03 Aug

Taking a Primary School Online

I’m not going to pretend that I am an expert in this.

Having taken the opportunity to reflect on what has been a memorable few months I wanted to evaluate some of the learning that has taken place online within our primary school. I hope that these thoughts will go some way to developing my own practice; and maybe supporting others who are thinking of the best way to get online and support learning during another potential lockdown.

To give you an idea of what we were doing: Once it became clear that schools were shutting we did our best to give them relevant and interesting work that would challenge. Of course, we did not know how long this would last.

Develop your own knowledge

  • it was important for me before embarking on something new to arm myself with the experience and knowledge of others first. I started here – with a Future Learn course that connected me with others who were just starting out on this path.
  • We also made sure that the online systems we used – mainly in Key Stage 2 – were ones in which the children and staff were well versed. We use Google Apps and Google Classrooms in school – we turned on hangouts (more of that later) – and spoke to the children about the best way to contact us if they needed help.

Access for all?

We are a small, rural school whose children are geographically spread. Some of our families do not have decent wi-fi and some do not have enough devices for children to access learning at the same time. As we had sent home work, we decided after the Easter Break to start doing weekly learning grids and lessons, with clear links to resources, where available. These were put on the school website, or emailed out as appropiate.

We were however reluctant to do regular online classes / assemblies (at this point!)

  • We loaned out the school chromebooks where possible – and encouraged parents to contact us if they needed support.
  • We encouraged parents to contact us – giving out email adresses to individual teachers.
  • We started a weekly whole school assembly via Google Meets and then Zoom. This started with a special guest (our local vicar) – which meant that families tried really hard to get there.
  • Regular phone calls to families who might be seen as vulnerable (but who may not have been on Free School Meals.)
  • We used social media liberally. A ‘running’ – distance – challenge via our facebook account. Enocurage to share work and pictures; link sharing etc.etc. We found that many parents, and the wider community, enjoyed sharing photos and ideas this way.
  • Weekly online creative writing class and code club. These were a natural fit online as they were already taking place in school – especially code club which allowed the older children to chat and support one another in problem solving.
  • Google Hangouts was used for the pupils to contact teachers – teachers told the pupils when they were online and checked in with pupils via Google Classroom. (Key Stage 2). This proved very useful, but had to be strictly managed as many children would happily sit online chatting with their teachers for ever…

In it for the long haul…

Once we realised that only a small number of children were going to be coming back into school before September we began to increase the online presence of our teachers.

  • Weekly zoom meetings for all classes were held.
  • For the younger classess this meant a book being read, or some simple online number and phonic work.
  • For the older children they were able to discuss any problems with the work set that week – and ask for help if needed.
  • EYFS and KS1 teachers recorded themselves reading a book – and these were put on the website.
  • We provided physical work books in Maths Y1- Y6 – herocially these were delivered by hand by the teachers – and proved very popular with parents and children alike. So much so that we also provided workbooks for Reading and Writing for the younger children as well.

How did we do?

Once we got into a routine and school started opening for more children our attention turned to September. And so, we needed to know how parents had found the last few months. SOme findings were clear and will directly impact our work in September:

  • Online meetings and short lessons were useful – BUT – some found them overwhelming. Flexibility seemed to be the key.
  • Keeeping children enagaged and enthusiastic is tricky.. whole school assembly went some way to alleviate this, but the main support seemed to be teachers chatting 1:1 with these children. Whether this will be something we can scale up in the event of further lockdown is worth thinking about.
  • Paper / workbooks / exercise books are worth their weight in gold. Put simple we are too worried about exercise books and children’s work ‘looking the part’ – we need to ensure that there is some way for work at home and school to be seamless next term and if that means books getting dog-eared between home and school then so be it.
  • We need to develop Parents’ confidence with the apps and the infrastructure we use for online learning – e.g. Google Apps / Drive / Book Creator and so on.

I’m not sure what we will be doing in September – at time of writing the expectations for schools are still unclear. However I will take any time we have with the pupils and parents in school to prepare for further lockdown.

29 Jul

EdTech round up of 2018-9

Getting back to my roots now with a look at two new bits (and one not so new) of of actually useful edtech that has graced my school this year!


Reusable Notebooks – Rocketbook

The idea of a reuseable notebook is not new. And there a few on the market. The premise is pretty simple – a book full of whiteboard paper that you can then photograph to save automatically to where ever you need. E.g. an email address (with text recognition) or an online drive space (as a JPEG or file). It makes us of QR codes and preallocated menus to allow you to specifcy where you want them to go. The Rocketbook then has pages which, depending on the model, allows you to wipe with water or just wipe off as you would a dry wipe pen. https://getrocketbook.com/

So how did I make use of it? Obviously as a reusable whiteboard – but the ability to photograph what’s on there and have it stored somewhere is more useful than you think; make a list then email it straight from the meeting; children’s collaboration sent to a shared space; your own notes stored safely. I found it become more and more useful as I got used to it.

