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Connecting during COVID-19: Jackman Lab School keeps their students on the learning curve

May 6, 2020

By Perry King


Marcia Bumbury remembers the first Zoom chat she had with her students.

Bumbury, who teaches kindergarten at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study Lab School, saw an immediate technical challenge as she transitioned her curriculum online.

“It was just that technical piece, giving time to everybody, just talking with each other, and then knowing that I can mute them all so they just hear my voice,” said Bumbury, a teacher from the Toronto District School Board who is on secondment at the lab school.

Bumbury’s class is not an unusual sight. The coronavirus pandemic has forced many faculties and divisions at the University of Toronto to change their workflow, curriculum and interactions. Teachers at the Jackman lab school have done the same, and have done so smoothly but shifting online came with a unique set of problems.

Establishing a proper routine – giving children chances to share and opportunities for interaction – and keeping the children’s attention spans were crucial components to Bumbury’s online transition.

But, that was the inherent challenge, she says. Teaching kindergarten online goes against the pedagogy of kindergarten.

“Kindergarten is hands-on, a partnership between student and teacher where instant feedback leads to wonder and creativity. It has made me realize how much I enjoy being in the classroom with my students even more!,” said Bumbury, who has been teaching for over 20 years.

The lab school, which functions as an independent school, takes a “social constructivist” approach. Richard Messina, the lab school's principal, says they’re an institution that believes that children are not “empty vessels” that should be filled with information, but rather, they are robust “meaning makers” and naturally inquisitive scientists.

“Our job is to create authentic learning problems and experiences where the children are creating knowledge that is of value to their knowledge building community,” he said.

At the JICS lab school, research and experience informs how they teach and the teachers understand that children learn best when they are working collaboratively. When students are separated from one another, whether that be at individual desks or separated by a pandemic, the learning will be different.

And while lab school teachers don’t believe in online learning as a replacement for the kind of learning they implement, teachers like Bumbury are exploring and learning how to best use technology to continue the momentum and love of deep learning that occurs at JICS each day.

Lab school educators moved quickly. Collaborating early on, they used Microsoft Teams, Zoom and other platforms to design their curricula. The lab school loaned technology devices to families who needed them to connect.

Many teachers used the extended March Break to prepare for their students. “Every teacher said that first week was the hardest they had worked in their career,” said Messina, “that it was beyond feeling like a first-year teacher because they were on-the-spot learning the technology while providing the distance-education.”

Maintaining connection

Above all, maintaining a feeling of connection is the school’s number one priority.

“Some of the advice I gave the teachers was not to try to replicate a full day online,” said Messina. “We are also very aware of the research about the dangers and harms of too much screentime. We’re not simply saying ‘Go to this website, to that website,’ – we don’t want to simply be using programs that are created.   

“It’s trying very much to create a live community, but with the realities of distance education.”

For Bumbury, that includes providing videos to her students (she records a morning message), performing live readings and giving math and literacy lessons – mostly through Zoom.

“We have connected as a whole class through Zoom meetings and this has been a highlight for me and my students,” says Bumbury, herself a mother of three. “They get to see each other and talk to each other as well. Families are sending me videos and pictures of the learning and memories that are taking place in their homes – this brings me such joy and a sense of we are still connected.”

She has been able to adjust to the changing circumstances – while also managing a work-life balance.

“I have been able to adjust to the changing circumstances by remembering the important work I do, which is to build community among my students, their families, myself and the wider school community,” she says.

“We are in a time where children need to feel connected with their teachers and friends. I went into my classroom to get all my materials that would help me through teaching from home. The most important are my picture books!”

It has been a very interesting journey for the JICS faculty.  Their understanding of research in child development and child security and their expertise in inquiry-based learning have been the foundation in the distance-education choices each JICS teacher has prepared.  Individual JICS teachers have been surveying families to check progress and identify areas of improvement.  Rather than a one-size-fits-all transmission-based approach, the lab school teachers have customized learning experiences for each cohort, adhering to the school’s 94-year philosophy, employing research findings, being sensitive to the unique developmental needs of the children, and aware of the logistical needs of parents and to families with multiple children. 

Robertson Program also adjusting to the pandemic

The Robertson Program for Inquiry-Based Teaching in Mathematics and Science, which works closely with the JICS lab school, has also had to adjust rapidly in response to the pandemic – working to support parents and children with their learning at home.

In collaboration with Carol Stephenson, a lab school teacher, the program has been using their social media accounts to share math and science challenges children can do at home. “We are being particularly mindful of children and parent’s well-being and choosing activities we hope will inspire excitement and joy,” said Larisa Lam, the Robertson program’s director.

The program is also piloting an interactive online program where an educator engages in real-time with small groups of children to play math games. “We understand that parents are now challenged with teaching their children while also working from home. We are hoping this interactive program will help parents by alleviating some of the teaching pressure while also engaging students in fun math learning.

“Our main goal is to reach underserved families and children, and we will be piloting this program in remote Northern communities.”

The Robertson program has partnerships with Indigenous schools in Northern Ontario. When this pandemic hit, their partners quickly put amazing initiatives in place to support their children and families. “However, in considering the implementation of our online math game program, access to devices and reliable, stable internet was at the forefront of barriers to accessing quality education during this pandemic,” said Lam.

But, the program is fortunate to have a committed, adaptable and positive team. They are working to brainstorm and work on new ways of shifting their projects – to thoughtfully support educators and children.

“Thankfully, everyone is safe and healthy because in the end, that’s all that really matters,” said Lam.

How to adjust to an e-learning environment

Principal Messina has some tips for teachers who are transitioning to an e-learning environment:

1. Take on the perspective of the child. Try to create the normal out of the unusual – make children feel connected and provide a platform where they are ready to learn. Live interactions with teachers through Zoom are an effective way to create connectivity.

2. Create a structure of predictability. Design sessions that give children and parents a sense of what to expect. Providing clear guidelines with multiple entry points and a suggested length of time would help alleviate some pressure from parents.

3. Re-assure parents. Effort should be made to send parents the message that their mental health and the mental health of their family is their number one priority. No one should feel regret that they have not been able to accomplish all the activities. Parents need to monitor their child’s wellbeing and curate the expectations to meet their family’s unique situation.

4. Be empathetic. Constant communication with parents, especially over the phone, is very important for managing for what is a stressful time for everyone. “This is going to end at some point and my hope is that we develop into kinder, stronger, more resilient communities,” said Messina.

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