Rabbi Zalmen Raskin, who teaches Judaics to first- and fourth-graders at Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, has had to “change and adapt” a lot of his expectations these days.
As instruction has moved online due to the COVID-19 crisis, Raskin has placed an emphasis on his students’ social and emotional well-being along with their lessons on Jewish law and the Passover holiday.
“Tapping into how they’re experiencing and understanding this whole thing is really at the forefront at this point,” said Raskin.
Educators from Pittsburgh’s three Jewish day schools echoed Raskin’s sentiments.
“I teach middle school, and developmentally, they’re in a very social place in their lives. They’re very driven by interactions with their peers, and they don’t have that live interaction anymore; they’re home for the most part,” said Cara Shuckett, a seventh- and eighth-grade language arts teacher and literacy coach at Community Day School. In order to combat, or at least acknowledge, current realities, Shuckett has started each of her classes with “something to humanize our time together.”
For several minutes, the group reflects, and chats, about an assignment unrelated to the day’s regular materials. Projects have included phoning or FaceTiming a relative, listening to music from an unknown artist or drawing a picture while only using one’s feet.
“I feel like it’s really important to adapt some of our work to meet the reality of their social emotional needs,” said Shuckett. “They’re at home and they need other things to do, and I think that they need a little support.”
Relying on Zoom, Google Meet and other digital technologies, Pittsburgh’s three Jewish day schools are definitely up and running during the COVID-19 pandemic, although their physical buildings are locked. Learning has continued across curricula, but classrooms are now definitionally different. Out of sight are the inspirational wall posters in the schools’ halls with adages such as “You can soar to new heights by reading books,” or “Mistakes are proof that you are trying.” Instead, students and teachers are signing on to online sessions from bedroom desks, kitchen tables or basement offices — largely in the company of siblings or parents who are similarly seeking productivity from home.
Even in the best imaginable settings, teachers are navigating newfound challenges.
Lisa Naveh, a second-grade teacher at CDS, has met digitally with her students daily since the Squirrel Hill-based institution transitioned to online learning. Seeing the students on a regular basis was important to Naveh and her team of colleagues. Between whole class meetups and one-on-one sessions with the students, “we’re keeping that connection,” she explained.
A daily get together between Naveh, her fellow educators and 26 second-graders allows the group to mimic the morning meetings they formerly held in school. Additionally, as someone responsible for basic core subjects, such as language arts, math, writers’ workshop and social studies, Naveh is able to continue serving as a “home base” for her students.
While the brief daily meetup allows the parties to see one another and retain some element of familiar school life, separate weekly individual 15-minute scheduled sessions permit teachers and students “time to personally connect,” said Naveh. “It’s been really nice because it’s been either a student and me, or a student, parent and me, and we’ve been able to discuss how they’re doing or how they’re feeling. For others, we just talk about their lives right now.”
Engaging with students and families in this way has provided a larger window into each other’s lives, too.
“They’re getting an up-close personal look at my house, my husband, my daughters. It’s kind of almost more personal in a way than teaching in the classroom,” Naveh said.
Chaya Berelowitz, a Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh fourth grade general studies teacher can relate.
“I actually have my own son in my class,” Berelowitz said. “So, I’ll hear him, I’ll go downstairs and he’ll be in the kitchen, and I’ll hear him answering me from upstairs.”
If hearing one’s child reply both digitally and in person, while simultaneously trying to teach 10 other students, isn’t disorienting enough, Berelowitz’s husband, Shlomie, a rabbi who teaches Judaics to sixth- and seventh-graders as well as high school students at Hillel Academy, described a scenario reiterated by several Jewish day school teachers.
There is a “space issue” in most people’s houses, and it can happen that “you’re having your child, who’s in a different class, sitting right next to you while you’re teaching your class,” he said.
For teachers with offspring at home, finding a balance between delivering regular classroom instruction, aiding one’s own children with technological issues and seemingly simultaneously serving a constant stream of snacks and meals is an understandably complicated task. Compound that labyrinthine exercise with the inclusion of small children, and the challenge grows exponentially.
“Our baby sits on my lap during half of my classes,” said Chaya Berelowitz. “You’re trying to balance those things, like if someone needs a drink or someone needs this in the middle of a class, and sometimes you just have to say, ‘So and so, read this page,’ or, ‘I’ll be right back.’ It happens. You can only do what you can do.”
Apart from sending an electronic deluge of emails regarding homewowrk and related concerns, parents and students have been largely sympathetic to teachers’ current demands, agreed educators from the three Jewish day schools.
“There’s definitely been a learning curve but it’s been helpful just knowing that we’re all learning together, that everybody is together just supporting each other,” said Naveh.
In fact, there have even been unexpected educational benefits from the recent digital enterprise.
For instance, because of the ability to section off students online, it’s easier to establish breakout rooms where several students can review a lesson, while others meet with the teacher.
“This was something that’s harder to do in the classroom,” said Rabbi Berelowitz. “It’s not like students can be sent out into the hallway to work in groups while you’re learning with the other ones.”
Likewise, because classroom time is now shorter than in the past, there’s a greater desire to maximize each moment.
“I’m just being really careful about what I include and what I’m not including,” said Shuckett. “If I have 30 minutes, I’m really thinking about whether this is key, or if this is not important for right now, or if it’s sort of extra.”
An unanticipated benefit may actually be lessons in how to handle technology itself, according to Raskin.
Whereas some families previously may have been skittish to employ digital resources at home, now they’re almost “forced” to, and, as a byproduct parents are becoming “more in tune with using technology to advance students’ academics,” he said. “Parents are asking a lot of questions they never asked before” about safe internet practices and recommended amounts of screen time each day. Students are similarly learning “how to navigate and interact with each other” in this sphere. For many individuals, “it’s just a whole new fascinating experience.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.