Remote Learning: Another OLA Success Story

JULY 2020
“Having seen how the School has risen to the challenge this term, I have absolute confidence that, no matter what happens with the virus situation next term, OLA will continue to educate my sons to a high standard and will give them the best possible experience.” Parent (Year 9 and 11)

The beginning

What do you do when the Government gives you a week to prepare to teach online before the school is closed for face to face teaching indefinitely?

The days of mid to late March 2020 will stay fresh in the minds of pupils, parents and staff at OLA for some time. It would have been easy and understandable to panic being set with such a challenge but a close teacher/staff/pupil community finds a way and together a plan was shaped to handle the challenge.

OLA Deputy Head Dr Reynaert who would mastermind the plan supported by Dr Lawson, Mrs Sharkey, Mr Allen and the rest of the OLA staff team, recalls that the best advice at the time was start with what you knew.

“All very well but we weren’t teaching online at the time apart from the use of setting homework through Firefly in Senior School. We had to find solutions and fast.”
Dr Reynaert

Zoom quickly became the favoured video meeting app for developing plans with Firefly (Senior School) and Wakelet (Junior School) to be used for delivering class activities and feedback supported by school email.

Zoom training with staff, pupils and parents was rushed through. Everyone rising to the task magnificently. But would it work?

Launch day
Monday 23 March

And the answer was…no. Firefly crashed spectacularly on day one in the first few hours.

What happened next became characteristic of the OLA response to challenge during the whole remote learning period. It was a response demanding action and correction and yes taking back control from those that failed us. Plans were started immediately to move away from Firefly, a platform staff had used for several years, to something totally new but had the capacity to cope, Microsoft Teams.

It was a nervous period of new training for staff eased slightly by the Easter holidays bringing space to regroup and learn the new processes and then complicated further by the furloughing of some teaching staff which required a total review of the timetable across Junior and Senior School. Online training was set up with OLA families, parents and pupils joining together during the holidays to prepare for the fresh start. All with a determination to make it work this time.

Launch day
2 Monday 20 April

Yes – most definitely yes. A new era truly began in OLA education. In the newsletter at the end of the week Principal Stephen Oliver wrote:

“By now the nervousness of the first few days should have dissipated – for parents, teachers and pupils alike – and we should be well into our stride with this new way of learning. I would like to thank all OLA families for the positive way you have engaged with the challenge of online learning. The response we have received across the week has demonstrated once again the strength of the bonds that link us as a community.”

That newsletter on 24 April (view all of the OLA newsletters for Trinity term) also saw the launch of the first of what became weekly parent remote learning surveys requesting feedback on all that was happening on the other side of the Zoom classroom camera. Weekly surveys also began with pupils in Senior School.

“The biggest success of the remote learning period for OLA has been the engagement and communications with everyone in the process. There was never any pretence we had the perfect package we knew we had to keep evolving it to a better place.” Dr Reynaert

The surveys of those early weeks of Trinity term saw high responses with parents keen to recommend, suggest and yes worry about all that was happening. These surveys were treated seriously by Dr Reynaert and her team and corrections to the provision made.

“One of the earliest issues was screen time. Staff were focused on doing all they could to replicate the classroom environment as the means for ensuring quality of teaching continued. But 100% Zoom lesson teaching was too much for pupils.” Dr Reynaert

Lessons were adjusted to 50% Zoom time with work being given to pupils via Teams to do for the rest of the period and to feedback to teachers the same way. In many cases a closing Zoom time in the lesson was also included to review progress.

The change in working practice also began to bring out an evolution in the way pupils presented work with some easily and enthusiastically adjusting to creating video recordings of their work particularly in Science and PE. The standard of these steadily increased and culminated just before the end of Trinity term when three Year 8 pupils created a video to showcase an Art project based on The Wizard of Oz that has gone on to be used as a competition challenge video by local Primary Schools

Keeping Connected and Motivated

It was clear to Dr Reynaert from the start that keeping parents, pupils and staff truly connected and motivated during remote learning was going to be vital to ensure the quality of education parents wanted, that children needed and that OLA staff were determined to supply, succeeded.

