Here in California where I sit, most students are still learning fully online. Following the various state and country school reopening guidelines has been a roller coaster ride for educators, with protocols and timelines changing practically weekly. Many schools have spent months already envisioning how they will bring students back to campus—what schedules, what cohort sizes, what technology—all to create a “hybrid” setup. While the term “hybrid” can mean many different things, here we refer to situations in which some students learn online while some learn in-person at the same time.
At our own Annual Workshop this summer, we focused on the technical aspect of hybrid learning as well as general philosophy, including ensuring equity for students in both groups.
Now, it’s time to turn to pedagogy, as teachers prepare in earnest to meet the needs of students in a hybrid setting.
Although we have operated a hybrid program since 2013—our students attend classes from rooms in their schools, connecting with students sitting on other campus, and teachers teach online students from campus—the considerations for operating whole classes (and whole schools) for multiple grade levels this way are new.
I sat down with three educators at MSON member schools who have been teaching in hybrid settings since the start of school this fall. They opened up about what it’s like—and offered advice for their colleagues in other schools just embarking on this adventure.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
Benjamin Taylor is Director of Academic Technology at Hopkins School in New Haven, Connecticut and Dean of Instruction for MSON. He teaches physics in Hopkins’s research program and Einstein’s Relativity and The Evolution of the Quantum Model for MSON.
Page Lennig is Director of Technology at Waynflete School in Portland, Maine. She teaches a computational thinking course at Waynflete that she helped to design collaboratively through MSON and serves as the Technical Liaison to MSON.
Linda Rodriguez teaches English at St. Andrews Episcopal in Jackson, Mississippi and is offering the Literature of Civil Rights in the Modern US this spring for MSON. She also directs Virtual Saints, a summer and schoolyear program for students to take classes virtually through St. Andrews.
Claire Goldsmith: I would like to hear about the setup at each of your schools right now. In what way are you open, and what’s the schedule? How is it different for different grade levels—and what is the actual technology you are using to deliver a hybrid system?
Page Lennig: We are an early childhood through grade 12 school, so we have a couple things going on. We are full face-to-face with our early childhood through sixth grade program, and then in the seventh through 12th grades, we are hybrid mode, which means we have 50% of the kids on campus on any given day. And we have two cohorts of kids who rotate off.
In grades 7-12, we are set up for hybrid learning, which means we have the kids at home Zooming into our classes synchronously with the face to face classes. We are employing the Swivl technology.
In the lower school we have that capability in case we have any remote learners at any given time, even though we’re full face-to-face. We do have a couple kids who have elected to be remote full-time and who are Zooming in, and then at any given time, kids are sick, and then they’re remote as well.
We don’t have many kids who have elected to go full time remote initially. I would say we have fewer than 10 in the whole school, and we’re a school of about 560.
Our schedule runs Monday through Friday, no days off; we do a half day Wednesday, but we’ve always done that, and our school day runs from 8:30 to 3pm, give or take, and the schedule obviously is modified to try to handle all the transitions and movement that has to happen across campus. But for the most part it’s not too different than our normal schedule.
Benjamin Taylor: Hopkins is grades seven through 12. Our daily schedule has been adapted a little bit. The number one thing we did is simplify so that the week-to-week the schedule is the same. That led to a small reduction in the number of meetings. We enhanced our passing times a bit; we extended lunch so that we could be able to facilitate long term bad weather days or when it gets cold inside our spaces. And we split all of our grades into two cohorts we call the maroon and gray, our school colors. Half the kids are on campus for the maroon week the whole week. And then we swap out the next week.
“The nice thing is when kids do feel ill, even with a cold or whatever they have the option of staying home and attending school anyway, which is an amazing new innovation in education.”
In seventh and eighth grade, one of those three meetings per week has a split where it’s a half an hour of class time and a half an hour of proctored study to get work done. So they have a little bit less instructional time than the high school grades do.
There are 30 students who are currently marked as virtual option out of 723. So it’s about 5%.
Technology wise, we’re using Zoom. We are a G-Suite school. We are using largely using the Owl system for audio and video input and output from the rooms.
