Teaching in Two Places at Once: A Day in the (Early) Life of a Hybrid Classroom

Half of my fourth period IB English class has made it to our gathering place in a conference room above the gym (we can’t fit safely in my regular classroom). I look at them, seated neatly in spaced out rows, just laptops on their desks and very little else around them. Patterned masks and disposable surgical masks and masks celebrating the Class of 2021 stretch across their faces. 

“So…are you all as unnerved by the constant quiet as I am?”

Their relieved laughter is the best sound of the day–maybe the week–and their knowing nods and “smizing” eyes are like applause for Tinker Bell; my spirit is revived. 

I laugh with them, look at my laptop, and click on the recurring meeting link for our class. Once I can see a dozen faces floating in their Brady Bunch boxes, we’re ready to begin. 

Welcome to life in a hybrid synchronous classroom. This year, my posts for Moving Writers will focus on how I am learning to teach in two places at once as my school navigates a hybrid learning model. 

At my school, we’ve split the student body into three tracks. Students in tracks A & B attend classes in opposite “two days in school/two days at home” rotations; students in Track C are virtual all the time. The school expects those learning virtually to attend classes in real time, though they are not expected to remain online for our full 80-minute periods. I’m at school five days a week, teaching in person and online students simultaneously. 

I recognize that my hybrid model is one of many different models being implemented in this very different year. I know, too, that as a teacher at a small independent school, I have some resources at my disposal that others don’t. I’m also young and healthy, and though I felt really scared by the prospect of returning to face to face learning because I spent the summer living alone and very in control of my environment, I know that teaching in person has done my soul and my mind a lot of good already. If you are teaching in person and feeling scared or unprotected, I hope to offer some strategies that ease some mental burden. We got this…together.

In this column, I’m going to try to keep things simple. I’ll share what works for teaching online and in-person (and some suggestions for adaptation); I’ll mourn what I miss (in the hopes that it’s cathartic for you); and I’ll celebrate the unexpected gifts that this strange stretch of time brings our way. Today, I’ll describe a day-in-the-life of my hybrid classroom, but future posts will focus on more specific lessons or ideas. As I write, I look forward to hearing from you and learning more about what’s working for all of us who are teaching in two places at once. 

A Question and a Wave

I look at my online students and explain what their classmates and I were talking about as they walked into the room. 

“It’s so quiet!” I say, stage whispering like it’s a secret we’re not supposed to acknowledge. “It’s weird.”

This time, I get to see real smiles. Unmasked and at home after a few days on campus, they know what I’m talking about. The first thing I’m mourning is the buzz. The murmur and the chatter that used to fill hallways and my classroom before we got down to business has been muffled by masks, by uncertainty about how to behave, and by fear of airing all your dirty laundry with the whole school because your bestie is standing the regulation six feet away.

How do we get it back? By asking each other what material we’d select for a sculpture of ourselves (best answers: Skittles, instrument pieces) or what we’d name our bands (The Jingle Bell Rocks play only at Christmas). ChatPack and BrainFreeze and Table Topic questions help us to build community at the start of every class period (and I look forward to trying Noah’s variation of a shared Google doc that can keep the conversation going!) To help us feel like we’re all together, I slide the Zoom screen onto my projected monitor and ask the classmates at home to wave (after checking that it’s ok to project them to their classmates). I turn my laptop around so the camera catches those in person waving back. I can tell a lot about where we are each day by the energy of those waves. 

Desktops Are My Saving Grace

Next, I share my screen. A few days before the school year began, a colleague explained how to access multiple desktops on my MacBook (are these available on a PC? I hope so…) After years of watching screens disappear into the ether, I’ve finally learned where they went, and where they went is my new favorite destination. I create a desktop for each class with the browser tabs and resources I’ll need to share throughout the class period. Using a separate desktop for every class has helped me to feel ready. Everything I need is in one place, and there’s no chance of losing it when the Zoom meeting starts or accidentally showing students sensitive information from PowerSchool when I share my screen.  

Some of my desktops at work.

Poll Everywhere

I use slides with interactive Poll Everywhere questions to review the lines that shook us from the first essay we read together. The students tell me they really like the app and the chance to see everyone’s responses in real time without the jumping cursor of a shared Google doc. I ask in-classroom students to plug in their headphones and join the Zoom classroom for some breakout room work on shared slides. Those learning virtually have been logged on longer than I would like, so once the breakout room activity ends, I give my in-person students a water/bathroom/fresh air break, silently thank the wise department head who recommended a class procedure that included a break every day, and ask the online students for any last questions before they log out. I’ve posted some independent reading for them on Google Classroom. When in-person students return, we field some of their questions about the day’s lesson and then I give them time to read, too. 

The bell rings. Students disperse. I slip on a latex glove and spray the desks with disinfectant that will dry before the next class arrives. The day continues. 

The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You

As I write this post, I’m realizing that, three weeks in, we are falling into a rhythm. What felt new and strange is starting to feel more like a routine, and that’s a blessing and a curse. Routines and careful planning help me to communicate clearly with students in all places, but I miss spontaneity! (This coming from a woman who has never described herself as spontaneous in any sort of profile.) I really miss the “on-the-drive” lesson that turns out better than anything I’ve spent hours planning or the “that’s-a-great-point-let’s-pivot” moment in discussion that opens new doors. When my brain and my heart and my eyes are stretching to meet two groups in two differently detached places, my improv instincts struggle. On my best days, I used to feel like The Second City, now…I’m not even Comedy Sportz. 

But maybe if I lean in and “Yes and…” enough of this year’s curveballs (hey look! comedy…sports), I’ll find a way back to some of that unexpected magic. As it happens, a quick after-class chat about stand-up comedy with one of my ninth graders reminded me that connection can and will happen, that I can hear a smile, and that the kids just really want this to work. They want to learn. In whatever shape that learning has to take.

After I introduced a brief writing assignment connected to our summer reading (a school requirement that I try to keep as flexible as I can), one freshman stayed after class to tell me that, because he enrolled late in the summer, he didn’t know about the required reading. He hadn’t read over the summer. “Ok,” I said. “Did you watch anything fun?” 

“A lot of standup,” he said, and he listed some comedians whose specials he’d watched. When he couldn’t think of one comedian’s last name, I filled it in and his eyes broke into a huge grin.

“The special wasn’t really appropriate, but…”

“Well,” I laughed and he joined in, “most standup specials aren’t school appropriate, but that’s their nature. If you watched a lot, you’re an expert. You can write a really detailed review! I look forward to reading it!” 

It was short, but it was the best conversation I’d had all day because I learned more about a new student, and the choice we made together exemplified the “let it go” approach that we (teachers, administrators, whole school systems) have had to embrace to survive and ought to apply to more of the rigid rules we’ve clung to when things return to whatever we’ve decided is “normal.” My new ninth grader didn’t read over the summer…but he will read in class, and maybe he’ll find the book that makes him go to the library next July. He still has plenty to say; he can still write expertly about a genre. And he knows I care about him. Let go of the rest, Ms. Jochman. Let this moment stand. Time to set out in search of the next one.

Are you teaching in two places at once? How’s it going? What’s working for you? What questions do you have? Please share your ideas and reflections in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman.

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