconnecting pupils to their learning.

We also introduced a consolidation day when pupils could touch base with teachers for answers and support around their learning – and take a breather! It proved to be greatly beneficial for both pupils and teachers, who appreciated time out of their busy schedule of teaching and lesson preparation.

Thriving under new circumstances

Who would have thought a crisis could have positive outcomes? As our journey continued with the online teaching and learning, a steady stream of affirmations started coming in via our regular surveys, as well as e-mail correspondence complementing our teachers and the school on our online offerings. It was abundantly clear that all stakeholders valued the academic contribution of our teachers, as well as the care and support they were providing to our pupils as they undertook this online journey.

Another positive outcome was the way in which our teachers extended themselves. In just weeks, they transitioned from onsite teachers to more tech-savvy, adaptable, out-of-the-box thinkers. It is the willingness of our teachers to adapt and their commitment to doing what is best for our pupils that will ensure our continued success, despite the uncertainty with which we are faced for the rest of the academic year.

We discovered to our delight that many children appeared to thrive under these new circumstances. Children had direct oneon-one access to staff and this resulted in even shy pupils engaging more proactively. Many children truly took ownership of their learning and enjoyed the flexibility with which they could manage their day. Children also appeared to be more aware of their progress and the little victories they were achieving along the way. We found that the relationship between teacher and learner had in many cases deepened, with numerous teachers reporting that they had discovered new qualities and abilities in their pupils. The crucial learnerteacher-parent triangle strengthened through this process and there was a true sense of appreciation from all parties. We were pleased to note that we had maintained a good pace in terms of curriculum requirements, and that we had not lost teaching time.

Oakhill care

As an inclusive school, we believe that all children bring their own unique strengths to school. Our teachers recognise that our children access learning in different ways, and are continually upskilling to better understand the needs of our neurodiverse pupils.

Without a physical infrastructure, we needed a flexible and responsive approach to communication, which included empathy, patience, and a lot of extra preparation. Our support team complemented what teachers taught, assisting with focussed reading instruction and giving specific academic support, while prioritising the social and emotional wellbeing of the pupils. Therapists continued with virtual meets via Zoom and Google Meet. Learner support with younger children was done using FaceTime, with teachers using creative ideas and a variety of resources to keep these children curious and engaged.

There were of course many challenges that our children faced with the online experience: managing to stay organised, meeting deadlines and finding task instruction or content confusing, were some of them. Some children did become disengaged, finding it difficult to remain motivated and productive every day. Others experienced an overload of screen time, and even some social or emotional distress. Luckily, our school counsellors were able to support these pupils. Regular scheduled parent support sessions offered parents the opportunity to share their experiences and get advice and encouragement where necessary. Staff also needed support as they balanced their teaching jobs with managing the needs of their own families and children.

Managing mentorship online

Usually, the school morning starts with a brief mentor session which serves as an absentee check and a pastoral opportunity. This was replicated in the virtual arena with an online mentor session of 20 minutes at the start of each day. Each mentor teacher also created a mentor Google Classroom for the dissemination of information, such as online assemblies, absentee checks, a pastoral connection, and so on.

The college also makes use of a second mentorship layer: grade mentors who liaise with teacher mentors and parents. Weekly Web of Care meetings with all staff raise concerns, track progress and make decisions on pastoral interventions. We have been able to digitise the entire mentorship programme as part of our online teaching approach, providing staff and pupils with support in unfamiliar times.

Our care and individual connection were informed by the way in which our school community, just three years ago, coped with the devastation and disruption of the Knysna fires. That disaster galvanised relationships within our close-knit school community, showing us that we are stronger as a united body. It reinforced our school values of innovation, adaptability and inclusion. The challenge presented by Covid-19 was a reminder of our resilience and strength as a community.

We are excited about how recent events have shaped our thinking and prompted us to explore new possibilities and hone our current online offerings. This worldwide disruption has provided an opportunity to reflect on how we can further adapt for the future. While we are conscious of the significantly higher demands on our teachers’ time during this period, we look forward to the next phase with confidence and optimism, knowing that this mode of teaching and learning, while still not ideal, can be rich and rewarding and that we are now better poised to adapt to the new realities facing schools globally.

Although online learning and working will inevitably be integral parts of life from now on, we believe that online interactions cannot replace the richness of in-person interactions or the fun and stimulation of being on campus. We aim to integrate the best of both into the ‘joy of learning’ at Oakhill.

References:

  1. See: https://web.seesaw.me/
  2. See: https://info.flipgrid.com/
  3. See: https://www.ieb.co.za/
  4. See: https://kahoot.com/

Category: Summer 2020

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