Excitement and enthusiasm can be felt this week as students gather together for the first time since April, as Shrewsbury begins to welcome its community back onsite.
For one cohort of young learners however, Shrewsbury’s reopening is not only their first time visiting the campus but their first experience in a physical school environment.
EY1 students began the academic year in September like all others; distance learning was in place and online classes continued to replace the classroom. But unlike the rest of Shrewsbury’s students, EY1 children had never met their classmates or teachers before and were yet to experience life at school.
Shrewsbury’s Head of EY1, Leanne Dix, explains the challenge that EY1 teachers and students faced:
“Students would normally begin the first steps of the education pathway by learning about a sense of community; a community that exists in a new world of classmates, outdoor play and classroom adventures away from their own home” she describes. “Distance learning has been an opportunity and a challenge for all schools as they strive to maintain a sense of normal learning, but for EY1 in particular, trying to introduce the idea of community when the school campus is closed has been a special challenge”.
How could Shrewsbury’s EY1 staff ensure a valuable experience to prepare students for their first day onsite?
For Leanne, the key was teamwork:
“We talked as a team about how we could create something beneficial and worthwhile for students. Rather than trying to recreate the classroom, we needed to ensure we successfully nurtured our students’ confidence, independence and sense of self to the best of our ability” Leanne continues.
During normal school operations, one of the foundation stages in preparing children for their education journey would be working to build confidence as children leave their families, often for the first time. And so, with distance learning in mind, projects around the theme of identity and independence were created.
Carefully structured online sessions - at least 3 per day - gave students routine and allowed children to see and hear one another. Planned offline tasks, which were supplemented by resource packs regularly sent to families, worked to build on students’ sense of identity and understanding of the world around them.
In fact, one of the first home resource packs contained materials for children to create handprints and footprints with coloured paints and paper. Students were also tasked with measuring their height and creating loose parts portraits made from a mixture of textiles - work which further supported the theme.
In focussing on a sense of self, students began the process of understanding their individuality. Further resource packs reinforced this by providing modelling clay for students to create sculptures of themselves. “When we hosted our online sessions, this subsequently allowed students to discuss themselves more; their likes, dislikes, favourite things and their families”
The next stage - and probably the most challenging to get right in a period of online and distance learning - was to introduce the idea of another community outside of the family unit.
Just how could students begin to form relationships and understand each other when they’d never physically met?
A unique answer came in the form of wooden pegs…
“As a team, we decided on activities to support ‘community’ and of building relationships” Leanne clarifies. “Wooden pegs were sent home, each with a photograph attached of their teachers or classmates; a physical and tangible representation of their community, which were then used for games and learning”
Some children played hide and seek with the pegs, others took their ‘classmates’ on a picnic. It was a unique and light-hearted idea, but one which helped to solidify a sense of belonging and build relations. The idea being, once students arrived onsite they would be familiar with staff and classmates. Teachers also created and sent home booklets about the class, full of pictures and information about new friends.
The real effectiveness of this work, however, can only be determined by putting it to the test - and now students are at school, Leanne sees just how successful the structured online and distance learning has been:
“You can build a relationship online: you can start to put those important relationships in place. EY1 is a big jump for children. They’re leaving home for the first time - but because of the work we’ve done, they’re not at school with people they don’t know. They’ve met all of their classmates, their teachers and other staff. Clear friendships have already developed and children are confident. These students have dealt with an unprecedented period of challenge, but the work we’ve done together has given them a unique head-start like no other”