My ten most read posts of 2021

Here’s a run down of the ten most read posts on my blog in 2021. Topics range from perennial issues facing teachers to questions arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.

10. Things to look forward to in spring 2021. I write one of these for the start of each term but none have contained truer words than “This spring term may be more uncertain than any that have gone before”!

9. Lots to look forward to in autumn 2021. Another ‘looking forward’ post; this one for the autumn term. For some reason, Summer wasn’t as popular, at 17th place.

8. Volunteers returning to teaching – Seven practical questions. A recent, topical post on the DfE call for ex-teachers to return to the classroom.

7. Wasp in the classroom. A perennial summer challenge for teachers – I was even asked this once at interview! This advice draws on my experience at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford.

6. Ten ways to gain a class’s attention. Visiting schools means I see a lot of techniques to gain attention. Here are ten to choose from.

5. Looking for a little inspiration? A post pulling together all my downloadable picture quotes posts in one place. The only ‘resource’ post to make the top ten. I update this regularly so it’s worth returning to.

4. Progress on behaviour – haven’t I seen this graph somewhere before? An older post from 2016 on the ups and downs of improving behaviour in a secondary school.

3. Thank you teachers! I wrote this ‘thank you’ when some we might hope would be saying it weren’t forthcoming, despite the challenges teachers had faced.

2. Learning and long-term memory. Another older post that’s still proving popular. This one is about different types of long-term memory and learning.

1. Do windy days wind children up? Once again, a post I wrote back in 2016 is the most read! It’s about research on that perennial teacher topic: does windy weather make children’s behaviour worse?

I hope you find something useful in these posts. If you do, it would be great to hear about it!

Top ten tips for accessible social media

Social media platforms are a great way to communicate, but many posts aren’t accessible to users with visual or hearing impairments or loss. The good news is that it is relatively easy to ensure that our content is accessible to everyone. Here are my top ten tips.

1. Use alt text for images

Alternative text (alt text) is a description of an image that can be read by screen readers used by people who are blind or partially sighted. The description enables them to build a mental picture of the image. You don’t need to include every detail, just the key components that will help create the picture. You might find my post on audio description helpful.

2. Use simple fonts

Many platforms allow you to use a range of different fonts and mix symbols with letters. This can be a lot of fun but can often make text difficult to read for those with visual impairments and can render it completely unreadable by screen readers. Stick to simple sans-serif fonts for your text but also your name / handle.

3. Capitalise hashtags

Camel with the phrase CamelCase aligned with its two humps.
Image credit: Silver Spoon CC BY-SA 2.0

Hashtags are used to identify key words and phrases with the hash symbol, e.g. #Accessibility. They aren’t case sensitive and are often written in lower case but this makes it difficult for screen readers to distinguish the individual words in a phrase. Instead, use ‘CamelCase’ by capitalising each word, e.g. #AccessibleSocialMedia. This way screen readers will be able to convert the text to audio accurately.

4. Use emojis sparingly

Emojis are great fun and often useful in expressing what we mean when we have to stick to a character limit. Be aware that screen readers will read them each in turn, so use them sparingly rather than repeating them for emphasis.

5. Be careful with colour

When working with colour in fonts charts and graphics, contrast is as important as the colours themselves. Although red might seem an obvious choice for providing emphasis, it is low contrast which can make it harder to read for those with a visual impairment. Red/green colour deficiency is also the most common type, so avoid these colours in combination. Similarly, a spectrum of colours might seem a good choice for a graph but may in fact make elements harder to distinguish for some. Instead, use a narrower colour palette or tonal theme.

6. Use bold for emphasis

We often use italicised text to highlight words or phrases but for many this is harder to read. Instead, use a bold typeface for emphasis.

7. Add captions to video content

Adding captions to your video content ensures that it is accessible to a wide range of users. Open captions are ‘burned’ into the video, and so will be visible on any platform, but users can’t switch them off. Closed captions can be be switched on or off by users. Unfortunately, unlike alt text for images, most social media platforms don’t make it easy to add captions. Most video editing software has a facility to add captions, but this can be time consuming if there is a lot of dialogue. If you upload a video to YouTube, captions will automatically be generated. You can then edit these. This can be a quick way to ensure your video is accessible.

8. Make use of platform-specific advice

It is not always obvious from the user interface, but each of the main social media platform offer advice and tools to make content accessible.

Twitter: Advice on making images more accessible from the Help Centre. Follow @TwitterA11y for updates.

Facebook: accessibility pages from the Help Centre.

Instagram: guidance on alt text from the Help Centre.

WhatsApp: FAQs about accessibility

YouTube: YouTube Fundamentals: Accessibility

TikTok: guidance on accessibility from the Help Centre.

9. Test before you post

Always preview or test your content before you post it online, checking that fonts, colours, alt text etc. work first. Computer and mobile phone software usually include a text-to-speech feature which you can use to preview content.

