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Liz Stringer, Head of German and Head of Cygnus House

In our latest isolation blog, SGGS Head of German, Liz Stringer, shares her thoughts on the unique experience of teaching Modern Foreign Languages throughout lockdown.

Some events are noteworthy enough that we can recall exactly where we were, what we were doing and even who we were with at the time.  This of course depends on how old you are now, but some of you reading this may remember the Berlin Wall coming down (1989), the car crash that killed Diana, Princess of Wales (1997), The Twin Towers collapsing on 9/11 (2001), the death of Michael Jackson (2009) or the royal wedding of William and Kate (2011).  In years to come, the SGGS community will remember the Lockdown in 2020, and the pandemic known as COVID-19.

Quite unremarkably, I was in the supermarket on Wednesday 18 March, on my way home from school.  Whilst there, my phone started buzzing and pinging with texts and WhatsApp messages and BBC News alerts, telling me that all schools would be closing from Friday for the foreseeable future. My thoughts went immediately to Year 11 and Year 13 students.  How on earth would we be able to conduct oral exams?  How would I be able to say goodbye and good luck to my exam classes? How would I be able to say goodbye to my Year 11 Cygnus who have been with me since they arrived in Year 7?  How long would this last? There was so much to think about, so much to organise, so much to put into place, so much to learn.  My brain was racing, but I took a moment to try and take the advice I have so often given to students:  Just take one step at a time.

New beginnings

When Friday came, I remember sitting at my kitchen table, surrounded by various books and other things I’d brought home. My bags were full to the brim and I was fighting a panic that I might have left that one vital resource I’d need. Microsoft Teams is a fairly new resource and I knew that it was going to be key to our success; I needed face time and sound with my students.   They need to hear the language, learn, practise and check pronunciation, and of course have conversations in German on a regular basis!  Knowing that not everyone has the same level of access to IT meant that ensuring parity of experience was a vital ingredient to the proceedings.

Teaching and learning a new language requires creativity, focus, determination and a sprinkling of fun!  I was determined that I would beat the challenge of online lesson delivery.  My newest students to the language would have access to pronunciation, my A-level students would have access to the much-needed oral practice and the debates they thrive on.

A fresh approach to learning 

As a German teacher with over 20 years’ experience, the lockdown has given me new and exciting opportunities to find ways to deliver my lessons that are accessible, engaging, interactive and fun. I’ve had to improve my IT skills and grab the new technology available with open arms.  That’s not to say that there haven’t been times when I’ve wanted to throw my laptop under a moving car, but my tech-savvy students have been fantastic in helping me when I’ve needed it (thank you all)!

Student feedback has been vital throughout the lockdown and it’s wonderful to see that their love of language (existing or potential) is not dented by this new way of learning.  This experience has confirmed to me that students respond best to personal contact in various forms, from voiceovers on PowerPoint presentations and live sessions, to live catch-up sessions and Q&A forums. Feedback from these sessions has been unanimously positive, with many students commenting on how motivational it was to see their teacher, hear pronunciations and engage interactively. I have been told by some students that simply knowing their teacher is around has eased their anxiety about missing school.

In a time where everything has seemed so uncertain and even scary, it is not to be underestimated how much of an impact the sound of another human voice can have.  Education is so much more than the simple transition and retention of knowledge; it is a deeply personal process that is just as much about the development of the whole person as it is about the mind.

Thoughts on the future

I hope the lockdown experience will leave a permanent footprint on teaching, as we begin to use newly acquired digital skills and incorporate these into our practices.

I am enormously grateful for the virtual learning environment that SGGS put in place so quickly after lockdown announcement as this has enabled me to maintain the learning programme devised at the start of the school year, and encouraged me to be more creative in finding ways to engage through a screen!  SGGS has embraced the imposed changes and restrictions and run with them; we have acquired new skills (who would have thought that mine would be IT?) and I have found myself applying something I often say to students, “It’s not that you can’t do it, you just haven’t learned it yet.”

Away from my laptop, I have enjoyed my garden properly for the first time in many years, sitting and listening to nature, watching it unfold around me. I have come to know that it is OK to ‘sit and stare’ and also of course, that one of the most important things in life is human contact. I feel privileged to be teaching such a bright, motivated and ambitious group of young people. It’s been an adventure, but I’m looking forward to being back in the classroom now and catching up properly with everyone, –

“Ich kann es kaum abwarten euch wieder zu sehen . Hoffentlich bis bald, ich vermisse euch”