The Post-Covid Classroom & Our Empty Teacher Toolbox

So, the mad rush to get online has subsided. The barrage of webinars on how to set up breakout rooms on Zoom have ended and the conversation is turning once again. It’s crazy to think all of this only started a few short months ago. It feels like days ago that our teaching context was turned upside down and we scrambled to bring our courses online and now, with restrictions being lifted in various countries around the world, it looks like it’s all about to be turned on its head again.

The question on my mind is:

what does the post-covid classroom look like?

Now, I’m not talking about 2022 when all this is done and dusted (fingers-crossed, touch wood and all that lark) and we can go back to the way things were before. I mean the classroom between now and then.

Many schools will take a blended approach, carrying out some lessons in a physical classroom and some online. Undoubtedly, we will have smaller class sizes. Schools will consider staggering start times and closing public areas. Hand sanitiser will, of course, feature heavily in any reopening. Depending on government advice, masks might be a pre-requisite or they might be discouraged. Depending on your country, your borders might be open to new students and there may / may not be a quarantine period.

But let’s assume that all the above has been taken care of by school management and the government. Where does that leave you, the teacher, when it comes to your face to face lessons in a physical classroom? Is it business as usual but with fewer students?

I don’t think so.

Let’s take a close look at our teaching toolbox, our tried and tested techniques, the bread & butter of teaching in a communicative classroom. What happens to them in a socially distant classroom?

  1. Pairwork: sadly, this is probably done and dusted for a while. We won’t be casually leaning over and checking answers.
  2. Group discussions: Unless it’s a whole-class discussion, which has its limitations, we won’t really be able to conduct group chats with a metre between each person.
  3. Hand-outs: You won’t be moving around the classroom giving your students a beautiful photocopy. Depending on school guidelines, you might not be able to give any material that the student didn’t bring with them.
  4. Monitoring: while it won’t be impossible to monitor, sneakily looming over a student’s shoulder and offering advice & encouragement is going to be frowned upon.

 

Unfortunately, a socially distant classroom is going to leave us without our go-to teaching techniques but all is not lost. If we’ve learnt anything over the past few months, it is how quick our industry is to adapt to the situation and adopt new techniques that better suit the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Adapt and adopt, we shall.

When deciding how to adapt, we must consider what we are losing and how we can try to replace it.

Mentimeter:

One of the main reasons, I use pairwork in class is to give students thinking time, to allow them to learn from each other and help each other to formalise their opinions before they bring them to the class as a whole. Often, having a moment to share an answer with a partner will give a student the social reassurance they need to then share it with the whole class. This is the beauty of pairwork and something we really don’t want to lose.

One way to give students the thinking time, to give them confidence in their answers without having to share them with the whole class is by using poll / survey websites like Mentimeter. It allows students time to think and to answer anonymously; they can very easily see how the rest of the class feels or is answering and then stand by or alter their answer before bringing it to the whole class. It encourages the quieter student to get involved and gives them an easy communication avenue.

Text Discussions:

Much of how I communicate is via text messages or social media. There are people I speak to regularly that I haven’t talked to in person for years. This is the same for many of our students yet in a communicative classroom we tend to focus on speaking. Most schools will by this time have chosen an online platform to deliver their lessons be it Teams, Zoom or something else. For Zoom, students could simple start a meeting, turn the cameras & audio off and use the chat box.

By using these same tools or even WhatsApp, students can still carry out discussions in a meaningful way before sharing the outcome of their discussions with the rest of the class in whole-class feedback.

The nice little by-product of these types of discussions is a written record. The chat box can easily be screenshot and shared. Students can reflect on what they actually said/wrote and analyse how well they used the target language. And you have a concrete source to reference for feedback.

Displaying:

If handouts are behind us, that’s no bad thing. They’re great, don’t get me wrong, but the environment won’t thank us for all of the dead handouts that ended up in bins around the EFL world. In the socially distant classroom, we will be forced to abandon them and use the tools we have. So what do we have?

  • IWB: many of us will have an IWB. Apps like Microsoft Lens allow us to scan in resources; the snipping tool allows us to chop them up and deliver them to our students one piece at a time…as the writer no doubt intended.
  • Phones: our students don’t need to have a piece of paper they never look at again, they have cameras. Cameras that save photos in clouds according to their dates. Photos that they can access forevermore without having to sift through crumpled, wrinkled, ragged remnants of lessons long-forgotten.

If we don’t have IWBs, we have phones, which means we can send photos / documents via online platforms, WhatsApp, email, etc. Our learners can zoom in, they can edit, they can engage with it however we see fit.

