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Balancing in Sync

Annette Deming finds success in differentiated instruction in a synchronous and asynchronous virtual classroom

Inequalities. Growing failing rates. Achievement gaps. Learning loss. The concerns I had for students falling into the student categories of the “haves” and “have nots” as we headed further and further into this pandemic driven shutdown was alarming and continued to weigh heavily on my planning and teaching.

While some of my colleagues continued to operate and assess students through “academic triage,” a phrase I use to describe the panicked teacher that is desperately trying to breathe life into their virtual classroom using whatever methods or procedures they had in their physical classroom, I was looking for a different approach.

I needed a response plan that made sense and that’s when I realized I needed some deep teaching self-reflection and assessment data, a practice often seen in Professional Learning Communities (PLC), and I found that differentiated instruction is key to operating on a blended or synchronous and asynchronous learning model.

I am a secondary teacher working with high school English students in a Title 1 public high school with 75% free and reduced-lunch. These students are part of most homes with families where both parents work and multiple siblings live. The ability to get computers or other types of devices for learning in the hands of students, was just the beginning of a long list of obstacles. Luckily, my district addressed this issue immediately with an offer of 1:1 devices, but it wouldn’t be until the end of the first semester, where I could see more and more obstacles in the way of learning for both my students and myself.

At the start of the new school year, my district announced that our students would be learning in an 80-minute block schedule that meets on alternating days by period. Friday’s were designated as a common planning day for staff and students to attend all their periods for 35-minutes. Students were broken into two groups: distance learning and blended learning. The distance learning students would be learning from home all year, regardless of announcements of return from the county or state. The blended learning students would be able to return to school, should such a day come, in two separate cohorts; cohort A and cohort B. Regardless, we were all teaching distance learning.

When the terms “synchronous and asynchronous” were introduced as the instructional approach to our new distance learning model, I scratched my head and immediately tried to visualize those terms and what they looked like in my new online classroom. Synchronous was deemed the live instruction you offered your students in the first 40-minutes of that 80-minute block schedule and asynchronous is the term used for independent work students could do in the second half of the same 80-minute block or independently and away from the live classroom. We used to call that “homework” but with virtual learning, isn’t it all just homework? My district asked teachers to try and put an equal amount of planning into both synchronous and asynchronous time, but that’s where the challenge is, I think, for most teachers.

My first semester of trying to implement the asynchronous and synchronous to 80-minute fidelity revealed so much more than I had anticipated…Unreliable or lagging Wi-Fi, the responsibility to care for other family members in the home, the lack of support available at home to help students learn or get organized, and the insurmountable distractions continued to interrupt the teaching and learning that was supposed to be happening in the classroom.

Over the winter break, I decided to take inventory and really evaluate the make-up and demographics of my classroom. Before we returned, I candidly asked my students to tell me what their academic goals were for the preceding year. At my school, English 10 honors face an impasse; they either continue to the Advanced Placement (AP) Language course, or they move on to the standard 11 College Prep (CP) English course. Then, I looked at their academic achievement from the first semester. I decided to use both pieces of information to build four differentiated learning groups in each of my periods. I teach three periods of English 10 honors, so that was 12 small groups based on their academic goals and past achievement. My thought was this… “distance learning is hard for most. Just like my classroom when we’re in-person I know better. Differentiated instruction means I’ve accepted that learning isn’t a one size fits all approach. I don’t see how distance learning makes that idea any different just because we are learning virtually.”

For the second semester, I planned and laid out a new detailed syllabus full of new units driven by my students’ interests and communicated the goals and skills needed to be successful. However, this syllabus clearly pointed out that their tasks and goals were not only broken up week by week, but I had redefined and used the “synchronous” and “asynchronous” terms to describe how we were going to be successful.

For my new approach to work, I had to respond to the need to address my more critical students first and then reevaluate where my higher-level students were currently achieving and either keep them moving forward or enhance the rigor of their learning. One big takeaway from the first semester was the need to be in two places at once. It sounds ridiculous, but with technology pounding on our educational door is it all that far-fetched?

I decided that I needed to dig deep into using more online platforms like Google Classroom, the Google Suite of docs, sheets, and forms, EdPuzzle, Kami, and Zoom videos because they were the beginning to the answers I was looking for. Prior to distance learning and pandemic driven education, I had already implemented Google Classroom into my teaching. It was a great place to announce assignments and an easy turn-in system that eliminated the use of printers and enhanced the communication in my classroom. I was grateful when we went into stay at home orders with that little technological nugget already in place. My district began offering Kami, as a way for documents being used on Google Classroom with students, to be opened and manipulated–either by each student individually or as a class. I use it for annotating in small groups (synchronously) or as an independent assignment (asynchronously).

I use EdPuzzle for quick reviews on Friday or as an asynchronous activity. Whenever I need to deliver instruction in a direct teaching model, Zoom is my go-to for live teaching, but I also use it to record myself and create instructional videos that I can easily share on Google Classroom. This was key to embracing more asynchronous teaching. I always offer it as weekly or independent work. This approach addressed the distracted students, the student with multiple responsibilities at home, and the sketchy and lagging Wi-Fi issues. Students could now pause, rewatch, fast-forward, and rewind my instruction. I think most teachers would agree we wish we could do that in a live classroom. Instead, we use non-verbal cues and student classroom behavior to gauge whether or not they are following along. We watch them take-notes, and do quick call-on’s to check for understanding, but some of that–if not all, has disappeared for us through spotty Wi-Fi connections, blacked out screens, and elements out of our control because students are learning from home. Finally, I turned my Zoom room chat box into the hub of my assessment practices. I love the “chat with the host only” feature. I propose a question, and they respond. But the biggest change to my approach to teaching virtually was the synchronous live teaching in the form of small differentiated instructional groups.

