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.

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.

Well-being of children and opening schools

Yesterday afternoon, the Quebec government announced the reopening of schools during this current worldwide pandemic.

Last week, they suggested as much, citing herd immunity as a main reason. But over the weekend, perhaps in response to Dr. Theresa Tam’s statement about the practice, they changed their reason why. In fact, they replaced it with 5 reasons why and made sure to underline that herd immunity was no longer the driving force behind the reopening of schools.

Here are the 5 reasons why, as presented by Premier Legault (these are notes I took during the press conference on April 27. Here is Legault’s Facebook post, in French, that outlines the same points)

1 – Well-being of children. Especially for those with learning disabilities. (Asking teachers to pay special attention to children who are having difficulties).
2- The risk is limited for children. Children with health problems or who have parents with health problems, parents should keep them home.
3 – The situation is under control in hospitals so if children and teachers get sick we can treat them.
4 – We have the go ahead from public health (earlier I had read that M. Arruda, the director general of public health had wanted to wait another week but I can no longer find that reference)
5 – Life has to continue, children should see their friends and teachers again. I don’t see children staying at home until a vaccine is ready in 12 or 18 months

Calls herd immunity a secondary benefit.
We are reopening our schools for social reasons and because the situation is under control in hospitals. (Legault)

School is to be optional and teachers are expected to teach those who choose to be in school and follow up with those at home. (Roberge)

For the past 3 weeks of the 5 weeks we have been out of school, we have sent links to activities that could be completed at home at a family’s discretion. We will continue to do so until we return on the 19th (in Montréal, still considered the epicenter in Quebec as of last week, and if the situation in the hospitals does not change), all the while preparing our classrooms for face to face teaching in a pandemic. Some teachers have also connected with their students in other ways, through Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or other platforms.

If schools do reopen on the 19th, we will still be asked to connect in those ways all the while caring for the children who come to school in very unusual circumstances – 2 metre distancing in classes, recess, etc… and with no protective gear provided or mandated for staff or children. Some students and teachers won’t be present because of age or underlying health issues. This is not a return to school as it was nor is it a return to school for everyone.

Premier Legault said that we are reopening our schools for social reasons and that the number one reason is for the well-being of children.

There are vast options for nurturing our students, for providing for their well-being, that lie between the sending home of un-monitored schoolwork and the opening up of classrooms. Online learning can be a safe, caring space if we plan for it.

We can work with small groups, in a stations approach. Colleagues can manage these small groups together, sharing the load and learning together. A group can work with the French teacher while the other works with the English teacher and then they switch. A resource teacher can also be at another group, to keep the groups as small as possible because we know that the smaller the group, the more opportunities each group member has to ask questions and express themselves. Resource or technology teachers and consultants can accompany teachers as we experiment with new solutions. As I wrote the other day, this is possible with tools that are made available to us by our government and our school boards.

Yesterday, our Education Minister, Jean-François Roberge, promised LTE equipped tablets for students and families in need for distance learning. This begins to address the issues of equity and accessibility that worry me and can help to make this kind of online work accessible to more learners.

I can already imagine all of the arguments against this kind of thing – in my previous career as a technology consultant for the Province, I heard them all! The reality is, if we put the arguments aside and try, we will find that it works.

I am not suggesting that this can replace the kind of learning environments we had in our classrooms before we shut down but we won’t be returning to those spaces if we return on the 19th anyways. It won’t be business as usual. It won’t be equitable with some students and teachers in the buildings, some at home. I am scared and worried. Others are scared and worried. How will our children react? My son wants to return to school so he can play with his friends … But he won’t be able to play with them unless they are 2 metres apart so he is scared and worried. We can create safe, nurturing, closer to equitable learning environments online if we all stay home, like our Federal (and Provincial!) government suggests.

(Of course, today Legault will be announcing the plan to reopen businesses… Was the well-being of children really the driving force?)

Learning (or should we call it connecting?) Online in Troubled Times

Yes. Especially at this tumultuous (yet, for some lucky people, incredibly boring) point in time, we need to be talking about connection when it comes to learning. (When I say connect, I mean primarily as in human connection but also as in infrastructure.)

Connecting Online in Troubled Times.

There have been a whole new slew of online meeting and learning memes since we have started to work and school from home. Most of them refer to either inappropriate dress (or lack thereof altogether…) in meetings or the extreme boredom, exhaustion, and frustration of them. I could include a ton of pictures of actual online meeting fails…but they involve real people and my friend Avi reminded me how sad it is for them to be reminded of their fails all the time, so here’s a joke video that pretty much sums them up.