Support over Presence:

Something that I’ve really found in online teaching is that support is more important than presence. In the past we have relied upon the fact that we can monitor closely and be on hand to answer every little question. In breakout rooms, this became impossible and in a socially distant classroom it becomes trickier.

All this means is that we need to spend more time setting up an activity. Learners need to know what exactly they should be doing, why they are doing it and what success looks like. Instructions are more important than ever and checking instructions is crucial. With students potentially working more individually or on their phones and you unable to loom over their shoulder, checking they are on task becomes more challenging. The answer may be to spend more time on giving and checking your instructions and getting buy-in for the activity from the students.

 

Above are just a few of the issues we may face in the socially distant classroom. No doubt there will be others that we haven’t even considered yet. Some of the above ideas for coping with these issues may turn out to be unworkable depending on your teaching context but we have proven our ability to adapt and adapt we will. I am excited to see how we tackle these issues and to hear your ideas.

Send them along!

Help I’m in a breakout room! Using success criteria to enable peer to peer feedback

For the foreseeable future it seems we’ll be teaching online and apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams are going to be our classrooms. But is this just a stopgap while we wait for our schools to reopen? Maybe…but I personally think that online teaching is here to stay. That’s not to say it was never here before but by the end of Covid, I would say online English language teaching will have carved out its own space and will sit side by side with full immersion.

Assuming that’s the case, it’s not about weathering the online storm, it has to be about doing it as best we can. It can’t be just replicating what we did in the classroom and making it work, we have to adapt to this new environment.

One of the first issues I came up against was pairwork. How do we make it work? Well, the answer came quickly: we use breakout rooms of course. Fantastic, problem solved. Or was it?

Feedback from teachers:

Breakout rooms are great but you can’t monitor effectively. The students are chatting away, or not chatting at all and you have no idea because you’re in another room.

Feedback from students:

We just chat but we don’t get feedback. I don’t know what I am saying wrong.

Both valid issues but both issues we had in physical classrooms, but now in the harsh glow of the computer screen it is much more glaringly obvious.

So what can we do? Students have to practise. We don’t want to be the conduit for all communication in the classroom.

The students must become the masters!

We have to accept the situation and adapt. We cannot be in every room at once listening and giving feedback so we have to ensure someone is

But our students aren’t equipped to give feedback! And they don’t want to hear it from another student

Well then let’s equip them.

Success criteria:

By giving clear success criteria for a speaking task, learners can give each other meaningful feedback and, it’s not as subjective because it’s been laid out clearly beforehand.

But what are success criteria and where do we find them?

Essentially it is what you have taught your students that day. If you want them to discuss their careers and you’ve taught them:

  • To use the present perfect to describe their current situation
  • To use past simple to describe past jobs
  • X,Y,Z vocabulary related to careers
  • The natural pronunciation of present perfect

Then successfully discussing your career means doing the things above.

Some tips:

  1. Negotiate the criteria with your students to increase engagement
  2. Ensure they have a written record of them during the task
  3. Allow students to choose which of the criteria they will focus on and therefore which they want feedback on
  4. Repeat the activity again, giving them the chance to upgrade.

Our learners can take a more active part in the learning process…we just need to give them the tools to do so.

Pre-lesson Tasks: the great equaliser

It’s a crazy time right now but out of the madness there are lessons to be learnt. We’ve already written about some lessons we learnt for creating and setting up effective post-lesson tasks but what have we learnt about the pre?

Well, in the many blogs and articles on online teaching, I’ve read since Covid kicked off, I came across someone (I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I can’t remember their name or where I came across it to credit them) who referred to them as the great equaliser.

It really struck a chord with me as this was exactly what I was seeing in our school and classrooms. The learners who were responding best to the move from physical classroom to online classroom were the shyer students and those that were at the lower end of their levels. Suddenly they were being given two of the most precious things for a learner: time and guidance. They were able to focus on their weaker areas and come to the lesson prepared. They weren’t playing catch-up in the lesson because they’d done it beforehand.

Now, there’s not a learner out there (at least none that I’ve encountered) with the same competence in every area. Spikey profiles are par for the course in the language learning world. With this in mind pre-lesson tasks offer a unique opportunity to give our students guidance and support to focus on their specific needs. Imagine a world in which each student comes to the online class having focused their preparation on the area they struggle with. Imagine a world in which our students are coming to their lessons having turned their weaknesses into strengths.

Ladies andgentlemen, I give you the world of online teaching.

The question is, when all this is over, what other lessons will we have learnt and will we take those lessons back to our physical classrooms?

Post Lesson Tasks: Your tech is sorted…time to focus on learning

It’s been a crazy few weeks. Weeks in which, we’ve seen our entire industry turned on its head, and the mad scramble as we all tried to adapt and keep up. I think for the most part, we’ve done incredibly well. Schools moved online in days, amazing teachers adapted to new class”room” environments in their own homes.

