The Covid lockdown has encouraged Joeys teachers to become more creative in their approach so that students, hunkered down in their living rooms, can continue to be challenged. It is especially the case in Technological and Applied Studies (TAS), where Head of Department, Mr Andrew Drewitt Smith, has been relishing the opportunities offsite learning provides.

Of course, like all teachers, he prefers face-to-face engagement. In a classroom setting, it is much easier to nurture the relationships that enable honest feedback and exchange of ideas. In TAS, the importance of the classroom and workshop is even more critical. Practical demonstrations of projects and tool safety must be closely observed and replicated by students. Specific areas of craftsmanship such as a portable smoker barbecue or contemporary entertainment unit, both of which were student-conceived HSC projects last year, require detailed technical knowledge.

Reproducing the creative atmosphere of the classroom has required great foresight and ingenuity on the part of TAS staff. Mr Drewitt Smith says maintaining interest is key. Boys stuck at home are going to become bored and irritable if they have to sit through entire Zoom classes of theory.

To ensure the practical element is maintained, where possible students are sent project kits to work on at home. That may include tools, as well as instructions, work sheets, check lists and safety tests, which have to be signed off by parents. 

“We recently posted out a marquetry task which was mostly plywood, exotic timber veneers, a PVA glue stick and a packing knife,” Mr Drewitt Smith says.

Mr Drewitt Smith, Head of Technological and Applied Studies, conducts a practical demonstration for his students on Zoom.

“You need a packing knife for cutting veneers – that’s the required tool. So we had to seek parental permission and make sure the boys have done their safety tests. We do demonstrations on Zoom in how to use the tool and then induct the boys in safe usage.”

Setting up the workshop for filming demonstrations on Zoom is a logistical challenge. Students must have full vision of both the teacher and the project. Sometimes that means thinking outside the box.

“One of the best things to put the laptop camera on is the wheelie bin,” Mr Drewitt Smith laughs. “It’s about the right height to view down on the machines and bench tops and it’s got wheels so you can move it around. It’s very useful. The cleaners probably think we’re taking the mickey out of them!”

Teachers and students must display the same technical rigour and discipline they would in a regular face-to-face class. For example, to successfully complete the marquetry task, students fill out a work sheet and provide evidence of their practical skills. This involves photographing three images of their project: two close-ups revealing intimate detail and one broad shot showing it in its entirety.

“During lockdown, we have tried to keep the boys hands-on so that they can demonstrate their practical skills and not be on their laptops all the time.”

Mr Drewitt smith

During the construction phase, boys can ask questions via Zoom and hold their work up to the camera for their teacher to comment on. One of the benefits of Zoom is that more reserved students can stay online at the end of a lesson and talk with the teacher in confidence about their project. Some may email and request a post-lesson chat on Zoom. It’s this flexibility that Mr Drewitt Smith thinks can have a positive effect.

“It’s not something that is as easy to do in the same way face to face,” he says. “Some boys are a little bit shy about showing the other boys what they’ve done and Zoom gives us the versatility to allow them to do it in a way that suits them.”

Another advantage of online classes is that they help promote independent learning. After being presented with an assignment, students upload their work to the iLearn page so that it can be marked. It is a transparent process that can be easily monitored and encourages boys to take responsibility for their output.

Mr Drewitt Smith says keeping up the practical side of lessons is key to maintaining students’ interest during lockdown.

“I’m all for trying to get kids to be more self-responsible and self-managing,” Mr Drewitt Smith says. “If they haven’t done something they should have, it’s easy to do a screen shot and highlight it.” Self-managing is a core Joeys learning disposition, along with critical thinking.

The pandemic has placed a substantial burden on all students, but it has been particularly heavy on those in Year 12. Because lockdown began during holidays, some HSC TAS pupils were unable to access projects they had left at school and thus will be eligible for special consideration from NESA. Others took theirs home at the end of Term 2 and benefited from being able to work on them regularly before submission. Either way, because of Covid, for the first time their projects will not be externally assessed. Instead, Joeys TAS teachers will fill the breach, taking on extra days to mark projects.

It is just one of many ways in which College staff have gone above and beyond to ensure all boys continue to receive a quality education during lockdown. Mr Drewitt Smith and his colleagues have certainly made the best of these challenging times, but there is little doubt they are looking forward to returning to Hunters Hill and the back and forth of busy classrooms.

“We have tried to keep the boys engaged and hands-on, so that they can demonstrate their practical skills and not be on their laptops all the time, and that is an achievement,” Mr Drewitt-Smith says.

“But teaching is a social occupation – that’s what we do it for, and you get the best out of the boys when we are all at College. It will be good to be back.”

Mr Drewitt Smith and his colleagues have done a fine job hosting classes via Zoom in the TAS workshop.