Here’s looking at you, Academic Year 2020-21!

I am in a reflective mood as I reach the end of a much-needed restful holiday and contemplate what lies ahead. 

I finished the academic year 19-20 with stress-induced perioptical dermatitis – perhaps unsurprising given the whole pandemic thing! It has been quite a (calendar) year so far. I started it in poor health, due to a virus (I do not know if it was THE virus, either way it wiped me out completely) which I didn’t fully recover from until early-mid February. Shortly after that one of my companion animals passed away following multiple vet visits and sustained nursing at home. By our Easter v weeks I was ready for a holiday and had a week in Sicily booked. Of course in practice it coincided with the pandemic accelerating in Italy and then here so the trip didn’t happen and the stress of the unknown (will we lock down? When?) and then the start of lock down ensued instead, for me against the backdrop of a new relationship. A week off in June coincided with finally being able to see my girlfriend again, which was wonderful but not restful (lots of emotions to deal with for both of us!). So it’s not surprising that I was a wreck by the time the proper holidays arrived in mid-August. I have largely spent them eating, resting, spending time with my girlfriend and getting a diagnosis for my eye skin condition which led to 2 weeks of 6 times a day taking and/or administering (tablets and creams) both plural!) an array of drugs. 

And here I am, eyes still look a bit weird but I no longer feel like death, which really helps! Another academic year looms. My inbox is full of emails to make sense of, I’m still not sure how much of “back to work” = back in the office, and everything ahead, pretty much will be new. A positive new thing is that I have decided to go down to 4 days a week for at least this year (it’s a reviewed yearly thing). Hopefully that will make for a better work-life balance. (My main decision of last year was to submit a request form for going down in hours rather than apply for an academic director position which would have been the opposite! I wouldn’t have got it anyway, because my colleague who did definitely deserves it more and has much more relevant experience to bring to it than I would have, but it was still a choice with regards to what direction I wanted to pursue.) 

This academic year, it feels like I will be starting a new job except with all my colleagues and without moving! It will still be EAP of course, but new timetable structure, syllabus, materials and platforms. Some assessment will be the same but some will be different. It’s quite an interesting position to be in really, the cognitive challenge of (nearly) everything being different but against the backdrop of a familiar team and with the added bonus of having an extra day off per week to regroup. Another bonus is that there will be plenty of development work to do in terms of materials, so that will be good to get stuck into. I have stepped down from my bulletin-writing TD role now (finished at the end of last academic year) and another role-related question remains to be answered: Will I continue to ADoS or not? It’s a decision I will have to make fairly imminently. But that is for another post!

For now, these are my academic year goals:

  • Be curious! By being curious about everything that I encounter, all the newness that is ahead, I can open up lots of opportunities for learning and growth. 
  • Be patient! With myself, with my colleagues, with my students. It won’t be an easy year and that is ok, it can still be a positive one.
  • Be grateful! Look for the positives and appreciate them. Smile lots. 
  • Be open to challenge! It’s ok, good even, for things to be difficult, challenge leads to discovery and growth. 
  • Be kind to myself! Look after myself appropriately, maintain a good work-life balance (easier with the 4-day week!), keep meditating, eat well, exercise regularly, spend quality time with my girlfriend regularly. 

Perhaps, in fact, on reflection, these aren’t goals so much as values. And in line with these guiding values I can set specific goals. My goal for the first week back is finish it with a clear idea of what this term will look like and be ready to embark on teaching a new group the following week! 

Bring it on, academic year 2020-21, I am ready for you! Um, I think… :-p Good luck to everyone who is kicking off a new academic year around now (northern hemisphere) and to everyone else, keep going only a few months left of this calendar year! 🙂 

IATEFL Training session – Mental health, Resilience and Covid 19

By dint of starting work verrrry early in order to get all my marking done, I have made time to attend this training session run by Hayley Broughton-McKinna for IATEFL. It is on Zoom! I must be the only person for whom it is the first time to use Zoom… (I’ve done Google Meet and Blackboard Collaborate and Microsoft Teams just!) Apparently it is a Zoom webinar room so as participants we just use the chat box, so not quite like being a student! Here are my notes from the session, with my own thoughts/reflections (added retrospectively) interspersed in italics.

Hayley is from PMAC. Im not sure what it stands for, need to look it up… but it aims to give people the tools they need to keep a workforce healthy, happy and functioning, and productive. She talked about her experience and warned us some themes may be distressing.

First thing I have noticed, Zoom audio quality is MUCH better than Blackboard Collaborate. <sigh>

The first portion was about Stress management

Life is already stressful, lockdown has added to that bringing with it lots of changes and worries.

  • Relationships with ourselves and those around us may have changed due to lockdown.
  • Work has been affected (not half!) – with furlough and working from home, and job losses and new jobs being hard to get, some jobs are more exposed and more at risk too.
  • Fear around the virus itself is a thing too, not knowing what the future will hold with it, doctors not knowing how best to treat it.
  • The grieving process has been made even more difficult and complicated.
  • Current affairs issues such as Black Lives Matter and conspiracy theories also affect us. Small talk around Covid19 has become very common but we can unwittingly have a big impact on people by doing this, depending on their experiences/situations.

Hayley introduced these terms:

Stress – how affected you are in mind and body by pressures that are unmanageable.

Trauma – impact of overwhelming stress, when coping is exceeded.

“The impact of Lockdown” might have meant spending a lot of time at home. For some people that’s great, for others they feel really trapped and isolated, out of control.

  • Some people may not have had access to safe outdoor space/sunlight, leading to poor mood and vitamin D deficiency. It is also living with constant fear and uncertainty.
  • We went from this is a virus that only affects the elderly and those with underlying conditions to this is a virus that affects everybody. So there is trauma around the fear of being ill but also around surviving, in terms of guilt.

I get this. I’m worried about getting ill (especially as I had a bad virus at Christmas through mid-Feb, the memory of which is enough to keep me being careful. Going from running the better part of 20 miles to being barely able to move is not nice. And the thought of losing, possibly permanently, some of my lung function is scary to me. At the same time, because I have been incredibly lucky in where I have lived through the first lockdown, almost feeling guilty not to have suffered more. 

  •  Grieving loved ones and family members, made more difficult as you may not be able to be around people who you can talk to, share memories with, to celebrate someone’s life with all who loved that person. This in combination with other people being excited about restaurants reopening and suchlike.
  • Grief also covers our life and sense of purpose. Routines and purpose may have been lost. Our reality is shaped by who we are in different circumstances with different people. You at work can be different than you at home than you with friends. We may have lost those different aspects of ourselves.

I’m still working, remotely of course, but I can imagine how much bigger an effect the whole thing might have had on me if I didn’t have the continuity of my job, crazy as it has been, through it. It stills seems strange to think that, apart from my co-ADoS who came round once for some socially distanced outdoor working (we thought it might be a regular weekly thing, the weather thought otherwise!!), I’ve not seen my colleagues since mid-March apart from a small number in video chats (=my 2 programme leaders and the rest of the ADoS team + [separately] the dozen or so teachers – a different dozen-ish this term to last – that I have done weekly module meetings with). We are definitely continuing to work remotely for at least another term (not sure if we teachers will go back to the building occasionally in the mean time or not), so by the time we go back to the office it will potentially have been nearly a year! Extraordinary. 

  • Working from home has minimised separation between work and home.
  • We may be grieving relationships that have been lost due to lockdown.
  • Sleep is also affected. Lack of sleep can lead to impaired immune functioning, more headaches, nausea, difficulty concentrating but also impacts on mental health as you lack the energy/strength to deal with things as they arise. Resilience is affected.

I have been really lucky with sleep. I have the odd bad night but by and large my sleep is good and I have a good pre-sleep routine to help that. 

So, there has been a real crisis of mental health during the pandemic.

  • Eating disorders are often triggered by feeling out of control.

Yep. Mine was triggered by losing my horse Alba nearly 2 years ago now. Then it was re-triggered when I was ill over Christmas. It liked me not being able to eat much and would have liked to keep it that way. So it was still very much present when Covid19 kicked off in the UK. I’m incredibly lucky that I have a very supportive girlfriend who has helped me be able to manage it better. 

  • People who are struggling have had less to distract them and resources available prior to lockdown may be no longer available.
  • Learned helplessness response may kick in because people feel they don’t have it in them anymore.
  • People with children who see work as a bit of respite from the parent role lost that during the lockdown.
  • Some people have got used to being alone at home and will be struggling with going back out into the world and to work.

This may be me when we do get to the point of returning to work. It will have been a LONG time so some readjustment will be necessary. 

  • Health is also impacted by the long term stress effects but also people have avoided seeking medical attention or been unable to access it. What is urgent or essential to you might not have been considered urgent enough to be provided during the pandemic. To not have access to support for your health can feel really difficult.

I have a weird eye condition going on, and getting it seen to has been complicated by Covid. I went to the pharmacy first, hoping I could just get something for it but they can’t give me anything over the counter. So I had to phone up for a GP appointment, which will be a phone appointment, so which has involved taking photos of my eye and uploading them to a link sent to be via text message. And we will see what happens next! Obviously this is all very minor compared to what some people will be going through. 

Lack of control has led to many people struggling massively.

  • Control includes routine, and not having that can be distressing. Emotion regulation can be more difficult when there is no predictability. This is also affected by not having the distractions you are used to having to help with it e.g. going to the gym, doing courses and other such coping mechanisms.

This really upset me at the start of lockdown. Feeling like my life had been thrown up in the air and all the bits were all over the place, and that I had to pick them all up and reorganise them again. Routine is very important to me, as it feels safe. Fortunately in the UK we were allowed out to exercise once per day so that was one organising principle – go for a run early early so that as few other people as possible would be out and about. I had also invested in a turbo trainer so that I could continue to do some cycling exercise, so there was that for late afternoon. Obviously there was work, with its meetings (so many meetings!) and lessons. I also established routines with my girlfriend – daily video chats, daily exercising via video chat and weekly virtual dates. I overdid the exercise initially so had to work out how much was the right amount and what to do instead of the dropped sessions (yoga, piano, art). 

  • We’ve also largely lost the physical presence of others e.g. a hand on the shoulder, a hug etc. Lots of feelings like anger, disappointment, frustration arise and can also lead to feelings of shame and lead people to react to us in uncomfortable ways as they don’t know what to do with it.

This is difficult. Especially when it will come to seeing people again after a long time. Like when my co-ADoS came round, the automatic feeling is to want to have a big hug having not seen each other for ages. I will be sad to lose that with people. 

  • Precarious finances impact what we can purchase, little comforts that might help.

I’m really lucky to be ok financially because I have a secure (as it is possible to be at the moment) job. 

  • Travel has become more difficult e.g. if you relied on public transport to go to work or the shop, and it isn’t available or it is now much more dangerous, that is difficult to deal with. It can feel like a no-win situation.

I am very lucky to have a weekly Ocado supermarket delivery and despite some kerfuffle initially have managed to maintain that, and share it with my housemate and once restrictions eased also my girlfriend. So the only shop I’ve been in since mid-March is the pharmacy which is less than a five minute walk away. 

  • Accessing support has become much more difficult, and the lack of being able to turn to people when you need them can really trigger feelings from previous trauma e.g. trust issues and that can make it difficult to let people in again and access support when things open up again.
  • Some people have enjoyed working from home but for some people going to work might be the only human interaction or the only respite from responsibilities in the home, making it more difficult to compartmentalise. Home life might be very chaotic and make it very difficult to get work done.
  • People might feel lots of pressure to get back to normal even if they don’t feel ready.

