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The Coronavirus pandemic this year has placed unprecedented challenges on schools in Japan and around the world. Following the direction of the Kumamoto Board of Education, KIS moved to teaching all grades online in April and May. Although we were able to offer Hearth Club (Gakudo Hoiku) for certain students, the majority of our pupils took classes at home via Zoom each day. KIS offered our English and Japanese curriculum online in a differentiated format similar to that used during regular classes.

The beginning of the school year is a critical time for all students, but it is especially so for new Grade 1 students. KIS wanted to try to provide students with as regular a life and education as possible during this difficult period, and thus offered daily online classes for all grades. Online learning is difficult for younger students because they struggle with focus and are still working on mastering basic reading and writing skills which can only be practiced properly with real pencils and paper. Working within this limitation, we used a balanced approach of most instruction taking place online, but homework assigned digitally and, in the case of Kokugo, via printed materials that were mailed to all students. All students were given daily homework assignments which they completed and then uploaded digitally for review by teachers.

One of the challenges of teaching online is providing effective feedback to students — mistakes that are not corrected can quickly become bad habits that are hard to break. Further, it is simply quite challenging to provide effective, targeted feedback for students when they are not in the same physical space as the teacher. KIS teachers worked hard to overcome the limitations of virtual instruction using screen share within Zoom and small group differentiated instruction. By displaying curriculum materials via screen share and writing directly onto them, we were able to provide engaging and effective feedback in most cases. In addition, staff followed up with further comments on the homework uploaded by the students each day.

We returned to full regular classes on Monday, June 1st, and it is wonderful to have all students back in the classroom (we can finally take full advantage of the new building!). It is interesting to realize, however, that staff learned many things about being more effective instructors during this time.

In retrospect, although online teaching was challenging and placed a large burden on parents at first (particularly in Grade 1), everyone got used to the virtual teaching format quickly and worked hard to maximize the possibilities for online education. It did take a few weeks of constant tweaking, but in the end, I was extremely proud of how hard students, parents, and staff worked during this time and the resulting quality of our classes. Everyone rose to the challenge posed by online teaching, and while I hope that we do not have to return to teaching virtually, I know that we will be ready if it becomes necessary to do so again in the future.