Moving Forward with Quality Islamic Education in the Time of Covid19
By Sister Pam D’Amado
Here it is June and most of us are preparing to close our schools for the summer. Truth be told, everyone I have spoken to is more than ready for a break. The last three months have been a grueling marathon that required grit and out-of-the-box problem-solving. Since we are coming up on summer, it is a good time to take stock of what we accomplished and how far we have come under some pretty extraordinary circumstances.
In looking at my teachers back in November, I would have told you that I had a pretty solid staff. We have a diverse group of dedicated and smart teachers. I would have told you that they genuinely care for all of our students. What I would not have been able to predict all the way back then, before the world changed, was just how far they would go in pursuing excellence and nurturing all our kids during unprecedented times. In the past three months, while they were caring for their own families, running their own households, and monitoring their own kids’ schoolwork online, my teachers were also learning new skills, creating content, conferring with colleagues around the world, and attending webinars. I have been humbled by how well they have all stepped up and created something amazing out of some pretty challenging raw materials.
In the first week of March, we planned to close the school several days before Governor Murphy issued the executive order. During the previous week, after faculty planning meetings, we had one of our high school teachers, Colin J. Wright, teach a workshop on using Google Classroom. By the following Monday, we were handing out laptops to families who needed to borrow them and ensuring all passwords were viable for digital access to our textbooks.
We had made the decision early on, that while other schools were simply reviewing, we would continue to teach new content in order to complete our curricular goals for the year. We are, after all, a private school. Our teachers wanted to continue to provide quality instruction to our kids. We all felt our amana or trust, very strongly. If we were taking tuition from families, we wanted to give them our best. Before going online, our teachers taught mini-lessons in online etiquette, and correct email format. Faculty members like Deija Dejesus and Destri Adams created virtual-class expectations and reinforced them each day with their 4th and 5th graders. In true Maarif fashion, they shared their ideas and templates with their colleagues so that all classes and levels could benefit.
Not surprisingly, we had some obstacles at the beginning. Because of this, we made sure to conduct virtual meetings with all staff and kept in touch in real-time through our group chat. Teachers met in small groups to mentor each other and exchange ideas. What was working, what was not? What students were engaged, and which weren’t?
Adapting to Online Schooling
Some students were not taking the whole “online thing” seriously and considered it a vacation. Others had some connectivity issues. After a couple of weeks, we had about 95% participation and engagement. The students who were not showing up to online classes or not turning in work were contacted by teachers. If there was no change, our admin reached out to parents directly. Calling and leaving a message didn’t count. We kept calling and texting until we were able to reach families directly and see how we could support their child’s participation.
The social and emotional piece of this was that we did not call and say, “Where was your child? He wasn’t in class.” But rather, “We missed Omar in class today. Is everything ok with you?” It might seem like a subtle difference but the shift in tone has made all the difference in creating a sense of community and relationship with our kids and their families.
A recent poll of our parents and students indicates that an overwhelming majority believe that teachers have been responsive, that they have been doing a good or great job of making learning accessible to students, and that they are genuinely concerned about our students. As for the quality of teaching, over 92% believe it has been good to excellent.
What went well:
We were agile
Our teachers were up and running with live classes and online content within a week of closure.
Because we already had digital textbooks for all core subjects, and IXL for skills review, access to content was easier. For our Islamic studies, Arabic, Qur’an, and Turkish classes, our teachers in these departments were adept at finding online materials, creating videos and audio recordings, and using platforms like quizizz.com to provide materials and assessments to students. We were even able to continue with gym class using YouTube videos and exercise logs for all students.
We were compassionate
We made it a priority to reach out to kids and families to ensure that no one fell through the cracks.
As so often happens in times of stress and upheaval, we, as a staff, came together as friends and teammates and created common cause.
Because we are a community-based school drawing most of our families from about six different masajid, if we heard someone was ill or struggling, we would ask if they wanted prayers and if we could tell others in our Maarif community. This lets them know that we were not just a school but part of their Islamic support network as well.
We were clear about our objectives
We have always been clear about our mission. We want to educate this next generation of children to be good Muslims, who are intellectually curious, academically adept, and engaged with their communities to create a better world. In addition, we see ourselves as a community of learners rather than a school. As a community, we have forged strong bonds with our families, and they know we are responsive to them.
Our curriculum is college preparatory and we stress learning, but we do not place undue importance on tests. Instead, we emphasize the process of learning. As an educator, I have always believed felt that if you are teaching content, making the subject interesting through activities and investigations, while rewarding thinking and analysis, your students will do well on any test and retain the material for longer.
Once we switched to the online format, both of these objectives have served us well. Because we already had a relationship with our families, we continued to communicate with them. In this way, we were able to support and teach our kids.
One to one sessions as necessary with parents and students
My principal spent over an hour and a half with one of our moms who is not technologically savvy to help her learn how to log on and support her kids’ learning.