I have a bit of this going on. Luckily no pressure on the work side of things because of the whole remote working for the foreseeable future thing, but I haven’t yet seen anyone apart from my housemate, my girlfriend and the one visit from my ADoS colleague and have conflict between wanting to but not feeling comfortable to and then worrying that people will think I am being antisocial as a result. I am building up towards having some friends (one household at a time) round for pizza in the garden (restrictions permitting! by the time I build up to it that may no longer be an option..!)

Impact on relationships is another thing that has come out of lockdown.

  • It can put pressure on the relationship with the person you live with as there is less escape. Little irritants become big when you are stuck with someone and there is no break. Especially when you are navigating the emotional rollercoaster of trying to cope with the wider situation. Often the little daily small things that push us to breaking point and it is easier to take it out on someone who is around you than on the world at large.

I thought this would be an issue for me, as we have clashed over build ups of little things in the past, but it’s been ok. Actually my house mate has been super supportive of the whole working from home endeavour – letting me use the kitchen-dining room, helping me find my standing desk and plug in monitor etc – and also more generally in terms of helping me find and set up the turbo trainer in the sitting room, for e.g.! Hopefully I am easier to live with since taking up mindfulness and trying to be more aware in my interactions and how they are influenced by how I am feeling. (Work stress used to be a trigger in the past.)

  • For a lot of people it has meant spending more time in abusive situations.
  • Lots of people are now having to deal with relationship breakdowns – friendships, relationships that had been really invested in. Some people have had to quarantine apart and have suffered at the lack of physical intimacy and can lead to trust issues as you can’t physically get comfort/validation/assurance. Couples coming out of lockdown who survived it may now be at risk of separation anxiety. Some couples will feel so unified that there is a bit of co-dependency and resentment/jealousy/hurt when independence is regained. Even if things went really well for you in lockdown, easing out of lockdown can make things difficult.

My girlfriend and I don’t live together, and we had only got together a month or so before lockdown started, so we worked hard to keep things going. She is a keen paddler so once restrictions eased she started doing that again, I join her at weekends. But obviously during lockdown there was no paddling and before lockdown we hadn’t had much chance to figure out normal (and it was out of season) so there has been some adjustment around that. Recognising insecurity in myself, talking with her about it. (Mindful) communication has been key. 

Work relationships have been different. This particularly for colleagues who I consider friends but am no longer working closely with as they have been promoted. Pre-lockdown, it was about having lunch together when we were able to do. In and since lockdown, it has been about being proactive about organising video chats periodically, even though initially it felt a bit awkward and I was a bit nervous (go figure, just me…). Consistently it has been really positive in outcome to reconnect with them. Very important to do and something I need to keep doing! 

Teaching during lockdown

  • It has had a lot less human contact.
  • You haven’t the same small talk and catch up in between actual teaching sessions.
  • The interaction doesn’t feel as personal or genuine. It is easier to lose concentration when you are talking to a screen with no response.
  • There is a lot less separation between work and home, it is always there rather than being left behind at work physically. So more work done outside work hours, as there is less structure.
  • Students may not have the time or space at home to engage fully with the sessions however much they might want to. Their ability to concentrate may have been affected by lockdown.
  • More difficult to check in with students as you can’t see their response or reactions. Very different relationship with the students. You might spend more time worrying about them as a result.

Teaching…this term I really enjoyed it as I had the mental space to fully engage with it and lessons that worked more like lessons (as vs. the 30 minute tutorial slots of last term, though even with those I managed to do trial and error and established a good set-up!). Last term I had my students from the previous term so I already had rapport with them, that remained the case online. This term I shared my co-ADoS’s group and only had six lessons with them. So I did my best but it was difficult! Though by the end I felt I was getting somewhere. Time, eh. I have missed the face to face classroom though. Strange to think even when it becomes a thing again how different it will be. 

Re work-life balance, I have been pretty strict for the most part about maintaining it (bar yesterday when I worked from 7.20 til late afternoon in order to be able to attend this session!) because keeping myself in a state of reasonable wellbeing is essential to being able to continue doing the job. 

Trauma and stress in lockdown…

<ummm Zoom meeting crashed and when I tried to rejoin it said there was another meeting in progress. I can only hope I will be able to access the recording! Oh apparently the whole thing crashed, not just my problem, and now we need to find the speaker again!>

…What is the impact of all this?

  • Those feelings (everything we have talked about so far) can be very triggering. Particularly for people who have already experienced trauma.
  • Relationships may feel different, you may feel very detached from them.
  • Unprecedented time to ourselves can be stressful/traumatic, may lead to an existential crisis. Lots of big questions can crash around your mind. Loss of concrete knowing who you are, where you are headed in life, can lead to feel confused and overwhelmed.
  • You may feel some loss of identity, as the experiences that contribute to all our different versions of ourselves (work self, social self etc.) are not there.
  • Keeping conversations going without all the shared experience and new experience can be difficult.
  • May struggle to get out of bed and follow positive routines.
  • BLM activism, seeing people being killed, adds to the trauma. As a trauma response, we may shut down. Not consciously but we cannot deal with that level of grief. At the time is perfectly normal and healthy for coping but coming out of lockdown, how do we come out of that?
  • Social media exacerbates individual differences – comparison with others’ lives e.g. when you are having a bad day and see people on Fb/Twitter doing all different things and being productive which might bring feelings of shame and guilt in you. Loss of motivation can result.

I remember during lockdown seeing lots of posts of people baking cakes and suchlike while I was at full stretch with work and keeping my relationship with my girlfriend going. I may slightly have wished for a bit of being furloughed too! I can quite imagine that underneath all the cake photo posting, they were struggling with the massive change that sudden complete absence of work brings. 

  • People are all affected in different ways so can only offer limited support as are coping themselves.

Stress

We’ve talked about why it’s been stressful and why it’s been traumatic but what does that do to for us and to us? Stress is a very subjective thing, relative to our lives and our perceptions. At one time in your life something may seem very stressful, at another it may seem no big deal as your coping mechanisms, support network, context etc may be different. If you don’t perceive something as stressful, it won’t be a stressor for you and you won’t be emotionally and physically impacted.

Physical impact of stress

  • when we encounter a perceived threat, the hypothalmus in our brain sets off an alarm system and that sends signals through our body through nerves and hormones which prompts adrenal glands to release adrenaline (responsible for the fight flight freeze response) and cortisol (affects your body to prime it for response prepares muscles, activates release of things you need to response, suppresses non-essential things like digestive and reproductive system).
  • Normally once the threat passes, your body renormalises.
  • But really acute or prolonged stress can destruct your functioning e.g. digestive problems, slowed metabolism/weight gain especially round stomach as that is protective of organs, concentration is affected, affecting memory which is also affected by sleep.

Having an understanding of all this is important so that we take it seriously in terms of managing it.

I know for me the constant stress of the uncertainty, not knowing when lockdown would be lifted, seeing changes be made but not the one I wanted initially (to see my girlfriend properly) meant that my amygdala was more sensitive. It was something to be aware of, recognise that it was being more easily triggered than usual. And try to soothe it with meditation and emotional connection. 

Mental heatlh issues coming out of lockdown

  • Anxiety will be heightened – vomiting, dizziness, shaking, sweating, feelings of hopelessness and despair.
  • Depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and eating disorders may be re-triggered.
  • Insomnia and memory problems relating to inability to concentrate due to stress and lack of sleep.

Everyone has been affected differently by this pandemic. Everyone has had a different experience of it – lost someone, not lost someone, had a good place to shelter, been in a stressful living situation intensively, had time to take up hobbies, been taken up with working from home and childcare, have had previous difficult life experiences that are re-triggered or not, been in a comfortable space or really cramped space, have financial issues or not, be able to re-energise and rest or not, have coping mechanisms in place on hand or not, have a support network or not.

So coming out of lockdown we will all have very different needs.

And whatever our needs are, as long as they don’t harm others they are valid and it is ok for us to try and meet them. Is what I think. 

It may be just as stressful or more stressful in different ways. Uncertainty is very central. It is not “back to normal” but forward to something else and we aren’t sure quite what yet. Masks in themselves are a big difference to adjust to, can seem intimidating. We have to find ways to adjust with the world as we are meeting it now. There is no one correct way/one size fits all for dealing with it. It might be frustrating, especially as everyone is at different stages, ready for different things at different times. This might lead to difficult conversations and changing relationships. You might need to set boundaries in new ways. You need to allow yourself to be human and feel all the things you feel. Even going back to commuting will feel exhausting as you readjust.

I have not missed commuting to work on my bike – the cycling, the hills, no problem; the traffic, the near misses, the fumes, oof. Not missed. I am keeping fit, going out cycling since restrictions eased and continuing to run, but the stress of dealing with high volumes of traffic again will be hard when the time comes. 

Very important to acknowledge and validate what we have been through and are going through.

Don’t minimise your feelings and do reassure yourself that it is ok to think and feel what you are feeling. What you think and feel are not a reflection of who you are. So it is important to let them be and let them pass, rather than attaching shame to them. You matter, your experiences matter, your reality matters. Stress, pain and trauma are very subjective – if you feel more anxious than others it doesn’t mean they are doing better and you are doing worse, it just means that you are experiencing it differently. And you deserve what help and support you need.

In terms of business best practice – phased returns will be important to let people dip their toes in and readjust. Allows time to communicate problems before they become bigger problems. Make sure you tell your manager what you need. Not always easy to do but very important. And remember it might be obvious to you but not to other people – they may not realise what problems you are having or what is needed without you saying it. Communicating can go a long way. Team meetings can be a good source of ideas of things that might help more widely. Working together to find a way forward. Important to value people, giving them the opportunity to be heard and making adjustments based on that.

Resilience is essential. It is not concrete, defined variously but is about the ability to bounce back after things happen. With it,

  • you are more likely not to dwell on things and learn from things and move forward if you are resilient.
  • You view setbacks as challenges to overcome rather than something paralysing.
  • You don’t see mistakes etc as reflections of your worth, but something to learn from.
  • In the midst of a stressful situation, doesn’t mean you are necessarily super positive, it is more an ability to recognise that some things are outside your control, and allow yourself to be human, to know when to step back and ask for support.
  • You are more likely to adapt, more likely to reach out and feel human emotions, allowing yourself to do that without giving up or letting those emotions dictate your sense of self.
  • You are committed to your values, goals, hobbies, relationships, work, families etc so are committed to finding a way forward no matter what. It’s not easy, it can be scary and it can be overwhelming but ultimately it can be very empowering: “Resilience is knowing that you are the only one that has the power and the responsibility to pick yourself up” – Mary Holloway.

How to build resilience

We don’t have control but we can learn…

  • We can learn how to reframe things positively, we can form value-based goals rather than arbitrary goals. Value-based goals can bring other things but it is the value/intentions that matter.
  • Locus of control is important – the more control you feel you have the more empowered you feel. There are always thing you have no control over and feel powerless in front of but resilience helps you with that by letting you focus on things that you CAN control, little things. As a teacher there is only so much you can do and then the students have to put in the work.
  • Perspective is important – look at the bigger picture, see negative events as a part of this rather than the whole picture, so then you will be less likely to give up. Zoom out, look at things in the context of the whole not as all-consuming. A positive outlook now might look like believing that things WILL change, even if you don’t know when or how.
  • You need to build a sense of self, confidence in ability to get through things.
  • Relationships are important, and reaching out to people. Treating yourself as someone that matters, including to other people, being as kind to yourself as you try to be to other people.
  • Humour is also very important – the more able you are to able to find something funny, the better you will feel.

