Maximum class size of 15 for England’s returning school pupils
A personal reflection by the Founder of Ignite!, Rick Hall
Ignite! is an independent charity based in Nottingham UK that promotes creativity in learning. We are especially interested in creative approaches to the teaching and learning of STEM subjects and all aspects of Citizen Science.
Two weeks ago, at a particularly low time, I felt the impetus to articulate the following challenge, ‘how to progress in our core mission with less purposelessness.
Introduction and context
It doesn’t need much saying that this is a challenging time to be a pro-active agency for change and innovation. We feel variously in limbo, passive, attendant on other decisions, dependent on changes in circumstances beyond our control.
Motivation is similarly dependent on having projects and programmes to develop and deliver. Our constituency of collaborators, partners and especially participants and audiences is beyond reach for the interactive, collaborative and participatory work we thrive on.
Social, educational and community groups do not look like reconvening or being open to access for 3 or 4 months at the earliest – and then we do not know what interactions will be possible. Quite the opposite of mission creep, we are experiencing mission shrinkage.
We have consolidated our resources and learning materials; we have placed them online; we are producing the audio book of my A-Zs. But these are activities almost for their own sake, things we can or could do while we wait for something else to come along. We need fresh thinking; and a new and different impetus; we need a refreshed cultural imperative to help inform what we must do in these new circumstances (rather than what we could do). And we need creative sustenance.
Where do we find the cultural imperative
We turn to our Board of Directors and partners to help us find some fresh thinking – not to create a new business plan, or a plan for survival, or even new ideas.
To these fundamental concepts we hold fast: creativity, curiosity and community are the essentials of a just, informed and culturally vibrant society; and the interactions of these are where we operate.
What can we do in these spaces when and whilst our constituents are denied social intercourse?
What is our new (?) purpose and how can we express and deliver it?
During the time of corona virus, this is what Ignite! did
Our Board of Directors turned the challenge back to us. At the end of the first phase of the global crisis, what can we say that we achieved, what did we do differently? In particular:
- How did we reconfigure our mission to respond to the new landscape of learning? Did we fully understand what the new landscape of learning looks like?
- How did we respond to the, mostly negative, impacts of isolation and lockdown? The widening of the divides and inequalities..?
- How did we facilitate new forms of learning about and through creativity and curiosity and a sense of community?
- How did we work with different groupings? Intergenerational? In new places and new ways?
- How did we receive the influence and expressions of need and aspiration of:
- young people
- communities under stress
- the even harder to reach
- the even easier to ignore
- And how did we respond to what we hear?
- How did we promote progressive values about learning and education?
By the end of May
We placed our existing resources online, including our Tots Time Science booklet for parents of infants under 3; and our Science Busking Handbook.
We promoted the City Nature Challenge – observations of wildlife across the city.
Our original project involved 25 schools and 5 youth and community groups; instead we promoted the activity through social media and reached a wider constituency. Families recorded wildlife from their gardens and backyards.
We recorded videos about collecting bugs for a weekend online festival in Nottingham.
We invited 26 friends of Ignite! to record one essay for each letter in my A-Z of Creativity to create an audio-book (available very soon!).
By the end of June
We will have published the audio-book of the A-Z of Creativity, and I will have edited the A-Z of Curiosity for further recordings.
We will have reconfigured our schools project – Our City on Mars, so that we can make explicit the resonance of the metaphor of the isolation of astronauts on a mission to Mars, and the conditions for subsequent first settlers on the planet.
We will have developed forums for the voices of young people to be heard as they express what they believe the new landscape of learning should be like. We have a previous project, My Space, My City, My World that we will revive for this purpose.
By the end of summer
We will have commissioned four artists to work with us to define new media and forms of community engagement, notably for the Nottingham Festival of Science and Curiosity.
We will have published the audio-book of the A-Z of Curiosity, and I will be thinking about the A-Z of Community.
And our other projects, Our City on Mars, the Antarctica project, the Skate Nottingham programme, City Nature Challenge part 2, will be redesigned for participation.
Ignite! is a small charity; one of our two paid employees is currently on furlough (and supported by the UK Government), and we have received an emergency grant from the Arts Council of England as a lifeline, and to support the artists commissions above. We think we can survive.
This has been a challenging time for me as I am in the category of 12 week isolation. My garden has never been so free of weeds; I have cuttings and seedlings in trays and even tried some hydroponics. I have a personal Zoom account, and Teams, and WhatsApp and many other distractions.
My diary reminds me that this week I would have been at the ecsa conference in Trieste; and many other visits, engagements and appointments have been lost in the mist of contemplation and inward focus.
