Bridging the online / offline / simultaneous teaching gap

In Quebec, all students are expected to be in school under normal ratios, that means the same teacher:student ratio in effect at a given school as before Covid-19. (I still find it mind-boggling that the exact same directive goes for schools in Montreal with over 29 000 cases of the virus as schools in the Lower Saint Lawrence, with 75 cases (as of the time of publication.) But that is the case.)

Actually, that directive doesn’t apply to all students, some secondary schools can opt to create secondary 4 & 5 (Grades 10 & 11) groups that work online so as to facilitate regrouping of students for different course options though 50% of a student’s time must be at school.

Ok. So what does that look like?

I don’t have all of the answers to that question. But I know of at least one high school in the Greater Montreal area that is planning for simultaneous classes for their Secondary 4 & 5 courses. One teacher describes:

I am teaching 1/2 of the group in class, while I am teaching the other 1/2 online, all at the same time. [Then the groups switch the next time she teaches that particular class]

I also need to take 5 minutes to let cleaning product soak on my desk and then clean anything and everything I might touch, then clean my hands, then set up, then go online and add kids from the “lobby” waiting room and then teach in whatever is left over in the 60 min class that we have. Oh and I need 5 min to put my things together to change classrooms at the end.

I am hopeful that when teachers need the support from the parents during contract negotiations, that we will get it.

This teacher, like many others across Quebec, teaches 8 sections of different courses at different grade levels. Four of the sections will be organized like this, the other four are entirely face to face. Each of the groups are made up of 30 – 35 students and the students all stay in their base room most of the day so the teacher needs to move from class to class.

Pause a bit and let the logistics of all of that sink in.

This is far from ideal. But what can we do? There aren’t enough teachers for the start of the year as it is. And even if there were more teachers available – the government has directed the same class ratios as normal so schools can only hire 1 teacher per whatever that ratio is for them. In high school the maximum number of students per class is supposed to be 32 but it can go higher (I have seen a class of 47 at Secondary 3…) and in certain cases the max is set lower.

To be clear. Simultaneous teaching does NOT equal smaller class sizes. The teacher is still responsible for all of the students and his or her attention is now divided between multiple spaces. Have you ever done something on your phone or computer while someone in the room is talking to you? Think about teaching that way… Regardless. We know that the teacher will make it work, that is what teachers do, right?

So how can we make this easier?

I’d likely treat the whole class as if they were all learning online. That way I wouldn’t need to create two versions of a lesson plan for my online learners and my in class learners. I’d create learning that can be accessed from anywhere and completed in a variety of ways. That way if each of my in class students didn’t have a device of some sort, they can still do the ‘online’ activities as I project it on my whiteboard (interactive white board or not). And if we all need to jump online at one point in the school year, the material will already be there.

So what would this look like?

I use Google, so I’d make a site like these ones and organize the activities and instructions so that they can be completed either at home or in the classroom. The syllabus and schedule would be available on the site but I’d likely also use Google Classroom as a communication platform so students can submit and receive feedback on their assignments.

Social Media and Me – course designed by Caroline Mueller, PhD, teacher at Place Cartier Adult Education Center, Lester B Pearson School Board.
Site for a unit on personal identity – designed by me and used in a variety of settings with students, teachers, and student-teachers.

Students could access this no matter where they happen to be located during the lesson. I’d probably also make sure that when the groups are with me, I’d divide them up into even smaller groups so I can teach them a mini-lesson, ask and answer questions, conference with them, assess them…whatever but in smaller groups (socially distanced) so I can have a handle on formative assessment and touch base with each of them regularly during this incredibly weird school year.

This might look like teaching in stations, where certain stations can only happen in the classroom. Or, if you teach students who will ALWAYS be at home, certain groups have independent work while you conference with small groups, maybe using a breakout room in Zoom or Meet or a different channel in Teams.

Accessibility & Inclusion

Another benefit of putting everything in one online place is that it creates more accessibility in general. No need to provide digital copies of something for students who need it as per their IEP (individual learning plan) … it’s there already. No need to provide students who miss a class with your presentation or notes … it’s already there. No need to create something new each time someone may need an accommodation or need to miss class for whatever reason. And, once again, if school goes online for all, my materials will already be there.