Achieving this would require a number of stands at the centre of which was the creation of the new connectED blog.

“Welcome to the connectED blog, a new feature running weekly during term time, to help the OLA community stay connected and celebrate success during this period of remote learning. Each week the blog will look at how our pupils are connecting, trusting and engaging in their new world of remote learning.” OLA Newsletter Friday 27 March 2020

Over the weeks that followed Dr Reynaert provided motivation to stay connected using a variety of studies and book suggestions as she wove her way through the themes of:
Interconnectedness and Wellbeing
Patience, Positivity and Perseverance
Support and Opportunity
Motivation in the Middle
Joyful June – Philosophy of Happiness
Why Productive Failures are Essential for Learning TREEmendous Empathy
Staying Afloat with Academic Buoyancy
and The Anatomy of Rest.

The themes were further woven into practical application using the UN’s 17 sustainable development global goals which provided a focus for pupils to connect with the wider world despite lockdown through thought, reflection and activity.

All of this being a considerable output for someone who was at the centre of planning and running OLA’s remote learning.

Another strand used to help achieve connectivity was the Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) curriculum which aims to develop the knowledge, skills and attributes of children.

Each month the scheme focuses on a theme which OLA used to encourage pupil activity such as Mental Health week.

Motivation also requires praise for effort and support for when times are challenging. An electronic world needed an electronic system. Mrs Sharkey identified Class Charts as the answer.

“We were looking for a new safeguarding and behaviour management system. Class Charts was chosen because it is a simple and effective way to record positive and negative behaviour, using a three-way app system to communicate with pupils and parents. We had been planning to introduce it later in the year but now decided to move up the time frame and launch it immediately to support remote learning” Mrs Sharkey

Class Charts allowed us to introduce a pupil wellbeing tracker, where staff, pupils and parents could record how pupils were feeling during the school day using a selection of emojis. The responses were closely monitored by the pastoral team and acted upon if a negative response was recorded. Depending on the level recorded, form teachers and Heads of Year would then email pupils or respond directly in the app to start a conversation about what was causing the low mood. One to one Zoom sessions were also used to support the pupils when they were finding things challenging.

Class Charts also has a system for accumulating points. Positive points were awarded for good activity, negative points for not so good. For children who loved getting awards and praise this worked very well. These points contributed to the House System and also allowed pupils to spend them for prizes in the rewards store. Throughout lockdown we had many pupils ordering OLA merchandise, mystery prizes and early passes for next year, which were posted home for pupils to enjoy!

OLA also introduced the World Literacy Awards. Literacy is an important aspect of all subjects which schools are encouraged to monitor across the timetable. World Awards were given for excellent contributions in Writing, Oracy, Reading, Listening and Discussion. Parents could also nominate their son/daughter for an award.

Pupils receiving World Awards also scored three Class Chart points for each award. Dr Reynaert’s final blog of Trinity term reported on all of the awards revealing Rocco (Year 7) as the top scorer with 182 points!

Keeping Year 11 and the Upper Sixth motivated with the cancellation of exams required something very different.

The enrichment programme Learning Journeys was the idea of Dr Lawson and Mrs Sharkey. Staff were invited to provide sessions for students based around practical subject ideas that could be of use as they progressed into OLA 6th or University. Staff were asked to contribute what they could, a series of sessions or one session.

What resulted was a truly remarkable set of options that students could select from. The program was launched on Monday 18 May (You can see the programme in the connectED blog for Friday 15 May) and quickly proved to be a significant success as reported in the newsletters on Friday 12 June and Friday 19 June.