I’ll admit that it felt like I was going rogue from the district suggested curriculum, but I was confident that I had created material, considered engagement, and found a way to hit the same essential standard goals as my district’s curriculum. Some of the administrators at my district level have always encouraged teachers to be the “leaders of their own classroom” and they also have privately admitted, that the research into synchronous and asynchronous online learning are terms that they adopted when forced to take our whole district online that they believed all the teachers in our district could embrace and execute to the best of their ability. It’s for moments like this that I think administrators and policymakers need to trust teachers more. Most teachers who are passionate about teaching and involved in on-going professional development know what’s best for their students and how to help them, but I also know that some teachers feel better about intervening when they have a verbal or more official “green pass” to stray from curriculum expectations and practices before they’ll change what they’re doing or realize what they’re being asked to do isn’t working.” So, my solution for differentiated instruction during an 80 minute block of synchronous and asynchronous learning time was to divide and conquer. I teach 16 of my students in two small groups synchronously each day, while the other 16 are learning asynchronously–then the next day, they switch. The whole week goes on like this until Friday, when we all come together for review or assessment. I needed my first-semester failures and view of obstacles to force me to consider this out-of-the-box approach.

Teaching online with my new approach in place is such a different experience. First and foremost, ALL of their cameras are on; that’s a huge win right there. Second, the live synchronous small groups are more discussion-based. The answer to catching my critical cases and encouraging my proficient and beyond proficient students could both be addressed. Together, we tackle the material that is harder to do independently—this is the stuff that requires my close direct instruction and modeled behavior. In English 10 honors, my goals are to help my students be successful with skills in reading, comprehending, annotating, summarizing, analyzing, and responding to a variety of genres of writing from historical diary and journal entries, feature articles, news commentaries, creative media, like advertisements, and speeches. Asynchronously, my students access the documents that are more grade-level appropriate and practice the same skills each week. The rigor comes when after four weeks, I change the genre on them, but the skills they are practicing don’t change. They continue to receive feedback from me, and they continue to feel successful. But synchronously, we tackle the historical diaries and journal entries because they come with more lessons and learning in accessibility. The language and approach to tackling these pieces is challenging. If I were in my classroom, I could walk around, observe their annotations, look at their notes in the margin, do some quick check-in’s, but again, all of that is lost with online learning. As a small synchronous group, they can’t hide from me. I recoup some of what has been lost in a sea of black screens and a view of ceiling fans I just couldn’t compete with before I made the change.

Just in the first four weeks, I notice that I spend more time with my upper-level students exploring historical context and analyzing what is written, but with my lower-level students, we spend more time defining terms, filling in more historical context, and flushing out more critical thinking ideas and discussion. Ironically, I have gained so much more time because there are fewer of them to check in with.

Recently, I literally watched my small group of students annotate a piece of historical informational text on the screen. We all went to Google Classroom and opened the document in Kami. One by one, you could see their little circle icons show up at the bottom of the screen which indicated they had been successful in launching the document. As the teacher, I knew they were with me. I assigned them each a highlighting color and instructed them to take turns and go in order so they weren’t highlighting over each other. I asked them to highlight a sentence from the text. Once they were done highlighting, they were instructed to give a thumbs up in the camera to signal the next student that it was their turn and then they were told to put their rationale in the chat box explaining how the sentence helps them meet their annotation goals. I could check for understanding, and assess their skills far quicker in 40-minutes than I could have ever done with 32, mostly, black screens in 80 minutes. In fact, because of my small group organization, I got 16 assessments and feedback completed in one period. The demonstration of skills they show during our synchronous time helps drive my assessment practices on Friday when we’re all together. I have come to value the Zoom chat box more than I could ever imagine.

The balance and approach to differentiated instruction in a synchronous and asynchronous model is working. It took about two weeks for my students to understand and adjust to the new schedule, but once they got it, they got it, and from what they have said, most of them like the flexibility, and one-on-one time with me. There’s less screen time and thereby less Zoom fatigue. The technology issues we had where my LIVE teaching was missed because of Wi-Fi glitches and pauses isn’t as big of a factor anymore. Their screens are on, and I have more accountability from them. They unmute themselves and take part in the discussion. I’m able to model a skill and check for understanding quickly. They participate in annotating live on the screen at the same time, and I seem to get more out of them, energy-wise, than I ever did when they were all together.

The idea for how to structure the small group synchronous learning came after I noticed that the one-on-one time during my mandated office hours was a huge success for those students who came to see me. Just like anything in education, when you see student success among a small group of students you wonder, “could that work for everyone?” I took a leap of faith. If there was ever a moment to consider ALL academic options to be successful teaching virtually while answering the call of concern about achievement gaps, it’s right now.

Annette Deming, MA, M.Ed., CJE is the 2020 Associated Chino Teachers union (ACT) Secondary Teacher of the Year for the Chino Valley Unified School District, CA. This is her 8th year teaching and teaches English, journalism, and advises the yearbook. She is also the 2017 recipient of the Rising Star Award issued by the Journalism Education Association (JEA). She has assisted her district and teaching colleagues with curriculum development, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), and implementation of standards-based grading.

She will be leading the Assessment and Accountability team for their upcoming Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accreditation and evaluation in the upcoming school year.

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