Learning Remotely

Images: Grace Hiess

In the past couple of weeks I’ve read and heard of all sorts of really innovative ways in which educators are responding to the challenge of keeping in touch with their learners through the period of the COVID-19 lockdown. Finding ways of ‘bridging the gap’ when you no longer have your students in front of you presents some unique challenges – and the creativity of teachers never ceases to amaze me as they find ways of responding.

My motivation for this post is the experience of two of my grandchildren who attend Koraunui Primary School, located in Stokes Valley, Lower Hutt with a roll of just under 300 students from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds. It is a school that lives true to its values, and programmes that reflect the community they represent. My grandchildren love it there – one has even opted to be a part of one of te puawaitanga o te kakanō (bilingual classes) for the past couple of years and is thriving in this environment.

Koraunui School Values

Until just three years ago the school had been led by principal Barbara who was in the role for 23 years. Like many committed educators, her link with the school didn’t stop when she retired and she has remained active in the local community, supporting the new principal, Dave, as he continues to build on the great work she’d done. A couple of days before the lockdown was announced, Barbara visited the school and, with Dave, determined that they’d need to make sure the kids and their families would be supported with things to do in the event of the lockdown occurring. They set about creating sets of reading materials and set the photocopier going with all sorts of activity ideas for kids to do with their parents/whānau. A few days later, when the lockdown was officially announced, every child in the school was able to be sent home with a kete of materials that they could choose to use as required.

Once the lockdown began, the staff of the school made communicating with parents/whānau their top priority, focusing on ensuring they were safe, accounted for and supported in any way the school may be able to do. They used multiple channels to do this – email, facebook and the school’s webpages for those with internet access, and phoning directly those without.

It soon became apparent that, for the young people in this school, keeping them active with things to do during the lockdown would be a priority. But simply suggesting activities for these families to engage with their children was little use if they didn’t have the materials required.

As it happens, retired principal Barbara has a garage full of craft supplies and other materials that she’d collected over her life-time as an educator, and as an active member of the local repertory society. A message was sent to all families asking if they’d like to have some of these materials provided to enable them to carry out the activities. Initially they received replies from 20 families. So Barbara and the two retired sisters living in her “bubble” (in the house next door) took to the garage and prepared 20 bags of items which they then delivered to the front gate of each of the families wanting them. (NB – they were meticulous in observing all of the protocols around the lockdown – wearing gloves to prepare, wiping anything requiring it with sanitiser etc and then setting the bags aside for a couple of days before distributing.) They then let families know when the drop-off would occur and advised the children to stay inside their houses until the drop off was made at their driveway entrance and the car had driven away.

My grandchildren were happy recipients of these first materials – a bag full of brightly coloured card and paper, complete with glue, tape and other bits – and a sheet of ‘instructions’ suggesting how this could all be used. This simple activity has provided hours of focused engagement for these kids – and lots of opportunity for conversation with each other and their parents in the process. The results can be seen in the images at the top of this post.

The activity sheet

In addition to the puppet activity there were suggestions for other things the children could do – including some recipes which appealed hugely to the eldest child who spent time dutifully following each step of the process – demonstrating his reading and maths skills in the process!

When I spoke with Barbara this morning (to ask her permission to share this story) she told me that news of this had spread such that the number of families requesting the bags doubled for the second delivery – and as she spoke, she and her ‘bubble-mates’ were preparing more that 60 bags for the next delivery.

The activity at home isn’t all in isolation either. In my grandson’s te puawaitanga o te kakanō class normally each day begins and finishes with a karakia – a simple ritual that settles the students and focuses them on the things they are to do or have done together. The teachers of these classes have continued this for those able to access the web, using Facebooklive to share a simple karakia with the children each day, capturing the importance of this cultural practice in the current circumstances and demonstrating that the physical separation of the ‘class’ needn’t be an excuse for not continuing with it.

Of course, these aren’t the only things being done by the school to support their learners and their whānau. The school’s Facebook page has become extremely active. Current principal Dave is having fun with a green screen at home, creating daily communications with his students which are being viewed and enjoyed by students and parents alike.

Concerned that many of the families may be finding it difficult to provide some of the things they’d expect to have on hand (such as paper, sellotape, gluesticks etc.) the school also circulated a note to all parents letting them know that if they wished to place an order for these things with the school then they’d place a single order with their local stationery supplier who had recently been designated an ‘essential service‘. Mindful of the financial burden any extra costs might present for their families, the school suggested parents pay what they could – including the possibility of paying a little extra over and above the cost of their order which could be used to assist with purchases for families without the means to pay. The uptake of this simple act has been very positive, with the ‘kitty’ currently a little above actual cost of the first order.