For many of us the first step was finding a platform. Our emails and Twitter feeds were awash with communication from Zoom, Teams, Swivl and countless others offering their help in these difficult times. Once that was sorted, it was on to training. There were literally more webinars than I could keep up with as we all tried to figure out what a breakout room looked like on various platforms.

It was all a bit crazy but we learnt so much in such a short period and to our credit, classes continued. A truly amazing example of need driving innovation. But now the dust has settled…somewhat, and we have chosen our platforms, our breakout rooms are set up and we’ve, hopefully, carved out a section of our houses in which we can deliver lessons without dogs, cats, children or partners. Now that the tech is sorted, what’s next?

Now, it’s time to move our discussions back to the teaching and learning.

But isn’t good teaching good teaching regardless of online or in a classroom?


Well, yes, of course it is. But for our students, when it comes to online learning, there is a lot more responsibility on the student. Autonomy is no longer something a nice-to-have, it is essential. It’s not quite so easy to set up an activity and then move around the room guiding learners and ensuring they’re on task.

I read an interesting blog post earlier that encouraged me to write this one. Russell Stannard wrote that in his language learning experience, it was the work he did outside the classroom that really helped him to learn. He admits that this was guided by his teacher but it was he who put the work in outside.

This rang very true for me and now more so than ever our learners need clear guidance on post-lesson tasks. With that in mind, below are 3 tips for setting up effective post-lesson tasks. I am no expert in online learning but this is what I’ve gleaned thus far. I’m sure we all have much more to learn.

Tip 1: establish clear partners and guidance on how to chat

This is all new for us but it’s equally so for our learners. They might be used to chatting online socially but doing so for educational purposes might not immediately feel natural. We have to take their feelings into account and make it as easy as possible. Much like happened in my classroom once. I was being a little lazy and my instructions weren’t clear. I realised after a minute into a pair-work activity that one student was working by themselves because their partner had decided they were in a 3. It had become too socially awkward for the student so they’d chosen to work by themselves. Imagine that in an online scenario where someone has to make the first move.

Remember:

  • Give partners and put it in writing
  • Explain how and when they should carry out the task (e.g. immediately after the lesson / on Zoom)

Tip 2: Post-lesson tasks are not the same as homework.

A lot of the post-lesson tasks I’ve been seeing have been similar to traditional homework. While self-study homework is important for consolidation, the beauty of online study is the opportunity for post-lesson collaborative tasks.

These tasks can’t just be straight grammar or vocabulary exercises, instead consider the following:

  • Reflection discussion questions:

Encourage your learners to consider some or all of the following: how what they’re learning is relevant for their lives, how it is different or similar to their language, how it can be applied to the current situation, what else they need to know or learn on this topic / skill / language point.

  • Production tasks:

Once they’ve considered how what they’ve learnt us relevant to them or thought about what else they’d need to learn to make it relevant, it’s time to practise. These tasks should ideally include some practise with their partner(s) and something that is recorded and can be sent to the teacher for feedback, be that a screen-grab of a chat conversation, a recording of a spoken conversation or a written task.

The idea is that learners can practise and get feedback from their partners before they send it through to the teacher.

The issue with this is always how can we expect students to give any meaningful feedback? The answer is Tip 3.

Tip 3: Give clear success criteria for the production tasks

With clear success criteria, students know exactly what to listen/look for in their partners’ production. They’re based on what’s been learnt in the lesson so it’s not new information but the criteria serve as a reminder of what to look for.

An example of success criteria for a production task would be:

Have a conversation with your partner about your plans for the weekend.

A successful conversation will:

  • Begin with present continuous (e.g. what are you doing this weekend?”)
  • Use “be going to” for plans
  • Use the natural pronunciation of “be going to”
  • Have natural replies (e.g. “oh that sounds nice”)

The above ensures that students can give effective feedback without it verging into offensive as it boils it down to what was learnt in the lesson, which makes it that bit more objective. Students can even use them to ask their partners to focus their feedback on a particular area they struggle with.

It’s not a bad idea to spend some time in the lesson discussing how to word effective feedback (e.g. “you used be going to for your plans but you didn’t say gonna like we learnt in the lesson. This could make it sound more natural”)

Hopefully these tips will help you to set up post-lesson tasks that help to consolidate and extend your already wonderful lessons.

Rewordify: website for simplifying a text

So you’ve got a text and it’s ridiculously interesting but it’s just that little bit too difficult for your students…

If you’ve ever been in that situation, you might want to try rewordify. A colleague of mine put me onto this website a few years ago and I thought it was time to pass it on.

