| Magazine Feature |

Distance Learning

Rebbeim return to the classroom with new tools honed by lockdown

As told to Sandy Eller

 

RABBI YEHUDA DEUTSCH

“I’ll never take the sound of learning for granted again”

WHAT MY COVID CLASSROOM LOOKED LIKE

When we first shut down in March, we started with teleconferenced classes, but there’s a limit to how long anyone can expect to capture the interest of eight-year-old boys on the phone, without the usual back and forth that keeps students engaged. The one saving grace in the early days of the outbreak was that we were learning Hilchos Pesach and were up to birchos Yaakov in Chumash -- both are subjects that worked in a monologue format.

But when it became clear that we were in this for the long haul, the yeshivah made the leap to video conferencing, distributing tablets to every student. As both a father and a rebbi, I had certain reservations about putting students on tablets, but playing around with them gave me confidence that they could be used for their intended purpose and nothing more. Virtual learning provided more of a classroom experience and we were able to bring Maseches Brachos to life by showing PowerPoint presentations and videos of how sandwich cookies are made and why Pringles require a different brachah than other potato chips.

MY BIGGEST CHALLENGE

Teaching on Zoom is vastly different than being in a classroom with students. Usually, the kid tapping his pencil is disturbing only the boys around him, but with virtual learning, it can affect the entire class -- and that look that a rebbi gives a kid to get him to stay in line just doesn’t work on Zoom. Something as innocuous as a kid walking around his bedroom creates a problem for the entire class, and while you could in theory send a message to just that one student asking him to stop, it is extremely difficult to do that mid-lesson without breaking your stride. Classroom management was definitely the biggest struggle. One colleague told me that while teaching is supposed to be energizing, this was just draining.

WHAT I GAINED FROM MY COVID CLASSROOM

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that the job of a rebbi and a teacher is so fluid that it could take on any role, shape or form at any given moment, and we need to step up and rise to that challenge. A really good rebbi has to have adaptability and versatility as part of his core fabric - you can’t just rely on what you always did until now. When it became clear that schools weren’t reopening after Pesach, I realized that everything I knew about how to run a classroom was going to be totally different -- almost like teaching on a different planet. How things are done on Earth aren’t the same as how they’re done on the moon, and after having to rethink everything last year, we’re going to have to do it all over again as the upcoming school year unfolds.

WHAT THE STUDENTS GAINED FROM THEIR VIRTUAL COVID CLASS

As much as schools focus on filling children’s minds with knowledge, there are other types of growth going on in school. Social interactions are an important part of that experience and the boys thrived when they had a chance to interact with each other in Zoom breakout rooms. Equally important is the rebbi-student connection, and I invested significant amounts of time into making personal visits to the boys’ homes. It was rewarding to see how much they appreciated those visits, and I look forward to finding opportunities for similar interactions during the upcoming school year.

LOOKING AHEAD TO THE 2020-2021 SCHOOL YEAR

While we all knew that not every student was going to take well to virtual learning, it came as a big surprise to see how certain boys were able to bloom as they home-schooled because there was less social pressure. I hope to be able to recreate that experience for students next year by figuring out what makes each one tick and giving them that extra degree of confidence that will give them the ability to soar above their social insecurities.

On a personal level, so much of my own chiyus as a rebbi comes from being able to circulate around the class and bring the learning to each student. It’s hard to predict how to make that happen when we still don’t know yet exactly how the classroom will look because of social distancing, but with Hashem’s help, I’ll find a path to build those connections in whatever way I can.

A LESSON LEARNED

I know it sounds cliché, but I realized how much I missed my students during the pandemic. I missed hearing how davening sounds in the classroom and hearing them repeat a pasuk of Chumash after me. That sound is priceless, and as we go back to school, I hope never to take it for granted again.”

Rabbi Yehuda Deutsch is a 3rd grade rebbi at Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway, New York.

