Community: Meet the Gurukul School in Seattle, WA
Interviewer: Nandini Daga; July 12, 2020
Interviewee: Renu Grover, Teacher's Committee Chair @ Gurukul
The Gurukul promotes Eastern Indian language and culture. It draws over 1,500 students and 200 teachers at 4 different campuses (Gurukul School).
Can you tell us about yourself, your organization, and your role in the organization?
Gurukul is a non-profit community organization, basically a Sunday school and its mission is to promote Eastern Indian languages and culture. It was founded by Raj and Kavita Jhanwar twenty-two years ago, they are members of our community. I joined as a teacher twenty years ago when my children started school at Gurukul, and at that time we had about eighty students and sixteen teachers. Since then, it has grown quite a lot, to about 1500 students, two-hundred teachers, and four different language offerings as well as four different campuses.
So for about the last fifteen years, my role started as a teacher, but I have assumed the role of a board member, as well as a Hindi curriculum chairperson, and teacher’s chair. This coming year onwards, I will be principal of the IHS (Interlake High School) branch also.
Now, as far as the impact of the organization, the impact is immense. You can see that in the growth the program has seen over the years. People are finding it extremely helpful to send their children to this organization and stay connected with roots. We strive to familiarize our students to try to get to know our culture deeply. We try to make them comfortable in speaking an Indian language so that they can bond better with their families in India. And through the culture section and demos we help them appreciate our customs, our festivals, our foods, clothing, ethnicity, and the diversity that India has in general. So when they go back to India to meet their family, their grandparents, they just feel at home. It also kind of provides an overarching nurturing community for our children and really helps them to create a network of friends. So there is a lot of good value it adds to the community.
"People are finding it extremely helpful to send their children to this organization and stay connected with roots. We strive to familiarize our students to try to get to know our culture deeply."
How would you say that online schooling has impacted the students in terms of like, learning activities, graduation ceremonies, anything else that comes to mind?
So, you know, definitely being at Gurukul on-site is prime, that is the best value. Students love to come there to meet with each other and friends, and that kind of a learning atmosphere when you are one-to-one with the teacher is really a lot more impactful, but the current circumstances that we are in are second-best. It has definitely impacted their learning.
However, the way Gurukul kind of “lifted and shifted” to the online format, I must say, we were very successful in helping the children complete their learning objectives. The fact also being that they were at Gurukul on-site all the way up to February, being there in-person until the last three months, it helped them to know each other you know. So it wasn't too bad. Definitely the demos and graduation ceremonies were impacted as we could not hold our last demo scheduled or in-person graduation ceremony. We were however able to have an online graduation ceremony, but what also helped was that this was not just concentrated in our community, it was everywhere throughout the world.COVID-19 has had an impact worldwide. So on the positive side, Gurukul was able to really shift their operations to online very quickly and that was actually taken very positively. The fact that we could pull it off was great.
Following up on the previous question, what would you say were successes and failures? I think you talked a lot about the successes, so what were the failures in particular that Gurukul faced?
So with the failures again you know not having any demos was one of the drawbacks, and not having annual days or competitions that students look forward to at the end of the year. Some amount of one-on-one interaction was lost specifically in the spoken-language program, where normally students would have conversations in the classroom. Students did not get to see their friends, and so did the entire community. Teachers and committee members, who also love to go there on site and meet people in the community. I wouldn’t say it was a failure, but definitely the drawback of not being able to be on site. Other than that I don’t think there was any failures as such, some parts were just diluted.
"... one-on-one interaction was lost specifically in the spoken-language program, where normally students would have conversations in the classroom."
How was the process itself of transitioning to online schooling and what was involved there?
Sure, so believe it or not, this process was accomplished in three days. I'm a part of the cabinet and the committee and as soon as COVID hit, we did not even know the intensity of the situation at the time and so we closed Gurukul down to safeguard the students. Then, pretty soon we heard that all schools were closing in that same week. So we kind of got a pulse of the fact that this seems like it's gonna be a little while until we can reopen, many weeks or all the way to the end of the year. Knowing that we may not be able to come together for a few weeks at the time, we just kind of came together in the cabinet meeting thinking other schools are thinking about going online, why don’t we do that too.
From there, the moment we decided let's just attempt to do it, it was like heads down for me and a few other people in the committee to make technology decisions, logistical decisions, we needed to train people on how to use technology, and make curriculum changes to a certain extent. There were all of those decisions and the process of actually implementing them that needed to be done. But I'm really proud to say that we did it in three-four days, I’m very proud of that fact. Of course we lose some, we gain some.
