Giving time for students to think – using learning logs to guide student reflection

In high school, the curriculum often feels overcrowded and rushed. There are just too many things to cover and not enough time. However, it is important to give students the time to stop and think about what they are learning and how they are learning, which are important for becoming self-regulated learners. Students need to be supported to set goals, monitor their progress towards their goals, identify areas for improvement and evaluate the usefulness of different learning strategies.

Using learning logs to guide student reflection

Last term, I decided to prototype learning logs with my Year 7 mathematics and science class. We dedicated 50 minutes every week where we stopped “pushing through the curriculum” and wrote learning reflections. We used the learning log Google Slides template from the NSW Department of Education.

We wrote in our learning log every Friday, for ten weeks. In our dedicated learning log lessons, we would first brainstorm as a class what we have learnt in mathematics and science this week. We did this on Zoom using annotation tools as we were in remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I shared the following template on Zoom and students used the text annotation tools to do a class brainstorm. The template was modified from an existing Canva template.

After we have completed our weekly reflection brainstorm, I would ask volunteer students to unmute in Zoom and elaborate further on their thoughts. Students will then individually write in their learning logs.

Here are some samples of our reflections.

Benefits of learning logs to guide student reflection

I liked this learning log template because it provided students with a variety of reflection questions. This is opposed to asking students to write a reflection or journal entry as an extended writing activity, which many students find challenging because not only are they trying to think about their own learning, but they also have to learn the structure and language of reflective writing.

As a teacher, I also found these learning logs useful as a form of formative assessment. I can use the students’ self-assessment on what they are confused about or from their questions on the topic to guide my lesson planning for the next week.

Challenges of learning logs and student reflection

Some of the challenges we faced were some students wrote very little in their learning logs at first and I had to work quite intensively with them to write more for each reflection question. Some students also did not yet see the value of reflection and completed the entries with minimal thought and as quickly as possible. However, their attitude and work standard improved over the term.

A huge challenge was TIME. As I mentioned earlier, the curriculum is overcrowded and learning often feel rushed. At the start, I found myself questioning whether I can spare 50 minutes each week for learning logs. However, after persisting for a term, I think the time is worth it. Having dedicated time to support students to self-assess, to think about their own learning and reflect on their successes will help them grow into self-regulated learners.

Where to next

Next term, I am going to continue the learning log with my Year 7 class, but I’m going to change some of the reflection questions. I would like to move them towards reflecting more on learning strategies and the significance of what they are learning. There are some sample reflection questions from an Edutopia post that I would like to incorporate. Eventually I would like to make better links between the learning log and their goal setting processes.

If you are thinking about embedding student reflection in your lessons, I would highly recommend scheduling a dedicated time for it each week/fortnight. Giving it class time show students the activity is valued. It is not something they do at home or done as an extension activity. While it does take time away from continuing with content, it is worth slowing down and allowing students to think about their learning. The learning log template I mentioned earlier is a great way to start.

How I run online learning during COVID-19 lockdown

In Sydney, NSW, we are currently in our second round of lockdown due to COVID-19. This means families are being asked to keep their children at home if they can and students are being taught remotely. For my school, we have decided that most of our remote teaching and learning will be conducted online on Zoom and Google Classroom. I’ve blogged about this in our first round of lockdown last year, but many have asked for more details so this post is to share how I set up my online classes. Note that these practices work for my students as many were already established routines (Google Classroom routines in particular) before online learning.

Every lesson is posted on Google Classroom

Even before online learning, I post every lesson on Google Classroom the day before the lesson. The lesson post would have the learning intention and success criteria for the lesson, the class activities we would be doing and all videos, slides, worksheets and other resources would be attached. This is so students can preview the lesson if they wish and it allows me to be more organised in class. At the start of a lesson, I put up Google Classroom on the interactive screen and everything is there.

An example of a Google Classroom post before online learning

For online learning, I still do the same thing. However, instead of posting the lesson as a Materials post, I post it as an Assignment post with a due date as the day of the lesson. This is because an Assignment post with a due date will make it appear on a student’s Google Classroom homepage. At my school, we have a whole school process that every lesson is an assignment post with a due date and all lesson posts for the day need to be posted before 8:45 am. So when students log on in the morning, they can see a summary of all of their lessons for today. Most of our parents have also signed up to Google Classroom Guardian so making every lesson an Assignment post allows parents to receive a daily or weekly email summary of whether their child has submitted the required work.