Going forward

  • Assess your stress – is it long term or short term? Deadlines? You might have no choice but it is for a short period of time. If it is long-term, you need to take more action/steps/put things in place to make sure you don’t burn out. What are your yearly pinch points? Identify them and make a plan for how you will manage them. Plan to reward yourself afterwards too!

I have done this with my final 3 weeks of term, of which one down and two to go. I also decided to take it one day at a time and not waste energy worrying about how bad it might be. So far it’s been very busy but fine. I’m not unduly concerned about the next two weeks. They will be busy too but I will get through them one day at a time and be ok. And I get a rest afterwards! I am looking forward to my holiday. I’m not going anywhere but I will finally have a good rest. (Hopefully without illness, as Christmas, and without everything being about to kick off, as Easter. There might be local restrictions but it won’t be the first time, so there is that!)

  • Make sure your routine prioritises wellbeing. Routines often revolve around obligation but you need to revolve it around your wellbeing as well, as another key priority. Allocate time to yourself and hold on to it. Doesn’t have to be big things – going for a walk, trying a new class, therapy, whatever you need.

So important! My “me-time” is before work early morning running or cycling, having a lunch break (sitting in the garden when the weather allows), having my hour of yoga, meditating and piano between work and dinner time, and having my bath in the evening before bedtime. And weekends are girlfriend time. All of this contributes massively to my wellbeing. 

  • Make sure you have a sleep routine that is conducive to sleep and primes your brain to be ready for it – e.g. blue light filter, don’t use devices for a period of time before bed, do relaxing activities etc.

Newsflash: you never need blue light in the devices. Filter it permanently! That is what I do and I have a lot less eyestrain as a result, even with lockdown increased computer usage. 

  • Avoid having too much screen time – be mindful of your use of screens and social media and its effect on you. Watching a drama before bed might not be such a great idea.

Bath and meditating for me. And in the bath, listening to restful audiobooks, a bit of languages on Memrise, a bit of sudoku and yes a bit of Facebook scrolling but limited. 

  • Use your summer break to do some therapy, talk through your experiences. It can be really helpful also to develop coping mechanisms for the year ahead.

I wonder about this. I think I am ok but do I/should I wait until I am not to explore this option? Not sure… 

  • Find your sense of purpose – this can be a great guard against stress and ill mental health. It gives meaning to life and helps you refocus during adversity, it helps you know how you are and live according to your values (which we saw value-driven goals are key to resilience), caring for others is important.

My relationship with my girlfriend gives me a lot of purpose. Looking after her, being looked after by her. Working on the relationship, learning about myself in the context of it. Obviously work does too. So too does my veganism. So does learning! There is so much to learn. I have enjoyed learning about brains/minds and how they work in recent months, amongst other things. Work brings lots of learning too, of course. I value connection and compassion, I value learning and being open to learning, and growing. 

  • Play is also very important. Embrace your inner child! Sometimes it needs to be held and reassured, sometimes it needs some fun and laughter and enjoyment! Play is very mindful and brings you back to focusing on the present. Put aside shame/embarrassment/vulnerability to one side and do it!

I hadn’t thought about this before, but yes. Maybe this is why we enjoy our board games and going out paddling and suchlike together so much. 🙂 

  • Reframing – thinking about stress differently. If you see it as useful, it may be less damaging. E.g. the adrenalin rush. Rather than thinking it’s awful, if you smile, you can send signals to your brain that enable you to physically experience it differently. Emotions are very physical. For example, be excited to meet a deadline because then it’s done!!  The worst day at work possible will still be over in a number of hours, even if you aren’t sure how you will get there!

I have been trying some of this! Mindfulness is helpful here because it helps you recognise the stress response earlier and that awareness helps you step out of it. 

What if there is another lockdown?

Well, this seems particularly timely, given the tighter restrictions that have been imposed on some parts of Northern England at very short notice! Fortunately not yet Sheffield. It was a shock though. The speed/lack of warning, particular freedoms (being able to spend time with people) being taken away while others are not (pubs, going to work etc). This, in combination with this session, which I attended mere hours before these new restrictions arrived, has made me realise the importance of the below. The need to reflect, to learn, to be prepared…

Now we have a direct experience to learn from.

  • What has been helpful?
  • What hasn’t been helpful?
  • What has been harmful?
  • Have a plan for your stress. Know what you need in order to help yourself adjust, know what you need from your routine and plan it in.
  • But also let go of what you can’t control, focus on what you can control i.e. how you look after yourself.
  • Let yourself acknowledge when things feel difficult without making that about who you are. We instinctively seek support when things are difficult, because of oxytocin – go with that. Human connection is important. Find out what support services are available to you so that when your body tells you you need it, you can seek it. Oxytocin is very healing. The more social contact/support you allow yourself to seek, the better you will feel long term.

I briefly talked to my girlfriend about it earlier today. She agrees that we need to prepare ourselves mentally for another period of being separated, in case that is what happens. It might or it might not. For now, even with the new restrictions if they were to be imposed on Sheffield we would be ok as we are a “bubble” and bubbles are still ok. But the government could just as easily change that, just as it changes any number of things all the time, at any point. As I mentioned earlier, what happened to Greater Manchester et al. gave me a shock. I wasn’t prepared for it at all. That doesn’t mean that from now I want to spend lots of time worrying about it possibly happening – that won’t help. But having a conversation with my girlfriend about how we will manage if it does happen, asking the questions in the list above, that will help. 

There is no “quick fix”. It’s little daily changes that can either make things worse or improve them. Working on these can have an enormous impact. Get to know yourself and what things are difficult, what triggers you have, what you can do when they do arise. Do it compassionately as you would with someone else. Allow yourself to try, allow yourself to fail, be kind to yourself always.

I’m glad I made the effort to attend. It was kind of hard in a way to focus so much attention (was nearly 2hrs worth!) on lockdown and the stress around that. I think it’s human nature not to want to think about it. But it can be done in a constructive way and given the virus is still with us, it’s important to do so. I think we need to avoid the extremes of pretending it isn’t and doing everything same as before and spending 100% of the time worrying about it and not leaving our bedrooms because it’s too scary. But I think for the human mind it is difficult to hold that balance. Total avoidance or being completely caught up in a threat response are much easier, but a lot less helpful. I think as a society we need to face it with compassion for ourselves and for others but that will take work and may be difficult in the face of a government who doesn’t “do” compassion. Still, let’s see what happens and do our best! 

Thank you, IATEFL, for the chance to attend this session! 

Rachael Roberts – Avoiding Burnout for ELT professionals

On Tuesday 21st July, Rachael delivered a webinar for Macmillan Education called Avoiding Burnout for ELT professionals. I wasn’t able to attend live but have made a deliberate effort to watch the recording as soon as I could because I really do think this topic is SO important. Here is a link to the recording, I really recommend watching it as it is succinct, to the point and full of helpful tips.

I’m not going to summarise it here, because I really think you should watch it (!!); rather, this post is my response to it.

Now, I would say, at this point in time, I am doing pretty ok mentally. Like anybody, I find some days are harder than others, but all things considered I am making big effort to look after myself and my wellbeing, and managing fairly well. I have read and watched a fair bit around the topic of wellbeing, mental health, how brains work and the like, but nevertheless I learnt a LOT from this webinar. There were lots of “oh!” and “oooh!” moments. 🙂

So, there were five warning signs of burnout that Rachael mentioned. All of them are familiar to me. Thus far in my career, I haven’t crashed and burned completely, which I am grateful for, but I have definitely been in a precarious position in that regard. I would say these days I am much better at recognising when things aren’t right and doing something about it, and I am lucky in that I have a supportive line manager to turn to at such times. For example, last term, towards the start of our sudden shift online, probably not a lot more than a week in, my stress levels were through the roof because there was so much to adjust to. I’m sure this sounds familiar to a lot of you! For me, the major stressor was a massive increase in the amount of time spent in meetings, which took place on Google meet, that Covid strategy management required. I’m not a manager but I am an ADoS, and in that role collaboratively played an active part in negotiating our programme’s way through those muddy water, which involved attending a substantial number of lengthy meetings. At that point, I genuinely thought I was not going to be able to cope with the term and would end up getting signed off work for stress and I thought that I would be judged negatively for my inability to cope; everybody else seemed to be able to. So then I had to choose – keep struggling along until I went splat or say something. I opted for the latter and initiated a discussion with my line manager via email, which led to a (ironically!) video chat. I was lucky – my line manager was very reassuring and encouraged me to do whatever I needed to in order to manage better, including not attending some meetings and catching up the content from my co-ADoS. I also tried to work out what it was about these meetings that was so problematic, why they physically hurt and discovered the term “Zoom fatigue” which you may be familiar with. This enabled me to come up with strategies to make things easier for myself/my brain – namely, only have my webcam enabled and everybody else’s on screen at the start of the meeting and then switch mine off, and hide everyone else’s. Between that and knowing that I could opt out of a meeting if I needed to, stress returned to manageable levels.

Why the long and wittery example? To highlight the importance of being aware of the signs that things aren’t right for you – the alternative may be ending up like the frog in the metaphor Rachael used to illustrate how burnout can creep up on you. (Watch the webinar to see what I mean!)

As far as Rachael’s tips go, again, I thought I was pretty on this. I didn’t expect to be surprised or pick up anything particularly new. However, all the research she described about the links between the level of organisation in your environment and the level of stress your brain feels was new to me (really interesting for a brain geek like me!) and I discovered that I could really help myself by sorting out my email according to the system she described. Bleugh inbox. It’s…very full. So, it might take a while to get there but I’m game!

To understand what this ^ means properly, watch the webinar 🙂

I also learnt more about something very dear to my heart – to-do lists. (Who knew they have an effect on how safe or not the brain feels!) I love a good to-do list. Some weeks more than others (I use them more heavily when I need the motivator of crossing something off a list having done it to make me do it!). Rachael’s prioritising system is something I might actually adopt to refine my to-do list usage. I think it was Sandy Millin who described to do lists as a way of outsourcing memory. Outsourcing memory is helpful (hence my recent blog post series about teaching online – those posts will all be there come September when I teach again for me to refer back to and implement what I learnt this term!). Finding a way that works comes down to personal preference (e.g. a colleague of mine swears by Trello, which is useful as it is a collaborative to do list, but I’ve not managed to get into it as yet.) Anyway, I look forward to seeing if Rachael’s system will work for me. I anticipate yes because my current system will integrate quite easily, I can already picture how it will look. <happy Lizzie thinking about to-do lists!>

Another thing I apparently need to try is the Pomodoro technique, which Rachael described very clearly. Particularly timely as there will be a LOT to do in the next 3 weeks (assessment weeks, which are always fraught in our Term 4 because it is shorter than all the other terms, but even more so than usual this time round because of how assessment now works due to Covid19!). Time pressure is always stressful, so having a technique to try which should help me make more efficient use of time has to be a win. 🙂

The final thing which stood out from the practical tips was about set-up, having the right set-up. Rachael helpfully described that. I’d like to add another possibility to what she said (so watch the webinar, then include my possibility and you have options!) – standing desk and large monitor plugged in to laptop (As Rachael said, most of us who have been thrust into working from home have been using a laptop and I am no exception!). I don’t have an office at home, so it quickly became apparent that I needed to do *something* in order to have a suitable set up, despite lack of substantial space for that.  The first thing I did was order a standing desk – you can get them quite cheaply. The one I have is adjustable for height and angle of the desk surface. It is also small. It holds my laptop and a notebook on the main desk and I can fit a few little things on the little shelf underneath.