The good thing was that our curriculum, being a Sunday school, we are not on-site everyday, so we design and share a lot of the curriculum through email, a lot of training is already done through emails and online platforms, so that really helped too in the move online. But yet you know we had to go through those transitions of making all these decisions, and then we had a really nice long training meeting with our teachers about the setup of the technology. Links for Teams classrooms online were sent to parents and then we actually had a little training session for 15-20 minutes with their parents as well on the Saturday before the large program, so that everybody got comfortable. You know the links were working, Internet was working, and students could log-in to the classroom. So we vetted the process and then lo and behold we were online!
Are there any changes to the curriculum you would like to talk about or highlight?
The curriculum sort of was already designed to be teachers in an online format, but in an online classroom, especially with the younger children, it is difficult to retain the kids’ attention for forty-five minutes. In the classroom, there is a lot going on. There are other children there, and there are things to do on your books, there are things to read, there are moments of interaction with the teacher to keep the students engaged and motivated in forty-five minutes. All of those moments are not easily feasible in an online setting. That was a challenge online, so we had to redesign our PowerPoint so everything had to be on a visual. Therefore, children could actually see it you know. The teachers can’t just talk while the students look in their notebooks, especially with little kids. Our curriculum leads had to changes portions of the curriculum to accommodate these changes so that everything was visual. In a visual format, it was sort of condensed in about twenty minutes so that we don't lose the children, they don't get lost, and we maintain their focus. We made sure it wasn’t too long and overbearing for the children.
"...it was sort of condensed in about 20 minutes so that we don't lose the children, they don't get lost, and we maintain their focus."
Would you say there were any changes based on the complexity from level 1 to level 6, or was it all mostly the same?
In the upper levels, the children are older so molding them into the online learning format was a lot more easier, and fewer changes were required. Their teachers could, just like you and I are talking, just sit in the classroom and have discussions with them. They were a lot more comfortable with the technology, so for them to turn their audios on and videos on and start speaking and interacting with the teachers was relatively easier than the younger ones could manage. I would definitely say that for levels 1, 2, and 3, a lot more changes have to be made compared to the upper levels.
We have a KG level, which probably suffered the most, but at the end, they started enjoying their program also. They are very hands-on, and they have a lot of activities that they do in the classroom to learn vocabulary, like crafts. So, for KG, we had to resort to making changes like more storytelling, more visuals again for them to understand. It was interesting, it was fun. The kids really enjoyed it by the time it was all said and done, and they loved being in the classroom online and they were actually sad to see Gurukul end!
Would you say for testing in particular at the end of the year, was there any hassle involved with that?
For testing, there was a push back for sure because normal schools, even colleges, a lot of them had decided not to test at all. So there was a pushback from the parent community, there was a little bit of pushback from the teaching community as well too. Our rationale behind the testing was that we are a community organization and whenever you have something that you measure in the end, everybody is motivated to learn how to get there. Motivation is a little bit different compared to in school where students are aware of things like their GPAl, so we thought that, you know, some amount of testing is required so that the students are motivated to study and finish their learning for the year and they are ready to take on the next year.
But we did modify it quite a bit in a way that, typically in Gurukul on site, we do two or three review lessons before the final exams. This year, we did testing in a piecemeal manner, where we just have a review session on a certain part one week and then just right away the following week, test that. Students were not forced to learn the entire curriculum and test all in one charge, but we were helping them review as well as get prepared for the smaller tests and be comfortable by the time they were done.
"I am so proud of our relentless volunteers. Everybody, when I proposed a Gurukul online program to committee members and curriculum committees, they really appreciated the initiative and they all jumped in to help and participated in it. "
What are you proud of in the Gurukul community’s response to COVID-19? You talked earlier about the quick response in shifting to online learning, but what else would you say you are proud of?
I am so proud of our relentless volunteers. Everybody, when I proposed a Gurukul online program to committee members and curriculum committees, they really appreciated the initiative and they all jumped in to help and participated in it. They helped us in modifying those lesson plans. Our teacher committee coordinators helped with moderating the classes. We have a large number of classes, I want to say we have about 52 classes just in Hindi with all the various branches. And then we have the Odle Middle School Kannada, Marathi classes as well. So we have nearly 200 teachers. You can imagine with so many people that are participating we needed moderators, who did a fantastic job. I bring you all these logistics issues that need to be addressed, but I am really proud of all of our volunteers who just did not take a step back at all, they just kind of jumped in. To do this, teachers worked really hard to not only teach online, but also manage their own children. Their own children were in classrooms as well, and in a lot of cases, the teachers were teaching one level and their own children were studying for a different level, so three or four laptops were going at the same time in the house. We put this huge challenge forth in front of the entire community, and I’m really proud to say that everybody did a fabulous job. I'm also very proud of our students because we had great attendance, we had over 95% attendance through our online classroom, and so there was really no loss of learning I want to say. And everybody jumped in and we were able to finish the year, all I’s dotted and t’s crossed.