Social Connections and School Culture in these Remote Times

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Every educator knows that school culture weaves its way through everything we do. We nurture students' love of learning by making them love school. It's the greetings in the mornings and the farewells in the afternoon.

In a primary school, it's the carpet time sharing with their friends and the interactions in the playground. It's singing, dancing, assemblies, group projects, hugs and high-fives, smiles and class parties. All of these things bring us together socially, emotionally and physically. SO, the dilemma for schools in these days of learning remotely is: How do we keep our positive school culture alive when we're physically distanced from each other?

At the International School of Belgrade primary school, we implemented several measures to address exactly that. Very early on in our journey with online learning, we discovered that synchronous learning for young students was challenging at best and chaotic at worst and all grade levels moved to smaller group teaching and individual online instructions. But that left us with the challenge of giving students the connection with all their classmates and grade-level peers rather than just those in their learning groups.

Here are five things that we do in the primary section of ISB to keep our positive school culture alive. These ideas are not rocket science, and no doubt many of you are doing some, most or all of these already.
Every class and grade level have social meetings. Grades 3, 4 and 5 use google meets. Our younger students do not have their own Gmail addresses so we purchased Zoom and use that platform for them. These social meetings are facilitated by the teacher but include things like celebrating birthdays, show and tell, quizzes, information sharing, and sometimes clarification about work set on line. Parents have reported that these meetings are what their children enjoy most in their learning day.
Our Counsellor connects with every grade level weekly and contributes to well-being in the same way single-subject teachers do. He joins social meetings, sometimes facilitating them, and is available for individuals, families, teachers and other faculty members. He is working with transitions and keeping an eye on our overall mental health.
As well as class check-ins, I facilitate grade level singing once a week which is something we did when we learned on site. The first week was chaotic (and funny) because we let all the children leave their microphones on. It works MUCH better when everyone is on mute except for the guitar and singer. A teacher from the grade level coordinates the muting and playing songs from YouTube when necessary.
We have whole primary school assemblies periodically using Zoom as the platform. Our IT specialist takes the lead coordinating the videos and speakers. All contributions are pre-recorded, which means that I just have to introduce and facilitate the event. We have a huge turnout to these assemblies and feedback from all facets of the community is hugely positive.

Teachers video personal messages to students so that they can be played later. Various members of our community, including the Director, parents, the principal and the librarian have made recordings of themselves reading and re-telling stories. Students are using video to show their learning in creative ways, such as role-plays, puppet shows and dance. These are then shared with the community through Seesaw, Facebook and our website. As well as this, I sing Happy Birthday to each student when it's their special day and post that on their Seesaw page.

And finally, just for fun, we have various social check-ins with teachers, parents and students. One of our teachers facilitates a Quiz night each Thursday, the PTSA delivered macaroons to teachers to show appreciation, and Friday afternoon virtual drinks were well-attended especially during our weekends of curfew.
So, although it's not quite the same, there are ways we can continue to build community and look after each other. It's our solid community spirit that will see us start back positively in August, in whatever form that takes.
Written by: Warren Bowers