This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: Dr. Catlin Tucker, a blended learning coach and teacher of 16 years, shares her expertise about tackling the different aspects of blended teaching including engagement, group work, and assessment in a virtual classroom or hybrid setting. If you’re looking for practical ways to simplify your workload in these trying times, you’ll love what Dr. Tucker and I talk about on this episode!

Recap and Big Ideas

  • Focus on a handful of priority standards, the key concepts and skills that students need most
  • Spend your energy creating really rich, engaging, meaningful learning experiences
  • Remember that this is a very unique year on so many different levels for us and for our students: if you’re in a different place than where you were last year, this is expected and it’s not your fault!
  • Recognize that you can’t replicate prior ways of instruction in a hybrid or remote classroom
  • Prioritize relationships and connections with students: give them the space to share ideas and connect with other humans even if they’re entirely online
  • Start every single lesson or session with a check-in: The goal is to get students comfortable sharing about themselves so that later on during academic tasks, they’ll feel safer sharing their feelings, thoughts, and opinions
  • Utilize station rotations to break up the class period: Rotate between a teacher-led station, an online station, and an offline station.
  • Use a teacher-led stations to boost engagement and differentiation since you have a smaller group of students
  • Continually revisit what it means to create a safe and respectful space: set that up, practice it, and have students self-assess regularly
  • Don’t try to assess every part of every assignment, every time
  • Advocate for realistic expectations, starting with having an honest conversation with your PLC or department; create a plan for approaching admin with approaches that you believe would work better for yourselves and students
  • Invest time in things that will save you time later, and consider how much of what you’re doing can be re-used in the future

I invited Dr. Catlin Tucker on the show because I have been so impressed with the quality of the blended and online resources she shares freely on her blog and in her online courses. Catlin was a classroom teacher for 16 years and currently teaches pre-service educators at the university level. She’s also a blended learning coach, educational consultant, author, and keynote speaker.

What I appreciate most about Catlin’s work is that she was passionate about blending online and face-to-face learning before the pandemic and has many years of experience in this methodology, coupled with the fact that she tackles the really practical aspects of the workload that we don’t often hear a lot about. 

I’m thrilled to have Catlin on Truth for Teachers to talk about some of the most time-consuming aspects of teaching remotely and in a hybrid setting. Lots of folks have asked me to do an episode on managing assessment, engagement, group work, and other aspects of teaching that look very different in an online environment. My hope is that this episode gives you some solid practical strategies to help streamline your workload. 

Learn more about my books, printables, and online courses here

What does “fewer things, better” look like in remote/hybrid learning?

ANGELA: So Catlin, I talk a lot with teachers about figuring out what’s most important and letting the rest go. And often I find that folks want a really clearly defined list. They want to be told: do this, don’t do that, this is worthwhile, this is not worthwhile.

But I’ve found that figuring out what to devote more time to and what to cut out is a really individualized process. It depends a lot on the teacher, on the district, and on the individual students who are in the class.

So in your work as a teacher and blended learning coach, how have you helped educators navigate this process during a school year when it’s so hard to figure out what you should be focusing on?

CATLIN: It is so hard. And I think your point about “it’s very individual” is true, because there are some teachers who are kind of getting the message from leadership that, “No, you’ve got a pacing guide, you’ve got to stick to it. You got standards, you’ve got to stick to it.” And then there are other districts that are more flexible in their approach. So that has a big impact on how comfortable teachers feel really making some choices about what to prioritize.

When I work with them, my message is to embrace a “less is more” kind of approach for this year on a bunch of different fronts. By trying to race through less content and cover what we were used to covering, we give ourselves a break and just recognize that by focusing on a handful of priority standards — those key concepts that you want students to know, those key skills they are really going to need for whatever class comes next — it’s going to build on our content area. And then just focus on really rich, engaging, meaningful learning experiences around those because I see a lot of teachers beating themselves up quite frankly because they’re like, “Oh my gosh, this time last year or the year before, I was at this totally different place in my curriculum.” And somehow I think they see that as a fault and it’s not their fault.

