Let’s Get Real: Checking in at the Three-Month Mark

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 in person and online 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. 

Real Talk

Times feel bleak, and then they don’t. I feel helpless, and then I feel hopeful. I feel nothing, or I feel everything. Even a wildly swinging emotional pendulum is starting to feel normal, and that is frightening. 

It’s month three of hybrid learning, and my students and I all agree that Thanksgiving break can’t come soon enough.

The Real Deal

I’ll admit that introduction was grim, but as many who are wiser than I have emphasized, Real Talk is essential because we can’t let any routine of these months lead us to feel like this learning environment is normal. But, as I hope is the case for you, there are still bright spots to each day. Here are a few of the “Real Deals,” the techniques and activities that have been fostering both learning and joy in my classroom in the past month.

  • Flipgrid Booktalks: I know that many are already doing this, but if you’ve been on the fence, let this help you to decide. They are so much fun. I see students’ faces, I learn more about their interests through the books they read, I can gently coach public speaking skills, and I get to try on goofy props like space helmets, giant sunglasses, and shiny princess crowns through the selfie sticker tools that close video recordings. The booktalk works as a kind of asynchronous conversation, since I send a video response with my feedback. Next semester, I hope to create systems that invite students respond to each other. I keep the current guidelines simple:
    • Speak for 2-3 minutes
    • Share the title and author of the book
    • Respond to a provided prompt (this month’s responses ask students to choose a snack or song to accompany their book) or share a meaningful passage and talk about why you chose it
    • Support ideas with evidence
    • Deliver a response that’s easy for a listener to follow
  • Revising Together in Real Time: earlier this week, my students collaborated on a poem about their freshman retreat. On a shared Google doc, every student (online and in person) wrote down a memory from the retreat as a line for the poem; then, we revised our list poem together. I turned on “Suggestion mode.” Then, I called on students to select 5 lines to  keep and make a case for why they wanted to keep them; I asked other students to revise the remaining lines, and they explained their choices by talking about how a line felt like a beginning or an ending, how it needed more detail or should get broken apart (you can see some of our work below). Here was a chance for the writers to teach each other about the writing choices they made and why they made them, and I think their poetry portfolios will be better for it. (And as one more example of revision in (seemingly) real time, we’ll watch this magical video from the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, one of the best exemplars of revising for sound that I’ve seen.)
  • Student-Composed Small Talk Prompts: last month, I posted one of the surveys I’ve been using to check students’ emotional health and understanding of our material (an idea I first borrowed from a wise colleague!). I’ve started adding options for students to share Table Topics-style questions they would like to discuss with their classmates. We had heated discussions of the merits of orange and apple juice, we recommended that the Olympics add competitive eating of the host nation’s most popular food to the list of  official sports, and we (mostly) agreed that ice cream should be eaten in all seasons, not just the warm ones. Students continually tell me that this is the best part of class. In other years, I might be perturbed. This year, I’m just so grateful that we can laugh with each other. Sometimes the participation is instant, sometimes I have to pull a few index cards to warm us up. If I try to wrap up and the chatter keeps going, I know it was successful. 
  • What do you need? Padlet threads: My seniors are preparing for a test that’s modeled after one of their IB assessments. To begin a lesson earlier this week, they posted to a Padlet board that included the question: “What do you need to feel confident about completing [this assessment]?” This question saved us all time–my planning time and their independent preparation time. These “what do you NEED to discuss” or “what do you NEED to feel prepared?” boards remind me how self-sufficient my students are (or have been forced to become). It’s been good for me to see how much my students can do and understand without me– humbling, definitely, but also good.

Future Realities

The hybrid learning setup at my school implicitly requires that students be more accountable for their learning; there isn’t as much time in the day or space in our facilities to enable a 5-minute conference, and I can’t make the kind of split-second pivots to re-teach a concept that fully in-person learning allows. This definitely creates difficulties for some students and is a release for others. The situation is not ideal, but as I said above, it’s been good to observe what students can do on their own when I’m not as in control of a lesson as I would like to be. Students are finding a way. Last spring and this school year make me wonder whether more classroom work in the future will pivot from knowledge acquisition to application and synthesis of knowledge (as well as what must be done to ensure that independent knowledge acquisition is happening equitably). 

With all of that on my mind and three months of routine and observation, of surveys and assessments, of careful, controlled planning that tried to maximize every minute I had with students in my teacher muscle memory, I’m finally feeling ready to stretch a bit in the spring, to let go of what has been comfortable and safe, so I’m setting goals. 

In the spring, I will: 

  • Create more opportunities for student leadership of lessons: plan far enough ahead that students lead our start-of-class conversation or guide some lessons or discussion
  • Provide more opportunities for student choice: you rockstars creating choice menus with hyperlinked graphics? I salute you. It’s been a struggle to have one plan ready for a class, much less five or six, but I hope to have more paths for assignments and more mini-lessons for students to select in the spring months
  • Allow a little more chaos: once the online half of my class has logged in, I don’t like to separate them from the in-person group until independent work time, but a few days ago, I needed to reset my shared screen in a way that required my full attention, so I gave the whole class the kind of “talk amongst yourselves” instruction that was common for me before 2020, and the world did not end. We picked back up as soon as I was ready. I don’t think I’ve realized what a tight grip I’ve held on my plans, my schedule, even myself, until I let it loosen a bit. I’m really looking forward to letting go. 

So, if you’re in a rhythm, grateful for its steadiness but wishing you could change the tune, I’m with you.

And if your record just scratched and the arm flew off the turntable and you’re trying to repair the player without much of a manual, I wish I could hand you the tools you need, but I also know you have them, and I’m breathing with you as you search the house and find them in the drawers and corners you least expected. You are The Real Deal, teacher. Shifting approaches at a moment’s notice, waving goodbye to faces that were just starting to get familiar, making a snack or building a LEGO tower with one hand and holding the phone to talk with a hard-to-reach student on the other, You got this. Goodness knows you shouldn’t have to, but you got this. We’ve made it through another month, and we’ll keep going together.

What have been the “real deal” solutions for your hybrid classroom needs? What goals are you setting for your new semester? What’s helping you navigate the shifting schedules, platforms, and emotions that any pivot in your school or district’s learning plan has created? I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman.

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