 

 

RABBI AVI SCHNEIDER

“Despite our distance, learning over Zoom actually created opportunities for personal connections”


WHAT OUR COVID YESHIVAH LOOKED LIKE

As a beis medrash program in Bayit Vegan, we needed to find ways to continue our shiurim for students who returned home and were living in different time zones. Our rebbeim in Israel were able to continue their shiurim over Zoom during the earlier part of the day, while those who had gone back to America for Pesach and gotten stuck there were able to give what we considered to be the “night shift.”

While Zoom certainly isn’t ideal, there were some elements that proved to be very beneficial. Someone who missed a shiur was able to listen to it later online, and I would wake up every day to questions from guys who had heard the recorded shiurim.

MY BIGGEST CHALLENGE

Our internet wasn’t always reliable — sometimes it would freeze or be delayed, which definitely made Zooming a little challenging. Also, Zoom sessions shut down after 40 minutes unless you buy an updated version, and it is very frustrating when you’re in the middle of making a great point and your session ends. That said, when the yeshivah encouraged me to upgrade to the unlimited version that had no time restraints, I decided not to because students are much more receptive when they know they aren’t going to be kept longer than they expect, so it forced me to keep my classes to 40 minutes. It clearly went well because we found that 85 to 90 percent of our boys stuck to a solid schedule on Zoom way beyond the yeshivah’s walls.

WHAT I GAINED FROM MY COVID BEIS MEDRASH

I give three shiurim every day, and doing Zoom classes put me face to face with myself for the first time ever. I don’t think people ever really watch themselves under normal circumstances, but it’s almost impossible not to while you’re on Zoom. Observing myself taught me a lot about the power of a facial expression, a gesture or a motion — knowledge that I will incorporate into future shiurim.

WHAT THE STUDENTS GAINED FROM THEIR COVID YESHIVAH

Despite the fact that we were physically distant, learning over Zoom actually created tremendous opportunities for personal connections. Often when you finish a class, there are talmidim who hang around to ask questions, but that dynamic doesn’t work well for shy students who may not want to speak up when there are other people around. With Zoom, a student could text me to ask if we could speak after the shiur, and after everyone else signed off, he and I could go back on and schmooze together. It really opened up possibilities for valuable one-on-one conversations with the boys.

LOOKING AHEAD TO THE 2020-2021 SCHOOL YEAR

I think that one of the main reasons Zoom worked as well as it did for us was that we had already had a solid six months to build relationships with our students. Zoom is wonderful for maintaining an existing kesher, but without that initial personal contact, I don’t see that it would fly. This year, we are having our boys quarantining for 14 days in separate rooms when they come and rebbeim will be teaching in the hallways, separated from the students by plastic sheeting. We very much intend to leverage Zoom’s social capabilities so that students can meet each other and do inter-room podcasts, so that by the time the quarantine is over they won’t be strangers anymore. Zoom will also prove useful for a yeshivah-wide shiur klali, which is all about chizuk and isn’t about building those personal connections. (Once the quarantine period is up students will have more liberty to be together, while rebbeim will still stay behind the plastic, as we go home to our families every night.)

A LESSON LEARNED

In previous years, once the zeman ended, our boys would go home and move on with their summer plans to attend various camps and pursue job opportunities — but something amazing happened this summer. We continued Zooming even after we had our banquet the day yeshivah officially ended, and so many of our boys stayed on because the whole world had shut down except for Torah. We had a record number of guys making siyumim — quite a few of whom had never made a siyum before in their lives — and we also had alumni joining us on Zoom. The pandemic had us stumbling across a way to maintain that important kesher. But even when the world goes back to normal, we hope that we can continue our virtual learning — it creates amazing opportunities to keep our guys connected.

Rabbi Avi Schneider is the assistant menahel at Yeshiva Torat Shraga in Bayit Vegan, Israel.

