Lockdown has allowed some marginalised students to thrive and unlocked new thinking in my teaching

Why are some students transformed by lockdown learning and what can we learn from their experience?

The closure of schools due to Covid-19 has put a physical distance between teachers and students. But after 12 weeks teaching remotely, I feel I know some of my students better than ever, and I am seeing them in a whole new light.

I am a teacher who prides myself on knowing my students well. By March of the school year, at the start of lockdown,  I was confident that I knew my Year 8 class very well indeed. As well as their strengths and skills in English, I knew their temperaments, their trigger points; I thought I knew how they worked best. 

Cue the shift online. Suddenly we were asking for a level of independence from students that is alien to most 12-13 year olds. Following a new and sometimes changeable timetable; getting to online lessons; putting pen to paper (or finger to screen) – all the things that are usually done with the physical presence of a teacher, we were asking students to do themselves, self-directing every aspect of their entire school week. 

For some, this posed minimal challenge; for others, it has been a significant struggle. But however students have responded, with the online environment so very different from school, it has revealed another side to them, and in some cases, it has made me question some of my previous assumptions and preconceptions about the students I teach.

The Constant Interrupter

In lessons, B is the kind of student whose mouth has opened before he has even realised it. It often feels like he sees lessons as his own one-to-one lesson with the teacher, and it is not unusual for him to interrupt me 3-4 times in the space of a minute. It is never malicious, but it is disruptive. 

I have been able to respond to him very differently in the online world. Firstly, the presence of the ‘chat box’ in hangouts has changed the way his interruptions are received. The fact is, while comments might pop up while we are in the middle of an activity, they are much less of a jolt to the flow of the lesson, and I can more easily ignore them. 

But more importantly, seeing them all written down, I can see that while some are unhelpful or irrelevant interjections (‘lol’ / ’y tho’ / ‘innit’), many, and in fact the majority, are actually related comments that are simply proof that he is thinking, and learning. In school, the interruption is the first thing I hear, and this often distracts me from what he is actually saying; seeing his comments written down reminds me that in spite of the distractions, this is a child who really is learning. I have been able to celebrate him so much for his online contributions, and he is working harder than ever.

I don’t know how easy it will be to remember this when back in the classroom, and while I hope B will learn to filter his comments, I too have a responsibility to reframe my thinking around student ‘interruptions’ so that learning is not overlooked.

The Outsider

K is a quiet student who resists speaking up in class. If he is invited to talk, his discomfort is palpable. Even in partner talk, K will say as little as possible, and in break-times he is regularly on his own. 

Not long before lockdown, K wrote a poem in which he described the relief of getting home from school each day. One line read:

’I put down my school bag, and take off my social anxiety.’

It was regrettable to us all that K was so nervous in school, and that it created such a barrier to his learning and his social interactions. 

In the very first hangouts of lockdown, I started to notice K’s willingness to contribute to the conversation via the chat box. Not only was he taking part in the discussion, but his comments were possibly the most considered and thoughtful in the whole class – he had clearly been honing his listening skills while staying so quiet in all those lessons at school. 

Most online lessons start with a bit of chatter and small talk as we wait for everyone to log in and settle. As time has gone on, K has been more and more involved in this light hearted conversation (all via the chat box), chatting about his favourite songs, actively encouraging attention and playful teasing about his taste in music. Writing his report this week, I found myself effusing about his increased self confidence. 

Who knows what has helped K to thrive so significantly; it is likely that, away from the glare of students and teachers, he just feels that bit more comfortable. I think the chat box has a role to play here too: unlike in class, K has full control of his contributions, and is spared the anxiety of wondering when he will next be asked to talk. 

When we return to school, I have been thinking about ways to keep a chat box function going. Since all our students have ipads, it should be possible. There is great benefit to having an additional silent discussion that goes alongside the talk – fundamentally, it brings more voices into the conversation, leading to richer and more exploratory classroom talk. And if it creates a way-in for less confident students like K, even better.

The Tricky Customer

D’s literacy is a fairly significant barrier to his learning. In class, when he can’t do something, he can become stubborn and moody, and I have even known him to cry in moments of sheer frustration. His confidence in his learning is low, and he tends to shy away from work at even the smallest hurdle.

It was clear a few weeks into lockdown that for some students, large hangouts were fairly ineffective because of the close attention they needed. We set up some booster groups, and D was invited to a weekly reading session with four other students. 

D was no stranger to booster groups, and had been attending one after school before lockdown anyway. While he would engage in the past, it was with some reluctance. But the D we saw in the online sessions was very different. 

In the first week, I led the session (using a reading protocol the students were all familiar with from school). By the second week, D volunteered to ‘Be the boss.’ He ran the session with such skill that myself and my colleague joked that we didn’t need to be there: managing the reading and talk of the other students with skill and enthusiasm.

D is thriving in the online environment: he is always punctual and regularly expresses how much he is enjoying his online classes. He laughs and jokes with us all and told me he would happily keep going to hangouts throughout the summer. 

For D, learning from home brings a degree of comfort, and I suspect that the perceived threat of school and getting it wrong is eased by doing his lessons from his bedroom, and feeling slightly more anonymous than in class. The question remains for me: what can I do to create this sense of comfort when back in the physical school environment.

I can’t know for certain what has made this period off school a good one for these three students, as there are clearly multiple factors at play. But witnessing their progress has raised some important questions and reflections for me as we gear up for a return to school in September: 

Firstly, how can I bring transformational tools from lockdown – such as the chat box – back into my classroom practice in school?

Secondly, what do these three students tell us about the barriers our existing structures create for students? Behaviour systems, classroom dynamics, and all those elements of school that are often ‘one-size-fits-all’ could definitely do with some re-thinking. 

Finally, I hope that when I return to school I am able to notice the limitations of my thinking around students, and remember that whatever students show us about themselves in the classroom, it’s only one, context-bound version of them. Ironically, lockdown has un-locked something in each of these students, and it is an important reminder to me of the importance of un-locking my own thinking about students, and how to get the best from them.

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