When Hasmonean closed in March, we were all feeling somewhat bereft and bewildered. Year 11 and Year 13 came shuddering to an end, with none of the usual activities, graduation ceremonies or even the satisfaction of doing the exams that our children had worked so hard for over their school careers. As a parent and as a teacher, I felt as if I was looking into an abyss of uncertainty.
Within our virtual school walls, staff had to find innovative ways to continue to provide our students with a first-class education during lockdown. As we were closing, we loaded work on to existing platforms such as Show My Homework, Educake and Hegarty Maths to ensure all students could access material and continue to study. This was sufficient as a stop gap, but more was needed.
We have done our best to embrace the challenge of teaching online, working round the Google Classroom to create editable documents or exciting video lessons. Some of my colleagues are using SmartKapp boards to recreate the classroom experience. Learning to teach online is a huge undertaking for all of us. Screen sharing, editing online, creating in-class quizzes and group work have all been used to vary the online experience.
The mental health of students and staff has been a paramount consideration. While sitting in a classroom for 50 minutes at a time works in the real world, online it is a different story. Lessons have been reduced to 35 minutes in order to give the pupils a chance to get up, stretch their legs and breathe fresh air before returning to the screen.
As a parent, I have been really impressed with the quality of teaching. When your child is in school, you have no idea what they are really doing in the classroom. When your daughter is at home, and you can hear her history or French lesson, as a parent you get a great feel for how much the students are able to do online.
A huge benefit has been the fact that students are doing much more independent study and research.
Hasmonean also created “the Extension Work Room”, which is a space for all students to develop their learning, particularly for those that have a gift or a talent for specific subjects and topics. As it is streamed and populated by learning area, the students are able to easily navigate their way around and find the resources they need.
From learning to touch-type and code, to streaming of National Theatre productions, as well as advanced maths and scientific questions about the necessity of 5G technology, there is something on offer to stretch every student.
The Extension Room allows all students to flourish at their own pace and within a space which is designed to be informative, useful and challenging.
Some examples of novel practice have included using modern methods to teach in a traditional way. As I sit in my dining room I share my screen with the text of Jekyll and Hyde so that my Year 10 students can annotate the text and we then use the extracts as triggers for discussion.
I have also found my way around marking Google-Doc homework and like the way it creates a conversation with a student about their work. Some students have dramatically improved their essay writing as a result of these conversations.
Shakespeare can be fun online as well. Year 8 students have been given extracts to practice at home and perform in the Google Classroom. This was really popular as the lesson gave them a chance to perform.
Online lessons do have their challenges: screens might freeze, presentations can refuse to behave and students can have connectivity issues — but on the whole, just like in the real classroom, we work around the glitches.
Other members of staff have embedded quizzes and YouTube clips into their Google Classroom to create an interactive screen-based lesson. The maths department have embraced the SmartKapp board, finding it particularly useful for explaining those pesky equations. As the notes written on the board can be saved, it certainly trumps the old fashioned whiteboards in the school building. Mr Templeman, a science teacher, even has as a student who is in the USA sending him work.
The Hasmonean Charitable Trust has played its part in keeping students happy and involved while moving them away from the screen. On Lag ba’Omer it created 33 different ways to be active: from speaking to an isolated person for three minutes to running for 33 metres — each activity was linked to the number 33, and the event raised £15,000. There has also been a challah bake, cheesecake making before Shavuot, art classes and cartoon-creating sessions.
Both learners and teachers have proved their resilience not only to cope with the changed landscape of learning, but to develop that landscape for the benefit of all of Hasmonean’s students.
Janine Ellerman teaches English at Hasmonean High School for Girls