Total game-changer. However, very small screen. 13inch. When you spend a lot of time looking at things on a screen and doing things like assessing writing requires looking at a piece of work and a set of criteria ideally simultaneously, it’s a royal pain in the butt and you lose a lot of time switching between windows and squinting at very small things (enter eye strain headaches!). Solution: buy a large monitor, buy a monitor arm which you can affix to your standing desk and bingo! So now I type on the laptop keyboard which is the right height to type but look at the monitor which is the right height to look at and BIG. So I can have multiple windows open and use comfortable font sizes. Ok I’ll take a photo of the full set-up (the photo above was after stage 1 just!)

This particular standing desk has wheels, so can also easily be moved out of the way when not in use. In practice, it is ok where it is so stays put but it is a useful feature. My final piece of advice about set-up would be to change your screen settings to activate the blue light filter. Research shows that blue light has a negative impact on sleep if absorbed by the eyes too late on in the day and it is widely recommended to use blue light filter on devices in the evening. I say use it all the time! No blue light needed! On my “old” macbook (this one) this is not inbuilt but I could download an app that does it, newer macbooks have an inbuilt setting, Windows have a thing called “Nightshift”. It makes screens SO much easier on your eyes. Another real game-changer and so easy and FREE.

Having talked about practical tips, Rachael moved on to the question of mindset. For example, she talked about unconscious beliefs and how they influence our wellbeing. For me, the biggest change to my stress levels at this time in the term has come about as a result of letting go of the unconscious belief that life should be fair. It isn’t. But oh how my brain would rebel when work expectations seemed “unfair”. Result: stress response (all the physical stuff) being fed by this notion of unfairness. Letting go of the “unfairness of it all” frees up energy for dealing with the actual issue – I will be extremely busy and under pressure in the next 3 weeks, what can I do to help myself get through that? and conserves energy for when it all actually kicks off. Another similarly unhelpful belief is that certain things shouldn’t be difficult, such that when you find something difficult you have a stress/anxiety response to the difficulty as much as the actual thing itself. Result: maybe you avoid the actual thing because your stress/anxiety response is so intense, avoidance is the only thing that relieves it. Whereas if you acknowledge something is difficult and that it is ok for it to be difficult because sometimes things ARE difficult and that is ok, you free yourself up to focus on managing that thing rather than being afraid of it. What are yours? How could you make them more helpful? Worth watching the webinar to see what Rachael has to say about unconscious beliefs!

Amongst other things (watch the webinar!), Rachael also said we should treat ourselves as teachers like athletes treat themselves. I.e. look after ourselves in body and mind. I like this – to function effectively, to help others, we need to help ourselves. My manager encouraged me to look after myself how works for me in order to manage better (managers, it is really important to be explicit about the importance of looking after yourself when dealing with teachers – they may otherwise assume you don’t think it’s important and subconsciously feel it is not ok for them to prioritise their wellbeing when in fact it is central to their ability to function effectively in their role. As with my example about me at the start of this post – as it is, I am doing fine. It could just as easily have gone the other way without that supportive response from my line manager.

The final aspect of mindsets that Rachael talked about was Mindfulness. If you have followed by blog in the last year, then you will know that Mindfulness has become a big part of my personal and professional life – both in terms of informal day to day Mindfulness and the more “formal” meditation side of things. Listen to what Rachael has to say about it – she is right! I can vouch for it with my own experience. It has made such a difference.

The next and final part of the webinar was about what schools can do to help. Though I am not a manager, as a module coordinator I do lead teachers on the teaching side of things and at this point in term that is a bunch of rather frazzled teachers with a lot on their plates. So this part was of great interest to me. I hadn’t come across this article before, that Rachael mentioned to begin with – Teacher wellbeing isn’t compulsory yoga and cakes Tom Rogers. Teachers’ wellbeing depends on them having two things – time and respect. – have you? She made some very interesting points, most of which implementation is above my pay scale but I want to pass on some of the ideas to my programme leaders as I think they will be receptive to them (indeed some of them we already do, though I think it all falls apart a bit at key pressure points…). Any managers out there, please at least watch this portion of the webinar (it starts at around 42 minutes in and finishes around 47.22 so not exactly heavy on time!) but ideally the whole thing 🙂

What really struck me overall about this webinar was that for a webinar dealing with a potentially negative topic, it managed to stay positive throughout with its focus on what we CAN do as teachers, as managers, as humans to make a job that will always be stressful to varying degrees by its very nature more manageable and enjoyable.  Relating to this webinar, Rachael runs a great Facebook group aimed at educators that I am in, called Life Resourceful – Lightbulb Moments, in which she does lives, hosts guest lives, and regularly shares interesting content as well as posting thought-provoking questions and statements for discussion. It is one of those rare things on Facebook – something consistently uplifting! Well worth joining. She also has a website with lots of useful content such as free downloads and all her blog posts (which she shares links to in the Facebook group too). NB I am not getting any kind of commission for promoting the webinar or the Facebook group or the website. I just really believe in what Rachael is doing and have benefited enormously from it. Thank you, Rachael!

 

 

Adapting to online teaching – EAP (3)

This is the third and final post that involves me wittering away about what I have done in my weekly 2hr online lessons with the pre-masters group that I share with my co-ADoS.

Week 5

After the low-point that was Week 4’s lesson (which you can read about in the second post of this series which covers Week 3 and 4 – update: the students also didn’t do their homework/preparation for my co-ADoS’s session with them so at least it wasn’t personal 😉 ), I changed my approach in terms of lesson focus. I shifted from trying to tap into and build on the asynchronous content to a straight-forward focus on CW2, students’ speaking coursework which is a presentation based on their CW3 which is an extended writing coursework. (However, it is worth mentioning that this shift would have taken place regardless of how Week 4 went, as at this stage in the term students need help with their speaking coursework!)

My lesson had 4 objectives. In the event, we only completed 3 of them. This was fine because the final one was only there in case the main task took less time than I’d anticipated, which it didn’t. The final objective will feature in Week 6’s lesson.

At the start of the week, students had received an email about CW2 with all the important information about it in terms of what it is, how it works and a timeline of tasks and deadlines. I started the lesson with a task based on that email (essentially to make sure they had read it and understood it rather than ignored it!) – working in groups to answer a set of questions based on the email on a pre-prepared Padlet:

I know – a lot of questions. However, they were quick and easy to answer so the task did not take too long. This was the follow-up:

Some questions came up and I was able to respond to those, as well as reiterating key information.

Positives: The task forced them to read the email. (Students are good at not reading emails!) They had the opportunity to ask questions. They engaged!

To improve: I think I would probably do this the same way in future! Beats talking at them about it.

For Pre-Masters students, CW2, like CW3, is synoptic. They work on and submit the same pieces of work for their Research Project (Humanities) or Literature Review (Science and Engineering) module and their AES (Academic English Skills – ours!) module. So in theory they should already have been working on it in their other modules (who focus on content and structure where we focus on language skills). The next step in this lesson, then, was to find out where they were at with it. I used Padlet again, but this time an individual task:

The goal of this task was two-fold – as well as to find out what students have done so far, I wanted students to have a clearer idea of where they were headed next. The questions were based on things they need to do as part of their CW2 preparation, leading them to question 8, where their answers to 1-7 guide them as to what they need to do. Some students had done loads already, some had started, some hadn’t started at all. Fairly typical! (They have been advised that next lesson will start with a progress check and I will want to know what they have done since this lesson! We shall see…)  This was the follow-up:

There were a few worries that I was able to address.

Positives: It gave me a snapshot of where they were at, and the opportunity to set up an expectation, based on the task, for next week’s lesson.

To improve: Their answers to question 8 were a bit vague. Next time I would give an example answer to push them to give more useful (to themselves) answers.

The final task of the lesson was completing the practice submission. This was what they were told about it in the information email:

I figured it would be less daunting if we did as much as possible during the lesson and they just had to finish for homework. We did it step by step:

It took them a fair bit of time! In fact, they didn’t quite manage to finish the final stage. Hence why there wasn’t time to embark on the assessment criteria side of things. However, we will now be looking at the criteria at the start of Week 6 and their submission deadline is not til the end of Week 8, so it’s ok.

Positives: It scaffolded an important task (the practice submission) for them. Giving them time in class alleviates (at least slightly) the time pressure they are under currently, which is important.

To improve: I would make more use of the individual chat feature, to prod them/check on them, rather than only the main everyone chatbox.

Overall: Admittedly this wasn’t the most exciting lesson in the world, but it did what it needed to do and they stayed with me! I deliberately over-planned because I just had no idea how long doing the practice task would take them so I wanted to be prepared for whichever eventuality.

Week 6

The final lesson for this term! I started with a chat box warmer, one I’ve used previously – tell me using one adjective how you feel right now. The adjectives were more positive than Week 4 (when I last used this warmer) on the whole, which was encouraging!

These were my lesson objectives:

For the first, I did a similar task to last week – a set of questions to answer on a pre-prepared Padlet:

The answers were more encouraging this time round – there were still some who hadn’t started but they were in the minority rather than the majority this week! I had to cajole some of them into responding – by the end of the task I had won 11/15, having started with about 5. Having responded verbally to some of their answers – to acknowledge their progress, to pick up on answers that indicated confusion and to encourage them to keep working hard/not leave it til the last minute – I followed up with this:

There were some concerns that came out, which I was able to address.

Positives about this stage: Students knew they would be expected to give me a ‘progress report’, as I had told them at the end of last week’s lesson. Hopefully more work got done as a result! Knowing that homework (in this case CW2 work) will be revisited in the next class rather than forgotten about is supposed to be more motivating for students. I am getting better at talking into empty space. I think each week since the start of this way of doing things, I have improved and become more comfortable with it little by little (because I only teach one lesson per week, it’s a slow learning curve!). I had thought through feedback and the feedback elements felt less haphazard than they have been known to feel in past lessons.

To improve: I still don’t know what to do with the students who just don’t respond whatever I do or say! Given the stage in the course and the age of the students, though, to an extent I think all I can do is provide opportunities for participation as best I can and make sure they are clearly set up and scaffolded.

 

Then we moved onto the next stage, which I had carried over from last lesson.

This stage was a preparatory stage for the following evaluation stage and the two in combination were to ensure that students have a clear idea of what they need to do in order to get good marks for their presentations. I introduced the 4 criteria and their subheadings, giving a brief explanation of what each one meant.

 

To try and make it clearer for students and to check understanding, I then did a little matching task. The example below is one of the items. It was a series of sentences starting “I should…” and students had to match each one to the correct criteria. I asked them to write their answers (e.g. for this example, they would write 2a)

Positives: Links the things students need to do with the criteria they need to do them for. Doesn’t require a lot of student writing.

