It began with poet laureate Simon Armitage’s ‘Lockdown’ poem, and a discussion with my son-in law about how artificial Skype conversations between distant grandparents and children can be.
We needed to do something different to stay in touch, so decided I might try teaching ten-year-old twins Oscar and Isaac something on Zoom instead. They were already competent, as they had started a Year 6 class Zoom hour every evening. Once they’d shouted ‘you have to turn on audio’ to me enough times, I got used to it.
The ‘Lockdown’ poem reflects on the outbreak of bubonic plague in the Derbyshire village of Eyam in the 17th century. 350 or so villagers voluntarily agreed to quarantine themselves to avoid spreading the plague, brought from London to Eyam by fleas in a bale of cloth delivered to a tailor. After fifteen months, 260 villagers had died.
The parallels with this new pandemic were thought-provoking, the ghoulish nature of the plague guaranteed to interest my grandsons – and the six friends who soon joined our daily lesson. Yet exploring the issues of contagion and self-isolation in a seventeenth century context, I reasoned, might allow us to keep some distance between what we were learning and the daily grim coronavirus realities.
Not that this group of ghouls minded one bit counting how many people died each month in Eyam and constructing a line graph that showed peaks and the eventual decline in cases. Why did the number of cases shoot up in the summer months? (The fleas that transmitted the plague are more active in warmer weather). How was the shape of the graph different when we looked at the daily deaths from COVID19 in China? Why was one an exponential growth, and the other not? And what does exponential mean, anyway?
We had started by making a grid of similarities and differences between Eyam and current events. An important difference that helped make the project feel safe was the low probability of children and younger adults catching COVID19, compared to the indiscriminate impact of the plague.
But the similarities were many: food deliveries are left on our doorsteps whilst nearby villagers brought supplies to Eyam and left them across the river….we pay for shopping by card to avoid infection whilst Eyam villagers paid with coins they placed in vinegar in holes in the Boundary Stone. In Eyam the Reverend Mompesson persuaded everyone to stay, but then sent his own two children away to safety…. “Isn’t that just like that Scottish minister going to her other house?” asked Oscar.
The children researched the crazy remedies that were meant to cure the plague and found out what treatments were being touted or properly trialled for COVID19. Making a timeline of pandemics through the ages was popular, as was science on bacteria and viruses, and geography work with a map of Eyam.
The internet supplied a fantastic collection of resources from Eyam’s museum , Twinkl provided a PowerPoint and worksheets; I also found a BBC schools radio drama from 2010 with a debate where the children had to make the case for staying in Eyam or leaving after the vicar’s speech.
First, I learned about the powerful effect of daily live lessons like these on children’s wellbeing. As they see each other’s faces every day, work with a shared purpose and use the chat and react functions to have conversations, they have developed that sense of ‘groupness’ and belonging that is fundamental to wellbeing.
This has been helped by ending every lesson with a round: ‘Something good that happened to me at the weekend was …‘, ‘I am finding it hard to…’, ‘What keeps me going is…’, ‘What I miss most is…’
I last taught 45 years ago, but have remembered what fun it can be. One day I found the children all upside down on Zoom. The jokes were good too, like the one about exponential growth – ‘Do you know why Dublin is the world’s largest city? Because the population keeps on Dublin and Dublin’.
One day we did some work on misinformation; I showed them the email advice on beating the coronavirus that was widely circulated early in the epidemic (hot drinks, checking whether you can hold your breath for ten seconds and so on). I had been taken in and passed it on to my contacts.
The children had to spot the signs I should have noticed and email me some advice. I loved this, from Rory: “Oh, Jean. You’re my teacher!!! How did you not notice all the informal language? Have you heard of the publisher, are there spelling mistakes? There are loads of things to spot, so- STOP QUESTION CHECK DECIDE From Rory :).
In all the lessons I liked being wrong, not knowing all the answers, and the sense of shared enquiry on an equal footing. I hope the exercise might have opened up these SATs-schooled children’s minds to the possibility of a different way of learning, the way it used to be before Michael Gove got hold of the curriculum.
But on the other hand, I learned how right the traditionalists in education are about the need for children to be directly taught key elements of knowledge. At best what we were doing in Eyam was applying procedural knowledge that the children had already learned.
I didn’t teach them how to graph data; a proper teacher had done that job. I could dabble in map work but only in an amateur way, not really taking them any further in their understanding. They already knew a method for working out how long it would take to walk from Eyam Square to Mompesson’s Well if average walking speed is six kilometres an hour and the distance is 1.1 kilometres. I didn’t have to tell them.
But what I think was important was that they wanted to find out how long it would take to walk that distance, so as to write proper Google directions. Sadly, that sense of engagement and purpose can often be lacking in what happens in schools today.
Finally, I learned the limitations of the virtual world. Yes, we could walk the streets of Eyam using Google Earth. Yes, we could find astonishing animations about how bacteria and viruses operate. But reading about the Boundary Stone, ‘that cock-eyed dice with its six dark holes, thimbles brimming with vinegar wine, purging the plagued coins’ isn’t the same as standing next to it and poking your fingers into the holes.
Finding a photograph of twenty-seven-year-old Catherine Mompesson’s gravestone doesn’t convey the damp silence of the mossy churchyard I visited as a child. You have to be there.
So what I’m hoping for is that one day I can take my grandsons to Eyam, and that we can put the knowledge we’ve gained together with the spirit of the place. Only then will they properly understand the sacrifice that was made there, in that very first and wholly voluntary lockdown, so different from our own.
It is clear that the lockdown has exposed all involved in education to new ways of working. Some of these new techniques can be used to enhance learning and motivation, while others are not as effective as teaching and experiencing ‘in person’. The challenge for schools is how to successfully blend the best bits of what we have always done with the best of what we have recently discovered.
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