Of Schools and Screens and Lockdown, and Socialising Scenes

There was a young man walking past outside my window as I was dressing this morning, and I had already opened my curtains. If he had looked up he would have had quite an eyeful (and needed some years of therapy too, I imagine), but fortunately for my modesty and his medical aid savings account, he was so engrossed in his cellphone  (never mind that since it was during the exercise hours of lockdown, and he should have been jogging) that he did not notice the matron in her knickers in the house across the road from his morning constitutional.

But as I streaked (literally) into the bathroom, I contemplated what I had seen: a pedestrian on this glorious morning, face in his phone, not noticing the colourful dawn (or even where he was going). Much has been said about the zombie apocalypse of technology at our fingertips and I don’t want to comment on that, but I worry about our children in these times when all they are doing is on their devices – even school now.

The socialization of young people is being significantly affected the longer we stay in lockdown, in that they are not spending time in the same spaces as one another, because physical presence is so important for appreciating the nuance of meaning via body language, tone and pitch, as well as social development within groups. This is something that homeschoolers recognise and ensure that they take their children out of the home to places and activities where their children can mix and mingle.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating for social development above health and safety from the virus, but I am saying that this is an area to consider when it is time to return to school. Pre-school age children are particularly likely to show social lags if they do not return to school with their mates after lockdown. Of course, some children are physically vulnerable, because of pre-existing conditions, and one can appreciate the need to protect their health above all else, but none is immune to poor socialization following long periods of isolation, so parents who choose to wait some months before ‘re-introducing their young into the wild’ should consider finding ways to do ‘virtual play dates’ or ensuring they spend time in unstructured play in the same space (with their siblings at least).

Children in lockdown are missing out on collaboration that is a very real part of the creative process and of 21st century education. Peer learning is vital for childhood development. Studies show that children with better social skills in pre-school, perform better academically in Grade R (Kindergarten) and are better adjusted to Foundation Phase, are better able to regulate their emotions and maintain more positive friendships in later years.

Long term social isolation leads to loneliness and can affect brain development, and mental and physical health. I am sure that parents are tired of their youngsters underfoot already, but more and more I am reading about children really missing their friends and weeping from the sheer stress of being stuck indoors with the same people, no matter how loving we may be. We are starting to see really increased stress levels in children and must beware of depressions, especially in teens.

I have a son in matric this year. This was supposed to be the year he played his last season of hockey for the school; he was cast as the Mad Hatter (why am I not surprised?!) in Alice in Wonderland and was looking forward to his matric dance. Now most if not all of the magic of matric has been stripped away from the Class of 2020 and they have been left in a ‘winter of discontent,’ a barren year of stress and study.

That is really hard for them emotionally but there is a vicious cycle happening here as well: their social isolation at a time when they most need to have some belly laughs, a quick game of football at break, or a round table on the latest gossip, has been taken away. And I am not sure that a nightly game of whatever murdering adventure is popular in the gaming microcosm of their network counts as true socializing, with its attendant eyeballing of mates and endorphin release. You definitely cannot be socializing properly over the ‘gram or WhatsApp because we all know what happens to tone and context in those virtual worlds. Misunderstandings and misrepresentations abound.

Without the release found in the fun part of matric, students’ stress levels are likely to rise considerably and they now have only the parentals at home who are putting additional stress on them because we are stressed for them and the looming examinations sans class time.. 

This will inevitably lead to inability to concentrate and process information. My high school has added a free social session on Microsoft Teams for a kind of virtual break, so that the teens can interact, but of course some are still keeping their videos off (because – ‘pyjamas and bed-hair- duh!’) so they are still not receiving important social cues such as body language and tone, nuances that are so important for maturing social intercourse.

As much as educators allow for some fun and chatting in online classes, you either have lethargy and apathy from your audience or giddiness with junior school learners which is draining for an educator to control and far more difficult than when they are all in the same room:

With prep school children who are having great fun waving their virtual hands and commenting online, to the chagrin of the odd parent who happens to peer over a shoulder, it’s tricky to ensure they are focusing on the content delivery.  But that’s also an elementary school child mindset. We need to let them have fun. We all learn when we are having fun. But it’s also why too much live online work can impede learning. Having said that, online etiquette has certainly improved as the weeks have passed, as we’ve navigated the remote learning space and children are co-operating with correct online decorum.