And that is the ultimate challenge, in solo isolation there are many distractions, and my concentration has declined markedly.
So it has been a particular pleasure to write this article.
Written by Sarah “PP3”
I am a French teacher for two classes of the “4th year” and two classes of the “3rd year,” one of which I am a main teacher.
My college is located in the Yvelines, about forty kilometers from Paris. It is a ZEP (Priority Education Zone) college with a “disadvantaged” population and relatively little social mix. It has about 600 students. The framework is important because my first remark is really that this quarantine cannot be experienced in the same way. It really depends on the conditions. This highlights “family” and “material” inequalities. It has been said a lot, but it is a reality which is quite striking. My students very rarely have a personal computer, sometimes one for all children, often one for the home (but which does not always work) and many can only work from their mobile phone.
Concretely, our students must connect to pronote (a school life software, which we use to make calls, fill in the text book, insert notes…) from home and get the work that the teachers post according to a schedule that we’re trying to make a regular habit. The students then compile the work that each teacher sends them and therafter send us “proof” of this work. This return can be done on the pronote software where the student upload the work done, or they have the option of sending by email (a lot of us teachers have a professional email address which we use to communicate with them). Sites like quizins are also used by colleagues. Those with computers and internet connections send digital files, the others (many) send photos of what they write on sheets and notebooks. So much for everyday life.
First assessment: I manage to get the work of about half of the students. Some are very regular and manage to send the requested work every week, for others it is more fluctuating, others send nothing at all. The latter fall into several categories: those who do the work but at their own pace and do not send it because they do not know how to do it or consider it useless (as we don’t grade the work given!); those who don’t know how to use the technology despite our explanations or do not have the material means to do so, those who are in too great difficulty in school, or who find themselves in too complicated living conditions (living for example in host hotels for refugees, or with too many younger brothers and sisters…) and for whom remote work done autonomously is impossible. I’ve also noticed that it’s difficult, over time, to force yourself to continue each day, each week… Added to this is the month of Ramadan which started and which adds additional constraints (with us Ramadan is a reality which concerns 80 or 90% of the students I think).
From the beginning, I’ve sent two “work packages” to do each week (one rather grammar-oriented and another an explanation of a text to schematize). They then have the week to ask me questions, send the work back before I send the answer sheet. This is clearly not satisfactory but, in my opinion, pedagogy does not mean much anymore at this level. I maintain a bond, allow them to hang on, “keep them busy” too, and students who are better able manage to get something out of it. The main thing was, at first, to reassure them and to maintain contact.
Between the CPEs (Principal Education Advisers) and the main teachers, the students are contacted by telephone about once a week or two weeks, in order to verify that everything is fine (that they keep a suitable routine, proper hygiene), that they haven’t drowned… At the beginning the pupils had a lot of difficulties of connection, of lost coding codes, they did not know how to organize and felt truly overwhelmed (the teachers as well, and we had to organize and ritualize things!).
Over the past few days, an additional difficulty has been added for our 3rd year students who must fill out “wish sheets” for their post-college orientation. These documents are essential because their wishes will determine whether they will go to general high school or choose a more professional (technical) path. To be very concrete, I present my 3rd year class:
23 students: 7 who will go into “2nd GT” (general and technological) without asking questions therefore 7 whose “wish card” is very easy to fill … The others must register different wishes of professional baccalearat (final high school exam): they must therefore find a career path that interests them, look for high schools in the sector which offer these courses, place these wishes strategically (so as not to end up “without anything”) … and all this takes time when we have them in progress – so doing it by phone requires a lot of strength! The principal of my college summoned the 6 main teachers of the “3rd year” to a virtual meeting, gave us the deadlines and useful documents and let us take care of each of our classes. We are a very close-knit team of 6 and we really work together which helps us to exchange info, refer to student questions… (our whatsapp group has been heating up for the past few days!). I called each student (as did my colleagues) to explain how to complete this sheet (because even if we had sent them all the instructions, doing it alone is really difficult and the parents of my students are not, for the most of them, well equipped to understand this system), I search alongside them (often for them too!) for information, ask them to send me drafts that I must validate before they complete the file “for real” and drop them off at college! Often during these calls I speak directly to my students because, even if their parents are involved in their choices and must sign the “wish card,” it is the future of the child that is at stake. In addition, some parents are quite overwhelmed by this system and / or do not have a sufficient command of French to properly understand and integrate all the information transmitted. For others, parents are our privileged interlocutors, but the best is to be able to interact with both.
Honestly, it’s a big pressure for the main teachers of the 3rd year because we should not be mistaken in our indications, and we advice our pupils at the risk of sending them along a career path that would not suit them.