But we have a desire to connect, a desire to connect to some kind of normalcy in these very un-normal times so we try to be productive online. Meetings, classes, more meetings, more classes. If we just continue as usual, but online, then we can quasi pretend that we aren’t going through traumatic life shifts. That not only “everything will be alright“, but it is alright.

I hear from some parents, “If only teachers would teach online, that will solve things for me and my children!” I hear from our Ministry of Education (though the last I heard from them was quite a while back…), education consultants, and PD presenters, “Here are lists (and lists and lists and lists) of things you can do to make learning happen. To solve things for those parents asking for solutions.” And so teachers forward these lists to parents weekly but they say, “No! We don’t want lists of things to do, we want…online teaching! We want you to do your jobs in our homes!”

It is all very exhausting and overwhelming. I started tuning the lists out a few weeks ago. At this point there are soooooo many lists that whenever I do need an idea I can just Google what I need and I’ll be ok. But as more of my own learning and connecting experiences are taking place online (and I used to do a lot of online learning and connecting in my former job!) the exhaustion is returning.

For the most part, these experiences are presenter focused. That is, a very traditional lecture-based presentation….despite the possibilities that online learning has for connection, collaboration, and interaction.

Last year, I experimented with working in stations during online PD sessions and I find myself reflecting on those experiences now.

The magic of online stations (which are very doable with breakout rooms in Zoom or Via ‘ateliers’ and even manageable with multiple Meet rooms) is the same as the magic of classroom stations work: the relationship and connection that is created when working with small groups of learners.

At this point in history, after months (in some cases) of being apart, connection needs to be the driving force of online learning – whether for professional development or for student development. We can’t just throw content at our students or participants. We need to design opportunities for them to connect with us, with each other, and with the material.

Some of our students have suffered great loss with sick and dying relatives. Some of our students are alone at home with parents who work at home, yet are in another room for much of the day. Some of our students can’t meet with us online because they don’t have the tech to do so. Or they can’t meet with us because their parents work in essential services and they are at emergency daycare services. All of our students are grieving the loss of their friends, their lives, their fun, their experiences during this forced time at home. Many of them are scared of this loss and of this virus (and so are we.) We can’t ignore these very real facts.

Consider this when arranging to meet with your students or teachers online. How are they connecting with you and with their peers? Are you muting them all because it is just too noisy (and taking away their means to connect and express)? Or are you planning for small group work that they will do in separate meeting rooms so that they can talk with each other and the presenters and not be overwhelmed by 20+ learners talking at the same time? Are you making sure that you have time to connect with each of the small groups so they can ask questions or say things that they may not be brave enough to utter in a large group?

This works. I know because I have lived it a variety of levels. And if you can do this with teaching partners, it works even better because each of the small online breakout rooms can have a teacher to guide the conversations and check in with students. And the bonus is that we teachers get to support and connect with each other as well as we, in turn, support our students and their families in these very troubled times.

We are not teaching. We are connecting.

On unlearning or the summer slide.

I am listening to CBC while waiting for Jack to finish his smoothie and get out of his bath (multitasking). Listening specifically to an interview about the dangers of unlearning over the summer.

(I can’t find a CBC reference but here is a CTV article that mentions the same person being interviewed: Is the Summer Slide Real? Why children fall behind and how to stop it.)

Unlearning doesn’t exist. You don’t unlearn. You forget. And this phenomenon is a symptom of memorization and rote learning.

When learning masquerades as spelling bees, weekly math drills, and memorizing how to differentiate verbs from nouns then yes, it will be forgotten.

And yet, this interviewee is saying that, because children – especially in low socioeconomic brackets – don’t read with their parents over the summer, they are ‘unlearning’ and ruining the gains they had made in the previous school year.

I am amazed at how people are trying to shift the issue from instructional practice to children and families.

Yes. Reading is the key to learning. But it is only a key. And it is a huge gift.

Using that gift to memorize for spelling bees and math and science facts is not inspiring. It is not, dare I say, learning.

Our job is to inspire learning through empathy, reading, written expression, conversation, creativity, problem solving, and a sincere respect of children and their stories.

How dare you blame children and their families for schooling that doesn’t inspire learning and call it unlearning as if that is a thing.