More Questions Than Answers (Reprise)- 10/21/2020

Less than 4 months ago, I wrote my blog post: More Questions Than Answers. In this post, I shared my reactions and frustrations as I sat with my eyes glued to the screen for hours. I was intently paying attention to the events that were occurring on the screen. Every once in a while, I would clap and celebrate what was happening. But many of these moments were followed by me yelling at the screen. My kids no longer try to engage me during events such as these. They know not to now. For the past four months, events such as these have been prevalent in the minds of educators everywhere.

I was not watching a sporting event, nor was I watching news about the election. Instead, I was once again watching a School Board meeting. I made it three and a half hours out of the seven hours before I gave up and went to bed. Once again, a sense of deja vue overcame me. Our district, like many others that started virtually, is planning their Return to School in person. Once again, there are no good answers, just possible solutions.

One of those possible solutions is what my district is calling Concurrent Instruction. To say that I have more questions than answers again would be an understatement. After initially hearing about this, I was eager to find out more, but found that to be difficult. Using a model such as this is new to the K12 education space.

During an Elementary School EdTech Coaches meeting yesterday, all of us read an article by Catlin Tucker to build our understanding. In her September 1, 2020 post, "The Concurrent Classroom: Using Blended Learning Models to Teach Students In-person and Online Simultaneously," she begins-

"Teachers all over the country are being asked to teach “concurrent classrooms” in which some students attend class in person and others attend virtually. The teacher in a concurrent classroom attempts to meet the needs of the students in class and online simultaneously. This is the most challenging scenario I can imagine in our current situation."

As I read this first paragraph, several words stood out to me- simultaneously, meet the needs, challenging scenario. These words echoed in my head as I continued reading and jotting down notes using the Connect, Extend, Challenge Thinking Routine. I was hoping for some magical answer to help the light go on and help me understand this idea. In theory, I understand it and why my district is recommending it to the School Board. Sure, having students receive synchronous instruction four days a week sounds great. But in practice, my understanding is far from clear.

As we met in small groups to process what we had read, a few common themes emerged:

  1. We need to build on the strong start our teachers have had to virtual learning.

  2. Teachers are going to need time to plan using this model as they navigate these unchartered waters.

  3. Teachers will need to be given grace.

  4. We will need to find innovative ways to build community.

  5. This will not be easy.

Building on a Strong Start

We began this year with a strong start. I am continually amazed by the innovation and dedication of the teachers in my school. Many of my colleagues gave up time during their summers to come to learn during optional professional development opportunities. My district dedicated a lot of time and resources to give teachers the tools they needed to begin the year virtually. With that being said, teachers everywhere are working longer hours than they ever had. Creating virtual learning materials takes more time and many educators are working around the clock.

In Catlin's article, she shared the idea of integrating blended learning models into concurrent instruction. Many of the teachers at my school use these methods already- station rotations as part of the workshop model and playlists/hyperdocs. I like the idea of using ideas we already are familiar with and seeing how we can adapt them to hybrid learning. But I wonder whether or not we will have enough time to do this daunting task in the middle of the year. How will teachers provide equity to both online and face to face students?

Time to Plan

No matter how you look at this, teaching in a hybrid classroom is going to take more time. Educators have finally begun to figure out virtual teaching. Now, as they are starting to "get it, " we are asking them to add something else to their plates. In my district, we have been told that concurrent instruction will not take more time to plan, but I, like many other educators, are skeptical.

With few concrete examples, many of us aren't sure how this will even work. Originally, many of us envisioned a classroom where students were using video editing software and so were their online counterparts. But right now, our schools don't have the bandwidth to do that. I've heard people discuss buying webcams, microphones, etc. That sounds great, but I still am not sure how this will work.

Think about it- would a doctor be able to see one patient in person and simultaneously treat a virtual patient? I don't think so. Especially with our youngest learners, we need to be focused on what they need and all I envision is whiplash going between focusing on online students and face to face students. How can we give educators the necessary time to make plans like these and not expect it to take more work?

Giving Teachers Grace

Educators are tired. We spend most of our day sitting in front of a screen. That is followed by planning, grading, connecting with families, and trying to find some time for self care. We want to be in person with our students, but we want to do so safely.

We also need grace as we try new things, take new risks- we need to be given the cognitive flexibility to try things that may not work the first time. We need to know that we are trusted to do what's best for our students. Too often, we feel like we are operating in a reactive mode based on decisions made way over our heads. No wonder we feel so tired, we are learning alongside our students and trying things that we never have attempted before.

Building Community

In Catlin's article, she continues,

As architects of learning experiences, teachers should focus on providing that human connection to students working remotely. The students online need to feel like they are part of the class community even though they are not sharing a physical space. Conversely, teachers will have more success engaging students attending class in person if they build more agency, autonomy, and flexibility into their lessons.

We need to provide human connection and build classroom communities. Teachers have worked hard this year to do this virtually and have succeeded. But how do we do this when our classes are literally cut in half? How do face to face students and virtual students get to interact if we lack the bandwidth for video conferencing software in our school buildings? How do students in face to face settings get opportunities to work in small groups while six feet apart?

This is not easy!

All of us understand that there are no perfect solutions. Every possible solution has its benefits and drawbacks. Our school district is conducting 13 pilots to analyze the use of this model to determine how it will look in practice which will be shared at the next school board meeting in November.

Educators work better together. I wonder if other districts have tried models such as these. What were their experiences like? If you are reading this post and have ideas, please leave a comment. What has worked for you?

I want to support my school, but I worry. I worry about teachers who are already overworked. I worry about rising COVID numbers in my state and region and its impact on Return to School. I worry about our students who miss their friends and might struggle with social distancing at school. I worry that parents and community members think returning to school will be like it was before and not realize how COVID and social distancing will impact instructional delivery.