By Michael Mohammad
Just over 2 months ago, my district moved to a virtual learning model with our students in response to the COVID-19 Outbreak. We will continue with virtual learning through the end of the school year. That means 13 weeks total of a virtual learning model for students (and teachers) who are accustomed to a face-to-face model for classroom instruction.
In order to think about the changes virtual learning would bring to my teaching, I had to think about my real time interactions with learners which would be lost during asynchronous learning. Our in-person classroom model is based on an 80 minute classroom block. A class period will have different lesson structures based on the core activities of the day. The three major structures are for delivery and practice with new content, hands-on activity, or end of unit assessment. A new content lesson will consist of 30 minutes of large group instruction followed by 50 minutes of individual practice. This practice time allows the teacher to provide small group or individual coaching.
The biggest change would come during times of large group instruction. I present my lessons using Pear Deck so that students have multiple times to interact with the content during instruction and I can see their responses in real time. This allows for a cycle of rapid feedback in which I see where the class as a whole is doing in addition to individual students.
In terms of our real time instruction during virtual learning, we meet once a week. But, I find that these times are not the best for delivering direct instruction. I choose to use this time to give students an overview of major assignments we have coming up that week and provide a greater framework for what we are working on. We also have virtual office hours in the morning using Google Meet. So the opportunity to simply provide synchronous virtual instruction is not something that I have embraced.
Although Pear Deck has a student paced mode in which they can go through a set of slides and answer questions, I had to move to a format which many flipped classrooms have adopted to allow for content delivery outside of the classroom. This means recording video to be included in the slides. Students gave lots of positive feedback to the incorporation of videos in which I was able to explain the content and work through much like I would in our face-to-face classroom lessons. I created these videos using a whiteboard app called Explain Everything which allowed me to narrate and I annotated slides. Pear Deck also allows for audio recording over slides which I was able to add.
In our face-to-face classroom, I was able to see student understanding during class and make adjustments for class the next day. This delay in response, has required more flexibility long term. While I may assign content notes on a specific day, I won’t be able to address issues with instruction until two days later. At the end of any flipped slide deck, I add a question asking which slides would students like more discussion of. I then create a video addressing those topics in greater depth to share with students the next day. The reason I address these in a video recording is that I cannot ensure that all students will be present in our weekly virtual meeting time or our morning office hours.
Rather than simply relying on the accuracy of student responses during whole class instruction, I am relying on student feedback to guide what concepts need more explanation and practice. This puts a much heavier load on the students to honestly reflect on what they understood in the lesson. This requires building opportunities to apply knowledge within the asynchronous lecture through practice questions and providing an explanation of the correct response to these questions as well.
The structure and support I am able to provide during the hands-on activities we do in class is another major shift I needed to consider. A hands-on lesson consists of a 10 minute introduction to the activity and procedure. Then 40-50 minutes or work time. During this time the teacher is working with groups to answer questions and check results. Then, the whole class regroups to discuss the analysis of data. Finally, students are given time to analyze the collected data and draw conclusions.
As the designer of learning experiences, it has been key to listen and to keep experiences that allow students to apply a sense of wonder and see things in a different light. To this end, I have steered away from the practice problems we may have done in the classroom and looked for more unique ways for students to apply new content knowledge. These include finding a host of highly engaging virtual activities online like STEM simulations from PhET and Playgrounds like Chrome Music Lab. These rich apps are highly engaging, but they also can be used to frame deep questioning in which students can explore phenomena or apply content knowledge.
While we are away from our classroom lab, that doesn’t mean we can’t record and analyze data. In addition, being able to communicate these findings clearly is the goal of any investigation. To complete some of our labs that require more accuracy and precision, we are using some of the digital tools available to us on our chromebooks. These include the use of a tool called Video Analysis by Vernier.
It allows students to complete a graphical analysis of any recorded video. Students are able to collect and analyze data from videos that I recorded in our classroom in order to apply mathematics and engage in argumentation from evidence. Even though I made the videos, it’s the student who is using the analysis tools.
While this allows for the collection and analysis of data there is still a loss felt by the lack of face-to-face interactions and real time support. Two years ago, I moved to a model of providing video procedures for all labs we did in class. This was extremely helpful in pushing the questions students were asking from basic questions of procedure to those focused on interpreting evidence and constructing conclusions. I have taken the creation of these video instructions to many of the different technology based workflows I ask students to complete. This process has reduced the number of contacts I get about technology issues in completion of work. For those who do ask questions, email seems to be the primary mode of inquiry. Being available to provide quick feedback to them has been essential.
When a student does ask for more explanation about a topic via email, I create a personal narrated screencast addressing the question for them. I use Screencastify for this. It only takes a couple of minutes to create and email to them. This virtual back and forth works well for many. The screencast is recorded so students can watch it multiple times if needed. Some students do stop into virtual office hours. But, the majority of students would prefer to ask the question when the issue arises rather than wait until our morning office hours. Since I do reply in a timely manner, students lean on this mode of communication.