With high school learners’ videos and mics off (to save data) who knows whether the blighters have gone back to bed even?! It’s tough enough getting signs of life out of teenagers on a Monday morning at the best of times, but now a question such as ‘’You all with me?’ which in class is easy to observe, even if all the responses you get are adolescent grunts, is really hard for a teacher to measure when faced with a blank video wall of cute profile pics.

The moment when a teacher does this sort of informal class benchmarking, is when some of the best learning happens – when an individual ‘fesses up to not having a clue; there is some laughter and everyone refocuses and learns after additional assistance. There is a clinical nature to online ‘live’ teaching that cannot replace the human relationship element so vital for teaching. After all, we teach children, not subjects.  School teaching is not lecturing. We need group work and personal interactions to bring lessons to life. So, it’s not just the peer relationships that are being missed out on, it’s the mentor-learner ones too. I salute teachers who have abandoned their human form and overnight out-transformed Optimus Prime, and who are still ensuring that they nurture their relationships with their charges despite the challenges they face. (Can we clap at about 23:00 for them, when they finish their workday?)

Even the second-year university student in my house, who is a true introvert, is missing the subtle social interactions that happen mid-lecture, which aid learning and build the kind of connectivity that can never come from MTN or Vodacom.

So, as much as I know that we can continue with remote learning for as long as it takes (well at least at my privileged school we can) I look forward to the day we can teach flesh and blood human children, not their screen avatars.

In the meantime, parents, I beg you: send them outside to play and exercise, but if they cannot see other youngsters in the flesh, be a little more lenient with screen time. Facetime and Zoom calls are better than nothing. It may be the only social interaction they are getting.

And tell them we miss them.

Or just show them this:

Or this:


Perhaps we should give in. Who needs great rhetoric or literature. Move over Cicero and Demosthenes. Sit down Marlowe and Plath. We’ve gone back to hieroglyphics:

I just hope we don’t go back to this:

At least there’s one for me (the specs are Versace):

The Learning Pit – an aid for homeschooling parents who are being driven to drink

Remote Learning during Lockdown is the pits – but that’s okay if they’re Learning Pits.

I thought I’d take pity on all those parents resorting to TikTok and YouTube to post parodies of their children working at home and who rant about reaching for the Valium to get through the school day with their own beloved offspring who have turned into spawn of the Remote Learning Apocalypse. So I am letting you in on a teaching secret: the Learning Pit. Understanding this simple model may assist you and your child with school tasks at home and let you in on (some) of the magic educators learn when they study pedagogy.

The Learning Pit is model of learning developed by James Nottingham.  https://www.bookdepository.com/Learning-Challenge-James-Nottingham/9781506376424

It is a feature of 21st century learning and teaching that students are required to grapple with the unknown; face the fear of ignorance and learn to overcome.

The Learning Pit is an immensely empowering concept.

And it applies not only to a concept at school, but to all problems needing solving, so it is a guided way to coping with the problems of life (like avoiding opening the wine before lunch while your child is working on parts of speech.)

Now more than ever, during Lockdown, when children are learning remotely, this is a way to focus your youngsters and assist them to be self-sufficient. Besides reading, teaching a child strategies to learn is one of the most effective ways to equip a developing mind for a lifetime of successful learning.

Nottingham’s model suggests that real learning what we call ‘deep learning’ only happens when something new is learned and that can be a scary experience (almost as scary for parents who are facing similar pits during their ‘homeschooling experiments’ during COVID-19 lockdown at the moment.)

