Need remote learning feel remote?

‘We have never felt quite as connected’, writes Tom Bunbury, headmaster of Papplewick, a prep school for boys in Ascot

In these isolated times for children, I can honestly say that we have never felt quite as connected as a school as we do now, despite Papplewick boys currently living across thirteen different time zones.

To achieve this, the key principle we embraced at the outset as we put together a remote learning programme for the summer term was simply to keep everything as normal as possible for the boys.

We therefore decided that staff would teach a full timetable of ‘live’ lessons for all our boys from year two to year eight through Microsoft Teams, including art, music, D&T, PE and ICT, all in the same time slots as a normal day at school, including on Saturday mornings.

Daunting and demanding though this was for staff, they rolled up their sleeves to learn completely new skills over the Easter holidays.

While they were doing that, the boys were bonded together, even in lockdown, with various challenges including an extreme reading challenge where photos were posted of boys reading while somersaulting on trampolines, riding pogo-sticks, high up in trees, perched on roofs, or wedged at the top of frighteningly high London stairwells (if they hadn’t already been at home, they would have carried the warning of ‘don’t try this at home’!).

Unsurprisingly, the night before the start of term, many staff were genuinely terrified, and I was plagued with self-doubt as to whether we were going to be able to navigate down this path, let alone whether we’d chosen the right path in the first place.

We also had the added excitement of trying to deliver our live lessons across those multiple time zones from New York to Shanghai, via Bermuda, Lagos and Dubai in between. However, as I wandered around the school on that first morning, I was immediately struck by how similar it felt to any other start of term.

As I wandered around the school on that first morning, I was immediately struck by how similar it felt to any other start of term

Both staff and boys’ voices were coming from classrooms with the usual friendly banter on hand – although when one actually looked in, there was not a boy to be seen.

In fact, it has been remarkably easy to resume the normal rhythm of school life. Tutorials still kick-start every day for that vital pastoral support, lessons, break (Bermudans then join us with the lessons they’ve missed being recorded for them while they’re lying in under palm trees), lessons, lunch, lessons (to bed for those in Seoul at close to midnight), and then some sport.

The extra-curricular programme is undiminished with boys in the four-part first choir sending in recordings from home; Twelfth Night cast members rehearsing as hard as ever but now towards a live radio broadcast; eco, bibliomaniac, debating and Catan clubs all still running, and who would have thought that virtual cricket matches would be so keenly contested and debated every Wednesday and Saturday, as a number of our teams take on first class county sides, not to mention the staff 1st XI?

The real magic though has been to feel that we have regathered as a school once again. Time and again, parents have told me that their sons feel like they’re back at school, and that this has given them real security at this most insecure of times.

It has also been genuinely magical to be able to gather together 200 boys for a whole school assembly, each one logging into the assembly team with a cheery, “Morning Sir!”, and then all being connected together during this truly worldwide phenomenon with live reports about their experiences in lockdown from our pupil ‘foreign correspondents’ in Bangkok, Madrid, Hong Kong, Colombo, Seoul, London and Chandigarh – they were certainly “eat your heart out, Katie Adie” moments!

So remote it has not been as an experience, but for all the normality of our ‘new norm’, and despite the special and unique connection we have all felt at this time, I was probably most struck by the plaintive thoughts of one of our ‘foreign correspondents’ who described that as he flew home at the end of last term, the usual feeling of excitement was unexpectedly usurped by the thought of, ‘will I ever see my friends again?’.

To him and to all our boys, I do hope so… and soon.

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