Resilience, the ability of an individual to bounce back through difficult times, is often achieved through participation in larger systems of work and community. The verb “resile” means to abandon a position or course of action, to recoil, retract and rebound. Covid-19 has tested our ability to bend, shift and adapt. However, if people link together, accept the current disturbance and collectively resile, they can achieve positive change. Collective resilience not only allows us to bounce back but also to learn, grow and become a better people, better institutions and a better community.
In the spring of 2020, the structures and systems of schools were forced to change in record time. Like many Jewish day schools during this large-scale challenge, Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit kept its mission and core values at the forefront, bringing the community together. We learned that an educational community proves strongest when it links together, person by person, forming a bond that provides the foundation for a successful school year. The attached links, at times, can bend, flex and resile; they can even detach through a crisis. Yet through problem-solving and collaboration, the links can reattach, sometimes in a stronger form. This collective resilience, the capacity for community-wide perseverance through challenges and change, can enable schools to adapt by attending to the whole child, their academic, social, emotional and spiritual needs.
The instructional approach to academics changed rapidly once schools went remote. Educators were quickly forced to think out of the box, learn new skills, modify lessons and constantly adapt routines and expectations. The virtual academic transformation proved to be hard. Technology became necessary and critical for learning, making problem-solving pertinent.
Since teaching remotely would not be a replica of an in-person school day, teachers and curriculum coordinators needed to work together to carefully choose the most critical benchmarks for learning. They had to learn to capture students’ attention differently through a screen, keeping them actively engaged. This challenge was not easy to overcome due to inconsistent Internet connection, shortened class time and limited remote learning training.
Mindsets had to shift. Specialty teachers needed to create outlets and opportunities for movement, making, building and problem-solving. Seesaw, Google Suite and Screencastify became the main platforms of communication. Former live programming transformed into virtual products, using platforms such as Flipgrid and Wix.com. Flipgrid, a user-friendly online teaching tool, empowers students to use their voice by posting videos and receiving comments from many members of the school community. Third graders, who researched inspirational individuals before remote learning, hoping to present a Wax Museum for families and peers, instead, dressed up at home, recorded themselves and posted their presentation on Flipgrid. The students received direct and immediate feedback from their viewers, an audience that became much wider than the prior in-person event.
Using Wix.com, a free website builder, fourth graders re-created their Michigan Night: Discover Michigan, into an interactive, interdisciplinary website using tech tools such a Bookcreator, Google Suite and Scratch. Success came from the collective dedication, creativity and resilience of each community member: classroom teachers, specialists, learning specialists, administration, parents/ guardians and the students.
Teachers also discovered that much of what they learned to use in a virtual model would be effective in any context. Teachers learned to ask what were the most essential skills that their students needed to learn. How can technology enhance learning? What does school teach us about being human? How has remote learning changed me for the better? When all members of the community ask these questions, whether remotely or in-person, academic learning becomes more meaningful, and collective resilience is built.
The adaptation of academics is one layer of providing a successful learning experience for students during challenging times. Another layer that needs to be intact for ultimate success is the social and emotional well-being of students. Students require comfort and security. They need to learn and practice skills such as self-regulation, self-awareness, perseverance, empathyand responsible decision-making. For this to happen, student-teacher relationships are paramount; they are the foundation for student confidence and help students develop the resilience to cope with challenges and emotions.
With a screen separating physical connection, schools and teachers had to get creative. Finding opportunities to feel linked became critical. Routines such as morning announcements every day, morning and afternoon meetings over Google Meet and Zoom, and mentsch winners at the end of the week provided familiarity and connection. However, what made a true difference were the staff’s efforts to go above and beyond expectations: countless hours giving specific feedback on assignments, guiding students through the difficulties of learning at home, personal FaceTime calls to students, drive-bys for student birthdays and physically distanced, outdoor visits to homes. We even had an ice cream truck visit every student’s home during the last week of school. These acts of kindness and efforts by our school made the links stronger than ever.
Also, social workers and learning specialists provided one-on-one time with students in need, created wellness videos and activities, and constantly touched base with students and families who needed social and emotional support. Mr. Leibow’s Lounge, created by our elementary school social worker, Harrison Leibow, provided kid-friendly messages, goals and activities to students about respect, inclusion, perseverance and courage. Throughout remote learning, students learned to adapt, they gained problem-solving skills, and they learned the importance of saying “thank you” to essential workers and “get well soon” to those who are sick, making relationships expand throughout the community. Through the valiant efforts of our teachers and school, our community learned the power of relationships and the importance of social and emotional life skills, resilience among them.
One of the beautiful aspects of a Jewish day school is the ability to connect to the spiritual side of students. In-person, there is a feeling within the building that exudes Judaism and our core values, as well as visuals around the school to remind the community that we are a united people. Without the physical holy space of our building, we needed to frame kedushah in a way that engaged community members daily and intersected their lives with frequency.
As we moved out of our home base into remote learning, we shifted our Jewish experience from our holy space into holy time. Our spiritual week began with virtual Havdalah, moved to an evening story time and Shema, and concluded with a virtual candle lighting on Shabbat. Each of these events honored different community constituents: faculty, eighth- grade graduates, local clergy, essential workers and a beloved staff member we lost to Covid-19. Additionally, each Jewish holiday, ranging from Pesach to the Yoms to Shavuot, offered unique moments of celebration and strengthened each child’s integrated experience of their family traditions and school learning. As a collective community, these days tightened our bond, which was growing and finding rejuvenation across new conditions.