Students, the PanMe-Microphone is yours: Social interaction, Communication and Learning at a Greek Primary School context

A classroom at a Greek Primary School during the pandemic, June 2020.
A classroom at a Greek Primary School during the pandemic, June 2020.
A classroom at a Greek Primary School during the pandemic, June 2020.

[ Cite this article as: Styliani Karatza, “Students, the PanMe-Microphone is yours: Social interaction, Communication and Learning at a Greek Primary School context,” in PanMeMic, 30/08/2020, https://panmemic.hypotheses.org/?p=827 ]

June 2020. A special month for all Primary School students in Greece. A month with unique characteristics. The month a) during which Primary School students went back to their schools for 4 weeks, b) after about 2,5 months of schools closure, c) after experiencing digital learning for the first time – at least for the vast majority of students and d) before the summer break.

What did Primary School students actually think about all this? What kind of changes did they perceive in their own social interaction, communication and learning experiences?

Research Context, Design and Methodology

“Will we go back to school in June?”, all of us had been wondering. High schools had already reopened. Things seemed to run smoothly. No special problems reported. Now it was time for Primary Schools and Kindergartens. The little ones returned to schools last. A mixture of feelings. Anxiety. Uncertainty. Fear. Eagerness. Joy.

Since March 11th, children had experienced the “staying at home” period which gave place to “staying safe” period after a couple of months.

Table 1. Different periods of time.

Teachers may have thought that the classroom would be like Figure 1,

Figure 1. ‘When schools reopen’, online source: Mangena.

but at least in the school where I work, things were much more different. From day one, I realized how much students felt the need to come back to their normal life and to meet their friends in person. Most of my students were very happy to come back, feeling a kind of relief.

The new regulations (Table 2) we had to follow prevented what is shown in the picture (Figure 1). Overall, peace and quiet prevailed in the classroom. There were fewer students in every classroom. Given the distance between the desks and the smaller number of students, there were fewer disruptions during the teaching and learning process. Things ran smoothly.

Basic regulations of schools reopening:
– Students in shifts (Group A/B)
– One student per desk
– 1,5 meters distance between desks
– Particular classes in specified schoolyard areas
– No obligatory use of masks
– Physical distancing
– No sharing objects
– Individual school items
-Snacks from home
– Bottles of water from home
Table 2. Some basic regulations of schools reopening, June 2020.

I will refer to some of the practices adopted in my school to provide some important contextual information for this study:

Teachers did their best to promote behaviours that reduce spread such as a. teaching and reinforcing handwashing with both soap and water when possible (although students were not allowed to use some of the taps at school, which made handwashing not feasible during the breaks), b. supporting healthy hygiene behaviours by providing adequate supplies, for example hand sanitizers in every classroom, and c. posting signs or posters with guidelines on maintenance of healthy hygiene on the walls. However, the use of masks/ face coverings was not obligatory except for particular cases: it was mandatory to wear a mask when the teacher and the student had to be very close. The main protection rule was to keep safe distance.

Teachers also tried to maintain healthy environments as they cleaned and disinfected frequently touched surfaces such as desks and chairs every morning because students came to school in shifts and their desk might have been used by other students the previous day. They reminded safety regulations, discouraged sharing of items and opened windows frequently to ventilate the classroom. Space between desks were measured and desks were located at least 1,5metres apart and they were turned to face the same direction. Moreover, only one student was allowed to sit at every desk instead of two as students are typically allowed to. Children had to bring their own snacks. There were different areas in the schoolyard for different groups of children. In my school, the schoolyard was big enough to accommodate groups of students in different spaces at the same time, so the council of teachers decided to have common breaks but designated specific schoolyard areas for each class to avoid any inconveniences which would be caused by different break times.

Although just 5 days before Primary schools actually opened, we had not been sure whether they would open again, I designed my research the first and second week of schools reopening and implemented my research the third week after schools opened. The findings I am presenting in this website post are part of a broader research study on teaching, learning, communication and social interaction from students’ and teachers’ perspectives for which I collected and analysed data from questionnaires, focused group discussions, children’s drawings, observation and ethnographic research. The research took place at a Greek Primary School on an island near the Greek capital, Salamina.

