The Bright Side of Lockdown

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Amy Hurley is a Year 3 teachers at Rose Bay’s McAuley Catholic Primary School.

Ordinarily, Year 3 is a huge and eventful year for the children at McAuley Primary School in Rose Bay. As part of their Religious Education Curriculum, the children would normally receive their Sacrament of Reconciliation early in the year in March or April, and receive their First Holy Communion in August. Sandwiched between these two important sacraments is of course, NAPLAN, which runs over a course of designated dates in May.

Thus, the children at McAuley are always made well aware at the outset of the school year that Year 3 is very eventful. The proverbial ‘bridge’ that they cross from ‘Infants’ to ‘Primary’ as they enter Year 3 is made very explicit to them. Much of the first term of Year 3 centres on instilling students with the self-belief of their own capability, capacity and worth, so that they may meet these challenges with confidence and calm.

One thing the children could never have been prepared for, however, was Covid-19.

And so when the pandemic struck, and Australia was sent into lockdown, in a matter of days the concept of school as children knew it was turned upside-down.

Students’ personal devices in the home replaced interactive screens and whiteboards in the classroom. Online delivery of learning content through collaborative applications including Google Classroom, SeeSaw and Google Slides educated children in their homes, in place of face to face teacher instruction at school. Students submitted questions on an interactive online forum rather than raising their hand in the classroom.

Lunchtimes on the playground with school friends were replaced with lunchtimes in the backyard with family, sometimes followed by a bike ride or a walk with the dog. Children would relish in interacting with one another online on Google Classroom, on interactive games including Reading Eggs, and sometimes even via FaceTime (thanks to their parents).

McAuley Catholic Primary School students are happy to be back in the classroom.

And whilst the children were confronted with so many sudden changes; all of which presented significant challenges; the resilience, positivity and enthusiasm they each displayed in embracing this new and unfamiliar mode of learning was highly impressive.

Each morning I would upload the day’s slides prepared for the children to access; containing a day’s worth of work spanning across a range of subject areas from English and Mathematics to Creative Arts and Science. Routinely the children would meet me promptly at 8.40am – and often earlier – for an online roll call.

It was here that the growing camaraderie among my students became increasingly apparent as the days went on. The days would start positively with happy greetings among the students: “Good morning Miss Hurley and my beautiful classmates. Have a lovely day xoxo.” The way in which my eight-year-old students interacted with one another online brought me joy each morning, and their punctuality, application and enthusiasm was admirable.

On each daily set of slides existed a specified timetable, so the children knew in advance the order of tasks to be completed. Each day would also provide a new positive affirmation for the students; all of which were incredibly well-received. The students began to contribute their own affirmations to classroom forums and this positive language was evidenced in their online interactions with one another.

Lunch and recess break times would mirror those in a regular school day, for consistency for the children and for the benefit of establishing and maintaining a routine during remote learning. As teachers we recognised the need to maintain structure for children during such uncertain and unpredictable times.

“As teachers we recognised the need to maintain structure for children during such uncertain and unpredictable times.”

Most children adhered to these designated breaks, however were free to work through tasks at their pace, and take lunch and recess breaks at a time that best suited their family (often with full-time working parents; also working remotely in the same home).

School is better with friends PHOTO: Benjamin Conolly

Often, however, if the children worked during designated lunch and recess breaks and posed questions during such time, fellow students would answer each other’s questions even before I did, which I found to be a wonderful act of support and collaboration.

Communication was strong on Google Classroom each and every day. I would check in on the children at break times, and the children would let me know how they were going and what they were up to.

The day concluded with a message of farewell, whereby I would thank the children for their daily efforts and ask them to answer one simple question: “What Went Well Today?” This question was posed to encourage the children to remain positive in the face of adversity, and to further ensure continuity with a regular classroom and school practice undertaken at the conclusion of each school day onsite at McAuley from Kindergarten through to Year 6: an initiative introduced this year by our wonderful principal.

It was often this time of day when the children would showcase their increased sense of self-responsibility and self-confidence, which has been a joy to witness, particularly in those students who were formerly lacking in confidence. Comments such as “What went well today was that I did a lot of writing in my English book” enabled students to take pride in the completion of their work and celebrate their progress. Children also used this daily sign-off as a display of gratitude for the extra time spent at home with parents and siblings: “What went well today was playing Hide and Seek with my brother.”

“what I find to be most heartening in the whole experience is the high level of resilience and positivity displayed by these children.”

Upon returning to the classroom in recent weeks, the children have demonstrated increased maturity, independence and critical thinking skills. I have observed marked changes in each student. Some are more worldly and inquisitive than ever before. Others are observing a deeper appreciation of personal space and the importance of personal boundaries. I have seen students approach difficult tasks with greater persistence and perseverance, and notice they are more inclined to ‘have a go’ and take risks in their learning than they were prior to the remote learning period.

However, what I find to be most heartening in the whole experience is the high level of resilience and positivity displayed by these children. Of course there were questions, and naturally there were struggles that I would speak through with parents regularly through phone calls and emails, particularly in so far as a lack of social interaction for the children. But in place of the anxiety and fear that one might expect from an eight or nine year old student during a worldwide pandemic, was perseverance and hope, and for that I am very proud.

Amy Hurley with two McAuley Students

One child articulated it perfectly during a morning debrief session on the first day back to face-to-face learning only weeks ago. The children were given the opportunity to reflect upon and discuss the highlights and challenges of remote learning and returning to school. This child in particular embraced the experience with both hands, as did her mother. She was able to articulate not only what she loved about being back at school, but what she relished about the opportunity to learn at home:

“At home I liked that I could speak on Google Classroom whenever I wanted to ask or answer a question. I liked learning at my own pace and being at home to learn. In Remote Learning you could wear whatever you wanted. I liked cooking and doing science experiments with my mum. I also liked riding my bike at recess and lunch. Now that I am back at school I can see my best friends and my teacher.”

“It is unlikely in years to come that these children will ever forget their remote learning experience”

It is unlikely in years to come that these children will ever forget their remote learning experience, nor the Covid-19 pandemic that occurred during their childhood. They form part of a very special generation of children who will be characterised by their resilience and positivity during a time in history when the world was in a global state of hardship and uncertainty.

And may that very outlook be a lesson to us all.