In my online learning Google Classroom posts, I also include Zoom details if there is a live Zoom lesson so everything a student needs for that lesson is in the one Google Classroom post. Many students are already overwhelmed with suddenly transitioning to a completely new mode of learning, by themselves at home, so I try to minimise their need to click on too many different things and potentially getting lost.

An example of a Google Classroom post before online learning

Live Zoom lessons

I run live Zoom lessons for almost every lesson, but not all. My live Zoom lessons always start in the same way. Students are admitted into the meeting room at the start of the lesson where they will see a holding slide with today’s lesson outline or a quick quiz, depending on the class. The holding slide replicates our classroom whiteboard set up when we weren’t in lockdown so it offers a sense of familiarity. The slide has a YouTube countdown music timer clip so students know when the live instruction will begin. This allows three to five minutes for students to enter the room. The countdown video lets them know their audio is working. I also let them use these three to five minutes to use the Chat function to say hi to each other.

Holding slide for a Year 7 Zoom lesson
Holding slide for a Year 11 Zoom lesson

Zoom routines

In the first week of online learning, I teach my classes how they should behave on Zoom. We go through expectations and consequences so everyone has a shared understanding of how we act on Zoom.

An infographic of our Zoom lesson expectations

In the first week, I incorporate activities where students have many opportunities to practise our Zoom learning routines including:

  • raising their Zoom hand and waiting for me to ask them to unmute before speaking
  • having a choice of asking questions by raising their Zoom hand or in the Chat
  • using the Yes and No reactions in Zoom to respond to regular questions to check their understanding to determine if we can move on (I use to ask them to type in the chat, but using the Yes and No reactions is much more efficient as you can easily see a tally of who is saying Yes and who is saying No in the participant list)
  • expecting to be randomly selected to respond to questions (before online learning, I used Class Dojo for a ‘no hands up’ approach to responding to questions, which we have continued on Zoom)
  • taking turns to use the shared screen annotation features, which is particularly good for maths and chemistry

Integrating other apps

While the annotation tools and whiteboard on Zoom are sufficient for most of the activities we do, sometimes I find it easier to connect a second screen such as from a document camera or an iPad. I find an iPad with an Apple Pencil are really good tools. I particularly like the Microsoft Whiteboard app on the iPad with the Apple Pencil to teach maths and chemistry as it feels more like writing on paper and makes my digital handwriting neater.

An example of using the Microsoft Whiteboard iPad app with Apple Pencil, shared in a live Zoom lesson

We have also used Quizlet Live on Zoom to practise our vocabulary. I think playing synchronous games like Quizlet Live allows the class to maintain their relationships and enables them to have experiences they use to before lockdown. Running games like Quizlet Live or Kahoot via Zoom works better if students have a second device. So they will view the Zoom lesson on their laptop and play Quizlet Live on their phone or tablet.

Screenshot of a Quizlet Live game played on Zoom

Formative assessment

In face to face learning, a lot of my formative assessment and feedback processes happened with student interactions. This included checking their work books in class, speaking to them and being able to gather an overall sense of how they are going. Most of these practices require all of us to be in the same room and these have been the most challenging to pivot to online learning.

I don’t ask my students to take photos of their exercise books and upload it onto Google Classroom. I use to but found this practice to be unproductive and too time consuming for effective, timely feedback to occur. It also didn’t allow me to make adjustments to future lessons quickly enough. This is particularly important in maths as mastery of concepts are often required before moving on. So instead of asking students or post blurry photos of their work, I set quizzes every 2-3 lessons. For maths, I use Stile. While this platform is officially for science, I create maths quizzes in Stile because students can use their mouse or touch screens to easily write their working out and mathematical processes such as fractions that are difficult to type.

Screenshot of a maths quiz in Stile
Screenshot of a maths quiz in Stile showing working out with a mouse or touch screen

Overall, I try to make online learning include as many live Zoom lessons as possible where they involve explicit teaching with lots of worked examples. Google Classroom routines are set up so it offers familiarity to students and allows them to access everything they need in one place, reducing cognitive load as much as possible. However some practices in face to face teaching have to be adjusted for online learning.

