Going Forward to School

By Dr. Jon Mitzmacher

The simple truth is that we don’t know when we will return to school.  We are hopeful that the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year will take place in our classrooms. We know that at some point in the future that we will return. But as Heidi Hayes Jacobs recently said, “We have to start thinking about how we don’t go back to school, but how we go forward to school.”

This extraordinary moment we are living, teaching and learning through will eventually end, but it would be a huge mistake to go back to school as it was when we have an opportunity to go forward to school as it ought to be.  Here are four ways we should begin thinking about going forward to school:

Amplifying Quiet/Introverted Voices

A lot of teachers are getting a chance to better know a bunch of their most interesting, funny, serious and creative students. Distance learning is unleashing and amplifying introverted voices to everyone’s benefit. A lot of teachers are going get a chance to better know a bunch of their most interesting, funny, serious and creative students. Chats, backchannels, blogs and blogfolios allow teachers and administrators to get to know our students more fully and through commentary allow us to relationship-build more meaningfully. That is why they are powerful pedagogies in normal circumstances. What is true for chats and blogs normally is now true for much of distance learning for all our students for much of our day. Distance learning may have forced us into these techniques, but our core values require us to continue to amplify quiet voices when we go forward to school.

Developing Self-Directed Learners

Distance learning – as many of our parents can vouch for – is helped tremendously when students have the skills necessary to be self-directed learners. And these skills are not exclusive to certain grades or subjects or even learning styles. According to Silvia Tolisano the skills of self-directed learning – Heutagogical Documentation, Web & Information Literacy, Choice & Voice, Curation, Tutorials, Personal Learning Network (PLN) – can and should be embedded across ages, stages, styles and curricula. They can make as much sense in a Kindergarten English lesson as they can a Grade 4 Science lesson as they can in a Grade 8 Hebrew lesson.

One could argue that the only real aim in schooling is being sure that students are capable of being able to learn how to learn. What the move to distance learning forced on us was explicitly teaching these skills to students who not have adequately mastered them yet. We are making up for lost time now out of necessity. But we should embed these skills more deeply in our curriculum when we go forward to school.

Personalized Learning

Almost more than anything else, the move to distance learning has proved the necessity and the power of personalized learning. We have no choice, but to lean into individualized instruction, personalized curriculum, and self-directed learning. To do that well, to do that at all for that matter, requires you to spend meaningful time building relationships. It can be hard to do that in a crowded classroom, but its importance comes screamingly clear through distance. The amount of time we are now spending in direct communication with students and parents about their learning, the care that is now being put into personalized learning programs will help ensure that when we do go forward to school that we will come that much closer to treating each student as if they have unique and special needs … because they do.

Strengthening (Global) Connectedness

Jewish day schools, in general, emphasize global connectedness. We’ve always maintained connections to schools in other countries and to personalities from other cultures. We leverage those relationships to speak in our languages, to engage in active citizenship, to perform acts of social justice and lovingkindness and to foster our love for the People, Land and State of Israel. In a time of social distancing, however, not only have we had to lean on our global connectedness, but we have had to learn how to foster local and school connectedness through platforms as well. When we gather as a community for a virtual Family Kabbalat Shabbat or our students learn with and from a Holocaust survivor or when we celebrate Israel’s independence as part of a global audience, we feel the power of a connected community.

But when we go forward to school, what I’ll be thinking about is how much joy our students have each (virtual) day when they get to see each other’s smiling faces.  How can we use what we have learned about connectedness when distance was imposed on us all, to address school and community needs when distance is required for a few?  How could we incorporate our sick classmates into daily learning? How could we incorporate parents or grandparents who are unable to be physically present, but want to be connected and involved into the life of the school?

We will – at some point – return.  At that time, I hope to see lots of schools promoting “Welcome Forward” activities in recognition of all the lessons learned during these difficult times that will continue to make our schools hubs of innovation in our local and wider educational communities.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School.