To improve: Next time I would insert a breakout room stage and have a task with the 4 criteria and a list of the statements and get the students to discuss and match them, then use what I actually did as the feedback stage. On the plus side, the way I did it didn’t have a negative impact on the next (important) task, which was the final part of this stage of the lesson – the example presentation evaluation:

The first step was getting them all to watch it individually rather than playing it and sharing screen, to avoid bandwidth and audio quality issues. I asked them to write “done” in the chatbox once they had finished. Once they were done, I put them into breakout rooms in groups to discuss the presentation in terms of the criteria and add to the pre-prepared Padlet.

Positives: they did the task and showed understanding of the criteria and how the presentation mapped to the criteria.

To improve: I think the instruction slide above should have been two slides. One for watching the presentation and evaluating it individually and one for doing the group task. Fortunately, used as above it didn’t impact the task negatively! Next time, I would also include an element of getting them to engage with the content (which was quite humorous!) rather than only the quality. A couple of them spontaneously mentioned things about it in the chatbox as they watched which was nice! When I planned the lesson, I was too focused on the main task and forgot to allow for personalisation.

The final stage of the lesson focused on the Q&A. As students are submitting recorded presentations rather than doing them live, we need a live element to address the answering questions part of the criteria (2b!). These will take place in Week 8 and involve use of a list of questions which students are able to look at in advance of their slot (they are already on Blackboard!).

They’ve already had this information (the first 3 questions) on multiple occasions from multiple sources but it bears repetition! (Inevitably, some got it wrong!) Once clarified, we could focus on the fourth question – useful language.

Because we were running out of time a bit, I displayed the above slide and got them to add examples, before getting them to download the list of questions (most of them hadn’t as yet) and putting them into breakout rooms for a bit of practice. Finally, we came back to the main room and I asked each of them one of the questions, just to give them a feel for it.

Positives: They had a chance to practice in groups and a chance to “try it out” in the main room subsequently. They now all have the questions downloaded and have looked at them and realised that it’s not as easy as they had assumed so might actually do some preparation work towards it!

To improve: Next time, rather than bring them back to the main room, I’d do the “giving a feel for it” element in each breakout room in turn. That way, there would be less waiting time for students and they could continue practising after I move to the next group. The final main room stage could then focus on task reflection.

Overall: I finally won at timing! Ok, not quite but much closer than was the case at the start of this term! Nothing took wildly longer than I had anticipated, everything I had planned was done, just in time. The final stage could have used a bit more time but didn’t suffer unduly for it. So, I’m pleased! It means I am getting the hang of estimating how much time it will take to do stuff. As ever plenty to work on and ways to improve but that’s the joy of it. Anyway that is it, for me, for teaching, till September! When it will be a brand new class who come directly to remote learning (the earliest we will do face to face is January and that’s very much dependent on the state of the world by then – anything could happen!). In the meantime, 3 crazy weeks of assessment and then 4 weeks of MUCH-NEEDED downtime are on the way. (I was sick for the whole of the Christmas holiday, my Easter holiday was a stress fest rather than a trip to Sicily thanks to the pandemic, so really, **really** looking forward to some downtime! And then using what I’ve learned this year come the start of next year. 🙂 )

 

Adapting to online teaching 2 (EAP)

After my first two weeks of whole group online teaching this term, I published this post about my experience of adapting to this way of teaching (behind the curve because we didn’t do any whole group teaching on our course last term, only short small group tutorials, which I mentioned briefly in my post about our experience of throwing an EAP course online at short notice). Another two weeks have passed so here is the next instalment! (It’s ok, we only have 6 teaching weeks this term before the final 3 weeks become all about assessment, so there will only be 3 of these posts in total!)

Week 3

The theme for this week was “Overpopulation – myth or problem?”. Having established in Week 2 that I can do break-out rooms (woo!), I decided to try a speaking-focused lesson with a focus on paraphrasing and summarising sources when speaking (which they will need to do for their Coursework 2 presentations). In preparation for the lesson, students had to find a source to support the position they had been assigned (half the class were assigned ‘myth’, half were assigned ‘problem’). In total, there were 4 break-out room groups, of which the final one was the main discussion task. The first 3 tasks involved random groupings, while the main task I did customised groupings because groups had to have a balance of “myth” and “problem” viewpoints and had to take into account attendance patterns thus far (i.e. I wanted to make sure that as well as being balanced viewpoint wise, no group had more than one student with patchy attendance!)

This was the first task (yes, somehow I forgot about “A”…! Students didn’t say anything about it, if they noticed. Of course they may have thought the chat box warmer task was “A”!)

This task reviews the skills learners developed and were tested on in Coursework 1 Source Report. In all the breakout room tasks for this lesson, I included times on the slides to give students an indication of how long they would have in their breakout room to complete the task.

Positive of this task: clear and achievable for students; provided opportunity for speaking/warming up their working in a breakout room mode!

Problem with this task: no tangible output = room for students to slack off. In future I would do something like get groups to report back in the main room, answering questions such as “In your group, whose source was the most current? What different search methods did your group discuss?”

This was primarily a preparatory task for the main discussion but also paraphrasing skill practice. As well as review and practise of written paraphrasing, it encouraged students to pick out key arguments that they could use in the main discussion task. By now, students are used to using Padlet in our whole group sessions both with and without the breakout room/group component.

Positives of this task: useful skill practice, a preparation step for the main discussion, has a tangible/monitorable output (student posts on the padlet)

Problems with this task: my instructions weren’t clear enough – in hindsight I should have included an example post on the padlet!; it took even longer than I had anticipated, which probably also relates to the instructions not being clear enough (fortunately, as has been mentioned previously, timing is very flexible in these sessions this term!); I used the comment function on Padlet to give live feedback/guide students but not all groups noticed the comments as they are not as immediately visually evident as the equivalent on a Google doc would be (I dealt with this by going into breakout rooms and drawing students’ attention to the comments!); my post-task feedback again needed more thought (work in progress!).

This was the final preparation task before the main discussion task. The goal was to give students time to consider the arguments linked to the alternative viewpoint and possible responses to these, so that the main task discussion could be of a higher quality.

Positives of this task: It used the output of the previous task (the arguments on the padlet) with a focus to how they would be used in the subsequent task, which adds coherence to the lesson arc and hopefully means students can see why they are doing what they are doing – there is a clear direction to the tasks;

Problems with this task: students could think “I’ll manage with the discussion, I don’t need to do this task”; any given student’s experience of this task would vary depending on how forthcoming or not their group-mates were. Group dynamics in the online setting is something I need to think about more – how to help students to work well together in groups, in breakout rooms. Maybe add more structure to breakout room tasks e.g. start them with some kind of mini-activity where students have to write something in the chat box, before moving onto using the audio and doing the actual task at hand.

(No, I don’t know what happened to my grasp of the alphabet in these lesson materials! I think I was so focused on the task content that I forgot to pay attention to numbering/lettering!)

So, the main task! Group discussion requiring use of the sources found for homework (research skills), the key arguments identified, paraphrased and considered in the course of this lesson and language for referring to sources verbally.

Positives of this task: Brings together everything the students have done from homework through to final discussion preparation

Problems with this task: As far as I was able to tell, only one out 4 groups did the task properly! I think again what was missing was a clear feedback stage which students would be made aware of in advance of starting the task and which required them to DO the task fully in order to complete; students who want to do the task properly but are in a group with students who are more interested in slacking off lose out (had one student who when I was in the breakout room monitoring/checking on them, tried to give her opinion and elicit others’ opinions but radio silence followed!).

This evaluative element of the lesson comes from Sandy’s recent blog post about conversation shapes. (Although it might be hard to see in this screenshot of the slide, depending on the resolution of your screen, when displayed as a pdf of a ppt in Blackboard collaborate, the credits were clearly visible!) Unsurprisingly, for the group who did have their discussion, it looked most like conversation 2. As a class, we identified that conversation 3 would be most effective – contributions of varying length, responding to the other speakers’ contributions, building on other speakers’ contributions. Obviously in groups, there would be more than 2 speakers but the students didn’t seem to have any problems applying the visuals to a group discussion.

Positives about this task: It was great to have a visual way to think about the discussions the students had had (those who had had them!! But I figure for those who bothered less, this was still useful and could be considered in terms of previous discussions). Having identified that 3 would be the most effective, this can be revisited in future speaking lessons as a prompt in advance of discussion tasks. Could also consider what language and cues would help to build a discussion like this e.g. agreeing and disagreeing language that allows connection to what has been said (that’s a good point, but…/yes, I completely agree, also…), back-channeling etc.

Problems with this task: I probably didn’t go far enough with it. Although, possibly this is not a problem but rather a slow-burn thing that bears plenty of revisiting and therefore doesn’t require lengthy input around it straight away. I think in future I will introduce this after the first suitable seminar discussion practice that students do in the course and revisit it and build on it regularly e.g. have example discussions to match to each shape, the language input as mentioned above etc. (Thank you, Sandy!)

The final task of the lesson was a reflective task, with the output going onto a padlet. Reflection is a key component of learning, of course, and actually these students by and large did a good job of this. This is something I need to capitalise on more in future lessons.

Positives of this task: made students think about what they’d done and evaluate it; those who didn’t speak recognised it in their answers (it’s something!);

Problems with this task: Too many closed questions – need to push them further than that, closed questions are fine but then a follow-up question could be good.

This task reflected weekly lesson content for week 3. In practice, the students had very little in-class time to start it, because all the teacher-led tasks (as above) took a fair amount of time to do, but students are accustomed to fairly substantial homework tasks and as this was part of Lesson 3CD also factors into their asynchronous learning time.

Overall, Week 3 was a useful learning curve for me. There were plenty of positives, there are plenty of things to work on. I find it really useful to consider each lesson in these terms, think about what went well, what didn’t work and how you’d do it differently next time to make it work better, and think about how to reflect what you’ve learned more immediately in subsequent lessons – I guess that is what reflective teaching and learning is all about!

Week 4

Well…you know those lessons where you think you’ve made a really quite good lesson plan and have high hopes for how the lesson will go, but the reality turns out… rather differently? That was week 4’s lesson for me. The theme for Week 4 was Scientific Controversy. The asynch materials included a listening practice based on a panel discussion about genetic modification, which I asked the students in advance of the class as preparation. Though it was homework, it wasn’t extra in the sense that it was part of the core asynch materials for the week.

I began the lesson in the usual way – with a chat box warmer. Today I asked them to pick one adjective that most describes them right now and write it in the chat box. 9/14 responded – tired, exhausted, sleepy, blue, sleepy, energetic, sleepy too, calm, hungry. I acknowledged and responded to all their responses. Then we looked at the lesson objectives. In this lesson, I put extra effort into making sure the lesson objectives were clear and carried through the lesson, so that students could see where they were in relation to the objectives, see progress being made and see how tasks relate to the lesson objectives (I’d read, or watched, I forget which, about the importance of doing this). I did this by repeating the objectives slide at appropriate intervals, highlighting each objective as it was focused on and putting a tick by each objective as it was met. Here is an example:

The first stage of the lesson was a language review stage. 

This stage included a definition check for controversy and scientific controversy and a series of pictures of example scientific controversies for which students had to guess what scientific controversy was being illustrated. Here is an example:

The students responded, and a good pace was maintained. I could perhaps have done more with the second question, tried to get students to share more ideas, but knowing I had some meatier tasks later in the lesson, I didn’t want to spend too long on this one. The final task of the first stage was a quick Quizlet review of some vocabulary from the homework asynch materials. 11/14 did it, which was an improvement on Week 2! I haven’t tried the team/breakout room version yet – that may be for next week!

