Saturday, July 11, 2020

In thinking about what would be most fitting for Chinuch Reflections, I found it most appropriate and timely to reflect on the current situations that teachers, parents and children have found themselves over the past weeks, and what might also occur in the approaching months. The educational model of yesteryear has changed overnight and students are now trending in Zoom rooms, asynchronous assignments and synchronous classrooms galore. “Screenagers” has taken on a new, overwhelming meaning.

As readers, most of us have been exposed to endless articles, vidoes, posts and memes that highlight the stress of students (and parents) at this time. We all empathize with groups of learners navigating new difficulties, experiencing modern struggles and grappling with the “new normal” of schooling, wondering when they will see their classrooms again.

Yet, as an RYNJ middle school teacher, I feel compelled to share various experiences of the middle school students that I teach and know, those who don’t agree with the articles and videos described above, those that are perhaps shockingly enjoying the modes and methods of distance learning.

How, you ask? What is there to enjoy, you wonder? Do they not yearn for their classmates and for a teacher’s presence? Don’t they miss the daily interactions and the give and take with their morot and rebbeim? I assure you they do, each child in his/her own way. But perhaps we have overlooked those adolescent students who are thriving in an environment of distance learning and who feel the success they have always strived to achieve.

A few weeks ago, in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times, a very talented eighth grader submitted a letter that I found to be a remarkable eye opener. She titled her article, “Why I’m Learning More With Distance Learning Than I Do In School.” (May 5, 2020)

As a student about to enter high school, she described the environment of her classroom as noisy, disruptive and often hostile, where as a motivated student she struggled to learn. Her description of valuable class time being wasted, her inability to focus due to other students’ behaviors, and being forced to sit through a class of teacher repetition was always one that brought her tremendous frustration. Yet, the distance learning from home brought a respite for her. Her quiet room provided her with a space that allowed her to better concentrate and focus, Zoom with other motivated students, and time to “meet” with her teachers when necessary. I am assured that many children in our yeshivot feel the same way and share those sentiments. It is quite frustrating for a motivated student to often wait for other classmates to exhibit better self control, or perhaps for a teacher to exercise stronger discipline. It is disheartening when the desire to learn does not actualize the way a student foresees it should.

In addition, she noted that a teacher’s pace is often too quick for students to follow, leading them to feel lost or lagging behind. Confusion easily sets in, leaving a student to wonder how they will understand or keep up with daily and weekly instruction. The writer noted that distance learning has given her the ability to listen and review recorded lessons at her leisure. For students who thrive on repetition and rehearsal, the recorded classes are a gift as they allow a stop, start, rewind and fast forward of teachers’ recordings.

The scenarios of “I missed what he/she said” or “I got lost in my notes,” are no longer daily worries for many of our children. Additionally, for those teenage students who struggle with executive functioning and the overwhelming amount of papers, sheets and handouts to organize, everything in distance learning is computerized, saved in Google Classroom, sent as an attachment, etc. It is astounding how much pressure is removed from a student (and parent) knowing that they don’t have to do a daily search for papers, folders, supplies, in a locker, knapsack, desk drawer and other places that we would not imagine!

Furthermore, in surveying students and parents locally, I have received some astounding feedback. A parent shared with me that her son, who struggles with ADHD and some social anxieties, has been a better student than he ever was. The teacher called to let her know that she is thrilled with his success as an “at home” student.

Other middle school students have responded to the distance model in saying that asynchronous work allows them to choose when their work can be done, or in other words, to create their own schedule. Gone are the days of dictated periods for specific subjects. The students welcome the autonomy (as most teenagers would) of self scheduling. Their freedom to do this allows them to learn time management, something we as teachers so often try to teach them in a classroom. Who knew that they could be so successful in doing it themselves?

In closing, I would be remiss if I did not quote one of my own seventh grade RYNJ students who emailed me just last week with the following comment: “This new way of learning has seemed to be a lot more impactful and easier for me than before Pesach. I really enjoy doing a brief overview….(during the) day and then going back, going into more depth, and reviewing. I feel that I am actually putting more effort into my work than I had before, which is making me prepare and understand the information better.” When we say that the students are our best representatives, let us not take their feedback for granted.

It is my greatest hope that we will soon return to our schools, our classes, our desks, our fields, gyms and lunch rooms. It is my greatest hope that children will see their friends, teachers, administrators and all the friendly faces that they so desperately need. It is my greatest hope that we will once again laugh together and appreciate each other’s company. And it is my greatest hope that the lessons that our students taught their teachers during this difficult time will always stay a part of us as well.

Elissa Hochbaum teaches seventh grade Judaic studies at RYNJ.