Happy Back-to-School Eve!

Happy Back-to-School Eve!

We are on the eve of returning to physical, face-to-face schooling for all students again, for the first time in nearly three months (if you discount the single day on 4th Jan). It somehow feels like the first day of term, and at the same time last week felt like the end of term (the past 8 weeks of online learning have been some experience, but relaxing they have not been).

So I have found myself this weekend thinking back on these last couple of months. This second period of (partial) school closures has been, for most, more demanding than the first last year. Many more teachers have either pre-recorded lessons, or taught live online lessons. We have had to learn at an accelerated rate how to do this, we have developed new skills and worked out how to use online programmes we didn’t even know existed before.

So, as we are about to transition back into the physical classroom, I have been reflecting on the following three questions:

  1. What am I looking forward to rediscovering?
  2. What do I plan to carry over from online lessons into my classroom?
  3. What will I miss from online lessons, that I can’t continue in school?

What am I most looking forward to about being back in the classroom?

Without a shadow of a doubt, this will be having my students in front of me in person again!

1. I can’t wait to see them smile hello as they walk into my classroom!

I can’t wait to see the expressions of effort, questioning and understanding on their faces as they grapple with a challenging piece of learning.

I can’t wait to be able to read students’ faces when I explain something new or ask them questions. No more waiting silently in front of a screen of students whose cameras are off, assuming that they are thinking about their response before typing it into the chat or unmuting themselves. Much as the techniques described in my previous blog are useful for increasing student engagement in online live lessons, they come a poor second to being able to actually see your students work in the classroom. You know by simply looking at the sea of faces in front of you whether you have lost them or not. You can tell from the expression that they pull whether you need to rephrase the question, or go back a step or two in your explanation. This is hard to replicate online.

2. Pace of the lesson

I am also looking forward to being able to pick up the pace in my lessons again. Everything in an online live lesson is invariably slower than in the classroom. Whilst it did provide an important connection to our students during lockdown, technology was also a barrier between us, slowing both the communication and the transition from one element of the lesson to the next. Remove this barrier and I’ll be back to firing out lots of questions, keeping students on their toes, looking them in the whites of their eyes to ensure that they are 100% engaged in what we are doing – I can’t wait!

3. My commute (honestly!)

The other aspect of going back to school I am strangely looking forward to is my commute. This has always for me been the time when I mentally transition from home to school and vice versa; a time of quiet reflection, which I have missed during lockdown. It has also been the main time when I can listen to audiobooks: with two young children and a full time job, I rarely find time to pick up a physical book; I can sometimes fit in listening to an audiobook around some my daily activities at home; but my time in the car is when I can listen for longest, uninterrupted. It’s how I have found time to delve into the likes of ‘Why don’t students like school?’, ‘Boys don’t try?’, ‘Seven myths about education’, ‘Practice Perfect’ and more.

What do I plan to carry over from online lessons into my classroom?

All of us have learnt a whole new range of skills during lockdown, and rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, we ought to take some time to reflect on this – what will we continue to use in our classrooms from tomorrow? Here is my list:

1. Improved teacher explanations

I have improved the clarity and sequencing of my explanations, precisely because it has been so much harder to ‘read the room’ in online lessons. And because I have been mostly talking to blank screens (cameras off), I have been even more aware of what I say than I normally am already. I have listened more carefully to myself speak, and have heard better my internal voice telling me “Well that wasn’t as clear as it could have been.” This increased awareness of what we are saying, and how we are explaining, is an important one to carry back into the classroom with us – let’s continue to prioritise the clarity and succinctness of teacher explanations.

I have also improved the quality of my drawings and diagrams under the visualiser, or using a graphics tablet, to support my explanations. This is definitely something that I will take into my face to face teaching, and will continue to focus on and develop. I highly recommend watching Adam Boxer’s videos here if this is something you would also like to get better at. I will also be taking my graphics tablet into my classroom, so that I can continue to annotate my slides in a lesson without blocking students’ view of the board.

