Online Teaching: Some things I’ve learned…

As we head into our fifth week of online learning, I thought I’d share some of the things that are working for my class and me. Whilst I have read a lot of articles and blog posts about this area, attended webinars, and recently started reading Doug Lemov’s Teaching in the Online Classroom, this blog post is specific to my own context and doesn’t include links to research or pedagogical theory. There is definitely a need for that (and much of what I am doing is informed by what I have read), but I believe there is also a place for sharing examples for readers to try out or research for themselves.

Note – I refer to this period of lockdown as “online teaching and learning” rather than “remote teaching” after this tweet by SJ White, which really struck a chord with me:

My Context

We have been fortunate that our Local Authority was already using Google for Education and our school had focussed on developing learners’ digital skills prior to the first lockdown. This meant that the children were pretty good at using Google Classroom and some of the other Google tools before they found themselves really relying on them. I teach Primary 6 (10 year olds) who are generally quite independent learners. As with any class, however, there is a mixture of those receiving support from guardians, those supporting younger siblings, and others who are sharing devices. I am also fortunate to have a stage partner so we do a lot of shared planning across both classes.

Connection and Support

Each morning, the children complete a registration question and Google Form Check-In before joining our whole class, Google Meet. This meeting is a chance for the class to meet together, we say our morning prayer together, I share any updates for the day and we usually play a game… Charades, Scavenger Hunt, and Cities & Countries are their current favourites! (There are some great ideas in this eBook.) Aside from Health & Wellbeing and Listening & Talking, the focus isn’t on academics, rather it is on keeping connected. I stay on the Google Meet until break time for any children to stay behind to ask questions about the day’s learning. I am also available on a Google Meet between 11am and 12pm each day for the learners to drop-in and ask any questions they may have. Each afternoon, I host group chats on Google Meet where the children can meet and play games or just chat about whatever they feel like talking to their friends about. These whole class Meets and group chats are the highlights of my day, the closest I can get to providing the interactions the children are missing out on when learning from home. 

Lesson Formats

There are generally four learning blocks each day, shared in a daily plan which includes timings roughly linked to the school day. It is so important to remember that we cannot, and in my opinion should not be trying to, replicate a “normal” school day. However, some children appreciate the structure and others prefer to work through all their learning tasks in the morning then have the afternoons to themselves. For others, it is a case of when devices are available and, therefore, we are flexible in when tasks are handed in. I only set due dates on the registration question but not on the assignments as I know some learners become distressed when the see “Missing” in red writing, if they have been unable to complete something by the due date.

To prevent the children from becoming overwhelmed with too many assignments in Google Classroom, we tend to only post one or two assignments each day (usually literacy and numeracy), with the other tasks shared as links in the daily plan. To allow the children to access their learning at a time that is suitable for them and their families’ circumstances, most lessons consist of a pre-recorded video followed by a task for the children to complete. As I mentioned, if the children have questions or need support, they can drop into a Google Meet and ask.

These are some of the digital tools I have found helpful:

  • Screencastify – Used for pre-recording lessons. The free account is limited to 5 minutes which has actually been helpful in causing me to think about my own instruction and teacher talk time. This time around, I’ve moved to recording several shorter videos to explain different concepts, rather than making one longer video for the lesson. This has been helpful for maths, specifically, as the videos can be used for review at a later date.
  • Google Docs – Most written tasks have been completed using Google Docs, generally with a template created in Drive and then a copy made for each student when the assignment is posted.
  • Google Forms – As well as the check-in forms, we also use Google Forms for other lessons throughout the week, specifically spelling tests and some numeracy lessons.
  • Google Slides – My stage partner and I have used this more for the other curricular areas (ie. not so much literacy and numeracy) as we can link it directly to the daily plan. Each child chooses one slide to edit, either writing directly into the slide, or inserting a photograph of their work. It’s fab for the children to see each other’s work too.
  • Google Jamboard – I’ve found this a really great way of creating digital worksheets, by creating a template on a slide, downloading as an image then setting the background. It’s also been a helpful digital whiteboard for recording lesson videos and the learners have enjoyed using it for playing Pictionary when presenting their screen in group chat Google Meets.
  • Padlet – Whilst Jamboard can obviously be used as a collaborative tool, I prefer asking the children to share their ideas on Padlet simply because it is less likely to get lost accidentally! We have used Padlet for our R.E. lessons where the children watch a colleague telling them a Godly Play story and write their answers to wondering questions on Padlet. I’ve also used this in book clubs with adults and really like that there are different formats. The free account only allows you to have 3 padlets so you need to save it (I usually save it as a PDF) and then reuse it.

