15 May 2020
Across our community, local heroes are making a difference for people of all ages during the Coronavirus pandemic. Among those working to keep Greater Washington moving forward is Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School teacher Michal Friedman.
Like many of us, Michal Friedman has transitioned to working remotely. As someone who leads daily Zoom sessions, it was Michal’s responsibility to establish the norms about how to behave in this new virtual environment. She has had to educate participants about how to mute themselves, what they can and cannot say in the chat, and what is acceptable behavior in front of the video camera.
Most of her participants had very limited technological experience prior to the stay-at-home orders across Greater Washington. “They [didn’t even] know how to write an email,” Michal says. So, it wasn’t much of a surprise that she had to teach them that on Zoom, for instance, “You can’t [hide] in bed under the covers.”
Michal’s work challenges were a little different than most people’s because most of her daily video conferences are with a virtual classroom of 18 seven- and eight-year-olds.
As a second-grade general studies teacher at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS), Michal and her fellow teachers throughout our community are committed to making it work, and to discovering how to navigate distance learning as they continue to educate their students.
Second grade represents only a small fraction of a student’s entire education. But still, Michal says, the work she does is critical for a child’s development. While the Coronavirus pandemic struck in March and some might have been tempted to shut down school for the rest of the school year, Michal recognizes that the work she does during this time is vital—for the students and their families.
“If I can keep up their love for learning [right now], I feel like I did it,” Michal says. In second grade, her students are beginning to get a feel for their subjects and a knack for doing their work independently. She doesn’t want them to lose that sense of self-sufficiency and confidence. “[I want to] make them feel like readers and writers and mathematicians.”
Even though she teaches general studies, she appreciates working at a Jewish day school. “I love teaching a dual curriculum because it has my values, too,” she says. “There’s this common theme of not just creating educated American citizens, but educated Jewish citizens. We’re trying to make students into mensches.”
In addition to furthering the essential work that started in the classroom, Michal also recognizes that creating a virtual school for her students is also helpful for the parents. School provides a sort of routine and a sense of stability when everything else in their lives seems to have been overturned.
“Parents need a lot of support and guidance right now, too,” she says. “I think it helps that this is happening at the end of the school year, where we know our students well, we know our parents and our families.”
Direct communication with the parents has become much more regular, Michal says. As the boundaries between home and school have all but vanished, Michal feels like she’s able to get a window into the “whole child.”
“Getting to know them more in their home life has been really helpful and telling,” she says.
A mother of two young children herself, Michal understands the added stress. By giving the students a support system, it can also alleviate some of the burden that has fallen on parents.
“Our goal is to support them socially and emotionally right now,” Michal says. “The most important thing is to be there for the students.”
That’s why they start off each day by having the students play games with each other and share how they’re feeling so they can stay connected to each other and feel supported by their teachers. Michal leads one 30-minute live Zoom session every day, pre-records many video instructional lessons, meets with her fellow faculty members to collaborate on assignments and lesson plans, and checks her students’ progress on their homework.
Michal is also grateful for her colleagues. By collaborating, they are able to “divide and conquer,” to do more for the students than any one of them ever could if they were left working by themselves.
“In the beginning [of this crisis], I didn’t even think I would feel like [I was] teaching,” she says. But now, “I feel like I’m connecting and the kids [are] getting something new. That’s really exciting for me.”
The Jewish Federation is proud to partner with the six local Jewish Day Schools serving our Greater Washington community, including Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. As our community continues to weather the Coronavirus pandemic and its ensuing challenges, the support of donors to Federation’s Annual Campaign has ensured that our schools and other partner agencies are equipped to meet their needs—and to be agile in their work during this time of crisis.