Linda Rodriguez: We offered a number of different learning plans as the school year was beginning. We have 35 fully virtual, and that’s out of a high school of 300. We are also an Early Childhood through grade 12 institution, and we are fully face-to-face in pre-K through fourth grade, if the parents elect to do that. We are also running hybrid all the way through, which is a cohort system with the first part of the alphabet coming one day and the second part of the alphabet come in the next day.
So we’re teaching fully virtual and fully in person, every day, regardless of whether it’s a fully virtual kid or just a kid who’s staying home that day because their last name is in that part of the alphabet.
We also do have some kids who, for the first time ever, are able to enroll in our school from places outside of the Jackson area. We have a family from Natchez, for instance, which is 80 miles away, and they are full time St Andrews kids. So that has been really interesting and kind of a neat way of thinking about blowing learning outside of the walls of the classroom.
As far as our schedule, we’ve always run on a rotating schedule, and so now we are running on a three-day rotation; our classes are 65 minutes with five-minute passing breaks. We do have a 30-minute break in the morning and I think a 45-minute break for lunch. We have just recently expanded those times. We started with much less time for the kids to be mingling with each other. Our numbers have been really great. And we have not had any undue illness to speak of on our campus.
The nice thing is when kids do feel ill, even with a cold or whatever they have the option of staying home and attending school anyway, which is an amazing new innovation in education.
“Additionally, we do have some families who have opted into our ‘Saints at Home’ program, where a teacher actually goes to the house of the family.”
Additionally, we do have some families who have opted into our Saints at Home program, where a teacher actually goes to the house of the family.
We are using a combination of BlackBaud and Google, and as far as maximizing the experience for the kids at home, every classroom was given an iPad and a stand, so we are using Google Meet to facilitate our meetings. The primary teacher computer links in through AirPlay to an Apple TV in every room, and then the iPad also connects into the Google Meet and can show the whiteboard.
And we do a lot of breakout rooms through Google Meet. Everybody has a Google Gmail. So they are also able to do individual Hangouts for small group sessions.
Claire Goldsmith: There’s a lot of talk in hybrid about how to do breakout rooms. So let’s hear about that. How are you, and other teachers at your schools, handling breakouts when you have students virtual and in person?
Linda Rodriguez: We have 65-minute classes. And so, of course, nobody can sit through a lecture for 65 minutes, so we break into 20-minute instruction blocks. At almost every class period I have about a 15 to 20-minute block where the kids can break out into small group discussions.
The class that I’m teaching right now is a literature class, and I do a lot with literary analysis theory. So I’ll give the kids a task like in Fences, take the main character, Troy, and do a psycho analytical analysis of his character. And so then the kids all go off into their breakout rooms and because I have created all the breakout rooms through Google, I can just pop in to each breakout room, make sure that they’re that they’re on task. Usually I have them come back and do a whole class share out, which is a lot of fun. Sometimes I’ll have them all join on to a JamBoard and start posting sticky notes in different categories based on what they’re talking about in their group.
“…when the in-person kids go into the breakout room with their virtual friends, oftentimes, I’ll let them kind of wander outside. That way they can take off their masks and then they can they can just talk through their computer.”
Claire Goldsmith: Walk me through the logistics of that. You have some students who are at home. Some students are there, and you’re putting them all into Google Meet breakout rooms. Are they wearing headphones? How do you manage that piece of it?
Linda Rodriguez: Every child is supposed to bring headphones to school every day. And of course, every child at home is supposed to have headphones. But, we know teenagers are notoriously unreliable, so the nice thing is we’re in Mississippi and our weather year-round is pretty lovely, so when the in-person kids go into the breakout room with their virtual friends, oftentimes, I’ll let them kind of wander outside. That way they can take off their masks and then they can they can just talk through their computer.
I had a kid yesterday, and the rest of her breakout room team was totally virtual, so she elected to put on her headphones and stay in the classroom with her mask on and have the discussion there. It works really well.
Benjamin Taylor: The breakout rooms are pretty popular on my campus using Zoom. Audio can be an issue if the teacher is moving between something that is whole class and then moving back out. Make sure the kids have the earbuds.
