A day in the life: ETSS Wicklow*

We’ve been checking in with Educate Together schools to see how they’ve been supporting students through distance learning during the covid-19 restrictions. Here’s an update from principal Colm Kehoe and the students of ETSS Wicklow: 

There has never been any doubt that the various tools for online learning these days have enormous potential and it is true that many schools have already been looking at putting plans in place for unexpected closures due to storms or snow or any such emergencies which arise. The Covid-19 school closure created extreme conditions resulting in a particularly lengthy school closure which continues at the time of writing. There was an enormous danger that education would be impossible to sustain and fears of disengagement from learning for months, leading to real problems for schools when they reopened. However, for those who look for opportunity in adversity, this was the perfect moment to bring the potential of all the available online tools to bear and create a service that could continue education and avert all these fears. It was an opportunity to engage in the biggest technology training exercise in the history of education.

At ETSS Wicklow, we set out in our first year as a school to be ambitious with technology and committed to traditional educational values at the same time. All year, we have been developing a blended approach to education – we don’t see technology as threat to traditional values such as striving for excellent writing skills and articulate speaking skills, but as something that can create new possibilities for how we do things. That’s why, among other initiatives, we created a multi-board room as a trial innovation for combining technology with active learning approaches, using technology to get rid of the concept of ‘the back of the class’ and encourage more writing and speaking at the same time.

When the news broke of an impending school closure, as a school, we quickly identified the tools we wanted to use to continue our ambitious approach in a new online environment. We identified an online classroom forum where teachers could meet their classes, a platform to prepare engaging class plans full of interesting resources, an application that allowed teachers to create tutorial films, a video conferencing facility to continue the calendar of meetings. These tools, Microsoft Teams, Flipgrid, ScreencastOmatic, Powtoon and Zoom, became key services as we developed our strategy. We set up a timetable of core classes to be delivered in real time each day and the options and short courses would be continued through video tutorials. Students at ETSS Wicklow never stopped attending school – classes have continued online every day right throughout the school closure.

With this strong structure in place, we were able to build in a lot of nice touches into the programme – we invited incoming first years to join our online school for a day, their first classes since their own school closures – it was tremendously successful initiative and teachers taught groups of up to 60 students in one class – something that could never happen in real life!

“One thing I really like about online learning is it takes way less time because you don’t have to deal with distractions. This gives you more time to study, put extra work in or even relax and invest in a hobby. If you think about it, it’s a greener way of life because people don’t need to take a car or a bus to school, which saves on petrol money or bus tickets. When a class is over, if you are still struggling, you can just email a teacher and they can help you!” – JC (first Year student)

Weekly general assemblies were organised with wellbeing components such as dealing with working at home, advising about dealing with the Covid-19 crisis and even developing a recipe book to help provide ideas for meals at home. A YouTube channel was opened with infographics publishing important information about upcoming online events. A daily homework club started with SNAs and teachers helping students for one hour each afternoon. The chess competition moved from real life to an online platform where everyone can watch the games live. An inter-class debate on the motion ‘Real School is Better than Online School’ where students will get the opportunity to compare and contrast their two very distinct experiences of education this year. The calendar of meetings continued as normal – Board of Management Meetings, Staff Meetings, PSA Meetings and Student Council Meetings. We explored new possibilities such as e-twinning opportunities with schools in France and Guatemala – the reality right now is that almost every school in the world is online – there has never been a better moment in history to engage with schools outside of Ireland.

In one final innovation, we have decided to have real summer assessments online too – why not? They have never missed a day of school! A full week of exams has been set up for the last week of May and will be supervised by teachers on zoom. The students will be divided into groups of sixteen, facilitated by Zoom’s breakaway room function – teachers will prepare papers in the normal way and supervisors will share them on their screens. Students will complete written exams, photo them and send them to the supervisor when the exam is finished to be handed to their teachers to be corrected.

What have we learned from this experience? This school closure has proved without doubt that an ambitious approach seeking to get the best of technology in education can yield quite remarkable results. Students, parents and staff worked together to set up a great online school with remarkably positive results. In our last survey, checking in with everyone about possible improvements we could make to the system, a number of students asked if they could continue online education right through until they leave school. Our most recent PSA meeting tabled the possibility of having some remote meetings next year as an agenda item for discussion at the AGM in September.  One thing is for sure – once this crisis is over, the next natural step is to look at how we can bring the expertise learned during this period back into teaching and learning and incorporate some elements of online school into future planning.

*Wicklow Educate Together Secondary School

Visit the school website: www.etsswicklow.ie

Find Wicklow ETSS on Twitter: @ETSSWicklow

“In e-school we have learned to be more adaptable and get our work done as well as we would if we were in a classroom with a teacher. If this had happened 30 years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to continue our learning to the extent that we can today. While it’s incredible to think we will now be part of something momentous in history and will one day tell the story to future generations, I think we will all be excited to get into a real classroom instead of a virtual one as soon as possible.” – GW (First Year student)

Real stories from the Educate Together community

Educate Together’s schools mean so much to the lives of the children and young people who attend them, and to the communities that they are a part of. You can read, watch and listen to real stories from the students, staff and families involved in the Educate Together school movement on this page and at the links above. Do you have an experience from an Educate Together school which you would like to share? Share your story: info@educatetogether.ie