Survive and Thrive: An Editorial

Survive and Thrive: A K-12 Teacher's Guide to Hybrid Learning

By Erin R. Scholes and JJ Van Ess

The stories and lessons told in this article are told by two teachers, one in a public school setting, and one in an independent school. Erin Scholes and JJ Van Ess both are working towards their Masters in Educational Technology at Fairfield University, to further integrate Technology and Innovation not just in their classrooms, but in their communities as well. While both Erin and JJ currently teach Math at the middle school level, their experiences during this time period have major similarities and differences. In their studies and experiences, they’ve come together to discuss how the pandemic has affected themselves, their students, and their communities, in both positive and negative ways.

The COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 brought unprecedented changes to the world of education. On March 13th, 2020, schools across the country, and the world, were forced to transition from in-person learning (the type of school we all grew up seeing) to remote learning at the drop of a hat. Luckily, with ever increasing availability of video conference platforms, as well as technology integration, the switch to a fully remote classroom was a doable task, albeit daunting, for everyone involved, especially in our younger grades.

Here we are, November 2020, with a Spring Term of a full remote setting, and a Fall Term of what has been deemed Hybrid Learning, with almost no end in sight. Schools have staggered in-person schedules and hybrid learning schedules, sports have been cancelled, and teachers are working double-time to create an equitable experience for their students, both in-person and online; teachers across the nation are struggling to keep students engaged. The Spring of 2020 propelled us into an unprecedented time of online learning, but the 2020-21 school year could lead us into technology integration that helps evolve the educational system; teaching by way of a traditional, in-person method could soon be a thing of the past, even when the pandemic ends. Technology can not only bridge the gap between online and traditional learning, but can be used as a marketing tool to attract new students and families to a school district based on their success.

“Honestly, the timing of the pandemic was opportunistic,” says JJ, a 7th and 8th Grade Math teacher and Director of Academic Technology at an all-boys independent school in southern Connecticut. “Throughout late February and early March, we’d all been watching the news of the spread of the COVID-19 virus throughout the world, and were trying to figure out scenarios going forward. A co-worker asked me, during the first week in March, “what do we do if we have to shut down or go remote?” JJ hadn’t even entertained the notion of a school closing or shifting to a full remote setting - that was for Universities - but this was becoming very real, very fast. As we prepared for our Spring Vacation, we shut down the school a few days early, and began to prepare. “The timing, at least for us, gave us a window to plan and prep for two weeks and get all of our ducks in a row: a revamped online schedule, online platforms and Learning Management Systems (LMS), the sending of information, and more. No one knew how long this pandemic would last, but hopefully only a few weeks, right? Many schools around the country did not have a 2 week break to plan and prepare, they were in a full remote setting by the next week.

“The excitement and rush to help teachers within my school district be prepared for remote learning didn’t give me time to focus on the full implications of a global pandemic,” reflects Erin, a 7th grade math teacher and team leader at a preK-12 public school district in a semi-rural town in northeastern Connecticut. “I am not even joking when I tell you the titles of my two graduate level courses last spring were, ‘Designing for Online Instruction’ and ‘Creating and Curating Digital Content’. There were multiple times that our professors needed to remind us that our launch into remote learning was not what was intended in these courses. However, they also realized, prepared us for, and supported us through being the technology support within our own school districts.” Starting at the end of February, it became clearer to district leadership that staff would need training to continue to teach live to students if the schools needed to close. Erin was asked to prepare professional development for the staff on using learning management systems and on video conferencing. “I started the graduate program at Fairfield University with the ultimate goal of becoming an Educational Technology Specialist in a school or district, and there I was with the opportunity to teach our staff new technology. It was definitely a little faster paced than what I would consider ideal, but I was excited to learn new technologies (I had never used Google Meets, and never heard of Zoom). I was excited to teach other teachers how to use the technology, and most importantly, I was happy to provide a little bit of comfort and guidance in what was turning out to be the most uncertain time in everyone’s teaching careers.”

JJ’s school was applauded for its dedication to its students during this unprecedented time. Classes were held for all grade levels, work was assigned, assessments administered, and even virtual Physical Education courses happened. Everyone had high hopes that by the time a new school year came in September, we’d all be back to normal. But that was not the case. Throughout the summer months, JJ was tasked with implementing a new Hybrid Learning initiative and infrastructure for his school; this meant purchasing testing and installing new equipment, and training faculty and staff on how to create a Hybrid Classroom, synchronously teaching to students both in-person and online, and using online tools to create an equitable learning while incorporating 21st Century Skills such as collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, and most importantly, resilience.