Using Google Sheet to manage student and teacher workload

In high school, students can have up to eight different subjects, all with their own assessment schedules. In NSW, Australia, the final two years of schooling would see students juggling approximately five to six subjects so five to six assessment schedules. If faculties of different subjects don’t collaborate in an effective manner, students may end up having an excessive number of assessments due around the same time. This may impact on their ability to manage their time and negatively affect their wellbeing. Many schools already have processes to ensure this is avoided as much as possible. I decided to play around with Google Sheets to see if it make this job more time efficient. The embedded tweet shows how it works. The editable Google Sheet template can be downloaded here. The template was created for my school to try for the HSC, so it will need to be edited to suit your context.

The week numbers are the column headings and the subject names are the row headings. If the Google Sheet is shared, teachers can check the boxes to indicate the week they would like an assessment task for their subjects to be due. The running tally automatically adds up the assessment tasks for a week. This can be used to indicate if particular weeks would have too many assessments due. The check boxes allow teams of teachers to have a discussion to moving assessment due dates and the running tally accurately updates the number of assessments per week. So if assessments have to be moved, it makes the negotiation process more efficient.

The same template can be used for faculties or teacher teams to track their workload to identify pressure points throughout a term or year. Just delete the text in column A and replace it other tasks or activities. These may be report due dates, assessment marking, parent teacher interviews, etc so teacher workload can be better managed.

Launch into STEM – low prep and low cost projects to set up your students for success

I have a STEM class this year again. Yippee! The last time I had a STEM class was in 2019 and their first project was the cardboard games challenge, which I have previously blogged about. This year, my class is different (every class is different) and according to their pre-tests, needed more support in working effectively in teams and more guidance in designing fair investigations and communicating their findings. So we decided to dive into some mini challenges to launch into STEM, before settling into longer-term projects. The series of mini challenges are low prep, low cost, quick to do and are designed for students to consolidate the skills they need for more complex projects. The processes, scaffolds and success criteria are repeated with each mini challenge and are designed so there is a gradual release of responsibility.

This blog post contains an outline of each mini challenge and the resources I used. I used them with my Year 8 class, but they can be adapted to younger or older students. This post also contains a brief reflection on what worked well and what can be done differently.

Launch into STEM

Our project outline is shown in the graphic below.

Mini challenge one – rotocopters

The first mini challenge was rotocopters. This is a very easy challenge so students can focus on developing their skills to identify independent, dependent and controlled variables, selecting and using appropriate equipment to make measurements, using basic statistics to analyse results and writing an investigation report. When students have done this challenge once, they can start changing the design of the rotocopters to have it fall slower, spin faster, etc. To support students to brainstorm on ideas and negotiate on an agreed idea, we used a PMI chart.

I used the following scaffold and success criteria to help students design a fair investigation and to write an investigation report.

Mini challenge two – straw rockets

Our second mini challenge was straw rockets from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The NASA website has everything you and your students need, from written and video instructions on making the rockets to explanations on how rocket propulsion works. While this challenge seems easy, the extension opportunities are endless. We used the same scaffolds from the rotocopter challenge so students can get another go at improving their work. They can implement the feedback they got for the rotocopter challenge. For the air rockets, I introduced the following reflection questions for students to complete at the end of the challenge.

  • How much did you know about air rockets before this experiment?
  • What problems did you have with this experiment? This may include working in a team.What did you learn about yourself in this experiment? This may include working in a team.
  • Did you do your work the way other people did theirs? Explain.
  • What is one thing you would like to improve on if you did the experiment again?
  • If you were the teacher, what comments would you give to your work?

Mini challenge three – parachute challenge

Everything we did for the rotocopters and air rockets led to students being successful at this final challenge – to design a parachute for space exploration. Again, NASA has great resources for this. Check out their Eggstronaut Parachute Challenge.

We used the same processes, scaffolds and success criteria as the previous mini challenges. Students have done these processes twice and have received feedback twice. The parachute challenge is the time for them to become more independent learners. Instead of me pacing the students and releasing scaffolds as they are needed, students were given a project booklet and were allowed to pace themselves within a provided timeline.

Progress of learning – portfolio

When all three mini challenges were completed, each student had multiple samples of work from each challenge that showcase similar skills in designing fair investigations, communicating the results of investigations, and reflections on working in a team. Students can use these work samples to explain how they have grown over the term and how they implemented feedback to improve their work with each mini challenge.

So, what did the students think?

