Teaching from behind the safety line..

In a number of CPD webinar sessions recently I’ve been asked for advice from teachers wrestling with the challenge of teaching from behind the Covid safety line; the taped-off teacher zone. How do you follow through on various elements of teaching practice if you can’t move in amongst students and see what they’re doing close up?

I’m obviously no expert here – because I don’t have to do this all day, although I have experienced it in some training settings. But my sense is that this challenge only reinforces the challenges that are actually always there:

  • engaging everyone in the learning process, thinking and practising
  • getting real-time feedback about how well everyone is doing in order to make responsive adjustments
  • giving feedback to move individuals on.

These challenges are heightened still further with remote teaching and further still when teachers have hybrid classrooms – some students in the room and some online. (This is happening in various settings.)

Of course, a natural tendency in these circumstances will be to set lots of independent tasks allowing students to practise and make progress at a level that consolidates and stretches as needed. But, the longer these heads-down activities progress, the more difficult it is to manage the feedback process, and we don’t want all lessons to feel like a test.

It seems to me that the key to all of this is to balance practice tasks with plenty of discussion, placing Check for Understanding at the forefront at all times. Assume nothing: Check, check, check. As I describe in my last post, this works well when combined with Cold Calling (so that every student is alert and engaged in anticipation of being called upon to share their thinking at any time) and Pair-Share (because this is an excellent way to ensure all students are practising using the concepts and airing their thoughts verbally.)

Questioning has to reach into the corners – make a conspicuous point of asking students in the furthest reaches of the room to participate, sharing their thoughts; checking their understanding of instructions for tasks and of the concepts in hand. Include a good range of students in your sample before making your decision about moving on or going back over things.

The next thing is to have systems for soliciting evidence of student responses. Use a varied range of self-check, self-quiz and peer quizzing methods to flush out wrong answers and misunderstandings. Keep in the front of your thinking: who isn’t sure? Who’s confused? Try to create a climate where this is totally normal and safe, avoiding making assumptions. Remember – if you focus on correctness excessively, weaker students will try to mask their problems and you really don’t want this to happen at a distance when it’s even easier for them to put their defences up.

Perhaps the most obvious thing – as many schools are doing routinely – is to use a range of whole-class response mechanisms:

Mini-whiteboards or ‘show me’ boards are excellent for multiple purposes: (See ‘The number 1 bit of classroom kit’)

Then there are very simple low-tech response systems to respond to multiple choice questions. (1 finger = A, 2 fingers = B… ). I’m a big fan of the simple ‘write the letter on your book and show me’. No fancy tech apps needed. This gives you feedback in all kinds of ways – depending on the type of MCQs you set up.

If you’re used to running your room from the front, this is likely to be very obvious stuff. But if you’ve previously relied on wandering around the class checking in on individuals, then you’ll need to shift your habits. If you’re not using whole-class response methods and/or Cold Calling – how can you tell, in the moment, how well things are going? Of course – as has been pointed out on twitter, you can also combine independent tasks for some students – allowing them to move ahead – with class teaching for everyone else. That can get complicated – but you don’t want students feeling held back if they’re ready to move on, just because others need more instructional support.

The other thing I know schools are doing is using a front desk area for students to approach with their work to show them – individually and for sharing with the class – directly or via a visualiser. This would be useful for writing tasks. You don’t want to create any kind of queue situation, so there are limits. However, it’s perfectly possible to set up a ‘show me your work’ station of some kind, feeding into whole-class feedback. Of course, as individual at-desk feedback will be harder (if not impossible) to provide, it’s likely that whole-class feedback based on taking books in for a routine scan (but no extra marking) will be even more useful, used liberally.

So – my advice is essentially to do lots things you already do with that extra level of intensity and deliberate attention to the need to reach everyone, taking time to check that people are with you before moving too far. All of this is easier to do if the overarching knowledge goals for the unit of work are really clear, with students having some agency over accessing unit overviews, texts, practice questions and other supporting materials.

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