This is a very unique year on so many different levels for us and for our students. And so just taking a step back and realizing you can’t replicate the school day online. You can’t replicate it the way we’d done it in the past in a hybrid or a concurrent classroom. For me, it’s really about, “How do we bring that kind of frame and focus?”, which is a great quote from Jay McTighe who talks about using essential questions to really think about what’s most important. How do we really shine a light on that? And then quite frankly, another piece of this is what kids need from us right now is connection. How are we designing learning experiences to prioritize that human side of teaching, that connection with learners? They need that connection and support right now whether it’s connecting around talking about progress and goals or connecting around real-time feedback.

Making time to prioritize relationships and connections with students

Yeah, I totally agree. And I think more and more teachers and more and more school leaders and districts are learning to prioritize social-emotional learning and relationships. Of course, the problem is that sometimes it feels like it’s competing with time for the content area. So do you have any advice for teachers who feel like: “I want to prioritize relationships with my kids. I want to be really student-centered. I want to really focus on seeing them as human beings with feelings and needs and emotions and not just little robots who are here to download information. I want to do that, but I don’t feel like there’s time to do that and time to teach content”?

Right. It’s interesting that it does feel a bit like a dichotomy. These things are not separate, right? We are social and emotional selves, and we’re all wrapped up in our intellectual selves, as well. I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive, right? That learning and academic focus versus that social-emotional and relationship building, helping students to develop that social presence, which is also so critical. And so for me, it’s about the overlap in opportunities where we can really drive some dynamic learning while also allowing students to engage in conversation, build relationships, and develop trust with each other.

When I work with teachers, one of the simple strategies (I know it’s not simple to get started) to start really connecting learners and allowing them the space to idea share and connect with other humans even if they’re entirely online is with discussion. Wait, what form does discussion take in our classes? Because thanks to Flipgrid, you can have first graders having a discussion, right? And maybe those discussions start in more of a relationship-building space. So I start every single lesson or every single synchronous session with my teacher candidates with a check-in, just like a health and wellness kind of check-in or a fun icebreaker question. The goal is to get them comfortable sharing bits about themselves so that when we lean into that academic discourse or academic tasks, they feel safer sharing their feelings, their thoughts, their opinions. They’re willing to engage in that kind of honest, open, purposeful conversation, and they feel a sense of group cohesion, that connectedness to this learning community, which is so critical.

So I think there are ways — with discussion, with collaborative kinds of creative tasks — where we’re connecting kids, where we can meet some of that and develop some of that relationship building and give kids that meaningful connection, while also still serving some of those academic objectives that we obviously have as teachers.

Using online station rotations when teaching remotely

I know one strategy that you recommend a lot and you shared a lot of really helpful resources for is on virtual stations and breaking up your class times so that kids are working on different things at different times and rotating through different activities so that they can be working in small groups, they can be collaborating, discussing with peers, and then also so that you can have more individual time to be connecting with them as the teacher. Can you talk more about just some different ideas for what teachers can be doing with virtual stations and how that might look?

Absolutely. So one of the things that were fascinating is early in the pandemic, I did get a lot of messages on Twitter. People are like, “Oh my gosh, Catlin, I’m online. Now I can’t use the station rotation model. I’m really sad about it.” Because anybody who’s taught in a classroom knows it’s so much harder to connect with learners in a whole group dynamic than it is in a small group dynamic. So the idea with the station rotation is simply that you have a teacher-led station, you have an online station, you have an offline station. The number of stations doesn’t quite frankly matter, but it is about that balance between the online and the offline. And so there’s a lot about that approach that appeals to me right now. Whether teachers are still exclusively online or whether they’re in this concurrent classroom where they’ve got kids in class and kids online, it’s really hard to meet everybody’s needs at one time.

And so for me, the teacher-led station is basically if you’re online with kids, you break the groups into three — each smaller group has a time and a link to meet with you — and you can do anything from differentiating direct instruction to really engaging all the members in interactive modeling sessions, guided practice, give real-time feedback. There are so many dynamic ways to use it. And then when kids are working through the online station, a lot of times teachers really lean on a program or adaptive software, which is great, but that’s just one way to use those stations. We can have kids working through multimedia lessons, right? They could listen to a kid-friendly podcast and do some sketch art, or they could be in a breakout room with a group working on a shared Google slide deck or crowdsourcing research and resources on a topic in a Wakelet that they’re working on. Or we could have them doing virtual museum tours. None of us get to leave our houses anymore it feels like, so how do we give them some experiential, virtual kinds of those moments? And so there’s just all these cool things that we could think about having kids do in a virtual online station.

