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“The last year has forced us to revisit the program and be reminded of the value of the balance that it creates in student lives.”

From changing program requirements to overcoming the obstacles of a pandemic, we are always impressed to see how our partners in IB schools can quickly adapt to new circumstances in order to continue serving their students. To celebrate their successes and inspire others, we have decided to launch a series highlighting how CAS is done in schools worldwide.  

This month, we are looking at American International School of Johannesburg (AISJ), an international school in Johannesburg, South Africa. To better understand how their CAS program is run, we had the pleasure of speaking with Anine Pier. A Visual Arts teacher and the CAS Coordinator, she has been teaching overseas at International Schools for the last 15 years—having completed the IB Program herself as a student. We talked to her about what makes AISJ special, how the pandemic has changed her appreciation of CAS and Service Learning, and what new strategies she plans to incorporate going forward. 

Before we get into the challenges you have faced over the last year, can you tell us a bit about how your approach to CAS at AISJ is unique?

The social and emotional well-being of learners is number one at AISJ. We have four pillars that support us in offering a learning environment that is balanced and engaging. These pillars (Academics, Athletics, Arts, and Service) link beautifully with the IB CAS program. Students are involved in Service Learning, and introduced to CAS values, very early on. Our Activities Department has an abundance of sports, and creative programs, and our Service Learning Department has wonderful connections with many service partners both in and around Johannesburg and globally. 

The fact that we have a Service Learning Coordinator, who focuses on partners and this strand specifically, and an Activities Director, who focuses on CCA’s, means that I am able to work much more with the students individually on their experiences and CAS Projects and with the advisors in the program. It really is a major team effort. 

I am sure the team became even stronger over the last year! What overall strategies did you utilize to confront the challenges we have all been facing?

This year has obviously seen a significant turn in the ability to continue with CAS experiences in the “usual” way. But it has also forced us to revisit the program and be reminded of the value of the balance it creates in student lives. When it became apparent that we could not put things on hold and would need to find ways to continue with CAS, as the pandemic was not going away any time soon, we started engaging students in conversations about the effects of COVID-19 on them as teenagers. We looked at the impact on their communities and started thinking about what we could do to be proactive and creative. 

We encouraged students to see the benefits of CAS, especially in these times. We adopted strategies like offering online opportunities (photography courses, virtual conferences, online workouts) regularly and having individual check-ins with students to address their unique needs and situations. 

Being able to offer a tailored plan of action for each student is so important. How has the format of your teaching, more generally, or CAS, specifically, changed over the past year?

My teaching, in general, has changed in that I realize how much I took the movement, laughter, noise, chaos, and opportunities for collaboration for granted in my art class. When we went online during the first wave in South Africa, I quickly realized that I taught a subject that would be fundamental in getting students away from their screens and outside doing practical work. We focused lots more on the hands-on projects and tried to find inspiration in the world around us. 

The format of CAS changed to become a crucial part of a balanced life — to still function mentally and physically in a tough and unhealthy situation. It also became about seeing how the whole COVID experience affected their direct community. Unemployment, poverty, and hunger became much more noticeable in and around Johannesburg. The service strand of CAS became much more about what we can do immediately and what is needed NOW in the community.  

American International School of Johannesburg 2

In addition to promoting a more local response, has the pandemic altered your understanding of what CAS has to offer students?

Very much so. This year especially, I really do believe that the extra encouragement and push to do things for CAS has helped students. Just having them go for a daily walk, do some photography, take an online painting or yoga class, and being accountable for it was probably really important for students to continue functioning successfully. Also, seeing what was happening in their communities in a very direct way was eye-opening in terms of how important each individual’s role is in helping in their environments. 

What, for you as an instructor, are the most rewarding elements of CAS? Do you have any particularly memorable examples of student engagement?

The most rewarding is when you see how the program has helped students find something they enjoy or are passionate about. It is wonderful when they return for visits after IB and tell you that sports, community work, and the arts have been built into their lives, even though they no longer have to write reflections about them! 

What I thought was really enjoyable to see during the time at home was that so many students decided to use this time to learn how to cook with their parents. And so many of them reflected on how nice it was to connect with their families through this experience. Another thing we noticed was that many students were quick to jump into action with food drives and donating 100’s of sandwiches when it became apparent that there was an increase in food insecurity, particularly in the townships, and when food parcel distributions became problematic. 

American International School of Johannesburg 1

It is so heartening to see the community come together like that. Do you think the pandemic has offered any opportunities when it comes to CAS and education more broadly?

Although it has been challenging and exhausting this year to be flexible, come up with alternatives, and sometimes even stay positive — exciting things did come out of it. Our students were able to connect with so many other students through virtual platforms and activities. This has also opened up a new way of collaborating and working together with a much larger and diverse group of people. Another great thing I saw from students is that they were faced with disappointments and challenges, they have learned to take things in stride and persevere.

In CAS and education in general, we have all had to remember to be flexible and sympathetic and that it is ok to “fly by the seat of your pants” sometimes. We do not always have to rely on logic or knowledge, but purely on instinct and need. 

Many thanks to Anine and the whole community at AISJ for their participation! Please stay tuned for future articles highlighting how CAS happens in schools around the world.