Boundaries

“What is it like now that you are in contact with your pupils 24/7?”

Yesterday, a friend asked me this. Today, Hannah Wilson released the theme for this month’s #MonthlyWritingChallenge and here we are.

Learners

First things first, to answer the question posed by my friend, I am not in contact with my pupils 24/7. I understand what he meant by the question, there has definitely been a shift in the way our learners interact with us as we have moved to teaching online. However, my class was used to using Google Classroom for their homework when we were still attending our physical classrooms. From the beginning of this academic session, I have been very strict with myself not to reply to any comments or give feedback on online work outwith the hours of 8am and 5pm during the working week. If the children wanted to comment or reply to each other then that was absolutely fine (and often very helpful if they were answering each others’ questions) but they knew not to expect a reply from me. I have continued with this approach during online teaching. Whilst this does restrict when I can give the learners feedback on their work (gone are the days where I could take a set of jotters home for marking over the weekend!), it has forced me to identify how I can fit giving feedback into the working day – Mote has been a real help with this. As a result, I feel I’m developing positive habits to have a better work-life balance and I’m working towards not doing official school work on the weekends – I’ve only managed this a few times but I’m taking this as progress!

Parents and Guardians

Similarly, the parents of the children in my class are used to me not responding on weekends or after 6pm during the working week. I really value strong communication with my learners’ families and (I hope I) made this clear at the start of the session. Creating a class website has really helped with this. I shared an introduction video at the start of the year and have kept the website updated weekly with a brief overview of what we have focused on during the week. This can become time consuming but I do think the benefits are worth putting in the time. The feedback from parents has been positive as it has allowed them to talk to their children about what they’ve been learning, instead of getting the usual “nothing” to the age old question “what did you do at school today?”. With learners either completing their work digitally or uploading a photograph of their work, it has actually been easier to maintain this website during remote learning.

Last lockdown, I turned off Gmail notifications on my phone as I found the constant stream of Google Classroom notifications (usually about comments) distracting and overwhelming. This means that when parents email me at a time that suits them, often after their children have gone to bed, my personal time is not interrupted by a work-related email.  However, I will often mindlessly click on the Gmail app at any and all hours of the evening and weekend and happen upon an email from a parent. Regardless of what the email is about, it will play on my mind until I can deal with it. I’ve found using the “schedule send” feature really helpful as I can address it and technically not break my own rules around replying times. I realise I could delete these apps from my phone but, again, I feel the benefits outweigh the negatives and I just need to be more mindful of how I spend my time on my phone!

Colleagues

I am lucky to work in a school where a healthy work-life balance is promoted and encouraged. Not through gimmicky wellbeing activities but by a commitment to reducing unnecessary workload and an open culture of being honest when something isn’t working. No workplace is perfect and there are definitely areas we are working on, but there is never an expectation that we work through our weekends. Achieving that is down to individual teachers but I think that is a conversation for a whole other blog post!

Last year, my stage partner and I noticed we had different approaches to work-life balance. She preferred to work longer into the evening so she had less to do at the weekend whereas I didn’t feel I did my best work in the evenings and left more to the weekend. Even at the weekend, she preferred to get all her work out of the way in the mornings and I wanted to relax for a bit first. We did a lot of informal planning through Whatsapp and I was always conscious not to interrupt her “non-working” time and vice versa! We started using a shared Google Doc for all planning related notes, linking resources and other relevant information. Each of us checked the Google Doc when we logged on and it really helped us both feel we were working together but not forcing the other person to work when they didn’t want to! I have continued to use this approach with a different stage partner, this year, and it has proved just as useful.

Space

Boundaries between work and life have definitely become blurred as we have moved to working from home. Often people talk about how important it is to have a separate space for working but for many of us, that just isn’t feasible. Before we moved house, I didn’t have a separate space for my computer. It could either be in the bedroom or the living room, as a constant reminder that there was work to be done. Now that we have moved house, I do feel I have more separation but I’m still aware of the need to step away from the screen. Moving into a different room (or even a different space in the same room!) to take breaks made all the difference. I set an alarm on my phone and focus entirely on whatever book I’m reading.

Habits

Mindful of the fact that P4-P7 are due to return to Scottish school buildings on 15th March, I have been reflecting on the positive habits I have developed and how I can continue to build these into my days and weeks when our routines change again. These are some of the things that have been working for me lately:

  • Reading – So much reading! I’ve written before that I never used to understand how people could read several books at once but I totally get it now. I’ve found having different books to read has allowed me to choose a book based on my mood. I’m almost finished Teaching in the Online Classroom by Doug Lemov which I find myself rushing to finish before we return to the physical classroom. I was hesitant to buy it as we hopefully won’t be online again any time soon, but I’ve taken a lot from it for running online book clubs and I do feel my learners are currently benefiting from my reading it. I had previously found that I was struggling to get into fiction but I’ve recently started listening to audiobooks of the children’s books that have been on my TBR list for a long time. This has allowed me to enjoy fabulous stories whilst I’m doing other things around the house. Your local library probably has a similar arrangement if you think this might work for you too. (I’d highly recommend Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy!)
  • Podcasts – Some highlights include Becoming Educated, Changing Conversations, Dare to Lead, Happier, and Practical Positivity.
  • Walks – I’m fortunate to live near a beautiful park and not too far from the beach. Whilst better weather helps with this, I’ve been trying to get out regardless of the weather! Coupling podcasts and audiobooks has helped with this – my latest only-allowed-to-listen-to-when-on-a-walk book is The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek.
  • Baths – With candles and books.
  • Tea – Always tea!
  • Art – I was recently inspired to get painting again by Fiona Leadbeater, having reflected on “what puts the i in wellbeing” after listening to Lena Carter and Christine Couser on Teacher Hug Radio. I often feel the urge to create something but never do, put off by my frustration that I’m not good enough at it… I realise this isn’t showing the Growth Mindset that I encourage in my learners. I’ve had this desire to create for a long time, as evidenced by the fact I shared this quote from Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert on social media years ago.

I really enjoyed going through all of my art supplies and organising them, discovering I have more materials than I thought I did. Hopefully this enthusiasm (and ease of access) will encourage me to continue to create when we return to in-person teaching.

This is my first time writing for the #MonthlyWritingChallenge so I’d love to hear your thoughts and what works for you. Follow me on Twitter @ClareAnnePirie and keep the conversation going.

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:

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