The students and their parents are generally very demanding of, and receptive to, our advice and personally I find it good to have them on the phone, to chat with them … Many tell me that they miss college! This question of orientation is revealing, I find, of these aforemention inequalities because in a “Lambda” college, more than 80 or 90% of students go to 2nd grade and do not ask more questions compared to students in ” disadvantaged ”establishments who are confronted with difficult choices and, because of quarantine, have to manage on their own.
A new situation, new adaptation! I am not the most telling example in terms of pedagogical innovation because I’m not very “geeky” or tech-savvy. I remain quite basic in how I manage to send the work but I find some of my students courageous (some even prove more serious since quarantine!): when I see the help that I bring to my own children while being aware that my pupils do not have this help, I find that they manage anyway! Some live in houses with helping families and a favorable environment, but many are in apartments, share their room with one or more brothers and sisters, have no office or place dedicated to work, help to take care of the little ones. … And when we call them, they tell us “yes Madam that’s fine: thank you and how about you?” In such cases, I avoid telling them too much about myself: that I am in a house, with a garden, in the countryside and a forest at the end of my street, two computers at home and a working, reliable internet connection. When I called my 3rd year students, no one actually complained and it surprised me….
The big question remains: how will we find them in September when a large number have not really worked since March? The return to school sure seems like it’s going to be… interesting!
 4th year before baccalaureat (end of secondary schooling) : children being in general 13/14 years old. 3rd year: children being in general 14/15 years old.
Prioritise play when schools reopen, say mental health experts
Families sue UK government over “little or no education” for their children
“I miss math the most”: life under lockdown for a seven-year-old
by Cleya Tyrex.
“I have been a teacher recently: I left the hospital after 17 years of hassles (looking for equipment, filling in the gaps, …) and I turned to the teaching staff because I needed a profession giving me time to see my children on weekends, and in the service of the public (important value for me).
Teacher assigned to 75 km from home: that’s life, when you start, you are positioned in areas “in need” and not near home.
Teacher for once, on a single school, with a double level: CP/CE1, which means that the pupils who have just left kindergarten and must “start studying” (reading) for the CP, and consolidate their reading and arithmetic skills for the CE1. Get used to the habits of the school system: how to behave in class, during recess, give up doing something just to say that you’ve done it, put some more effort into heading towards symbolization.
It’s great, to delve into their attitudes and behaviour, and help them to learn all of these skills. It’s very rewarding, to observe and offer, to accompany and see growing, and to give them the keys to clearly decipher what they are putting into play so that they can reproduce the learning patterns, appropriately.
I am very involved in pedagogy projects: a lot, to the maximum of what the texts and my hierarchy allows me.
I make links, for them, I force them to visualize these links between knowledge, I show them the progress they have made, I value efforts more than progress, I put my trust in them, I show them their strengths …
it comes to me from the scouts, where I am still a leader for the little ones …
Always see the good, always push ahead to where it feels good, to find the strength to go beyond yourself, remaining demanding on the principles of society, serious when necessary.
And it works pretty well, I even managed to loosen up … a total school phobic, who had spent the next three months crying, a moderate autistic, who ended up grabbing my hand and speaking to me, and all these “naysayers” and pessimists which came with pleasure (finally!) after a chaotic year last year (the teacher frightened them, the teacher shouted, and the rest that I will never know).
Friday noon: cases of covid, we will have to abandon swimming lessons in the pool …
Friday 4 p.m.: we are leaving school with doubts about the consequences …
Friday 19h: TV / internet networks tell us that we will not be able to open the school on Monday morning.
First trauma: announcement
Announcement from a distance, announcement without any real explanation of the consequences envisaged, and above all: contradictory announcements between different policies (our president, his spokesperson, the Minister of Education: three different speeches). Not a word from the district inspectors.
Monday evening: we learn that we will no longer be able to circulate: my students do not have any of their school belongings, since they left on Friday thinking of returning on Monday.
And I know that some of the parents, if I have to organize distance courses, will not be able to print … Students of this age are too young to spend hours in front of the screen, or to copy from a screen to paper.
So there you go, I spend my night preparing / modifying my lessons so that a distance approach is possible, I drive an hour to reach my school, and from 4h to 8h I photocopy, I sort the sheets, I organize packages per student, I warn the parents that before noon, the legal time for road closures, they will have to collect the documents / notebooks / felt kits, I add library books, drawing sheets, I try to think also to these little things that will do good if the situation were to last.
