It's 9:30 am. Ema Costa, a Junior Seconday School student, is sitting facing her computer about to embark on her daily virtual classroom lesson. Google Classroom had previously notified her of the subject task to be completed, its due date and now - with the completed assignment submitted on the platform - she eagerly awaits the opportunity to participate in a short Zoom webcast lesson where she can ask questions and review her work with her peers and teacher.
In the last two weeks, this has been the reality our students at the International School of Vilamoura (CIV) have been faced with during this period of social isolation caused by the new coronavirus (Covid-19). “It is an invisible enemy that has put countries on alert, changing profoundly the routines we once knew and were used to”, said Cidália Ferreira Bicho, the Pedagogical Director of CIV. “In this context, which is still unclearly defined”, she added, “we were all invited as educational professionals to reinvent ourselves! And so, without any prewarning notice, we saw our homes transformed into a classroom!”
Amongst all concerned, the demands we face have multiplied. From homework tasks, virtual lessons through videoconferencing, chat sessions to the sharing of recorded video lessons, as well as conversation groups in WhatsApp - all with the purpose to clarify, inform, recall or used to simply vent out our frustrations. Parents/guardians, teachers and students continue to strive to maintain normality at a time when everyone is still in the process of trying to adjust to this new reality. “Time management has been challenging, but our perseverance and dedicated flexibility has allowed us to hold online subject staff meetings, prepare teaching lessons, guide students, communicate with parents and simultaneously reconcile all of this with (endless) domestic chores and personal family commitments”, explains Cidália Ferreira Bicho.
And so, this new daily routine continues. Through the use of technological tools, as well as adopting new methodologies adjusted to the various key stages of education, teachers strive to strengthen ties and establish new bridges of communication. We could all point out to the lack of human contact as a less positive aspect of our job, however on a positive note it was emphasized that “this is an opportunity to create something new”. In the midst of growing fatigue, it is noted by Anabela Chaves (5º-7º ano Portuguese teacher) that “one has gained new skills with the use of these great online tools that would have been less explored in our previous daily teaching lives”. She added that she has already introduced new grammatical topics with the aid of these new tools and that students have managed to surprise her. She declared that, “fifteen days have passed, and it was all so much. However, students continue to want to share their experiences, to share their work step-by-step ... the sharing aspect has not been all together lost. And, the most colossal challenge we face is to find strategies so that they feel more connected, as they´re physical distant, and that they will feel the need to continue to complete the required tasks”, she added. The teacher also believes that “the student-teacher online contact time extends further in other aspects of their students´ lives as one enters into their personal domain. They want to show me their rooms, homes, work, dog ...”
This sharing of their homelives is revealed to teachers by parents, who share these facets via emails and recorded videos which they´ve created while keeping up with their children´s school progress - and why not say, they reveal their affective side?- of their children. Luz Gago, the Kindergarten Coordinator and Preschool teacher, praises this growing proximity and sharing of these moments at a time when “the parents are to be congratulated, because of their doubled-up efforts.”
Helena Neto, Primary Coordinator and 3º ano teacher, also highlights how the continued feedback she has received from families is transforming the life of a teacher. She adds that, “the support we have received from parents has been phenomenal”. This is further reiterated by the Year 2 Primary School teacher, Michelle Carrapato, who stated that “this support has been fundamental in helping to guide our students”. She also reported back that, “we are happy to know that the children miss school. At times, in the messages they write to me, they express their concern and even use affectionate expressions like: 'take care dear teacher, don't leave your home, protect yourself'.”
For Cidália Ferreira Bicho “it was difficult to express in words the comradery, mutual support and teamwork spirit, visible in many gestures that arose spontaneously amongst us all. Simultaneously, many parents thanked and praised the work of the various teams. In the meantime, students sent messages expressing their appreciation for their teachers, as well as their longing to be back at school, seeing friends and participating in lessons while others even went as far as putting on their uniforms at home to carry out the educational activities!”
What is the current distance learning dynamic like?
In kindergarten, “on Mondays, teachers from various academic fields send challenges by email and by Thursday or Friday they receive feedback. With the Zoom meeting session, we launch a theme and then listen to the children. It was an explosion of joy when they suddenly saw each other together for the first time”, explained Luz Gago.
“My year groups have participated in an orderly fashion and in Zoom webcast classes they even put their fingers in the air to speak, as if we were in the classroom”, adds the teacher Anabela Chaves. With her Lesson Plan Objectives in Google Classroom notifications, she attaches the resources and tasks with deadlines (due in mid-afternoon) and then sends the corrections at the end of the school day.
