Educating and forming Bonds of Friendship in times of the Coronavirus

The Diesterweg Scholarship (DWS) Darmstadt perceives itself as an educational project for the whole family. The two-year program has already for eight years been accompanying schoolchildren during the transition to secondary schools, also assisting their parents, as well as their siblings.

This Fall, the DWS has started a new round. In the interview, those responsible at the Diakonisches Werk Darmstadt-Dieburg, the Regional Social Services Division of this country's Protestant Church, look back on a special fourth round in times of the coronavirus, and provide insight into the course of the family scholarship that has just commenced.

The DWS project is at once both about educating and achieving a sense of community. How has it been possible to adhere to this concept during the pandemic?

Dr. Ulrike Landzettel: Commitment is something that, already prior to Covid-19, was of key significance for the Diesterweg Scholarship. It applies to both parties: both to us, as a project team, who, in a fixed set of circumstances, have been walking the fourth and fifth grade children, as well as their parents and siblings, through the procedure for an entire two years, and to the participants who have been committed, for the duration of the program, as a family, to regularly make use of what the DWS has to offer at weekends. Precisely during the pandemic, in which many familiar activities have been interrupted and no events could be planned with certainty, it has been crucial for the Diesterweg families to know that the DWS is carrying on its support and does not leave them out in the cold, without any backup, in this difficult situation, which is sometimes accompanied by a confusing stream of information, home schooling and few opportunities for the children to move about.

Murat Uzunkavak: We have succeeded in what we are doing via the social media, video conferences or the telephone, as well as by arranging individual consultations at our premises at the Muckerhaus. As a base station for the DWS, the building has, ever since the program started, been a go-to point for the families.

Almut Siodlaczek: We are very excited that we have also been able to embrace the new season with the new families taking up the program here in September and October – in two subgroups, rather than in the form of a large welcome event for all the families, yet it nevertheless took place.

Was it more difficult, in the fifth round, than in previous years, to motivate families for the DWS?

Murat Uzunkavak: We already had the feeling that both the schools and the parents are exhausted, due to the coronavirus pandemic and the associated additional duties. Nonetheless, fifteen families have joined us again this time, who are all very receptive and have an interest in the joint educational journey. In the course of two trial days for families, which took place on two Saturdays, and – in smaller groups than is usually the case – the families were able to gain an insight into the program and get to know the location, the team and the other families.

Dr. Ulrike Landzettel: When, due to the coronavirus, we had to take the program, during the fourth round, to the virtual realm, or transfer our activities to a hybrid format, we were already in touch with the families. To gain new families, and, in the process, meet the target group for the first time, or exclusively, online, is, on the other hand, a lot more challenging.

Almut Siodlaczek: We have therefore put in a lot of time in advance for the potential families of the fifth round. We were unable to conduct the classic parent information evenings, that we normally always hold at the schools, in the usual form. They have been replaced by one-to-one discussions, and we have invited the families to join us at video conferences, or to visit us here at the Muckerhaus.

Dr. Ulrike Landzettel: It was a challenge for the families, and also for us, to go there and actually conduct the online meetings. Thus, it is even more important for us to now have direct contact with the families, in the new round. We will continue to engage in the small group work and conduct the online meetings, as they provide new opportunities.

What are those?

Almut Siodlaczek: I very much miss the moments when all the families would, for example, attend joint breakfasts. However, I have by all means been able to identify benefits through the new format, e.g. that individuals who are otherwise rather reticent are quicker to contribute, and also contribute more often, in smaller groups.

Murat Uzunkavak: It is obviously a prerequisite for this working out that visual means and methods are deployed along with the virtual formats, helping to overcome linguistic barriers to contributing, and, of course, the necessary technology needs to be in place, as well as corresponding basic education in digital matters. We meet families who have a very high aptitude for this type of digital activity, while others, in turn, have little knowledge of it. For us, it is, in this context, most interesting to see how attendees are mutually able to support one another.

Dr. Ulrike Landzettel: How important it is to be equipped with terminals is something that we have seen in the past few months. So we are very pleased that the Maria Streibich Foundation has provided the current DWS families with a printer and a laptop. Handling the latter correctly is something that all children aged nine and over – in other words, the fourth graders and their older siblings – have learned during a holiday project, which, after the welcome event, forms the second stage of the DWS program. However, the analogue media are also of relevance to us. As has been the case in the previous rounds, there will be a family day in the library – of that we remain confident. After all, we are most optimistic that we are ready for just about anything that may happen. We are oriented towards the present circumstances, and – just like the families – are thankful for any opportunities that newly present themselves. We accept the global pandemic situation for what it is and make the best of it.