The class did an evaluation of the project. Here are some of their responses to what they liked most about the project.

I enjoy that we are given freedom in our projects to work creatively and not just writing in books.

I really love how our teacher is really understanding when it comes to our work because she does not pressure us like other teachers.

[I like] The rocket experiment, the parachute experiment and filling out the report.

What to do differently next time

Even though the project was designed so it accumulated to a portfolio in the end, many students ran out of time to document their learning progress. I also did not explicitly teach how to create a digital portfolio and articulate learning growth as well as I wanted to. Again the term got away from us.

Explanation texts is another aspect I would like to have taught more explicitly. Each mini challenge required students to explain the forces behind the rotocopter, air rocket and parachute and use forces to explain how their design changes worked. If I had my time again, I would have provided more scaffolding for students to express cause-and-effect relationships and how to move their writing from spoken-like to written-like.

Reflecting on my practice in 2020 – what worked, what needs to be adjusted

This year has been like no other. I’ve previously blogged about the positives and challenges of teaching remotely during a pandemic, but even without a pandemic, this year was a year where everything I taught was brand new for me. This year, I taught Year 12 Chemistry, Year 12 Earth and Environmental Science and Year 7 integrated mathematics, science and geography (which we called Year 7 STEM). I have never taught any of these courses before, which meant prototyping new learning routines and practices. This post is a reflection on what worked and what I need to adjust in 2021.

What worked?

Retrieval and spaced practice

Almost every single of my lessons starts with a quick quiz (the exception is when we have a formal examination). The quick quiz is three to five questions from the current topic and previous topics. In my earlier years of teaching, I used the quick quiz routine as a classroom management strategy rather than a learning strategy. The quick quiz allowed me to get the students on task immediately at the start of a lesson and let me do things like mark the roll, deal with late comers, check uniform, etc. But in the last few years, I started to incorporate retrieval and spaced practice into the quick quizzes. While students moan the quick quiz, they also say it helps them remember content as it is like doing small revision sessions every day. One of my Year 12 students told he absolutely hated quick quizzes in my Earth and Environmental Science classes but eventually realised it greatly helped him in remembering the course content. When he signed out of the school after his final exams, he told me to continue doing the quick quiz routine in future classes, no matter how much students say they hate it.

An example of a quick quiz for Year 7 STEM

Homework and whole class feedback

My Year 7 STEM class had a weekly homework booklet. The homework was based on previous work they’ve done and was another way I incorporated retrieval and spaced practice. Instead of commenting on individual work, I dedicated half a lesson each week for whole class feedback and focused on explicitly explaining the questions that many students did not answer correctly. I felt the whole class feedback made the workload more manageable. There were times when I felt the Year 7 homework routine almost killed me. The weekly cycle of creating homework booklets, marking the booklets and collating data on the areas they need to improve on. I felt like I was always marking homework. But at least the whole class feedback meant there was dedicated time for students to process the feedback and act on it.

Example of whole class feedback for homework

Regular no-stakes tests with whole class feedback

I was able to build a culture of no-stakes testing with My Year 7 STEM class. This class became very use to pre-tests, mid-topic tests and frequent quizzes. They had an understanding that these tests allowed me and them to know their strengths, areas of improvement and whether we can move on the next component of the topic. I found this was more vital in mathematics than science.

Sample of whole class feedback

Regular opportunities for extension and small group remedial work

My Year 7 STEM class had every Friday as their “weekly check-in”. Every Friday, they had a double period to catch up on work they’ve missed in the week and depending on their progress for the week, some students did extension activities while other students worked with me in small groups. I found this made a big difference for mathematics. The gap for mathematics in my class was much larger than for science and geography. I had students who have very strong numeracy skills and can pick up new mathematics concepts very quickly, while others were the opposite. Then there are students who lacked confidence in mathematics. It was the students who lacked confidence in mathematics that really benefited from the small group instruction. It was during this time, when they felt comfortable in asking questions and “have a go” with questions that they thought was hard.

Example of weekly check-in lessons

What I need to adjust?

Faded work examples

In all of my classes, I spent a lot of time on worked examples, particularly with Year 7 mathematics and Year 12 Chemistry. What I want to adjust next year is to include faded worked examples. Most textbooks and resources do not have faded worked examples and I feel the jump from whole class instruction with worked examples to independent practice is often too wide for most students. I did play around with faded worked examples with Year 12 Chemistry but did not have the time to consolidate the practice.