Another local couple who are supporters of the school have started to prepare ‘baking bags’ – bags of supplies for baking, including flour, sugar, baking powder, milk etc. as she is very aware of the number of the families of the school who are ‘stretched’ to provide what they need during this time, particularly for those whose income has diminished or stopped due to businesses closing down. This week they delivered over 30 such bags to families.

In the same community the local chemist has begun a ‘pay it forward’ scheme where some of his customers can choose to pay a little extra for their prescriptions to help cover the cost of prescriptions for others after he saw an increase in the number of people coming to pick up vital prescription medicines but who were unable to pay for the simple prescription fee at this time.

As I reflect on the way this school and its community have responded to the COVID-19 lockdown – and mindful too that this is but one story that is repeated in different ways in communities across NZ – what are the lessons to learn as we consider ‘life after the lockdown’? Here are just some thoughts..

  • In times of crisis our true values are revealed. Most schools will have collaborated with their communities to identify a set of values that reflect what is unique or important for that community. These values may reflect things specific to learning or may be wider and reflect attitudes and behaviours that are the desired ‘ways of being’ in that school and its community. For the staff and community of Koraunui School their values (illustrated above) are most certainly reflected in the decisions and actions they are taking in response to the lockdown.
  • It takes a village… – the simple truth of this ancient African proverb becomes evident in times of crisis also. Everyone is in this together, and everyone is responsible for taking the actions they can to move through this. Whether in a position of school leadership, a teacher, parent, BoT member, local community member – it is the collective that matters here. The solutions required don’t rest with any one group in particular, and won’t be revealed in a ‘big bang’ or ‘one size fits all’ approach – it will be a weave of the contributions of many to ensure that no-one is left out or un-cared for.
  • Learning doesn’t just happen at school or from a text book. For our kids, learning is a perpetual state of being that extends beyond the 9-3 timeframe of ‘school’. Fostering and responding to their inquisitive nature, holding conversations, helping them solve problems, being on hand to offer advice or model behaviours – these are all important ways in which learning is supported in school, at home and in the community. The lockdown period provides a valuable opportunity to re-discover the power of conversation, of questioning and of listening. It creates opportunities for the story tellers, the crafts people, the thinkers and the do-ers to connect with each other and understand that this is all ‘learning’. Assignments, tasks, worksheets – these are merely a stimulus for the sorts of activities where learning takes place.
  • Leadership is critical. Leadership that empowers others, is responsive to the situation and is motivated by a bigger picture of what is happening is key. And we need to understand that that leadership will be found at many levels. It is interesting for me that I write this post on the same day our Minister of Education has announced a ‘home package‘ that includes internet connectivity for those without, online programmes and resources alongside print packages of materials and a broadcast educational TV programme. All of these things provide a welcome contribution to the response we must make – but they will only be as useful as the context into which they are introduced, and no amount of leadership from central government will result in the sort of local level support and guidance that can be provided by the leadership in local schools and communities. It’s all a part of the fractal at work – the notion of constantly repeating patters at every level in which we all play our respective parts.

So I applaud the community of Koraunui School – and of the many hundreds of other schools across the country, for the innovative approaches they are taking to demonstrate their values in practice, to care for their learners and their families/whānau, and for their unflinching commitment to what drives them as educators.

I’d love to hear more stories of responses made in other communities, feel free to share them in the comments below as a way of encouraging others.

3 thoughts on “Learning Remotely

  1. If there was ever a time where education was shaken to its core, it is this time in history but it is happening across the globe. My inbox is full of reflections, commentaries, leadership advice, models of online learning, debates or distinctions between online/distant and remote learning. Wellbeing advise for teenagers and adults. And experts commenting what they world will be like post-COVID 19. Living through the Christchurch experience, as a city we did some amazing things in terms of education., but we fall quickly back to the norm, in one sense the people craved for it. This time things or the outcome maybe different. I do think for a secondary educationalist perspective, we need to do some thinking about the culture – rites and rituals, symbols of schools and how this develops the social, emotional and intellectual development of teenagers. Secondary schools at there very best can and do have a considerable impact of teenagers development but some of our secondary school are the worst places, they do more harm than good.
    Simon Sinek talks about existential flex, we may have to develop one in the education sector.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts here Paul – couldn’t agree more. Your comment about the culture, rites, rituals etc is particularly pertinent for secondary schools as we’ve allowed such a strong culture to prevail without being prepared to deeply challenge it in the ways Sinek challenges us to do.

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