Teachers met with students in private sessions to help them learn new concepts and support their learning. These tutoring sessions were especially important since our Supplemental Instruction and Compensatory Education teacher was not re-assigned to us until six full weeks after we went online. Our teachers jumped into the breach and made sure our kids with learning differences did not suffer or fall behind.
Finding the correct balance
As I mentioned, we decided to continue to teach new material. We also had to walk a fine line between accountability (that is, making sure kids are doing their share) but also to plan assignments in ways that would not overwhelm already stressed parents and students. We have been cognizant that we are in the middle of very trying times. We did not want to add to the stress of our community by making unreasonable demands for schoolwork. Through trial and error, we have been able to strike a balance that provides academic rigor without unduly burdening kids or parents.
Ongoing faculty conversations
By holding weekly faculty check-in sessions and keeping in touch personally with all members of the staff, we were able to identify hot spots and problem solve in real-time.
With a list of at-risk students, we were able to check in with all teachers and follow up with parents to support learning and point parents in the direction of community-based resources as needed.
Our Duah and Qur’an group chat
Since not all of our faculty and staff are Muslim, we created a separate chat so that we could request duah (supplication) for community members and families who were sick or struggling. This chat also enabled us to request Qur’an reading for various people in the community who had requested it.
This was also a place to post virtual khutbahs, online halaqat, and other messages during Ramadan and beyond.
Carrying on traditions that denote our identity
Through hard work and perseverance, our Qur’an and Islamic studies department managed to hold our Islamic Day celebration. Instead of an assembly, they had students and families submit video contributions to the celebration. The Qur’an competition went on as well with students competing and earning cash prizes for their ability to recite and memorize. Many hours went into making these programs possible and having the familiar touchstones even during the shut-down was comforting to all of us.
Realizing (as always) that communication is key
We created a blog especially for Covid19, and school- at- home topics. We used it to share ideas, information, hope, and practical strategies. It also served as a reminder to all of us that we were not in this alone.
We created and disseminated surveys at the beginning and middle of the past three months to solicit the input of all stakeholders: students, parents, and teachers. Data is vital to making smart decisions that benefit the majority of community members. While it has been a challenge to get buy-in from parents who may never have been asked their opinions before, we are committed to continuing because the work involved is worth the dialogue we can generate.
Monthly meetings with parents have engaged them further. We created meetings by level to address issues of the pre-school, primary, middle, and high school learners. These were a good opportunity to touch base and get a read on how parents were doing.
Giving out my personal phone and contact info was another way to remind parents we were here for them. Doing school online, being mostly at home, going out with masks, and social distancing, while necessary, is also alienating and lonely. Many of us feel distant from once familiar people. Having numerous and welcome, easy ways to reach us, let our families know that we were not just saying we wanted to hear from them, we do want to hear from them. It enabled me to respond quickly and solve problems. Sometimes a quick phone call can save days of a problem. The immediacy works wonders to remind families we are here for them and their kids.
Working into the summer
While I would never ask my teachers to work over the summer, I have been humbled and grateful to the ones who have volunteered. Some are working with individual students who need to check in with their summer work. Our Qur’an teachers have offered to work with students all summer to review and work on pronunciation of the Qur’an. Yesterday, my pre-k teacher asked if it would be okay for her to continue offering story time and live sessions with our little ones. We will be posting all of her videos on our Maarif YouTube channel.
Sharing, sharing, sharing!
Having worked in Islamic schools where intellectual property was taken to extreme levels and the culture was one of secrecy, I swore if I were ever in leadership at a school, that would not be the paradigm. Our teachers and administration share our knowledge, resources, and creative output with each other. We know we are all here for one purpose: the betterment of our future through the education of our kids.
Attending webinars and participating in PD’s has been a good source of information and ideas. If one of us finds a good resource, we share it with others for the enrichment of all. We have a shared Google Doc where anyone can post webinars, resources, and other helpful information.
Finding groups such as the Islamic Schools League of America (ISLA) has been a boon to our growth and progress. Their materials and webinars are professional and informative. They employ Islamic educational leaders who are top in fields such as educational management and Islamic pedagogy. I highly recommend them.
Planning for whatever comes next
Because there is still uncertainty around the fall, we have assembled a cohort of teacher leaders who will come together over the summer to plan and strategize. Giving our teachers a voice in the planning process is effective for two reasons. One, it increases their job satisfaction. People who have agency and influence in their organizations feel empowered and fully vested in the outcomes. Second, while we in the administration have a macro view of the school, our teachers are in the front lines of what we do. They know their students well, and they are able to see what we can tweak to improve our service.
In the coming weeks, as I have a chance to confer with my Teacher Leaders, and to speak with our Student Leaders, we will be planning how we can improve, and what changes to make for fall. Global uncertainty about September creates a huge challenge, but if necessary, we will generate several plans and use the experiences of the spring to help us move forward and serve our families.