Getting to grips with Google Classroom

Since the start of this academic year, we have moved all our homework and online learning on to Google Classroom. This is a hugely powerful platform for teachers and for students.

For students

Mr Hart helpfully prepared this “student guide to Google Classroom” earlier in the year to help our students get to grips with the system:

As well as Google Classroom, all students have access to a Google Drive with the full suite of apps: Docs for word processing, Sheets for spreadsheets, Slides for presentations, and a wealth of other apps integrated into the Google Suite.

Google Classroom also has a superb app, available for both iOS and Android for smartphones and tablet devices. This means that students don’t need to have a laptop (although Classroom works well on those too!) Work can be accessed online, completed on paper, and a photograph uploaded if necessary, all from a single device like a mobile phone.

For teachers

Google Classroom is fantastic for teachers. It enables teachers to set work, mark it online, and return it, all within the online Classroom. Alternatively, work can be set for completion and physically handing in. Behind the scenes, Google Classroom also enables teacher to keep track of marks, and communicate with students about their work.

Teachers can create assignments and add in all the necessary resources for students to work on. This can include a Google Meet if students are self-isolating. Students receive a notification when there is a new assignment and are able to “hand in” the assignment in on Classroom. Classroom sends a notification out to students once the homework is graded, so students can review grades and feedback.

Teachers can also share learning resources, reading materials, videos, links, and handouts. This allows students to refer to them at any time, or collaborate with their classmates on learning. Resources and assignments are saved in date order in the Classroom Stream, so students can always go back to revise what’s been covered.

Teachers can also send announcements to the whole class, which students receive via email. They also see these announcements when they log in to Classroom, through a web browser or Classroom’s mobile app, available on iOS and Android.

Students can message teachers directly with questions and/or comments on assignments and announcements in the classroom stream. Students can also collaborate with each other for team assignments by working on shared projects in Docs, Sheets, and Slides at the same time as each other.

For parents and families

Parents and families cannot log in to Google Classroom. Instead, you can opt in to get an email summary of your child’s work in Classroom, which includes information about upcoming assignments, missing work, class activities and projects.

We have found the best way to use the Guardian Summaries is to go through them with your children. It can be especially helpful if your child has the Classroom app with them on their phone, tablet or other device, so you can see what’s happening.

Ask them about the work they’ve completed: what did they find interesting about it? Ask them to explain some of it to you: if you understand their explanation, that’s a good indication that they’ve learned it well!

Discuss work with deadlines coming up with them too. Have they got a clear plan for the week ahead? When are they going to complete each piece of homework? Encourage them to ask questions if they aren’t sure, using the Classroom Stream, email or messaging aspect of the Classroom. This builds their independence and encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning. At the same time, make sure their messages and emails to staff have the appropriate tone: “Dear Mr / Mrs / Miss…” is a good way to start, and a “thank you” is always welcome!

For work that is flagged as “missing” or “overdue” in your Guardian Summary, it’s worth checking that your children have clicked the “hand in” button for all their tasks. It’s easy to forget to click the “hand in” button on Google Classroom when students are handing in work on paper in the classroom! If work has not been completed, encourage your children to catch up, and to discuss any missing work with their teachers. We understand that, in these difficult times, sometimes deadline extensions are necessary – but we do expect all work to be completed.

As ever with any new system, we are learning all the time. All staff have had additional training this term, and we are all exploring the many features that Google Classroom has to offer. We’re sure we’re only just getting started!

When the pandemic hits

Nationally and locally, the impact of the pandemic has really ramped up since half term. From September, we have seen isolated cases, in both staff and students, resulting in self-isolations for contained “bubbles” of students across the first term. Since we have been back, the situation has felt very different.

Latest case figures for North Somerset from the BBC tracker (source)

Cases in November in Years 8, 9 and 10 have meant over 600 students from Churchill self-isolating at home as potential contacts. This picture is reflected in the national school attendance figures release this week:

  • Attendance in state-funded schools steadily increased from 87% in early September, to a period of stability of between 89 to 90% from 1 October to 15 October.  After half-term attendance was at 89% on 5 November but decreased to 86% on 12 November.
  • On 12 November, attendance in state-funded secondary schools is 83%, down from 87%. The drop in attendance is mainly due to the increased number of pupils self-isolating due to potential contact with a case of coronavirus. (source)

Everyone has been disrupted. Two of my three children have been sent home from their school this month to self-isolate due to positive cases in their year group bubbles. I really do understand it from both sides, as a parent and a Headteacher. I understand the frustrations. I understand the inconvenience. I understand the upset. I understand the anxiety.