Then I really want to prioritize that offline learning — yes, kids are staring at the screens a lot, so they need a break. Can we give them a choice board of options for offline learning? Because I get it — if they’re working at home, equity and access are huge concerns for us. We don’t want to set kids up to fail because they just don’t have access to resources or materials. So we have to build in a high degree of student agency around those tasks, but I think that can be such a powerful way to engage them from afar. And then a lot of teachers will ask, “Okay, Catlin, that sounds great, but how do I see what they’re working on?” And my message is you have to train these kids to treat their offline learning like they’re creating a documentary: Can they take pictures? Can they do a video or time-lapse? They can upload and share as evidence of this wonderful work they’re doing offline. So I just really liked the inherent balance in that design and just the variety of ways we could get kids engaged with us, with each other online, and with their environment offline.

Yeah, that balance and variety are so important because staring at a screen is so exhausting. I hate video meetings. I hate having to like maintain eye contact with the person while I’m talking to them. I cannot imagine doing that as a child. It must be so, so tough on them.

And there’s been so much debate about should we require kids to have cameras on or off? I have taken the position where I think it’s better, in general, to give kids choice there. And I know that you have gone the same way, but that’s what’s so cool to me about a station rotation model is that it breaks things up. It gives variety. It gives kids different ways to be accountable and to show what they’re working on without just being expected to turn their camera on and have the entire class looking at them. And I know that some kids also will be more likely to engage when they’re in that smaller group and they don’t have the eyes of the whole class on them.

Absolutely. And I think as teachers, it really challenges us like, “Okay, I’m not going to be a physical presence at this station, so how am I really setting the learner up to lead that experience?” They become the center of that learning experience, which I think is such an important shift.

Creating a virtual class culture when kids take the lead

What does that look like? I’m curious what you have to say about that because in the classroom, I depend so much on what they technically call proximity control. I don’t really love the word “control”, but I’m referring to when you are in proximity to someone, your energy has an influence on them. They know the teacher is there, is paying attention, is involved in what’s happening. And just my presence in the classroom is a huge part of the way that I keep things running smoothly. How do you do that in a breakout room or online?

Somebody was just asking me that. I get a ton of questions on my blog and one of the questions was about having a class of 40. This woman really wanted to try a dialogic interview format that I had shared as a great relationship builder — it’s a one-on-one conversation. So when I’ve done it with a teacher as a coach and then with my teacher candidates, I open up enough breakout rooms. So for her, that would be 20. So every pair is in one. And she was like, “But I can’t be in every room.” And I was like, “No, no, you can’t.” We cannot actually be everywhere all the time. And quite frankly, the work that we need to do is cultivating a learning community capable of thriving in those situations. There’s no silver bullet. That’s not something that’s done overnight. I think it begins with a real intentional conversation and some workaround co-constructing class agreements.

What do students think participation online looks like? How many of us have asked that question and really listened to what kids think the answer is? And what do they think would make their interactions with each other online — whether it’s in the main room, a breakout room, an asynchronous collaboration —  feel safe, supportive, respectful? And then what would make that feel unsafe? What would make them feel like, “I don’t want to share an idea or I don’t really feel like I can trust the members of this group?” Because a lot of our kids spend a lot of time online and have experience in this realm. And so can we work together to come to some agreements where they feel like they were invited into the process?

And they’re kids. They’re going to make mistakes. So I think another piece of the puzzle that I’ve used pretty consistently — when supporting teachers — is building in a self-assessment for students at the end of that work. Like, “How did this go? What were your participation and engagement like? What is it that you still need to work on as we continue to utilize breakout rooms for conversation or collaboration or for whatever the purpose is?” So I think it’s about raising some awareness about what is actually okay and not okay to do based on what this community has decided. What are some of those consequences that students feel are appropriate for missteps online? That’s always a fascinating conversation because kids are so much more stern with themselves than I would ever be in the consequences that they come up with.

Then it’s about practice and reflection and refining. And I think if we’re committed to cultivating a community, we have to accept it’s a process. We have to accept that part of our work as teachers is guiding that cultivation and that culture is built over time. It’s really a series of behaviors that are reinforced and shared values. And so that really does have to be led by the teacher, but it should actively engage the students, as well.

So that’s a matter of talking about expectations beforehand. Talking about what is a safe and respectful space and really setting that up, practicing it, and then having students self-assess afterward or reflect on it.

