Lessons of remote learning

It’s been a very interesting Term 2. We’ve settled into remote learning (as much as we can) and have built some routines around it. The exhaustion hasn’t shifted and the hours required to keep up with everything haven’t shortened however there is a light at the end of the tunnel – mere days left until we have all of our children back at school.

With this period of remote learning coming to a close, I wanted to reflect on what I’ve learnt & would like to keep as well as the bits I’m heartily glad to see the back of.

What I want to keep:

  • the fresh spark it’s brought to my teaching. I’m not a teacher who allows myself to get stale anyway but remote teaching has certainly forced me to try out new things, explore different tools and reflect on the success or pitfalls of elements of my practice.
  • the regular, structured feedback to students. I’ve always loved Google Classroom but have never managed to use it as consistently as we’ve done during this time. I’m looking forward to figuring out how to keep using this and other methods to keep up that personalised feedback (although, somehow, without the loooong days that went along with it).
  • embracing the variety of communication methods. I have seen a whole new side to many of my students and, when I thought about why, I think the varied communication methods open to them helped. I have received numerous articulate emails from students, asking clearly for help with different things, telling me what they’ve tried and exactly which part they’re stuck on. That might not sound unusual but these are students who find it hard to find their voice in the day to day noise of a classroom. For others, our small group Webex meetings have been an area of success as the comfort of a screen has helped them find their voice.
  • clarity of instruction. Having students try to follow instructions on our Google Classroom has brought into sharp focus the need for us to really think through what we expect and how those words and sentences might be interpreted by students. We’ve had quite a unique snapshot of how our students see things and, without us there to answer immediate questions, we’ve been given an insight into their problem solving strategies and processes.
  • giving students more choice in how they structure their day. Not sure what this might look like in the classroom but I have really seen the value in allowing students the space to manage their learning and want to continue to give them as much room to do this as possible.

What I’m happy to let go:

  • the ridiculously long days. Like other teachers, I always work longer than the 7.6 hours a day that I’m paid for but I’ve been facing days nearly twice that virtually every day for the last 7 weeks. I couldn’t find a way around it at the time but am happy to go back to ‘merely’ 10 hour days of ‘normal’ schooling.
  • having an exceptionally open classroom. I don’t mind being observed and am happy to have discussions about ups and downs of my lessons however having parents and other adults potentially listening to my virtual lessons has added an extra layer of stress that I won’t be sorry to leave behind. When another teacher or member of leadership observes my practice, they bring to it their educational background with clear expectations and boundaries. When parents hear a snapshot of a lesson as they walk past in their kitchen, it’s not only without an understanding of the pedagogical decisions behind it, it’s also out of context and could easily be interpreted in multiple ways.

Part of this post is also about ensuring I have a record of this time and one of the overwhelming feelings I want to remember is pride. I am immensely proud of myself and my colleagues, within and beyond my school, in how we managed to pull together a term of remote learning that managed to cater for the broad spectrum of students, families and situations we work with while managing our own personal issues.

This last point has been a big one for me that I think has so often been overlooked, particularly in the (very small) number of complaints I’ve had from parents about our offerings not being good enough – teachers are also humans who are experiencing this challenging time in their own ways. Many are also educating their own children at home, have partners who have lost their jobs, are dealing with illness or family difficulties and coping with the general limitations that this pandemic has put on all of us. In short, while pulling off a quite incredible and all encompassing change to our work, we have been there for our students while also managing our own challenging circumstances. So bravo educators – across all year levels and in all sectors, teachers and support staff. Bravo.

A day in the life of remote teaching

Social and conventional media has been overflowing in the last few days with pictures of kitchen tables covered with assorted books, pens and laptops with accompanying text about how parents are coping with their new role as direct supervisors of their child’s education. (Please note, I didn’t use the term ‘home schooling’ which this blatantly isn’t.)

This is completely understandable – I can imagine how overwhelmed many parents must feel, particularly those who are juggling multiple children and who are attempting to work at home themselves. For some parents, their own experiences of schooling may not have been completely positive which also could be providing an added layer of potential stress.