On the other hand, in the “Secondary Education, we opted for a work methodology that gives the student more autonomy in the management of their time and study sessions. Handing in of work during the week is more flexible, however they are expected to be handed in on a weekly basis. Their queries are put forth in the chat forum on the Google Classroom platform, but for most part they are recorded or communicated by email. Mobile notifications allow you to answer questions immediately,” says Celina Lourenço, the Portuguese Secondary School teacher. The system was generally accepted in a very organic way, "because this platform was already in use in other subjects such as Mathematics and Economics in Secondary Education", says the teacher.
What about the students? How are they adapting?
If, for some, this is a relatively easy method of work to get accustomed to, for others, it generates demotivation and isolation. Missing school - and especially friends - is commonly felt by students across the school. “At home we can interact with school mates, but it is strange. It seems that we are alone despite being together”, says Catarina Cavaco, an 8º ano student. Solitude leads her, however she has discovered that “there is more help available to support the schoolwork, it seems that there is a network of support available.” And yes, “despite the distance, we talk to each other a lot. We miss you all, however we have been able to keep in touch”, adds Teresa Ferré, a 6º ano student. She strives to see things on the positive side: “I miss my family, my friends, but I spend more time in the garden, with my two dogs and my four cats. Despite the lack of freedom - we feel trapped at home - I know that I am very lucky, as I live in the countryside.”
“In the beginning, it was difficult”, confessed Laura Lopes (Year 10 student), “but now I can organize myself better between video calls and school tasks. The fact that we do not have a tutor teacher leads me to a greater degree of distraction, but I believe that this period will allow us to learn how to organize our time better”, says the student.
There are students who say that they have managed to adapt to this new methodology of schooling, others assume that they have not yet found the right study pace in this new phase of their virtual learning journey. In addition to the difficulty in attending the first class of the day, some obstacles persist in being able to deliver the work within the stipulated deadlines. Both Catarina Cavaco and Laura Lopes (Year 10) prefer recorded lesson sessions, adopted by the ICT and Mathematics teachers. Maria Papa (a Year 12 student in the Science field of study) finds more comfort in her work, aware that online classes can be boycotted by the slow access to the internet. Catarina is also of this opinion: “At school, when we have a question, the answer is more immediate in delivery. At home, the Internet is unreliable or unpredictable and sometimes the answer to our question is very slow to arrive.” And then, says Maria, “in terms of work, PDF’s are always there to support us, at this point it’s not possible to do more.”
This student is particularly concerned about this stage of her school life, which is fundamental in preparation for her future in being able to get into university for further study. “I can't imagine this situation going on for much longer. Despite knowing that I have already managed to create a routine in relation to school, it feels like I am floating. As I don't know what the future holds, I do not have the motivation to study for exams.” Her mother, Carla Papa, worries about her daughter's anxiety, but understands the situation. Celina Lourenço, Maria's Portuguese teacher, says that “the preparation of work, for the final exams at this academic level, is very difficult - and that cannot change – only the channels are different!”
Motivation – The keyword of success for all
Motivation is the keyword of success for everyone concerned: students, teachers and parents/guardians. For professionals who have managed to keep their (tele) work, there are a number of added tasks. Flexibility and the accumulation of roles, respecting under the same roof, and the schedules of the various elements that make up the household constitute a challenge for everyone. And everything is important: family and affections; healthy eating and hygiene routines; physical exercise; balance between work and school.
And parents vent. Especially those with adolescents, screen time activities have escalated, leading parents to the question themselves: `should we limit the only possible contact with their friends in a period like this? ´. “It is not easy”, says Paula Gonçalves, who has a daughter in the 8º ano. The secret lies in common sense, but also in maintaining routines.
“We have to realize that the school system is set up for face-to-face contact and that only this creates a feeling of great disruption. This physical distance is what causes the greatest emotional strain on all of us,” says Sandra Botto, mother of a young lady studying in 6º ano.
It is, therefore, essential to support our children´s learning. Susana Beja, with a son in Preschool (5 years of age) says that “Guilherme is attentive and shows interest in doing the proposed school activities, and in seeing the completed work that friends and mothers share in the group.” In a situation in which “there is no rush and the family can enjoy more of their time together”, she is pleased to see “the strong emotional importance that the school has” in her son´s life.
Cecília Cantore (mother of a young son in Year 2 and a daughter in the Reception Class) admits that "they are happy and enjoying school at home, especially the daily presence of their father and mother." She says, "as adults, we have many more tiring days, and then there are those that are a bit livelier. Obviously, we cannot count on the support of the teacher, the nursemaid - and in any case nobody dies from having to get everything done that needs doing - but we have to organize our home family time. And the days fly past swiftly, the fly past …”, she said smiling.