In the classroom I use them for children who might work on whiteboards more, but still need evidence of lesson work or progress. Children who may want the reassurance of writing on a whiteboard, to be able to rub it away and start again. As a google apps school all of our children can access their own drive and so they snap the book with an iPad or chrome book (just download the app) and the page is saved to their space. They can make their own notes and save them – it also saves paper!

Classroom Robots: Marty the Robot

There are plenty of classroom robots available – and all of a similar cost with seemingly similar features. What sets the Marty apart is the ease of use – and the results that go along with it. I’ve mentioned before that we are a Google Apps school – children have easier access to chrome books rather than windows laptops or iPads – this can pose some problems for apps needed to run robots and devices etc. The Marty robot runs from a variety of systems and is set up using its own network with router. With instructions so simple my (pupil) digital leaders set them up. Various options for programming languages that can be block based (via scratch) – or code (via python) – it will be recognisable to most KS2 classrooms. The developers behind this kit say 10-18, but I would stretch that to Key Stage 2. To make the trial even easier you can borrow these robots first too.

https://robotical.io/

The Rasberry Pi

I know, this isn’t new, but I think they are criminally underused in Primary Schools. They have come into their own for us this year as the last of our desktop PC’s died and we had their monitors and keyboards left. If you’re not sure what they are – look here. They are cut down, no frills PC’s which have the power, and flexibility, to do pretty much anything you need. Various operating systems are available (I use the NOOBS one) and they come readied with software such as scratch, word processing and internet access. NOOBS even comes with a networkable version of Minecraft which my pupils have loved. The Rasperry Pi works on many levels: it’s budget friendly, it makes use of old equipment and cables, it contains a wealth of software which is very Primary school friendly and it helps the pupils learn about the workings of a PC as they can physically see all the bits. Definitely cheap enough to give them a try.

Have you discovered any useful EdTech this year?

02 Jun

Online CPD to tackle Climate Change

I have written about the usefulness and scope of MOOCs before – although their use as specific teacher CPD has always been a bit tenuous. The United Nations has had an excellent online repository of courses connected to Climate Change and Climate Literacy for some time, (UNCCLearn). Now for the first time, these are open to teachers with the aim to have accredited Climate Change teachers in every area. A partnership with Harwood Education, and sponsored by YPO you can find out more here. These courses are incredibly accessible – like all good online offerings they are put forward in several different ways (Video, PowerPoint, PDF etc) – and, upon the completion of five key courses you will receive an official accreditation.

Here are the courses on offer:

  • Introduction to Climate Change Science (no certificate)
  • Children and Climate Change (certificate)
  • Cities and Climate Change (certificate)
  • Human Health and Climate Change (certificate)
  • Gender and Environment (certificate)
  • International Legal Regime (certificate)

Certificates are awarded from the UN CC:Learn website when the person takes and passes the quiz with a score of 70% or above. There is a quiz for each certificate course AND…there is a 3-Attempt limit per person. 

People who want to learn the information that comes from the United Nations’ experts from over  190 countries have two main choices: 1) just accessing and studying the course material without taking the quizzes/earning certification and 2) accessing, studying and taking the quizzes/earning certification for fully funded/free of charge CPD (Continued Professional Development) credit.

Explainer Video

Of course, the issue of teacher subject knowledge, particularly in Primary is a thorny one. Teachers tend to be a bit ‘jack of all trades’ – for schools keeping on top of changing curricula or an ever-growing issue such as Climate Change is a challenge. This is why free online offerings, backed by prestigious institutions and with teacher-specific accreditation is a trend to encourage. Climate Change is, of course, the ultimate challenge for our future and the information, ideas and concepts presented are something we should all be aware of. As schools move towards taking responsibility for their own sustainability or eco-awareness knowledgeable teachers will be at the forefront of this.

As a bit of a disclaimer, I myself completed this course and found it incredibly interesting and very useful. I thoroughly recommend it.

23 Mar

The future’s bright, the future’s Cumbrian!

I had the pleasure this week of attending a fantastic conference full of great speakers and big names in Education. Not the first time I‘ve done this of course, but this one was different in that it occurred on my doorstep. My Cumbrian doorstep.

The reality here is that since leaving London I have travelled hundreds of miles to hear the latest thoughts in Education, to be inspired and or discuss the latest policy and find out what impact it will have. Having our own conference such as #northernlights in Carlisle really was a revelation.