Knowledge organisers

I started using knowledge organisers as another way to incorporate retrieval and spaced practice. It was going well until COVID-19 online learning. It was something that didn’t pick up traction this year, but something I want to revisit next year.

Choral responses

I started doing choral responses with my Year 7s as part of their quick quiz routine and as a classroom management strategy after reading about it in ‘Classroom management: Creating and maintaining positive learning environments‘. We had the choral response routine going quite well until COVID-19 online learning. I deliberately abandoned choral responses when we returned to on-campus learning to minimise potential infection spread. However, when we did do choral responses, it worked really well as a way to increase students’ opportunities to respond and it’s a practice I want to start prototyping again next year.

3 things I’ve learnt from ‘Running the Room’

During the October school holidays, I read Running the Room: The Teacher’s Guide to Behaviour by Tom Bennett. As indicated in the title, the book is on managing student behaviour in the classroom. I’ve been teaching for nearly 13 years and I don’t think I have nailed classroom management (but I don’t think any teacher can say they have perfected any part of their practice, in any stage of their career). Classroom management is complex and this book offers lots of evidence-informed and practical strategies for all teachers, regardless of their experience and career stage, in a non-preachy way. The key messages I got from the book are

  • Be organised and plan ahead so that it is easy for students to behave and hard for them to misbehave.
  • Create a class culture where it is the norm for students to behave in a way that lets them and others learn.

The book talks a lot about how people’s behaviours can be different when they are by themselves and in different group situations. A classroom and a school are large group situations and teachers need to create and sustain a culture where it is the norm to do the right thing.

The book re-affirmed a lot of things I’m already doing and gave me new ideas to trial as a teacher and a school leader. Here are 3 things I’ve learnt from the book.

1. Routines, routines and routines

I’ve always been a big fan of routines and Running the Room reaffirmed this practice for me. Explicit routines prevent behaviour problems from arising and helps create the class culture and norms. My classes have routines for starting a lesson, ending a lesson, entering different classrooms, how to transition between activities, etc. I have sometimes thought I was going overboard with the routines in terms of their detail and how we actually acted them out. E.g. We would practise how to line up, enter the classroom, etc. We go through these routines and practice them at the start of every term.

After reading the book, I am more confident that these routines support my students’ learning. I’m going to go further this term and trial practising the routines more regularly. So instead of going through them at the start of the term, going through them at least twice a term. The book emphasised that routines need to be taught, practised and re-taught BEFORE a problem occurs. Don’t wait for an issue to arise to re-teach a routine.

I’m also going to trial establishing more explicit routines for students to observe teacher science demonstrations, how to break off into small groups of science practical work, how each group collects and returns equipment, how each group asks for assistance and how homework is collected, distributed and returned.

Below are some of the routines for my Year 7 class, which I have further adjusted after reading the book, such as specifying the number of minutes that students must arrive to class after the bell (so there are no misunderstandings).

Text describing the reasons we need classroom rules, routines and consequences.
Text describing general classroom rules.
Text describing how to enter the classroom
Explanation of using the acronym SLANT for listening to a speaker
Classroom routine for existing a classroom

Of course, consequences are not all negative. Rewards and praise are needed to reinforce positive behaviours. Reading the book reminded me I need to be recognise my students more frequently for positive behaviours and avoid rewarding some students disproportionately. I have decided to trial using Class Dojo again to help keep track of positive behavious and support all students in gaining school merits.

System for recognising positive behaviours

2. Plan your consequences BEFORE you need to use them

Like all teachers, I’ve kept students in for detentions, called parents for misbehaviours and placed students on behaviour contracts. These things are bound to happen. Running the Room recommends planning and scripting how you will do these things BEFORE you have to do them. The purpose is to have a basic scaffold of what you are going to say and how you will respond in these situations. If you are an early career teacher, you can try role playing and practising what you are going to say to students/parents with a more experienced teacher.

In my earlier years of teaching, I had reflection sheets for students to complete when they are in detention to facilitate a conversation to support them to choose more appropriate behaviours in the future. I have no idea why I stopped using these sheets (perhaps because as I became more experienced, the number of detentions I’ve had to give has decreased), but I have now revamped them and them printed and ready to be used. I’ve also decided to let my students know how detentions will be operated so we have a clear understanding before they happen.