I have selected some findings in relation to changes in social interaction, communication and learning drawing upon students’ responses and ethnographic data. 50 students, 8-12 years old, filled in a questionnaire with close-type and open-ended questions individually but at the same time were allowed to share their thoughts with their classmates through our in-class discussion. Then, the students participated briefly in in-class focused groups on particular topics/issues.

More specifically, I raised the following questions:

  1. How much did students think that their interaction with others had changed?
  2. How did students communicate with their friends during and after the lockdown?
  3. Which ways of greeting did students prefer?
  4. What kind of measures did students actually take at school?
  5. How much and how did they change the way they played with their friends?
  6. What was different in the classroom as a design for learning from students’ perspective?
  7. What did students miss and what seemed weird to them at school in June 2020?

Research Findings

  1. How much did students think that their interaction with others had changed?

How much had students’ communication and social interaction with their peers changed? Had communication between students changed in the school context? Were there changes in students’ social practices (greeting, playing etc)?

Figure 1. How much social interaction had changed from students’ perspective.

In general, almost half of the students felt that their interaction with others had changed only a little. On the one hand, one out of five students had observed a big change, on the other hand a bit fewer students noticed no difference in their everyday interactions. Here, I should add some contextual information. The students who participated in this study live on an island which is very close to Athens, the capital of Greece. People commuted because of their work and interacted with residents in Athens or Piraeus on a daily basis. However, a lot of people here believed that there was no case of COVID-19 on the island and did not feel so threatened by the existence of the virus especially when during the lockdown only residents of the island were allowed to transfer to other places for their work or another important reason.

2. How did students communicate with their friends during and after the lockdown?

How did students communicate with their friends during and after the lockdown? The majority of the students reported that they communicated through videocalls. Secondly, students used messages and thirdly they took phone calls. Online lessons also served as a means of communication with peers for 40% of the participants. Something that should be taken into account is that 36% of the participants kept meeting their friends in person during the lockdown.

After the lockdown, moving back to normality, all participants met their friends in person. Definitely, at this age children’s friends are also possibly their classmates so all the participants were students who returned to school and this finding was expected (because there was a number of students who did not return to school for several reasons). 44%-50% of the participants continued sending messages, taking videocalls and phonecalls. Interestingly, there was an important decrease of the number of students who continued using videocalls after they had been allowed to meet their friends in person but the number of students who used phonecalls was the least changed one. Therefore, it could be argued that videocalls compensated for the need of seeing the other in person during the lockdown, but this need was less imperative after the lockdown.

Figure 3. Preferred ways of communicating with friends during the lockdown.
Figure 4. Preferred ways of communicating with friends after the lockdown.

In the open-ended questions which accompanied Items 2 and 8, students were asked which way of communicating with their peers they preferred during and after the lockdown, respectively. Half of the students noted that videocalls were their favourite way of communicating with their friends because as they justified “a videocall is more alive/vivid” and “you both talk with and see each other”.

In students’ responses to Item 8, which concerned their preference after the lockdown, 92% of the participants responded to the open-ended question that they preferred meeting others in person. Some students commented:

“It is different to see your friends through a mobile phone from seeing them in person.”

This view was shared by a considerable number of participants as our discussion revealed. But a student who had an opposing opinion wrote:

“I prefer videocalls because you feel like being with the other person but you are safe”.

The answer provided by this student represented those who were still very careful or even frightened in relation to the spread of the virus.

Remarkably, 16% of the participants only checked the option of meeting others in person, which means that they did not use technological means to communicate after the lockdown.

3. Which ways of greeting did students prefer?

During the lockdown, children went out for a short walk with their parents, for a walk with their pet, to exercise, to ride their bike after getting permission via sending a message to the responsible Ministry. Therefore, they may have met a friend outside. How did they greet each other?

Figure 5. Ways of greeting.

More than half of the participants reported that they had adopted a totally new way of greeting; elbow shake. Greeting from a safe distance by smiling or waving hands was preferred and feet shake, another new way of greeting, was used by one out of five of them.

Typical ways of greetings which involve touching such as hugging and high five were used by 28% and 16% of the participants, respectively. These findings are relevant to students’ previous responses as some of them had reported no change in their everyday interaction with their friends and kept communicating with their friends in person during the lockdown.

