‘How can I possibly teach Hamlet?’ wailed one member of the English department this week. ‘They need to hear me – I need to hear them!’ We all had similar concerns. So much learning in schools comes from talking, discussing, questioning, answering – and then questioning again. To teach remotely without classroom talk is a huge challenge, especially in a subject like English, where so much understanding grows from wondering out loud. The students recognise this. ‘I don’t want to annotate a poem by myself at home’, moaned one of my Year 10s. ‘It only makes sense when we talk about it.’
But we have resources to try to make it work and indefatigable IT staff. At the north London comprehensive where I teach, we will mainly be using Google Classroom. Teachers and students can upload and edit documents, tests and slides. (Students like using this: one of my Year 7s – my go-to tech-helper – recently made her own website about Shakespeare rather than the expected hand-drawn poster.) We’ll also be able to share lesson presentations and set and mark assignments. Possibly most useful for recreating the classroom environment will be Google Meet, where you can live-stream interactive lessons which students join and contribute to. When you’d rather they listen than talk, you can mute their microphones – a useful function I wouldn’t mind occasionally bringing to real classrooms.
Remote learning will be easier for some students than others. Sixth formers should be good at managing their time and working on essays independently. While Hamlet might be tricky, my Year 12’s text, A Streetcar Named Desire, won’t be as challenging. I’m selfishly going to miss their brilliant comments and entertaining accents when reading aloud, but I know they’re capable of annotating alone. The younger students may find it harder to work on their own and manage their time, but we’ll set work that’s as engaging and accessible as possible. Some things will be impossible. My Year 8s are studying Much Ado About Nothing and their latest homework was to make masks in preparation for ‘going’ to the masked ball in Act Two next week. Their feathery, glittery masks were beautiful. Today there was a message from a girl on Google Classroom: ‘No ball for us :(’
Having online resources is one thing, having online access is another. My school’s library is always packed with students working on the computers (and visiting the pet gerbils). Many of our students will be sharing family computers; some don’t have access at all. For those students we’ve posted home books, photocopied pages and printouts but it won’t be easy to have a dialogue with them. And of course many do not have a quiet place to work. ‘It’s going to be so bad with all six of us in our flat’, I overheard one girl say to her friend this week.
Other schools will do things differently. My friend teaches at a boarding school in Sussex where they’ve had a mix of in class and online learning using Microsoft Teams all week. He expects it will work out, but did experience one messy lesson the other day with 20 kids in the room, six on video and one microphone – his – not working. Another friend teaches at a rural primary school in Herefordshire: she’ll be using the Seesaw app to set the kids three small tasks a day, plus optional projects.
As with so many things right now, none of us knows how it will pan out. But I do know we’ll all get better digitally and when we’re back I won’t be asking that Year 7 for so much tech support.