The Big Bumper Back to School Blog Post

Tuesday was my children’s first day back at school. There were barriers laid out and stickers on the ground to manage the flow of pupils and parents, registers, temperature checks, gel points and teamwork between teachers, volunteers and police at the gates: this must have taken some organising, and we’re not even in the classroom yet!

This is a back to school like no other. Besides the logistics mentioned above, from catching up on missed work to moving forward with this year’s curriculum, from preparing a socially-distanced classroom to planning for more remote learning, all the while considering the socio-emotional needs of their learners, teachers truly have their work cut out. In this blog post I’d like to propose ideas for the back to school period that speak to the (rather uncertain) ‘new normal’. In what is a huge topic topic I’ve gone for five sections

  1. Talking about our COVID experiences
  2. Analysing our remote teaching experience and planning for the future
  3. Looking to develop student autonomy
  4. Preparing socially distanced activities
  5. Catching up on missed work

Off we go!

1. Talking about our COVID experiences

Apologies for using the C-word right away! Trying to find out about our students is a common aim in the first week. We want to know about their strengths, weaknesses, hopes and fears and ask questions like ‘What do you like most / find most difficult about English?’ or ‘What’s most important to you?’or ‘What are you good at?’ We use this information in ways like planning our classes or even with little comments like ‘María, how’s the horse riding going?’ to show we’re interested in our students as people.

I think it’s especially important for this school year: our students spent months in a strict lockdown, are living an uncertain present and this will have left its mark. In talking about our experiences we can find out what our students have found most challenging and therefore be in the best position to help them going forwards. So we might ask questions like:

– What has been most difficult for you over the last six months?
– What questions do you have about the new school year?

But also

-What did you learn in lockdown?
-What was your favourite lockdown memory?

I’ve found that if you’re expecting your students to open up about themselves, to potentially put themselves in a vulnerable position, you’ve got to get the ball rolling first. So, ‘I found it difficult to work with my children at home, because they also needed my attention’. Or perhaps ‘I found it difficult to teach my classes online at first, I’d never done it before and I had to learn quickly’.

You can do these sorts of things on a worksheet or as a speaking activity, or both. One option is to do a worksheet, then speaking, that way you’ve more chance of learning about those who are a little shy to share their experiences with the whole class.

2. Analysing our remote teaching experience and planning for the future

Ideally we would have had a month to prepare for remote learning: perhaps by going on a course, planning how to adapt our lessons and walking our students through the protocals. The reality is it was thrust upon us and indeed on our students too. With an uncertain year ahead of us and schools planning for face-to-face, blended, hybrid and remote teaching scenarios it makes sense to see what lessons we’ve learned and what we can do differently next time.

For example

– Some teachers found it difficult being contacted by whatsapp, email, through the school portal, through the messaging service on an LMS, on the phone, via carrier pigeon… can we establish a clear line of communication and indeed ‘office hours’ for communication (we still need to disconnect when working from home).

-How did the online lessons go? Were students punctual, sitting on a desk and not lying on a bed, did they leave their cameras on, use their microphones properly or try to graffiti the screen using the annotate function (you can disable this by the way)? What did they enjoy or find useful about the lessons? We can set up a list of rules / guidelines for classes in the future, explaining ‘the why’ behind each rule.

-For ideas and techniques for online lessons with teens, I did a webinar on the topic which you may find useful.

3. Looking to develop student autonomy

Independence is a useful attribute and it’s taken on even more importance in remote and blended learning scenarios, as students have more learning hours without a teacher to watch over them. We can talk about autonomy with our students and look to develop it. This is a big topic in itself, but here are a few ideas:

  1. The pomodoro technique. Named after the Italian word for tomato, this technique’s founder used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to give himself 25-minute intervals to work in, followed by breaks. So we can challenge our students to attempt it, hiding phones and other distractions, and focusing on one task (not multitasking!) for a short burst. I use this technique and it’s useful!
  2. To-do-lists. Students can start with a basic list (paper or digital) using strikethough for tasks they’ve accomplished (it feels good to cross them off and you have a record of what you’ve done). The next level is prioritising tasks with colour-coding or different boxes / columns on your list. This image shows a simple ‘project management’ system for a to-do list using post-its.
  3. Organisational skills. We often get our students to bring in a folder at the start of the year and they put their work and worksheets in this folder perhaps in chronological order (students need to write the date on each one) or separated with dividers by type. You need check periodically to ensure less organisationally-inclined students do this (I had my teens in at breaktime doing it!), but after a while it can become a habit. The challenge now is to get students digitally organised: a standard way of labelling files, folders, useful webpages saved in favourites etc. We can model all this in the physical classroom if we have a projector, or indeed online using screenshare.

4. Preparing socially distanced activities

Communicative speaking activities are a big part of learning language, and our younger learners in particular will be used to moving around, but we might have restrictions on how close students can get to each other. What sorts of activities are appropriate?

  1. We can still have movement. When I taught young learners I had great success with Simon Says and miming / charades and we can still have our learners standing up and playing these games. And instead of throwing a real ball around, our learners will have to make it an imaginary one – we need to get into the theatrics here to motivate them! ‘Socially distanced’ doesn’t have to be boring.
  2. Those mini whiteboards can get some use! Writing on mini whiteboards is something that can be done at individual desks, but what’s been written can be shared with the teacher, with a partner, with a group, or with the whole class by holding them up. By the way, laminating pieces of white paper is much cheaper than buying the actual whiteboards!
  3. Having students nominate students (to answer the next question, to think of another word in a vocabulary set etc) rather than the teacher asking is something I did in online lessons and we can use it in the classroom too if students sitting in groups is off the menu and we are worried about everything going through the teacher.
  4. I  quite like the ‘Wash your hands’ song to the tune of ‘Baby Shark’ as a way to teach hygiene to young learners. However, I would change ‘Cover your sneeze’ and ‘Cough into your elbow’ to ‘Catch your sneeze’ and ‘Catch your cough’ to keep up the three syllable pattern, though if you like tongue twisters then leave it as it is!

5. Catching up on missed work

Schools are taking different approaches here. I have heard of schools who aren’t covering anything new for two months to catch up and of others who are beginning with this year’s curriculum from the get-go. There are a few things to bear in mind here:

  1. Diagnostic tests (making it clear that they’re not summative assessments) are useful for us to check gaps in knowledge and understanding. Most courses have placement tests, or we can take tests from last year’s course (unit, end-of-term) to check areas we think our students may have missed out a lot on. If your course has tests in Word format (Pearson courses do), so much the better, you can edit them. Then it’s a question of acting on gaps we find with extra practice both in and outside of class. Pearson LMS include activities that can be assigned to a selection of learners in a class, allowing you to tailor the practice you give to each student.
  2. Language courses tend to be built around a ‘sprial syllabus’ so you’re building on what you’ve already learned, rather than everything being new every year. This can also help us decide if we need to go back to ‘last year’s’ content. For example, if we have a lesson on further uses of the present perfect, but the introductory lesson was last year and we didn’t do it, we’ll need to go back.
  3. Teachers have been dealing with mixed-ability for a long time. Those abilities may be more mixed now (think students who had access to all tech gadgets in lockdown and were stimulated and supported by their parents and then those who didn’t and weren’t). So things we did before such as focused work with one student or a small group while the others get on with a different task or scaffolding activities with support and adding fast-finisher exercises (a good teacher’s book will include lots of ideas for this) are just as relevant now. Here’s a webinar I did on the topic – you might get a few ideas.

Pearson have a dedicated Back to School webpage which includes video tutorials and PDF manuals on distance teaching as well as information on Pearson products such as online learning platforms which allow teachers to keep track of their students progress. Have a look!

I’d like to finish this blog post by extending my best wishes and admiration to all teachers for their efforts in what I know is a bumpy Back to School to say the least. Teachers are ‘todo terrenos’ (‘all terrainers’) at the best of times, and their flexibility and adaptability are being taken to a whole new level now.

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