Parents are equipped with all possible resources, but when extra help is needed, it is necessary to ask for it. “Lucas is used to, when he talks to dad, to answer in French and, when he talks to mom, to answer in Spanish. Being 'forced' to keep conversations in English and to practice discipline has proven to be complicated”, she says. “The fact that I am a teacher helps me a lot to adapt to my new role, at this moment in time, with my children”, she added. “It didn't scare me. And this role is necessary, so that they do not lose the most important in person tutor support - the human connection.”
Cecília also perceives her fear that “some parents find themselves in the situation where they´re not able to work and are at home - therefore being able to dedicate more time to support their children - others will not be so lucky. Therefore, I fear that in the future, the educational gap between children within the same year group will be notable.”
School - A bridge built for learning and developing our affectionate ties
And at a time like this, what is the School's educational and social role? Families reiterate the same opinion. “CIV´s interventional role in trying to keep students working and presenting alternative solutions, was very positive”, says Carla Papa. Ana Abreu, whose daughter (Year 10) and son (Year 8), stressed the importance and relevance of “creating a schoolwork platform whereby teachers were able to continue to assist the students´ studies.” “It was very important that teachers followed through quite quickly in setting up this new learning platform, in order to assist in maintaining the children´s daily school routines, as well as supporting learners by keeping in contact with them. Without this support, I can’t even want to begin to imagine what it would be like”, said Carla Pereira, whose daughter studies in 3º ano of the Portuguese Primary School curriculum. As a professional accountant and tax advisor, she was forced to reduce the volume of teleworking because “from the moment Maria finished completing her schoolwork, she became discouraged and disoriented.” Ana Abreu also felt the need to reinforce her support with her youngest son, especially in terms of managing the information that he was being sent through the use of the new teaching/educational support platform.
“Despite everything, there have been many pleasant experiences”, said Carla Pereira, “especially when we get to do the Physical Education exercises with our children using the videos supplied by the Physical Education teacher…”. This practical activity has also been carried through by Cecília Cantore she recounted. “Being able to do activities with videos, as well as listening to stories from the School Library, has been a good experience. Children do not have to lose the valuable experience that school and teachers have in their lives”, she says. “This may lead parents to ponder what it would be like to teach a class, and to keep up with 24 children. It’s daunting! Perhaps this experience will help to bring to light everyone´s awareness of what it really like to educate students. We are not with a class of 24 children all together in any given activity, but with our own children. I think that the work the teachers and the school do will be more valued through this whole process/experience.”
“It has been an adjustment period, but it does not replace the real classroom experience at all”, warns Albano Ribau, the PE (Physical Education) teacher. "Despite the variety of technological resources we use to deliver a lesson, there is a need for me to be physically present so I am able to see my students build a sweat, as well as to be able to correct their postures ...". However, “for now it is important that, at this foundation stage, the student does not miss a beat”, he adds.
In this new circumstance we find ourselves in, Celina Lourenço expresses her concern with the possibility of “info-exclusion” amongst the community at a national level. She highlights the possibility of nationwide inequality that will exist due to the lack of access to school support and new technologies may create in the preparation for the Portuguese community national exams. “The students are all ‘in the same boat’, however some will be on a high-luxury cruise and others on a rubber dingy, which could put them in a situation of extreme inequality,” she reiterated.
On a more positive note
Aware of the long-term consequences that isolation will have on their children, parents say that “we must remain calm” as well as “looking for the positive” in the situation we find ourselves in. Sandra Botto stressed that, at the moment, “student academic evaluation is now not a priority at his point in time, but respecting the work that others do.” She also reiterated that fact that “we are currently living at home only. We don't go out anymore, we don't visit the family, which we are longing for. But life goes on, we cook, we watch movies and we read new books. We try to fill our emotional exhaustion”, she says. “I don't romanticize,” she added, “because it is all really overwhelming, but we are obliged to become more tolerant towards each other. Living at home, like we´ve never done before, can be an opportunity to get to know ourselves even better and work towards raising our tolerance levels, as well as learning to appreciate and respect each other’s emotional personal space.”
“We are all facing the unknown for which there is no written script to follow, but surely there will be pathways and answers to the many of the questions that will arise along this journey travelled together. And the answers to these are in us!”, added Cidália Ferreira Bicho.
“We will undoubtedly come out of this experience as more compassionate human beings, and emotionally stronger”, reiterated Anabela Chaves.