Crumbs of learning to show us the way

Ardra Balachandran

The academic year that slipped by was fascinating in more ways than one. Two months into being caught off-guard with a pandemic, last June, we hustled all we could and deep-dived into remote teaching and learning. We managed this new mode of school work along with domestic work and our own children’s learning – all crisscrossing in the same temporal and spatial planes – with minimal external help. We were optimistic about returning to our good old days soon; but here we are, in another academic year, status quo maintained and still hopeful about the big return.

But as they say, every challenge is an opportunity. What is the opportunity that this past year gave us? What did we learn? With those learnings, what will we do differently once we are back in schools? While we use the broad-brush term “online class” to label the teaching-learning process in the new normal world, the lived realities are quite nuanced for teachers and students alike. They vary vastly according to the school one is in, which unarguably is rooted in socio-economic differences. This is why, the answers to the questions above are not single-layered.

However, just like we are undivided in the opinion that we cannot wait to return to our brick-and-mortar classrooms, there seems to be no doubt that there are learnings galore from the ongoing phase.

The minority factor
While missing social interactions made most students lackadaisical in this phase, there is a tiny bunch in most institutions that surprised their teachers. Students who were not so visible or audible back in school, found a voice and developed confidence. In some cases, it has to do with circumstances that are less intimidating; some children just find it easier to talk when no one is around them. Sometimes it is just logistics. Anjana Arunachalam, who teaches Spanish in an international school in Chennai, says: “One of my students had a long commute to get to school and he’d always be tired in class. I see visible difference in his energy level now; he has become so much more participative.”

Illustrations: Tanaya Vyas

In the United Kingdom, students and teachers have been back in school for over two months now. Luna Gopalakrishnan who is a class teacher in Year 4 at Summerfield School in Milton Keynes in the UK says: “In my class of 25 students, there are two children who did exceptionally well in the online stint. They grew more confident and would raise hands to answer questions; something they didn’t do in school. So, when I returned to school this summer, I was determined to ensure that they keep up the momentum. If the physical presence of people starts to intimidate them, I remind them of their confidence at home. I tell them: don’t look at me or anyone else if that helps; just keep answering.”

Meera Gopalakrishnan, a computer science/maths teacher who is now on a break to attend to her autistic child’s needs, says that teachers have always had the opportunity to do this: “Especially in primary classes where enthusiasm of students run high, the onus is on the teacher to manage them effectively so as to give time for each student.” Of course, it is just way easier to do this in the online setting because there is the mute option. But there are fun ways to do this in a real classroom, Meera says. She used to pass a ball around while questions were asked. When the ‘passing the parcel’ game is emulated, kids quickly internalize that everyone will have a turn. Enthusiasm and reticence are both regulated and everybody speaks.

Meera also throws light on how her seven-year-old son Sreeram K. Nathan has benefited from the changed expectations during remote learning. Earlier, children were expected to finish writing notes within their respective periods. This is difficult to achieve for many children given the varying writing/learning pace. But in the new mode, most schools let them write notes later, usually with a turnaround time of one week to get them corrected. This gives time to both parties to catch up. Similarly, examinations in objective format became quite common in the last year. Meera believes this is one of the practices that should continue for children with special needs, even after school resumes.

So yes, there is a minority of students who thrive in the online system, and it is imperative for us to identify what worked for them and take them along when we return to school.

Upskilled for life
In the world before Covid, technology did not necessarily govern the life of any Indian teacher. Digital skills were always ‘good-to-have’ and not ‘must-have’. The pandemic has changed this. Ann Mary Thomas who teaches English, history and civics at National Public School (NPS) in Indira Nagar, Bengaluru, says: “There are many senior teachers who have been averse to technology; but with the last academic year, there was no choice left. The school took this as an opportunity to make everyone fall in line.” Most people at least make PowerPoint presentations now; almost everyone googles to find ways to make classes more engaging.