The concept is simple: if a youngster encounters a new section of work (the learning pit) and he ‘gets it’ easily, he can leap across the chasm like an avatar with that faux loping stride leaping across gorges (unrealistically) in Fortnite and can hurry on to his next challenge. He hasn’t learned anything new yet though. FYI Bright leaners do this often through school and often battle later on because they haven’t learnt HOW to navigate learning challenges so it’s important to stimulate them all the time (extend them until they face something hard) to ensure they learn the skills. All too often I have seen rosy-cheeked Dux scholars in prep school turn into average achievers later on in high school because they never learned about the struggle that is the learning pit. But they make great collaborators and cheerleaders in peer teaching -see ‘Collaborate’ below – if they understand both the work and the process.

So how does it work?

I love this child’s depiction of the pit:

When our intrepid warriors arrive at a pit that looks too dangerous and fear and confusion sets in, it’s game-on.  I urge teachers to encourage our learners to leap into that pit with both feet, as soon as they recognize that they don’t understand something, we want them to feel a sense of adventure and excitement, as if they are going on a quest.  A key factor in 21st century education is also the demystifying of the learning process so we point out each phase of the learning pit a child is in so they can chart their progress.

  • ‘Having a go’

This diagram above illustrates the dangers at the bottom of the pit and challenges to be overcome like on an epic journey.  (like those moments when your drooping Petal whines ‘I can’t! I don’t know what to do? And you’re thinking the same only with a few Anglo-Saxon words in between). But they are encouraged to jump on in and ‘have a go’ like the valiant gladiators of old.

  • A Leap of Faith

Tell them: The work may be tricky but the first important question to ask yourself is: ‘How can I do this’ – that is almost the key to crossing the bottom of the monster-filled abyss. I remember a scene in The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones (oh so young Harrison Ford) takes a leap of faith into the unknown and finds that there was a way across the impassible ravine. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-JIfjNnnMA

That first step shows the way, but the adventurer still has to climb up and out of the learning pit.

Notice that nothing new has yet been learned, but the student has already started to climb out of the pit, because attitude to learning is so important. This is why we believe in making learning fun. If a child is playing, he doesn’t realize that he’s already crossed the chasm and is climbing.

  • Try something else

As with all climbs, things can be quite steep and so a good pupil should know that there can be different ways of solving things: ‘What else can I try?’

Recent problem-solving by clothing manufacturers who were forced to shut their doors overnight and stop trading due to the lockdown, have re-designed and developed their sports masks into fashionable and effective alternatives for the COVID-exerciser. Instead of focusing on products they can’t sell they have focused their marketing and sales on these much-needed current products, and become essential services in the process. This kind of creative thinking is what keeps businesses afloat when times change, so when your child is struggling with a Mathematics problem, don’t show him the way you were taught – if you can even remember(!) and not at first anyway. Encourage him to try different ways because this is part of developing creativity, which stand him in good stead when his career faces a challenge.

A child must own the problem; WANT to solve it and struggle with it a bit. We all know what happened to Kodak, The Concorde, Blockbuster Video Stores and Blackberry. They would not/could not innovate. There is nothing wrong with using the fruit and veges to work out answers to basic arithmetic. Make problems relevant to real life so they have a connection. So if all you do is guide them to see a link to their own experience, you will have helped them focus on alternative ways of looking at things. Just don’t do it for them. (Walk away and mix teh margaritas for later.)

Innovation is a vital skill to learn and it’s the first step of that upward climb to problem solving so give your child lots spare paper or let her open lots of word docs and keep trying different things.

Vi Active Carbon Mask with filters for Cyclists and other sportswomen in the fight against COVID-19
  • Grit

Trying can be exhausting though and is not necessarily immediately rewarding. Learning warriors need courage and resilience and what we call grit to believe that they can. (like that little train we all remember from our youthful storybooks: ‘I think I can…’) There is a dawning hope, with each small success. Encourage her to push herself just a little bit harder, for just a little bit longer. Athletes understand this about training – the brain must also be trained to think. And sweat is involved.

