Tips for preparing student work during school closures

Australian teachers and schools have the ‘benefit’ (if you can call it that) of entering this challenging time a few weeks after many other countries. We therefore have the opportunity to learn from their experiences. Communicating with educators and parents from other countries, it has become clear that schools and teachers need to work on getting the balance of expectations right. Lots of international teacher and parent forums on social media are filled with discussions about the overwhelm felt by teachers, parents and students around the work sent home during school closures. Let’s be calm and sensible about this. We need to focus on what is reasonable, purposeful and sustainable.

Considerations for the question “What is reasonable?”:

  • Some students and families will have high levels of stress and anxiety in this time of unknown futures, potential loss of employment, potential ill health of loved ones, and the destabilising impact of the general economic and human crisis going on around them.
  • Some students will not have access to internet enabled devices (such as laptops and desktop computers) in this time.
  • Some parents will be working from home in this time and may not be able to direct their child(ren)’s learning all day long.
  • Some students lack the ability to work independently when under the close eye of a teacher let alone under the potentially preoccupied eye of a family member. (If you’ve ever tried running a genius hour / independent project hour in your classroom you will be acutely aware of the lack of self discipline / organisation and focus of your students. These students are not about to develop these skills overnight.)
  • Some parents will have multiple children to look after in this time, each with their own piles of work to engage in.
  • Some students will be looked after by relatives or family friends, in different homes that may not have access to required resources.

Considerations for the question “What is purposeful?”

Before printing off all those alluring worksheets or signing up to all those shiny websites, ask yourself- “Is this purposeful? Will my students really be better readers, writers, mathematicians or indeed humans, by engaging in these tasks? What is the real purpose of this activity?” Be honest. If, deep down, the answer to this question is really about filling in time, then I’d encourage you to do your best to find something with a more meaningful purpose.

Let’s do less and do it well. Err on the side of providing less work that is purposeful than more work that is purposeless.

Considerations for the question “What is sustainable?”

The work set for students needs to be both sustainable for them to complete and sustainable for you as a teacher to assign and assess.

  • How do you envisage distributing and collecting the work? (Will you email students and get them to email their work back to you? Will you post it on a website? Will you ask parents/guardians to photograph completed work and email it to you?)
  • How do you envisage assessing the work? (If work is emailed to you, how will you provide comments and feedback? If work is completed online, how will you let students know you are monitoring the work?) Students can smell busy work a mile off! If they know you are monitoring the work closely, they will be more likely to complete the assigned tasks.
  • How often do you plan on sending out more work to students? (This is tricky to answer when we’re unsure of the potential time off school, but we need to plan for different scenarios- 1 week, 2 weeks, all the way through to 12 weeks +).

In terms of sustainability I would recommend bite sized chunks of no more than one week at a time. You know your students and you know their current levels of organisation, self-discipline and general ‘stickability’ at tasks. (Here I really worry about our more vulnerable students who may not have the benefit of a mature adult to support and nurture them through this general crisis let alone any academic tasks set by a teacher).

Other things to consider:

Online is great but not to be relied upon.

Online sites are great, but if Victoria’s Ultranet project taught us anything, it was that online learning cannot be relied upon as the sole vehicle of instruction in times of need. There are lots of potential pitfalls with going wholly and solely online: household internet access (if even available) may only be through a mobile phone, may be limited and, may not even work under the surge of people working in home isolation. Also, the number of internet connected devices in the house may need to be shared between siblings and distributed across a day as well. In addition to all of this, it is unlikely that students could sustain the motivation and /or self-discipline to remain focused on hours of online academic tasks considering us adults struggle with digital distraction every day.

Offline is also great but needs to be carefully considered.

Let’s not throw away everything we’ve learnt about good teaching and learning! Without explicit instruction and rich discussion, worksheets often test more than they teach. After all the work we’ve done to build parent understanding about why we no longer rely heavily on worksheets, it would a huge setback for education to now undo all that good work in the name of a simple solution for a complex problem. We are selling teaching (and learning) short if we think we can run off reams of worksheets and think our teaching work is done. Remember: what is purposeful?

My recommendations:

How about, rather than sending home mountains of photocopied sheets or links to hundreds of online websites, we keep things simple and start slowly? My proposal for home learning is as follows:

Teachers plan ONE week of reasonable, purposeful and sustainable work and reassess at the end of the first week to decide what to plan for the any subsequent weeks.

My suggested week one plan:

Writing:

Low tech:

Teachers assign students a writer’s notebook task to span the week. Here I would recommend students engage in Georgia Heard’s ‘Heart Map’ on the first day and then use each of the subsequent days in the week to write a longer piece about one of the words in their heart map. (In week 2 I would focus on revising these pieces of writing with a different focus each day).