I thought I’d put out there a snapshot of the other side of the equation, to balance out the narrative and provide a well rounded picture. I will acknowledge that this is only my snapshot and that this looks very different for many colleagues who are attempting to do this while also supervising their own children’s learning – a whole other overflowing kettle of fish.

My first day as a ‘remote learning’ teacher:

  • I manage to enjoy a run before school (almost unheard of on a non-remote learning day) and then breakfast before making it into my home office by 8am.
  • Review the learning material that I’d planned previously and post it to our school remote learning website & to my grade’s Google Classroom.
  • Within 2 minutes of posting to Google Classroom, I had students adding comments and sending emails asking questions about the day’s learning. I reassure them that we’d unpack it all together at our online meeting.
  • Jump on to my online meeting with my team teaching colleague and 40 ish wonderful smiling students. Go through our day’s activities, trying to keep up with questions being thrown at us in the chat and desperately trying to carefully look at each face to read how they were really.
  • Once most of our cherubs leave the meeting to get started on work, we stayed online to work with, reassure and go through the entire thing again with several students who were anxious and unsure and, really, just missed us and needed us to ‘sit’ with them in a virtual sense.
  • Notice that my inbox is pinging and find several emails from staff with various technological issues to be resolved – Webex problems, things to be uploaded to the remote learning website, Seesaw questions, student password queries. Our staff have embraced opportunities to connect and I’m keen to answer them as quickly as possible so that they can get back to the important job – connecting with kids. Put together a ‘how to’ guide for some of the queries I’ve had multiple times to get them through.
  • Meanwhile, my Google Classroom rolls along with lots of comments from students that need replying to – questions about the learning tasks, submission of bits of their learning that they need feedback on and many who just need reassurance that they are on the right track.
  • By now, there are 10 tabs open on Chrome and messages accumulating in Seesaw – this time from 3 parents with issues ranging from Webex technical issues to not having enough books for their child to read. Have to do a search to figure out how to solve the technical issue and made myself a note to go into school and handpick some books for this child.
  • Phone rings – Principal updating me on what’s going on at school, how many students of essential workers have turned up and what the plan is going forward. Discuss some of the children we’re especially worried about and talk through options that might work to support them.
  • Teaching colleague pops up on messenger – we need to look at tomorrow’s planning and tweak it based on what we’re seeing today. What went well in our meeting this morning and what can we change? Who seemed engaged and who was yawning? What do we do about the 10 students who didn’t log on and haven’t replied to emails or messages – how do we make sure they’re ok? We formulate a plan and add phone calls to the list of things to do.
  • Can’t leave the email too long – more have pinged in from students asking for help, advice and reassurance and it’s important to respond quickly so they feel like we’re there with them as much as we can.
  • Take a call from the ES staff member who works in our classroom, planning how she can continue to support the students she works with.
  • Notice that a few students (and parents) are asking about uploading tasks on Google Classroom so create a quick screencast to show them how to do this and upload it. Am grateful that my technology skills are up to this challenge – not sure how I’d be managing right now if they weren’t.
  • Realise it’s now 2pm and I haven’t eaten yet but don’t really have time so rush to the fridge and grab whatever I can find to eat back in my office. Have had some requests from parents to borrow laptops for home learning so I add this to the list – will have to find time amidst all of this to go to school to get them sorted.
  • Afternoon check in with the students to see how they’re going and a message out to parents to thank them for their work, both of which see us receiving further messages that need replying to.
  • Check the washup in Google Classroom – most students have submitted their assignment for the day which now need to be given their final feedback and returned to them, ready for the next day.
  • Webinar to attend ‘after school’ being run by the Department on tools for remote learning – nothing like building the plane while you’re flying it.
  • Still can see comments coming in from the kids and another email from a parent so jump on and reply so that it doesn’t get added to tomorrow’s list.
  • Decide I’d better look at tomorrow’s list to see what the day might look like – lots of tasks that will require me to be at school so I need to time it carefully so that both the tasks and my remote teaching load can both happen.
  • 7pm. My eyes are done from all the screen time, my head is reminding me that I didn’t have enough water today & I’m a whole different kind of exhausted to that which I normally am after a day of teaching. And this is the first week of term. Time to log off, rest up and get ready to do it all again….