Akshaya Nandakumar, teacher at Anthea Montessori – House of Children in Hyderabad, remarks how technology has always been a matter of debate in the Montessori system. Clearly, the pedagogy was devised way before the advancements we have now. Most educators have not had digital skills because the system didn’t demand it and many have been resistant to giving tech to students as well. “One clear learning last year was that we can adapt. We used to introduce electronic devices only in upper elementary class, on a shared basis. Now we will consider early introduction because this is a changed world,” says Akshaya. Clearly, everyone is pushing their current limits and exploring the new to make learning a little more useful for the little ones. This skill to upskill and adapt is something we should not forgo even when schools reopen.

Tools for the win
With classrooms dwindling to screens, the tools at our disposal have expanded. Sure, we miss the black/white boards; but we have also embraced Mindmeister (helps in creating mind maps), Kahoot (online crosswords and puzzles) and Mentimeter (interactive quizzes during presentations).

Among the host of tools that came in handy last year, Ann says her favourite is Padlet – a collaborative web platform which gives virtual bulletin boards. It can be used in various ways and she gives an example: “As a starter activity about motherhood, I give a link to Padlet and ask them to drop the first thought that comes to their mind. I can see live what each student has to say. It gives a remarkably equal opportunity to children to voice their opinions.” She says she plans to use this in some way (even post-it notes can suffice) when they are back in school. At NPS, where she teaches, every classroom has a smart board. So, taking technology from homes to school is not going to be difficult.

Anjana vouches that competing in online quizzes real time on Kahoot is the activity her students enjoyed the most. She can have it continue in the school because students are allowed to use their personal laptops in their campus anyway. (She also quips that some of her colleagues invested in a white board at home because they simply couldn’t do without it even when teaching remotely.)

Then there is the other end of the spectrum. For Sreevidya KV, a teacher in the upper primary section at Government Higher Secondary School in Vayakkara, Kannur, the only tool at her disposal is WhatsApp. For all government schools in Kerala, lessons are delivered through a time-table based broadcast on television, on Victers channel run by Kerala Infrastructure and Technology for Education (KITE). The classes are uploaded on their YouTube channel too, but all children may not have the internet bandwidth (or a device) to watch them at convenience. So, these classes are supplemented by ‘voice notes’ shared by teachers in WhatsApp groups – one group per subject is the norm – because videos will, again, burden their internet bandwidth. The idea is that children will write down these ‘notes’ which they can refer to, later. Sreevidya couldn’t be more frustrated about the rote routine of sending voice messages into an invisible sea of children; she is craving to go back and see their expressive faces. One can see Facebook posts by parents too, how this ‘WhatsApp teaching’ is not effective (with a tinge of frustration about having to forfeit their devices to children). But the fact remains that most of these regions are not connected with network that is robust enough to support interactive platforms like Zoom or MS Teams. What do you do then? Make do with what is, which is WhatsApp.

Stick to the lesson plan
In the context of lack of in-person interactions, making online lessons engaging is a real challenge. Ann says that one of the ways in which they do this is by adhering to the three-step delivery of lessons stringently: starter activity, plenary session and formative assessment. NPS group of institutions has an in-house academy (TISB Training Academy) which prepared all their teachers for compliance before the last academic year commenced.

While lesson plans have always been in place, there was no definite mechanism to ensure that they were being followed immaculately. But with online classes, thanks to the added surveillance quotient of parents-accompanying-students and recorded classes, most teachers feel obliged to follow the lesson plan. Ann believes that the practice should continue even after going back to schools. Particularly for young children under 13, these three steps, delivered often through fun activities, make learning less boring.

Along this tangent, Meera opines that recording classes should also continue. “Children with special needs is a spectrum. If classes are recorded, they can go back to lessons based on their needs. But recording classes will help others too; kids miss classes because of extra-curricular activities or a bout of ill health all the time.”