 

RABBI AVROHOM PFEIFFER

“We were all in survival mode, doing our best to keep our heads above water while keeping our students anchored”

 

WHAT MY COVID CLASSROOM LOOKED LIKE

We pushed hard to finish Maseches Brachos during the last few days before we had to close, so that we could end on a high note, and the boys even gave up their recess to make sure we met our goal which, baruch Hashem, we did. At first, we did 40-minute prerecorded classes that tackled our main limudim — Chumash and Mishnayos, and I put pictures of my students on my desk and worked hard to keep things exciting. We had daily bonus questions with raffle prizes and the more I pumped it up, the more they called in. After Pesach we moved to a phone system that gave us the ability to be more dynamic, with multiple voicemail boxes where the boys could listen to things like a weekly niggun or a story I’d prepared for them.

I made sure to stay in touch with the boys through phone calls, weekly class conference calls, newsletters with photos submitted by parents, and even personal visits — and it was gratifying to hear that for them, knowing that I hadn’t forgotten about them helped them stay sane when it seemed like the whole world had gone crazy. Toward the end of the year, we did a few weeks of hybrid schooling, dividing the boys into two groups that alternated in-school and at-home learning, and it was a wonderful way to give the boys some closure after what was obviously a very difficult year. We ended school on a high note, with a socially distanced class siyum featuring a barbeque and kumzitz in a student’s backyard.

MY BIGGEST CHALLENGE

I have a son the same age as my students, so I understand that, under the circumstances, having a kid listen to a recorded class for even ten minutes was a real accomplishment. Still, it was extremely difficult knowing that talmidim were not getting the most out what should have been the most exciting weeks of the school year. I am very much aware that rebbeim have to be tuned into the socio-emotional needs of their talmidim — and even though kids are resilient, you couldn’t deny the fact that we were all living with stress and uncertainty. I know there were many rebbeim who called their students to learn with them over the phone, and I did that as well, but I also called just to schmooze, and no matter if they stayed on with me for five minutes or 25 minutes, it was clear that they were tickled pink to have my undivided attention. On a personal level, my wife and I are both in chinuch, and finding both the time and place for each of us to be able to record our respective classes in a quiet room with the kids home all day was no small feat.

WHAT I GAINED FROM MY COVID CLASSROOM

There’s nothing like recording a one-hour phone monologue for your students to make you realize just how much feedback you get from a live class, where you can see the looks on students’ faces and can gauge if the lesson resonated or fell flat. Recording those phone classes hammered home the message that while we may not know how we are affecting students in the short term, it’s really the long-term payout that matters most. I never knew from one day to the next if the boys chapped what I was saying or if any of them were even listening, but it reminded me that teaching isn’t about instant results — it’s about implanting that feeling of geshmak and the commitment to lifelong learning that will carry students forward in the years ahead.

WHAT THE STUDENTS GAINED FROM THEIR VIRTUAL COVID CLASS

While every kid is different, I would like to hope that they enjoyed extra quality time with their parents and forged a stronger bond with their rebbi as we all weathered the outbreak together. I think it’s safe to say that my students learned a lot about dealing with the unexpected bumps in the road of life — here we had a difficult situation that nobody wanted and nobody asked for but we all did the best we could. We continued publishing our weekly newsletters and included pictures of the kids — one week I was even asked to include a picture of myself because the kids wanted to see my face too. We put together a siyum in a bag when we finished parshas Vayechi, with everyone getting a Ziploc bag with Gatorade, a Danish, a poem, and geshmake nosh. I took pictures and a video of each boy as I dropped off their treats, turning it all into a slide show they received a few days later. Our live weekly Erev Shabbos conference calls kept everyone feeling connected and helped preserve some of the sense of achdus that is so important to a class. It was all about making the best of the situation, which is an important lesson for kids to learn at any age.

LOOKING AHEAD TO THE 2020–2021 SCHOOL YEAR

I certainly hope I won’t need to take any of the techniques I acquired during COVID into my classroom this year. We were all in survival mode, doing our best to keep our heads above water while keeping our students anchored. Even when it comes to relationship skills, which are extremely important for a rebbi, I think that so much of what we did last year to get our talmidim through a turbulent situation only made sense under those particular circumstances. I emailed the parents nightly, visited my students at home, and when I couldn’t reach them on the phone, they would call me back and we would play phone tag, but none of that is appropriate under normal circumstances. As they say, desperate times call for desperate measures, and while I’m thankful to Hashem that I was able to take what I had in the classroom and apply it outside of school last year, I pray that I won’t have to incorporate any of those techniques into my teaching toolbox for the upcoming school year.

