When the national lockdown was announced we realised that across the country busy parents would be trying to carry on their lives and careers online with their children cooped up indoors all day, every day. We saw the opportunity to support these families and at the same time to give children a taste of Green School by launching an online school.
In the preceding weeks we had met with a number of teachers who are excited to move out of traditional education and join Green School. The sort of educators who are able to think creatively, teach in a style that encourages children to see the interconnectedness of things and ensure that there is plenty of fun and laughter into the classroom. We connected with the Green School international team in Bali to provide professional development for our teaching team. We workshopped topics such as ‘what does an outstanding Green School lesson look like?’, brainstormed ideas and planned collaboratively.
We believe that life isn’t only a journey, it should be an adventure. Building on the adventure theme, we called our school the Explorer’s Club. But what to call the teachers? ‘Sir’ or ‘Juffrou’ was far too formal, so we decided on ‘captain’.
We researched a number of online learning platforms and decided that video conferencing spaces like Zoom allow for the most realistic classroom ‘feel’ with live discussions that the whole class can join into. We decided to offer classes in three age groups, each for two one-hour sessions a morning. Seven lessons a day, 5 days a week.
Our social media team sprang into action and the logistics were, like so many things, more complex than we first imagined. One of the many links in the chain was creating a mechanism for parents and children to sign up for the classes. This required a separate IT platform with its own parameters.
The response was extraordinary and within a day or two had attracted enough interest to make Explorer’s Club viable. Within ten days we had launched the programme. On day one there were a few login and teething issues, but children are quick with technology and soon got the hang of it.
The children enjoyed making new friends and connecting with peers, sharing childish jokes and laughing together. For those who love social contact this was a breath of fresh air. It also made the children feel important. Mums and dads have their business calls and now they had an important meeting of their own to attend, work to do and follow-up assignments. The older children enjoyed starting school at 9.00 am in the morning and not having to get up early.
The activities allowed for many cross-curricular links. Building obstacles courses or marble runs incorporated physics (gravity and levers), design, mathematics and collaboration. Seemingly simple activities called for some serious creative thinking and problem-solving. I enjoyed watching the delight of a group of children as they learnt to make and crack codes.
I, too, had a chance to get into the hot seat and present a class, which was lots of fun, although I was initially apprehensive about my untested abilities as an online teacher. It was a creative writing class called ‘Portable Magic’ and, in a workshop format, we explored different genres of writing. Students shared some inspiring work and gave feedback on what they enjoyed and the next steps. I was a little unsure about how presenting the course in both English and Afrikaans would go, but children are wonderful and we communicated just fine (I did enlist the help of an Afrikaans a colleague who is a published author to help with the finer nuances of the language).
Reflecting on the week, one of our teachers said, ‘It was a challenging task putting together lessons that catered for kids in the age bracket of Gr R to 2, as their skills at such different levels – by man, oh man, was it worth it! I prefer being in a class, but it surprised me how quick we can get to know one another, and a bond can be built between complete strangers because of a shared love for learning. Never did I think I would teach children remotely from the Winelands, Boland, Cape Town, Johannesburg and even London, all in one time slot.’
There were some lighthearted moments. Some parents forgot that the video camera was on and walked around the house in their nightwear, whilst others did loud woodworking projects close by which sounded like the house was being demolished. Managing behaviour was different: how do you get children to pay attention? Waking a sleepy class up first thing in the morning online with some stretches just does not work: the children look at you like you’re a news presenter. And how do you get to talk when someone else is talking? Those awkward gaps and muted snippets of conversation?
Our daily teachers’ meeting was laughter-filled as everyone shared the highlights and funny moments of their lessons. A sense of team began to develop.
It hasn’t been plain sailing. We missed person to person contact, both in the classroom and in the playground. Online learning meets a need, but screentime lacks warmth, it has a sense of quarantine, and that there is no substitute for face to face contact. There’s no opportunity to sit next to a friend at breaktime or to kick a soccer ball around.
It has been a fascinating experience and adventure, one in which we have explored what the future of education could look like. Thank you to the teachers and backstage crew of administrators who made it all possible and to our brave children and parents who joined us on the journey. Green School South Africa has started.