Feedback

There are a number of different ways we are currently giving feedback to our learners:

  • Mote – This has been such a game changer during this period of remote learning. With just one click, you can record yourself giving verbal feedback within Google Classroom comments but also commenting directly within Docs / Slides. Depending on the task, I sometimes give individual feedback but it is also possible to record a Mote when returning assignments to several children at a time. Even a little thing like “returning” their registration question with a short voice note saying “Thanks P6, I hope you all have a lovely day!” helps us all feel connected in these times.
  • Rubrics – P6 were used to rubrics before lockdown as we used them when marking their homework on Google Classroom. I tend to use this for things like taught writing, where they have several success criteria. The children complete a traffic-lighted self check within the document and then we return the assignment with the rubric completed (and sometimes an individual comment).
  • Comments – It’s great to be able to see the learners working within Google tools and give them in-the-moment feedback. They are used to this from when we completed taught-writing in the classroom but it’s really powerful for the children to be able to action feedback straight-away.
  • Peer-feedback – for creative activities, the children have enjoyed commenting on their classmates’ work and we have been working on providing kind, specific, and helpful feedback. It’s always a #ProudTeacherMoment to see them encouraging each other.
  • Whole class feedback videos – if there are common misconceptions, this is a great way to give feedback to groups of learners and go over things again for them.

Wellbeing / Workload

Much like in-person teaching, there are ebbs and flows of workload. The week before last, I felt like I never stopped. This week, I feel like I’ve had a much better work-life balance. These are some of the things that have helped:

  • Taking breaks when the children do. – At break time, I get up from my computer, make a cup of tea and sit in a different seat to read a book. I set an alarm on my phone for just before I need to be back on the Google Meet and this allows me to fully focus on what I am reading. At lunch time, I try to go for a walk but I’m not always great at that! There really is no excuse since there is a park just outside my house but still… I’ll definitely need to try again this week.
  • Keeping the same structure each week. – As far as possible, it is really helpful to stick to the timetable, both for stability for the learners but also reducing workload for us. I can “make a copy” of last Tuesday’s daily plan then just update the links to the new lessons and edit the learning intentions / success criteria.
  • Sharing the load. – As I mentioned earlier, I am fortunate to have a stage partner to share some of the planning with. Whilst I know not everyone has this, there are still many resources available that we can utilise. Now more than ever, there really is no time (never mind need!) to reinvent the wheel!
  • Reusing Google Classroom posts. – I’ve only recently started doing this. When you are spending so much time on the computer, any shortcuts can help. (Did you know you can use “Ctrl + D” to duplicate something instead of copying and pasting??)
  • Google Tasks – I have started using this again following the Kanban approach. I have four lists of tasks: Do Today, In Progress, Online Learning, and Other Tasks. The idea is that the Do Today list is cleared at the end of each day, which encourages me to be realistic in prioritising tasks for the day. There are a number of apps out there, but I love Google Tasks for this because it is accessible on the right hand pane of many Google tools. I can also add in hyperlinks directly which I think is such a timesaver. I started using this approach after attending an Osiris training session.
  • Scheduling posts in advance and switching off at a reasonable time. As my headteacher recently told us, “if you are currently giving 200%, no one is going to complain when you dial it back to 100%.” (I actually think she might have put it a bit better than that, but you get the idea!

Seven Sparks

Things that have sparked joy / my interest / an idea, this week:

Whole Class Feedback

I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a while, wanting to have “completed” this enquiry before I share. However, remote teaching has put a bit of a spanner in the works so I need to consider how I’m going to pivot the enquiry to fit into current circumstances. Professor Kate Wall, from the University of Strathclyde, tweeted this a few weeks ago:

I think this rings true with a lot of us. This has been playing on my mind, the reasons I started this enquiry are still there but the possible solutions have had to change. Therefore, think of this as a mid-enquiry update – a work in progress!

Why Whole Class Feedback?

I’ve been interested in Whole Class Feedback (WCF) since my probation year, particularly as a way to reduce workload and increase attainment in taught writing lessons. I’ve read about it, talked about it, retweeted many examples of it but never really tried it in my own practice. Why not?