A LESSON LEARNED

Having spent so many weeks trying to keep the fires of achdus burning brightly in my class even while we were physically distant, I realized again how important it is for children to be among their peers. Being part of a chaburah, experiencing that sense of kinas sofrim, singing together with classmates, and watching questions bouncing back and forth in a classroom is such a crucial component of the educational process. There’s nothing like having younger boys seeing the older talmidim and watching how they daven and learn, and being exposed to those influences is invaluable. Spending so much time away from school and away from those incredible influences underscores the importance of having mosdos that provide our children with those experiences and how thankful we need to be for their very existence.

Rabbi Avrohom Pfeiffer is a third-grade rebbi at Yeshiva Tiferes Tzvi in Chicago, Illinois.

 

Rabbi Yisroel Lefkovitz

“I think my students saw for themselves just how much they actually enjoy learning”

WHAT MY COVID CLASSROOM LOOKED LIKE

From the earliest days of the outbreak in March, Baltimore took coronavirus very seriously, and our rabbanim, with a single voice, got together and shut everything down. Purim mesibahs were canceled, and all the mosdos in town closed. It was very hard, seeing that all around us the rest of the world was still going on with their lives pretty much as usual, but people listened.

Our yeshivah went straight to Zoom, which I found to be the greatest thing in the world because it turned every single child in my shiur into that kid right in front of my desk. I could see who didn’t have their finger on the place and who was looking around instead of paying attention, and I was able to do that with every boy in the class. Because our classes were only 40 minutes long, there was an extra intensity to our learning and we covered an amazing amount of material. While yeshivah had been scheduled to end a week before Pesach, we kept going until Erev Pesach because the boys wanted to keep on learning, and we started up again the second day after Yom Tov because they didn’t want to miss a day.

MY BIGGEST CHALLENGE

We really didn’t have any, although obviously Zoom wouldn’t be a viable option in circumstances where you don’t already have that rebbi-talmid connection. My bekius shiur for accelerated eighth-grade boys was learning Maseches Succah and I told them that under the circumstances, we probably wouldn’t be able to finish the masechta in time for graduation. We could have just raced through it so that we could make a siyum, but I told the class that they had the wrong rebbi for that — we were going to learn every word correctly and just accomplish as much as we could. The boys were all in — we started on time every day without taking a single day off. By the time the end of the school year rolled around we had actually completed the masechta and the grand siyum on Succah was one of the highlights of the eighth-grade graduation.

WHAT I GAINED FROM MY COVID CLASSROOM

It was amazing to see just how much anyone, whether a child or an adult, can accomplish when they set their minds to it. We had every excuse not to learn, we were experiencing the most difficult chinuch experience that most of us have seen in our lifetimes, and yet we were able to cover even more than we would have under regular circumstances. No matter what’s going on in the world, when a kid sees in his rebbi’s eyes that Rebbi loves him, that Rebbi is talking to him and Rebbi believes in him, he can really shteig. I know that these days the trend is not to push kids, but I think we underestimate what our talmidim can do, because COVID has shown us that when you have a strong rebbi-talmid kesher, amazing things can happen.

WHAT THE STUDENTS GAINED FROM THEIR VIRTUAL COVID CLASS

I think that my students saw for themselves just how much they actually enjoy learning. While under normal circumstances in yeshivah it could take four to five minutes to get everyone settled and ready to learn, here everyone was on Zoom within a minute of our scheduled time and we hit the ground running. The boys saw for themselves that nothing could stand in their way and how they could accomplish so much in a 45-minute session followed by a break. Maybe we need to explore that concept further even in a regular classroom setting…. Another highlight was the Thursday night halachah schmooze, where we presented the boys with a halachic sh’eilah connected to the parshah. Each week different mesivta rebbeim took turns moderating the discussion, and for an hour, we had 50 to 60 boys debating the issue and really getting involved.

