Back to School: How's It REALLY Going?
Our schoolyear started on August 7th. A little more than a week before that, our district announced we were switching to a hybrid model. Our students are divided into 2 groups. Half attend in-person one day while the others join live virtually, and then the groups are switched the next day. We also have a few students who chose the full-time elearning option and join live via Google Meet every day.
Dividing the student body in half allowed us to drastically reduce class sizes and provide more than adequate social distancing in our classrooms and other facilities. Desks are all at least 6 weeks apart, and we even established "safe" teaching zones in the room for us to be more than 6 feet from the nearest students, so we can take off our masks during much of our instruction. Students have been wonderfully compliant with mask rules (on whenever they leave their desks) and other social distancing expectations. So far, nearly a month into school, we've had no COVID cases originating in our schools. We've had some students on quarantine due to cases within their households or symptoms of COVID themselves (more on that later). But even if a COVID case did develop among my students, no one else in our class would be required to quarantine because we're not closer than 6 feet for longer than 15 minutes at any time. It sincerely feels very safe!
Teaching under our hybrid model includes delivering live instruction in the classroom while streaming live on Google Meet to the online students. To make it work, I'm presenting on the large monitor at the front of my room, running the Google Meet through my Chromebook positioned on a rolling podium so I can move it for various instructional needs, and using my desktop computer for attendance, answering emails, addressing tech issues, etc. It definitely feels like this:
We are all experiencing a very real degree of mental fatigue. To protect the students and limit contact, they stay put in class and we, the teachers, rotate to them. This requires us to sign out of all our devices, wipe everything down, pack up, travel down the hall, sign back into everything, and repeat. Even taking attendance is incredibly time-consuming since there are so many designations for attendance (in-person, virtual, etc). I'm getting an insane (or impressive?) amount of steps in just going from students' desks to the Chromebook and back again when I hear, "Mrs. Powell?" over and over again and rolling the Google Meet around the room to interact with the in-class students.
Although the response to the hybrid model from families was mixed, and although there are still some who are frustrated with the model, most were so eager to get kids back into school in any form we could, so we have received lots of patience and grace from our local families. Prior to the start of school, I wasn't sure in-person learning really needed to be a high priority if virtual learning was an option. But now that I see it in action--oh boy, I'm totally on team in-person learning. The students LOVE being back in school. I believe the students are the reason it's working. They are amazing.
They have been so patient, positive, and wonderful.
Even on the days I feel like my carefully-planned lesson ends in abject failure, which has happened a few times or more, the students inevitably recenter me with their warmth and joy. We've already established a number of inside jokes (like me tripping with the Google Meet Chromebook several times, our dance break to Richard Simmons, our goofy names on Blooket, my ability to teleport around the classroom, and more), bonded over the fantastically dramatic Six Minutes Podcast, and air fist-bumping over hard-earned growth. They send me messages from elearning. They work hard. They listen well. They include each other.
I. Love. Them.
There are plenty of things to celebrate:
Kids are awesome
Our school-wide routines, from arrival/dismissal, to bathroom breaks and lunch, to teacher rotations, and a new schedule are running smoothly.
My in-class routines are also running smoothly. I've been running each period following the same routine so that students can get the hang of what we're doing and our focus can be on all our other adjustments. This is now predictable and successful enough I'm able to plan better and students are able to navigate class easily both at school and at home.
My professional burden--I'm even able to go home at a pretty decent hour! This is largely thanks to the fact that my in-class rhythm is settling in and the next items.
Support of our principal--Our principal is VERY supportive. Anything we need, he makes happen. It makes my job so much easier and makes me feel more appreciated and valued as a professional.
Being a team together--our grade-level team is very close-knit, and we work so well together. We share ideas, lean in if we have questions or challenges, text each other enough goofy randomness to keep the laughter going, and eat our very fast lunches together. They are a gift and a joy.
To some extent, the teaching--although I feel like I'm not getting the depth academically I'd really like to be hitting, when I step back to look at what evidence of growth I have, I can see that the students are already demonstrating impressive growth. I'm feeling more confident in my planning and delivery of this (complicated) hybrid instruction.
Relationships--It took a bit longer than I'm used to, but I'm finally feeling that magical unification of us as a class. I'm getting to know my students, and they're getting to know me. That all-important relationship of trust is definitely underway. And every day I see how important these in-person opportunities are.