In my probation year, I thought about focusing on Whole Class Feedback for my practitioner enquiry project but I decided it wasn’t suitable for my P2 class because they needed more personalised feedback. Last year in P6, I considered it again but knew my more-experienced stage partner valued two-stars and a wish. I trust her judgement and experience so I tried a similar approach. We used success criteria slips with traffic-lights for self-assessment, peer-assessment and teacher assessment plus wrote two stars and a wish on all (most!) pieces of writing. As an early career teacher with a tendency to overthink how I word written feedback, I found this very time consuming. When we moved to remote teaching, I tried to replicate it but quickly dropped the teacher traffic-light and gave verbal feedback using Read&Write by Texthelp.

This year, I’m enjoying being in the same stage for a second year and feel this has given me more confidence to try another approach. Also, when we were teaching in-person, restrictions meant we had to quarantine jotters for 72 hours before marking and then another 72 hours before returning to the learners. It seemed like the perfect time to find another way!

In term 1 of this school year, the children self-assessed their work and then left their jotters open on their desks while they went for break so I could pop around and take a photograph of their writing with an iPad. This way, I could read through their work so I knew what we, as a class, needed to work on. I had attempted to add these photographs to an individual Google Slides deck for each child with two stars and a wish. I also intended to share these slides with parents (as parental engagement forms part of my Google Innovator Project). Unsurprisingly, this approach became overly time consuming and with only one Chromebooks slot per week, it wasn’t the most straightforward way of sharing the feedback with the learners.

On the first day of the October break, my Depute Head Teacher (and former probation mentor) forwarded a Tweet to me all about Whole Class Feedback. It was like alarm bells going off and my husband wondered why I was hyper all of a sudden. This is what it feels like when you discover your itch (as the Education Scotland Teacher Leadership Programme (TLP) has taught me)! And so began my next practitioner enquiry…

Ask the kids…

Despite the effectiveness of surveys often being up for discussion, I decided it was a good way to quickly gauge what the learners thought. I wondered if they had noticed the changes I’d made to the way their writing was marked. I asked them what feedback they had received before, and what they thought was the best:

Forms response chart. Question title: Before COVID restrictions, what feedback did your teachers give you in your jotters? (Think about P4 and P5). Number of responses: 28 responses.
Forms response chart. Question title: Which feedback do you think is most helpful for you to improve your writing?. Number of responses: 28 responses.

Overwhelmingly, they shared that they felt that written comments, spelling corrections, and success criteria slips were most helpful to them, with most (75%) stating that they used written comments to improve their work. More interesting though, were some of their responses to open questions about how their teachers give feedback and how their teachers can help them improve:

QuestionSample of Learners’ Responses
What does the teacher’s feedback tell you?– That I am good at writing
– My teacher’s feedback tells me that I can do better
– Usually I make a few mistakes but it is usually fine. It is nice to see what my teacher thinks.
– What I have done well or improved in a piece of work and what I need to improve on.
– It tells me what I need to improve on and what I can do to make my work more interesting.
– To practise some spelling words
– That I need to work on what I have done wrong and what I need to improve
– If i did it right or wrong
– What i did well, what I need to work on and, if got everything right, a  nice and supportive message
– It tells me one or more things I did well, and what I can improve on.
– It tells you how to improve and what you have done well.
– What you need to correct and what you have done well.
What comments are most helpful?– The most helpful comments are the ones that say well done but try and do this better.
– Ones that tell me how to improve
– When my teacher tells me what I did wrong.
– Comments that explain more about things I have accomplished and things that I need to work on.
– Amazing!!! Keep up the good work.
– The most helpful comments is spelling corrections
– The comments that are most helpful are the spelling comments and the ones where you tell me how I can improve.
– Comments that are clear
– The correction comments are most helpful.
– The comments that are most helpful are positive and negative because they tell you what you are doing well at and what you need to improve.
– Ones that encourage you as well as help to correct your work
– Where I have made mistakes and where I can improve.
– Ones I know that I need to improve on
What comments are least helpful?– Comments that say that your work is good or great
– The least helpful are Well done!
– The ones that tell me to improve but do not say how
– “Take your time”
– When my teacher says I made a mistake but doesn’t tell me what I did wrong.
– Comments that just say things like: Well done! or Very good!
– Check on your spelling”
– I think the highlight ones are the least helpful
– I think the highlighting words.
– “Well done” comments.
– The least helpful comments are when they say:Good job or well done
– Try again
– Ones that only tell you what you haven’t done and don’t include what you have done.