10. Listen to your users

It’s really important to get feedback from users about how accessible your content is. Ideally, following the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’, users with particular needs should have a say in how content is produced. This will help us all produce better quality content. Here are some links to useful guidance:

RNIB accessibility guidance

Stroke Association accessible information guidance

Sense guidance on accessible social media

I hope you find these tips useful. If you think I have missed anything, please let me know and I will happily include it.

Image credit: Flickr / Stacey MacNaught, www.staceymacnaught.co.uk, CC BY 2.0

We make the weather

This is one of my favourite educational quotes. I think it applies as much to remote teaching as when We are in the classroom.

Sometimes we feel a loss of connection during remote lessons, especially if students are on mute with cameras off, but it’s important to remember that we can still ‘set the climate’. In this situation, I think it’s really important to use the same interpersonal skills we would in class. Use tone, expression, and humour. Smile and look directly to camera as you would to a student. We may be looking at a little webcam lens, but our class will feel the connection we are making with them. It will still be our mood that makes the weather.

You can find more inspiring education quotes in my posts on Motivation for Mondays.

Image: Rodger Caseby

Ten ways to gain a class’s attention

In my job, I’m fortunate in visiting lots of schools. I ask the class teacher I’m working with how they usually gain the children’s attention and then use that familiar strategy. This is useful on the day, but has also given me an insight into the variety of strategies teachers use. There seem to be three broad categories – call & response, music & rhythm, and silent strategies – but an almost endless inventive variety within these. Here are my top ten.

Call and response

This takes many forms, but in all the teacher says a word or phrase and the pupils respond, orienting to the teacher and then listening. Examples I have heard include:

“Active…” “…listening”

“One, two, three, eyes on me” “One, two, eyes on you”

“One, two, three, four, five…” “…once I caught a fish alive.”

And one from @FerryNqt on Twitter: “Avengers…” “…assemble!”

Music and Rhythm

One option is to use a musical note to signal attention. The teacher uses a chime or triangle to sound the note. In one case the teacher played a piano chord, but that was in a music room and they had a piano. I have to say that I’ve heard about this technique more than actually seen it used, perhaps because of the inconvenience of needing to carry the musical instrument around with you. The exception is, of course the ubiquitous and invaluable playground whistle.

Many teachers prefer to use clapping rhythms rather than speaking. The teacher claps a simple rhythm and the children repeat it. This gets attention quickly because you have to listen to the rhythm in order to repeat it. The simplest I have heard is just three short claps, but the teacher can be more inventive, using more complex rhythms.

In some Oxfordshire schools I’ve seen this developed into a game to include one rhythm that’s NOT clapped back, so the rhythm _ _ . . . Stands for ‘don’t-clap-this-one-back.’ This requires the children to be more attentive so that they don’t get caught out.

Actions speak louder than words

Some teachers prefer an attention routine that requires no sound at all, simply raising their hand when they require a class’s attention. The children respond by doing the same, stopping all talk and activity to face towards their teacher.

There are a couple of variants to this, usually used to teach young classes who might be slow to refocus their attention from what they are doing and onto their teacher.

In ‘Pause your paws’ the teacher holds one or both hands up closed (perhaps saying ‘pause’); the class respond by holding both their hands up to show their ‘paws’.

Alternatively the teacher may hold their hand (or both hands) up with outstretched fingers and count down to zero by fingers one at a time. As the children notice they copy the countdown until by ‘zero’ they are all attentive. This may later be developed into a simple countdown without the hands.

I hope you found these ideas useful. If you give one of them a try, I’d love to hear how it worked out. Perhaps you use another technique that you’d like to share? Either way, please use the comments.

If you’re interested in children’s behaviour, you might like my post Does windy weather wind kids up?

Image: unsplash.com

Supporting Learning: Teaching Study Skills

Last month, I wrote about a series of Study Skills Guides I had produced as part of my work at The Bodleian Libraries in Oxford. They are available online as part of our OxLibris programme.

I have now finished a set of tutorials that take students through the topics covered. These are Primarily designed to help students taking the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) but they are applicable to any coursework or essay research. They are a development of teaching resources we have previously delivered in schools, or to school groups visiting libraries. These units are intended to either be used as a teaching aid in school or college, or for students to work through independently.

The five tutorials form a set covering good academic practice. Alternatively, each can be used as a stand-alone unit. Once a tutorial has been covered, the accompanying study skills guide acts as a handy single page aide memoir for students as they carry out their own research.

Effective Online Research covers how to form a precise research question, the limitations of search engines, and how to use advanced search engine tools for more effective online research.

Evaluating Online Resources shows students how to evaluate the quality of information from online resources, cross-reference sources and spot fake news.

Effective Note Taking covers how to take more effective notes that focus on connecting ideas and concepts to reinforce your learning. The unit uses Cornell Notes as an example of an effective tried-and-tested system.

Avoiding Plagiarism Shows students how to ensure that they acknowledge their sources of information correctly and fulfil the requirement to avoid plagiarism in their work.

Referencing covers how to reference sources of information in work using in-text citations and a bibliography. The unit explores how to use two referencing systems: the Harvard name-date system and the recurrent number system.

