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Spirituality finds a place in the new ‘school house’


Special to The Press

Sunlight streams through the kitchen window, illuminating the counter top that serves as an 8-year-old’s classroom desk.

Her feet barely touch the crossbar of the stool as she watches her teacher on her iPad.

This scene played out across the Lehigh Valley for students of all ages this school year.

For many children, education is now presented and received at dining room tables, in kitchens, basements and bedrooms: the new “school house.”

When school buildings shuttered their doors in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Jehovah’s Witness families turned the challenges of remote learning into an opportunity to expand their children’s education through spiritual activities.

“The whole Allentown School District went remote this year,” explained Jeremy Thatcher, vice principal at William Allen High School. “That meant thousands of families suddenly had to figure out how to not just provide supervision, but to keep their children engaged and interested in learning.”

For many parents accustomed to sending their children off to school each morning, taking a more active role in their child’s education has been one of the most difficult challenges of this “new normal.”

“There was a moment of panic at first. I’m a single parent, working full-time. I had no idea how I was going to deal with this,” explained Crystal Callisto, who has three children in the Parkland School District. “In addition to helping them with their schooling, I had to figure out how to cover the additional expenses of child care and increased Internet usage.”

Some families have found the best education happens beyond the walls of their “school house” with what educators call authentic or project-based learning.

This learn-by-doing approach “requires developing skills in critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and various forms of communication,” according to PBLWorks, a nonprofit organization focused on project-based learning.

“I used our challenges as opportunities to show my children that the Bible has practical advice for us,” Callisto said. “JW.org has featured articles on managing finances, coping with pandemic fatigue and making a success of virtual learning.

“We worked as a team and applied what we read.”

JW.org has proved to be a valuable resource for many Witness parents in the community.

“Our kids love music and that’s one subject that is hard to replicate in a virtual environment,” explained Warren Behr, whose three kids are using Northern Lehigh’s virtual model.

“We’ve been able to use the simplified sheet music found on JW.org.

“Learning a fun, uplifting song benefits the whole family.”

Despite the challenges, the new circumstances have prompted parents to think of ways to incorporate spiritual activities into their day.

“We always had a spiritual routine, but now we can make it part of the academic day,” Ryan Kovalchick of Emmaus said. “Since we’re not all rushing out the door every morning, we’ve used the extra time to discuss a Bible topic.

“The kids read a Bible story or verse and comment on how they think it applies to us.”

However, adding spirituality into the daily routine has more than academic benefits.

When the pandemic surged, many parents recognized that maintaining children’s emotional health was just as important.

Jamal and Marie Rafraf’s two children, ages 11 and 8, enrolled in East Penn’s virtual model this year.

“Even simple things like taking a walk and discussing what they learned in science class can build appreciation for their Creator and give them opportunities to express what’s on their minds,” Jamal Rafraf explained.

The Rafrafs have been proactive, organizing virtual game nights and talent shows to keep their kids connected to their friends, as well as incorporating project-based learning.

“For his talent, our son created a stop motion animation video based on a Bible story he researched,” Jamal Rafraf said. “We want our kids to continue receiving a quality education.

“While they are at home, we’re taking advantage of getting involved in the learning process.”

Educators agree with this approach.

“The isolation that comes with learning remotely has an emotional impact on children of all ages,” Thatcher noted.

“By maintaining their program of spiritual education within the family and their local congregations, Witness children have an opportunity for building meaningful relationships with their families and peers.

“Relationship building is a primary way emotional needs are met.”

PRESS PHOTO COURTESY JACOB SEAMAN Crystal Callisto joins her children Novianna, 8; Ziair, 13; and Kanye, 15; who attend Parkland schools, working together on educational activities.