The nightmare is getting organized: our administrators send us emails with some leads (sports videos, DIY tutorials, institutional file sharing platforms). Obviously, I test everything, because for such young students, learning sounds is listening, but I can’t find anything that really corresponds to what I know about their difficulties.
So I use my little video editing software, I record myself in phonology and calculation exercises, but the servers are so saturated that it takes 2 to 4 hours to load 3 minutes of audio tape to official sharing sites .
I ended up using GAFA, efficient but data-consuming.
Trauma 2: “no one cares, getting sick of it”
Listening to my minister’s declarations with an ear, explaining that the teachers are prepared, trained, attentive, and the rest of it …
My only tech training (computer tools and techniques) dates back to my year of university three years ago: the teacher showed us in two hours, how to use kahot, padlet and how to distort a video with our voice. Two poor hours on the curriculum.
I am forty years old. I don’t really like computers or screens. I use them in spite of myself, mainly for scouts, to stay in touch with relatives who have become distant.
So I grope around in the dark, I test, the parents follow …
I manage to give the instructions for the class, listen to the parents’ difficulties, painfully collect the work of some of the students …
My husband also finds himself stranded with us: he then takes care of our four toddlers, who themselves do not receive any advice: simply worksheets, with cute drawings. Not one of their teachers gives their opinion on their work. Very quickly, my own children no longer see the point of working at all: the teachers don’t seem to care at all…
After two weeks of questioning the work sent, I note:
-that half of the class gives no news,
-that on those who answer, some are completely overwhelmed: a feeling of anxiety embraces families, often struggling with the disease for a grandpa or a grandma, because in the 68, and in my area, many are affected,
that the waiters painfully take my consignments but that the parents, who are not trained either, do not manage …
I go by phone: in two days, I manage to contact all the parents except two (26 students), and I set up a video class system two to four times a week per student (in groups of 2 to 5 students) or about 8 hours of video.
I get tired of seeing them all, my colleague who is supposed to have class on Monday / Tuesday sends me her documents which I have to process, does nothing more, she says that she cannot and does not want to do anything.
I understand, but that is not how we will keep these children afloat.
I know that I must absolutely help overwhelmed parents. I know I have to motivate the students.
The videos online allow this: the children see me, are reassured to see me, are happy to show me their progress and “play” with computers, like adults.
I use these videos in short but repeated times, to test them in reading and adapt my programs, and especially to leave them, between two groups, the virtual rooms open: they finally exchange with each other, without the parents, and after two or three sessions finally seem a little relaxed.
I think that these recreational exchanges “saved” part of the learning: proud of their productions in front of friends (lego, drawing, DIY) they get back to work.
At the same time, I create a padlet, to put the lessons, the work to be done, the explanatory videotapes, my recordings, help materials … And their photos! For parents who send them.
Here too, emulation plays its driving role: some hang up the wagons …
The spring “holidays” arrive: families are exhausted from stress (who is going to work? How? How to reconcile distance work and education?), Some have discovered that teachers are not daycare …
Trauma three: deplorable and costly conditions for families
In the end, 17 families out of 26 need help with printing: all are at the end of their cartridges, of paper, many were printing via work (and the work is closed); department stores are out of stock or raising prices, ordering on the internet is risky because the post office no longer works.
The state offers to set up a postal service: I go through hubmail, I save my documents, the post office is responsible for printing / sending and parents can respond via this system.
From the Tuesday following the Easter holidays, I send a letter of explanation for these 17 families, and 10 days before the start of the school year on April 27 I send the documents …
The families received the first shipment yesterday … I am abandoning this system.
The school photocopier is (still !!) broken.
It is a friend who allows me to photocopy for my whole class the documents for the coming period (1500 photocopies), since the town hall on which my school depends does not want to do it. I’m fuming. I put my friend’s company stamp on the cover page of the documents provided: it’s low, it’s mean, but I need it.
I spend a whole Saturday breaking the law: I go over the km, I go to the students’ villages, deposit the sheets, their class binders, more books, sheets for DIY, with nice colours and textures nice.
The families are delighted, the children surprised and happy, everyone now understands that it will last.
This tenuous link, these coffees on the doorstep, without direct contact, have motivated everyone, and from Monday evening I receive the work of almost all …
Still three families out of circulation, despite my visit: too bad.
I took the opportunity to get a feel for going back: only three families plan to send their children to school if we resume.
And the work: by level, half find that it is too much, the other that it is not enough, all that my colleague should answer more, and that I work too much, that makes me laugh.
I don’t like working halfway.
By remaining demanding and present: by personalized emails to children (I hardly address parents anymore), by video, by photos on the padlet (when I request a written or artistic production, I get there glue too), I notice that the essential link of transfer to the teacher works.