Positives for this stage: Pacing, student response, topic and activities connected to asynch materials so provide review opportunities, use of pictures.

Problems with this stage: The second question on the picture slides got neglected. I think when it unfolding, I worried that if I pushed the second question, the amount of time they spent typing would negatively affect the pace/mean too long was spent on the activity.

The next stage of the lesson was reviewing the listening homework.

I started with these questions:

As you can see, I messed up the formatting for this slide so the Write yes or no looks like it only relates to question 3. I corrected it verbally but only got ‘no’s’, for those who responded. Hoping this was for the third question, I reminded them about the online mock exams available, the importance of practice and that that there would be opportunity for practice during this lesson too.

This next task was supposed to be a fairly quick and easy way of getting them to show their understanding of the opinions voiced in the panel discussion:

Nobody did it. Nobody responded when I asked why nobody had started doing anything a few minutes later. Eventually I said ok give me a smile emoji if you did the listening homework and a sad face emoji if you didn’t. I only got sad faces. So this task flopped completely. The next one was also not going to be possible as it reviewed the target language from the aforementioned homework:

So I skipped to the point where I displayed the target language and we related it to the conversation shapes we’d look at in Week 3 and then moved on to the final review task:

(The opinions referred to are those of the panel speakers again.) Obviously this needed a workaround due to the lack of homework issue, so I had them open up the relevant powerpoint which had notes relating to each panellist’s views and got them to tell me via the chatbox when they had done so.

Positives about this stage: It had a mixture of chatbox and breakout room activities, and focused on the content and the language of the listening homework. I had some workarounds for lack of homework.

Problems with this stage: It relied on students having done the homework! The padlet task had no work around (I was working on the basis that at least SOME of them would have done it and be able to post on the padlet and the rest could interact with that using the comments) for the zero homework completion.

The next and final stage of the lesson was the speaking/live listening stage:

I made this slide a) to give students an overview of this stage of the lesson and b) to insert at the relevant intervals to show which phase of the task we were moving on to. More detailed instructions for each step came at the start of each step. I had hoped this overview would motivate the students to carry out each step as they would know the following steps relied on it and have a clear picture of what they were working towards.

In practice, I put the students into breakout rooms, having set up the task, and went in to each room to check on the students. Group A gave me radio silence. No response. No audio, nothing in the chatbox, whatever I said. So I reiterated what they needed to do and said I would be back in 10 minutes to check on them (the preparation stage was 20 minutes). Group B had some students who did engage and some who did radio silence. Thank God for the ones who did! They asked questions about their topic, I checked their understanding of the task and then I left them to it for a bit (again promising to return in 10 minutes to check on them). At the relevant point I went back to Group A, knowing full well that the chances of them having done anything since I left (no activated mics had appeared at any point) were slim (they could have used the chatbox…they hadn’t!). I tried again, more radio silence. Group B, again, had made progress when I went in to check on them. Then I brought everyone back to the main room. Except…most of Group A didn’t appear/reconnect. (So, presumably, they had done the log on and bugger off thing!) Obviously the plan in the slide above was a write-off (the members of Group A that did show up were still radio silence when addressed/instructed!). In the event, Group B did their discussion and I gave them some feedback, again referring to conversation shapes.

Positives of this stage: It was clearly staged. The group that did the parts that they were able to do made a good effort. (I feel for them, being so outnumbered by ones who won’t participate…)

Problems with this stage: It relied on student participation! Step 3 relied on Step 2 being carried out to some degree of success. Too ambitious? But these ARE pre-masters students, it shouldn’t be! There again, they are all knackered (see chatbox warmer – though Mr Energetic? Group A. Just saying.) If the stage had worked as planned, students may have struggled to summarise the other group’s discussion because poor audio quality makes it harder to follow what is being said.

What am I taking away from these 2 weeks? That I want an article/book/video about classroom management with online platforms! Though quite what can be done if students are completely unresponsive, I’m not sure. I have worked really hard on making everything as clear and as meaningful as possible, in terms of tasks and objectives, which I am pleased with. I continue to try different task types and see what does and doesn’t work (with this group). Possibly I approached it wrongly overall – I tried to connect to the asynchronous material and give students engaging tasks that would help them develop their academic skills and prepare for exams, but maybe I should have focused more on their coursework. The next and final big thing students have to do in terms of course work is prepare and submit a presentation recording, so my final 2 lessons will focus on that! I can but do my best. Importantly, I seem much better able to accept things going wrong, take what I can from it and not beat myself up over it than I have been in the past. I think this links with having had a really supportive line manager/programme leader for a year now – work-related anxiety levels are a lot lower than they used to be – and also, of course, that it has been 1.5yrs now of using Mindfulness to cope better with life, including work.

Watch this space to find out what happens in the last instalment of my teaching reflections for this term. The main purpose of these posts is to be my memory, outsourced, when I come to planning lessons next term with a new group of students! Space and time will make it easier to incorporate what I have been learning these last 4 weeks (lots of learning, hard to keep up but I am doing my best!). The course will look a bit different, and is still under construction, but since it will be what it is from the start, rather than a change being thrust on students part way through, there will be a lot more scope for setting clear expectations and instilling good habits etc from the beginning AND the university will have made it so that students can access Google suite from China yayyy (I forget the technical details but it is some kind of VPN they are purchasing that enables it) – so, exciting times ahead!

 

 

Adapting to online teaching (EAP)

Things got a little busy around the middle of March, what with the small issue of a lockdown and a complete shift to remote teaching and learning to deal with. We are now starting our second term of this scenario and where last term was a frantic race to lay down enough track for us all to get from start to end of term somewhat intact, this term (for me) there is more brain space available to shift the focus from how to survive to how to thrive and actually blog about it too! (Why isn’t the noun for thrive thrival? From survival to thrival would make a great blog post title, not that I am there yet!)

This term, we have introduced more synchronous contact time per week. Last term, in addition to all the asynchronous content, we had 2hrs per class per week, which was broken into 4 half-hour slots across which the class was divided, with each small group attending one slot for a short tutorial. By the end of the term, mine looked something like this:

00-05 General chat

Making sure everyone is there, some kind of simple chatbox warmer while students are getting logged in, linked to topic of the week.

05-10 Review of week

Ask students to review how the week has gone, what work they have done, have they understood everything etc. (I found the most time efficient way of doing this was having the review questions on a slide and asking each student to answer all the questions on the slide (up to 3) in one go. Rather than by one question at a time or by using the chatbox. To save the faff of mics going on and off and typing speed, which I also trialled and errored, so to speak!)

10-25 Tasks

A combination of short discussions/debates/vocabulary review tasks. Try to flip as much as possible to have more time

25-30 H/W

Make sure students understand any homework they have to do that week and are clear what the requirements for the next week are in terms of asynchronous materials.

This term, as well as these small group tutorials, we have introduced a 2hr whole class session. To start with, these were to be 1hr teacher-led and 1hr guided study, where the students are set a task and the teacher is on hand to help. Two weeks in and we have decided to leave the structuring of the 2hr slot up to teachers to use how best suits what they are doing with the students. Due to remission hours, I am sharing a group with my co-ADoS and I am doing the 2hr whole group slot while she does the small group tutorials. I’m as happy as the proverbial pig in you-know-what: I have these 2hr slots, with weekly learning materials and assessment requirements to draw on for content and all the freedom in the world to experiment with this new teaching medium. It’s really funny being back in that position of things feeling so new.

I have done two sessions so far.

Session 1

The weekly materials on the VLE for Week 1 focused on Term 3 requirements and reading/writing exam practice. Back in the old days, the fifth hour each week used to be a workshop hour, guiding students on aspects of their writing and speaking coursework. This was my first session with this group of students as last term I taught a different group. These students are the group my co-ADoS has taught for the last two terms. Thus, the first thing I needed to do was some kind of getting to know you activity.

I experimented with using Padlet:

After going through some important course-related information with the students, I also used Padlet to get information from students about their coursework which they started work on last term but we only focus on this term (this is a Pre-Masters group and this is the final year that we are running a synoptic writing coursework, in which we look at the language skills aspect of the coursework while their Research Project module tutor [humanities] or Literature Review module tutor [science and engineering] focus on the content):

I also experimented with Quizlet Live’s individual mode, which like the team mode allows Quizlet use in class, but doesn’t require use of breakout rooms etc to do so is more straightforward.

It worked! It’s a way to review vocabulary in an online setting with a competitive element. My next job is to come up with a few alternative ways so it doesn’t get tired (I used it in week 2 as well!). I might even give the breakout room-team version a go at some point if I am feeling brave.

I followed up with this, having them use the chatbox:

Those three tasks +feedback (e.g. in the GTKY task I had to answer all those questions, most of which were course related and how to learn English online effectively-related) plus going through the important course information took up the whole first hour. The second hour, they had a choice of two tasks – one, work on their coursework, two, do a practice writing exam (they have the real thing in Week 7 this term). The latter required them to have already looked at some of the asynchronous materials, so if they hadn’t yet (it was only Tuesday!), they could start by doing that.

I asked them, where possible (most of them are in China) to share their work with me on a Google doc so I could see what they were doing. None of them did. Some of them have since submitted the writing practice for feedback (it was optional – we will give them feedback if they give us their work to give feedback on, but they could also have opted to use the model and analysis provided in the materials). Their coursework in its entirety will be submitted at the end of Week 4 for first draft feedback so whether or not they used that hour for it, it will have to  be done at some point!

Things I took away from session 1:

  • Allow extra time for tasks; padlet is useful for giving tasks tangible outcomes that you can monitor and give feedback on;
  • yay I still have Quizlet live in my arsenal; the second hour definitely needs tangible and meaningful outcomes;
  • it’s really clear when you do tasks who is participating and who has logged on and then buggered off to do something else in the assumption (perhaps based on other subjects’ whole-class sessions) that the teacher will talk for the whole time and won’t notice if someone isn’t actually there!;
  • the chatbox is versatile but I need to get students speaking as well (time to get to grips with break-out rooms! Only doing small-group tutorials meant I hadn’t up til that point, but I used them for the first time in week 2).

Session 2

This time, I wanted to use breakout rooms and get the students speaking. I also wanted to connect to the topic of the asynchronous materials (Surveillance) and aim to make the session complement the asynchronous component of the course. In terms of skills, the asynchronous weekly lesson material focused on listening/note-taking and paraphrasing/synthesising different view points in a presentation.

I decided to start with a two-part dictogloss. To make it more topical, rather than using the one provided in the lesson materials, I found a couple of Guardian articles about surveillance in the context of Covid19 and the contract tracing scheme, in particular the still-absent app. For the first two sentences, having ensured they had pen and paper to hand via getting them to tell me when they had via the chatbox, I read them out a few times for the students to note down key ideas (I added an extra time and went slightly more slowly than I would have done in a face to face classroom, to mitigate potential audio quality issues). That done, I put them into breakout rooms in small groups with the task of reconstructing the text and choosing one of their group members to write their reconstruction on the padlet I had prepared for the task. (I have two padlets for use during lessons which I wipe between uses, it can be a whiteboard for ss to use, a substitute google doc or a combination of the two.) Once they were in their rooms, I went from room to room and made sure they were on task. Each group managed to duly put their reconstruction on the padlet and were able to compare theirs with other groups and the original. For the second two sentences, back in the main room, the students had to make notes and then use their notes to complete a gapped summary that I displayed for them. They gave their answers in the chat box.