Higher tech:

Teachers record a video of themselves demonstrating the creation of a heart map. They then model how to select a word to write about and show how they take that word to expand on it as a longer notebook piece.

Highest tech:

Students watch the teacher video then type their extended piece into a shared GoogleDocs or Office365 document and seek feedback from their peers (the feedback focus should be on the trait of IDEAS: “what would you like to know more about?”)

Reading

Low tech:

Students self-select a book (or a number of books) to read over the week (for a minimum of 20 minutes a day) and they then complete a response to the reading. This response could be focused on one specific comprehension strategy such as questioning. Students could record their questions before, during and after reading the text each day. This could be submitted at the end of the week to a) prove they have actually read the book(s) and b) demonstrate their level of questioning ability.

Higher tech:

Teachers record a video of themselves responding to a picture story book in the way they are asking their students to respond to their texts. They model the page layout in the reader’s notebooks and show themselves asking questions before, during and after reading. They also explain why this strategy helps them to better understand the text.

Highest tech:

Students post their before during and after questions in an online space such as a class Google slidedeck (where each student posts on a separate slide), they read the responses from other students and comment on their books and questions. Students also record themselves doing a book sell (or create a typed book sell) for the book they are reading and upload it to a shared class space.

Other subjects:

In addition to Mathematics work, teachers could create a project or choice board for other learning. The choice board could contain some of the following ideas:

  • Play a board game. Write a report/response or set of instructions.
  • Build something (and document the building process).
  • Create some artwork (and document the creation process).
  • Call some friends (and fill in a membership grid to demonstrate your listening skills).
  • Watch this video on a Rube Goldberg machine and then attempt to create your own machine (document the process).
  • Download a language learning app and learn a new language.
  • Learn a new skill of your choice (watch YouTube to learn how to do it).
  • Cook
  • Garden
  • Listen to music
  • Other…

At the end of week one:

Teachers should assess the amount and quality of work completed by their students and use this knowledge to plan for subsequent weeks. You could make contact with students and parents to check in with the learning during the week and at the completion of the week as you see fit. Differentiation is going to be key in these uncertain times. Some students will want and need more academic focus, structure and work from us, others will want and need more emotional focus and support from us- in any way we can give it. (I despair for those kids who look forward to our hugs every day!) This will be the time to get creative and think right outside the well sanitized box!

Jobs for teachers to engage in before the school holidays:

  • Discuss the possibility of school closures and work requirements with students. Ask them what they think would be reasonable, purposeful and sustainable.
  • Ensure you have current contact details of all students and parents (including student and parent emails) and ensure they all have your contact details.
  • If required, set up a basic website to post work (you can easily set up a Google site for this).
  • Learn how to use video conferencing software such as Zoom to enable whole class video check ins. (I’m happy to run a free PD on this for anyone interested? Let me know in the comments below or on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group).
  • Teach students how to access the class website where work / links to webinars will be posted (eg. make sure students and parents know their login details or the web address details for class websites etc. Practice accessing this in class).
  • Clearly communicate with parents how you plan to assign and assess student work. Ask for feedback on how reasonable, purposeful and sustainable your work program for week 1 is).
  • Reassure students that you will always be contactable during normal school hours. Provide them with information on how you would like to be contacted.
  • Load students up with take home books (if required) to complete their reading tasks.
  • Have students take home their writers and reader’s notebooks.
  • Spend your last few days with students enjoying the most of being a whole class and having the opportunity to chat, laugh, play, enjoy literature and be humans together!

These are uncertain times so anxiety is likely to be high. Let’s move forward with a focus on what is reasonable, purposeful and sustainable. Let’s learn from our international peers and start small and go slowly with self care on the top of our minds.

What are your thoughts?

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12 thoughts on “Tips for preparing student work during school closures”

  1. Hi Riss, I’d be interested in a zoom session. Gear blog post too. We’ve also talked as a staff about not overloading parents and students and not relying on just online learning.
    Carolyn

    Reply
  2. I would be very interested in the Zoom session if you do run one Riss.
    Thank you for your thoughtful guidance.

    Reply
  3. As student wellbeing, I’m keen to support the teachers as best I can. I’m pretty savvy with zoom, so am keen for on-line group activities I could run. Any suggestions is this space? Thanks.

    Reply
  4. Hi Narissa,
    Great tips – definitely a time to embrace ‘less is more’.
    Any suggestions on how parents can support each other with the home schooling? Wondering about ways to tap into particular strengths of other parents and sharing that across peer groups.
    Regards,
    Darren

    Reply
  5. Great reading! Our team are using Zoom and discussing the different points along the way and have found it a great way to connect and navigate our way through these unknown times.

    Reply

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