Facing up: Re-establishing in-person GCSE English teaching at Suffolk New College

Bob Read is the Education and Training Foundation’s (ETF’s) Regional Specialist Lead (RSL) for Maths and English in the eastern region. He works with a range of practitioners who are coping with the daily challenges of teaching maths and English programmes in the context of the current Coronavirus pandemic. For this second in a series of experience-sharing interviews with practitioners he talks to Juliet Yager, GCSE English lecturer at Suffolk New College.

Bob: What kind of delivery model are you using this term?

Juliet: We are offering 100% face to face teaching for both our English and maths GCSE re-sit programmes. Vocational departments at the college deliver courses with a flexible element of 25% online support but we feel that our re-sit learners really value and need that motivating and confidence boosting relationship with their teachers that can only be achieved through the face to face interactions in a real classroom. We think they’d miss out on that if they just had online teaching.

Bob: How’s it all going?

Juliet: The college had to put in place all sort of health and safety practices but they are working well. We can choose to wear either a mask or visor and I prefer a visor as it enables me to use my voice more naturally in the classroom. We have staggered leaving times, a teaching ‘box’ marked out on the floor at the front of the class and now that virus numbers are rising, students have to wear masks in the classroom as well as in the corridors.

Bob: What seems to be working well in the classroom?

Juliet: A key feature of the way we teach is our regular use of visualisers. My manager, Louisa, and the rest of our team piloted the use of visualisers last year in an ETF Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment (OTLA) action research project and we have continued to use them extensively. Re-sit students are desperate to get their grade 4 and given how much teaching learners have missed we feel it’s extra important this year to model step by step how we might answer an exam question, for example, how we might find and use quotes in a reading extract. With a visualiser you can do that so easily.

Bob: What’s it like teaching learners who have been through lockdown?

Juliet: Learners seem to really enjoy the experience of communal reading which is when I might read an extract out loud and involve one or two students to join in where they can. I think that may be because of how much time they’ve spent on their own at home. In some ways students seem much quieter in the classroom too. Many seem to have lost self-confidence too, I think. They struggle to pick up on social cues, ask questions, join in a discussion. I know teachers often say that about 16–18 learners but this year they seem a little more subdued. Wearing masks is a factor too that can tend to limit discussion. Also, with desks separated around the room we can’t set up group work in the way we used to.

Bob: How are you dealing with this?

Juliet: I find myself adopting more of a nurturing role and feel less of a need to be firm in my class management. For example, I make an extra effort this year to engage students in everyday conversation as they enter the room. I know that’s good practice anyway but this year it seems extra important to build relationships quickly and it seems to be working. I also make sure I give plenty of verbal praise in ways that aren’t patronising. And in the November exam week when I have fewer lessons and a little more time, I plan to contact parents or guardians and give them some positive feedback on those students who are making efforts to engage in class discussion.

Bob: Do you offer any blended learning opportunities?

Juliet: Yes, for several years now our team have explored a range of edtech tools and digital platforms in the classroom and this year we’re trying to compensate for the five months teaching that many students have lost by emphasising the importance of independent learning. We use Google Classroom as our main platform for what we call ‘home learning’ but we also use other online resource websites too such as Seneca, which students love. It’s based on multiple choice, self-marked questions that students can tackle on their own and which they enjoy as a change from the mock GCSE exam questions we regularly look at in class.

Bob: What have you found surprising this term?

Juliet: This year the group seem much more ‘attuned to societal issues’ if I can put it like that. Last week we were reading a piece of fiction with a Black Lives Matter theme. I turned round to pick up my whiteboard pen and when I turned back to the class they had already begun quite a sensible debate about different aspects of the protest movement. That may well be because we are all going through a period of change and uncertainty. I think that last year they may not have been so interested in current affairs.

Bob: And finally, if you could go back to just before the start of term, what would you do differently?

Juliet: During lockdown all my colleagues were really supportive and resilient and when we returned to the classroom after five months away we shared ideas about how we could adapt our teaching to our new class environments so I feel we have already been making changes as the term has progressed. But looking back I think I would probably be more confident in engaging learners in reading together which they seem to like and perhaps using different and more directive questioning techniques to get feedback from them for formative assessment.

To find out more about the ETF Regional Specialist Leads and their work please visit the RSLs page on the website. Details of the ETF’s comprehensive range of support for maths and English delivery are available on the programme page.

If you would like to contact Juliet to find out more about Suffolk New College’s delivery model for GCSE English, please email her at: JulietYager@suffolk.ac.uk. You can read more about their ETF OTLA action project about using visualisers in English teaching here.

The first in the series of interviews, with Dominic Nice, GCSE Maths Programme Lead at West Suffolk College, remains available on the ETF website.

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