IS DISTANCE LEARNING FOR EVERYONE?

By Anash.org reporters


By now, most schools in the U.S. have spent a number of weeks hosting online and phone classes for all ages. Anash.org spoke to educators to find out how this new form of learning is working for their students.


It’s become the norm over the last two months: kids hunched over computer screens or with a phone to their ear, trying to retain some semblance of normal as they join their classes from home. By now most schools in the U.S. and many countries around the world have several weeks of distance learning behind them, but is it working? Is this new form of learning right for everyone?

To find out, Anash.org reached out to various teachers to ask about their experiences in the virtual classroom.

“At first it was going extremely well,” Rabbi A., a pre-1-A rebbi shared with Anash.org. “The kids were excited about this new thing called Zoom and to see their friends again. But then the kids sat down at the screens and we started running into problems…”

There’s a host of ways a tech-classroom can go awry. In the beginning, the kids didn’t know how to turn on the screen themselves, or they mistakenly pressed a wrong button and got disconnected. Then, after a week or so, technology beckoned and whatever the device offered – be it other apps or Zoom settings – became a constant distraction.

When Mrs. D., a first-grade Morah, first transitioned to online classes, her students were thrilled to be in class again. After a couple of days, however, she realized things would have to change.

“The regular classroom teaching style wasn’t working,” she explained. “With the absence of the classroom atmosphere, girls were struggling.” Something as simple as using a worksheet became a challenge because some students needed help finding the place. In the classroom, they can turn to a student next to them or wait for Morah to come over, but with distance-learning all they have is a screen and confusion, which leaves them frustrated.

“With Zoom, you can lose the spirit of learning,” Rabbi A. agreed. “You have to have everyone on mute or there’s too much background noise, but then everyone is silent and you lose the regular atmosphere that makes kids thrive in a classroom. In school, you realize something isn’t working and you can adjust right away, but here it’s hard to even know what’s going on.”

Without the natural face-to-face interaction between teacher and student, it is challenging to convey the nuances of skill-based learning to growing students. Some students are able to grab onto new ideas and pull themselves up, but a significant number of their classmates are becoming stagnant. Worksheets are good for review, but developing skills require in-person training.

“I worked the whole year to make sure they have happy, positive interactions with Chumash,” Mrs. D. shared, “but here the girls were getting so frustrated that they weren’t enjoying it anymore. I needed to stop because if they learned like this for even a few weeks, it could give them a sour taste for the subject that would be hard to undo.” Instead, she focuses on informative learning such as halacha and parsha, and orally reviewing the skill-based subjects that the class already covered.

To tackle this challenge, Rabbi A. assigns kriya as homework which, for the most part, seems to be working better. The kids go through their assigned kriya lines and leave a recording on Rabbi A.’s phone. After he listens, Rabbi A. has a better understanding of where each kid is holding and can adjust his homework accordingly. “Kids will gain more learning with their parents for five minutes than what they’re getting out of an hour on zoom,” he said.

Chabad teachers’ organization Igud Hamelamdim has been working with teachers since the onset of the crisis. Director Rabbi Avrohom Bluming shared some of the things he has been hearing from teachers with Anash.org. “The challenge of virtual learning is real. One fouth-grade rebbi told me that out of a class of 25, around a third are learning as well as they do the rest of the year. The rest are struggling.”

Experts are concerned that virtual learning is expanding the gap among students. Students who excelled before the pandemic generally have an easier time learning at a distance, while others who needed more guidance are now falling further behind.

When schools were required to close, many school administrators came under pressure to recreate classes online. Parents were nervous about their children falling behind, and were seeking ways to keep them busy. In addition, teachers still relied on their salaries, and there were many expenses to cover. Hosting online classes helped fill the need to keep students engaged and learning, while allowing administrations to collect vital tuition funds to keep the school running.

Still, Mrs. D. thinks most younger students would be fine without the distance learning, and that some would even be better off. “We need to think long and hard about what is really best,” she said. “Not for the parents or for the school, but for the students.”

Rabbi A. argues that despite the limited learning experience, there are many benefits to the virtual classroom. “They get to see their friends, daven with a class, and they get to hear their rebbi wish them each a ‘good morning.’ Even if they can’t learn as well, it’s good for their emotional health, which is also very important.”

The good news is, there is more flexibility for parents who wish to foster their children’s development in ways that are best suited to them.

“When parents take even a short amount of time to learn with their children, the benefits are enormous,” Rabbi Bluming said. “A few minutes of one-on-one chavrusa learning with you is even more effective than two hours on Zoom. This is especially true when it comes to skill-based learning like kriyah and chumash.”

To encourage independent text review, Igud Hamelamdim opened their subscription “Bifnim” review program to all students, with added incentives. The program cements down skills through repeated review instead of focusing purely on fluency. The success thus far has been outstanding.

Rabbi A. suggests that parents keep a close eye on how their children are doing with the new learning model. “If a student is having a hard time with it, it’s okay for them not to attend. You’re better off not fighting with them over this.” He recommends finding other activities that will help foster learning and growth. “There are many games and crafts that are great for opening the mind and building various skills.”

“If your child enjoys distance learning and is thriving, that’s great,” Mrs. D. said. “But remember that even outside the classroom environment, young children are constantly learning. Each experience they encounter and every new thing they try can turn into a wonderful teaching moment, whether or not they attend school on Zoom.”

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