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….

‘For the greater good’

I had strong intentions this year of being more active on my teacher blog. Having just ticked over into my 15th year of teaching, I have as much enthusiasm and passion for this career as I did when I first stepped into the classroom and so many new ideas, big and small that I had on my list for this year. I love having this forum to share them beyond my classrom and, while I haven’t used it much, this year I was coming into it with renewed fervour.

Then the bushfires came. They didn’t directly affect my school….this time. But indirectly they affected all of us and they definitely affected my students, even if none were there at the time. I pushed on with all the things I set out to achieve with my beautiful and energetic grade but found myself working, if at all possible, just a bit harder to ensure their mental health was catered for in challenging times. Children can’t learn if they don’t feel safe and loved and, for many, the bushfires shaved some of their sense of safety with the ‘what if’ questions floating into their heads at random times. In small ways that I didn’t notice at the time, my job was a little harder. It’s always been about more than curriculum planning and assessment but the balance towards wellbeing tipped a little further and put new pressures on me. I was ok with that.

And now the world has got the coughs and sneezes. If I thought my students were troubled before, this has shown me that I didn’t even understand what troubled meant. Sometimes it’s showing itself in obvious ways – students who can’t stop talking about coronavirus or washing their hands compulsively or constantly asking questions. For most others, it’s the less obvious but just as powerful signs that I notice because I see these humans every day – anger that flares when it never used to, inability to remain focused on things that used to bring them joy, friendship bubbles where they’ve never had them before. The effort it’s currently taking to make my classroom that safe space where our shared purpose in growing minds happens is getting harder and the balance has tipped so much further to the wellbeing side.

I don’t want this to be a debate about whether or not to keep schools open – I don’t feel either qualified or experienced in that area to be able to comment. As a Government employee, I’ll do what I’m told – if schools stay open, I’ll keep working as I am and helping my students be their best selves. If schools close, I’ll do what I can to help support learning beyond our classroom walls. I just wanted to let those outside of teaching in to see what our days look like right now.

This week is one of the longest I’ve experienced in my education career with each day of uncertainty and change feeling like a week. We are trying to keep things normal and our routines stable in an education system where everything is changing – excursions and camps going ahead one day then cancelled the next, sports days and assemblies cancelled, all the things our students were looking forward to taken away. Our students run around at playtime looking like life ticks on normally but teachers and ES staff are working hard behind the scenes to smooth over the cracks, support and encourage students who are feeling anxious, reassure those who have absorbed incorrect messages from the media and try to inject some fun, even when we’re not feeling much like it ourselves. I have colleagues who worry about their own health and that of their loved ones, unable to go into lockdown ourselves as we’re needed to care for our students who may, as time goes on, unknowingly pass the virus on to their teachers and school staff. Social distancing in a primary school may as well be something in one of the fantasy stories they write – it can’t happen. And as for hand washing? We try, we really do but children of all ages have a complete inability to keep their hands out of…well, anywhere and anything.

None of us want a big deal made and most are willing to do whatever is deemed necessary to get through this as painlessly as we can. ‘For the greater good’ and all that. No one would argue that health care workers aren’t putting in long hours in demanding conditions and at great risk to their own health as part of their contribution to containment efforts. While not in the front line in a medical sense, school staff are under pressure in different ways, trying to provide learning for those at school as well as those who’ve opted to stay home, managing the mental health of our students (and helping our colleagues) while also dealing with our own stress and anxiety like that which every other adult is feeling. A little acknowledgement, particularly from leaders who are talking about whether or not to close schools, that children aren’t alone in those buildings and aren’t those most at risk in this scenario would go a long way towards making us feel like the significant contribution and risk we’re taking is being seen and appreciated.

From the campfire to the holodeck: Creating engaging and powerful 21st Century learning environments

As usual, I’m using my holidays to plough through my pile of books which I collected throughout 2015 and didn’t get time to read. This one – From the campfire to the holodeck – has been shouting at me to read it for a while and, having just finished it, I can officially say my mind is expanded.

In this book, David Thornburg takes us through some different ideas about spaces (both real and metaphorical) for learning – campfires, waterholes, caves and life.