As teachers, we have attended training looking at the need for feedback to be “kind, specific, and helpful” (thank you, Osiris) but I was still surprised to hear it so clearly stated by several children. There was no prompting on this from me but many of them stated that the least helpful comments are “well done” – they want the specifics! I did also ask them if they think it’s helpful to learn from other people’s mistakes to gauge how they were going to engage with WCF. The results of this are more interesting if you know the learners and their personalities.

What did I do?

Shortly after my DHT shared that tweet, I attended a CPD session by Kaley Riley focusing on WCF, mainly in secondary settings. Despite this, the session gave me lots of practical ideas and Kaley shared links to lots of research on the topic. She has also blogged about her experience of WCF and shared a template here

Inspired by this event, I created a WCF template that I could use with my primary learners during taught writing lessons, somewhere I could jot down common errors or themes to be shared with learners allowing them to learn from each other. I also used this as an opportunity to share “star sentences” I’d noticed within their writing. 

Template from Slidesgo

Recognising the Education Endowment Foundation’s 2016 findings in “A Marked Improvement?” that “pupils are unlikely to benefit from marking unless some time is set aside to enable pupils to consider and respond to marking”, I decided to rejig the timetable slightly.

Throughout term 2, we effectively had three writing lessons:

  • Tuesdays – I shared the WCF slides with the children, going through what had gone well in the previous week’s writing, some “star sentences” and gave some children a shout out for going the extra mile in their writing. Then we spoke about what would make our writing even better, including some common spelling errors. The class then received their previous piece of writing back and rewrote one of the paragraphs focusing on the areas we had discussed. To finish, they wrote a personal target or focus area to carry into their next piece of writing.
  • Wednesday – Planning the next piece of writing.
  • Thursday – Writing out what we had planned the previous day. We started doing this on Chromebooks, making use of the Read&Write toolbar from TextHelp. This also meant I was able to “drop in” to their work during the lesson and give them in-the-moment feedback.

What happened?

This is the part of practitioner enquiry that I think puts educators off sharing what they have done. It is difficult to quantify the impact of this, particularly given the short time scale. However, I learned during the TLP, that ‘data’ doesn’t necessarily mean numbers and attainment scores, teacher observations are a valuable tool when reflecting on an enquiry.

As a teacher, I felt the children benefited from having this “feedback” lesson as it helped to tackle the “I’m done” sort of approach to learning, along with constantly referring to the need to edit our work and try to improve it. (This photo of Obama’s healthcare speech also helped with this!) Working within a reduced recovery curriculum allowed for this “extra” lesson, I’m not sure how I would have fit this in if we were also teaching the full curriculum. 

I also feel that the referring back to the previous week’s learning helped the children to recognise that improving their writing was an ongoing process. The success criteria slips were edited so the bottom box was there for them to fill in their individual target to help them remember to focus on an area they had highlighted from the previous week.

Whole Class Feedback, along with using rubrics in Google Classroom, was a massive timesaver for me, and my stage partner also started using this approach. The children were still getting written comments every second week as I was able to write in the comments as they were writing.

Next steps

I had planned to continue this enquiry for the whole school year and hold focus group discussions with the children to find out what they thought about Whole Class Feedback. However, we are currently back to online teaching and I’ve found that under these circumstances, the learners need individual feedback for their writing. I am using Mote to give verbal comments and continuing to use Google Classroom rubrics linked to our success criteria. However, I am still giving Whole Class Feedback for other pieces of work.

It’s still unclear how long we will be working online for so I will revisit this as things become clearer. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has made Whole Class Feedback work in a primary setting though! Any tips, please share.

Further Reading

Seven Sparks

Things that have sparked joy’ for me, this week:

  • Walking in the park on a frosty, sunny day.
  • Thinking about our new home as we pack up our belongings to move.
  • Several supportive conversations with colleagues and SLT.
  • Launching a new Professional Learning site for my colleagues.
  • Pitching a Family Learning event idea to my HT then presenting at the Parent Council meeting that evening. Looking forward to this taking place this week.
  • Candles. (This is my current favourite!)
  • Tea. Always tea.
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