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 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.

Using escape rooms to launch the new school year

The new school year is about to start in Australia. This year my school is starting a new middle school initiative where Year 7 science, maths and some aspects of geography will be integrated and taught by the one teacher. And I am lucky to be one of these teachers. Since almost three subjects will be combined and taught by the one teacher, I will see my Year 7 class A LOT for a typical high school teacher. I’ve done this type of middle school/integrated curriculum before at my previous school and I always kick off the year with a project that allows each student learns about learning. This year the driving question for our first project will be ‘How can I learn effectively and achieve my personal best in maths and science?’

So I wanted a hook activity to launch the year and this project. It needs to be an activity that captures the excitement of the project (and the year’s learning) and allows me to see their existing group work skills. I played around with some ideas and thought an escape room will be good.

I have thought about escape rooms before but they seem to take a mammoth effort to create. But I thought I’d give it a go. I used the general guidelines from Bespoke ELA’s blog and was inspired by her use of Super Mario as the background story (Super Mario is one of my favourite video games series). I am using the introduction to Super Mario 3D as the background story for the escape room. If you haven’t got the time to view the video, the gist of the story is that Bowser has captured seven Sprixies (fairy-like creatures) and each time Super Mario and his pals complete a world, they rescue a Sprixie. For my escape room, a world will be a challenge and each time students complete a challenge, they rescue a Sprixie.

I also followed Bespoke ELA’s instructions on using Google Forms to create a digital escape room, using the section and validation features in Google Forms for students to enter codes to unlock rooms.

Screenshot of the introduction on Google Forms for my escape room activity. It features an embedded YouTube video for the introduction of Super Mario 3D to provide students with the background story.
The video for the background story for this escape room activity is embedded as YouTube video at the start of the Google Form.
Screenshot of a section of the escape room in Google Forms.
Students solve seven challenges. Each time they solve a challenge, they reveal a code to enter into the Google Form. The validation feature is used to check if the code they have entered is correct. If the code is correct, they proceed to the next room (next Google Form section).
Image showing a red Sprixie being rescued.
When students enter the correct code, they unlock a challenge and rescue on of the sprixies.

Students gain the code for each challenge by completing questions in small groups. The images below show each challenge. Challenge 1 was inspired by an activity in Stile, which currently has two online escape room activities. They are definitely worth checking out if you’re interested to see what other educational escape rooms can look like. I used Discovery Education Puzzlemaker to create some of the challenges.

Image showing challenge 1
Image showing challenge 2
Image showing challenge 3
Image showing challenge 4
Image showing challenge 5
Image showing challenge 6
Image showing challenge 7

All of the challenges are designed to be quite basic for this particular escape room as the purpose is to see how a group of new Year 7 students work together after knowing each other for a few days. However, escape rooms can be used as retrieval practice activities. I am planning to use this same escape room structure for my Year 12 classes, but have sample and past HSC exam questions in the challenges.

Have you created or used escape rooms before? How did you find them?

Cardboard games STEM challenge – what worked well and what I’d do differently next time

This year I have a Year 8 STEM elective class. It is a new course that my school is running where we build on existing syllabus outcomes in Stage 4 science, mathematics and technology mandatory. Students learn (and master) the core content in their traditional timetabled science, mathematics and technology mandatory classes and then apply it in their STEM elective. The STEM elective takes a project based learning approach with an emphasis on the design process.

In Term 1, we did the cardboard games challenge. The image below shows the project outline.

Image of project outline  - How can we create a cardboard games room for Concord High School?

We used Caine’s Arcade as our hook activity.

I chose the cardboard games project because I wanted to emphasise to my students that STEM isn’t about fancy gadgets or coding. STEM is about solving problems within parameters, with ongoing prototyping. Making games out of cardboard is also a very low-cost project, which means students can create lots of prototypes and go through many feedback cycles. This was really important in our first STEM project.

The photos below show the cardboard games the students made.

cardboard skeeball
cardboard darts
high score board made of cardboard and masking tape
cardboard pinball
cardboard skeeball
cardboard dunk shooter

So what worked well?