I also believe that being able to give the boys extra personal attention despite the physical distance really kept things moving in a positive direction; they loved that I started every class greeting each of them by name and asking them how they were. In yeshivah, the minute we hit recess the boys would run out the door, but here when we finished, they were happy to stay on Zoom and schmooze about what was going on in their lives.

LOOKING AHEAD TO THE 2020–2021 SCHOOL YEAR

My talmidim accomplished so much during COVID because Zoom made it easy to make them feel like I was speaking directly to them. Taking that kid who is sitting five rows back this year in yeshivah and making him feel like he is the one and only is actually going to be harder than it was to make the kid who was five miles away on Zoom feel like he was sitting right in front of my desk. There is no such thing as a kid sitting in the back row anymore — today they are all front and center and we have our work cut out for us making that happen.

A LESSON LEARNED

Every year we have Shavuos-night learning in the yeshivah followed by a massive kiddush in my house for about 60 to 70 boys, even though it’s an hour’s walk for most of them. This year, it was obvious that things couldn’t be the same as usual and I told the entire mesivta and my eighth graders that I would be giving out my wife’s homemade mini cheesecakes on Erev Yom Tov to anyone who committed to learn on Shavuos night. To be honest, I didn’t think that anyone would come for a little cheesecake and an iced coffee, but they did, and we gave out 120 cheesecakes. It just goes to show you just how deeply embedded that love of Torah really is and how willing everyone was to rise to the occasion, even under difficult circumstances.

Rabbi Yisroel Lefkovitz is a ninth-grade rebbi who also says an eighth-grade shiur at Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim/Torah Academy in Baltimore, Maryland.

 

RABBI DOVI COLMAN

“Our students weren’t just logging in and watching a lecture, they were actively engaged in higher thinking skills and choices”

WHAT MY COVID CLASSROOM LOOKED LIKE

With the majority of our staff furloughed because of the pandemic, we went from having four or five limudei kodesh teachers per grade to having that number for an entire school of 500 children, so we needed to think very creatively. We focused our teaching efforts on creating resources, games and activities that students could access on their own schedules, presenting a smorgasbord of learning options and letting students decide what interested them most. Students were able to take part in a Question of the Week video challenge, sharing their suggested answers to a halachic conundrum on a shared Google Doc. We also had students signing up to learn a minimum of one mishnah toward a group siyum — their combined efforts resulting in the completion of seven masechtos in just two weeks and a Zoom siyum featuring goodie boxes, games, quizzes and special guest speakers, including Gateshead Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Avrohom Gurwicz and South Africa Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein.

I can honestly say that my fellow teachers and I worked harder than we ever did in our lives. In a fantastic stroke of Hashgachah pratis, I’d attended a three-day course in Amsterdam last November on learning educational tools, and I implemented many of those skills as we got our program up and running. Our students weren’t just logging in and watching a lecture, they were actively engaged in higher thinking skills and choosing from a system of possibilities created just for them during the pandemic. Understanding that things weren’t easy for students or their parents, we took away the pressure and adjusted our expectations accordingly.

MY BIGGEST CHALLENGE

Reaching children on the fringe is difficult in the best of circumstances, and trying to engage them when they’re not in front of you was even more challenging. So we made sure to focus on positive experiences and stay away from doling out punishments to 10 and 11-year-olds under these circumstances. We created a virtual Lag B’Omer carnival and asked students to post pictures of themselves, which we displayed in a slide show that we shared later that night during our school’s virtual bonfire. We also had 150 families tuning in for a live talent show because we understood how important it was to keep our students engaged with their rebbeim. While it goes without saying that ideally that connection should be forged through Chumash, Mishnah and Gemara, our goal was very basic — simply to maintain that all-important connection, which we did through out-of-the-box thinking and extra-curricular activities.

WHAT I GAINED FROM MY COVID CLASSROOM

Perhaps the biggest skill I acquired during our remote learning period was flexibility. We often get stuck in our routines and have preconceived notions of how a classroom should look, but teaching through COVID made me realize that there can be many ways to get things done. It was also inspiring for me to appreciate just how much children can produce when they’re properly motivated. Seeing them learning because they wanted to was an empowering experience for them, and a really big takeaway for me.