None of us want to be in this position: we all wish it was different. But wishing won’t change the reality of education in the middle of a pandemic.

What happens when a case is notified?

In school, notification of a positive case launches a very clear but complex process:

  1. Contact the family: make sure we have all the correct information about dates, symptoms, test results, transport arrangements, attendance, and any social contacts.
  2. Run the contact tracing: we have a report in our Management Information System that pulls out all the students that are “contacts” with a named individual. We cross-refer this report with the student timetable and, if necessary, seating plans to identify students that need to self isolate. We also identify any staff contacts of the confirmed case to check social distancing, ventilation in the rooms, and any other issues.
  3. Seek advice: having run through the written guidance, I always check with the Health Protection Team that my interpretation is correct. They have been brilliant – always available with a prompt response and clear, helpful advice, including confirmation of dates and self-isolation durations.
  4. Prepare letters for the confirmed case, the identified contacts, and the wider Academy
  5. Contact parents and families of identified contacts: all other operations stop in the Academy office as every available colleague takes to the phones. If the notification comes out of hours, all available senior leaders work through the contacts from home.
  6. Organise collection: staff supervising the students use walkie-talkies to communicate with reception when individuals are ready to be collected
  7. Formal notifications: it’s my responsibility to notify the South West Health Protection Team, Department for Education, the local authority, school transport (if applicable), the Trust Board and the wider staff. These notifications never include personal details of the case – only that we have a confirmed case, the year group, the date of the test, and the number of contacts required to self-isolate.
  8. Follow up: often students who have not come up on our contact tracing self-identify that they have spent time with a confirmed case at lunch or break time. We check the circumstances of these contacts, and provide advice accordingly. At other times, the Health Protection Team want a follow-up discussion to check responses and offer support. There are sometimes further details to clarify, or further contacts to identify.
  9. Implement remote or blended learning: staff need to re-plan their teaching to accommodate full or part-classes learning remotely at home. Webcams, visualisers and other tools are used to provide live or recorded video content; Google Classrooms need to be updated with lesson content or learning tasks. We need to check staff absences or isolations, and ensure that any cover work is adapted to work remotely.
  10. Welfare checks: tutors begin the process of “touching base” with self-isolating students, addressing any issues with remote learning, health or wellbeing. These checks take place by phone or email, at least once a week during self-isolation.

This is our new reality. At any time, with one positive test, the whole process kicks into action. The ramifications spread far beyond the Academy, to all those families who have to drop everything to come and collect their children, reorganising schedules and arrangements at a moment’s notice.

It has to be this way. If we are going to protect the vulnerable, relieve the pressure on the NHS, and slow the spread of this virus, we have to take immediate action to isolate any potential contacts of a confirmed case. But the disruption is massive – and it’s not just happening at Churchill. Every single secondary school in our area has isolated large groups of students this term. And the South West – although cases are rising – is not the worst-hit region. In Hull last week, one in four children was at home self-isolating.

What can we do?

There has been much talk about implementing rota systems in schools, so that year groups only attend for two weeks at a time with two weeks off. This was proposed by the government back in August, and at Churchill we have a contingency plan for this eventuality if it is called for. But I can’t see that this will fix things: if a positive case is confirmed in a year group bubble that is on the rota to be in school, they will have to go home to self-isolate anyway. What then?

Year 7 under the canopy this week

To my mind, schools should stay open. For this to be sustainable, we have to protect ourselves as much as we can. We must rigorously stick to the covid-safe protocols in school, and the protective measures and restrictions in wider society. And, when a positive case is confirmed, we have to isolate the case and any possible contacts to prevent further spread. Until a vaccine is in wider circulation, this is our new reality.

Leader of the free world

President-elect Joe Biden in a portrait from 2013

Like many others around the world, I have been gripped by the US elections over recent weeks. The long, drawn-out vote count added to the drama, as it was not clear for several days who would emerge the winner. When the tally reached its critical point in Pennsylvania, and the media declared Joe Biden the winner, I was struck by the overwhelming feeling of relief and celebration coming in from the news crews around the world.

