Teaching in Two Places at Once: Working with What I Know for Sure

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 wherein we have split students into three tracks: tracks A & B attend classes in opposite “two days in school/two days at home” rotations; students in Track C are all virtual all the time. Online students are expected to learn synchronously, and I’m at school five days a week, teaching online and in-classroom students simultaneously.

In this column, 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.

After a particularly grueling Zoom meeting during teacher work week in August, my department head sent a follow-up email with some wise words to remember as we struggled to plan our launch units under conditions we had never worked in before and opening plans that still felt hazy. “What I know for sure about teaching,” she said (rightfully channeling Oprah because she, like Ms. Winfrey, helps my colleagues and me live our best lives), “there is no substitute for getting to know the kids–what they do and what they care about; writing conferences are the very best way to give feedback and improve writing; grading things quickly helps everyone; lots of ungraded reading and writing works […] Always approach with a sense of empathy. These. Are. Kids.” 

Before I spiraled into despair over what might be lost or tied myself in knots pursuing too much technology at once, Betsy’s reminder of what really works–wherever, whenever–put my feet back under me and made me feel ready to face the challenge of the new year. 

Two months in, Betsy’s words still echo and were especially comforting as I prepared to write this post. Over the last few years, my posts here have usually been about innovation in my classroom. Writing deadlines were my extra push to experiment, to engage exciting new technologies, or to shift wild ideas into practice and see how it all worked out. But I’ve looked at my deadline this month with trepidation: there isn’t much difference between my September and October teaching. There have been very few breathless aha! moments or last-minute breakthroughs, and I’m lucky if my brain is still working after dinner so I can grade half a class set–forget overhauling a unit or lesson! 

But I am doing what I know works for sure. 

And the kids are all right. 

And in a year like this one, adaptation and survival are their own kind of innovation.  (For more on this, take five minutes and treat yourself to Jessica Salfia’s beautiful post from the WVCTE blog.) 

So today’s post is a practical post. I’m going to share a few problems I’ve encountered (that perhaps you’ve encountered, too) and how I solved them using what I know for sure (that you might know, too). 

Problem #1: How do I get to know these masked kids?

Solution: Blend as much curriculum content with personal interest/response as possible

To build relationships with ninth graders, my team rearranged our unit schedule to begin with personal narrative. “This I Believe” essays introduced me to students’ values, memorable moments, and favorite people. 

To quickly introduce the thematic linking and analysis required of their IB oral assessment, my seniors’ first assignment was a “dream double-bill” inspired by director Edgar Wright’s tweets from earlier this spring. I shared a Google slideshow with students, each student duplicated response template slide and shared their double-bill, and we all learned a lot about each others’ interests, styles, and ability to write concisely!

(If you need a quick lesson for tomorrow and this fits your needs, please make a copy and have fun! For as many collaborative web apps as are out there, a shared slide deck has continued to be the most reliable and effective tool for me.) 

Problem #2: Crickets

I’m not alone in feeling like teaching on Zoom is shouting into the abyss. The silence that pervades a classroom that used to buzz is deafening. 

Solution?: Cold-calling with name cards (or popsicle sticks–take your pick!) 

In a normal year, I’m wary about cold-calling. I know it can make students anxious or nervous, and I don’t like making others feel on-the-spot, but I try my best to make responses to cold-call questions low-stakes, and the students have actually asked that I do it. As one student explained in a check-in survey earlier this month: “I think that it’s better when you pull cards and force people to talk because if you don’t, there’s that awkward time where people don’t answer. […] It makes the class lag and it’s annoying that people won’t participate in the discussion so I think that if you start out by […] drawing names, hopefully they will get more comfortable with it and it can start being more natural.” And…my student was right! 

(Another tip: share a check-in survey every few weeks. They focus my teacher worries effectively, and they build student ownership of the class and our procedures.) 

Problem #3: Socratic Seminar works in one place…but not two

I designed my senior IB literature course to run on student questions and responses. In the past, I could conduct a real-time formative assessment just by listening, but the volley of discussion just does not work with the class in two separate spaces, and I can’t assess as we speak because I’m often amplifying or repeating in-person responses from students in the classroom for the students at home to hear. 

Solution?: Guiding questions and small groups

I like to assign reading without guiding questions in an effort to let students’ noticings and curiosity guide our learning and discussion the next day. This year, I’m assigning small sets of guiding questions on Google doc templates as homework. I explain that responses will not be evaluated and encourage students to admit when they can’t answer a question. Students submit their responses by 8AM the following class day. I find a pocket of time before class to scroll quickly through responses to catch major concerns or misunderstandings, and then students review their questions and answers in small groups or breakout rooms during class. (Do I always have a chance to read responses ahead of class? No, but when I can, this process works really well.) At the end of small group discussion, each group posts the questions they would like to discuss with the whole class on a Padlet collaboration board. This method of winnowing down the guiding questions ensures we cover essential topics while keeping our large group discussion focused and manageable for online participants, and it shows me what students understand (or don’t) about our material. 

Problem #4: Awkward notebook time

I miss wandering the room, looking over shoulders, and reading the physical signals for needing more or less time to write. Now, my online students type while seeming to stare at me (but really their screens) and my in-classroom students sit with their screens facing the opposite direction and probably use some of our time to scroll another site or wrap up the last question on a math assignment! It’s much harder to read the room and develop a writing rhythm. 

Solution?: A timer

So simple, so obvious, but it took me a while to put it in practice. Now, I set a timer for most of our independent work, and I think it keeps us all focused.  It prevents me from wrapping up early out of boredom or worry that a lesson is running too long; it motivates students who work better in small pieces (or when they know there’s an end to a task); it makes me more mindful of time in a year when time feels meaningless. 

Problem #5: I don’t measure up to my own expectations

I hold myself to a high standard (and I bet you do, too). I want to keep challenging myself; I want to be inventive and a little risky. I want to stay on top of professional learning, but I’m even behind on reading my Moving Writers colleagues’ phenomenal posts! Before I started to write tonight, I thought my teaching was growing stagnant…

Solution?: Change the ruler

…but these strategies and solutions I “know for sure” used to happened in just one place. Now, I’m spinning two plates on opposite sides of the stage with time for outdoor breath breaks (on campus) and early dismissal (at home).  

I’m slow to turn in summative assessment grades…

…but my turnaround on formative assessment is quick.

Writing conferences are breathless, hurried jumps between breakout rooms…

…but we’re conferring!

I can’t focus enough to grade a set of essays in one night…

…but looking at a screen all day makes my eyes hungry for books, and I’m falling into reading in a way I haven’t for years.

This year, we can’t choose why we innovate and adapt, but we have chosen to stick with this work in conditions we never expected. The empathy Betsy so wisely advocated my department extend to our students is an understanding we must also extend to ourselves. 

You’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating: you know what works for sure. Trust your instincts and be kind to yourself. 

What “know for sure” strategies or lessons are keeping you going? What problems are you working to solve? How is hybrid teaching working for you? Please share your questions and ideas in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman. I look forward to hearing from you!

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  1. Thank you so much! This post could not have arrived at a better time for me since my classes move from all-virtual to hybrid next week.

    Could you please share the check-in survey or an example of one? I clicked on the link, but it said I needed permission. Thank you!

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