After a few weeks of delivering the Virtual Learning Curriculum, I had really begun to miss the excitement of a classroom environment. One of the reasons that I love teaching English is the discussions that we have in class and the joy of watching my pupils develop and challenge each other’s ideas. I pride myself on being able to create a safe, respectful classroom environment where students know that they can offer their ideas freely. Mimicking this when teaching remotely was much more difficult. While Google Meet allowed me to speak to my classes, trying to get a verbal response back from them was a difficult, and arguably painful, feat.
The importance of collaborative learning can be seen from multiple aspects: from social development and wellbeing, to progress and assessment. It is a vital part of young people’s development in order to prepare them for healthy working and social relationships in later life, and therefore one which we must endeavour to embed as part of our remote teaching practise.
After much trial and error, I have developed the following list of resources with the aim of allowing pupils to still feel as though they are in a classroom with other students, even if they are physically separate.
Many schools have adopted Google Classroom in order to deliver teaching remotely, for uploading resources and submitting assessments. I have found that the questions function can be particularly helpful in allowing students to complete and assess work collaboratively. By selecting the option that allows pupils to see each other’s work, they can then read their peers’ responses to the same task. I will often set a writing task that also involves reading another student’s work and offering them feedback, using sentence stems or a marking criteria in order to give their feedback focus. This not only allows students to receive feedback from someone other than their teacher, but also encourages interaction between students in a constructive way.
While the stream on the front page of each individual classroom is a useful tool for teachers to post resources or instructions, it can also provide a space for pupils to seek and provide help without teacher input. After making clear your expectations and boundaries regarding what should be posted, it can act as a convenient space for students to check instructions or post resources that they have found. My GCSE classes are a fan of sharing revision resources, while during lockdown Year 8 were posting free books that they had found and enjoyed reading online.
To tackle the never-ending silence that I would receive in response to open, targeted and pre-warned questions, I decided to experiment with smaller group meetings. I would set the students up with work that could be completed independently, and then had pupils sign themselves up for smaller group meetings that would last up to ten minutes each. This gave me an opportunity to communicate with pupils more openly, to check on their wellbeing and to assess their progress. Pupils were able to express how they were finding the work and any areas that they felt they needed more help with. Ultimately, there was a fair amount of overlap in what pupils were struggling with, but the smaller group meetings allowed them to feel more confident in expressing themselves.
Towards the end of the summer term, I organised my Year 10 pupils into small groups to deliver presentations that explored different themes within Jekyll and Hyde. Pupils were given a link to a Google Meet that contained their teammates and I and had one lesson to prepare their presentations and an accompanying handout that was distributed to their classmates before the lesson. In the two lessons that followed, they took it in turns delivering their presentations and responding to their peers’ questions. Year 7 also rehearsed and delivered individual soliloquys from The Tempest to each other in smaller groups, and provided feedback for each other.
Gathering and sharing ideas from students is integral to collaborative learning. While students can, if they are willing, respond using the chat function on Google Meet or Microsoft Teams, as a teacher it can be difficult to keep up with the responses. Padlett and Mentimeter allow students to submit responses that can be viewed by everyone, meaning that particularly interesting ideas or those that require elaboration can then be highlighted by the teacher in order to direct discussion. This allows all students to contribute and have their ideas seen, and can be used for quick teacher assessment to highlight common misconceptions.
Padlett is a website that allows users to compose and post responses on notes that appear on a dashboard for everyone to read. Depending on the option you chose, you can then arrange ideas for debates or structure, order them on a timeline or link and connect them.
Mentimeter has a few more options for gathering class feedback in a visible way. There is a poll style function to gather opinions, word clouds that highlight common responses, open ended questions, scales, ranking and a Q & A feature.
Quizzes in class are a great way to consolidate and assess learning in an exciting, engaging way. Quizizz and Kahoot always bring out the competitive spirit in classes, and allow me to check comprehension of texts in a low stakes way. Both have a range of free, pre-made quizzes that you can browse and use or edit, or enable you to make your own quizzes tailored to your class’s needs.