As a Headteacher and a public servant, it is my duty and my role to ensure that I do not promote a particular political point of view. For this reason, this blog is not about the policies or political persuasions of the Republican or Democratic parties or their candidates. Rather, I am interested in the models of leadership that the candidates provided, and the implications for our young people.

Leading in public life

When I became Headteacher of Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, I had to return a signed copy of the Seven Principles of Public Life to the Department for Education. These principles, also known as the Nolan Principles, apply to anyone who works as a public office-holder in our country. All public office-holders are both servants of the public and stewards of public resources, and as such we are expected to uphold the Nolan Principles. They are:

  1. Selflessness
  2. Integrity
  3. Objectivity
  4. Accountability
  5. Openness
  6. Honesty
  7. Leadership

As a Headteacher, I try to not only uphold but also actively to model those principles in my daily work. It is also part of my responsibility to ensure that all staff who work for the Academy uphold the principles too.

The impact of Donald Trump

Donald Trump playing golf (source)

The Nolan Principles are part of UK government guidance, and they do not apply in the United States. Some might say it’s just as well. Over the past four years, the elected President of the United States has not provided a role model of leadership that I would want anyone to look up to. He has lied, misinformed, bullied and bludgeoned his way around the world stage, seemingly looking out more for his own self-interest than the interests of others. His statements and actions – or lack of them – have legitimised racism and misogyny, unravelling decades of progress towards equality in a few short years. His refusal to acknowledge the climate crisis – the single biggest issue facing our planet at the moment – has lost time that we do not have in the fight against pollution and the journey towards decarbonisation. And his preference to create his own “alternative facts,” even in the outcome of the election, has undermined our ability as a society to trust those in authority.

In Donald Trump, I do not see a selfless leader: I see self-interest. I do not see a leader who acts with integrity. His interpretation of the world around him is entirely subjective, laden with discrimination and bias and often ignoring the factual evidence. He seems to act without accountability or openness, refusing to submit himself to scrutiny. He lies. He does not exhibit any of the principles of public life in his own behaviour. In doing so, he undermines the concept of leadership and damages the idea of public service.

I was moved by political commentator Van Jones, who was brought to tears in his reflections on what Trump’s defeat meant for him as a parent and an American. “Character matters…telling the truth matters…being a good person matters.”

What about Joe Biden?

I am not naïve enough to think that Joe Biden – or any politician – is without self-interest. He has been a politician for a long time, becoming a Senator in 1973 – the year before I was born. But throughout his long political career he has always embodied the idea of public service. He talks about the idea of integrity and equality instilled in him by his grandfather:

“He wanted me to understand two big things: first, that nobody, no group, is above others. Public servants are obliged to level with everybody, whether or not they’ll like what he has to say. And second, that politics was a matter of personal honour. A man’s word is his bond. You give your word, you keep it. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a sort of romantic notion of what politics should be- and can be. If you do politics the right way, I believe, you can actually make people’s lives better. And integrity is the minimum ante to get into the game. Nearly forty years after I first got involved, I remain captivated by the possibilities of politics and public service. In fact, I believe- as I know my grandpop did- that my chosen profession is a noble calling.”

Joe Biden, from “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics.”

He has also been visited by personal tragedy. In 1972, a car accident killed his wife and 13-month-old daughter. He found himself, aged 30, a single dad to his sons Hunter and Beau, both of whom were injured in the accident. Then, in 2015, Beau Biden – himself on track for a promising political career – died of brain cancer at the age of 46. In the wake of the election, commentator Piers Morgan wrote movingly about the impact of these tragedies on the now-President-elect. Piers Morgan is not somebody I am used to agreeing with, but on this occasion his reflections on the impact of grief on Joe Biden brought tears to my eyes.

In the article, Morgan recalls Joe Biden ringing him up at home to thank him for a piece he had written in tribute to Beau Biden following his funeral in 2015. Morgan recalls Joe Biden’s words:

“It’s so important to remember that however bad things may seem, a lot of people are going through a lot worse than you and the way they get through it is other people reaching out to them to give them solace, and in finding a purpose…What I learned when my wife and daughter died was that when you have purpose, it makes it all easier to deal with. My purpose then was to be there for my sons and to use my position as a Senator to do as much good as I possibly could, especially for those who need it most. I feel that so strongly again. My purpose now is to think, ‘What would my Beau want me to be doing?’

