Sunday, December 13, 2020

How Is Hybrid Teaching Going?? It's Complicated.

We've recently been told that next semester, starting in February, will operate the same way as this semester did: running quadmester terms with in-school students attached to each school in a hybrid model with a rotation of half at home and half in the classroom, and online students being taught through the board office, completely unattached to any school. After calling each parent to update them on midterm student progress, a new task that took me about four hours to complete, it has become clear that the general public still doesn't understand what any of this means or the implications of it all. So let's break it down:

Hybrid System:

We teach students in the room as well as students at home, at the same time. I started with two laptops, one to teach from and one as a monitor to be able to read the chat happening as a backchannel during the lessons and discussions. Some would raise their hands in front of me, and others would raise their hand in on the meet, so I had to watch everything at once. I also wore a mic to be heard above my mask, and had the meet attached to speakers so kids in the room could hear people at home, but then I had to remember to turn off my volume whenever someone in the room spoke on the meet or it would reverb like crazy. I needed another half a brain to manage all the buttons. So, just last week, I started teaching only through the meet, without a mic or speakers or second laptop. Now I sit at my desk and just focus on the entire class over the meet regardless who is in the room. It honestly feels a bit ignorant to barely make eye contact with people in front of me, but I just can't do it the other way - it's too much for my brain to manage and be on my toes to answer questions about the curriculum. When I see how poorly others manage tech during meetings, I feel like I made the right call on that one!

Quadmester Schedule:

A quadmester schedule means two courses over 9 weeks with two full weeks of one class,  5 hours/day (basically one day = a former week of lessons), followed by two weeks of the other class, then the first class for 12 school days and then the second for 12 school days, which ensures we meet the provincial target of (22 days x 5 hours/day) 110 instructional hours/course. Got it? At the end of every day, I'm blown away by how exhausted I am. If I sit on the couch for a second, I'm out like a light.

BUT, those 5 hours/day are made up of 3.75 hours synchronous and 1.25 asynchronous, and I would estimate that approximately 100% of teachers have given up those asynchronous hours to work periods rather than expect students to learn a lesson on their own at another time in the day at their choosing. We all know there won't be another time that kids focus on learning on their own. For some teachers, like me, it means I teach a little faster to cram all my 5 hours of lessons into 3.75 hours. For others, it means they've unceremoniously dropped a quarter of their course content. I've found ways to keep all my content, but I have taken out some minor assignments, and I'm now realizing how much those little things helped reinforce the big things, but there's just no time

Alternatively, the board considered octomesters - one class at a time like summer school, OR a regular schedule with all classes at once. They gave teachers a survey, but we don't get to see the results of that. 

From a Covid-19 perspective, quadmestering with rotating cohorts keeps 15 kids in one room for a week, dramatically reducing the number of contacts each student has. With a regular schedule of, for instance, 4 courses at once, running for 18 weeks, with one course/day and Wednesdays off, with Cohort A in one week and Cohort B in the next, it could potentially double the number of contacts an infected person is near in just every two-day period, for instance, if Sally is in one room on Monday and a different room on Tuesday. 

I've seen one academic benefit of the quad system: the big assignments that I usually run over many weeks are of significantly better quality than typical years. Instead of writing a huge report over five weeks, with many other assignments for other subjects also on the go, students just work on that one report for five full days. It might drive some of them crazy with tedium, but they remember all the little things to fix and how to do each step and what it all should look like in the end when it's their sole focus. 

BUT the academic drawbacks are clearly a lack of marking time for me and thinking time for the kids. Sure, my kids wrote great essays over five days of process work, but it meant that each night, I had to check each essay in progress to offer feedback for improvement. Some suggest peer-editing to save time, but I've rarely seen that make for an improved final product. They need expert eyes on their page to keep them on the right track. This system also means that teachers have one prep in only every other quad, so my prep was in my last quad, two 2-week time slots with no classes, but I didn't know my current quad classes until the very end, so I couldn't use the time to get ahead of the curve. Teaching two heavy courses in one quad, without any breaks, is ... just ... doesn't work. The work is almost continuous. It's about twice as laborious as being a first year teacher. 