Interestingly, even though able to select more than one answers, some students selected only one (see Figure 6) signifying that this single way of greeting was typical for them. 22% of the participants opted for only one way of greeting from a distance: 12% of the participants adopted a new way of greeting with their elbow or leg or only smiled at others (6%). For 6% of the students, hugging their friends was irreplaceable despite the advice for alternative ways of greeting.

Figure 6. Ways of greeting which were selected as a unique choice.

Apart from the suggested options, through the in-class conversation and the questionnaires, students added three more ways of greeting, which they had adopted during the lockdown: a. ‘elbowhug’, b. showing heart hugs, c. sending kisses from a distance (Figure 7). This finding showed that students could be inventive to adapt to the new circumstances.

Elbowhug
Showing heart hugs
Sending kisses

Figure 7. Three more ways of greeting suggested by the students

Interestingly, one of my classes had adopted a greeting ritual at the end of the lessons every day before the lockdown. They had created a poster with three drawings which showed three options of greeting each other. They had included a. showing heart hands, b. hugging each other, c. high five (Figure 8).

Figure 8. Ways of greeting classmates before the lockdown.

When this class returned to school after the lockdown and while discussing what was changed in relation to their classroom before the lockdown together, they suggested a change in the greeting ritual so as to be able to do it again after adapting it to the new circumstances. Therefore, they replaced drawings b and c with ways of greeting from a distance. In their new poster, they selected to include a, showing heart hands, b. elbow shake, c. feet shake (Figure 9).

Figure 9. Ways of greeting classmates during the pandemic.

4. What kind of measures did students actually take when they were at school during the pandemic?

Item 9 of the questionnaire focused on the measures that students took to prevent the spread of the virus.

Figure 10. Measures taken by students at school during the pandemic.

Sanitizers/ Washing hands: The vast majority of students brought sanitizers and wet hankies with them and/or used the ones available for everyone at the teacher’s desk. Secondly, students opted for the “washing my hands often” option. However, handwashing was not so feasible during the breaks at school because in fact some taps were closed to prevent students from drinking water directly from the tap so as to avoid possible spread of the virus. In particular, students were allowed to use only a small number of taps on the first floor of the building. But, they were not allowed to use the taps at the schoolyard, where they spent their time during the breaks.

Snacks: School canteens were not allowed to offer their services in June 2020. Therefore, all students brought home-made snacks. Slightly more than half of the participants responded that they ate only their snacks and they avoided sharing with others, which inevitably means that almost half of the students would share some chips or biscuits with their friends at the schoolyard.

Distance: According to students’ responses, safe distance was kept by only 3 or 4 students per 10 students. From my observations, distance was kept to some extent in the classroom but it was not kept by the majority of students at the schoolyard.

Masks: The use of mask was optional at the school context in June 2020. A lot of students brought one or two masks with them but mostly kept it/them in their schoolbag or showed it/them to their classmates in the way that children show a new school item they have bought to their classmates. On the first day of Primary School reopening, some students came to school wearing a mask. A number of students wore the mask during the first lesson. Especially in a class with a teacher of high health risk, I saw all the students wearing a mask on day one. After two or three days, I saw no mask at school.

One of my students, who actually ticked all option-choices in relation to protection measures, also added another one; gloves. This student was really fond of using all protective measures available. Especially on the first day, during our lesson, he put sanitizer more than five times; he wore different masks; he wore the same mask in different ways for example with his nose behind the mask, then out of the mask etc; he showed it to his classmates; he put on and took off one-use gloves for several times, but he also went to another classmate’s desk to show something on his book; he shared a pen; turned to look at and talk to his classmates. So, he adopted new practices probably merely because they were new and interesting for him but also continued behaving as he had used to before.

No playing with others: Before school reopening, I had read about students playing individually in marked areas at the schoolyard (e.g., in France) and students playing with only three of their classmates during the breaks (e.g., in Denmark) in other European countries. Some students in other parts of Europe who had gone back to school before students in Greece had reported that one of the things that had made them feel sad was the fact that they could not play with their classmates. Therefore, one of the options I provided was “not play games”. Only a small minority of students stated that they would not play with others as a protective measure. In fact, teachers often reminded students of keeping safe distance during the break and staying at the particular part of the schoolyard that their class was supposed to be, but what actually happened was that students played with others as they had used to do before especially after a couple of days after coming back to school.

