Schools have been closed for in-person classes for a while and will continue to remain so for the foreseeable future. Along with schools all over the world, we had to transition to a virtual learning environment. This shift has come with new learnings and challenges for students, teachers and parents. And nowhere has this been more evident than with our Early Years students.
Our Early Years classes generally follow a progressive approach to learning with a blend of internationally recognised frameworks that foster inquiry and investigation. At B.D. Somani, we believe that teaching is a process that should encourage children to learn how to think. Even very young children learn to communicate effectively, ask searching questions, solve problems competently, think critically and creatively, and act responsibly. It is this belief that drives our Early Years virtual schooling program as well.
In an Early Years online class, our focus is on communication and building bonds with students. Our Early Years classes also aim at developing skill sets for socialization, life skills, creativity, imagination, spatial awareness, fine motor and gross motor development.
Our teachers have three to five Zoom engagements during the day. Each engagement lasts 15 to 20 minutes for Reception and Junior Kindergarten, going up to 20 to 30 minutes in Kindergarten. Each session is made interactive and engaging, with many hands-on activities to keep students interested and actively involved.
Each day typically starts with a morning meeting, followed by activities related to literacy, math, exploration, visual discrimination, fine motor development or art in small groups. This is followed by a block building session followed by story time. The last engagement for the day is usually a call with a buddy. Engagements are spread out through the day so our young students are not sitting at a device for any extended period of time. The whole class meets for morning meetings and story time. All other engagements are in batches of 4 to 5 students at a time. Meeting the entire class twice a day helps students get a sense of belonging with the whole class while smaller group engagements help students and teachers focus better in class with fewer distractions. Teachers also have individual or buddy calls with students once a week. These calls help teachers review students’ understanding of concepts discussed in class during the week and further deepen the student-teacher bonding.
Keeping young students engaged and interested remotely is not an easy exercise. Our teachers, however, have been successful at it over the past couple of months. Having lessons with smaller groups of students instead of the whole class helps. Teachers also keep students engaged with constant interaction and communication. Games like I Spy, Scavenger Hunt, Pictionary, Picture Talk and action songs are embedded in the lessons to keep the children engaged. Students are encouraged to participate in the block building planning and execution. They are encouraged to share their understanding of things being discussed and their natural curiosity of the world is nurtured. At no time is the lesson structured in such a way that the children are merely passive listeners.
Occasionally though, teachers do need to repeat some activities, especially when lessons are spread over several groups of students. With all of Mumbai working from home, network issues crop up from time to time, posing additional challenges. The distance learning sessions, however, are getting better over time with students bonding more with their classmates and teachers, making them more comfortable in class and more confident participants in each engagement. Students have also learned some sign language (ASL) words such as yes, no, okay, washroom, and thirsty and they use these gestures to communicate, ensuring interactive sessions and hands-on activities can continue without frequent interruptions. Most students are also becoming more familiar with the technology used in classes, learning basic features such as muting or unmuting themselves, joining the break out rooms, and leaving a meeting.
Not all learning happens during a class. We also leave our young learners with regular home assignments, focussed on developing skills like listening, speaking, reading, writing, social skills, vocabulary, comprehension, confidence, self control, self expression, cooperation, taking initiative and developing curiosity, logical reasoning, problem solving, fine motor skills, hand–eye coordination and visual discrimination.
With technology being such a critical part of our distance learning program, our teachers have ensured that they’ve picked up the skills to make as much use as possible of all available resources. Our teachers use a combination of books, presentations, white boards, screen sharing, break out rooms, instrumental music and, especially for art sessions, open-ended learning materials. We use our own teaching resources developed over the past years to ensure classes don’t become repetitive for our students. Even household objects are used in playing games and helping students understand different concepts.
Our parent community too has been amazing in helping support this new learning experience for our students. We’ve requested parents to create a designated work space for students in a quiet corner of the house, away from external distractions where possible. And most parents have helped with this. When not possible, we’ve asked parents to provide students with headphones so they can focus on class. Occasionally, parents join in during live engagements. With our Reception students, parents are usually always present because they are not yet familiar enough with technology to manage by themselves.
At B.D. Somani, in the physical classroom, young children learn through play. And our block building program especially plays a big part in developing our students numeracy and literacy and communication skills. Replicating the block building program virtually hasn’t been easy. In school, students used to work in pairs and threes and even groups of four and five. In our virtual classes though, students are building individually and are missing the immediate suggestions of their peers and the opportunity to collaborate. Another aspect of virtual school where we haven’t been able – yet – to successfully replicate the in-school experience is field trips which usually provide first-hand research opportunities. Our teachers, however, again make use of technology to take our students on virtual field trips as often as possible.
All our students do miss the in-person classroom experience and many of our conversations during online engagements revolve around the physical classroom and when they can return to it. However, over the past few months, our teachers have managed to create an environment where our Early Years students continue to develop their skills of curiosity and communication, standing them in good stead for the day when we all return to normalcy.