During the summer, Erin had the opportunity to share her knowledge with various professional education communities, focusing on how technology can be used to enhance instruction and create interactive learning opportunities for students. Along with other colleagues, Erin worked on a professional development website that the district staff could use when they returned in the fall. It was meant to be a “one stop shop” for technology professional development, while also offering “choose your own” options since everyone was coming into the year with varying needs and comfort levels when it came to using technology in the classroom.

As we’ve now completed two full terms of school during this pandemic, JJ can safely say “Hybrid Teaching/Learning is very doable, and can be fun and engaging… but takes a bit of extra work.” To JJ, teaching Algebra is a pretty simple formula; teach a lesson, do a few examples, assign practice problems and answer questions to ensure student understanding. “Shifting to an online or hybrid classroom provided many unknowns. Usually, I’d use my personality to get students engaged. I like to jump around the room, and engage with my students on a social-emotional level. When you connect with your students, they’re more receptive to learning, even the boring stuff.”

While JJ’s school did offer students to go fully remote for the year, his school emphasized that in-person learning was the preferred method. To stay safe, however, protocols have been put in place for students who need to remain at home and quarantine for periods of time. “At points, full grades are forced to stay home, and teachers have to pivot to a full remote classroom at the drop of a hat.” JJ notes that his staff, although worried, has adapted nicely to having anywhere between one student and a full remote class at any time. “Teachers are prepared. With online platforms such as Seesaw and Google Classroom, students on campus or at home can gain access to the same materials. Teachers have been trained to use their smartboards, video conferencing (Zoom, Google Meet, Teams, etc) and LMS systems for all students. Parents are happy, students are happy - well, they’re happier when they’re on campus - and teachers are in their rhythm. Even our Athletic Director said “oh, you have a remote student? Hybrid Teaching is easy.”

Reflecting on previous practice, and personal philosophy Erin explored the different possibilities for organizing her digital/hybrid classroom. This year her middle school is operating in a Hybrid model with A/B cohorts. The students are in school on their cohort days, and learning from home on the other. Reflecting, Erin shared, “For the past eight or so years I have been using Showbie. While much of the district uses Google Classroom, Showbie allows the students and myself to write on documents within the system. Knowing that I would be exploring and implementing new technology in other areas, I wanted to stick to a learning management system that I was comfortable with, and that had the features I needed.” Showbie also has voice recording features, and recently added video chat feature, something Erin has yet to use in the classroom.

Erin created a Bitmoji Classroom, while she made video tutorials for her staff so they could create one too. There are links to frequently used sites, and “cute, little” decorations that match her physical classroom, but the real way Erin uses is for its planning functions. “My Bitmoji Classroom has really become my plan book as well; I create one slide show for each week, and often have one or two future weeks open. It helps me organize the plans for each class, and I am able to share it with my co-teacher, student teacher, for instructional assistance, the math interventionists, and all my students.” Erin also displays this on the screen both in the room and on Zoom, so all students can see the agenda for the day.

While Erin uses Bitmoji Classroom, JJ has implemented Google Classroom for both his classes and his school, as a whole. “Integration with many online platforms is the draw here,” he says. “I’m able to assign work directly from my e-textbook, including extra problems and assigned textbook readings easily.” While Classroom does have drawbacks, students found the Calendar view of their upcoming assignments for each class extremely helpful. “You have to tweak some settings, and every teacher has their own style.” JJ’s Classroom is organized by Topics, units in his textbook, so that they’re easy to navigate, while keeping important information at the top such as upcoming quizzes or tests. “Using Google Classroom has allowed me to create equity for both in-person and remote students. With the online textbook, both types of students need a laptop and a notebook to complete the same assignments. It doesn’t matter where they are, they can still get the work done.”

As Erin prepared for the school year, it was important to her to find applications that would allow instruction to be interactive with the students. PearDeck along with Notes pages in Showbie have become her primary tools of delivering instruction in class. When using PearDeck, students login with the classroom code, and participate along with a paced lesson. Erin is able to watch student progress through the teacher dashboard. “The students really like being able to interact with the content. It helps them feel more comfortable participating virtually, since they have had time to prepare their thoughts. I can also monitor all my students and provide direct feedback to them as they work. I am so grateful to have found a way where I can watch students write out their math work in real time.” For student notes packets, Erin stuck to printing packets for every student, and she keeps the class notes electronically in Showbie. “I think it is important that students are able to interact and access their own notes. Math notes have been an evolving process in my class, and it was another area I wasn’t ready to try and adapt.” In addition to being in the hybrid model, the math department in Erin’s district started using a new math curriculum this year. Erin carefully thought about how many “new” things she would be able to tackle in one year, and is working hard to keep a healthy balance for herself and her students.

