Tomorrow I will begin teaching with students physically in front of me for the first time since March 13, 2020, six months ago. It will be my twenty-fifth first day of school. With so much uncertainty and still so many unanswered questions, I feel a lack of confidence and readiness that I haven't felt since year one. To be clear, I am incredibly fortunate to be working in a district that is probably as well prepared as any. Staff and families have been kept in the loop since the beginning of the summer, with opportunities to provide feedback on plans. Teachers are being provided with necessary supplies. Families were given the option to choose full distance learning, which will be taught by the same teachers they would have been with if they were in person. Classrooms in grades 7-12 will have no more than 15 students as we're using an A/B hybrid schedule. Half the class will be physically in front of me while the other half joins synchronously from home via Zoom. In other words, if it is possible to do hybrid, pandemic teaching well, my situation is pretty well set up for success. But still, there are so many unknowns and a lot of anxiety surrounding my return tomorrow.
Spring 2020, Distance Learning is Happening
My classroom was well prepared for the switch to distance learning. Last spring, when we switched to DL, my students remarked that my class didn't really change much at all! They have always been able to work at their own pace, access their work from anywhere, and get support from me 1:1 or small group as needed. If you're not familiar with my playlist model, check out this blog post from a few years ago. Things have evolved since then, but it will give you the idea.
Before DL, I started each class with a quick intro or mini-lesson, no more than 5 minutes, then had students break out into small groups to work on playlists. I bounced around the room on my rolly chair checking in with students to answer questions and provide support. During DL, I started my class via Zoom for the intro, then put students into breakout rooms that were the same as the groups they worked with in class. The breakout rooms turned out to be amazing. Students were able to connect with each other, socialize a bit (something they were sorely missing) and continue having "math fights" in the same way they did in my classroom.
Typically when I join a group or check in with an individual student I open with, "tell me about what you're working on." This is a great strategy to get them talking about the math they're working on. It's much better than what used to often happen:
me: "Do you have any questions?"
me: "okay, good talk."
A few weeks into DL though, I started to pivot. Instead of asking about the math, I asked how they were feeling. Not every day, just when it felt right. Some said, "fine...can you help me with number 4?" Cool, you're good. But others immediately opened up about how hard it was being isolated from friends and family. To be honest, those days were emotionally draining on me. There were class periods where I only went into breakout rooms when a student asked a question because I didn't have the capacity to do more, or because my 8 year-old was having a meltdown in the other room about her own DL frustrations. However, I was able to maintain relationships and connections with my students even though I couldn't be in the same room with them. In my EOY survey that I do every year, many reported how much they enjoyed coming to my class, even during DL, because they knew I cared and understood.
I have a vision for hybrid learning that looks very much like what I did in the spring. During whole class time, the DL students will be on Zoom. I will share my screen and also have my camera pointed at me in front of the SmartBoard so they can see me. When students at home speak, students in class can hear them clearly through the SmartBoard's speakers. I tested this out this week with teachers in my department, some of whom were in person, and others at home (or a passenger in a car!). We tried to position the microphone so that if students in class speak, those at home could hear, but that didn't work. I will have to repeat what is said so that those at home will be able to follow along. After that, those in class will begin working independently since they must stay 6 feet apart. I will put the DL students into breakout rooms. I will then try my best to equally support the students in front of me along with those in breakout rooms. I will also have to monitor and follow up with students who are at home and unable to attend class.
You've Got This!
I have so, so, so many questions and worries going into this week. However, I am truly optimistic and believe that this can work. I'm going to focus on building relationships with ALL of my students, whether in person or via Zoom, and trust that the rest will follow. Rather than focusing on how much math I won't be able to get to, I'll try to focus on how much I will.
I will try to report back in the coming weeks with how things are going.