I hope you find these learning units helpful, either in your teaching or as resources to support students’ independent learning. Please do let me know what you think of them in the comments. I welcome suggestions for improvements, or for additional topics.

If you’re interested in effective study, you might like my earlier post on music and revision.

Supporting learning: Study Skills

As part of my work in the education team at The Bodleian Libraries we have recently overhauled our resources to support the development of study skills.

In part this has been in response to feedback about our OxLibris programme which supports students researching for their Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). We support local schools in developing their students’ research skills and they visit us to access books, journal articles, and other texts not generally accessible outside of an academic library.

We also needed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because we were no longer open visitors (or anyone else), we needed to move the programme online so it was accessible to schools. This also allowed us to extend the reach of the resources beyond Oxfordshire.

In the first stage of this move, we have produced a set of five study skills guides. Although designed to meet the requirements of the EPQ these also provide useful guidance on researching for any project or essay.

The guides can be accessed on the OxLibris Study Skills page, in the ‘Online Resources’ section.

Effective online searches covers how to use advanced search engine tools effectively to refine your online research.

Evaluating online resources provides advice of assessing the quality of online sources of information, how to verify such information and how to spot fake news.

Effective note taking gives guidance on making concise research notes that focus on making connections between ideas using the Cornell notes system developed by Walter Pauk.

Avoiding plagiarism explains what plagiarism is and why it is taken so seriously. Drawing on guidance from the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), this guide also explains how to avoid plagiarism in assessed work.

The guide to referencing explains how to cite sources of information used in work. There are two versions, one explaining referencing using the Harvard name-date style and the other using the recurrent number style.

Feel free to have a look at these guides and download them for use with your students. They are not for commercial use and copyright remains with The Bodleian Libraries.

I am currently working on a set of presentations on these topics designed for use either by teachers in class or for students working independently.

Acknowledgements

I am indebted to David Gimson and Lorna Robinson at Cheney School, Sophie Roach at Gosford Hill School, and Jackie Watson at Oxford Spires Academy for providing feedback on earlier drafts of these guides.

Moving to Remote Working

I have a new-found respect for my ancient laptop, having just moved to home working as part of efforts to limit the transmission of COVID-19.

I work in the Education team at The Bodleian, the library of the University of Oxford. We work with visiting schools, teaching about the collections and exhibitions. Like many organisations, in response to government guidance the library has closed to visitors (although online services remain available) and all staff who can have moved to remote home working.

Much of my last day at work was spent preparing for this. With a background in school teaching, I had not had much experience of this (schools generally like you to be with the pupils you’re teaching) but I brought my chunky laptop to work to set it up.

There are a plethora of tools to assist remote working, but the team chose to use those most readily available. To some extent this was determined by those acceptable for use within the university, but that did have the advantage of support from the ICT services team. I think this is an important point. There is almost too much advice on what tools to use, with plenty of opinion on which are the best. What matters, particularly when quick set up is needed, is those which are available and for which you have good support. So while the options we chose – MS Teams – was good for a team used to using Outlook and Microsoft Office applications, for a group used to using, say, Google applications it would be better to choose tools which integrated with that suite.

Old but still got it!

Given the age of my Toshiba 660 laptop, it’s obsolete operating system, limited RAM, and hard drive already bursting at the seams, I approached setting up with some trepidation, concerned that it would no longer be supported, or might just fall over under the strain! In the end I need not have worried. For the record (and to make me seem much more tech-savvy than I actually am) the process involved:

  • Installing Cisco AnyConnect Client (fortunately there was one available for Windows 7)
  • Connecting to a VPN
  • Mapping network drives I would need to access
  • Connecting using the appropriate security credentials
  • Downloading and installing Microsoft Teams and linking with the relevant work teams

That went very well at work. Admittedly, at one point I began to doubt that I knew how to spell my own name, let alone All the passwords I had to juggle (no, DON’T use just one!) and I did have to make one call to a very calm and collected IT services engineer (thank you) but generally it was much more straightforward than I had feared.

A pity, then, that when I got home nothing worked! I remapped the drives on the advice of colleagues who had similar problems, but it turned out to be an issue with the VPN pathway. When I sorted that it all came to life. Well, apart from having to reinstall the MS Teams app the first time I tried to use it. After that it worked like a dream; admittedly a slightly flaky dream where things judder a bit occasionally and there’s a slight delay in most actions, but things worked acceptably.

I didn’t find the MS Teams layout particularly intuitive at first, but once I got the hang of it, everything seemed to do what it was meant to, so we’re happily messaging and even doing video team meetings (sorry about the neon running top colleagues). I like the way it integrates with other MS features like outlook calendars, contacts and OneDrive.

I have to say though, what I’m most pleased about is the performance of my nine year old laptop, on its second battery, with it’s ten year old operating system and Office 2007 applications. It makes you wonder whether the shiny new hardware and expensive upgrades that are pushed at us are really worth it. A bit like me, there may be newer, slimmer models available, but there’s life in the old dog yet!