WHAT THE STUDENTS GAINED FROM THEIR VIRTUAL COVID CLASS

Maturity. Our students learned all about time management, knowing that they needed to be on their computers at a certain time with the right codes. They also learned a lot about themselves, and when I asked them to think about what they had gained during an end-of-year activity, many of them said it was an appreciation for the small things in life that we normally take for granted.

LOOKING AHEAD TO THE 2020-2021 SCHOOL YEAR

We’re starting full days of in-person school in September and there will definitely be challenges. Our entire school day has been ripped to shreds because of COVID and we will be dealing with an incredibly complicated timetable and a class size limited to just 16 children. Having seen the success of last year’s online activities, it is clear that while technology presents certain challenges, it also offers amazing opportunities to engage students on their level, and we plan on pursuing that further in the coming year. In addition to assigning homework on various online platforms including Quizlet, JI Tap and Lomdei, which use technology to make learning exciting, we look forward to having children create their own machzorim for the Yamim Noraim complete with pictures, explanations and anecdotes.

A LESSON LEARNED

I believe that we need to move forward in learning with our children firmly situated in the driver’s seat. Our students rose to the occasion last year —their excitement for academics was palpable and they responded extremely well when we gave them opportunities to engage in areas of learning that they themselves had chosen. It’s clear that being your own decision-maker is an empowering experience for students, and incorporating that motivation into their education can be an extremely valuable learning tool.

Rabbi Dovi Colman is a sixth-year middle manager and teacher at Broughton Jewish Cassel Fox primary school in Manchester, England, where he teaches ten- and eleven-year-olds.

 

 

 

A TEACHER’S PRIMER

Prepared for print by the Clinical Staff at Kav L’Noar

 

This year’s return to school seems different. Questions abound: Will students be able to adjust to whatever hybrid of in-class and virtual learning is arranged? How will schools enforce social distancing in the classrooms?

Here are five tips for teachers, courtesy of the staff at Kav L’Noar, an organization devoted to changing the conversation about emotional health.

  • A dose of self-compassion every day can keep your batteries charged. Teachers often hold themselves to even higher standards than they hold their students, but this year trying to meet those lofty expectations amid the chaos can lead to burnout. Each day, try to find a time to remind yourself that you are doing the best you can under the circumstances, and it’s okay to have tough days sometimes.
  • Modeling flexibility may be your most important lesson. Dealing with the unexpected is part of a teacher’s daily rhythm, but the uncertainty generated by the coronavirus brings that balancing act to a whole new level. Showing that you can accept and adapt to new realities will help your students succeed this year, and will be an invaluable lesson you provide them for life.
  • Advocating for yourself is okay. In a professional setting, no one wants to be the one who rocks the boat, especially when the current situation is so challenging for everyone in the school. But to be successful in the classroom, you need to feel safe. As hard as it is, be willing to stand up for your needs so that you have confidence that the safety requirements of both teachers and students are sufficiently met.
  • Invest time in your teacher-support network. Even in normal years, suggesting to teachers that they find time for extracurricular activities may be met with incredulous laughter. After-school hours are often dedicated to grading students’ work, adjusting lesson plans, and speaking with concerned parents — all in addition to teachers’ own needs and the needs of their families. However, finding other teachers who can provide a sympathetic ear and strategies for coping with the unique challenges can be uplifting, and they may also be partners in advocating for teachers’ needs in the school.
  • Your students may be affected in ways you can’t easily notice. Teachers already know to be aware and sensitive to their students’ challenges outside the classroom. Now, however, as teachers are managing all the various pressures in their own lives, they may not notice struggling students as readily. Students may have anxiety about a high-risk family member, difficulty acclimating to the in-class changes or virtual learning needs, inadequate home learning environments, or any number of other challenges. Being mindful to have a patient and compassionate stance toward the students can help prevent your burnout, and help students make it through these times successfully.

 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 826)

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