Now let's talk--honestly--about what's not quite working yet.
Demand on my time/attention--I constantly feel stretched very thin between trying to really see each student in both my in-person and virtual classes and meet all their needs. Like I said, I hear, "Mrs. Powell?" from the online kids so often, largely due to the issue below, that I'm running back to my screen over and over again to reach them.
Kids understanding tech independently--the vast majority of the "Mrs. Powell-ing" is related to navigating our tech tools. It finally occurred to me that I'm expecting the same level of tech-independence out of these kids that I had with my previous students last spring, but those kids had already been with me for months! Of course these students aren't independent yet. But some of them aren't sure how to use links on a hyperdoc, click "log in with Google" on sites, etc. Basics. Very, very needy.
Online behavior--switching from Zoom to Meet has not been my favorite. And when a student repeatedly unmutes themself and disrupts others, there's no way for me to address it with him or her privately and respectfully. I'm struggling with that. I am willing to make a lot of compromises due to our COVID-necessities, but I won't compromise respecting my students and their privacy and dignity.
Feeling like one class--although this is improving tangibly just within the last day or two, it's been a challenge to try to help the two halves of my class feel like one class. It can be hard under normal circumstances for kids to get to know each other, but this hard division complicates it even further.
Feeling confident--I'll have two smooth days and one train wreck. I'll think I've got this running smoothly and then fall flat on my face (almost literally--I trip over the wheels on my rollling podium at least once a day).
To some extent, academic depth/missing work--because so much of our instructional time is still spent helping kids navigate various tools and I'm pulled in so many different directions, I fear I'm sacrificing academic depth. Like I said above, it's better in reality than it feels, but it's definitely weighing on me.
Here are the tech tools I'm leaning on the most:
Pear Deck: This free service turns Google Slides into interactive presentations. I use Pear Deck to host our whole lesson--all the directions, resources, links, etc. Students can see it on my screen and access it on their own, at home or in-person, and I can turn on student-paced mode if a student is absent.
Gimkit and Blooket are our current favorite interactive quiz sites! I love the Kit Collab mode on Gimkit--students create the questions! And the Battle Royale mode on Blooket is super engaging, and I like that I can see a graph of the results to each question live so I can address issues right away.
Google Classroom makes it so easy to distribute work, hold whole-class discussions, etc. I love the "make a copy for each student" feature!
Edpuzzle allows me to assign video lessons with embedded questions to help students explore content, leaving me available to support the MANY other needs I've detailed above.
Learning Farm is a really fun practice-problem site. You can assign lessons or let students pick from the available content, and after a few correct answers, they get to play goofy mini-games against their classmates. The questions are of great quality, and the games are VERY engaging!
In closing, I'll share with you an excerpt from an email I received from a parent. I've re-read this many times. Our classrooms and families' homes overlapping is a tremendous responsibility for us to navigate. It's hard. It's easy to forget parents can possibly see and hear everything we do! But it is also an opportunity to build new bridges, all in the mutual love of these kids.
I just wanted to drop both of you a note about e-learning. Today is really the first day I have been around since school started to witness e-learning.
I worked at my desk all day and listened to both girls e-learning today. I am impressed and pleased with the effort by Mrs. Powell and how she is managing both sets of kids this afternoon. Online and in person kids took turns reading their chapter book. When kids dropped offline because of technical difficulties she took time to re-explain things. Her demeanor was on point and you could hear the patience in her voice. She got the kids going on flipgrid, using technology to keep them engaged. She provided options for those who needed accommodations. Please know I do appreciate the effort she put in and how well class ran this afternoon.
Y'all, I didn't have time to stop and come anywhere close to thinking about how the lesson was going that day. I was literally breathless by the end of it. When I sat down and saw this email, my heart stopped. First, the "Oh my gosh, parents can HEAR class!" realization, and second, the sincere gratitude I felt toward this parent for taking the time to reach out to me--and my principal!--with this word of encouragement that I so desperately needed. I've failed many times already, but maybe I'm doing OK sometimes too.
As you get started, know I'm walking this with you. I'm happy to support you in any way I can.
May you be well. May your plates stay aloft and in one piece. May you have people in your world who make sure you know you're doing OK when you're just not sure yourself. And may your mask stay out of your mouth when you talk (because the struggle is real, my friends).