5. How much did they change the way they played with their friends?

Only a small minority of the participants in my study opted for the “no play” option provided in Item 9. This was a quite expected finding. That is why I had included an item which was especially focused on playing games (Item 10). I had supposed that some of the students would be able to report changes in their interaction while playing with others given the fact that students would be willing to play with their friends but would still be probably cautious due to the circumstances and social distancing suggestions/ regulations reminded by teachers who monitored them during the breaks.

Figure 11. How much students changed their way of playing with their friends.

On the basis of students’ responses to Item 10A, the majority reported a change in their way of playing with others. In particular, the way of playing changed very much for 40% of the students while a similar proportion (42%) answered that it changed only a little.

Since I was curious to know more about these changes, students who answered that their way of playing had changed, were also asked to respond to an open-ended item by writing what had changed (Item 10b). By grouping students’ free responses, I found the following:

Figure 12. Changes in the way of playing with others reported by students.

6. What was different in the classroom as a design for learning from students’ perspective?

The students were involved in an oral discussion about what was different in the classroom after the lockdown. They reported changes by comparing the classroom as a design for learning before the lockdown and after the lockdown. What was ‘new’ in the classroom? What was ‘normal’ according to their perception?

Figure 13. A classroom in a Greek Primary School in June 2020.

Students noticed and reported:

  • new objects in their schoolbag and on the desk (e.g., sanitizers, personal whiteboard markers, mask) (Figure 13)
  • new objects (e.g., sanitizing products) on the teacher’s desk and the bookcase (Figure 14)
  • new posters (with advice on handwashing) (Figure 14)
  • new practices/ new rituals (e.g., sanitizing desks, opening windows to refresh air, no exchange of objects between students or between student and teacher,
  • new arrangement of desks and distance (students reported that they spoke less, did not speak to their classmates as they had used to and they turned their head towards others more) (Figure 13)
  • new way of sitting (without sharing desks with classmates) (Figure 13)
  • new learning/assessment processes (self-correction, checking the answers written on the board), as their teacher did not gather their notebooks to correct their work and return them
  • new number of students (half)
Figure 14. A teacher’s desk during the pandemic, June 2020.

This changed semiotic landscape had the effect of:

  • keeping social distance
  • promoting behaviours that reduce spread (like not sharing objects, using personal things only)
  • helping students realize through their everyday experiences how to maintain a healthy environment
  • demonstrating that there should be flexibility and readiness to be able to adjust to new realities
  • not permitting all kinds of collaborative work, in-class games and activities
  • promoting self-correction (a life-long learning, self-study skill) and students’ autonomy

7. What did students miss and/or what seemed weird to them at school in June 2020?

Due to all these new regulations which shaped the ‘new normal’ learning landscape in June 2020, was there anything that students missed in relation to their ‘normal’ schooling experience? Item 11 of the questionnaire asked students whether there was anything that they were missing or seemed weird when schools reopened in relation to schools before the lockdown.

40% of the students wrote the same thing: they missed the other half of their class.

This was a high percentage of similar answers for an open-ended question. Therefore, this finding signifies the importance of being with all the classmates in the school classroom context and reminds us of the unique contribution of schooling to the preparation of a young person for the participation in society as school constitutes a miniature of society. The fact that only half of the students of a class were allowed to participate in the lessons each day generally made students feel sad and dissatisfied.

Some of the students’ responses:

“I miss my friends/ classmates”

“Not sharing the desk with my friend”

“The classroom and keeping distance are weird for me”

“Sanitizing our hands all the time is weird”

“Nothing. Everything is as it used to be.”

“Our everyday routine is different”

“We don’t hug each other”

Conclusions

Changes in social interaction, communication and learning were reported by the Primary School students who participated in the present case study. During the lockdown, the students preferred talking with their friends mainly through videocalls as they felt the need to see them while talking with them. After the lockdown, the students clearly stated their preferrence for meeting their friends in person and pinpointed the importance of their friends’ physical presence. More than half of the participants stated that they had adopted at least one new way of greeting from a distance such as elbow shake, showing adjustability to the new circumnstances. Most students had got used to washing their hands and using sanitizers to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at school. However, a number of students kept sharing snacks with their friends and did not keep safe distances during the breaks. The vast majority of students played with their friends at the schoolyard but they seemed to be cautious while playing as they reported either remarkable or small changes in their way of playing with others, such as keeping distance, avoiding touching each other and not playing some games. The students were capable to specify in detail all the changes in their learning experience in the classroom after the lockdown. They reported changes in terms of the placement of classroom objects, everyday practices, learning and assessment procedures, existence of objects and participants. Finally, although the students enjoyed the benefits of having lessons in smaller groups, many of them stressed the fact that they missed the other half of their class because the two groups came to school in shifts.

