Sunday, 31 January 2021

In a live lesson nobody can hear you scream!

Well, they might hear you if you unmute yourself. Or, have you tried closing the app and logging back into Teams again?  

Honestly, I have found blogging hard over the last few months. Hard because there’s so many changes that we, as teachers, are having to deal with. It seems that every four months we are having to change the way we teach. The first lockdown was about setting work online. The return to a physical school in September brought new problems. One was to deliver a lesson where every student had to be physically separated and you had to limit the contact between them. Then, we had to deal with the Russian roulette situation each day: will I have a full class?  Finally, we have moved to online lessons. The parameters for our job changes constantly and keeps going on changing.

I love security, stability and systems. We are lucky to have secure jobs and for that I am truly grateful, but the job is constantly changing and shifting. That for me is the hardest thing. I am amazed by some people’s energy levels at the moment. Running CPD Zoom sessions. Creating resources to share. Writing books. I am amazed, but for me I haven’t the energy because of these changes.  

My favourite word I use is ‘system’ in education leadership. I love a system and I am always asking ‘what is the system for X?’. It isn’t that I am a Gradgrindian obsessive and insist on all students following article 1286b when the lesson starts, but the systems help things run and allow opportunities for freedom and creativity.  We have microsystems around us. The start of a lesson. Responding to a question. Writing in books. The setting of spelling. All these things have simply disappeared and our sense of things has struggled under this blanket of order and reassuring patterns. We crave familiar patterns and routines. That’s why I think the last year has been difficult. Those familiar patterns have been lost. We are constantly pressing reset on things and beginning from scratch. Constantly working on the shape of our lessons.

So, I thought I’d write a blog on how I structure my lessons. I don’t pretend to be an expert on live learning, but I thought it might help someone who is, like me, trying to get their head around how to teach in this context. I am pretty low tech when it comes to things. I use Teams and Microsoft Forms. That’s it.


Starts / Ends

I am very grateful to Freya Odell for mentioning that she starts lessons with music. This is part of my routine now. Great little way to start the lesson and to signal you are about to begin. It covers the whole awkward beginning while you decide when to begin as people arrive. In fact, you get some students arrive earlier, just to hear what track you have selected. For one group, they are offering suggestions. Metallica said one. Another’s mother wanted some Neil Diamond. It’s become a little way to form those connections missing online. I am also trying to educate them about the indie music scene of the 1990s and Scandinavia electro rock.   

The added advantage of this is that you have control when the lesson starts and you don’t have awkward conversations with yourself to cover the arrival of students. Like some 1980s DJ I fade down the music from the YouTube video. It helps if you pick songs 5 minutes long. Covers a multitude of sins. Plus, less chance of you accidentally playing an advert for haemorrhoid cream or something.

I always have a slide at the start, while the music plays, with some quick knowledge questions and the expectations of the lesson. Because we are not in the classroom, I feel we have to set the rules for the lesson. Make it clear what is expected. This is a different context and as the teacher I have to lead those expectations.

At the end of the lesson, I make every student say goodbye in the chat box. Yes, this does highlight the students who logged on and walked away from the screen, but it also serves to personalise what we have done in the lesson. They type ‘goodbye’ and I personally say goodbye. They end the lesson with me talking to them directly. The students are used to it now and it is part of the process. Yes, I could ask them to unmute their microphones, but you are then unsure who speaks and when.

I start the lesson and end the lesson with some personal connection.


Lesson Structure 1 – The Discussion Doc

At the moment, I have three types of lesson during lockdown. I will go through them with you are say what and why I do it.

At the start of this lesson, I drag into the chat box a Word document. That document has a grid in it. Each grid has a student’s name. I ask students at the start of the lesson to open it up so we can all write on it at the same time. That becomes our work space for the lesson.

The lesson then involves a number of tasks and activities. The grid becomes the way students communicate and discuss ideas. Recently, we’ve been looking at Q5 on Paper 2. I have given them a question and then asked them to say whether they agree or disagree. They then say why they agree or disagree. Each student types this up on the Word doc. With one simple thing, I can see who is and who isn’t working. But, and more importantly, I can praise and reassure students. I like that idea, Sam. I never thought of that, Frank. Then, I have in one place an overview of what students think and what they have written. Yes, my job has changed, but in this way I can highlight the really good ideas and spot any misconceptions.

