Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

On 26th June 2020, I took part in a panel for the IATEFL Leadership and Management Special Interest Group (LAMSIG) entitled ‘What now?’ with Nik Peachey, Sandra Pitronaci and Josh Round, and moderated by Jenny Johnson.

This second question-and-discussion led webinar provides a forum for ELT academic managers to connect with a panel of expert academic practitioners to understand and share our understanding and response to Covid-19 and how we prepare for the future. How much will return to our familiar “normal” and how much will be a “new normal”?

My role on the panel was to consider the academic implications of restrictions on physical distancing (a.k.a. social distancing), gatherings and class size. The management/financial implications were discussed in a business management panel two weeks previously.

What is social distancing and why is it important?

image of two schoolchildren with a double-headed arrow between them and a mask below the arrow.

Image by Katherine Ab on Pixabay

Social distancing is a term which has come into wide circulation since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but each country has its own rules on what that distance is (there’s a helpful infographic in this BBC article). It’s therefore important to check what the requirements are where you are teaching and stay up-to-date with any changes.

Social distancing is important because coronavirus spreads when an infected person coughs small droplets – packed with the virus – into the air.

These can be breathed in, or can cause an infection if you touch a surface they have landed on, and then touch your face with unwashed hands.

Virus transmission is less likely when ”fresh” air is involved – usually when people are outside.

– Quote taken from the BBC on 23rd June 2020

As I write this, some countries allow people to be closer together providing they wear masks, have plastic screens between them, or sit side-by-side rather than face-to-face. There may also be legal requirements for ventilation (the virus seems to spread more indoors than outdoors, direction of any fans/drafts can influence the direction of the virus) and frequency and depth of cleaning.

Timing is also a factor – the longer you spend with someone, the more risky it is.

Timing is also key. The longer you spend in close proximity with an infected person, the bigger the risk.

Scientists advising the UK government say spending six seconds at a distance of 1m from someone is the same as spending one minute at a distance of 2m.

Being exposed to someone coughing is riskier. Being 2m away from a cough carries the same risk as someone talking to you for 30 minutes at the same distance.

– Quote taken from the BBC on 23rd June 2020

All this means that when setting up classrooms for face-to-face teaching, we need to consider:

  • the amount of space between people
  • the number of people present
  • which direction they’re facing
  • whether masks are required or not
  • whether we use other methods of screening people from each other
  • ventilation of rooms
  • cleaning of surfaces
  • the amount of time spent together

Apart from this, we also need to have clear procedures in place if students or teachers show any symptoms or get the virus. This includes notifying anybody who might have come into contact with people showing symptoms to tell them to self-isolate, and may lead to whole schools being shut down again.

Getting back into the classroom with social distancing

Many schools do not have the option of using bigger classrooms, and there’s a limit to how many students we can lose and still maintain a viable business. We need to get smart with the spaces we have available. Our classrooms have chairs with folding We’ve played with various options at our school, though none of them are fixed yet. We won’t be trying any of them out until September 2020, so please let me know if you have other ideas!

  • Creating boxes marked with tape on the floor of the classroom to show which space each student should be in. Instead of our normal horseshoe pattern, it would be a grid using every part of the room, with all students facing forward (which feels like complete anathema to an experienced EFL teacher!) The first student to enter goes to the furthest box and the last student is in the one closest to the door. This also helps us to work out/manage exactly how many people can be in each classroom. The teacher has a slightly bigger box including the board.
  • Asking students and parents/carers to wear masks as they move around the school, until they arrive at their seat.
  • Telling parents/carers that they cannot come into the school building – they must drop their child off at the door.
  • Keeping windows open where possible to provide ventilation (not sure how that will work in the Polish winter though!)
  • Combining face-to-face classes with online ones (a hybrid approach), having one of each per week rather than two in the classroom.
    • This provides the benefits of both types of lessons, and means that if we have to go into lockdown again, students are already used to an online environment.
    • It also reduces the amount of time people spend in the school in relatively small rooms with groups of people, and therefore should reduce the risk.
    • This means we can use our bigger rooms for twice as many groups, as they will only be in school on one of their two lesson days, instead of both.
    • For off-site lessons, it reduces the need for teachers (and students!) to travel on one day a week.
  • Creating a code of conduct for students/parents to sign on how they will behave when in the school and in class, including staying the correct distance away from others.
  • Attempting to stagger class start and finish times to reduce the number of people moving around the building at the same time.
  • Having teenage group breaks in the classroom instead of moving to a communal space.
  • Requiring students to bring all of their own resources (pens, paper etc.). No resources will be lent to students by the teacher or by other students.
  • Using this large common space as a classroom, instead of a meeting place.
  • Working out a cleaning regime that can be run between lesson times, not just at the end of the day.
  • Ensuring there are large enough bins in every classroom for tissues so that they can be disposed of as soon as possible.
  • Changing the way that we teach, again.