The program brought in considerable parent praise:

“We’ve been so impressed by how well OLA has risen to the challenges of the pandemic. The school’s transition to online learning and its commitment to giving the best possible remote learning experience across all year groups has been second to none, and the special enrichment programme created for Year 11 and Upper Sixth is a real bonus.”
Parent (Year 11)

“I have been very impressed by the programme. When I read through what was available I found myself wanting to sign up for a few things myself! Juggling and Photoshop to name a couple. I think the pupils are being given a really diverse and interesting range of activities: academic, practical and enriching. When my son came away enthusing about the Astronomy and Independent Travel sessions, it occurred to me that this year’s Year 11 pupils at OLA are being given a real opportunity to widen their interests.” Year 11 (Parent)

Wellbeing Afternoons

The longer remote learning went on the more the younger age groups across the school began to feel the remoteness from friends to simply chat and play. Junior School staff started to notice an increasing usage of the Teams chat option during class time which had to be curtailed because it was distracting attention. In Senior school the need for chill out time was becoming increasingly of concern for Years 7 and 8.

The answer was to set aside an afternoon a week to allow pupils to have time with each other in a more relaxed environment. For Junior School children this was all about time to show each other their toys over Zoom, to read a story to each other or to staff. In Senior school, focusing on Years 7 and 8, it took the form of an activity together, watching a film, quizzes, creating a Wizard of Oz sculpture or sports activities. The change was warmly received by parents and pupils as the school journeyed ever closer to the summer holidays.

And Relax!

On the last day of Trinity term, Friday 3 July at midday, there was a real sense of achievement and relief all around OLA. Despite the obvious weariness brought about by the very long days many staff had experienced, this was the time to say made it, achieved it. A success to be proud of at the end of a truly momentous term.

Back at the start of it all in March Mr Oliver had recalled Lenin’s famous remark There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen. The weeks of Trinity Term 2020 were the happenings of perhaps more decades than anyone really wanted to remember but it had been a remarkable achievement by the OLA community of parents, pupils and staff all working together to create something special and successful.

“We have been impressed with the speed and quality of the virtual teaching offer for Year 11 this term. Pupils were up and running in mid-March and the quality of the teaching and interaction with teachers and their pupils has been excellent.

The variety of topics covered in the transition to the Lower 6th syllabus has been outstanding, bicycle maintenance, healthy eating cooking, maths for science A levels etc. all, have been well attended on the Zoom calls and some great feedback from our daughter who has really benefited.

A huge thank you to the OLA team for ensuring that her education hasn’t just been maintained through lockdown but that it has been an enhanced syllabus, a great achievement.” Year 11 Parent

“Huge thanks to all the staff at OLA for ensuring that our children have had a seamless transition into an online learning environment. Our children have loved their teaching sessions, connecting with their teachers and class friends, and their continued love for learning has carried through due to the well-thought through timetables and work tasks.” Junior School Parent

“We would like to thank all the staff at OLA who have gone above and beyond in supporting the children’s education during school closures. We have been amazed by how quickly staff have adapted to the situation and how quickly the school leadership team put systems in place to support them.” Junior School Parent

“We have been very impressed by the organisation of remote learning by the school at such short notice during this difficult time. The children have surprised us all by the speed they have embraced technology and the new way of working.” Junior School Parent

“I’ve been really impressed with the way OLA has adapted to the current situation. They’ve managed to provide an interesting and varied programme for the Year 11’s which has been supportive and helped them to keep thinking and learning beyond their GCSE subjects. It’s also given them the chance to transition and prepare for Sixth Form.” Parent (Year 11)

So to September, bring it on, the OLA community is ready for you, remote, face to face or blended!!

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OLA is a small, Catholic independent day school in Abingdon-on Thames for students aged 7 to 18. We accept children of all faiths or of none and offer a highly successful, fun and innovative learning experience within a happy and friendly community. This leads our students to achieve some exceptional academic results, guided as they are throughout their time at the school by our caring and dedicated teachers.

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NOTE: The closing date for the receipt of completed Registration and Entrance Examination forms for September 2021 entry to the Senior School is Monday 19 October 2020.