It took 4 to 6 weeks for the parents to be comfortable with the padlet / emails, this parent training took me a long time in email exchanges, but it was necessary.
Trauma 4: no support for “family teachers”
I’m fine; but who thought to warn the teachers that they were becoming family teachers? Fortunately, scouting allows us to put this into play …
No one has thought of talking about this: teaching at a distance with very young children is first of all training parents in digital tools (while we, teachers, are not necessarily comfortable there), then find the effective tools for the students, then train the students in these tools, while keeping the link-transfer (the students learn to please us, not for them!), then finally find the right explanations on the work plans (because it is the parents, our interfaces with young people).
Then, the work of decryption: teaching parents to recognize and differentiate: real fatigue, fed up, a real academic or learning difficulty, and which, so that they can adapt the proposed work … Essential … Very long … Almost impossible in some families …
In the “real” classroom, the teacher constantly adapts: in speech, length, and quality of exercise. There, we must adapt the same, but without perceiving the flaws, the points of support, the fatigue, the social elements which usually make us feel that we will rather do a little sport or rather follow up on a new notion.
Trauma 5: in need for psychological skills
if you are not a little psychologist, you lose your class … And there it’s the same: no advice from superiors, no tools …
The teacher ensures the physical and emotional security of the pupils in his charge: condition number 1 of education.
So I spend a lot of time “dedramatizing” parents: no matter if it’s right or wrong, the main thing is to keep working habits and see this situation through to the end, and above all, not to get upset with children.
At the end of 7 weeks, finally, they have understood: if the child does not work, they take a photo, I analyze, and I am the one who takes charge of discussing the work with the child (via telephone or video) – exploring what he or she understood / wanted to do or not to do.
I let you imagine the time it takes, but I am proud of the fact that: all, except three, put themselves in a situation to learn / test / seek / try and we were able to continue learning … This means that at the start of the school year, as there was no dropout, they will be armed and ready for CE2 / CE1.
I am in an extremely torn mood.
On the one hand, a dark anger towards “the authorities” who gave us advice, contradictory opinions, incomprehensible messages, which gave the families false information and contrary to the instructions that we received from our superiors, completely absent in the content that it should have been put in place.
I decided, in my soul and conscience, not to simply maintain the basics: at the CP, there is no basis: I continued the substantive work. Too bad for the three dropouts. So much the better for the others.
An equally dark anger towards the government: when I prepare a scout outing, I make sure I have beds for everyone, adequate equipment … There, neither for hospitals, nor for education: we operate with our personal equipment, moreover I had to buy myself a PC and a printer in the middle of this crisis to be able to work … Does a seller bring his label maker back to work? Does a cashier bring back her calculator?
A sense of personal victory over digital, a sense of pride in the progress of students to the progress of the students who follow me.
I am extremely happy to see that if we really support, we can obtain a certain quality of teaching at a distance.
I am angry with the teachers of my children:
the big one, in high school, receives just a little to see them through, except in German where it is demanding and constant, all the other teachers just provide a handful of exercises and that’s it;
the big one, in 5th grade, has real contact with only two of her teachers, the rest send ridiculous homework,
the two youngest, no feedback from the teachers either on the work done. For my youngest, not a quarter of what I have accomplished for my students.
I have to print twenty printouts a day for the two youngest: do they realize the price of this? Some families in the village no longer follow. Nobody cares. In my village, no communication from the mayor, the school director: fortunately I have information from my school, and that I can send to friends here …
A feeling of general mismanagement. The solutions are at the local level: since we have to reopen to ensure a “guard”, then it is not the teachers who must be sent in front of the students: it is the “atsem,” the extracurricular, the young people who have BAFA, so that the care responds to the real needs of the parents, to spread the number of children on all the rooms available in the villages, and to keep the teachers at a distance – for those who work.
Even then, I will have to teach in the presence of half-groups (and entrust the rest to another teacher? But which teacher? There will never be enough to split all those who are in place !!), and especially to go from one department to exercise in another, and really spread the germs.
In 2 months, my classroom has still not been cleaned.
There is still no soap inside, near the sink, and ever since September it has been my tea towels that have been used as a towel.
Supposedly disinfected covid …
I know that I have to prepare for September with a distance program: no idea of the real circumstances of recovery, and my vague knowledge, after 7 years as a nursing assistant in medical resuscitation, leads me to think:
-that if it’s like the flu, we will have to maintain specific distances and appropriate behaviour in class
– that if we keep on having to manage contradicting orders, I will have to come up with a plan B and especially, those of the students, by adapting digital tools
– that I must now think of teaching as training for parents and pupils … “