  • The project unpacking template that was inspired by Bianca Hewes. I found this template worked well in enabling students to engage with the project outline, identify their strengths and ask any clarifying questions. Students shared their completed templates with their team members so they can work out their group strengths and negotiate tasks based on their strengths.
  • The overall project allowed lots of differentiation and student voice. Students chose which cardboard game to create. Some students chose mechanically complex games like pinball while other students chose simpler games like skeeball. I had to guide some groups in adjusting their games throughout the project when they were not able to carry through their initial ideas. Eg. the group who wanted to make a cardboard claw machine had to adjust their game quite a few times after each prototype.
  • The ongoing prototyping and feedback as part of the design process. The project allowed students to provide feedback to each other and help each to solve problems.
  • The project presentation – We ended up presenting the project to a Year 7 group of students. While the original plan was to run the games room for the whole school, some of the cardboard games were not going to be able withstand over 1000 students playing them so we decided on one Year 7 class as this was our first project.

What would I change next time?

  • Strengthen the use of a consistent feedback protocol. For this cardboard project, I used the What Worked Well/Even Better If feedback protocol. Students gave their feedback verbally. Next time, I would have students write down their feedback so that each group can further reflect on it.
  • Strengthen the digital portfolio. I originally planned for each student to individually create a digital portfolio to record ongoing evaluations of their prototypes and how their were working as a team. This did not happen in this round of the project. We still did feedback, reflections and evaluations but it was more disjointed (done via verbal feedback and Google Doc templates) than I would’ve liked. Next time I want to test the use of a digital portfolio. I’m thinking of using SeeSaw.
  • The project presentation – Next time, I’d like to bring in an arcade games expert or someone who runs carnival games. Next time, I’d also have each student group provide a short presentation on their game and the design process they used to make each prototype before having students play the games.

Overall I am really, really proud of the effort, prototypes and end products from the Year 8s. The project gave me an opportunity to test some processes in a new elective that I can tweak for their upcoming projects, which will include pixel art, interactive posters and propeller cars.

3 drama games that all teachers can use

In NSW, Australia, teachers, children and young people are getting ready for another year of school. Like many teachers, I like to kick off the year with some ice breaker and team building games. I like to think of my classes as learning communities and for my students to learn how to effectively work with each other, they need to know each other (I’m a science and STEM teacher so many activities involve group work and group projects).

A few years ago, I did team teaching with a drama and dance teacher and was amazed at how well her classes worked together, in a level I have not experienced my science classroom. In these drama and dance classes, students worked productively together. They weren’t afraid to make mistakes in front of each other. They knew how to support each other. They were attuned to each other. I initially thought maybe these classes were just composed of students who were already good friends which is why the group dynamics were so good. But the drama/dance teacher assured me A LOT of work goes into building group dynamics. So I’ve been looking into drama games that would work well in non-drama classes as ALL classes would benefit from developing from students who work well with each other, who empathise with each other, who trust each other and respect each other.

Catch my name – This game helps the class learn each other’s names. Students sit in a circle and a soft object like a small bean bag is thrown to students. The thrower says their name and throws it to another student who says their name when they catch it and throw it to the next student. In subsequent rounds students will need to say their own name and the student’s name they throw the object to. I found this game on Drama Toolkit, where a more detailed description of the game can be found.

Group walks – These are activities that build students’ physical awareness. While such drama games are targeted at developing actors’ awareness of each other’s physical presence on stage, it can also be beneficial for non-drama classes. Being taught to be physically aware of each other’s presence can help students work and learn effectively in large spaces like science labs or open learning spaces. A simple version of this game is to have students walk around in a large space slowly doing various movements like hopping and they need to make sure they don’t bump into each other. Variations and progressions of this game can be found in this blog post.

Count to 20 – I really like this game. As a class, students have to start counting from 1 to 20. Only one student can speak at a time. Any student can start counting and any student can continue the following numbers. However, there is no verbal coordination of who speaks first or next. If two or more students end up saying a number then the class starts from 1 again. See here for a detailed description of the game.

I really like how these games intentionally teach students to work productively as a team. Almost all teachers and all subjects require students to work effectively as a class. These games can be one way of deliberately teaching these skills.