Strategies for Engaging All Students during Hybrid Instruction

By Miriam Plotinsky

Most of us like to imagine that we are effective multitaskers, but research into human cognition says otherwise. The truth is, it is nearly impossible to do more than one thing well at a time, but people often expect it to happen anyway. As when children attempt the classic challenge of rubbing their bellies while patting the tops of their heads, at least one of those tasks is usually lacking in proficient execution.

With the move to hybrid instruction well underway in schools across the country, teachers are concerned about how to serve multiple populations in different places: to simultaneously and equitably teach students in the classroom and students working from home. While it might not be realistic to assume that every teacher can become an absolute hybrid aficionado, certain strategies help to ensure that all students, whether they join class from home or from school, get the attention they deserve.

Intentional Check-Ins

For the past several months, my daughter’s teacher has taken the first and last two minutes of the class to check in with at-home learners while students in the physical space get organized. With one set of students in the room and another far away, it is important to designate time to check in with each group. Otherwise, it is almost certain that students beaming in virtually will be largely ignored. As part of the check-in process, it helps to ask for specific information from students. For example, if the class is working on a reading comprehension paragraph, the teacher might ask a virtual student to share the main idea of the passage, and then a student in the classroom to agree, disagree, or elaborate. That way, students in both groups are pulled into a dialogue with designated attention from the teacher, who has planned this inclusive process in advance.

The chat feature on most online meeting platforms also provides a chance for the teacher to check in with students and be more inclusive. After all, even the most precocious students at home may grow disenchanted with waving their arms or shouting out to get attention. For students at home, the chat can be a useful communication tool. By setting a simple digital timer as a reminder, the teacher can check the chat regularly. If in-person teachers are too overextended to keep looking for written comments, that can be a perfect task to assign a student in the classroom, or even better, many students on a rotating basis. (This may work better in upper grades.) Each day, a student in the classroom can check the chat in pre-arranged intervals, perhaps 15 minutes apart, to see whether virtual learners have questions or needs. The process will allow more equity in the voices that are heard.

Targeted Feedback

Recently, I have heard from parents who are disgruntled by their children’s virtual learning experiences. Some feel that their children are being unintentionally ignored by their teachers, especially when it comes to checking in on the child’s wellbeing—out of sight, out of mind. In this age of online surveys and voice feedback, there is no reason that teachers cannot gather quick feedback from all students about how their experiences with class are going. Surveys can be short and to the point, or longer if more data is needed to get a larger picture of each student’s learning experience. If time allows, teachers can also schedule virtual check-ins with their distance students. Any extra steps that teachers can take to show virtual learners that they notice them and care about their experiences will go a long way, even if it happens in the form of a quick note in the chat or a one-line email. Otherwise, students will perceive that nobody is paying attention to how they are doing, and they will be more likely to disengage.

Hybrid Grouping

Small-group work time is a particularly important asset during hybrid learning because it provides opportunities for in-person and virtual students to interact. While it may sometimes be beneficial to have all virtual students collaborate while their in-person counterparts complete a different activity, using work time in class to combine students who are near and far adds a layer of additional interaction and support for all learners. Suppose that the class is working on a science lab report, and that students at home have not been able to study cells through a microscope. While there is no way to completely repair this inequity, grouping students at home with those who have looked at the cells in person can bridge some of the gaps by initiating conversations about what could be seen through the lens, how the process went, and so on. It will also increase the dialogue between the two groups of learners, which will build important relationships and help everyone feel included.

Quick, Formative Assessments

One of the biggest dangers of having divided attention is that teachers may lose track of how some students are performing, most likely the ones who are beaming in virtually to school. After all, the students who are physically present have the advantage of sharing space with the teacher. To make sure that accountable learning for all students is taking place, no day of learning should pass without a quick formative assessment. That might take the form of one question on an exit ticket, a quick summarizer, or the results of a game. It should be noted that extensions like Nearpod are not an end unto themselves. For example, if I run a poll via Pear Deck—another interactive presentation tool—I need to spend some time analyzing the results of that poll and determining what students need to learn based on what they have demonstrated so far. No matter how the data is collected, the most important part is that teachers examine each student’s results at the end of the class period to determine where everyone stands. If students engage in a contest to write haiku competitively within a particular time frame, it is important that the teacher collect the results and determine if everyone understood the syllabic pattern. In other words, even a fun exercise needs to have a purpose toward determining learning growth. Otherwise, virtual students are more likely to fall behind their in-person peers, and instruction will no longer be equitable.

Plan Smarter, Not More

Teaching two populations in varying locations does not translate to creating more lesson plans; it just means we need to plan more strategically. For example, planning might be more useful if it looks a little like a Venn diagram with three groups: in-person students, virtual students, and everyone together. While some activities might be executed differently based on student needs and location, the mastery objective and desired formative assessment outcomes should be consistent for all students; otherwise, teachers will not be able to ground both populations in the learning target.

Activities that cannot be implemented across the whole class can be modified slightly, rather than completely changed, so that teachers will not be adding more work to their plates. As an example, if my goal is that all students end the class period with the ability to synthesize three pieces of information about the 1920s into one idea, my in-person students might do so on sheets of poster paper in groups while my virtual students work on a collaborative online document, but they are all accomplishing the same goal. Furthermore, as a teacher, I will be assessing two very similar products, and not creating more work for myself in the bargain as I determine where all my students stand in mastering the learning target.            

If the idea of teaching students with widely divergent needs and in varying locations sounds intimidating or downright impossible, that is because the expectation that teachers seamlessly multitask instruction is not realistic. However, the core of equitable instruction is grounded in our awareness of serving each student we teach by maintaining a strong awareness of our desired outcomes for them, regardless of where that student is physically located. (With effective planning and strategies, we don’t need to pat our heads and rub our bellies simultaneously; but we can become proficient at both tasks!) To ensure that we continue in our growth mindset goals of getting better each day, planning for equity in a hybrid model is non-negotiable. That means we approach the groups we teach not with the expectation of doing two things at once, but with the intention of being able to speak to how each student is genuinely doing, as well as to the bonds we can build with children no matter the situation.

Miriam Plotinsky is a learning and achievement specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. Her writing is widely published in Education Week, Edutopia, ASCD Express, The Teaching Channel, EdSurge and Education World. A recipient of the 2010 Marian Greenblatt Award for Excellence in Teaching, she is a National Board Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be found on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS.

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