B.D. Somani and the new distance learning paradigm

While India went into lockdown on March 25 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Maharashtra shut down five days earlier, a few days into the fourth quarter of our academic year. We were ready with ‘what if’ scenarios two weeks before spring break, thanks in large part to the foresight and planning of our Board and Head of School. But the overnight transition from a physical classroom environment to an all-school distance learning program came with its own set of unexpected challenges, new-found skills and joys. We sat down with our leadership team for their take on the experience of going virtual. Here’s what they had to say.

A super quick transition to virtual learning

Our Secondary school teachers were all asked to put plans in place before spring break in case of an extended lockdown. They were trained on the Google Suite of tools to optimise their online classrooms. We also transitioned early to Kognity, a web-based application that supports preparation for both the IB and IGCSE curriculum. All through the lockdown, our leadership team and Board have been meeting twice weekly to discuss any concerns as they arise, and this has resulted in a near-seamless transition to Distance Learning.
In Primary school, our progressive teaching methodologies mean that our classes are not based on traditional “lessons”. Our classrooms involve experiential learning engagements, discussions between teachers and students, and collaborative processes. We don’t have a uniform approach to distance learning in Primary School as we range from 3 year olds to Grade 5. We certainly knew that we could not pretend to replicate the school day and keep children on screens for long periods – some young children can only stay in one place for a few minutes! Our approach is modified by age group and continues to evolve as our teachers, children and parents get more familiar with the tools at our disposal. Ms Zoë and Ms Minal meet each grade level, our administrative team and our learning support team on call regularly to ensure everyone is supported in their work and that we are responsive to parent concerns.

Dealing with the unexpected and evolving with distance learning

In Primary school, our teachers have conducted classes at different times with the whole class in attendance and sometimes with smaller groups. We realised that it becomes difficult to maintain order sometimes with young children on a screen all talking at once so, often, a small group is more effective and productive. Many teachers are also conducting one-on-one sessions with some students. Our teaching approach has now evolved into a combination of the whole class and smaller groups at different times for optimum efficiency. In addition, all our specialist teachers – Hindi, French, art, theatre, music, Capoeira, IT, PE – conduct online lessons and activities in various formats.
From a purely physical standpoint, distance learning has been challenging for our teachers. When we started the program, we read up on experiences shared by teachers in other countries and realised it is better to start slow and give teachers the leeway to set a pace they were comfortable with. As a result, our teachers have come together as a group, ensuring students are always the focus. They have been innovative, creative, and collaborative in solving problems for our students and making sure their development continues despite all challenges. This experience has been beneficial for our teachers in upgrading and learning new skills and also making creative use of technology to help our students.
In Secondary school, the challenges are different but equally complex. Not all students and teachers have access to high-speed internet. Many of our students left their textbooks in their lockers before spring break, not anticipating being away. Most of our families live in multi-generational households with multiple claims on the computer at the same time for work or school and bandwidth overload can slow down access.
In a survey we conducted, parents also raised concerns about excessive screen time, which we know from studies is not optimal over the long haul. As we moved into the second week of April, we took steps to tackle this by combining a traditional classroom approach with a Project-Based Learning model (PBL). With PBL assignments, students can work on their individual and cross-disciplinary projects on their time-table, accessing a variety of resources, not all of which are online. These projects will be a way to assess not only the factual knowledge our students have acquired but also their ability to assimilate the information into a coherent, cogent culminating presentation.

Addressing parental worries and concerns

Our G12 and G10 parents are of course concerned about the implications of no external exams this year. This pandemic is unprecedented, and the fallout has everyone wondering about the future. Information from Cambridge and IB has been at times, slow and ambiguous, even though we know these organisations are doing their best in dealing with an unexpected situation. Parents, quite reasonably, still want to know the impact the cancellation of exams will have on their children.
What is reassuring is the global nature of this crisis: we’re all in this together. Universities will not be surprised that students from India (and Africa, and China, etc.) do not have exam scores. Our particular B.D. Somani cohort is not relatively disadvantaged. We have a full contingent of counsellors who are meeting in virtual privacy with students, and holding group sessions, to help alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that inevitably accompanies a situation such as this.
In Primary school, more than parental stress, our teachers have had to manage anxiety and confusion in many of our younger students. They’ve had to double up as counsellors to help our students and parents through this challenging time. Our team of counsellors and learning support teachers are also always available. They have been in touch with students they work with and continually monitor their needs. Our parents have gained a better appreciation and respect for our teachers and their ability to manage as many students as they do, for as long as they do. In some cases, parents too have had to pick up new skills to help their children adapt to these changed circumstances. This has helped them understand that learning is not just academic but about adapting to circumstances.

Even Resilience needs a hand to hold

Our Primary school teachers have helped our students on their continued development throughout this period. Apart from the live sessions, teachers have also given students a range of assignments, in curriculum and relating to the current circumstances. Students stay connected with teachers while also developing their skills of research and inquiry in a relatable context. Our learning approach has been to broaden our students’ learning, not just in curricular terms but also life skills. Our students have responded admirably, with the support of their parents.
In Primary school, because students don’t have to worry about taking exams, they’ve been able to adapt better to a learning environment going deeper and wider into every topic. Submission of assignments has been flexible to accommodate complex household schedules – several family members sharing the laptop for work and school, families without domestic staff and, occasionally, connectivity issues. When we get back to school,  we anticipate many of our students will need support in processing their emotions from this unusual time and our counsellors will likely have a heavier workload than usual. Learning support teachers are prepared to spend more time with students who benefit from extra skill reinforcement.
Our Secondary school students are doing a fantastic job under the circumstances. We continue to maintain regular attendance and assessments and our students continue to impress us with their engagement, even under these trying circumstances. Our Student Council has come together with ideas to continue to build community with activities such as ‘B.D. Bingo’. Many students have formed their own virtual study groups to prepare for assessments or to review content from class. What excites us the most is that students are realising the value of learning for its own sake. Even when external exams no longer apply, they continue to thrive in this virtual academic setting.

Supportive parents make for a better learning experience

Our parents have been tremendously supportive and encouraging throughout this process of evolution. They have been responsive to our online parent-teacher meetings. They’ve sent teachers and leadership emails with encouraging and supportive words, which has helped boost our morale and mindset. They’ve been forthcoming with suggestions for ways to improve, such as allowing longer breaks between classes and suggestions for online resources.
We send out an email at the conclusion of every day, and have started including a ‘Link of the Day” that families can explore together – like an online quiz of knowledge, a virtual museum to tour, or ways to build vocabulary. Parents have told us they’re really enjoying these activities together. They recognise the importance of partnership with their B.D. teachers, and that they themselves are also teachers.
The vast majority of our Primary school parents have been supportive and appreciative of the efforts our teachers have put into helping our students. There has been feedback aimed at optimising screen time for our students, and we have received a whole host of messages of appreciation and encouragement for our teachers and support staff. Our parents have been entirely on board with our distance learning program, making it easier for teachers to focus on students.
One lesson we’d all like our students and parent community to take away is that school is not just the building and the classroom and a physical place to meet in. School is anyplace learning, and development can happen, even if the environment is virtual. We believe this period of virtual education will help educators and teachers become more creative in evolving the future of education. Teaching and learning are taking place all of the time: it’s not defined by four classroom walls.
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