In my classroom all student work is submitted digitally. Most of these files are G Suite files as we are a Google for Education District. Feedback is provided using digital comments in the document and students are scored on a 4 point rubric for each standard addressed in the assignment. Students are given the opportunity to address the comments and resubmit. Comments can range from minor errors which are clear and easy to fix to larger issues that students may need to have conversations about. A guiding question and comment stream was always a normal feedback loop in my classroom before and it persists as the primary mode many students are comfortable with. For those who thrived on face-to-face conversations to address the issues with their work, office hours have worked well. In a Google Meet we can share a screen with a student and walk through their work and address mistakes.
Just as in asynchronous content delivery, the use of video to address mistakes made by the majority of students in any lab is essential. When we did a lab in the face-to-face classroom, I would always walk through how data would be analyzed. But, I completely forgot this during the first couple of activities we did. In my weekly feedback form, students noted that they would like more help with the analysis sections once they had pulled data beyond any the written instructions provided in the lab write-up. So, I began including video instructions related to the steps required for data analysis in that lab and a deeper explanation of what the data tells us. After implementing this, I began to see better work from the majority of learners.
The use of screencasting software that includes my voice and video in which I can provide live annotations has been the greatest addition to the loss of the ability to provide face-to-face instruction to my learners.
At the end of any unit of instruction, we tend to take three class periods for students to prepare their summative assessment. For those preparing for a paper and pencil test, I will lead them as a group through review problems for two days focusing the review on topics that they bring up or deficiencies that I observed within the unit. The third class period would be the test for this unit. Students who did not choose the test option would prepare an assessment product over the three periods that addresses the unit objectives. This requires me to walk them through the requirements. Then over the course of those three class periods, I would have face-to-face check ins to monitor progress and address questions.
In my classes, I have moved away from even having a traditional test as an assessment option. One of the tools that has helped provide this Flipgrid. Flipgrid allows learners to record and submit video responses of up to 10 minutes to a teacher created topic. While Flipgrid allows learners to record live audio and video using the camera on a computer or phone, it has other features to increase the modalities of expression. It allows the user to upload images, add text, draw in real time, even screen record their device. The ability for students to create rich explanations is amazing.
I have used Flipgrid on several assessments. Asking students to apply a concept or topic to a situation that is not defined for them, more opportunities for creativity can be opened. Rather than asking them to solve a problem or explain a specific situation that I give them, I ask them to design their own situation to demonstrate the concept. Students have been able to demonstrate understanding of complex physics concepts and calculations by designing their own scenarios in the real world and recording them. Or, students can imagine their own scenario and present it with images and drawings.
Just as it always is in my classroom, the goal is to allow the learner to find the mode that best expresses their understanding. But, I get overjoyed when we have moments in which they are able to tap into their creativity and use the tools they are given to express in ways that I never imagined.
While the ability to create provides the students with many options, being able to guide them through the requirements of what the assessment asks is essential. Before students begin any work on their assessment, I use our weekly class meeting time to guide them through the requirements. But, that is rarely enough to help them along the way to completion. Providing teacher generated exemplars not only provide a guide for what is a reasonable creation, many times I can use these exemplars to help clarify misconceptions that I saw during the unit. Just like in my face-to-face classroom, I need to use formative assessments data to inform instruction. But in this virtual environment, there is an increased delay due to the asynchronous nature. During the process of building their summative assessments, students are still free to stop by office hours to ask questions and get assistance in working through their ideas. The majority still continue to use email as their primary mode of communication creating a back and forth thread of ideas and revisions.
When looking at the three major lesson frameworks, each has required a huge shift in the coaching dynamic. When covering new content, I now deliver new content asynchronously. Rather than coaching students through practice scenarios as a whole class, these opportunities are done in small groups during virtual class meetings or individually during virtual office hours or over email based on learner preference. In virtual labs, procedure and analysis steps are provided via pre-recorded videos rather than modeling techniques in person. This means utilizing comment features in digital documents by teachers to provide feedback and for students to ask clarifying questions when they are stuck or confused much like they would raise their hand in the physical classroom. The virtual classroom has resulted in a move away from the test as a summative assessment measure. As students work to demonstrate mastery on a summative assessment, they receive guidance via digital check-ins in a virtual meeting or in document comments. Once submitted, this coaching continues as students continue to act on feedback to revise and resubmit their work.
Mike Mohammad has been a secondary science teacher for 20 years, 15 of those at Brookfield Central High School. At Central, Mike has taught General Science, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. In his classroom, Mike has worked to increase access, engagement, and expression for all learners by removing the barriers of legacy instructional practices. Mike is a Google Certified Teacher and Apple Educator and has been recognized by the Institute for Personalized Learning with their Trailblazer Award. He lives in Brown Deer, WI with his wife, Kelly, and his dog, Roxie. When not deep into his work, Mike is an avid movie buff and cook. Read his blog at http://mophysicsmoproblems.blogspot.com/.