I think those are really important pillars to creating a class culture that is going to thrive in the long-term. And just giving students a little bit of grace around knowing that they’re young and this is for them still a very new learning landscape that they are figuring out, and there may be parts of it they’re going to stumble. And that has to be okay. We have to have a way to support them in that process. And I really don’t want teachers making decisions from a place of fear, like, “Oh, I don’t think students will be successful. I don’t think they’ll utilize the breakout room time effectively. I’m not going to try this.” If we don’t believe that they can do it, then they can’t. We have to believe they’re capable and we have to support them in developing those critical skills. Because I think all the skills they’re learning right now around communication and engagement and collaboration and breakout rooms, these are not skills that are going away. They will need these in the future to continue being successful.

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Simplifying assessment in a remote/hybrid setting

Let’s talk a little bit more about assessment. I agree with having students self-assess is really important because it’s not just the teacher handing down a decree about how well they’ve mastered content, it really requires them to reflect on their own progress and set their own goals. But I know that assessment has been a really tough area for teachers to navigate this school year. Some of them are being required to assess kids like normal and hold kids to the normal standards. I know you have some feelings about that.

I have a lot of feelings about that, actually!

Let’s talk about that first, and then we’ll talk about what do we do.

Long before the pandemic, I had a lot of concerns about the traditional approaches to the assessment period. And I went through a whole evolution myself as a teacher, which is why I think it’s so top of mind for me because I describe in my last book, Balance With Blended Learning, that I felt very much like in the early years of my teaching career, like the Oprah Winfrey of points. Like, “Oh, you get points and you get points. Like everybody’s getting points. You did your annotations, you did your homework, you did this assignment.” And I always had unease when I was reporting grades where I was like, “Oh, this student’s getting an A but this student isn’t A level skills or ability, right? They’re just jumping through all the hoops.” So it’s more about time management, organization, and compliance than it is really about skills and content knowledge.

And then I would have kids, quite frankly, who were doing very poorly in my class who did really well on all the assessments. They just didn’t want to do all the assignments that I had assigned, right? And so for me, I had to take a hard look at like, “What does this grade really represent? And am I comfortable with that?” And I think in this moment, unfortunately, what I’m seeing is teachers are so desperate to get kids to just show up to do anything that they’re giving out even more points than they ever have before as these carrots to try to lure kids into showing up and doing the work. And I totally get it, but I think it’s moving in the wrong direction. I think it reinforces this myopic kind of focus on the accumulation of points instead of a focus on development and learning as a process, which is where I obviously want the focus to be.

I think part of exhausting right now is teachers are spending so much time in the design work, right? Like they’re designing for this new teaching and learning landscape, they’re maybe designing for a population online and one in the class, and then they’re still trying to grade everything. And they’re grading even more than they have in the past and it’s just a bombastic amount of work. And for me, I wish teachers would take a step back and really think about what is the purpose of this work kids are doing? Is it practice? Is it work toward a product? Is it a finished product or an assessment? And where does it make sense for me as the educator with limited time and energy to put that time and energy? To give feedback or to grade something that kids have completed?

I want that to be much more intentional so that teachers aren’t taking these massive stacks of literal digital work home to grade in their evenings and weekends when that grading process isn’t really functioning to move the needle. So that’s one part of this moment where like, again, less is more. Maybe if we put less points on everything, we have more time for feedback on the things that really matter that kids can take that feedback and act on it. And then if it is a final assessment, I would love for teachers to get away from — especially online — using really traditional forms of assessment. Teachers are so worried about kids cheating and Googling things, and I’m like, “But if you give them a test where they can Google the answers, they’re going to Google the answers.”

So how do we reimagine learning and assessment in this moment? Can we embrace a more creative approach thinking about performance tasks, project-based forms of assessment? And then really building in some student agency into that. One of my favorite examples to share with teachers is a project choice board, and there are six different project structures. And when I say project structures, it just means that the choice board isn’t specific to a unit of study. These project structures could be used to demonstrate learning at the end of any learning cycle or at the end of any unit. So they’re things like: take an idea from this unit or from this learning cycle, flush it out, script and deliver a mini TED Talk; or construct a model to demonstrate a concept or a process that you learned; or create a multimedia slideshow pulling together texts and images and media: or write a children’s book or a little children’s story unpacking one of these complex concepts.