Campfires are where learners gather around a more experienced person and learn from their stories. Sound familiar? It should – this has been the dominant educational paradigm forever. Or at least a really, really long time. In most classrooms you walk into around the world, this is how most students will be learning, for most of the time. And there are far too many ‘mosts’ in those sentences.

Waterholes are where peers gather and learn from each other through conversations, working together and general social interaction. The latest buzzword for this is ‘collaboration’ but how many times are we truly allowing our students to learn with and from each other? And how often is this valuable time cut short so we can move on to the next thing?

Caves are spaces for quiet reflection and contemplation – time to be alone and think. I think this is an area that needs to be worked on – how much time and space do we give to students to do this?

And life is the practical space where all of the skills and knowledge acquired in the other settings come together to be put to work. Taking the abstract and making it real, giving it purpose. Transfer the knowledge gained across disciplines and see how it all fits together.

Before you start imagining students running off to build caves under tables and setting fire to your carpet, these aren’t necessarily actual spaces, more ways of thinking about learning and the different ways it happens. However some people involved in classroom design have certainly gone down a more literal path and I can see how this could be quite successful.

Further chapters in the text talk about how these spaces can be seen and utilised in the virtual world and how technology can support such a framework.

Most mind-blowing of all is the section of Thornburg’s book about holodecks. These very game-like spaces allow learners to be immersed in real, captivating scenarios where learning is critical to the success of the mission (not just required to get a good score on NAPLAN). At first, I will confess to being a little sceptical but, by the end of the chapter, I was completely won over. I’ve now started reading a little more on the work of Woorana Park Primary in Melbourne – looks to be an amazing school doing truly groundbreaking things.

My mind is well and truly buzzing right now, full of possibilities and ideas. As well as a few potential walls (and people to convince). So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to my cave for a while to contemplate. Catch up with you around the waterhole about it later…

105521304_e0f096f2a3_zimage ‘By the campfire‘ by Cape Cod Cyclist at https://www.flickr.com/photos/capecodcyclist

What’s so good about being a teacher?

An article in The Age this morning and the subsequent twitter conversation has got me thinking about why I became a teacher and, more importantly, why I’ve stayed a teacher for the last 7 years.

I came to teaching later in life – graduated when I was 31. I’d already got an Arts degree, had travelled, had tried out innumerable other jobs and hadn’t found any that really fitted. Then my best friend went back to University to study teaching and started telling me stories of classroom life. Teaching was something that I think had always been in the back of my mind but I hadn’t felt ready before.

Getting in to a teaching course, even as a mature age student, was challenging with limited places being offered for postgraduates at the time (my course had space for 6 people). But once I was in, I knew it was the right fit and the right time. Others didn’t and the numbers dwindled, particularly in the undergraduate course that we shared classes with. Noticeably, numbers were always somewhat diminished after teaching rounds, as if the reality of daily life with students was enough to put some people off.

In my first teaching role, my colleague referred to me as ‘the enthusiastic graduate’ and, even though the graduate bit is no longer true, the enthusiasm is still there. I honestly love being a teacher. I won’t pretend there aren’t bits that I would happily give away but the highs definitely make up for it. Seeing students eager to return after the holidays and to share their adventures with you. Watching a Prep student ‘click’ and read a book for the first time. Helping a Grade 6 student who has always hated writing connect with a topic so strongly that he doesn’t want to go outside when the lunch bell goes. Catching a parent after school to tell them how confident their child was when giving their talk in class and watching the parent beam with pride. Getting into the zone with colleagues when planning exciting learning experiences, ones that you’re looking forward to because you know how much the students will love them. Connecting with students each day and watching them grow and develop.

I could go on – the list of positives is a long one and I truly hope that we can find a way to attract more passionate, caring, professional, intelligent and dedicated people to the teaching profession. Is the answer to put an arbitrary hike on ATAR scores so that we restrict it to those with the highest Year 12 marks? I doubt it. I know some amazing teachers who didn’t do so well in Year 12 for a variety of reasons who would have been locked out if that were the case. Or is the answer making students go through an undergraduate generalist degree before attempting a postgraduate degree in education? I don’t think there are any easy, one size fits all answers. What we do need to do is raise the profile of teaching and of teachers, however we can. After all, is there anything more important than preparing the next generation to run the world?