The biggest challenge I see with breakout rooms, which I don’t think has blown up but does concern me from time to time, is battery life. We have some reports of kids coming in the morning attending classes where teachers are heavily having kids use their personal devices, and then by the time they get to the later classes, the teacher’s like, “my kids don’t have computers” because of access to charging. I think that all comes down to the level of health and safety worry in the community, both in terms of plugging in lots of extension cords to people’s computers and snaking them all over the floor and sanitizing cords. It is a concern, where we see kids later in the day being prevented from fully participating in classes because so much has been done off their battery life early in the day.
The only other thing I would say about breakout rooms is in some cases we have feedback that some students are saying like, “can we keep it simple?”
Page Lennig: We either do breakout rooms where all the kids put on their headphones and work in those or sometimes, depending on how many kids you have in your class, we can get away with breaking out the kids online and then the kids in the room just are their own breakout room, so we’re flexible in terms of how they manage that and sometimes it works better than others. It’s a powerful tool. As Linda said, nobody’s going to lecture the whole time.
I also worry about this cohort thing where you’re never going to see the other cohort. And it’s nice to mix them in a setting where they can talk to each other.
Benjamin Taylor: A lot of teachers are using [breakouts] very specifically to take the on-campus kids and connect them with the off-campus kids so that they are getting a relationship.
Claire Goldsmith: That’s a perfect segue to my next question, which is, what are the other opportunities for interaction between the two groups? What have you found that works, getting the whole class to feel like a community, even though you have this split?
Linda Rodriguez: A lot of times I feel like I’m basically teaching to the at-home kids and I just happen to have these live children in front of me. So making sure that that my focus is on both cohorts at the same time is a challenge.
“I have them do partner projects a good bit and unlike normally where I would be open to them setting their own groups, because of this hybrid situation, I set all the groups, and they have to work together… anything that they can collaborate together on.”
I have them do partner projects a good bit and unlike normally where I would be open to them setting their own groups, because of this hybrid situation, I set all the groups, and they have to work together on Adobe Spark or maybe some sort of a Google slideshow, just anything that they can collaborate together on.
Page Lennig: Think of the opportunities outside the classroom in the high school. We do still have sports going on. So even kids who are off campus for the day come in for sports if they can. And then on Wednesdays, we only have two academic classes. And then we have an all-school assembly, and then we have advising and activity time so that the groups mesh in different ways, even though they’re still set apart by being online or on campus.
We are focused on the new students and how they’re adapting and meeting new people and fitting into the school culture.
“…it winds up being about two hours of people being outside socially distanced and talking and relaxing—things that aren’t necessarily work, and that is strictly better than what our life used to be.”
Benjamin Taylor: We did our orientation programming where entire grade levels were together physically, and then later on we were split up into our cohorts and that was pretty useful.
We did do our cohorts keeping advisor groups intact. Advisory groups are always on campus or off campus. It was particularly important for our ninth grade, which is half students that came from our eighth grade and half new students. And when we build those advisory groups, we keep the new and returning students even so that we don’t have a glut of new students in one cohort versus another.
We have a series of 30-minute blocks that are used for lunch or advisor group, etc., and with the passing time built in, it winds up being about two hours of people being outside socially distanced and talking and relaxing—things that aren’t necessarily work, and that is strictly better than what our life used to be.
Now it’s not mixing the cohorts, but it’s giving the kids within the cohort an opportunity to do something socially. If you think back, how could we have lived without this before? It’s just so great.
Claire Goldsmith: Ben in your class, what do you do to connect students who are virtual with students who are in-person in terms of assignments or activities in class?
Benjamin Taylor: I’m going to be sending home more basic versions of the fancy equipment I have on campus so that the kids at home can do kind of a “janky”—and maybe perhaps more fun!—version of the experience or activity along with the kid using the fancy one. They’re both engaged in the same activity with different physical materials.
It’s going to be really fun to pair online students with students on campus because they can’t physically go to the same table and work on something together in the classroom anyway, and with Zoom, they’ll be able to do that. They’ll be physically doing the same thing as another person they’re looking at, so oddly, it’ll give them a more tactile experience with another person that they could have.
What other teachers are doing right now is essentially flipping the classroom, using the class period to demonstrate a piece of equipment. Kids at home during class are watching a [recorded] demonstration of that after a quick hello, while the kids physically there are focused entirely on actually doing the thing with their hands so that they really kind of “made the cuts” and took the stuff that was more didactic, kicked it out to kids watching at home, and they’re always doing something hands-on when they’re on campus.
