My district is entering a phase where students are in one of two situations: fully online or a hybrid with two days in person and three days online. The goal of this structure is to provide a safe space for students who need it without mandating that all students come back to the building and create a new unsafe space.
I’ve been thinking hard about how to support this new structure. Trying to work the old school model into a new structure is going to cause headaches. The lowest bar is often one of the worst, even though it’s an attractive option when you’re under time constraints and high stress in new situations. To that end, I’ve been trying to pare down what I would suggest if I were teaching classes of my own this fall.
Complex systems which evolve from simple systems often work well. Complex systems developed without simple implimentations often run into the ground, hard. Starting simple and choosing two or three solid instructional methods will help teachers make connections and teach new material.
There will be a time when you need to figure out how to accomplish tasks X and Y without letting A, B, and C fall apart, but it isn’t at the start of the semester. Those acrobatics come later. For now, consider how you’re going to introduce concepts, close gaps in understanding, and then build on those ideas.
In Education and Experience, John Dewey (yep, I just pulled that card out) argues that experiences should build on one another and drive students to want to know more. This is critical in building self-regulation habits, espeically at the high school level.
Well Defined Material
You are not going to be able to "cover" or "hit" the same amount of content you did before March. It just isn’t feasible given the time delays and other constraints of teaching fully (or even partially) online.
You should start by identifying the absolute essentials for your content. If you would typically explore 15 content standards in an in-person semester, cut that down by two thirds. You might be at a good starting point.
Not only should content be pared down to essentials, it should be explicitely and repeatedely shown and explained to students. This opens up a number of opportunities from direct discussions of material with students (imagine no more, "what are we learning today?" It can be your reality.) to fully-fledged standards-based grading.
As a fringe benefit, reducing your scoped material gives you a soild guaranteed curriculum which can be expanded based on student interest. Your time is more flexible to follow lines of inquiry and delve into topics or ideas you would normally gloss over for the sake of "covering more material."
Cycles of Learning
Ramsey Musallam uses this term a lot (it’s his blog title, after all) and I really like his approach to flipped learning. Instead of preteaching with a video and assuming you know what students need to know, be patient and wait for those misconceptions to expose themselves. Then you can make a short, targeted video to close those gaps.
When you’re fully online, it’s easy to make assumptions about where students are before you actually know…where they are. The easy button solution is to make a ton of videos up front only to find later that they don’t target specific misconceptions well, which leaves you feeling stressed and rushed to make more videos.
Rather than jump to video as a go-to, invest time in finding other ways to engage students in their learning. Set explorations first which challenge them to think through ideas or topics and express their own understanding before you swoop in with instruction.
Adjust on the Fly
I student taught twelve years ago and I still remember my mentor teacher’s response to my very first solo attempt. She observed the class and then brought me a small notepad and said, "Write down three things you’re proud of and two things you want to improve." Shen the proceeded to coach me through the first item on my "to improve" list until I felt proud of it and we moved on through the semester.
This changed my life.
It’s easy to focus on the terrible lessons. It will be even easier now that many teachers are sitting alone at home or in classrooms. Develop a habit of constant reflection, but start with proud moments and move on to one or two items to improve. Take advantage of any instructional coaches in your district. Reach out to colleagues also teaching online and ask for advice or if they’ve had the same experience. Ask the students what they think. Find that feedback and take time to adjust as necessary.
There is no top-three list I can give teachers. There is no combination of YouTube channels or websites that will help you teach better. There are chances to move away from time-based, self-contained, content-overloaded courses. Focusing on simple systems which support learning and allow for changes in what "normal" used to be is the best advice I can give heading into the new semester. It’s trite, but this really is a chance to rewrite the book on what school could look like.
I hope we take it.