Why such a big deal I hear you ask? Well, it’s simple really, here in the North of England we often feel talked at. We feel like the poor cousin of the geographical family; not independent like Scotland, or central like London – and we are sometimes catapulted into the news because we are not quite as successful as we would like to be. We get tired of hearing about negative news stories and often struggle to see beyond our borders because, well, we work so damn hard!

So a huge thank you to all of those speakers who came this week to Carlisle to share positive messages, to allow dialogue where the North of England was put on centre stage and to put context into our challenges and successes. I won’t name all of the speakers here, but they know who they are, and they know the positive vibes and the buzz that was at the University of Cumbria. It was a great mix of local experts – nearby academics – CEO’s of successful academy chains and education experts! It means much to know that we are not alone, that despite any political differences at the end of the day we all want our children to have a world class Education.

I came away buzzing about the success of some of our Cumbrian schools – happy to share my own experiences and looking forward to shaping local thinking in the future. I thought hard about the future for Education in general and glad that, for once, it was Cumbrian colleagues that I was speaking to, Colleagues who I could easily catch up with again, whose schools I could visit and who are in a position to share resources and ideas. Because this is really what it’s all about – I make use of twitter and of Skype, but the chance to talk positively about changes and success on your doorstep really is inspirational. The chance to look at challenges honestly, to talk about retention and recruitment in a way that takes into account our context. To hear policy makers and influencers discuss what is actually important for our area and to help us make the changes needed.

A huge thank you to Michael Merrick who got this ball rolling, and everyone else who took the idea and ran with it. The University of Cumbria was a fantastic host and I know many people gave their time to making it succes. Here’s to being the change!

19 Feb

Teacher Resilience – what’s changed?

I was really surprised last week to read that over half of teachers, who trained when I did, would not be in the profession anymore. (From the Teachers Pay and Conditions report 2018-2019).   https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-teachers-pay-and-conditions I don’t know why I was so shocked – truth is that these messages about teacher recruitment and retention have been in the news for a long time. Like anything though it took a framing of it through my own experience to really see the challenge this could pose. 

Then I saw the article in The Independent regarding the intention of teachers to stay in the classroom https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/teachers-recruitment-shortages-mental-health-nqts-trainees-workload-a8779966.html   – over half of teachers do not plan to stay in the classroom due to mental health issues. And, aside from the catch-all headline, (Mental Health issues could mean such a wide variety of things that it is almost meaningless), it made me think about Teacher resilience, and a few of my experiences once I became a Head Teacher. 

Google ‘teacher resilience’ and you get a mixture of ideas, advice and scare stories. There are books and self-help manuals designed to empower teachers, to offer advice such as ‘look after yourself’ and ‘tell empowering stories’ in order to help build a teacher’s resilience. They explain how meditation and mindfulness have supported teachers as well as pupils. They offer how to solve the problem, but I was wondering how we got here in the first place, and is it new?

I have just finished reading the excellent ‘The Coddling of the American Mind: How bad ideas and good intentions are setting up a generation for failure.’ By Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff and it got me thinking about teacher resilience. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36556202-the-coddling-of-the-american-mind

We are all complicit in creating a very complicated, high stakes environment in our schools. Schools are obviously agents of control; they have to offer safe places and they have to ensure discipline in both the pupils and staff. Decisions made in school literally have life changing effects and with this comes accountability and a sense of responsibility. The opportunity for teachers to build their own resilience is obviously limited, and is mapped out by the resilience and strength of character that they bring with them. But this has always been the case and teachers have always navigated a moral pathway which means tough decisions, tough thinking and challenging the educational management at times. Consequences of ‘bad’ decisions have always been the debate of much soul searching in the profession. So has anything changed? Are teachers changing?

Here are three key ideas that I think are having a bearing on current teachers,  both new and experienced:

  1. increased scrutiny in social media

This is the comparison trap – the idea that schools, teachers and headteachers are constantly compared and often criticised in public with no thought that this may be taken personally. Traditional media has always enjoyed a good school story, but now with stories shared so rapidly and with unfettered public comments these can be exceptionally brutal, and, crucially, taken as personal criticism. Headteachers especially fall into this as the school as often pictured as an extension of themselves. It also means that trainee teachers and new teachers are told what works and can be ‘jumped on’ for trying something new- or very often not trying enough. As social media is very often the support network for many in the first place this ca be particularly jarring, especially as you cannot be as honest as you would like due to privacy concerns. There can be mantra of teacher as a martyr or the constant comparison of hours worked. This can lead to an echo chamber of positivity which probably does not compare to your current experience. 