AND, at the same time, I taught many theories over the first 9 classes, and there's a midterm on class 11, but the kids have lost the typical time they take to just stop and think a bit about the ramifications of each idea. It's an incredible amount of content to learn in two weeks. There's just no time to think with this system. Furthermore, typically those four courses kids are taking include at least one with less homework, so they would have even more time on their plate if they take four at once. Guidance counsellors work hard to make sure kids don't have four heavy courses at the same time. Now, none of that matters since kids just focus on one course at a time. If it's heavy, taking Phys Ed in the next quad has zero effect on their current homework load. 

It also means that students might have one assignment due for me on Monday, and another new assignment due Wednesday. In a typical year, those assignments would be due two weeks apart. Now, only two days apart, some parents think it's too much to ask of them. I remind them that the kids are only focusing on this one course, so that should help, and that they are finished class at 12:50, so they have even more time outside of class to do homework, but it definitely seems like more work despite all the assignments I've tossed out. And many students are filling that afternoon time with jobs. However, while the quadmester isn't ideal, it might be the best we've got.

Online Students Taught Through the Board Office

This one just makes ZERO sense to me. Parents have to choose to have their kids take the in-school option, or the online option. The in-school option includes 50% of the time in school and 50% of the time online. BUT, if parents opt for the in-school option, they can still keep their kids at home during that 50% in class time, effectively learning online, but with in school benefits. With the online-only kids (formally Distance Learning) attached to the board office instead of their school, there is a loss from not being attached to a school that doesn't seem to be balanced out by any benefits that I can see. 

What are those school attachment benefits?? 

1. Knowing the kids in your class. We keep talking about the importance of working together, so we all incorporate groupwork into our courses. But online only classes, since they include kids from the entire region - kids living 50 km away are in the same class - don't know a single soul. I taught fully online last quad and students were perfect strangers with one another. Yes, I did things to help them get to know each other, but it makes a huge difference to start with a class where almost everyone at least knows someone. They can know there's someone they can text with a quick question. 

2. Knowing the teacher and having a bit of background about how they teach and their general expectations. 

3. Staying connected to their school community. We keep taking about the importance of fostering community, but this can't be maintained when we're no longer working with kids in our neighbourhoods. 

4. Keeping electives alive!! The worst part of the board online option is that it kills school electives. Students end up with far fewer choices of subjects as they shift to be taught by teachers seconded into the board online option. 

5. Smaller in-class cohorts. If we kept all online students AT their schools, then we could potentially either have far fewer students in the room each day, or we could just have in-class student in the class every day and online students at home every day and completely do away with cohorts. Since it's been made clear to us that our online and in-class lessons must be identical so that no student is at a disadvantage if they work from home within the at-school model, then what does it matter if we have even more kids at home?? 

Back in August, I encouraged parents in my neighbourhood to choose the at-school option and then keep their kids home as desired. But there's some pushback from schools, here and there, little things that make parents and students feel like they're doing something wrong if they work from home.

Some parents also really dislike their kids being given the option to be underfoot. After telling my students that they would in NO way be penalized for working from home, apparently parents complained when their kids wanted to stay home to work. One parent asked me how presentations went with a class of just three students, assuming it was a disaster, but the entire class had presented, on time, even though most of them presented from home. This is so new to people, and many just can't wrap their heads around the distinct possibility that students can be productive without actually being in the building. We also need to account for the reality that some people don't have an extra room to work from, and others don't have adequate wifi. 

When are we getting guaranteed basic income and cheap and accessible wifi?? That's the real question here.

Some kids work better in the classroom, for sure. If I'm absent, most of the the kids leave. Literally my entire class went home during the break one day when I was away. Of course I was questioned about what I had told them to make them do that, and I responded, again, that I assured them they would not be penalized in any way in this class for working from home since the material is identical. There are curious mixed messages being bandied about: make sure kids have equal chance of success when working from home, but don't let them know that in case they choose to stay home. 

It's all very weird. 

I'm hoping to teach entirely online starting in February, but that means no longer being part of my school. That affects teachers as well as students. I wish the board office understood that. Or, at the very least, I wish they could help me understand their line of reasoning for making this questionable decision.

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