Students’ learning experience at schools during the pandemic in June 2020 was unique because of the special regulations that students and teachers had to abide by and the low number of COVID-19 cases in Greece at that time. Schools are opening again in the following days. The date of their opening has not been specified yet. The exact regulations that teachers and students should follow have not been announced either. New regulations such as wearing masks are expected to bring different kinds of changes in students’ communication, social interaction and learning. With the hope that this will be a safe and creative school year for every student and teacher all over the world, we will give the PanMe-Microphone to students again in some months to learn their perceptions and new experiences at school during the pandemic.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my students who willingly participated in our discussions and responded to the questionnaires. I would also like to thank my colleagues and the director of the Primary School for letting me use photos from the school spaces and my students’ parents, who gave me the permission to involve their children in this research project and publish its data. Finally, many thanks to my friend Dori Mantzari, who read this website post and gave me her helpful feedback.

stylianikaratza

Styliani Karatza is an Adjunct Lecturer of the Faculty of English Language and Literature of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece, and an experienced teacher of English as a Foreign Language in Greek primary schools. She holds a B.A. in English Language and Literature, an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and a PhD in Applied Linguistics from the Faculty of English Language and Literature of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece. Her research interests include multimodality, social semiotics, SFL, multimodal discourse analysis, language teaching, testing and assessment. She has worked as a collaborator of the Erasmus+ Key Action 2 project EU-MADE4LL, European multimodal and digital education for language learning, appointed by the University of Leeds, UK, for the production of the Common Framework of Reference for Intercultural Digital Literacies (CFRIDiL 2019). She has worked as an instructor of the e-learning Foreign Language Teacher Training Program called “Move Forward” held by the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. She has also worked as a researcher at the Research Centre for Language Teaching, Testing and Assessment (RCeL) and as an English as a Foreign Language teacher with students of different ages, all proficiency levels and different educational levels in both the private and public sectors.

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stylianikaratza

Styliani Karatza is an Adjunct Lecturer of the Faculty of English Language and Literature of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece, and an experienced teacher of English as a Foreign Language in Greek primary schools. She holds a B.A. in English Language and Literature, an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and a PhD in Applied Linguistics from the Faculty of English Language and Literature of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece. Her research interests include multimodality, social semiotics, SFL, multimodal discourse analysis, language teaching, testing and assessment. She has worked as a collaborator of the Erasmus+ Key Action 2 project EU-MADE4LL, European multimodal and digital education for language learning, appointed by the University of Leeds, UK, for the production of the Common Framework of Reference for Intercultural Digital Literacies (CFRIDiL 2019). She has worked as an instructor of the e-learning Foreign Language Teacher Training Program called “Move Forward” held by the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. She has also worked as a researcher at the Research Centre for Language Teaching, Testing and Assessment (RCeL) and as an English as a Foreign Language teacher with students of different ages, all proficiency levels and different educational levels in both the private and public sectors.

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6 Responses

  1. Najma Al Zidjaly says:

    Loved this article. Thank you Stella. My name is Stella too by the way (but in Arabic 🙂 …

    • Stella Karatza says:

      Najma, thank you so much for your kind words. I am very glad you liked the article! ⭐⭐

  2. Katya Nikolova says:

    Thanks for the timely investigation and for sharing it. I am intrigued to what the findings would be in similar studies throughout Europe and on the Balkans in particular for I suppose cultural similarities and differences would come into light.

    • Stella Karatza says:

      Katya Nikolova, thank you so much for reading the article and for your comment. I totally agree with you. It would be great if we could see the findings of similar studies! We could also organise a cooperative study investigating common issues in different parts of Europe or in different parts in the world.

  3. Vassilakou Evangelia says:

    Very interesting and enlightening research findings. A GREAT article!!! Thank you for sharing your expertise!

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