A(nother) new way of teaching

Same same, but different: we’re back in the classroom, but not as we know it.

Students have their own boxes in the classroom which they must stay in during lessons, so we can’t change pairs or groups at will.

They can’t share resources, so we can’t do activities which involve passing paper or mini whiteboards around.

Both of the above mean that they can’t stand up and write on the whiteboard, as that’s a double-whammy of moving past other people and touching shared board pens.

Children can’t move from their seats, to the floor, to moving around the classroom. No more running games, or gallery walks with information stuck to the walls.

Teachers can’t walk around the room monitoring how successfully students are completing an exercise.

So what can we do?

  • New pairs can be formed by students turning in different directions, for example working with somebody from the box in front of them, to the left, to the right, or diagonally.
  • Include movement breaks or exercise breaks, with students standing up and moving around within their box but in a prescribed pattern so that they continue to stay the right distance away from others. Alternatively, they could put masks on while doing these activities.
  • Continue using some of the online resources which students are familiar with, for example Quizlet or Google Docs for collaborative writing. These can create a sense of team work.
  • Play Quizlet Live Cacophony (my students loved this when I did it in a non-socially-distanced way last year!)
  • Ask students to write large and legibly enough for the person in the box next to them to read their work. When they need to do a peer check or get a second opinion, they can hold up their notebooks so that their neighbour can read it.

The useful links section below has more ideas.

Potential problems

As lockdown has been lifted in Poland over the past few weeks, we’ve now arrived at a point where a lot of people seem to have forgotten that there’s such a thing as coronavirus, and we’re still at risk from it. Some people still wear masks and gloves, but most don’t. As I write this on 26th June, it’s 13 weeks until we start teaching in September, and only 14 weeks since we went into lockdown on 16th March. As we’ve all learnt in the past few months, a lot can change very quickly, so who knows how people will feel about social distancing in September.

I feel like some students and/or parents might refuse to follow the rules, creating potential conflict situations. We need to make our expectations very clear and explain that we’re putting these rules in place to ensure the safety of all of our staff and students. We don’t want everyone in the school to have to go into isolation because one person came in with the virus.

Another problem might be a lack of rapport in a group which has only met online or in a socially distanced space. If they can’t easily work with everyone in the group, it could be harder for them to feel comfortable using their English in front of their classmates.

The upsides

It’s not all doom and gloom: students can benefit from a socially distanced classroom too.

If we have a first-in-sits-furthest-from-the-door policy, this could mean that people are working with different students each lesson because of the order in which they arrive.

Students will have to enunciate more and/or use clarification strategies if they can’t hear/be heard by classmates, rather than getting closer to each other.

We’ve got another chance to be super-creative with our teaching, and I know we’ll all benefit from that, however hard it might be at first!

Useful links

These are all of the links I’ve managed to find so far for social distancing in the classroom. There don’t seem to be very many as I write this in June 2020, but I’m sure that will change! I’ll update the list as I find more.

ELT

Sara Davila wrote about social distancing and young learners (and teens) for the Pearson blog, including ideas for helping them to deal with stress and think critically. I think the discussion she suggests could be adapted as part of a first lesson, though the post seems to be aimed at teachers working with the same group all week, rather than a couple of lessons a week as our school does.

Alex Case has social distancing variations on his TEFLtastic classics.

Miranda Crowhurst suggests 19 ESL games to play while keeping social distance.

If you want to discuss social distancing with your students, you might want to use this lesson plan about distance dining from LinguaHouse.

General education

After many attempts, the most successful search term I found was ‘activities for the socially distanced classroom’.

Sara Devila’s article (above) had a link to an article about a clever idea from primary schools in China: one-metre hats. A headteacher in Amsterdam had a different idea about keeping her distance by using a large skirt (though I’m not sure about the cleanliness of hand on the stick!)

Teaching experimental science in a time of social distancing includes some great experiments students could try at home, and shows how another branch of education is completing rethinking how they work.

This article from Spaces4Learning has some useful questions if you’re considering a hybrid approach (some face-to-face, some online classes) to help you think about what you do in each lesson.

These social distancing games shared on Twinkl are for primary school children, and many of them require a large open space, but they could provide some inspiration.

Asphalt Green has a bumper list of Kids’ Games for Social Distancing.

 

Please add to the comments if you have any extra ideas or useful links to add. Good luck!

Comments on: "Social distancing in the ELT classroom" (1)

  1. ljmilligan said:

    Thanks for sharing these ideas! We are going back to face-to-face lessons next week at the school I work at in Singapore. A lot of the points that you have brought up were mentioned at our briefings this week, but we were looking at ways to keeping including games in our lessons. So the link Miranda’s Crowhurst’s ideas will come in handy.

    Like

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