In hindsight, I would a) have spent more time on the feedback element for the first two sentences and b) used the breakout rooms for students to discuss and decide their answers for the gapped summary rather than going directly for the chatbox. Following the two dictoglosses, I displayed 3 reflective questions for students to think about and answer in the chatbox. Again, breakout rooms could have been used here.

We then moved on to another round of Quizlet live with vocabulary relating to surveillance, which, again, would either be review or preparation depending on how far through the asynchronous materials students were. This was the final teacher-led task. Timing-wise, I ran slightly over for that initial hour, but that wasn’t a problem (even moreso in the light of the requirement of that structure being abandoned, which came out of a meeting the following day!). The guided study task for week 2 was based on something we are trying with our asynchronous padlet – the weekly speaking challenge. The purpose of this weekly challenge is to increase the amount of speaking practice students do per week and to get them used to recording themselves speaking as this is what they will have to do for their coursework presentations later this term. As with introducing anything new (e.g. these students did a weekly paraphrase challenge in the last two terms and uptake was slow there too but it happened with perseverance!), they need a lot of encouraging. So, given that most of them hadn’t done the one from Week 1 and that the Week 2 one was an extension of my lesson, this was the task:

 

These were the questions:

(The PEE structure is Point, Evidence, Evaluation and it is the structure we teach them to present, support and evaluate their ideas in both writing and speaking.) This task requires them to practice the “paraphrasing/synthesising different view points in a presentation” element of the weekly asynchronous materials in a way that will enable me to check and give feedback on their output.

Things I took away from  session 2:

  • A little really does goes a long way so less = more, especially if I want to start building in more effective scaffolding and feedback elements;
  • I can do breakout rooms, yay! Now I need to think about how best to use them in a way that maximises potential benefits;
  • activities from face to face classrooms can be done online with some adaptation, I need to think carefully about how best to adapt them – what needs adding, what needs removing etc.;
  • teaching online is different but…that’s ok!
  • the more confident I get with it all, the more I can adapt what I do to be as inclusive as possible (obviously that is always an aim, but it helps to have some experience with the medium of teaching and how everything works or doesn’t work in the bag when working towards it).

Session 3 is tomorrow, so I am looking forward to using what I have learnt from session 1 and 2 to inform what I do. Watch this space!

I hope this has been of interest to some of you out there, though I suspect I am rather behind the curve because of how things have worked with our course! Hope you are enjoying the remote way of doing things, wherever you are at with it! I would love to hear about tasks you have adapted and tried in your online classrooms and how it went – if you have blogged about it please drop a link in the comments for me! Otherwise, please do use the comments to share. 🙂

 

Taking an EAP course online – what we’ve done so far!

Like most of the rest of the educational world, I have been thrust headlong into the world of online teaching and learning. Both from the teaching perspective and the coordinating one. It’s now week 7 of our first term in this brave new world and I have come up for air very briefly before assessments rain down on us between now and the end of the term. I thought I would share a bit of my experience of this term so far and how things are working because I’ve found it useful looking at others’ experiences!

Though we are in week 7, I have so far taught only 4 synchronous sessions as, being an ADoS, I “only” have one group,  we didn’t have any synchronous learning in Week 1 (it got up and running from week 2) and Week 3 got wiped out by a University closure day tacked onto the Easter weekend. My Week 7 session is tomorrow!

I use the term ‘taught’ fairly loosely as our approach is not the traditional whole class online lesson one. Instead, we have a two hour slot and the class of (on average) 20 is divided into 4 half hour slots within that (we change these groupings each week). It’s been interesting coming to terms with the new set-up and figuring out what works (and, indeed, what doesn’t!). We are using Blackboard collaborate and like most of these kind of platforms, it has some useful features like allowing students to raise hands, chat in a chat box, be put into breakout rooms and so forth. Of course with half an hour and a small handful of students, as a whole, we haven’t been using the breakout rooms much. That will change next term though! My half hours tend to take the structure of check on previous week’s learning, task, discussion. It seems to work best when:

  • you nominate students clearly so that they know when to speak (sounds so obvious but in slot one on day one I had to learn that the hard way!).
  • you get used to speaking into the ether and include prompts to get students writing in the chat box or raising their hands within what you say.
  • you use visual instructions to back up the oral ones and there is no ambiguity in what you want students to when and in what order and for how long, and how they are going to return/signal their return to the next whole group learning phase.
  • you get students to prepare thoroughly for the discussion in advance of the session.

As well as our online slots, we (continue to) use Blackboard for asynchronous content. Given we had 2 weeks to get our course up and running, we were fortunate in that we already had all lesson materials on Blackboard in the form of powerpoints and worksheets, previously with the function of enabling students to review content. The challenge, then, has been to make it more suitable to online learning. We have done this in the following ways:

  • Recording start of week and end of week videos. The former review the previous week of learning and talk the students through the lesson content for the current week, while the latter review the week’s content. This has been a laying the track as we go kind of a team effort, with everyone contributing – teachers and ADoSes writing scripts and finding additional materials to support the week’s topic and skills, ADoSes checking and editing scripts as well as adding the additional resources to the relevant lesson padlet on Blackboard, the odd teacher but mainly the TEL (Technology-Enhanced Learning) team recording the videos using Kaltura. Being as there were three cohorts and sets of teachers to manage, this required a complex Project Management Googlesheet to keep track of who was doing what by when. By hook or by crook, though, we have managed to do it! Script checking is complete, script recording ongoing. Materials are released on a weekly basis.
  • Using individual class padlets. Teachers have set up a padlet for each of their groups and this provides a means of generating student interaction (with each other, with tasks, with the teacher) outside of the synchronous learning slots. My students have engaged most with the paraphrase challenge – this is the brainchild of one of my colleagues not me so I don’t take credit! It involves putting a sentence or a short paragraph together with source information on the padlet for students to paraphrase either the entirety in the case of the sentence level ones or select an idea to paraphrase from the paragraph level ones. Of course they need to include correctly formatted citations. It’s a good way to provide regular paraphrasing practice – a skill that students tend to need a lot of practice of in order to master, regardless of L1 background!
  • As alluded to in point one, supplementing what already existed with extra content for the students to use for skills practice – videos, website links, extra practice activities etc.
  • In week 5 and ongoing, end of week quizzes were introduced, using Blackboard’s quizzing tool. These contain questions based on the week’s content to check students’ learning but also as a means for the institution to monitor participation. Script writers have written the questions at the end of the end of week video script, and the TEL team have created the quizzes in Blackboard. I don’t know what we would do without the TEL team!!

Student feedback has been positive but the main thing they want more of is teacher contact points within a week. Thus, next term we will be keeping the short tutorials slot and adding another two hour slot where an hour is more traditional teacher led input and the second hour can be used for tasks with the teacher on hand to provide support. We are also looking add more interactive content to the lesson padlets on Blackboard for next term and for the new academic year (although we have just learnt that there will also be more content being prescribed from higher up than our centre so how that all pans out remains to be seen!)

In terms of asynchronous learning, my students were struggling to keep on top of remembering what they had and hadn’t done tasks-wise and therefore forgetting to do some things. Being younger foundation students, unlike the pre-masters students they haven’t yet learned how to study effectively independently and are used to a lot more structure and hand-holding. So, I made them a record of work to alleviate this issue! Some are even using it 😉

I hope this is of interest to some of you out there and would be interested to hear via comments what you are doing with your students and how that is working out!

Right, see you at the other end of this term (maybe!) <fills lungs and prepares for the next wave to break>

Sophia Mavridi – Interactive virtual learning for the synchronous and asynchronous EAP classroom

The speaker is Sophia Mavridi, who did this talk for BALEAP TELSIG – Interactive virtual learning for the synchronous and asynchronous EAP classroom

As Sophie begins by saying, this is an important topic in E-learning. It is also very topical in the Covid19 era. This was the session plan:

She started by asking us “What is interaction?” some ideas that came out from participants were it’s a 2 way process, students sharing ideas, showing that you are engaged, being engaged. Then she gave us two definitions:

How does this relate to online learning?

She says we often talk about how pedagogy informs decisions, and so before the practical element she wants talk about some pedagogical theory, specifically theories of constructivist learning environments, the flow model and social presence. Looking at these will help to answer the question why interaction is so important when it comest o online learning.

According to cognitive constructivism, knowledge is constructed and this requires meaningful and interactive materials. They need to make meaningful connections between prior knowledge and new knowledge. Social constructivism meanwhile focuses on the idea that learning is a social process requiring scaffolding, which is interaction with the teacher or peers, but it also includes interaction with materials when it comes to online courses.

The FLOW model is the point of maximum concentration and involvement with an activity. The “flow zone” is where we are at this point. For students to reach the flow zone, the activity cannot be too challenging or too easy, as this leads to loss of concentration/focus.

Social presence is the extent to which someone perceives a person as ‘real’ in computer mediated communication. It influences students’ sense of belonging and engagement with collaborative activity. There is a strong correlation between social presence and successful online learning.

So how can we use these fundamental principles in synchronous and asynchronous classrooms?

In the synchronous classroom, physical distance is an obstacle. But it is usually pedagogical distance rather than physical distance that is an obstacle to learning. Sophie shares 6 techniques for embedding and integrating into online teaching/learning:

  1. Turn on your camera. Challenging for the teacher to speak to avatars/names but not all students have good computers or connections and may not be able to use cameras, some students may be sharing their room with a sibling or may not be comfortable sharing their house. We need to be sensitive towards student’s privacy. But WE can turn on our cameras. It is important to do so.
  2. Try to be animated and use eye contact/gestures. Don’t be a talking avatar.
  3. To maintain attention, ask questions every 3-5 minutes. E.g. start with an icebreaking activity e.g. share in the chat a word that describes your day and explain in a sentence why. For content questions, short questions, not too difficult or easy, will help keep them in the flow zone. Get them to use the chat as the mic activation process (“can you hear me?” etc) will be too time-consuming for these frequent little questions.
  4. Ask them to do things hands on. When you give feedback, share the pdf or slides with them and get ss to annotate the slides themselves or add the answers. This gives them something to do.
  5. Use polls and interactive tools – e.g. Padlet, wooclap (interactive platform for collecting immediate answers to questions of different types) – this allows you to get feedback and share resources. You can upload recordings, youtube videos (and ask questions) etc.
  6. Use breakout rooms or 1-1 chat for class collaboration. They are good for discussion and collaborative projects, can also be used to break up the lecturing time and avoid the lesson being too teacher-centred, which synchronous sessions tend to be. For a short question, you wouldn’t use them. Instead, ask them to message the next person on the participant list and discuss the question in chat. That is a quick way to do interaction and pair work.

Interaction in the asynchronous class

Live classes are fantastic for social presence but even the best live class is predominantly teacher-led and that’s why we need to the asynchronous bit. This can be more student centred and it is where students become more autonomous.

