How to Teach When Everyone is Scattered


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Let’s go back for a moment to a simpler time, back to 2019 when you may have “struggled to differentiate.” When you tried to meet the needs of all students who came to you with different levels of readiness, who had different physical, emotional, and cognitive profiles, and who learned best under different scenarios.

2020 laughs at 2019. 

Teaching is much more complicated now, and you are most likely in a situation where your students are scattered in some way. It may be one or a combination of these:

  • Half of your class is at home while the other half is in-person, then this switches the next day.
  • Some of your students are all-virtual, all the time.
  • Even the kids you do have face-to-face (F2F) have to be socially distanced and therefore can’t collaborate and interact the way they once could.

Before, a teacher only had to worry about meeting students where they were academically, socially, and emotionally. Now you literally have to figure out a way to meet them where they are.

Depending on who’s running your school, you may be expected to do any number of instructional gymnastics to keep all of these students engaged and on track. While I’m not going to get into the “shoulds” here (I address some best practices in this post, and I ranted about one specific remote teaching problem in this Facebook live broadcast), what I’d like to do in this post is curate some of the ways teachers have solved the problem of teaching students who are literally all over the place. 

I pulled these ideas from responses to two separate tweets: In the first one, I asked what was working when teaching some students in person and others at home. The second tweet came a few weeks later, where I was asking specifically for strategies to build community among all the scattered groups. I got hundreds of responses, some of which I was still trying to digest an hour ago, so this list is just a sampling of some of the ideas I saw repeated several times and a few that I thought were really noteworthy. If you want to see all of the ideas, follow those links and enjoy! I’ll warn you though, it’s a lot. With so many people working on the same problem at the same time, there are a lot of ideas in many different iterations. My goal here is to pare it down to just a few that I think you can use.

(One more thing: For efficiency, I’m going to refer to all videoconferencing software as Zoom. So when I say “Zoom,” just know that this means Google Meet, Microsoft Teams video, Skype, or whatever you’re using. It’s just faster this way.) 

1. Create Student Cohorts

This was the most frequently mentioned piece of advice from teachers doing this work, so I’m putting it first and separating it from everything else. 

The idea is to put students into groups that span different populations—some virtual, some F2F, some from different days in an A/B schedule—so they can help each other through your course. Doing this allows students to ask each other questions and support each other at times when you’re not available. It’s also a way to create connections between your in-class students and those who are learning from home. 

  • In some classes, these cohorts are simply contact groups, so that when students get stuck, they can get clarification or help from each other.
  • In other cases, cohorts actually work on projects or assignments together.
  • In classrooms where F2F and at-home students are participating at the same time, teachers are putting students into pairs made up of one F2F and one at-home learner. This arrangement gives each at-home student a designated partner to connect them to what’s happening in class.
  • For best results, give students a getting-to-know-you activity to do with their cohort or partner so they can form a connection and feel more comfortable with one another.

2. Limit the Synchronous

Many teachers are finding that synchronous instruction—where all students in class and at home are plugged in and participating in real time—needs to be very limited and used intentionally, as opposed to just recording an entire class session and expecting everyone to sit through that. (Again, I explored the ridiculousness of this idea here.).

Here are some ways this principle is playing out:

  • Brief and debrief. Some teachers are only using synchronous instruction to do a quick overview at the beginning of the class session and a quick debrief at the end, leaving the middle for independent work, group work, or small-group instruction with the teacher. 
  • Make synchronous time special. Several teachers reported using synchronous time for things like read-alouds, reader’s theater, and Shakespeare reading, where parts are given to both the at-home and in-person students.
  • Use virtual bell-ringers. Sort of. Some teachers are starting their synchronous time with a short pre-recorded video that gives everyone a task and reviews the day’s agenda. Like a bell-ringer, doing this frees up the teacher to handle administrative tasks, lets kids trickle into the Zoom, and gives everyone something to do until it’s time to start as a group. 
  • Put EVERYONE on Zoom. If bandwidth allows and the activity fits, then put all students on Zoom for the synchronous part of your lesson, even F2F students. This will put everyone on the same playing field and make interaction easier.
  • Try interactive apps. Teachers are reporting great synchronous experiences using Pear Deck and Nearpod, which allow you to create and share interactive presentations with students on their own devices. Tools like Poll Everywhere and Mentimeter let you conduct fast whole-class polls with a few clicks. And YoTeach! offers backchannel chats that are similar to what used to be found on the now-defunct TodaysMeet.
  • Put direct instruction on video. Not surprisingly, quite a few teachers are reporting that they feel their direct instruction just doesn’t work as well via Zoom as it does in a well-planned, pre-recorded video.
  • Have a backup plan. Use choice boards (general ones prepared ahead of time that can be used over and over) for at-home kids to use when tech goes out. This post about choice boards from Jenny Pieratt offers some things to think about when putting these together. 
  • Differentiate synchronous learning.  Here’s something to consider: Does every student need the same amount of synchronous learning? Most solutions I’m hearing related to the synchronous/asynchronous question seem to be shooting for one model for everyone. But just like in the old days, it’s not likely that every student needs or wants that much face-to-face time with the teacher, even the ones who are face to face. So maybe we can work toward customizing the amount of synchronous instruction for every student, allowing some to work independently or through digital channels more often, while others who need more interaction can get it?

3. Chunk the Time

It can be tremendously helpful to break up the class period into designated chunks, where some students are learning directly from the teacher, others are working in groups, and others are working independently. If you can make the structure visible and predictable for students, even better. The two resources listed below can help you imagine what those structures might look like for you. (Notice that none of the options listed have the teacher lecturing for the entire period. That’s important.)