Description of detention rules
Behaviour reflection worksheet

3. Have a removal strategy in place before you need it

Before I go any further with this, the book emphasises that removal should not be done on an ad hoc basis and it should be an unusual event in mainstream classrooms. However, sometimes there will be situations where a student needs to be temporarily removed from the class and a removal strategy should be in place before it is needed. This is something I want to work on as a Head Teacher. Do I have an agreed process with the teachers I supervise for the unlikely event that a student needs to be removed from class so that all students, including the student being removed, can continue learning? When such an event occurs, the class teacher should not have to think about who and where the student is to be sent to, what the student should be doing while removed from class, what happens after the removal, etc. It is important that students should know this process before they are removed (which hopefully will be never).

Overall, the book is one of the best books I have read on behaviour management. I love the emphasis on planning ahead and deliberately planning how you will run the room and set the class culture and norms. As emphaised in the book, these strategies are “rising tides – ones that lift all ships.”

The joys and challenges of COVID19 online teaching and learning

In NSW, Australia, school students will return to face-to-face learning in the classroom full time from Monday 25 May. As a teacher and parent, I couldn’t be happier. As a teacher, I miss my students. As a parent, I feel my child needs the teaching expertise of her teachers, which are beyond what I can offer as a parent. So on the day before things move to new normal, I thought I’d reflect on my own joys and challenges of COVID19 online teaching and learning, from the perspective of a teacher and a parent.

Equipment set up for online teaching

I absolutely loved learning new ways of working with technology

In just under two months, I think I have learnt what I would usually learn with technology in 12 months. This included new ways of using Google Classroom, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Screentastify, Loom, Explain Everything, Microsoft Whiteboard, Microsoft Stream. You name it, I probably learnt it. Leading whole school technology meant that I had to learn probably a lot more than others in order to make recommendations for whole school approaches. It meant learning as many digital tools available, evaluating the pros and cons for your own school context, setting up whole school processes, communicating the case for change and then supporting all teachers, students and their families through the change processes, in a very narrow timeframe without the luxury of the usual consultation and prototyping processes. These are complex processes without COVID19.

We evaluated over 1200 surveys to establish a whole school approach to online teaching and learning.
One of the whole school approaches to online teaching and learning was how every teacher used Google Classroom so students have a consistent user experience.

Seeing some students thrive in online learning

Some of my students thrived in the flexible approach to online learning from home. These were the students who already worked well independently and had strong metacognition and self-regulation skills. They were able to work at their own pace and not be dictated by the school bell. If they needed more time to do their maths, they could. They could continue learning without being forced to move to another subject and class. If they finished early, they can pursue personal interests. Some of my Year 12s liked doing their work at 9pm the night before and sleep in the next day. Some students were able to better fit in their class work with their family schedules. For example, they could do their class work before school started so they can go to a medical appointment in the afternoon.

It was hard, very hard to be a teacher and parent simultaneously

On some days, I worked from home. This meant I had to be a teacher for my own students and support my own child to learn from home. There were some days in late Term 1 (when there were very high new cases of COVID19 being reported each day) where we decided to keep our younger child at home from day care. These were really challenging times. I had to schedule my own Zoom lessons around my five-year-old’s Zoom lessons, juggle supporting my own students on Google Classroom and helping my five-year-old with her work on Seesaw, timing the three-year-old nap times around Zoom meetings and ensuring I didn’t use YouTube and the TV too much as a babysitter. I have never want to have to do this ever again.

But I became a better teacher by being a part of my child’s learning

While I never want to go through teaching online from home and being a parent supporting online learning from home ever again, I did learn to be a better teacher from playing a larger part than usual in my own child’s learning. Being 5 years old, my child cannot operate Zoom and Seesaw independently so I often sat next to her to help her mute and unmute, and to type or take photos on Seesaw. I learnt a lot of new teaching skills while watching my child’s teacher teach on Zoom and how she structured the learning on Seesaw, which I used with my own students. High school teachers have a lot to learn from primary school teachers.

Numeracy activity on Seesaw on an iPad as an example of online learning from home.
My child using Seesaw during online learning from home.

I’m really glad things are moving on from tomorrow

While I enjoyed many parts of online teaching and learning, I’m really excited that things are moving to a new normal from tomorrow. I can’t wait to have all my students back in the classroom and my child cannot wait to have her teacher back. And I’m excited to be able to get new home readers.