“And now I have to think about three steps ahead and make sure that I’m not leaving anybody out, whether they be the in-person kids or the at-home kids so that they’re all having the same shared experience.”
Claire Goldsmith: Are there many examples of times where the students at home do something different from what the students in class are doing? Do you have to plan twice?
Linda Rodriguez: My kids are all doing the same things. And of course, it takes an inordinate amount of time to plan because you have to have not only the apps that everybody can share into, but you also have to have these engaging lessons, and many of them throughout the class period so that you don’t get stuck doing one thing.
I’m not planning twice. I’m just planning much, much more of a dog and pony show than I ever needed to before, because before you could say “just go write up on the whiteboard.” And now I have to think about three steps ahead and make sure that I’m not leaving anybody out, whether they be the in-person kids or the at-home kids so that they’re all having the same shared experience.
Page Lennig: I can run pretty synchronously without having to make two different plans, but computer science is kind of is easy to work that way; whether they’re working in small groups, working independently or if we are coding all together. My course is project based so a lot of time, they might be working in a breakout room and I’ll be checking in with each student to check on their progress. But for our science teachers: they can’t send the equipment home, so they are adjusting by saying, “you guys at home, you’re working on these problems, this an offline activity. You guys in the classroom, it’s lab time.”
I think there are a few teachers in English and History, too, who maybe have smaller discussions in the class, and remote students will be writing or revising essays at home.
What we’ve told our teachers is: don’t knock yourself out trying to make everything synchronous, as long as you’re engaging those kids at home. Keeping an eye on those full-time remote kids or maybe those 14-day quarantine kids—we’ve got to make sure they’re engaged and that they’re getting the info that we want them to get. As long as teachers are keeping their eyes on them, we’re happy to have them adjust their curriculum as they need to.
Benjamin Taylor: I’ve actually had, I think, the most creativity and the biggest challenges with art. Especially performing art. They’re doing stuff like looking at a whole bunch of people playing in a band under a tent outside and 35 kids in the Zoom in front of the computer in front of the teacher. These teachers innately have kind of a lot of adaptability.
Or an architecture teacher who’s got seven cameras that he’s switching between so we can shift between looking at manipulative, looking at the kids, and looking at him.
A lot of challenge there and a lot of creativity there. That’s largely not double planning.
Linda Rodriguez: Something that that our language teachers are using to great effect is FlipGrid. We have one French teacher who has suffered some hearing loss. And so the masking of the students is really, really difficult for him, but he has been able to effectively leverage FlipGrid so that the kids are recording themselves speaking. And then he can work with them individually on pronunciation and things like that. There are a lot of tools out there that that are really great that don’t necessitate double planning.
We had our science teachers last spring, who would say, “Go to your garage and find a hose and let’s do wavelength with the hoses and then they would film themselves on FlipGrid and turn that in. So really trying to get the kids wherever they are to be engaged and still working on the same types of things that the kids in the class are.
“On the academic side, I think the skill set you need leans on your online teaching skills.”
Claire Goldsmith: Is this more like teaching online or more like teaching in person?
Benjamin Taylor: The kids have been very clear about this. At my school, they’re walking around. They’re outside. They’re not at home. They’re eating lunch with friends.
They feel their day is compartmentalized, and so much of the day feels much more normal, much more like you’re on campus.
On the academic side, I think the skill set you need leans on your online teaching skills.
Page Lennig: Yeah, I think you’re right. Certainly, the kids are like, “this is school.” They’re happy to be back.
Some students like to get up late and go to their Zoom class for the day, but I think that’s a welcome break for them because I think by the end of the week they say they’re not as tired because they were home two days.
I think for the teacher point of view, they see it as different, even though they’re happy to have kids—they get energy from the kids in the class. But the fact is that we still have to sit in rows and can’t interact as much. Pre-Covid, we were very much, sit in a circle, have a conversation, look at each other, relationships. And now our set up is so far from that. We never had a classroom sit in rows in our lower school. They didn’t even have desks in there. And now to have this setup is so foreign to them.