Relationship & Community

And if everyone accesses their class material via the online platform, then that can help to create a class community where everyone is included in the same way no matter where they happen to be located. This can go a long way to developing the teacher/student relationship that is so needed, especially this year, yet may seem so far away when we are behind masks, in different rooms, in different buildings.

A back-to-school like no other

On Thursday morning, someone from CBC News contacted me for a live interview later that afternoon. It was to talk about back-to-school in Quebec and concerns from a teaching perspective. It ended up being cancelled, I think Rob Ford bumped me on Thursday and something else did on Friday. These things happen.

Before they cancelled, I spent the day thinking about what I would say because this year’s back-to-school is entangled with confusion, worry, anger, fear, hope, and love. I wanted to speak with clarity.

I also asked some friends who are returning to the classroom in a few days what they would say, knowing that it would remain anonymous.

I am not the only one with such mixed feelings and I feel I need to do something with what everyone told me.

Here are some of the worries my teacher friends told me, in frantic text messages and phone calls, in between preparing for teaching in a pandemic. These are high school and elementary school teachers in the Greater Montreal area, from both the French and the English systems:

I always feel hope and love for teaching because we do what needs to be done for the children in our care. Sometimes, that is tinged with frustration and anger because it is expected of us even when our conditions are subpar – when the class sizes grow larger and the resources dwindle each year.

But this year, I am so angry that teachers are put in the position to try to make confusing and potentially dangerous policy bearable because we always put children first.

I am not returning to the classroom this year. I had returned last year after about six years away. But this year, I left for a position where I can work from home and keep my 9 year old son with me just in case. Because I am also worried about all of those things the teachers told me above. I lived all of those worries last year. So did my son. And because online learning is only being made available to a slim list of people with specific medical conditions, I will likely start homeschooling in September (Yes, in two days. And yes, I am still considering options…). It is the only solution right now that can guarantee consistency because there are so many inconsistencies with back-to-school this year. And it is sad that we will likely need to leave the system for that.

I also feel sad when I see teachers posing in their masks and face shields inside their classrooms that they are preparing for 25+ children to spend their days not wearing masks. Not social distancing. We can’t have 25 people in a SAQ at the same time …. even with masks and with social distancing!

The masks can hide the trembling smiles at least. I feel like schools are the band that plays while the Titanic sinks and this will have an impact on mental wellness. Teachers hold emotion for themselves, their colleagues, and their students. This year, the task is downright dystopic. Our government continues to insist that the best place for children is at school. But the current directives lack not only empathy but a reflection of current knowledge about this virus. The directives are inconsistent and school staff don’t have the time to make sense of them, not to mention what they are going to teach and how they are going to connect with their students who have been away from school for so long.

Day 1 – Trauma, Mental Health, & our Students

This week a friend of mine challenged me to do 25 pushups for 25 days as a way of raising awareness for mental wellness issues that can lead to suicide and it goes by the tag #matesofmatesformates.

Yesterday was Day 1 and I questionned – what can we do beyond the challenge? How does doing 25 pushups for 25 days actually help anything?

What I will do is find out more about mental health. It is one of those things that we (at least I) think I know about. That kind of thinking means I need to learn more.

And I’ll share what I find out.

Yesterday evening I saw a TEDx talk by Phillip J. Roundtree where he talks specifically about Black mental health. I need to listen to what he says more.

In the video, he talked of trauma and how it affects black people, how it affected him.

Some questions to ask ourselves:

As teachers, how often have we described a black student as rude or that they don’t care about their education based on specific behaviours before stopping to think about the effects of trauma on that child? I have always believed that there is a reason for every behaviour. Sometimes those reasons lay deep.

How often have we done this with an Indegenous student?

When we take a look at our resource and behavioural programs – have we stopped to think how these knee-jerk responses are built right into our school system?

How are we going to change this?

Checking ourselves. When good teachers are racist.

Close to 15 years ago, I became friends with a teacher in South Burlington, Vermont. She was a master at differentiation and I met her first through a webinar and then in person. She graciously allowed me to bring a group of teachers from Montreal to spend the day in her classroom. It was a great day that I still use as a spring board when talking about classroom visits as professional development. We have kept in touch ever since and I considered her as a sister-teacher.

