As teachers face the possibility of beginning a new school year in virtual classrooms and once again dealing with the challenges of distance learning, nearly 100 teachers from Jewish schools in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Florida and Arizona gathered for a two-week online summit last month. Teachers and administrators from the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County, in West Hempstead, were among the educators who discussed the critical issues impacting their students following a disruptive spring semester.
“It’s important to have a community of learners, and the summit’s main goal was to be able to exchange ideas in a safe and collaborative environment,” said Barbara Deutsch, HANC’s associate principal.
The virtual summit was hosted by Hidden Sparks, a nonprofit dedicated to training teachers and providing them with the tools to support struggling students in mainstream Jewish schools. Participants heard from mainstream and special-education specialists as well as Hidden Sparks coaches on how to make virtual classrooms as engaging as possible for all students when they return this fall.
“They put together so many amazing resources in such a very short time,” Deutsch said.
As an administrator, Deutsch said, she was tasked with finding the quickest and most effective ways to keep students engaged during the lockdown. Many of the teachers at HANC, she said, had to learn how to use programs such as Zoom in a matter of days.
“You had to suddenly rethink everything that you do, which was challenging, to say the least,” said Eve Baruch, a Hebrew language and resource room teacher at HANC. “You couldn’t even catch your breath, but we learned as we went along.”
Baruch, who teaches grades three through five, said the summit offered ways to help children share their thoughts and feelings on what they have experienced during the pandemic. Workshops focused on the best ways to foster social and emotional learning connections with students, even when teachers and students aren’t together in a classroom.
“One of the most important lessons emerging from this pandemic is the critical importance of classrooms that are socially and emotionally attuned,” Hidden Sparks Executive Director Debbie Niderberg said in a news release. “Though our teachers did a fantastic job pivoting in the spring, students have experienced loss, anxiety and disorientation, and teachers will have to be equipped first and foremost with how to welcome students back in the fall — either onsite or remote — and how to support them.”
One of the activities from the summit that Baruch plans to implement in September is the heart map, in which students draw a heart and divide it into different sections — for people they care about, their thoughts during the pandemic and their hopes for a post-pandemic world. “I thought was very profound,” she said. “Creating something like that would certainly give teachers a glimpse into each child’s world, but it’s also a springboard for discussion.”
HANC general studies teacher Nancy Greenberg said that like many of the educators who took part in the summit, she felt like a student. Greenberg, like other teachers, said that while the idea of socio-emotional development is not new, it will become more pertinent due to the pandemic’s effects on students.
“Their lives have been disrupted, and they don’t have their normal routines because of the pandemic,” she said. “They’re coming to school with a myriad of emotions. With social distancing guidelines in place, school’s definitely going to look different than ever before.”
One of the programs introduced at the summit that stood out to Greenberg was the metaphorical idea of windows and mirrors used during reading activities. With windows, students can view another person’s identity and experience through characters in a story, Greenberg explained, and use mirrors to relate to characters’ experiences.
“We were given so many methods that can build that sense of relationship and community,” Greenberg said, “but they encouraged us to just try one thing at a time. This program shifted my mindset to give me the confidence that I can do this no matter what school looks like.”
Baruch noted that regardless of how students and teachers return to school, the students coming back in September will be completely different from those they last saw in March. She said that the Hidden Sparks summit equipped her with all the necessary tools to handle her new students.
“Every child in some way has experienced a very difficult time,” Baruch said. “Whether it’s through art or through writing, we have to take time to have our students share what they went through. We have to find ways to help them to open up [so] that we can move forward as a whole.”