So it’s about being more creative, embracing those more performance-based, authentic forms of assessment, and then building choice. Anybody who knows anything about Universal Design for Learning has probably, “Kids don’t communicate and express themselves all in the same way.” How do we build in some of that choice and voice so they can decide, “I think this is going to be a really successful avenue for me to share my learning with my teacher and my classmates.”

And obviously, all of those kinds of projects and choice boards and things take longer for students to do. They also take longer for teachers to plan sometimes when you’re still used to it or when you’re not used to it or in the beginning stages. And I think what we’re saying here really is quality over quantity, to maybe grade less, assess less, and make sure that those grades you are taking actually are a reflection of what students know and are able to do. Is that fair to say?

Absolutely, and I know that’s a really tricky conversation. The knee-jerk response is, “If I don’t grade everything, they won’t do it.” And maybe some kids won’t and is that the reason to then spend hours and hours putting grades on everything? I don’t think so. There just needs to be that higher level of intentionality around what we’re grading, why we’re grading, and what’s going to be the benefit for students of grading something or giving feedback on something? Because if they’re not going to act on feedback, then covering a paper in a bunch of comments isn’t a great use of anybody’s time. So it’s just that strategic thinking and questioning some of the things that we’ve always done and never really thought about or questioned.

Is there anything else teachers can be doing to simplify assessment in the virtual classroom?

Don’t try to assess every part of every assignment, every time. That is something I see a lot. So whether it’s teachers using more traditional forms of assessment — having kids write an essay — or whether it’s more performance-based or authentic — like a project — then really drill down the learning objectives. What were the target standards that informed the design of this unit or this learning cycle? And then let’s pull some of those two, maybe three, and design a standard aligned rubric because if the learning objectives for everybody in a unit are the same, then you should be able to use that standard aligned rubric with two or maybe three criteria to evaluate any product kids are creating to demonstrate their learning.

And what I see teachers doing is feeling that pressure to assess every single part of every single piece, every single time. And I’m like, “I don’t think that’s necessary.” So if I am working with an English teacher who is teaching argumentative writing, they’re likely going to have students do maybe a couple of different argumentative pieces throughout the year. So maybe the pieces I assess on the first argumentative writing sample are different from the two criteria I decide to assess the next time students write another argumentative piece. So again, it’s just kind of narrowing the scope. And I think that’s not only good for us, but it’s great for kids because sometimes I think it’s easy to forget how overwhelming it is to receive just massive amounts of feedback or a rubric with 10 different items that have been assessed. For a kid to take that in and do something with it is a tall order.

Handling attendance issues in remote/hybrid learning

How do attendance issues factor into this? Because I’m thinking about teachers, particularly at the secondary level, who are trying to assess kids who have barely turned in any work. And they’re like, “Report cards are coming up and I have like two things from this kid. What am I supposed to do?” Do you have any advice for teachers who are having trouble getting kids to show up and having trouble getting enough grades or enough accurate assessments to reflect what the student knows?

On some level, the first thing we have to do is try to connect with that child or the family and/or the family supporting that child and figure out what is the barrier? Why aren’t they coming? Because we can make all kinds of assumptions about why kids don’t show up that could be absolutely inaccurate. And I think the first step is about trying to connect with that learner, the family, how do we identify the barriers? How do we try to work through them? I also think that it was fascinating for me in my journey toward more of a standards based approach to grading was that I was literally entering each assessment score, each individual assessment score. So if I had a rubric that had three standards on it, each of those separate scores would be entered individually.

And what I’ve found is when I was grading less where kids weren’t being penalized all the time for missing just like dozens and dozens of the assignments and I started to be much more strategic about how I was grading and what was going in the grade book. I had a couple of students who were not strong writers. English was not their first language. They really struggled every time we did a process piece of writing. And when I shifted to standards-based, what I realized was if I’m assessing the strength of your topic sentence and your evidence and your analysis, then you actually didn’t have to write up the entire five-paragraph essay or whatever it was for me to assess those pieces, right? There were kids who might’ve only written two paragraphs and in my old model, it’s like, well, you didn’t do the assignments. An F. In the new model, it was like, okay, in what you submitted, what are your skills telling me about where you are?

