Almost seven months ago, I decided that 2020 was going to be the year that I committed to writing and publishing regularly, making the bold promise that I would try to release something each week. I did quite well, managing to stick to this plan until the start of March... then, everything changed.
It is an understatement to suggest that this blog post has been a long time coming. Indeed, I started writing it on the 16th of March - the day we closed our school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It became clear that the weeks and months that were to follow were not going to be conducive to me keeping up to date with the community and my content. I take my hats off to those who have managed to do so!
When I started this post, almost four months ago, it had the provisional title; ‘Why I am looking forward to a school closure’.
Little did I know what was to come... three months without a day off and not even a day which ended before 1am.
Today, I have kept parts of the original post - these sections are highlighted in bold.
With the announcement on Tuesday evening that we were for for all intense and purpose entering a full lock-down, my early optimism was quickly diminishing. This has suddenly become very real. Even only a couple of weeks ago, I never really appreciated how this would impact everyone and so quickly, life has suddenly changed in a way we never thought possible.
We are living through unprecedented times and for our students, teachers and parents, we all find ourselves in a position where nobody really knows the right answers, what to say and what to prioritise.
As a teacher, I can only hope that what I am doing is enough and isn’t adding pressure to an already difficult situation. However, I am confident in what we are doing and what we are asking of our families.
We are very fortunate. We have been able to ensure that all of our pupils from Primary 3 upwards have access to a personal device at home. We are already 1:1 with BYOD from Primary 5, but we took the decision to send school iPads home with our Primary 3 and 4 children too. We have a closed and secure app (similar to Instagram) and teachers from Nursery to Primary 4 have been using this to share video messages and tasks to the parents of their children every day. From Primary 5, teachers are sending daily tasks through Firefly, our chosen VLE and asking children to submit works via Showbie, which also allows us to provide excellent feedback and support.
In our senior school, we continue to use Firefly to share tasks and instructions, however our use of Office 365 has encouraged us to utilise Teams to run online classes.
I am so incredibly proud of the approach taken by our school and the willingness of our team to execute the best possible provision available to us. We chose early on not to adopt a synchronous learning experience for our primary school classes, offering some live instruction in the senior school. I will be honest, we received pressure early on to follow other local schools, but stood firm and I am so glad we did as it has proven to o be the right approach for us. All schools are different and different approaches will have worked for different organisations, but for us, our priority was always our pupils. I feel strongly that the offer of ‘live’ lessons offers very little in terms of a quality, differentiated learning experience. Our teachers worked tirelessly (myself included) creating pre-recorded content which introduced concepts and tasks, offering progression over the course of each week. This meant that families could decide when their children were going to access and complete tasks, rather than having to stick to the routine of a fixed timetable.
We did offer a recommended timetable, with scheduled times when children knew their teachers would be available and on-hand using the Class Discussion tool within Showbie. We also scheduled regular pastoral group chats using Microsoft Teams. Don’t get me wrong, there are individuals who required and received additional ‘live’ 1:1 or small group support, but for the large majority of our students, this worked very well.
The majority of my remit is focused on what is happening in our primary school and our approach is very much focused on the well-being of our children and their families. I think the majority are
Without a shadow of a doubt, the most important element of success throughout this process is going to be the maintaining of connections, both with our children and our colleagues.
This proved to be even more true than I had suspected it would be. We surveyed families and the overwhelming feedback was that they were happy with the quality and quantity of the work provided, but the interaction of pastoral video chats were highly appreciated and valued. So we increased the regularity and size of these group calls. What many teachers found though was that the children benefited from having a structure to the call and this encouraged discussion and collaboration. I used the Kahoot remote learning tools to share Kahoot quizzes with my children and that worked incredibly well.
We also hosted a virtual class talent show, using FlipGrid. I had foolishly assumed that providing the children with a platform to watch and reflect on the performances of their friends would be enough, but on the day it became very clear that they wanted to make an event of it watch the performances together. I share my class with another teacher and we achieved this by live-streaming clips of each performance and our reactions. We used Class Discussion in Showbie to encourage the children to share their thoughts and reactions too and they really enjoyed this form of interaction - I wish I had done more of this.
So what now?
So, in Scotland, we have already been on ‘holiday’ for a week. I have taken that time to switch off a little and to pack away the temporary office that I had created in my living room. But already, even more than normal, I am feeling the need to start preparing for the new school year. I hope that at the end of August, we are to return to some form of normality. I hate the phrase ‘the new normal’, which everyone seems to refer to, because I do hope that what we are returning to is still far from what we have to accept as a long-term solution. However, I am looking forward to seeing our children back in school and I am very keen for our school community to build on the progress that we have made during this period of school closure.
So I suppose, in a way, I don’t fully want to go back to where we were at the beginning of 2020. I don’t want all of our teachers to fall right back into their old habits of lesson delivery and content creation. I hope that we are able to continue to develop the skills of our teachers which have already grown tremendously in recent weeks and months.
I am proud of how Microsoft Teams has been adopted by our teachers and I hope and expect that it continue to be used alongside OneDrive for the storage and sharing of resources and content. Showbie was already a huge element of our strategy in the primary school and I hope that we can build on our use of this next session and perhaps that teachers will be encouraged to provide more of their feedback digitally. The third big win for me, has been our use of Flipgrid. I have really enjoyed sharing this platform with more teachers and have been hugely impressed with the variety of approaches taken to implement it across the curriculum. I am really hopeful that its use will continue to grow and move further up the school next session.
In September, I relinquish my responsibilities as a class teacher, for the time being anyway, as I have been given the incredible opportunity to focus on our development of e-learning across our whole school, in my position as Head of e-learning.
In reflection, I am confident that students have been offered quality learning experiences, in line with a timetable and with regular tracking and feedback, which, in some cases has possibly been even more effective than under normal circumstances. However, what we cannot offer online is the opportunity to develop skills of listening and responding, the interactions that we offer every day, which we all know are so important. We have found new ways to show them we care, but nothing replaces a warm, in person ‘hello’ every morning when you walk into school.
Ultimately, what has become even clearer during these times, is that human connection cannot and never will be replaced by technology. Technology has its place and thank goodness we live in a world that means we are able to continue to teach remotely. This summer is different in so many ways and more than ever, it is important to take a chance to switch off and recover from what has been the toughest teaching term I think anyone has ever experienced. What I am glad for though, is that we have come out the end and I am more excited to get back to school than Evernote August 17th... that is going to be a good day!