It is happening in many places like Europe, the Middle East, China and North America. At all levels: primary, high school and universities, both public and private, students are confronted with the reality of learning from home. Families, teachers and students, faced with school closings and fears of the Covid-19 virus, have taken to the internet as a safe place to learn and stay connected.
For over a decade, distance learning has been on the rise. The internet and other technological advancements have improved access to education for millions of students who, for many reasons, did not attend ‘brick and mortar’ institutions. Physical disabilities, financial limitations and personal learning preferences are just a few reasons why some students enroll in online learning programmes.
What was once a choice for some students has become a new normal. At NKCS, we are currently in our sixth week of online learning. Teachers assign work and provide verbal, audio, written and video feedback to students. Tasks can be assigned to be completed online, offline, pre-recorded and live. The goal is to keep engaged and keep learning.
The tasks themselves can be a learning experience. Challenges are endless. There are time zones to contend with, microphones, PDFs, compressed videos, Wi-Fi disconnects, loss of power, inaccessible files, malfunctioning devices, mobile versions, laptops, touchpads, poor audio, no audio, downloads, (waiting for) downloads, (still waiting) downloads and email. These are just a few things that can go wrong or right and then wrong again.
Developing vital leadership skills
When we persevere, however, we learn important skills about time management, patience, problem-solving and responsibility. Another vital trait we can acquire and develop in frustrating times is leadership. A skill that can take us beyond the moment and transport us far into our future success.
I have three notable leaders in my Grade 7 English class that have taken the ‘lemons’ we have been given and made the best-tasting lemonade you can imagine. Angie Huang, Constance Hu and Sarah Zhu were not deterred by the virus but were determined to move forward with their plans for a book club, which they named READ (which stands for Readers Enjoy Authors’ Dreams). Originally planned and organised for English class time, these young ladies found a path online to keep their dreams alive, too.
Angie, Constance and Sarah approached this initiative with a generous spirit of teamwork and friendship from the very beginning.
Sarah reflected on the origins of the book club: “We started this club because we want to dive down deeper into the words, improve language skills, improve comprehension and, last but not least, have FUN! I enjoy being part of this club, we can discuss, play games, and learn more about each other and about the books.”
As their teacher, I had several conversations with Angie, Constance and Sarah about their goals for the club. I specifically wanted to know how I could support them with guidance and resources. However, they assured me that they had everything under control. They were working collaboratively, dividing up elements of the task, and having countless discussions together to work out the details. They laid out their process for me; all along the journey, they checked in to advise me of their progress and decisions. My confidence in them was confirmed by each step they took. They would begin at the start of semester two.
Angie shared her thinking about the club: “You asked me what made us want to start a book club. I, myself, needed much improvement for my English. For me, plain reading and doing worksheets was just too boring. I wanted to do something different.
“This book club made me think: ‘Why do worksheets when you have a much better choice?’ READ is making me more motivated in English. Our goal is to make sense of things and to go deeper into texts. Personally, I truly think that this club is making reading and analysing texts easier. As the old saying goes, ‘practice makes perfect’. We’re on our way of the long journey.”
Moving forward despite challenges
The news that erupted over Chinese New Year about the coronavirus took hold of a country and the world. Soon after, we were all introduced to the ‘elephant in the room’ – the school would have to delay its opening to accommodate the health measures being taken throughout the Wuxi province and country.
Discussions of online learning and our school’s use of Microsoft Teams as a platform for student-engagement were formalised. One week into online learning and most of us (teachers, students and families) were just trying to get comfortable and figure out the technical aspects of distance learning.
Knowing all this, I was shocked to get a message from Angie that she and her team were ready to go live with their READ book club. Angie humbly expressed their plan to move forward with their club. They had a list of Grade 7 participants, a PDF of a book and a schedule all set to go. I was so touched by their courage in the face of the challenges we’d encountered; I thought it best for me to stand aside and let these fearless leaders find their way.
Last week we participated in an online The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas escape room. The week before was a game to celebrate the end of our reading of The Giver by Louis Lowry. Previous live sessions have included book discussions with guided questions, genre information and exchanges about our favourite parts of the novel. The work and planning that goes into each of these live sessions in immense.
Constance explains: “Leading our book club, READ, is sometimes not the easiest of jobs. Sometimes we don’t feel like it is a good idea or we have arguments over what we should do to help improve our skills. Sometimes we feel like giving up, but the one thing that makes us carry on is all the people who participate in the book club and have put their effort in and their trust in us.
“I enjoy reading and being able to share with everybody our ideas and have discussions on the books. It gives us a time when we can talk freely about a topic that everybody is on and enjoying. It gives me a reason to keep going and not to quit!”
There have been contributions from many members of the Grade 7 class. They joined the READ book club and have continued a faithful following throughout the last six weeks and counting:
Mindy Zhang wrote: “I think book club is great, it helps me with my English and understand more vocabulary.”
Selene Li explained: “I think the book club is pretty good. It can help me with my reading.”
Andy Baek shared: “I enjoy book club a lot because it can improve my speaking and reading skills. Most importantly, it can help me to be braver.”
Andy Park stated: “I liked that we can use fun activities, such as the escape room, to understand the deeper the story that we are reading. Additionally, I liked that everyone is trying their best, and I feel thankful to the book club organisers for how much effort they put into the club.”
There is an expression that we should focus on what we have control over and not the things we don’t. Angie, Constance and Sarah have shown us that nothing can stop the learning process if we stay committed and keep reading.