Again I plead with parents not to give in and tell your child the answer. We see too many high school students these days whose parents have given them everything on a plate and they have never learnt the simple truth that success does not come without hours of (their own) hard work. They throw their hands up in despair, blame the teacher, the school, the government and everyone else because they simply don’t know how to keep at something. Things like re-writes, editing, touch ups, second drafts, conceptualization, planning are all part of keeping at it; they need to keep slogging away, and not accepting pedestrian prose or mediocrity. Cheer them on when they do.

10 000 hours at a task brings you professionalism in something. Sadly, too few students these days know how to keep at something for that long. It’s not their fault. Everything in their world is ‘insta’ – the ‘gram, their cappuccino, the news, and take-aways to their doors; binging on series has prevented us from yearning and imagining, and even gaming teaches devotees to use the cheats. Without sounding as old as my own children say I am, have to confess that I worry that we are growing a nation of quitters and lazy thinkers who want instant answers. There are loads of fun ways teachers encourage children to stick at something: competitions, promised rewards, clues and even a simple thing like timing them gives them an end in sight to strive for, so draw your child into the game of learning and keep them on track. (It will work for yourself too, especially if your choice of the fruit of the vine is the prize). Let them play music if that is their poison. (Earphones are a wonderful invention and protect us from said noise pollution).

Having said that, it is possible that you are experiencing a more genteel time at home with your family, (if you’re not exhausted from multi-tasking – running your home and empire AND Junior’s Work programme) and that can allow learners a chance to explore tangential interests and it’s consequently a great opportunity for them to go slightly off track and discover things they are really interested in. We all know this is when the real learning happens, so allow them a little intellectual bundu bashing. (They may develop an app in that time that will make them famous and you rich – more wine!)

  • Collaborate

Collaboration is one of the fundamentals of 21st century education and even during lockdown it can be achieved via Teams and WhatsApp calls. Our offspring are connected. They know how to crowd-source ideas. One of mine decided today a name change was in order for her next birthday so she threw a few ideas at her friends and bingo she had her new name. (and it wasn’t B-I-N-G-O … now there’s a blast-from-the-past kiddies tune!) So they know how to connect. It’s our job as educators and parents to guide them into using these skills to co-operate on learning tasks the same way they collaborate in their social lives. ‘Phone a friend’ is a good catch phrase to have in your classroom or on the fridge – and it’s not just a phone call – this applies to all those lifelines : teacher, google, friend, parent, asking for clues. Re-watch ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ and draw up your own set of lifelines to point them at when they get to this stage. ‘Read a book, search for other resources, make an appointment for a one-on-one with your teacher on Teams, You Tube videos’ – all of these are important. YouTube may well replace tecahers one day – you can learn anything on there. My eldest son watched something on ‘how to escape from a hijacking’ and it worked two weeks later when someone started shooting at a traffic light. You can learn a lot from the Tube, not least of which is how to research.)

By this time of the day, you may have your wine in hand and all you will have to do is wave your glass at the fridge to point out the ‘Phone a friend’ options.

I have always believed that a ‘lazy’ teacher is an effective educator if he is steering his students into self-discoveries and can be a profound influence on his charges. (I use the word ‘lazy’ hesitantly and for effect because I mean it in the sense that he doesn’t spoonfeed his pupils with dished up answers on the set platter of pretty notes and worksheets. In fact much time and forethought goes into planning a lesson that requires the children to do – to struggle, engage, chew on the pencil (not the stylus please though), scratch heads, stare into the vistas of space, doodle, cross out and keep trying. That is facilitating discovery. That is teaching). 

Collaboration through peer-learning is important to facillitate – it empowers both teacher and learner and encourages empathy and altruism, qualities that are in rather short supply. Suggest siblings help each other, while you finish your own work (or wine).

  • Self-confidence

You have almost summited the mountain if you reach the point that a child is thinking ‘I am getting there.’ This is that heady moment when a learner picks up the pace, and feels the adrenalin of final summitting the Everest of his subject. This is self-belief and is so vital for self-esteem. This is where the teacher/parent is the cheerleader, the folks back home waving the flag of support. So, don’t rob them of this high by giving them the answer because next time they will expect you to do it again. This is when you tell them they are fabulous and you knew they could do it; when you paste their artwork on the fridge/wall outside to motivate passers-by like my neighbor did with her daughter.