Erin chose to use ClassKick to distribute and collect student practice. ClassKick is a platform that allows teachers to see student work in real time, while also being able to pop into the exact same slide as a student and type, handwrite, or chat inorder to help the student. She is able to upload previously used content, and create new items for students. There are also features that allow students to help each other, and an automatic grading feature. Erin said that the free version does take a little set up time with the students, as they need to log in the exact same way every time, otherwise it creates numerous accounts within her dashboard, and students can only see their previous work when they log in the same way. It has been so successful in her classroom that she even used it to administer a quiz.

While one of JJ’s first obstacles in the world of Hybrid Teaching was training his faculty and getting over the “anxiety hump,” it was curating student engagement that proved to be the most difficult task of all. “I’ve had great success with platforms that take your current lessons and make them a bit more interactive,” says JJ having noted that he likes to create his lesson plans using Google Slides. “Simple add-ons like Nearpod and Peardeck can add fun features to any lesson that can take the monotony out of a simple lecture. I can add quick quizzes and contests, mid-lecture, to ensure my students are not only paying attention, but are also understanding the information.” He’s also in a unique situation in which he teaches only boys. “Boys learn differently than girls. They learn through application, through experience, and sometimes even through competition. At the end of a lesson, I like to challenge my students with a competition. Everyone gets out their notebook, and opens to a blank piece of paper. Whether your online or in-person, everyone can participate in a fun Kahoot at the end of a unit or section. My kids race to see who can answer the question not only the fastest, but correctly as well.” JJ notes that not only do these technology integrations allow students to be engaged, it can also take off some of the stress of upcoming assessments.

“One thing teachers really need to consider this year is the purpose of an assessment. There is no way we can monitor all students in this environment, so we really need to reconsider what our assessments look like, and how they are administered.” For the past few years Erin has been using video projects to assess student understanding of mathematical concepts and processes. “When I first used them three years ago, I was afraid students would have their parents help them and it wouldn’t be a true reflection of their understanding. However, when a student has to explain the how and why of the steps it becomes very clear through their explanation what they understand and what they don’t.” Erin has kept the same outline to her video project, but has changed up the problems and expectations based on the unit.

Erin firmly believes that relationships are the foundation of a successful classroom. In preparation for this year, Erin was afraid of not being able to connect with students who were online only. “I paid close attention to what made me feel connected to people in Zoom meetings. I attended a few different professional developments over the summer and I found some common things that worked and that I knew I would be able to implement.” When starting any online meeting, there is a greeting period when people are arriving in the meeting. This is a perfect opportunity for a teacher to greet students by name, to hold the usual entering the classroom “chit-chat” and encourage students to respond by asking them specific questions and allowing them to turn on their mics. “One thing I found that helped was allowing my two cohorts to interact with each other; my “roomies” and my “Zoomies”. I would turn the camera to face the classroom, and put the Zoom window on the front board. It was awesome to watch the kids waving to each other, and talking back and forth.” Erin has led advisory lessons, taken time for digital etiquette mini-lessons, and provides feedback to students in response to their emails. She has also helped build the classroom community by having students work in breakout rooms. When working on a lengthier assignment, Erin puts students together based on their personal preference. “I want this time to be successful for everyone, and honestly I do want them to be able to socialize with their friends, this is a huge part of what is missing from this year.” Erin along with the other adults in her class are able to move about the different breakout rooms to provide assistance and monitor conversation. For quicker conversations, what teachers usually refer to as “turn and talk” or “think-pair-share”, Erin tends to assign slightly larger groups at random. Giving students the opportunity to work with different peers. These times are usually 2 minutes or less and have very specific directions for conversation.

As the country sees cases spiking and the number of cases starting to rise among school aged children, there is a looming anxiety about entering back into full remote learning, and some districts are already there. The reality is, “Every teacher has their “toolbox” of teaching strategies. Some teachers take a more traditional approach, a textbook, a lesson, and some conversation. Others dabble in new tools and programs - Kahoot, Bitmoji, GimKit, NearPod, Prezi, FlipGrid, ClassKick, PearDeck and so much more. There is an abundance of online resources and tools available for teachers to integrate into their lessons to increase student engagement and collaboration, but where to even begin?” Erin and JJ have spent the past four months discussing the new state of education, bouncing ideas off each other, and now have created a website; is meant to be any teachers’ one-stop-shop for all things Hybrid Learning. Educators will find guidance on deciding what to use and when, as well as a page dedicated to “how to tutorials'' for each piece of technology. Erin and JJ wanted this site, built by teachers, to be a place where educators could go to find technology to meet their teaching needs as well as provide the essentials on how to use the technology.