And so I almost think that re-imagining our approach to what we grade and how we go about that grading can actually benefit kids who for whatever reason don’t come every day, or for whatever reason don’t submit all of the work. And that’s not a problem solver for a kid who’s been in class twice in a semester and turned in one thing. There’s not a lot to reimagine there if we can’t connect with that student and that student’s family. I think there is a degree in education where we feel all this responsibility that everybody has to succeed, but we can only do so much and especially when kids aren’t walking through a door where we have that regular access to them physically and have those conversations. I think on some level we do what we can do and then we just have to let go a little bit and recognize that there’s a lot going on in the background of people’s lives right now, and a kid not showing up and a kid not doing assignments might have nothing to do with us or our class.

Absolutely. I think that’s the case even when we’re not in a pandemic. It’s so easy to take it personally when a student doesn’t do their work or doesn’t finish an assignment. It’s like, “Well, they don’t respect my authority or they think the assignment was boring or they don’t like me.” Like there’s all kinds of stories that we can tell ourselves and often it just has nothing to do with us. The kid’s mind is elsewhere. There are other things going on. And plus they’re children. I know even as an adult trying to work from home, it is very difficult to focus and concentrate.

Exactly.

How teachers can advocate for realistic teaching/learning expectations this year

What do you think about some of the unrealistic expectations that are being pushed right now? Because I’m agreeing 100% with everything that you’re saying. I think most teachers would too, but there are probably some folks listening to this and thinking, “Man, I really need my superintendent to get this message through their head.” Specifically, I’m thinking about people who work in schools that are trying to hold kids and teachers to the old standards to whatever they were doing last year: “We‘re going to keep pace. We’re going to test them the same way. They’re going to master just as much content and skills this year as they would if there was no such thing as COVID.” I’m sure you have some things to say to that. I’m wondering if you have some practical steps that teachers could take to advocate for better working and learning conditions and appropriate expectations.

It’s so hard to push that change in mindset from the ground up. I have been that teacher trying to do that exact same thing when leadership was on a very different page, in an obviously different scenario than we’re in now. But if you’re feeling like expectations are just wildly unrealistic, I think the first place to start is either if you have a PLC that you work with on your campus, or you have a department, just really having an honest conversation at that level — not just individually feeling like you have to go it alone and talk to your principal or your superintendent or whatever it may be, but connect with those people that you have already been asked to kind of design and idea share with and figure out with them their experiences.

Can you work together to use this whole idea of framing and focusing around priority, standards and skills, concepts for your subject area? Then bring that once you have an idea of how you want to approach it, because I think leaders tend to be so action-oriented like, “What needs to get done? What are the steps?” And so if a teacher just says, “Oh my gosh, these expectations are wildly unrealistic. We’re drowning here. I think you’re going to lose great people from this school,” approach it from a perspective that a leader could appreciate. Articulate the why. Why are you having this conversation? And then present a clear how. What does your PLC, what does your department team want to do to try to make this work better?

Honestly, I think the schools where leaders are thinking outside the box are understanding of this moment in education and that we’re never going to return exactly to the way things were before, and so we need to be flexible. We need to think about how to best serve kids. And quite frankly, we need to figure out how to keep amazing people in this profession — teacher engagement starts to dip because student engagement is dipping because they’re very reciprocal if you read any of the research around it, and teacher engagement is linked to job satisfaction. And so how do we keep them engaged? Because that is my biggest fear right now is just losing phenomenal people in education because of unrealistic expectations.

Yes, I am right there with you. And I love this advice to get together with your PLC, with your grade level team, get together with another group of teachers. And it kind of ties back to what we were talking about in the beginning about figuring out what’s most important and thinking, “Okay, so I’m being told to do these 30 things. I do not have the time for these 30 things. My kids cannot handle these 30 things. Let me sit down with my colleagues and think through what is the stuff that is most important for kids to know? What do they really need to do? What is really going to make an impact for them?”

If we want them to master these standards, these standards are the most important ones. Maybe these five activities are the most crucial. Can we then bring that to administration and say, “Hey, we think kids would actually get a lot more out of it if we stopped doing this, this, and this, and we tried this, this, and this. Could we do that for the next nine weeks? Could we do that for the next four weeks?” Come with a specific plan or solution in mind.