2. Improved lesson sequencing

For online live lessons, I and many teachers I work with have simplified our lesson sequence:

  1. a quick recall starter
  2. the teacher explaining/modelling the new learning
  3. questioning to check for understanding, often multiple choice to make it quicker and easier to involve as many as possible (a particular challenge online)
  4. students practising, with verbal or typed feedback being given by the teacher.

There are of course many many ways to sequence your lesson, and to check for understanding, use faded practice, give feedback etc. But I think that having to adapt to online lessons will have helped many teachers simplify their mental model of a lesson sequence – and I mean simplify here in a good way.

We haven’t been able to use myriad worksheets. We haven’t been able to throw lots of activities at students, to keep them busy busy busy in the lesson. So let’s not go back to that. We know (or at least an increasing number of us know) that ‘busyness’, ‘task completion’, ‘activity’ are all poor proxies for learning (if you would like to read more on this, see the blogs that I have linked to at the end of this post). So let’s not allow these to creep back into our lessons. On top of improving your students’ learning, you will also save on a lot of photocopying!

3. Comfortable silences

I have become very comfortable with longer silences. They are part and parcel of live online lessons, even with your keenest, most engaged students, simply because it may take them a little while to type their response or find the unmute button again.

Now much as I am looking forward to upping the pace of my lessons, this newfound comfort with silence is going to serve me and my students very well – in the classroom, students also sometimes need a little thinking time before responding to a question. Too often, teachers don’t give students enough time and jump in, because a few seconds of silence can feel awkward, like time has stopped. This is why many school talk about the ‘Pose, Pause, Pounce’ strategy of questioning: ask your question, WAIT whilst the students think (perhaps count to 10 in your head) and then name a student to answer. This pause should feel less awkward having now taught online for 8 weeks.

The other time that it is worth a teacher waiting in silence is after they have given students (hopefully very clear) logistical instructions – perhaps students are starting an independent task in silence; or perhaps they are collecting some equipment, or packing up. If the teacher’s instructions were clear enough and/or this is an embedded routine, then the teacher shouldn’t feel the need to continue to talk. But so often we do!

So let’s remember, that sometimes silence is exactly what’s needed.

4. Online quizzing

For all of my online live lessons, I have used Google Forms to quiz students, both at the start of lessons and often part way through a lesson. As these were mostly multiple choice questions, they were quick for me to produce and for students to complete, as well as being self-marking. Students got feedback straight away, and I had instant access to individual scores, question level analysis and whole class analysis. I also started to use other online quizzing tools, such as Carousel Learning.

We haven’t got the tech (and don’t allow mobiles) for my students to continue to use these during face to face lessons, but now that they are very familiar with (and like the ease of) these formats I intend to continue using them for homework – either as consolidation immediately after a lesson, or to gauge their ability to recall prior learning before a lesson.

I can then share the question level analyses with the students in class (which becomes a learning opportunity) and it can help inform my planning for subsequent lessons – a great tool to continue to use!

What will I miss from online lessons, that I can’t continue in school?

The honest answer?

Wearing my slippers and having my big fluffy dressing gown on my lap during lessons. I may find it hard to tear myself away from these comforts on Monday morning!

On a more serious note, much as I am looking forward to listening to more audiobooks on my drive to work, I have enjoyed the more relaxed morning routine afforded by the lack of commute, such as being able to go out for a quick walk just before my first lesson or meeting in the mornings.

I have enjoyed being able to pop to the kitchen for a quick drink in between lessons. Or to the loo for that matter.

And I have enjoyed being more relaxed at home with my family in the evenings, because I haven’t had to rush home in time for dinner at the end of a long day in school.

So, as much as we will be focusing on students’ mental health and wellbeing, we also need to look out for our own, and our colleagues’, mental health and wellbeing. This home-work balance is something that I will work hard to maintain when I am back at school, because I have enjoyed it too much to let it go entirely.

Finally, it goes without saying that I am looking forward to seeing my colleagues in person too. We are social beings, and our schools are organic places made up of people and relationships, interactions and social norms that govern our daily working lives. And these structures suit me down to the ground, giving my week a routine and rhythm that I thrive on, and that I have missed these last two months.

Welcome back to school!!

A few starting points to read more about false proxies for learning:

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