Now that we’ve been back for several weeks, some teachers have said, “oh, that class felt so good because it felt normal.” But it has been hard to encourage teachers to let go of some of the “old ways”. Some of the hardest conversations begin with, “you’re not going to be able to replicate everything,” and that’s hard after you’ve been teaching forever and ever.
Linda Rodriguez: Because we’ve added so much technology to what teachers normally do, the cognitive load this year has been overwhelming, and the desperate need to get away from screens for both the teachers and the kids has been just palpable.
So teachers are going home every day exhausted, and then they’re spending hours and hours on the weekends, just trying to plan for their week. We’ve got a few teachers who can’t even imagine planning for a whole week, so they’re planning just day to day for all their classes. But I’m really hopeful that now that we’re coming up to the end of the first quarter, it will start feeling a little easier. I don’t think it’ll ever feel normal per se, but I’m hoping that that our teachers have developed a friendliness with a number of tools that they really like and that they won’t feel like that they need to try all the new gimmicky things out there.
“So if I have to work twice as hard, I’m going to do it because I see the benefits already just in my classroom: the kids are happier, and the work is better.”
Claire Goldsmith: Is it worth it to do hybrid?
Page Lennig: It’s worth it. It has been super stressful; teachers are pushed to the max. And we’re still trying to figure out how to balance that for them.
But when you start going down that stressful path—I constantly reframe my thinking. We have to learn how to coexist with this virus potential for at least this year, and there are benefits compared to last spring, like the fact that the students can go and run outside in their sport for two hours after school. We couldn’t do that last spring! They’re seeing their friends in person. We have a wide reach geographically. So when we were homebound, some people never saw other people because they weren’t in their class.
And for teachers: we’re all social beings, and being able to have full hallways and people walking by is really good.
Linda Rodriguez: I am able to see the student perspective as well as the teacher’s perspective because I have a senior this year. And she is a very social child. And the quarantine last year was so difficult for her. It’s that socio-emotional part of the educational process that we really fall down on when we keep kids at home.
I think the kids are healthier, and they’re happier, and they’re doing better work. They have a chance to come and interact with their friends. So if I have to work twice as hard, I’m going to do it because I see the benefits already just in my classroom: the kids are happier, and the work is better.
Claire Goldsmith: That’s pretty powerful that you feel student work is better.
Linda Rodriguez: The fact that they are accountable to me in person and the fact that they are accountable to their classmates in person keeps them on task much better, and also the papers that the kids are turning in are more thoughtful.
We also found in our school that that a number of our seniors last year were kind of falling into depression and embarking on some dangerous risk taking because they were so bereft of that social interaction. So even though we worry now about kids going to parties on weekends—I think what we have found is that because they can see each other in school, they don’t feel that need to have to get together out of school, and our athletic programs are hugely helpful in that.
Claire Goldsmith: What advice would you give to teachers who are about to start hybrid over the next month or so?
Benjamin Taylor: Be patient with yourself. Be patient with your kids. Don’t expect or feel like you have to get it all right. You’re going to be a first-year teacher again. And you survived that.
“We keep trying to make sure people understand that if they don’t do as much as they are used to doing, that’s okay and they’re going to be better off. It’s so hard for teachers to let that go.”
You just have to forgive yourself and forgive your kids and your kids have to forgive. And you have to be ready to adapt. And reserve judgment a bit. When you’re dealing with new technologies, it’s really helpful to have an attitude of: computers do what you tell them to do. If it’s not working, maybe I need to change what I’m telling it to do and figure out a different way and not like kick the iPad out the window and run over with the car.
So just be patient with your technology and forgiving, and I think you’ll get there eventually.
Linda Rodriguez: Something that we have learned is to lean on your colleagues. And don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Make sure that that you’re taking time for you and that you’re unplugging. Go take a walk. Just like we said when we were fully virtual: make sure you’re getting away from that screen.
It’s so important to just try to have fun because, by golly, this is going to be a great story someday.
Page Lennig: We keep trying to make sure people understand that if they don’t do as much as they are used to doing, that’s okay and they’re going to be better off. It’s so hard for teachers to let that go. Because we’re perfectionists and want to do it right; we’ve kind of nailed it in the past, and we want to repeat that. Just trying to pare down as much as you can has been really important. We’re still trying to get that message across.