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Back to School, In a Different Sort of Way

Steve Albert

The start of the new school year is among my very favorite times of year, and this year is no different. However, the expression “back to school” sounds rather odd this year. When we talk about going “back to school,” we usually think about returning. Returning to a space that is familiar. Returning to classrooms filled with friends and teachers whom we haven’t seen all summer. Returning to routines that are comfortable and predictable. Returning to the trappings of school – carpool, recess, bus rides, assemblies, field trips, etc. At first glance, it doesn’t seem as though we are returning to much that feels familiar this fall, and that can be unsettling.

The kick-off of our new school year has most certainly been filled with new features this year. From tech training sessions to supply box pick-up to new preschool check-in procedures, and from classroom links to face masks to teaching and learning spaces in our homes, the new school year has been chock-full of instructions, procedures, and responsibilities that are new to us. At PJA, we’ve worked hard to build on the successes of last spring to ensure a successful start to the year in our “COOL distance learning” mode, in the Day School, and in small, stable cohorts in our Early Childhood program. We’re off to a strong start. And the truth is that, despite the Chromebooks, iPads, Zoom links, Google classrooms, asynchronous learning sessions, and social distancing, a great deal of what is happening – and, I would argue, the most important part of all that is happening – is that same as what is always fundamental to school each year. Those aspects of school are manifestations of our school’s middot (values), and I want to focus on just three: kehillah (community), limmud (study), and zehut (identity).

Even though we are physically separated in the Day School, and even though our interactions are limited to small cohorts in our Early Childhood program, we have begun the process of building a community – in each classroom, and in the school as whole. Our gatherings on-line allow us to see one another, share, interact, and feel that we belong to something bigger than ourselves. Our students feel connected to their classmates and to our school. Our first lower school kabbalat Shabbat program was a wonderful example of the sense of community that we are building. Around Sukkot, we’ll have the opportunity to bring small groups of Day School students together, in person, on campus, for short periods of time to strengthen those connections even further.

Teaching and learning is at the heart of our school, and that can happen in a host of different ways. Even if we have to maintain social distance or see one another on-line, we have the opportunity to explore ideas, learn new things through projects and play, collaborate with others, take risks, and challenge ourselves. These are the ways that students grow intellectually, and our ability to do these, even in new configurations, ensures that our children continue to learn and grow.

Finally, we strive to help children define their identity – as Jews and as individuals. Our Middle School summer reading virtual assembly was a great example of a wonderful opportunity for students to think and talk about who they are, what they stand for, and what they believe. The protests in Portland and the accompanying attention to institutional racism became a focal point of that program, and students shared a wide range thoughts, concerns, and opinions about the current social unrest. Whether in-person or on-line, our students learn to think for themselves, articulate their values, and stand up for what they believe in.

It’s a different start to the school year, but an exciting one, all the same. Welcome back!

Spotlight on ...

Mindful Movements, Mindful Moments

With the understanding that students have a bit less flexibility to move around the classroom and teachers have fewer opportunities to provide spontaneous outside recess, PJA’s Health and Wellness Educator, Blair Borax, wanted to fill the need for brief in-class movement breaks. 

Read More about Mindful Movements, Mindful Moments