From Piers Morgan’s MailOnline column, 7th November 2020

The answer, eventually, was to run for President again. This time – after unsuccessful runs in 1988 and 2008, he has won. Whether he will be a good President, a successful President, remains to be seen. But, like Van Jones, I am more hopeful with Biden as President than I was with Trump: more hopeful that we will see decency, honesty, integrity, accountability and leadership in the White House.

Kamala Harris

Vice-President elect Kamala Harris (source)

My final reflection on this historic election is the success of Biden’s Vice-Presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, who is set to be inaugurated as the first female Vice-President in US History, and the first woman of colour elected to the office. Her victory speech paid tribute to her mother, and the generations of women before her who had blazed a trail for her election. And she offered a vision of hope:

Tonight, I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision — to see what can be unburdened by what has been — I stand on their shoulders. And what a testament it is to Joe’s character that he had the audacity to break one of the most substantial barriers that exists in our country and select a woman as his vice president. But while I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities. And to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before. And we will applaud you every step of the way.

Kamala Harris, from her victory speech (source)

What Harris’s speech captures is that a leader has enormous power, as a role model, to shape the future. For the past four years I have not been able to look to the United States for a model of leadership that I would want my children, or my students, to aspire towards. With the election of Biden and Harris, I am more hopeful that the principles of public life will apply, not just at Churchill, but to our political leaders as well.

Open during lockdown

I am writing this post on 5th November 2020, the first day of the new national restrictions imposed by the government to control the spread of coronavirus, protect the NHS, and save lives. This is the second wave, so we’ve been here before: except, this time, schools are staying open.

Year 7 in a group of 6 under the canopy

I will never forget March 2020, and the first lockdown. COVID-19 was new to all of us then. In the week ahead of closure of schools, student attendance dropped away. Significant numbers of staff were unable to come in, and we had to close – first to Year 12, and then to all students.

This time, some things are the same – but some are very different. The anxiety is still there, of course: but student attendance this week has been 95.7%. We are used to the routines of wiping down desks, hand sanitising, face coverings, and year group bubbles. And, as everything else closes down and society begins another month of “stay at home,” school carries on.

We are pleased that schools are staying open. We firmly believe that our students are better off in school: no matter how good remote learning is, there is no substitute for being in a classroom with an expert teacher. We know that it is there that our students will get the best educational experience, and make the best progress.

We also believe that the “normality” and structure of the school day is good for mental health and wellbeing. Of course, it’s not quite as “normal” as any of us would like: our extra curricular programme is severely limited; the cross-year-group work that is a hallmark of the Churchill experience has had to be suspended; we cannot hold in-person assemblies or run our programme of trips and visits; and the big events, concerts, presentations and performances that we look forward to are all on hold. But even so, the routines of a five-lesson day, seeing friends and continuing to learn in person is stable, reliable, and welcome.

The bottom field in autumn

This lunchtime, it was a crisp and clear autumn day. As I did my normal circuit of the Academy on duty, I saw Year 10 tearing round the 3G after a football, and throwing and catching, kicking up the autumn leaves, and booting a rugby ball into the bright blue sky above the top field. Year 8 were enjoying the wide open space of the bottom field. Year 9 were on the tennis courts, in small groups, excitedly discussing the sex and relationships education sessions they had had that morning. Year 7 were under the canopy, and up on the grassed area behind the library, their chatter filling the air as they prepared to deliver the speeches they’d been working on in the morning. And Year 11 were being Sixth Formers for the day, making the most of having the run of the Sixth Form Centre and trying out courses as they consider their post-16 options. It felt…well, it felt like a normal day at school.

The top field in autumn

Against the backdrop of strangeness and uncertainty, the familiarity was welcome. We have implemented multiple measures to minimise risk – but nothing we do can eliminate that risk entirely. Despite the uncertainties, despite the challenges, we are so glad the flag is still flying, and our Academy is still full of staff and students learning and working together. That’s how we like it: we will do everything we can to keep it that way.