Photo of a classroom set up with individual desks apart.
My classroom set up for the return of students on Monday.

Parent teacher conferences on Zoom

Our school’s usual parent teacher conferences happen in the hall. It’s like speed dating where each teacher has a small desk in the school hall and parents move from one teacher to another. However, COVID19 means we can’t run our parent teacher conferences in our usual way. So we decided to use Zoom. Overall it was a success. We had 78 teachers hold hundreds and hundreds of conferences.

How we did it

Our school uses the NSW Education Zoom so only people with a Zoom account can enter a meeting room. Each meeting room has a password and a waiting room. The teacher is the host of their own meeting room and they have to let the parents in from the waiting room. We used the following steps to set up the conferences.

  1. We used Edval for parents to book times. Usually we allocate 5 minute blocks per teacher. This time we allocated 10 minutes so there was enough buffer time to make sure all conferences ran on schedule.
  2. We created a meeting room for each teacher. In the future, we will use each teacher’s personal Zoom meeting room.
  3. We created a parent guide to explain how to create a Zoom account and how to join meetings. The parent guide listed all teachers’ meeting room IDs and passwords. We decided to send out meeting room IDs rather than links as it was less overwhelming and easier for parents using tablets for Zoom.
  4. We created a teacher guide with step by step instructions. We emphasised teachers need to effectively manage the waiting room and stick to their conference schedule.
  5. We encouraged students to be part of the conference and help their parents with Zoom.

Zoom enabled teachers to share their screens so they can show student samples of work to parents. This would not be possible over the phone.

COVID19 can make us feel isolated. A Zoom parent teacher conference, where you can see each other’s faces, is very valuable in fostering the school-home relationships in these uncertain times.

5 things I’ve learnt to improve my online live lessons

In NSW, Australia, NSW public schools moved to a ‘learning from home’ model on 24 May 2020, due to increased restrictions to combat COVID-19. Parents were asked to keep their children at home if they could learn from home Overnight, we moved from face to face teaching to online remote teaching and learning. Like many other teachers, I started to experiment with using online meetings. This is what I have found to be useful.

1. Play around with different tools

I tested Adobe Connect, Microsoft Teams and Zoom for online live lessons with my classes. Overall, I prefer to use Zoom with my students for the following reasons:

  • Many of them already use it with family and friends.
  • Many of their parents use it so they know how to help if required.
  • It has breakout rooms that is easy to set up and use (more on this later).
  • It generates a meeting link that you can use over and over. I have this link as the top post on Google Classroom so it is easy to find for students. See here for instructions on how to create a link for recurring meetings.

For staff teams, I prefer Microsoft Teams for online meetings as it offers a more efficient experience. Microsoft Teams is the easiest to run an online meeting when you have everyone you need in your Team. You literally just click a button and voila! I like how Microsoft Teams allows for staff teams to be broken into smaller teams through Channels (Eg. Our Year 7 Middle School team has a main Microsoft Team and then the STEM teachers and Humanities teachers have their own Channels. If you run a science faculty for example, you can have all of your teachers in the main Channel and then break off smaller teams of teachers into their own Channels like a separate Channel for each Year 11/12 subject.) In those channels, teachers can easily run their own online meetings.

You can also collectively take notes while you have an online meeting in Microsoft Teams. We ran an executive meeting on Teams and notes were taken live during the meeting. Everyone can see the minutes being entered.

You can also schedule online meetings in Microsoft Teams, but it’s trickier than Zoom if you work in a NSW public school. The video below shows how to do it. It’s important to let colleagues know who is starting the live meeting. Otherwise you may have enthusiastic teachers going into Teams early and then starting the meeting and end up two different meetings happening simultaneously.

After a few weeks of testing, it’s important to discuss a whole school approach to online meetings and come to a consensus on which online meeting tool to use with students. This is particularly important in high school where a student can have up to 8 different teachers and it will be challenging for them to use a different online meeting tool for each teacher.

2. Keep online live lessons short

I like to keep online live lessons at around 20 to 30 minutes. Our school periods are 50 minutes and that is way too long in an online lesson environment. Think about the purpose of the online live lesson. If it’s to explicitly explain a concept (eg. how to add fractions with different denominators), then it is better to record a video rather than a live meeting. I like to use live meetings for welfare check-in’s, collaborative discussions and feedback; basically things that cannot be done effectively with a recorded video on online posts.

