The heat rises from the asphalt and the sand on a hot summer afternoon in Yeruhaman, an up-and-coming development town in the southern Negev region of Israel. Under the awnings that shade the courtyard of the state-run religious elementary school Kol Yaakov, the teachers scamper around with last minute errands.

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Shade awnings in the yard of the Kol Yaakov school in Yerucham, under which students are meant to study. (Photo: David Twersky)

"We don't have the space for out usual routine, so we'll be sitting in the hallways and outside. What's wrong with that?”  says Miriam Magenheim, a teacher at the school for the past 21 years. She teaches all the basic courses from second to sixth grades, and this year will be a third grade homeroom teacher. 

It's late August, and Magenheim's son helped drill, screw and install different items in his mother's classroom, and in the second capsule’s classroom where she will also teach.

 “Every year, two weeks before the start of the school year, I start decorating the classroom so that everything looks top-notch,” she says. “This year, there are two classes, so I work in the afternoons as well.”

In Israel, schools have to provide only two in-school days a week for students from 5th grade and above. But the parents aren’t worried in Yeruham. Students in both elementary schools in the city will go to school every day of the week (and maybe more). How will the town's schools achieve this?

The answer is, a smart combination of the complementary learning system, informal education, cultural and educational spaces, a little reliance on the new educational auxiliary force, and an effective arrangement of the learning spaces, which will also include outdoor learning. Even in the heat of September. 

Outdoors and in the library

"We'll only be outside in the mornings, when the weather is still nice," Magenheim says. "Each class will have its own shaded space. The first lessons will begin with prayer, most of them Torah lessons. We will have to learn to adapt some of the content to the new form; no board, no tidy classroom and no computers.” 

This is called differential learning. And if you are a parent of children in Israeli primary schools, you will hear this concept quite a few times in the coming year. At Kol Yaakov, the classes will take place in the corridors that will be filled with chairs, tables and rugs; in designated corners, and in classrooms that are no longer used as classrooms. Even the library has been rearranged so that it can be used as a space for at least two capsules. 

The purpose of differential learning is to enable learning at different levels of difficulty for children in arithmetic, English, science and more, with the lessons taking place simultaneously in several spaces and the teacher “zigzagging” between the capsules and the different levels of learning. 

The Kol Yaakov school in Yeruham. “We are taking advantage of every possible piece of space.” (Photo: David Twersky)

The Kol Yaakov school is divided into a large number of buildings that include classrooms, halls, rooms for pedagogical staff, and more. In the third-grade building, where Magenheim will teach, five classes were supposed to be taught. But this year, only two classes will be taught there, each of which will be split into two capsules. The last room will be used by the teachers.

"We are taking advantage of every possible space," Magenheim says. "There will also be a limited number of educators, so we can do as much as possible to maintain safety."

Magenheim is not concerned that sitting on the floor in the corridors and courtyard will impair the quality of learning. 

"Noise and learning on the floor do not deter me. Students talk, play, argue, and that's a significant part of learning,” she says. “I know what I want to teach. Now, the challenge is to adapt the content to the format. You can’t teach outside only using books and notebooks.” 

“Going deep, not wide”

"Learning in small groups can be 'less is more,'" says Asaf Shalev, director of the local science center, whose classrooms will be used by sixth-graders who will not attend school in person this year, except for special events. Despite the changes in the physical space, the computer and robotics centers will remain in place and even become part of the students' weekly class schedule. 

Asaf Shalev in a robotics classroom at the Science Center in Yeruham. “There is no doubt that what has been damaged here is the perception of the free babysitter.” (Photo: David Twersky)

Before corona, an elementary school teacher would teach six hours a day, but in the current situation, they teach only three hours per class.

"Israel has the peak amount of hours spent in school, but the global consensus today is that school hours should be reduced," says Shalev, without sparing any criticism of the prevailing perception of school’s role in Israel. "There is no doubt that what has been damaged here is the perception of the free babysitter, which, unfortunately, some of the public sees as school’s central role."

For example, fourth graders will come to school on Tuesday and take three hours of arithmetic and language classes, and then walk to the Science Center for another three hours of robotics classes with a certified teacher.

The Science Center in Yeruham. “The spaces are not fixed. If we understand that there is a class in school that is stuck without a space, they will come to the [science] center to study history.” (Photo: David Twersky)

"To be honest, we will not be able to teach the whole field of knowledge that we would have been able to in a normal year," says Magenheim. According to her, four hours in a classroom and four hours of online learning will not allow for quality learning like continuous learning in school. "The working premise is to go deep, not wide. Less quantity, but more quality. Teachers will teach the basics, and will also decide on additional courses of study for children."

“A radical change in the social framework

The discussion on the capsule structure mainly focuses on the pedagogical issue that relatively little attention will be paid to the child's emotional state. Gal Cohen, counselor for fourth through sixth grades, is very concerned about the social impact of splitting the classroom into capsules.