I think there’s some potential there because as you said, a lot of leaders realize that this is a very distinct moment in time and there aren’t any perfect solutions right now. And that this is a time for experimenting and figuring out what is going to work that we want to carry through to the next school year. And I think a lot of school leaders, if not most school leaders, would be thrilled to have teachers come to them and say, “Hey, we’ve actually thought through this curriculum and we think we have a way to do it even better for our particular students.”

Absolutely because leaders are making a million decisions a day too, right? It’s easy to forget all the stuff that they’re responsible for. And it’s a lot easier to say yes to a clear plan, like an action plan than it is to say, “Okay, I hear you’re struggling and now I have to figure out what’s the plan.” And quite frankly, the leader is not going to be able to design a plan that is going to necessarily work for every department. The teachers in that department or that PLC  have that expertise. They know if I’m an English teacher and I’m sending these ninth graders to 10th grade next year and we’ve just been through this crazy online kind of situation, what specific skills and content knowledge do they need to be successful in next year’s 10th grade English class?

And maybe they don’t need to read five novels over the course of the year to get there. Maybe we focus on two or three and we drill down into specific reading strategies and writing formats that they’re going to need to build on next year. So again, it also is us owning our own expertise in that design of a plan that we want to use moving forward instead of saying, “Hey, this is a problem. Fix it.” And then you’re given a plan and you’re kind of like, “I don’t like this plan either.”

Yeah, that’s right. That’s such a good point because I think teachers are so used to having their expertise dismissed and to be told by people who are not in the classroom, told by people who have maybe never been in a classroom, how they should be teaching. And you start to question yourself and think that your experience, your education, that your day-to-day work with kids doesn’t actually mean anything. And that you need someone else outside of yourself to come up with a solution. And it’s such a great point that first of all, if you sit and wait for someone in leadership to come up with a solution for you, that may never come because those leaders have other problems they’re trying to solve. They’re also trying to make kids and parents and teachers and community stakeholders and politicians and everybody else happy, and it’s not possible.

So they may not ever come up with the solution. And even if they do, no one knows your situation as well as you do. No one knows your kids and what goes on in your classroom the way that you do. And if you can come up with a solution and present that rather than expecting someone else to create it for you, your solution’s probably going to be better anyways.

Well, and think about the agency. We always talk about student agency being so powerful, but let’s hear from teacher agency —you come up with what’s going to work for you. You take your expertise and apply it.

Investing time in things that will save you time later

Are there any other specific things that teachers in a virtual or a hybrid classroom can do right now that would help lighten their workload and take some of this pressure off?

I’m working with a couple of teachers right now who were drowning in the workload. And so we’ve put in these structures within the virtual sessions where every single time, the practice and review kids did the day before or earlier in the week, they work through moments of challenge in teams and breakout rooms. One of the math teachers I’m working with will walk through and do a recording going through the solution for one problem, and then he gives them an answer key. So they can reference his process as they’re looking through the other ones, but it’s their job to bring that critical eye to the work they did and lean on a support network in order to figure out, “Oh, I screwed up number three. How did I do that? What did you guys do?”

And what’s fascinating is I have had teachers who assume, “If I don’t grade it, students won’t do it.” And the feedback from the students in the three classes I’m in right now — where we’re doing this on a daily basis — is that this is so helpful and they’re finally learning from these assignments. So the teacher isn’t taking that work and grading it and putting it in a grade book. The teacher is making that review and practice an opportunity to continue learning, developing, and growing. Those are small shifts and they have such a profound impact.

Yes, it doesn’t necessarily mean overhauling everything that you do, especially at a time when we feel like everything’s already been turned upside down. Anything else like that that you want to share?

One of the things that I talk a lot about is that I lean on videos so hard regardless of the situation. And I think making really short videos where everybody has to hear the same thing, whether it’s a concept or we’re introducing a skill or a process, and capture that foundational explanation in a video because that video will put students in control of the pace at which they consume and process that information. They can pause, they can rewind, and then they can watch it 10 times if they need to. And we can spend our time, not so much of it talking at kids, but instead connecting with them like, “Okay, you saw this video, let’s build on it and let’s ideally build on it in small groups so that as you’re playing around with these concepts and these new skills, I can support you.

