Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Home, School, Two Weeks In...

As I write this, the news of school closures in the UK have just come in. I have been tracking the situation here in Italy and been in constant communication with colleagues back home. These are unprecedented times for most of us and I am, as ever, incredibly proud of how brilliant, resilient and strong schools have been in these weeks of uncertainty.

I previously shared an initial view from Italy when our schools closed and now that we are two weeks in here, I felt it worth sharing some observations of being at the receiving end of distance learning from a parent and child’s point of view. I write these as the parent of a learner going to an international school here as well as from conversations with other parents across the age range, British colleagues and Italian teachers and their pupils in the state sector here.

Here are the key observations I can offer up two weeks in.

1.       Don’t overdo the online learning if that is your suitable and main option for your learners
Nobody needs six hours at a screen, checking the screen, uploading on a screen, playing educational games on a screen, writing onto documents on a screen, hanging out on a screen, doing PE or arts subjects from a screen. The novelty has worn off quite rapidly. There is delight in doing anything that isn’t IT based. It’s a long day to be effectively tied to a device.

2.       Build in social contact and down time
An Italian colleague was telling me this morning that they phone up a few of their students each day in rotation to talk to them in person and that they organise an online hangout for those who can access it every other day to just say ‘ciao’ and basically make fun of each other. There is a lot of use of WhatsApp class groups for a bit of communication and keeping in touch. Various online meeting platforms are being used to the same effect. All the children I have spoken to miss their teachers and friends desperately. Teachers and communities here are organising online pub quizzes, bingo and virtual coffee breaks. Human contact beyond the home is something you realise you underestimated for far too long.

3.       Calibrate pace and volume of learning
Learning at home is a different experience and that ‘feel’ of being in school can’t be recreated. Not being in a classroom with their fantastic, witty, watchful, reactive teachers or in the multi-dimensional purpose-designed learning environment of their school means that learning happens in a different way. Trying to do too much, too quickly, without being in the room with that learner to take the temperature of their understanding might cover a lot of curriculum, but it doesn’t become embedded learning and knowledge. Schools, subject teams and teachers here are starting to see this and to reset the pacing of their planning.

4.       Learning Needs and Support
I’ll relate this on a personal level. My son is dyslexic, his processing for spelling, copying and his confidence for writing need a lot of support and he freezes under time pressure. He is 10. At school, he gets this from his great TA. At home right now, that’s me. It takes longer to complete tasks, so we cannot keep to ‘by the end of the lesson’ turn in deadlines for real-time online learning. I am adapting task types and response formats, helping with drafting, re-drafting and doing some scribing. I am able to do this in terms of time because I can be hugely flexible with my own work and am an experienced teacher. If I just left him to it, his learning would undoubtedly regress. I am communicating regularly with his fantastic teacher and his TA so we make adjustments to how time is allocated to different subjects in the day or decide what he can skip to focus on some key target areas of his learning. I absolutely understand the privilege of my own situation and I know that this is not the case for lots of other children and parents out there. I worry about the capacity schools have to support the specific needs of some learners, but not their expertise, organisation or planning.

5.       Home life and expectations of parents
We don’t usually spend this much time together, all week. We are learning to work and learn together in the same space. There is all the usual daily stuff that needs to be done, a working day to get through, a school day to complete. It can get terse. It can be lovely. It is tiring. It is bonding. It is an extraordinary experience. We need time to be a family and not pretend that we are all at our ‘9 to 5’ because…we aren’t. Parents who are working from home are doing just that and might be under a lot of pressure right now. They mostly don’t have the time to support or monitor their children consistently through the day. Many fellow parents are finding it really hard to ‘home school’, particularly with primary phase children and are terrified of getting it wrong. Many parents don’t have the luxury of supporting their child’s learning through the day. It is causing a lot of angst and a lot of family friction. Frequent, reassuring and open communication are really helpful, both to parents and learners.

(Teacher parents I’m in contact with who are being expected to fulfil both those functions in real time throughout the school day are exhausting themselves, working even harder and for longer hours on top of everything else. In Italy, the government has ensured that schools are able to keep on their regular supply/PPA teachers to cover for colleagues who fall ill, have to look after family members or to give them additional planning and preparation time in this unusual situation.)

I’ll end by saying that you have nothing to prove to the vast majority of parents. After even a day with their children learning at home, they will have an even greater appreciation of what you do day in, day out. We don’t need to be blown away by your cutting-edge use of technology or the cleverness of different modes of online teaching and learning. We want to feel that our children are still learning but we don’t need you to throw everything at them to show us that you are all over this. We know you are. We trust you. We’d quite like you to keep safe, stay sane and look after yourselves and your families, because that is what we are all trying to do right now. Most of all, we want to say thank you. Grazie.

Insieme ce la faremo. Together, we can do this.


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