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Teaching and Learning in the 'New Norm'

P.S. How are your family? What have you accomplished?

This was part of a message that I received from one of my students. Home learning had begun, and it seemed that even though Ofsted had gone, I was still under scrutiny! I love working with children, they get straight to the point – there is an honesty and spontaneity about the way they communicate that I had been missing terribly since we embarked on our home learning journey. Home learning had its challenges and I was desperately trying to keep up with the steep learning curve. Receiving this message made me reflect on how our students feel all the time: a feeling of being measured, and I wanted them to be free from this in these challenging times.

The build up to the decision to close schools had been an emotional one. The week before had seen attendance steadily dwindling and worried looks on the children’s faces as they noticed the empty seats. As a team, we had worked hard to manage the situation and, as is so often the case, I had been impressed with the children’s responses. On the penultimate day, one boy with ASD had calmly said that he thought we should clear out our trays.  And so, with heavy hearts, together we sorted his classmates’ drawers. Some children were already self-isolating due to sickness or vulnerabilities within the family and another child in the class had asked if they could deliver those children’s belongings to their doorsteps: the volunteering had already begun. They had led the gradual closing and shown such kindness to each other along the way without having any idea when we would be together again.

When I started my new job, one of the tasks I had been nervous about was the weekly blog. My IT skills are notoriously lacking, and it took me a while to get used to the new format. Little did I know that once home learning began this would become one of the best parts of my day. Steadily, my IT skills have improved (though there is still a lot to learn) and in a world where everyone is making up a new way of teaching I have found that I really enjoy blogging – it is the main way I keep connected with my class, and how I remember the date!

This is what it has always been about for me – keeping connected. We are physically isolated, socially distanced, and keeping us together has been my priority. The blog started as a daily chat with little tasks to do that concentrated on getting the families involved and responding. In class we have always prioritised the well-being of our children and as we moved towards, and embraced, home learning this became even more important. I set activities that were linked to our ‘Mindful Journals’; three things to feel grateful for, remembering good times and finding the funny.

Gradually the structure has evolved. All our families have been sent a curriculum overview for the topic and we are now posting weekly overviews on a Friday so they can read the suggested activities and prepare, ready for the week ahead. Our blogs give each family a daily structure with suggested activities and examples of work that will hopefully inspire them. We have researched games on the Internet, reading resources and topical information that can be easily accessed and engage the families. Now, more than ever before, we really have to try and get the whole family involved: it would be wonderful if families felt even more conneimage.pngcted to their school community after this experience.

From the beginning the aim has been for the majority of our children to be able to read the information on the blog independently. For those with special educational needs we have produced, with the support of our SENCo, home learning plans (like IEPs) that offer differentiated activities. For me, the blog should be a place where the children can ‘hear’ my voice and feel like we are in the classroom together, learning alongside each other. I am hopeful that the plans that we have adapted can still be used in the future and I have loved researching topics that are more relevant to home learning. Not all our families are posting on the blogs, but the majority are reading them and appreciating the contact and support, and in turn it has become a support for me. Like lots of people, I have sought structure for my day to help shape it and occupy my mind. Thinking of ideas for the blog that will make my class smile and learn has helped me, too. Receiving their messages has truly brightened my day. I am so excited to hear from a child in my class, knowing they are safe and well.

Another highlight of my week is when I go into school and get to see some of the children. We are all on a rota, with the team and days changing each week. I really look forward to my time at school. The first few days were eerily quiet, as only the children from keyworker and vulnerable families are asked to attend, meaning up to 13 children in a space designed for many more. It is less eerie now as we get used to the ‘new norm’. We always start the day with Joe Wicks and then, depending on numbers, separate into Key Stages, coming together for break and lunch. The aim is to follow the activities that the children have been set on their blog, though often the children are keen to chat and catch up with us. The staff have all given this priority and find that once the children are settled the other learning begins naturally. In the afternoon we often do activities together and these moments have been truly magical. This week I watched as an older child took it upon himself to read to the younger children, their faces completely engaged as he did all the actions and made them laugh. Last week it was one of the children’s birthdays, and she very sweetly asked if we could have a party in the afternoon. Of course we said yes and the afternoon was spent preparing games like pass the parcel (we all had to make a piece of wrapping paper), a playlist for musical statues and musical chairs, we even managed to get a cake. Watching the children aged 4 - 11 playing these games together was very special and the birthday girl was over the moon. I feel very honoured to be part of these precious moments. At times, the formal learning has to stop as children share their concerns and frustrations, but through it all they have remained supportive of each other and it feels like we are all in it together.

So now the media focus is on when we will return to school, and I am unsettled by this. No-one really knows what the return will look or feel like. I cannot imagine teaching with a face mask on. How will they know I am smiling? My daughter says they will be able to see it in my eyes. How will we keep them socially distanced? Do I really want to be policing these strange unnatural rules that contradict so many theories of well-being? But then I stop myself from spinning and think of all that has changed so far, of all that has become the ‘new norm’ and how we have all adapted to such extraordinary times. Yesterday, I had a reassuring conversation with our Advisory Head about the plans they are already making ready for our return. The children will all be sent postcards and given the opportunity to reply with what they are looking forward to about coming back to school and what they are concerned about. Their voice will be heard. I shall probably take the lead from them when we return. I’m sure they will have very strong opinions on how it should be done! They have certainly helped me over the past six weeks.

P.S. How are your family? What have you accomplished?

To answer my student’s questions: we are alright, we are muddling through, even laughing and enjoying parts of these strange times. We have our ups and downs but there have been some accomplishments along the way: cakes have been baked, books have been read, gardens tended, films watched, and daily walks made together. But I think the main thing that we will have accomplished is staying connected with our family, friends, and our community. When we do return to school, I hope that we will have had an honest, shared experience that we can grow from.

Every day of this ‘new norm’ has been a learning day for me. The learning experiences have been varied and each one has been immensely valuable. I hope that this time will encourage us to treasure every type of learning and move away from the increasing obsession with targets and constant measuring of attainment. It will be interesting to reflect on what was considered ‘essential’ during these times, and what school communities have missed most while we have been apart.

 


Clare Hancock
After studying Intellectual History and completing her PGCE at Sussex University, Clare was employed at a local community school and has been teaching ever since! Which now adds up to a grand total of 26 years. She started teaching in KS1 and after a while became a SENCo, teaching SEN support groups. After a number of years, Clare returned to the classroom and became a Yr6 teacher. She now teaches in Yr4/5 at a local village school and continues to enjoy working in this ever changing profession - she still loves the buzz of being in the classroom.

Edited by Jules




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