The evolution of remote learning or ‘What the heck is it?’

As a student who went to school in country Victoria, remote learning isn’t a new concept although for me it was called ‘distance education’. It involved a pile of material being sent through the post, work done and faxed or posted back and dial in lessons (in an era before the internet) which allowed us to interact with others in our subject. I did 3 out of my 5 Year 12 subjects by distance education and learnt a lot, mostly about my inability to manage my time when unsupervised and how I could complete requirements as quickly and efficiently as possible without actually permanently retaining information or developing skills.

Over the last week, many teaching staff have been spending time thinking about, researching, talking about and planning ‘remote learning’ in case we don’t head back to school after school holidays thanks to coronavirus. A lot of time has been spent discussing and debating what we mean by ‘remote learning’ and what we envisage it looking like.

I’ve really valued the experiences fellow educators have shared on Twitter and documents and suggestions I’ve seen. In the rich information landscape we live in, it’s a potential problem of too much and is a challenge to filter through and work out the best tools when it feels like my inbox is full of educational providers trying to ‘help’ me. Instead of tools and worksheets and schedules, I’ve tried to focus instead on what students need at this time, what myself and my colleagues are capable of providing and what range of needs, backgrounds, support networks and circumstances the students bring.

So here’s what I think is important to consider and think about with remote learning:

  • It’s not school. It’s not even close to school. It won’t look like or sound like school. And that’s ok.
  • It needs to consist of smaller chunks of meaningful, motivating learning that is fun to do. This might mean one or two open ended activities a day rather than 5 strictly timetabled and scripted subjects.
  • Students need a routine but it has to be one that fits and that’s definitely not ‘one size fits all’. We can’t assume all families and all households work like our own so accept and provide flexibility to allow every family to create the routine that works for them. Timetabling specific lesson times could be putting pressure on parents already close to the edge and don’t guarantee any better quality learning than a more open ended approach.
  • It needs to be learning that can be done independently by all learners as we can’t assume that there are adults or older peers at home with unlimited time or patience available to assist. We also can’t assume that adults or carers are all literate, numerate or fluent in ‘eduspeak’ that many of our children are. So keep it simple and make sure it’s something the child won’t need any or much help with.
  • The biggest reason to engage our students in remote learning at this time is to continue some structure and routine for them and keep their active brains ticking over in different ways. Our students’ mental health is being sorely tested and a daily check in with their teacher and some learning activities to engage in could make all the difference, allowing them to focus on something else.
  • It is not the end of the world that we’re not going to meet every curriculum outcome and I think it very unlikely that any child is going to be severely disadvantaged educationally from this disrupted time. Firstly – everyone else is in the same situation and secondly – it’s naive to think learning only happens at school. Learning happens anywhere and everywhere and the learning that happens while sitting on a plastic chair in my classroom is not inherently more valuable than learning that happens anywhere else.
  • Giving kids more screen time isn’t automatically the answer. There are going to be so many times in this that kids turn to a screen – for entertainment, for socialising, to maintain family ties – and yes, there is space there for learning. However it also makes sense to provide as many rich learning opportunities as we can that don’t involve screen time – it’s all about balance.
  • Consider your goals – at the end of this, I hope to have helped my students through it while feeling safe, supported and cared for while also helping them develop some skills in resilience, flexibility, independent learning and time management. I’m not particularly concerned if they haven’t met a particular outcome in the Victorian Curriculum – this is a mere blip in their 13 years of compulsory schooling so there’s plenty of time for that.
  • It’s not school. It’s not even close to school. It won’t look like or sound like school. And that’s ok.IMG_0399