For the whole lesson, we will keep going to the box and writing things in it. Constantly on one page of A4 I can monitor all the work. I am not playing follow the thread on the chat box, but simply working on one thing. The added advantage of this is that I have a record of the work they have completed and so do they. We don’t know what students are doing during our lessons. We like to think they are making notes or doing the work. Here I can see the work. On the Word doc, nobody can hide.

I have used this for paragraph writing or sharing ideas for discussions.  For me, it is the closest I have come to replicating the classroom discussion. And, the often quiet students are very, very good at it.


Lesson Structure 2 – Ideas Formulating

One of the things that I have struggled with is how we formulate ideas or threads. In a classroom, we can explore, through discussion, ideas and take them on a merry-go-round in the classroom. One student will pick another’s idea and take it somewhere interesting and different. That doesn’t really happen online. You often get tumble weeds or more silence but this time written down.

To overcome this, I set students a quiz on Microsoft Forms. But, a quiz with a difference. Forms allows you to set a quiz that doesn’t have an correct / incorrect answer. The student can just type a written response. So, I set lessons, which revolve around a text. I attach a copy of the poem / extract from a novel to the question and pose a question. There are usually eight or so questions.  What’s interesting about the way Dickens writes the extract? What do you think Dickens wants the reader to think during this section? What connects this extract to what is happening in society at that time? That’s a lesson. A thinking lesson. This doesn’t have to be a online lesson. Often, I do this for a lesson timetable for being a non-online lesson.

Then, the next online lesson is about exploring the text. I will read it. Then, using Forms, I will share the answers and discuss them. At that point, students can add more in the chat box or ask questions. Students are expected to take notes, because based on the ideas here they will write a paragraph on the text, consolidating their learning.

This, for me, has become a happy alternative to the exploration we do so much in English. It has a kind of circular motion to the process, but for me it has shown that students are thinking and it means that the teacher isn’t the source of idea. Sadly, the natural default for English can be lecture lessons. This places the students at the heart of the idea forming. I have done it with non-fiction and fiction. Interestingly, we are using it for developing inferences. There are drawbacks to online learning, but this way we can put the emphasis on the students thinking first.


Lesson Structure 3 – the work lesson

I think that one of the dangers is that online lessons become focused on the teacher working hard and the student being passive. Like in lessons, we would set students to work in a lesson. We’d get them to write for a lesson. That’s isn’t something people are doing at the moment. I think too many teachers are putting the work in for very little output. That’s why some lessons should be the students working and writing.

The last lesson on Friday was a writing lesson. After greeting the class, I explained the task and let them get on with writing. I stayed online if they needed help, but they could leave and work on it offline. The only thing was that they had to provide the work to me by the end of the day. And they did. Occasionally, you’d get a student pop back to see if they have done things correctly or to see if it has been sent through.

During this time, I can mark the work or plan for the next lesson. The key thing is that this gives me, as a teacher, balance. I would not talk for a whole lesson every lesson in a normal context so we shouldn’t be doing that just because things are online. We have to work hard to ensure this. We shouldn’t default to having a lecture with a few questions added to the mix.

SLT need to be saying that some lessons will be work lessons with minimal input from the teacher. The lecture isn’t the default mode of online learning. It is fine and acceptable for a teacher to say little and the students to work on something.

I am sure there’s something I have missed. There always is when you are building systems. It is only when a problem arises that you realise that the system needs tweaking. Nonetheless, this is a start. I am no means an expert or wizard on computers. I’d love to use loads of things like websites and apps, but for me Word, Teams and Forms – oh and YouTube- are all I need for a lesson. That’s nice if people can use them, but I am one of those people that explores one thing first before I step on to another thing.

Baby steps are what we need at the moment. The context has changed and we need to help staff with those baby steps. Not everyone is a luddite or a technophobe, but we need to work on the systems in the lesson rather than the ICT systems. Technology is great, but at the moment I think that it is easy to be intimidated by what is out there and what you can do. I think every teacher teaching online just needs to concentrate on the systems and processes in the lesson. Get those sorted out and then you can look at ways technology can help you. At the moment, I feel technology is leading the planning and not the other way round.


Thanks for reading,


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