  1. less risk taking when training

Haidt and Lukianoff speak of the chance for our youth to ‘dose themselves in fear’ – obviously I do not mean that teachers literally risk safety. But the increased in school-based training, with one or two school bases (or one MAT) which are often similar in policy and setting reduce the ‘experimentation’ or risk that teachers would take and see. When your training is reduced to policies and ideas that the school has already tried, tested and insist upon your chance to try your own ideas and take part in something new is reduced and so is your time to make mistakes and to reflect on these. After all a trainee teacher should be encouraged to try out ideas that may not work and so experience both the consequences of this and the support prior to their own teacher post. 

  1. prescriptive teaching materials 

Haidt and Lukianoff speak of the allowing children to solve their own problems – to experience ‘play’ without an adult around. Again, in some respects, this can be applied to the early experiences of teaching. There can be an over reliance of senior leaders ‘handing down’ planning, teaching sequences and even scripts to teachers. Whilst they have a use in the classroom, particularly as time savers or if you are teaching an area that is not your expertise, they can lower the challenge threshold for teachers and lead to unrealistic expectations of what every lesson should look like. Or, they can come to believe that what they are doing is not of a high enough standard and so doubt their own ability. To some extent this is also linked to comparing yourself and to risk-taking, particularly in primary where some schools have a very prescriptive ‘non-negotiables’ and others leave it to the teachers to fine tune the details.  There are policies of course, such as a behaviour policy across the school, which are very useful and necessary but teaching materials which do not take into account the personality of the teacher or the context of the class can cause more problems than they solve. 

The answer to these problems are not easy of course, they require some relaxing of expectations for our new teachers and, to some extent, a dose of realism in the classroom. We need to recognise that our job is just that, that teaching is not always perfect and that teachers will make mistakes. Trainees should be encouraged to experiment with teaching sequences and resources, and to have fun with it. Not every lesson needs to be a singing and dancing extravaganza. We need a recognition that just because it has worked somewhere does not mean it will work for you and, crucially, that’s okay. 

22 Jan

New Ofsted Framework – a small school perspective.

I want to start this by stating that I think the proposed framework is incredibly positive and the emphasis on workload and evidence base has the chance to really make a difference for many teachers. Many will be warmed by the focus on a wider curriculum and the related insistence that an inspection should not cause an increase in workload.

There is some of it that does give me a cause for concern however. The biggest of this is the ’on-site’ preparation. This is where the school would be notified by 10AM the previous day of the inspection, but the inspectors would be on site for a half-day preparation on the day they call. The list of items they cover during this prep time is very similar to the current phone call, (school development plan, maps, staff list etc) with a few differences – wifi, single central register. And of course they expect to be able to speak to school leaders – and they will need space to do this. This is immediately problematic. There really is no small school in the land that will have random space, and spare staff, to be able to do this at such short notice. In a school where the headteacher is teaching and where there may be no business manager working (they may not even check the answer machine until lunchtime!) this is going to really make people anxious. It means for those expecting Ofsted there will always need to be ‘a plan’ in place just in case – a cost incurred and extra work already taking place. And, they haven’t even begun the ‘formal’ part of the inspection yet. This seems to be a step backward in a time where we look to using technology to save time and resources. The email / secure portal for sharing documents seems to work fine and the use of phones means that if the headteacher is off-site they can still get pertinent information.

On the other hand some of this proposed framework could, potentially, benefit the small school. The emphasis on a triangulation of evidence – ‘ connect lesson observation to other evidence: discussions with curriculum leaders, teachers and pupils, and work scrutiny’ could work very well in an environment for one leader is directly responsible for many elements of accountability. The chance to have a conversation, talking through how impact can be seen and how decisions are taken could be very beneficial.

Likewise for the focus on curriculum-level work scrutiny and on not taking a random sample of work. In a school where the curriculum is planned across 2, or even 4, years a holistic approach to the evidence in books and the ‘long view’ could work with a small school and give school leaders the chance to demonstrate impact over time. Of course small schools will need to put a bit of time into the long view themselves – including thinking about evidence, how long they keep curriculum evidence for and how they ensure their curriculum is incremental across different year groups. Schools will need a strong stomach not to start evidencing every little detail in ever subject, and Ofsted will need to take some responsibility and ensure they do not give the impression that this is needed.

The proof of any of these changes will be in the first crop of inspections that take place. And some will demand greater changes: I think they should cut out a one-word grade altogether (and much has been written on this topic) as well as ensure that they observe all schools and ‘outstanding’ schools are not exempt. But for a step toward recognising that they have been responsible for many of the workload-inducing practice over the years this Ofsted framework is a good start.