Nurturing history teachers and teaching in a time of Covid

Thanks to Kath Goudie and Corinne Goullee from Cottenham Village College for reflecting on the story so far… academic year 2020-21. They share with us their determination to keep great history teaching and learning and curriculum development to the fore. We are loving the idea of a department ‘Pipe Roll’!

As we approach the end of possibly the longest September in living memory, we wanted to take the opportunity to share some reflections on how we have coped with teaching with COVID restrictions in place, whilst keeping our focus on what we have always valued.  This has not been easy, but we hope these brief reflections will prove reassuring and thought provoking.

Nomadic Life

Running from one side of the school to the other is certainly a challenge, particularly when it involves going all the way up two flights to stairs to maths. To make this more bearable, we have made a resource booklet for each enquiry at Key Stage 3 and each unit at GCSE, containing all the worksheets pupils will need for that topic. These booklets aren’t anything fancy, just a printout of each sheet photocopied in booklet form. Pupils are responsible for bringing these to each lesson, which means we don’t need to worry about taking worksheets all over the school. As an added bonus, we’ve found that these booklets have streamlined our teaching and improved the flow of each lesson, as there is no wasted time handing out sheets or sticking them in. Lessons that always seemed to be a squeeze now seem manageable, even with cleaning time factored in!

Keeping doors open

Our classroom doors are now literally open all the time, but we think they are metaphorically open too. We are used to popping into each other’s lessons and often find that we chip in to a discussion or listen to a really good story.  It’s often invaluable hearing another teacher deliver the same lesson and you can always pick up on something that might add to your teaching. We can’t wander into each other’s classrooms along the corridor like we used to, but we still seek each other out and enjoy being in one another’s lessons when we can.

Finding each other

The most difficult part of working under COVID restrictions is that we can no longer easily socialise or find those informal opportunities to meet as a team.  The cheese festivals of Friday at breaktime are a distant memory.   We can’t even sit together at lunchtime, as we have different lunchtimes and at least one of the team always seems to be on duty. We have increasingly found that we are meeting in pairs after school to discuss planning challenges together, which has proved helpful. We know we haven’t cracked it yet, but at least we have been forced to consider when we need to meet and when an email will do.

Replacing meeting time with curriculum planning time

Now that time together is so precious, the focus of any history gathering in person is curricular conversations. We have always seen time together as a chance for collaboration, not administration.  Our focus for when we do get together is dividing up curricular work or discussing our approaches to enquiries and sharing practice. Sometimes, completing a tricky task together in a planning session after school can cut down on workload. Recently, we crafted the questions for a Year 11 low-stakes knowledge quiz reviewing material covered in lockdown. This would have taken an individual far longer to come up with and the scope and substance of the question types would have been inferior.  To make sure that we can’t forget what we have agreed to work on between our planning sessions Corinne has created our ‘Pipe Roll’ where we note down everything that we have decided.  It’s now almost as long as a Pipe Roll!

No man is an island: working as a team

One thing we agreed to as a team was recording audio commentaries to go with each of our GCSE lessons.  We thought this would pay dividends in the long-term and solve the ongoing problem of how to make sure all pupils who are away from school for any reason can easily catch up. Considering where to invest time (the audio commentaries) and where to cut corners (not doing this for KS3) has helped avoid an excessive workload for any member of the team. Dividing up the commentaries between us (taking 3 –4 each) allowed us to quickly cover the whole syllabus for the half term.

This all relies, of course, on our use of common material. A core principle is that we share all resources in common, taking responsibility for developing or improving part of our curriculum each year. This means that, for us, the balance between professional autonomy in the classroom and workload is about right. Since we re-wrote the GCSE at speed our late-night lesson planning panics are in the past (well – mostly!)

We have managed to quickly put these plans in place because we share the same principles behind planning and teaching history. At their core is the model of planning lessons around a pithy yet rigorous enquiry question (Riley, 2000). This common understanding forms our strong basic model for collaborative planning.  We know that by working together the curriculum becomes so much more than the sum of its parts.

Collaboration means being comfortable with critique

When we produce resources we know that everyone will use them. Often a few of us will flesh out the flow of a new lesson or resource together, before one of us will go away and create it. With our new Year 7 scheme on Sutton Hoo, two of us planned the overview scheme together before dividing up the lessons between us. Once the lessons were planned, we sat down and went through them, refining and improving it as we did so. We each know that whatever we plan is never going to be perfect first time round and so this collaborative critique is not only expected but welcome.

Continuing to be creative

Despite the inevitable challenges of a nomadic existence, the experience of eating a solitary lunch for one in a classroom and the smell of hand-sanitizer in our nostrils, we are still committed to continuing with our longer-term curricular plans. We have all felt the need for something to take our minds away from the mundane COVID routines. This seems to be keeping us sane and gives us a starting point for departmental development this term. We have kept the curriculum largely the same before Christmas, so we can focus on getting our basic routines right (and work out where we should be at any given time!). Our sole focus for curricular change for this academic year is Year 7 and we are using this term to prepare some new enquiries which we know we will be teaching after Christmas. Sharing reading and suggestions to develop the subject knowledge of all the team this term will be a much-needed tonic and will support everyone to plan and teach our new material next year.

#OBHD would love happy to share other stories of history teaching in a time of Covid. Do get in touch via @histassoc or the HA website

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