"We are all going into first grade this year," says Cohen, who has been having intensive conversations with parents and teachers about the students' new assignments for the past week.

"Why first grade? Because the most radical change in the social framework takes place in this transition from kindergarten to first grade,” she continues. “It is usually not taken into consideration, but a child with social difficulty who has come a long way with his friends and teachers for several years, has his whole world turned upside down with the new structure of the class.” 

In recent weeks, counselors all over the country have faced the significant challenge of building new social groups that will succeed in encompassing the diverse needs of students. 

“The homeroom teacher who sees half of her class actually only sees half of the students. A few days before the start of the school year, the children sit at home asking: 'Is my best friend with me or not?' 'Which homeroom teacher should I turn to?'” says Cohen. “In elementary school, unlike in middle school, the homeroom teacher is the person who follows the student for several years and the student is in much more contact with them than all his other teachers, and now they have only half a homeroom teacher.” 

“In our heads, we see a classroom from the 19th century”

Beanbag chairs and armchairs are scattered through the state-of-the-art facilities of the Science Center. It seems like a great place for an after-school activity, but the resemblance between it and a school classroom ends with the whiteboard.

"It's hard to see a classroom here, because in our heads, we see a classroom from the 19th century," says Ido Fromer, director of Yeruham's Education Department, who is leading the new back-to-school plans.  "If we try to push limits and see this space as an advanced learning center that contains 21st century technological learning, with 3D printers, robots, advanced computers and more, we will be able to deliver an activity that is appropriate to what we seek.”

Miriam Magenheim and Gal Cohen at the Kol Yaakov school in Yeruham. (Photo: David Twersky)

Fromer presents a rich and diverse array of activities: many more field trips, experiential learning at the science and music centers, tutorials and lessons, which up until now have been paid for by parents out of pocket or through donations, and will become full classes in this new framework.

 "There will be activities that will be semester-long only,” he explains. “Robotics classes will be taught in one capsule from September to December, and in the second capsule from January to April.”

Fromer explains that there is a certain amount of flexibility in how classes take place in spaces outside the traditional school building. 

"The spaces are not fixed. If we understand that there is a class in school that is stuck without a space, they will come to the [science] center to study history. Every teacher takes their students to their own space and teaches them there,” Fromer says. “The education ministry’s outline allows a lot of dynamism and space for decision-making for teachers on the ground. At the end of the day, it is the teachers who will decide on how to arrange the school day."

He continues that the lower grades will have programs more tailored to their needs, as it will be more difficult for them to adapt. 

“Although the sixth graders will be cut off from the rest of their classmates in the school, they will be able to attend a full week of classes in the science center, in addition to having smaller class sizes,” he says. 

"Until corona, innovation and technology were seen as luxuries"

Changing the learning methods which have existed for the past hundred years does not happen overnight. Under the Ministry of Education’s outline for schools, the municipalities have undertaken the task of training teachers for the transition to high-quality online learning.

"The education system consists of a status quo that has been significantly interrupted," explains Dr. Ilan Ben Yaakov, who is in charge of the Center for Innovation in the town. "The teachers were caught without tools in a period of great uncertainty. Until corona, innovation and technology were seen as luxuries.” 

“Schools that needed basic guidance received advanced training that took place on Zoom: pedagogical tips for teaching from home, complex teaching methods for small groups, collaborative research, alternative assessment methods, and a variety of other pedagogical components in distance learning,” he continues. “We helped the teachers understand how to take a classroom lesson and turn it into an online session.” 

Dr. Ilan Bar Yaakov. “The education system consists of a status quo that has been significantly interrupted.” (Photo: David Twersky)

“Each session begins with an hour of learning new tools, two hours of independent work and then coming back together to share the results,” Ben Yaakov says. “At first, there were teachers who got lost during the independent work time. Not all teachers continued with us, there were teachers who came here, to the center, with a computer so we could teach them things. It's challenging.” 

As a pedagogical coordinator, Magenheim also conducts in-service training for teachers on hybrid learning – on Zoom and in the classroom, and does not hide her fear of being infected by the coronavirus.

“I have to be very careful,” she says. “I will not say that I am not anxious and afraid. I am a person who is very outgoing, so it’s difficult for me. But if someone, God forbid, gets sick, he puts a lot of staff into quarantine.”

"The changes on the ground, as we see them today, are marginal. The stability and resilience that help children grow only exists when there is trust between the parents and the teachers," says Cohen, in response to criticism leveled at teachers in recent months. 

 "Teachers' reputation has been tarnished and I am very sorry about it. What the media reports does not match what is happening on the ground. The teachers give their souls, their days and nights, their thoughts and fears, out of a desire to do good by the children,” she continues. “Parents – believe in your children's education teams. That should be the message of this year and in general.”