I think for a lot of students, so much time is spent in these sessions on hearing the introduction of new information and they’re not getting the support they need as they try to take that new information and do something with it. And that’s where I think even if they’re just three, five-minute videos, they do this weird kind of wonderful magic of just freeing us to focus on other things. And so it may not seem like, “Oh, that’s going to save time, but actually it really, really does, especially if they’re videos that hit concepts and skills that quite frankly, kids are going to be returning to throughout the year. And we’ve all had to re-explain the same context or concepts a dozen times in a class and it just gets exhausting. And so thinking about the strategic use of video at this moment can be incredibly powerful.

Yes, exactly. It’s an investment of time. You can either spend your time repeating yourself over and over and over again, or else you can invest that time, hopefully working in batches, make a running list of all the videos or screencasts that you need to make. The kids are constantly forgetting how to do this or they’re running into a problem with this. Just make a list and then sit down and do it in a batch once a week, every other week, once a month or whatever it needs to be. And then hopefully, that’s actually something from this school year that you can for sure use next school year.

Because it’s very exhausting to think about, “I’m doing all of this work and the next school year, who even knows what we’re going to be doing or what it’s going to look like?” But these videos, you can use when kids are absent, you can use for review, you can use in a small group. Like they can be repurposed in so many ways for so much time to come. And I keep thinking about where can I invest my time to get that return back later is really, really empowering, versus, “Oh my gosh, it’s going to take me forever to do this and it’s so much faster if I just take the shortcut now and just keep repeating myself.” Invest that time that will pay off dividends for you later.

Absolutely. And a lot of teachers will say, “Well, but if I do it live, then everybody heard it.” And I’m like, “Well, they might’ve been there, they might’ve actually heard it, but that doesn’t mean they understood it, it doesn’t mean they’re going to remember it.” So yeah, it really is an investment of time. And if you just remember, your videos don’t have to be perfect. Live instruction is not perfect. If you stumble a little, just keep on going. And then it does pay dividends in the future. I cannot agree more.

Some of my favorite resources from Catlin

I have been so impressed with your blog posts and the other resources that you’ve been putting out about virtual and blended learning. This is a drum that you have been beating for many years before a pandemic, before it was cool and trendy, before a lot of people got bored. It is finally the Dr. Catlin Tucker moment to shine and have folks see the thing that you’ve been passionate about all along.

And so your long-term expertise on this, not just jumping on a bandwagon, but actually believing that there are great things for kids and teachers in this way of teaching and learning, it shines through because you’ve already had a chance to work out so many of the practical things that the rest of us are just sort of like catching up on and learning on the fly. So can you tell people where they can learn more from you? 

I do try to keep everything on my blog: super-practical resources, things you can copy and modify and use with your kids.

And then for anybody who’s like, “Oh my gosh, I just need help getting started,” I do have a Getting Started with Blended and Online Learning course through Teachable. And for those who are like, “Okay, I’ve gotten started, but I really want to go further,” there’s an Advancing with Blended and Online Learning. I’m obviously on Twitter for people who have questions or comments or requests for resources. Like if you heard me mention the project choice board and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I want to see that,” just send me a note on Twitter and I can make sure that you get it. So I’m happy to be a resource for people moving forward for sure.

Teaching ideas, resources, and strategies for online learning

Hybrid concurrent teaching resources

Courses

I want to close out the show with a takeaway truth, something that you want people to remember in the week ahead. So what is something that you wish every teacher understood about really making the best of this school year and using their time well with students in a virtual or a blended environment?

I would love it if teachers really recognized that the value we bring to the classroom — be it a physical space or a virtual one. It isn’t in our subject area expertise. It isn’t in our pedagogical expertise. That’s important, but our real value in this moment — in every moment — is in connection. So I would love for teachers to be thinking about how do we honor that in the design and facilitation of these learning experiences that we’re architecting right now? Are we setting ourselves up as that kind of teacher-centered classroom where the focus is on transfer of information because we think our value is expert, or are we really focusing on creating student-centered learning experiences where our focus is on connecting with students and facilitating learning? Because really it’s that human side of teaching that technology can never replace. Just remember that this is such a critical part of the work that we’re doing now but always.

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Discussion

2 Comments

  1. Bri Keener

    Hey Angela, I’m looking for the online resources such as project board and other tools you mentioned in the last podcast with Dr.Caitlin. I checked on her website as well but couldn’t seem to locate them. Can you help me?

    • Angela Watson

      Hi there, they’re near the end of this post. Just scroll up a bit and you’ll see a bunch of links!

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