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Why schools still need classroom visitors during the pandemic…and how we (virtually) found a way to do it

4 December 2020

I am one of the founders and Directors of Loudmouth Education & Training. We are an educational theatre company that specialises in RSE work. For 26 years we have created and run theatre performances with interactive workshops with young people to support schools’ RSE programmes. We tour across the UK delivering around 800 sessions a year in schools and colleges….or at least we did. We haven’t physically been into a school since the middle of March 2020 and so have had to radically rethink how we ‘visit’ schools.

We believe that classroom visitors can be an important part of school’s RSE work and provide a different way to bring the learning to life. We support and enhance schools’ existing delivery with trained and informed facilitators that can add value with supplementary approaches, expertise and resources that schools may not have. Our work is designed to provide material that staff can use beyond a single visit with additional lesson plans that allow staff to refer back to the content we delivered in their follow up work. Classroom visitors can provide an exciting hook into a new subject area or consolidate earlier work on a topic.

The great news is that schools we work with are still getting on with RSE and the demand for us to be collaborators and partners in their RSE delivery hasn’t waned during lockdown. However, the practicalities of social distancing has made it impossible for us to visit in person and we doubt we will deliver any ‘live’ work until next Easter (or perhaps even September). Despite that, at the start of November we started delivering sessions again…only this time it’s virtual!

It is so great to be supporting schools again with these virtual sessions. They allow us to connect to a classroom, show a pre-recorded drama and then connect to the class to run a live interactive workshops in a way that echoes our pre lockdown approach as much as possible. It has been a huge challenge and I would like to share how we got there. Here are a few tips for other classroom visitors that may also be interesting for teaching staff too that we learned along the way.

Really understand virtual platforms

Find out which platforms your schools use (Microsoft Teams seems to be the preferred choice for working with pupils, Zoom is popular too but more with professionals). Learn the quirks of each platform such as how to share screens and video. Push the levels of engagement and interaction. Experiment with the interactive features, whiteboard and chat functions. It can be very easy for virtual delivery to become ‘transmit only’ or for unfamiliarity with the controls leading to disjointed and glitchy delivery. These platforms are far more than video call platforms so invest in practicing and developing your online delivery to maximise the connection with the group.

Safeguarding

Make sure that your safeguarding policy reflects your virtual as well as your live delivery. If you have to broadcast from home then how are you going to ensure that other members of your household don’t wander in the room or how you will deal with any disclosures that take place in your virtual session. I would advise avoiding any situations where each individual student dials in on their own device. We made the decision not to deliver in this format as we didn’t feel that we could manage this safely or control pupil’s access to the chat feature or if they disclosed anything live in the session.

Work with the schools’ IT set up

Schools will have different levels of IT and confidence in using it. They may have chosen different ways to separate their classes or bubbles. Their rooms may be set up in a way that make it difficult to hear or see the pupils. The teacher may have preferences about whether they want their students to be heard or for the teacher to use the chat function. No matter how good your own internet or camera is, you need to be flexible and nimble enough to work with the school’s set up. Have a Plan B…C, D and E. Many of the sessions we have run have had something that doesn’t work as it should, IT wise. Slides that have been opening flawlessly all week just won’t show on the class’ screen or the camera stops working. We practice with our staff on how to respond and adapt. In fact we chose to always have two of our Actor / Facilitators delivering with one presenting, running the lesson with the teacher in the classroom whilst the other operates and troubleshoots all of the technical elements.

Work with the teacher in the classroom as support or co-delivery

In our usual live work we ask the teachers to observe rather than get involved in the workshop. This is so they have an opportunity to monitor how their students respond and participate as well as to give students a different dynamic and to interact with people who don’t know anything about them. In the virtual sessions the teachers need to play more of a role. To help smooth interaction and to support good practice in terms of  safeguarding, we ask for all discussion to go through the teacher. We address the whole class or group and set activities or questions but ask for all responses to be taken by the teacher in the class and relayed to our facilitators. This works really well and gives a strong focus to the session and good collaboration between us and the teacher present. The teacher is then part of the delivery and can clearly see the learning objectives they want to pursue with the group after the virtual visit.

Adapt your content for virtual delivery

Be honest about your material and what works online (and what doesn’t). Some things like a basic talk can work well over a standard Teams or Zoom link but other elements don’t (unfortunately for us this includes live drama!). This was one of our biggest challenges. Just plonking a camera in front of our usual live work wasn’t going to cut it and more importantly wouldn’t be likely to engage the group and hold their attention. Even though the current video link technology is amazing, it can still be prone to dropping signal which makes live streaming drama too unreliable to work effectively. Virtual learning has moved on a lot this year but if visitors are using content that isn’t right for streaming or hasn’t been tested and adapted then this can make for a very poor learning experience.

We reworked our plays to work on screen. We realised early on that adult playing very young characters wasn’t going to work on film and so learnt how to do animation which has worked fantastically. Be creative and work with what the technology can do rather than trying to force your old way of working into virtual delivery.

Get the tone right

As a classroom visitor we have an opportunity to provide a different dynamic and appeal to pupils who may not have responded to other methods or approaches before. We very often get told how surprised teachers were by which members of their class got involved in the discussions, with the drama and workshop engaging those who are normally quiet or less willing to participate. We are often giving the same message or information that their teacher has been saying but just a different voice, method or attitude can be a really useful way to make the content stick.

Our approach is always friendly, calm, inclusive and light even when we are talking about quite challenging topics. I am really proud of how we are able to generate rapport with groups quickly in our live work and even more with how we have retained this in the virtual delivery with a warm and chatty relationship with the classes. Talking to a camera and screen can flatten the tone and interaction and so I am so happy that we have found ways to preserve the informality and fun. We had a lovely moment at the end of a recent session, we asked a group of Year 5’s if they had any final questions for us and a 9 year old pupil put up his hand and asked ‘How’s your lockdown going?’

I hope these ideas are useful and if you have any questions don’t hesitate to contact me.

Chris Cowan
Director, Loudmouth Education and Training 

Further information 

Contact: chris@loudmouth.co.uk
More about how Loudmouth are delivering and managing their virtual session from this short film 
Loudmouth website www.loudmouth.co.uk