  • In this post from earlier this month, Catlin Tucker shared three blended learning models that can work in what she calls “concurrent classrooms.”
  • Beth Alexander, director of Teaching and Learning at the Linden School in Toronto,  shared a collection of hybrid lesson structures she’s been trying, along with visuals like the ones below. Alexander has given me permission to share all of her models in a PDF, which you can download here.
 
Courtesy of Beth Alexander. All models available in this PDF.
 
Courtesy of Beth Alexander. All models available in this PDF.
 

One more tip for this “chunking”: When you switch from synchronous to asynchronous, but there will be a time when you go back to synchronous, set up an on-screen timer to let at-home kids know when time is up for an activity.

4. Build Community Intentionally

Having students in multiple locations makes it much harder to build a classroom community, but those relationships are so important for making students feel a sense of belonging and connection. Here are some things teachers are doing to meet this challenge:

  • Reserve time to get to know each other. As a teacher, you can get to know students—both F2F and virtual—by scheduling short one-on-one meetings with them. To help students get to know each other, do icebreakers throughout the year and assign students to interview each other as a class project. And set aside time whenever possible for non-academic conversations; over time, these will continue to grow those relationships.
  • Make using names part of your classroom norms. Several teachers mentioned the positive results they got from greeting online students by name at the start of each class period, and others described setting discussion norms that required students to use each other’s names regularly. Be sure you’re pronouncing student names correctly, too; this will make a big difference.
  • Create communal spaces online. Slack and Microsoft Teams are two great options for giving students spaces online for general communication. Padlet is another option for structured or unstructured conversations. And Parlay is a robust platform for much more formal discussions.
  • Use lunch and recess for socialization. Some schools are setting up Zoom sessions for “lunch buddies,” where students at home just hang out and talk with students in school. Although you may not get a large response to this kind of an opportunity, think of the social impact it could make on just a few kids to have that small community to visit with every day. 
  • Use video. Flipgrid offers a simple space where students could record short videos that could be shared with the class. One teacher mentioned using these videos to have students record short responses to the prompts that would normally be given for writing in journals. 
  • Play games. Quite a few digital games, like Kahoot!, Quizizz, and GimKit, can be played with both at-home and F2F students at the same time, all while reviewing course content. A few people mentioned Minecraft as an ideal platform for play and interaction. Even a game like Crumple & Shoot can be played where the F2F students shoot the paper wads, but at-home students can still be on the teams. 

5. Experiment with Cameras and Screens

Lots of teachers mentioned setups that involved more than one camera and screen so that the same broadcasts can capture different things simultaneously. The number of ideas and combinations along these lines got pretty overwhelming, so I’ll just share three big ones:

  • Two Zooms. When broadcasting, many teachers are setting up one camera to focus on them and another to focus on the board, another shared screen, or a document camera. This puts the “teacher” on Zoom twice but gives students more of a feel for what’s happening in the classroom. 
  • Mics and Headsets. Some teachers are putting Bluetooth earbuds in and/or wearing mics on headsets so they can communicate directly with at-home learners without disrupting the in-person class. I think this might drive some people (like me?) crazy, so take this with a grain of salt.
  • Swivl Cams. A few teachers mentioned using Swivl cameras to track either the teacher or to follow group interactions for students at home to watch. 

6. Optimize Discussions

If your synchronous time includes class discussions that include both F2F and at-home learners, these suggestions can help you make the most of that time.

  • Establish norms. Many students will hold back in discussions if they don’t know what the rules are, for fear of messing up in front of everyone. So be sure to establish clear norms for discussion: What should students do if they have something to say? Are there time limits on commenting? What kinds of things are appropriate to type into the chat? Should students write to each other in the chat? Should everyone stay muted or keep microphones on? The clearer these guidelines are, the better participation is likely to be. 
  • Enable the chat. Some students will never feel comfortable unmuting in a large group, but will participate much more actively in a written chat, so whenever you can offer that as an option for participation, do it.
  • Assign a chat moderator. Have a student or another adult—anyone but you, if you are the one conducting the discussion—moderate the written chat in Zoom so you don’t have to multitask. You can occasionally break from the “live” discussion to take questions from the chat, or establish norms where other students can respond to those questions in writing if they have the answer.
  • Share questions ahead of time. To improve participation from home, some teachers are sending questions to students ahead of time, having students turn in their responses, then calling on individuals to share their responses in the group discussion. This extra preparation ensures a productive discussion and removes some of the doubt students may feel about volunteering responses or having to think of them on the spot. 
  • Repeat questions. When students ask questions, repeat or rephrase them yourself so everyone can hear. This practice helps anyone who didn’t happen to hear it the first time, which is more likely in a hybrid situation. 
  • Deal with the crickets. If lack of participation is a problem, you need to figure out the root cause, because it could be any number of things. Start by reading this post about improving student participation. You might also try to add more structure to your discussion by using a strategy like Philosophical Chairs, the TQE method, or the Discussion Game
 

None of these ideas are really tested, researched, or optimized in any way, so don’t feel like this is some massive to-do list that you have to check off. If you can implement one or two strategies that make things better for you and your students, that’s a success.

Probably the worst thing you can do is to try and replicate exactly what you were doing before 2020, time-wise and content-wise. That’s trying to force a square peg into a round hole; by doing that, you’re just signing up for a ton of frustration. 

Years ago I wrote a piece urging teachers to think of your teaching as always being “in Beta.” Consider teaching in a post-COVID world to be the most massive project-in-Beta ever. It’s going to be messy, but that’s how humans learn and grow and adapt. Continue to experiment, fall apart on the days when it’s your turn (because everyone seems to need a turn every now and then), ask students and parents for feedback, observe other teachers when you can, and most importantly, keep giving yourself and your students grace.

We’re getting through this.

 
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