The idea is simple: you put your text in and it dumbs it down with helpful synonyms and explanations. You may argue that this isn’t authentic and that it stops the flow of the text and you are probably right. But what I love about this website is it then lets you create worksheets for all of the trickier words.

Here are two ways I have used it in the past:

  1. I simplify a newspaper article on a current issue for a lower level class. We work through the trickier language using the worksheets. I then let them watch a news segment on the same topic and discuss the topic. The worksheets have allowed them to both understand the video and discuss it.
  2. When teaching CAE and CPE, encouraging them to show off or upgrade their language in their writing can be difficult. I like to dumb down a text using this website and set them the task of upgrading it. I then get them to compare it to the original and see how they did.

It’s a great little website. Check it out and let us know how you use it.

If you’d like to learn about more useful websites, check out this blog.

The write stuff – CPD

So, this was a session that I did with some teachers at our school, EC, a few years back, it got great feedback at the time and I am constantly pleased to see that some of the ideas from it are still being used in our classrooms today.

If you have used many of the writing materials posted on the site you will probably recognise some of the ideas if not actual full exercises here.  The idea of the CPD was to try to get teachers thinking about teaching writing, and what that involves rather than just setting writing.  There is an accompanying booklet that goes with the CPD as I don’t think there is much point in giving teachers ideas without giving them a helping hand to put them into practice.  They are busy and often won’t have time to plan a lesson using the new ideas so anything that can be done to make it easier for them to implement ideas is a good thing in my book.

The procedure below is just a talk through the power point which you can download below.

The session format is more workshop than lecture, you need to give the teachers chance to discuss a few of the points.

Procedure:

Slide 2

  1. Discussion – The beginning is all about finding out what teachers do, some may have great practice already, doesn’t mean a refresher won’t help, some may not do so much, it is good to find out why.

1.1 Get them to check against the list on the screen, not all of them are good practice, in my opinion.  Now ask them to discuss why they do these things.

Slide 3

1.2 Answer reveal – this is how i would divide them, this may create discussion, which is the idea, but explain there is nothing wrong with any of the activities on the ‘No, something else’ side, but that they are not teaching writing.

Slide 4

2.1 The focus of this is to ask teachers why model answers are useful.  There is a whole lesson on this on the site.

https://textploitationtefl.wordpress.com/2015/07/26/model-answers/

Discussion – In pairs or groups ask them to discuss for maybe 5 minutes and then do a group feedback session.

The answers should be:

  • Can we assume that students will know what particular types of writing should look like?

No, task types can be different in different languages and writing types don’t necessarily translate

  • How does the student benefit from a model of the type of writing you are using?

They can see what you want them to produce, we all need this.  Also exposes them to the vocan and grammar that is appropriate for the type of writing and other features that make up register.

  • What happens when students aren’t given a model?

They don’t give you the piece of writing you want.  disappointed teacher, disappointed student, less motivation on both parts, downward spiral and so on etc.

Slide 5

This slide focuses on layout, again key in many styles of writing and something that is too often taken for granted.

3.1 Ask the teachers what styles of writing these are and how they know, ask if they think their students would know and why / why not?

Answers: letter – report – essay

What is the difference in layout? – letters have rules for how they are laid out – the report is normally divided into sections – essay features longer paragraphs etc

Why do students need to know these? – if they don’t, how will they write them?

Slide 6

Style and register – again this was looked at elsewhere, here in fact

https://textploitationtefl.wordpress.com/2015/06/10/how-can-i-write-it-if-i-dont-know-what-it-is/

4.1 Ask the teachers to briefy discuss the two questions on the slide and do whole group feedback

answers should include – you get inappropriate writing, or the styles are all mixed up. a very negative effect on the reader.

Slide 7

4.2 Show them the example and ask them what is wrong, for extra interactive work you could ask them to quickly rewrite a paragraph.

Obviously it is far too formal, but I am sure many of us have had a slightly less extreme version of this.  In my experience if shown this many students would be unable to say what was wrong and many might think it was very good.

Slide 8

Planning and editing

5.1 Ask the teachers to decide what other benefits of planning could be, maybe ask them to shout them out and then reveal.

Slide 9

Just acts as a reinforcement of importance of planning.  I find students who don’t plan have many mistakes in their first paragraph, normally as they have directly translated from their own language.  These can be lessened, if not eradicated, by planning in detail.

Slide 10

Lesson ideas, probably a good time to hand out the accompanying booklet, so they can see what each one is.

Materials:

As I said earlier, this was a session that we ran at our school, it was quite successful, feel free to use it and let us know how it goes, or feel free to adapt it and change bits around.