  • Success

Give them that buzz of accomplishment and let them own the ‘Eureka moment.’ Because next time they will jump into the pit more eagerly because they know they can do it and they will need you less and less and eventually, if you are very lucky, and lockdown ends, they’ll leave home, buy you a wine farm and support you in your old age… because you taught them to solve problems on their own. School is a place and time to prepare you for life and let’s face it life is hard!

You will have taught them to think.

And you gave them an even greater gift: confidence to do it all again.

So that is the secret from the oracle today:

When it all gets too much for you, tell them to go and jump into the pit…. and resist the urge to bury them in there. If you’ve done your job right, they’ll find a way to dig themselves out anyway!

Reading: Of Muggles and Magic

Choosing books for boys

In 2000, for a six-month period of about 10 years, I homeschooled my (then) four children, aged eight, six, three and not quite a year.

I may have been a teacher, but I was a high school educator, not a Primary School Wizard. So, I did it all wrong, but one thing I got right was the reading. And that was mainly because I made the eldest one read to himself and both he and I read often to the others (I when I was not busy with another of my whining, squirming, unwilling pupils – not that they seemed any different from some of my former senior students in those characteristics.)

There were no handy online classes or resources back in 2020 (we didn’t own a computer), just little workbooks I found at CNA. There were only a handful of internet users in South Africa at the time. I had never heard of Google and there was no YouTube to search for how-to videos; and no curriculum-aligned, packaged remote learning programme from school.  So, I force-fed times tables to the older two; tried desperately to get my Grade R child to learn to read (and by that, I mean I wondered how and what magic beans Grade 1 teachers sow to take an illiterate to the wonder of the world of books). I puzzled over how on earth to teach my pre-schooler to write his name, although I probably wondered more about how I would get the toddler’s scribbles off the rental apartment’s wall.

At the time, I felt as though I were neglecting Sean, the eldest, by leaving him to read for long periods at a time, or abandoning his sister, Caitlin, to stare longingly at the pages she couldn’t yet read, because the others took up so much of my time, but the time spent exploring books about his own interests, or yearning to be able to read in her case, have served them well. But I also made lots of time for snuggled-up, whole-family story time, when I read aloud to them, the old-fashioned way, ending before they’d had enough, when they pleaded for more. I made no-reading-before-lights-out the consequence for poor behaviour and so put reading on a pedestal as a treat.

My introverted eldest son, a timid eight-year-old who in Grade 2, was a little behind in reading. But he read copiously during this time (no doubt grateful to be away from the haranguing witch, instructing his siblings in the kitchen while scrubbing pots or ironing). He caught up his age lag (he was a November baby) and surpassed his biological age in reading several times over. Today, he has a Master’s degree in English and makes his living writing screenplays and directing films.  

My daughter seems to have thrived on her Mathematics drills and can now write CA(SA) after her MCom and name (the less said about her remembered trauma of my Muggle reading lessons the better). She too is a reader though.

Michael writes a blog with millions of followers for a living and so even if I didn’t teach him to write neatly, he can write!

And the puny Picasso is studying Fine Art at UCT Michaelis School of Art (Handy Andy cleaned the wall too.)

Now I plan to make my fifth child’s matric year miserable by looking over his shoulder at home – it’s only fair he should suffer too – his siblings would say. I shall also be thanking God for Curro’s Microsoft Teams teaching.

What is my point? It’s not to brag about my clever kids (although what mother could resist?), it’s to show that children survive crisis education, no matter how poorly we parents facilitate the learning. What they need is to read.  Studies show that irrespective of socio-economic class or type of school children attend, the readers are statistically the successful ones.

If you do anything with your children during this lockdown, encourage reading, both solitary and family sharing. Teach them to love it, to yearn for learning and to choose it. And read for your own pleasure.

Cut yourselves some slack. You’re doing a great job.

And thank the teachers who know the spells to unlock the doors that we can’t. They’re waving their wands online now. It’s not called Teams for nothing.