LMS = Learning Management System e.g. Google classroom, Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, Edmodo, Schoology. If you don’t have one, get one and make use of it! Sophia gave us some ideas to do this:

Think about how you did skills and what tools you could use now. E.g. Google Docs, OneNote Reading annotation apps e.g. GoodReader, use Youtube/Ted Talks/Flipgrid/podcasting. You can still do Group work. As well as in live sessions using break out rooms, you can run asynchronous group projects. They are more effort to set up but it is very worth it. Tell students to find a way to communicate (Zoom, whatsapp, we chat) – their responsibility.

Sophie says forums are important and they need to be kept alive by a moderator which is usually the teacher who may ask interesting questions, keep students on their toes and on topic. We need to teach students to add quality comments. If they just say “that’s a great idea, I agree”, that’s a positive comment but not necessarily a quality one. We need to teach them how to participate in a forum. This is an important skill as applicable to participation in a community of practice at university.

In terms of materials, there should be an element of interactivity in any materials. E.g. short and interactive video recordings, self-correct quizzes, questions, reflections. If we just share pdfs, there is no interaction. Even a simple pdf can be made more interactive, it can be broken down by adding in questions. Recordings of longer than 10 minutes mean students are more likely to disengage. Short chunks and frequent questions are better. The ideal length of video for asynch learning is 6 minutes – anything more than that, students tend to switch off. If you really need to record something of 15 minutes, periodically ask them to stop the video and reflect on a question. You can’t expect them to stay focused for 15 minutes watching the video, there are too many distractions to impede that.

Sophie goes on to talk about VoiceThread. It is a collaborative multimedia tool, where you can add images, documents, slides and videos. Users can navigate slides and can leave comments through text, video or voice. It makes materials more interactive and is easy to use as an educational technology. She says ease of use is very important in tech tools, which is why she likes this one. It shouldn’t take a long time to create.

She shows us an example she made. It is a powerpoint with an embedded video of her speaking. You can add multiple recordings to one slide via voice messages. which means if you forget to say something you can add it rather than re-recording. Students can click and select text, audio or video comments. You should specify which according to what skills you want to focus on. E.g. audio and video for practising speaking. Some students aren’t comfortable being on camera, so may be better not to exist on that.

Then she tells us it took 5 minutes to create, record and share (not the slide itself but putting it in VoiceThread and recording the video. It is interactive as students can respond to the questions in the video by typing or speaking. Students add their comments, then as a follow up should listen to/watch classmates comments and complete a task.

Next, participants are asked to go to a link of one she made and leave a video/audio comment, text comments acceptable if you are that shy. To leave a comment, you will be prompted to sign in for an account which just takes a few minutes to set up. The comments appear down the side of the slide off to the left. Sophie plays a few comments to show us.

What can we do with VoiceThread?

It seems like a pretty versatile tool based on all these ideas from Sophie! Recordings can come from Youtube and be embedded. Before you share something with students, you need to change the share settings to allow anyone to view/comment.

It is free for 3/4 voice threads but after that you would need to delete previously made ones or upgrade.

Finally she suggests watching this video with ideas for using VoiceThread in higher education.

You can find Sophia on Twitter with @SophiaMav and her website is sophiamavridi.com

 

 

Mindfulness for teachers and learners – musings a year on

It’s been just under (edit: just **over** a year! Life got in the way of this blog post – book chapter resubmission deadline and last few weeks of term, I’m looking at you!!)  a year since the universe conspired to guide me towards taking up mindfulness. The 2nd of March, apparently, so 10 days hence (edit: 8 days ago!) will be the anniversary of when I picked up my first book about Mindfulness – “Mindfulness for worriers” by Padraig O’Morain. At about the same time, Rachael Roberts promoted her 30 ways to Mindfulness book which you can obtain from her very thought-provoking website, and the then TD coordinators promoted a certain Futurelearn course (see below!) Since then, I’ve learnt a lot about Mindfulness and developed my own practice of it, doing multiple courses, reading around it and integrating it into my daily personal and professional life and into my teaching. This blog post is a reflection on what has changed for me in the last nearly a year.

The first aspect of the journey has been learning about mindfulness and trying to apply it. There are two Futurelearn courses about it – Mindfulness for wellbeing and peak performance (this is the one the TD coordinators promoted and it is running again starting on Monday!) and Maintaining a mindful life (this is aimed at people who have already done the wellbeing and peak performance one) – delivered by Monash university and I have done each of them a couple of times, getting more out of them each time as my practice has developed. My choice of tense is deliberate – I am still learning about it and will probably repeat those courses again this year. As with many things in life, the scope for learning with mindfulness is infinite, because as you evolve so what you take from courses or reading etc evolves too. Here are some things I have learnt:

  • I have learnt how to be more aware of where my mind is and bring it back to the present moment when it wanders. (Some mind-wandering is harmless but general lack of awareness of where the mind is can lend itself to worrying/rumination/awfulising/catastrophising.) I have spent a year gently training my ability to bring my mind back to the present moment whenever I notice it wandering, so that I am better able to that when it goes in a direction I don’t want to go in. Which leads me to…
  • I have learnt that I am not at the mercy of my thoughts, I don’t have to follow them all or get bogged down by then. They are there and there will always be new thoughts popping into my mind, but just like buses coming past a bus stop, I can choose whether or not to board them.
  • I have learnt a lot about how the mind works. This includes the different parts of the mind and the different systems at play in the mind, as well as how they influence my behaviour. As a consequence I am better able to recognise what is going on in my mind at various times/in various situations and use that knowledge to influence the direction things take. This is partly as a result of the Futurelearn courses, partly as a result of extra reading and partly as a result of Rachael Roberts’s Facebook group, Life-Resource Lightbulb Moments, which is connected with her blog too. One of the many things that has happened in this group is a virtual book group – we all read (well I am still reading!) The Chimp Paradox. This has involved reading a portion of it and then discussing it on a thread within the group. I wouldn’t have read the book (or as much as I have so far, ongoing!) without the recommendation and the motivation of the reading group, much less had the opportunity to discuss it. So, if you are interested in mindfulness and how the mind works, join the group!
  • I have learnt how to meditate and how much I need it in my life! I now meditate for approx 40 minutes in the evening before bed and sometimes I manage to do a bit before work too. Minor meditative moments can also occur throughout the day. Fridays include extra meditation but more about this later! Meditation has a positive effect on the brain. For me, my evening meditation routine has really helped my sleep – I fall asleep much easier after it. Occasions where I can’t get to sleep because I am too wound up about something are much fewer and further between.
  • I have learnt to use red traffic lights as a mindfulness bell. So, rather than getting annoyed by a minor delay, I use them as a reminder to be fully present. They are little islands of calm in the commute now instead of irritation points. In connection, I have learnt to accept that Sheffield drivers are frequently rather inconsiderate and unpleasant, and not use up precious energy in getting worked up about it. Getting worked up doesn’t change their behaviour, it just affects me negatively.
  • I have learnt  how to deal with stress more effectively. Case in point the last couple of weeks. A colleague I work closely off has been on sick leave, resulting in a big increase in my workload. Where in the past I would have used a LOT of energy and time worrying about not being able to do everything, this time I communicated calmly with the leader relating to one of the hats I wear and explained what was happening to the other hat, then made myself an extensive list of things to do for said other hat and how to do them. Then it was just a case of focusing my energy on ticking them off, one at a time. Crucially, when the weekend arrived and I went home (and indeed each evening when I went home during the week), I deliberately focused my mind away from work and onto home stuff, allowing my mind and body a rest from the stress. (This is where the mindfulness concentration training comes in – being aware of when it started to wander towards work meant I could bring it back, repeatedly, away from work rather than being in a constant state of high alert due to stress.) Last year when a workload-time-related stressful situation arose, I handled it a lot less well – communicated unmindfully and spent far too much time panicking. The issue was resolved fairly quickly but it could have been resolved a lot more effectively. Live and learn! And Iearning I am!
  • I am much more aware of when my mind is slipping into states that are not useful to me. I’m human, so it is prone to do so! Thus, if something happens which goes against what I would like to happen (holiday to Sicily that was meant to happen on Monday next week but is now cancelled, I’m looking at you!), yes I am angry and disappointed, but I also choose to limit the amount of time and energy I allow myself to spend on that. Better to accept that it is what it is, find things to be grateful about (e.g. it would be a lot more stressful for me if I were already there and the lock-down kicked off!) and refocus on now and things I CAN influence (e.g. this will be a useful opportunity to knock my garden/greenhouse into shape ready for growing everything that is currently germinating in my propagators! I will also have more time to complete this fundraising challenge that I am currently undertaking!) By being better able to notice when my mind is slipping into those states that are not useful, through mindfulness meditation training, I can redirect it sooner and more effectively. Multiple times.

As well as learning more about Mindfulness and using it myself, I have in the past year also used it with students in the form of a short (+-2 minute) meditation at the start of each lesson. Feedback from various groups of different levels has been primarily positive. Out of 65 responses gathered thus far, 57 have given positive feedback (relating to concentration, calmness, relaxing stress etc.), 5 have said they aren’t sure or not helpful but not unhelpful, 1 said it wasn’t helpful due to being too short and 2 said it made them feel sleepy! For some of those who respond positively, it seems to make a huge difference. Here are some of the comments that came with the feedback:

This was indirect feedback i.e. the students mentioned the meditation in a question not relating to the meditation!

These below are all in response to more direct questioning:

All in all, I feel this has been a very positive outcome. Mindfulness and education is becoming a more popular topic of discussion, even in ELT, with Pearson recently hosting a series of three webinars about it, and it is definitely something I want to pursue further. At the moment, the start-of-lesson meditation is the main extent of what I do, with a little bit of focus on concentration, particularly in relation to listening to a 10 minute lecture twice, having already listened to fifteen minutes worth of twice-repeated conversations, as my students have to do in their listening exam. In the future, I want to look more into how I can help them train their concentration and do this more systematically.

All that really remains to  be said now, then, is thank you universe for starting me on my mindfulness journey just over a year ago! 🙂

Do you practice mindfulness? When did you start? What changes have you noticed since then?

One reason why blogs are useful!

Today I did something very radical. After I finished planning my lessons, I took off all my hats (or put them all on at once?) and decided to update my scholarship log. To explain, here at USIC/ELTC@The University of Sheffield, our schedules include 3hrs per week scholarship time, with the freedom to use it as we please as long as it is CPD-related. The TD team (including me) provide support/ideas for this through the bulletin (my current baby), and a varied programme of workshops. In order to monitor this/hold teachers accountable for it, we have to log what we do on a template provided centrally which we all make a copy of and share with our line managers. So back to today, which indeed is in February so actually (terrifyingly enough) not hugely far off half way through the academic year, I finally got round to sorting mine out for this year (new version each year required so that the document doesn’t get too unwieldy!). Which translates as being faced with trying to log, including dates and time spent, everything I did CPD-wise last term. Can I remember off the top of my head? Hell no. If I asked, I would have said well I did my SFHEA, suppose I haven’t done heaps else otherwise. However, fortunately, most if not all of the CPD I do includes an element of reflection carried out via my old friend, this blog.

In fact, it turns out that last term and into the beginning of this one I have:

…which is actually a fair chunk! Thank you blog for being my memory and reflective aide!!

Having done all the scholarship log updating and looking through my blog in order to do so, I am filled with fresh enthusiasm to add more, albeit time is not often on my side! 🙂

So that is just one reason why blogs are useful! Of course there are many more…

How does your blog help you (unexpectedly)? 🙂