Sharing is caring, but also winning
Another side-effect of classes moving online is that resources have become more centrally located and accessible. Ann recalls the pre-covid days: “We were not allowed to take previous question papers outside the library. We did not know what the other teachers did in their lesson plans either. But with the online alignment of teaching process last year, it became compulsory to share our lesson plans in a central database. All school materials are made available too.” This means that if a teacher starts out in a new class, she does not have to do the painstaking work of preparing materials from scratch, and hence, she can adopt best practices from day one.

In the Montessori system, children are given four to five materials (in mediums like wood) on each subject to manipulate, and it is mostly these materials that guide them, not the adults. During the last year, several volunteers who believe in the pedagogy have taken the effort to translate these materials into the virtual form, and they have global open access
(https://montessoritools.org/). “Currently, it is a mix of these virtual versions, DIY versions and printable versions of our materials that Montessori teachers across the globe use,” says Akshaya. Collaboration and sharing resources are definite winners and the streak should continue when we go back to schools.

Rope in the parents more
Incidentally, Akshaya is a marketeer-turned-montessori teacher who made the career switch around the time her elder daughter started school, two years ago. They are in the same school. As a parent who became a teacher, she says that it is apparent how increased parental presence has benefited all of her students in this phase. She says: “Of course, many parents are working too. But there is a definite increase in quality time spent together even if the quantity is not much.” Before schools closed because of the pandemic, their school had a routine where the teacher meets students individually, once a week, to maintain a connection and set agendas. Now, the ‘weekly call’ has the parent in attendance too, and Akshaya says this communication has made the parents so much more appreciative of the teacher’s efforts. She thinks this is definitely a practice that will continue into the school.

Meera says that a parent handholding their child in the learning process finds it easier to empathize with the teacher; the bond strengthens. Earlier, the full load of teaching was on the teacher whereas now it is shared in many ways with the parent. So, while it is true that most parents just want this learn-from-home phase to end (like us), there is no doubt that everyone has benefited from it. To maintain the momentum of this positivity influx into the parent-teacher relationship, by strategically having parents partake in children’s learning process, can be one of our objectives, as we go back.

A time to look within
Finally, it may be a good exercise for each of us to introspect what has changed at a personal level. When the medium changed, what changed about us? To get some context, listen to what Sreya Sreejith, a class 9 student at Arya Central School, Thiruvananthapuram, has to say: “I feel that teachers have become a lot kinder and more patient with the online switch. They don’t yell as much as they used to do back in school.” This perspective is quite significant because it speaks a lot about the energy we emit as teachers, and most often, we don’t recognize it. If a physical barrier effected some restraint in display of impatience and anger, may be, we can try to be slightly more mindful of how we come across to our students, even when we are back in our classrooms.

Let us bridge gaps
While there are many lessons we will take back to schools, there is surely some damage control measures we need to be armed with. Luna, who is now physically reunited with her students, observes that the two areas that have taken the most toll during their time away from schools are writing and behavioural aspects. The physical aspect of writing with a pencil on paper was mostly missing and the mental process involved in writing went lax too, during remote learning. Now back in class, they also find it difficult to sit without movement. Their attention spans have further reduced and there is general deterioration of discipline. If this is the case with the children in the UK who were not in school for just about four months, we can imagine how it is going to be for our students who return after more than a year! We do have a rollercoaster ride awaiting us.

But Sreevidya sounds all charged up. When asked about what she wants to take back to school when we finally reopen, she says: “Our children have suffered so much in this time. Assuming we will reopen only by June 2022, they will have almost lost two important years of their life. So, when I finally get them back, all I want to do is put my heart and soul into giving them such a good time that they will forget about these two years.”

Surely, the essence of Sreevidya’s words is what all of us carry within, while we battle schedules and responsibilities that overwhelm us through this testing time. Knowing the difference we make to our students’ lives, is the source of our comfort even when the journey is exhausting. Let us keep marching in the awareness that this road is as much about learning as it is about teaching.

The author is a communication professional based in Kochi, Kerala. She is mostly on stage as an MC, and during other times, she writes on her favourite topics – gender, education, food and entertainment. She can be reached at [email protected].

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