After making a major shift to remote learning at the beginning of the pandemic, some teachers had to adjust to another unfamiliar environment when their school buildings reopened: teaching students online and in-person at the same time. Engaging, monitoring and supporting two sets of students with very different needs is a complex juggling act that some teachers have described as their biggest challenge ever.
Some schools adopted this model due to staffing constraints or to adhere to safety measures that limit class sizes. Others are trying to maximize synchronous learning time or to keep classes together to maintain bonds that formed during the beginning of the school year.
How might we design learning experiences so that students in any environment get equitable learning opportunities?
Whatever the case, teaching this way takes a major mind shift and a lot of work, teachers say. Personalized Learning Preparatory at Sam Houston Elementary School in Dallas reopened its school building to PreK-5 students with simultaneous learning in the fall after months of remote learning. “I was excited to have the opportunity to have students in front of us and we still got to see the students who wanted to stay home,” says Merced Fletcher, a second grade teacher. “But how do you teach a lesson when some students are at home in front of a computer and others are physically in front of you?”
Dallas ISD’s Director of Personalized Learning Kristen Watkins noted that with challenges of hybrid models like simultaneous learning, the driving question for her team this year is, “How might we design learning experiences so that students in any environment get equitable learning opportunities?”
VIDEO: Second grade in-person and virtual students in Angie Lee’s classroom reflect on their daily commitment. (Courtesy Angie Lee)
From the beginning, it was clear that teachers needed support. To address this, The Learning Accelerator interviewed educators around the country in order to develop concrete guidance on the subject and capture and share specific strategies that have helped teachers and students succeed. Here are three pieces of advice from teachers at Personalized Learning Prep around how to make simultaneous learning work for the “Zoomers” (virtual students), “Roomers” (in-person students) and their teachers.
Build a Strong Culture
Teachers share that it is crucial that they create a culture of learning so that students feel connected no matter where they are. “You have to build the culture first. If the culture isn’t there for kids to collaborate in a productive way, if you don’t define that and what it looks like and coach that, it won’t work,” Watkins advises. “Slow down. Set norms, set your creed, do whatever works for you.”
One challenge teachers encountered was that they had a greater number of students than expected go back and forth between remote and in-person learning due to quarantine protocols from possible exposures or symptoms. Students who flip between in-person and remote learning “are not as engaged as they are in-person, especially compared to the students who are always home,” shares third and fourth grade bilingual teacher Juan Moreno. “We have to bring them back to the mentality that they’re still in school and keep them engaged.” Teachers, however, are already finding a number of strategies that work:
- Hold Morning Meetings and Closing Circles: Starting and ending the day as a whole class helps students create bonds by hearing from remote and in-person peers. Fletcher’s students also use morning meetings to jointly recite their class promise, which is posted online for Zoomers and in person for Roomers. Be sure to call on students in both settings, especially those who are remote.
- Build in Joint Fun Time: Create opportunities for students to socialize with each other in non-academic ways. Fletcher’s second graders love GoNoodle brain breaks and especially love seeing each other dance. She turns her computer screen to the in-person students so they can all see each other. (But there are plenty of other opportunities for fun as well.)
- Do Full Class Video Sessions: It can be easy for Zoomers and Roomers to feel isolated from the other group. Teachers at Personalized Learning Prep have moments in the day when all students will join Zoom so they can be in breakout rooms with peers in both settings.
Second grade students in Merced Fletcher’s second grade class jointly recite their class promise. A physical copy hangs in the classroom for in-person students and a digital copy is available for remote students. (Courtesy: Merced Fletcher)
Foster Ownership Accountability
With so much to balance, trying to monitor every single student at all times and provide individual support is impossible. Personalized Learning Prep teachers opted to maximize their time by allotting less time to direct instruction or having students learn from a video in a “flipped” way to free up class time for targeted instruction in small groups. This structure means that students must take more ownership of their learning with less teacher oversight. Here are ways they are achieving this:
- Set Daily Goals and Provide Reflection Opportunities: Fletcher’s students choose a commitment every morning from a board. At the end of the day, students reflect on whether they met their commitment. “It’s building a lot of student ownership and not me having to be on top of you,” Fletcher explains.
- Create Class Jobs: Teachers developed classroom jobs to support simultaneous learning. Breakout room captains are students who can alert the teacher if there is a question or an issue. When the teacher is working with a small group, a Zoom captain answers questions for students who are working remotely and elevates bigger issues to the teacher. Find ways for all students to get involved.
- Check the Work: Moreno notes that he does random checks on student work like popping into breakout rooms to make sure students are on task and asking students to show their work or progress trackers in quick one-on-one check ins. Having conversations on what led to or prevented success helps build skills like goal setting and self-monitoring.
- Provide meaningful, engaging work: Make sure students are invested in the work by giving them engaging activities. “Give students real meaningful work,” Watkins recommends. “Don’t put them in a room to talk about a multiple choice question. Give them a real question to discuss. If they’re not engaged in the work they’re not going to talk about it.”
Third and fourth grade bilingual teacher Juan Moreno’s virtual classroom made on Google Slides houses important links and agendas for students in one place. (Courtesy: Juan Moreno)
Clarity Is Key
Simultaneous learning is a new model for teachers but also for students and their parents/guardians, so making things simple to start is key.
- Use a Central Structure that Houses All Materials. Whether it is a learning management system, a virtual classroom or a platform like SeeSaw, organize all materials in one place and make it clear what students need to accomplish. Moreno notes that this is important for parents who may not know English or may not be familiar with technology. “Start small and very structured. Start with just one task and build on top of that,” he advises.
- Make Sure Activities Can Be Done by All Students. Evaluate lessons to make sure students are able to engage in activities, particularly if they are remote. “One of the most challenging things for me is that sometimes you have this really awesome idea or something that you did last year and it’s just hard to do when some students are at home,” Fletcher says. Consider whether there are workarounds that can be used to modify lessons like having remote students use virtual manipulatives for a math lesson.
Second grade teacher Angie Lee says in many ways teaching in a simultaneous learning environment has led her back to the basics of teaching. “Remember as a teacher what you already know to be true,” she advises. “Starting small is the thing we do at the beginning of every school year. Set routines and procedures, build relationships. We know these things to be true without the virtual aspect.”
Teaching in this different model is challenging and is just one of the many hardships caused by the pandemic, so be kind. “Know that links will fail. Zoom will crash. Just give yourself grace and give your students and families grace too,” Lee says.
“Nobody prepared us for this and we are really truly doing the best we can, the families are doing the best they can, and students are doing the best they can. And while administrators may never have had this [teaching] experience, they’ve never led a school that has operated this way. Take care of yourself. Cheer each other on. Recognize each other. Everyone is doing amazing things.”