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How to run a successful online school

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Many schools have been faced with learning how to teach children online very suddenly. At Stoke College, we were ahead of the game. This is partially because our interim Principal Mr Francis is the founder of EdTech company Scholar 6 and intrinsically understands the value of technology. But it was also because our investor Mr Mark Wang (from United World Colleges) is an experienced educationalist based in China and so was able to offer us valuable hindsight about what had worked there and what hadn’t.

This isn’t to say that we aren’t still learning. Our teachers are using Google Classrooms and forget to unmute as much as the next person. But it does mean that the children have settled in very quickly to this new learning style.  We are now working towards developing, embedding and experimenting with new models of learning, as opposed to trouble-shooting.

Here are our tips for running a successful virtual school:

Don’t try to replicate online what happens offline

Teaching online and teaching offline are really different. Interaction is different. There are time lags. You can’t read body language as well. People can’t talk over the top of each other.  Techniques that work in a ‘real’ classroom, don’t necessarily translate to learning online.  Powerpoints and slides become very boring very quickly in an online environment. 

We’ve been experimenting with using non-verbal language to gauge feedback.  Our teachers ask a lot of questions to check pupils’ understanding.  Our aim is to makes as many lessons as possible interactive.

Watch a video here that shows what we’ve been up to in lockdown.

Be aware of pressures outside of school

There are many, many pressures for families and children at the moment. Some families will feel the need to be closer to each other; for others this may be difficult. We learnt very early on that parents do not need to feel additional pressure from us.  Our online classroom only operates in the morning, leaving the afternoon for homework, drop in sessions with teachers, additional learning support and mentoring. At 5pm every day we run our ‘Fun at Five’ sessions; interactive family activities and competitions which the children can join in with. We’ve held dog shows, raid your parents wardrobe shows, arts competitions, quick-fire quizzes, spelling bees, online book groups and joke-offs.

Technology is the tool, not the purpose

Some of the best ways to engage with pupils is to blend online and offline tools. At Stoke College, we’ve just introduced mini whiteboards into all of our online lessons. This enables teachers to see responses to questions really quickly as well as allowing the children to easily revise their answers following feedback. We use all the tools that Google Classroom offers us, and more (hello Flipgrid), but we also still use pen and paper.

A school is much more than a building

School is as much about social interaction as it is about learning.  Whilst the temptation is often to focus on cramming as much information in as possible, we’ve learnt that giving pupils the opportunity to engage and have fun with each other can get pupils into the right mindset for learning.  Our regular ‘Fun at 5pm’ activity sessions allow this to happen. We also have a Teaching and Learning Innovation group which focusses on developing new tools to make lessons interactive and allow pupils to connect with each other.

Take a look at our weekly Stoke College Online News as an example 

Respect old traditions and create new ones

Yes, taking the register can be complicated online, but sticking to some familiar routines can help focus children and get them into the right mindset. That’s why we decided to run daily assemblies at Stoke College. Having assemblies is a really familiar part of the school day for many pupils and we expect all our pupils to attend. But, we’ve reinvented them; they are much more informal and relaxed. There’s always a quote of the day, a short address, a teacher feature, a (often very bad) joke, a daily book or film review and a musical performance. Teachers and pupils take in in turns to be responsible for different sections. Our assemblies get the children set up for the day and provide a topic of conversation in classes.

Here’s a link to an assembly hosted by two of our pupils

Be flexible; think differently

There is no way to run a rugby match online (believe us, we’ve tried) so we’re in the process of redesigning our co-curricular activities programme to better suit an online environment. We won’t be offering swimming and team sports, but will offer yoga, individual training and gamified group activities.

Communication with staff is key…

Over-communicate. We can’t emphasise this enough. This isn’t an easy time for anyone. Teachers have had to learn new skills, adapt to new ways of working and also balance this with their own pressures from home.  But, whilst teachers are a resilient lot (we’ve seen teachers adapt to this in a way that many large corporations have not been able to), it’s important to create regular times for check ins.  We hold 3 staff meetings a week, twice weekly SLTs and informal staff activities to keep us connected.

…as well as communication with parents

Parents will also be feeling the strain. Reassuring them and keeping them up to date is essential. Be aim to be as transparent as possible with parents about the successes and challenges the school is facing.  We run weekly evening seminars where we discuss various topics of interest to parents, as well as invite guest speakers. Parents have told us that they are finding these types of open forums really useful and is has built trust in the work that we are doing.

Establish empathy with your pupils

Here’s a video we made welcoming our pupils back for the Summer Term. We don’t care that it’s a bit cheesy.  It sums up exactly how we feel about our school and we’re not afraid to tell our pupils how proud we are of them.