But earlier this week, she broke ties with me on Facebook, which is how we have been keeping in touch for the past almost decade. She posted a meme equating rap music with hate and violence. I questioned it and was first made fun of for questioning it and then told she wouldn’t be answering any more questions about it. And then, rather than talking about it, she unfriended me.

I hope I hit a nerve.

But this situation hasn’t been sitting well with me. This is a teacher I admired because of her openness and care for the children she teaches and her colleagues.

How many of us seem to be wonderful teachers yet hold racist beliefs?

How many children are silently (and not so silently) determined to be a certain way because of wonderful teachers who hold these beliefs?

(Imagine the numbers, over an average 25 – 30 year career teaching groups of 25-30 kids a year. Or 2 groups, or 4)

We need to check ourselves every day. As teachers, we model belief and values through our behaviour whether we want to or not. And I think we need to check ourselves more than others because we have littles (and bigs) in front of us who just soak that up as truth.

How do we check ourselves?

Environment: We can start by checking what we have in our class libraries and on our walls. Who is represented in our rooms?

Culture: We can start by making sure racist tropes don’t end up in our yearbooks.

Self: We can start by asking ourselves these questions every single day after (or during) our work with our kids: Who am I paying more attention to in my groups? Am I seeing everyone in my classroom (or online) with potential and what am I doing to make sure I do?

And that is just where we start.

When we talk, when we listen. We get better together. (epilogue)

A story in 3 parts – epilogue

I already posted an article earlier today called English Sector Exclusion: A story in 3 parts and I don’t usually post twice in one day but today, I need to.

The survey that excluded anglophone school boards (and therefore the voices of teachers who work within these boards)? It now includes the English School Boards! The survey is still uniquely in French but at least now, our voices can be included in the conversation about teacher experience during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Below is a link to the survey- please share it with all of the teachers you know and if you or anyone you know would like some help with translation, please contact me and I will be happy to help out!

—> Survey on teacher experience during the Covid-19 pandemic (en français)

Catherine Beaudry and I spent much of our morning writing back and forth to each other. I spoke of the same sentiments I expressed in my previous post and she spoke of roadblocks related to translation and validation (this is a huge roadblock in all aspects of Quebec Education and is the number one reason given for a scarcity of English versions of documents. Three or four years ago, I worked on a project with some teachers for the ministry. We are still awaiting approval to publish based on linguistic revision…there is a backlog.) and she also spoke of the lengthy process for Ethics Committee approvals (In a University setting, whenever you do research with people, your research methods must be approved by an Ethics Committee and that could take months. Here is the UQAR ethics approval process.)

She also spoke very frankly of not being familiar with the English community and that she thought a survey had to be in English in order for us to be included. She wondered if people would be willing to answer it if it were in French.

My response was that ideally, it should be in English. But that including teachers from the English School Boards in the conversation is an important step.

I know that many people will feel put out that it is not available in English but I think that being included in this study is important enough to answer some questions in French.

Professor Beaudry also mentioned that when she relaunches the survey, she will make sure to emphasize that the English community is invited to participate.

Now, I think that ideally an English version of a survey (or of Ministerial evaluations or programs of study) would be available along with its French counterpart. We should be developing together, in true inclusion, and not after the fact, in annexation.

In order for us to move towards that ideal, we need to keep talking and listening to each other. If I had said to my circle of friends and colleagues – “Typical! The English community is once again left out!” and not asked why, I would have held on to my resentments and we would still be excluded from the study. If Professor Beaudry had said, “Too bad! It is already published!” instead of taking the time to validate what I told her and then explain her reasoning, then I would never have learned that we were excluded because she thought we wouldn’t want to be included based on the language of the survey. And we would still be excluded.

So once again, Yes. We should be included from the get-go, in our language. And also yes, we can still be included, even if it means (this time) we read a survey in French.

My hope is that Province-wide surveys and resources in education are one day truly Province-wide and respond to the needs of both the English and French sectors AT THE SAME TIME.

I think that conversations like the one Catherine Beaudry and I had this morning are a start.

Bonne St Jean.