3. Use breakout rooms

I like to use breakout rooms in Zoom for students to have small group discussions (about 3 to 4 students). Breakout rooms are where you can send students into their own online meeting spaces and you as the teacher can ‘drop in’ and monitor each one. It’s the online version of separating students into smaller groups in a classroom and the teacher walking around. Students have more opportunities to actively participate in an online discussion and some are more willing to when they are in smaller groups. You can randomly assign students to breakout rooms or choose your own student groups.

Breakout rooms can also be done in Microsoft Teams.

4. Give students something to do while they are waiting

In a regular face to face classroom, I start every class with a quick quiz. This is for several reasons:

  • Retrieval practice – The questions I set requires them to remember content they have learnt in previous lessons, which helps them to consolidate the information into their long term memory.
  • Classroom management – As soon as students walk in, they have something to do. They have to unpack their equipment and they have to engage with the course work straight away. It allows me to manage students coming into the classroom at different times. Some may be coming from the classroom next door and others are walking from the other end of the school. The quick quiz mean I have a five minute window of ensuring everyone is on task and attentive. It’s a good crowd control strategy. I can also mark the roll.

An online live lesson is very similar to a face to face class. Some students will log on before you do. Others will log on a few seconds after you. And others will log in minutes later. I like to use the Polls feature in Zoom for retrieval practice. I usually do 3 to 5 multiple choice questions for them to do in Polls while I allow students into the meeting from the lobby.

I also like to use the Whiteboard feature to tell them they need to be answering the questions in Polls, list the meeting’s agenda, learning goals, etc.

5. Set and practise routines

An online live class needs to have learning routines and they need to be explicitly taught, just like in a face to face classroom. I like to start my online live classes the same way every time – the quick quiz in Polls and use the Whiteboard to communicate what we are doing in this online class (and tick them off as we go). Students know they have to use the hands up features to ask a question and they know when and why to use the chat. Some teachers like to disable the chat, but I like it. Yes, my students have used it to talk about irrelevant things, but 99% of the time they use the chat to help each other and alert me to technical issues (like the YouTube clip I’m trying to share is glitchy).

Overall, my students really value live online classes. I think they value the connection with each other and with their teachers. As we move into Term 2 where they may be a continuation with remote teaching or some sort, I would like my students to lead the online live lessons more. Have them share their screens and show their work or use breakout rooms where there is a student leader to facilitate the discussions.

Using knowledge organisers to support retrieval practice

Last year I started prototyping with teaching and learning strategies based on cognitive science. I was particularly interested in how to design and structure learning to support students to consolidate knowledge and skills into long term memory. Some of the things I did were:

This year I want to prototype knowledge organisers. A knowledge organiser is an A4 template that succinctly shows the reader (student/parent/teacher) what is essential to know for a particular topic. Knowledge organsers are not new. I’ve seen them on UK EduTwitter for a number of years but I think they are not that widely used in Australia. For a really good post on knowledge organisers, see Joe Kirby’s blog on how knowledge organisers are used at Michaela Community School.

For me I’m trialling knowledge organisers with my Year 7 maths/science class. I’ve made these knowledge organsiers so far for the introduction to high school science topic.

An image of a knowledge organiser for scientific processes
An image of a knowledge organiser for working safetly in the lab
An image of a knowledge organiser for laboratory equipment

This is how I’m going to use them:

  • Students to use the look cover check correct process to learn one section of the knowledge organiser at a time. Students choose one section of a knowledge organiser to focus on, read the information, cover that section, write what they remember, check their retrieved version with the knowledge organiser and then correct it with a different coloured pen. This will first be done in class and then moved to homework tasks. Students will receive a copy of the knowledge organisers in their homework folders so that their parents/carers know what they are learning at a glance and can use them to quiz their children.
  • Use the knowledge organiser to develop low-stakes quizzes. Students can also use the knowledge organiser to quiz each other.
  • Once students have practised using knowledge organisers in a range of ways and have these routines automated, retrieval practice using knowledge organisers can become the class work students do when the regular teacher is absent.

I make the knowledge organisers in PowerPoint. Click on this link to download the PowerPoint files and make a copy if you’d like to edit the knowledge organisers to suit your needs and the needs of your students.