Pandemic Schooling Is Overwhelming. Here’s How One School Lightened the Load.

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 (Feodora Chiosea/iStock)

From personal health concerns to worries about students who’ve fallen off the grid, the toll of teaching during the coronavirus pandemic can be immense. Many educators say their schools have done little to lighten the load. Not everywhere, though. In a MindShift survey this fall, some of our newsletter subscribers described structural changes at their schools that were making the year more manageable, such as shorter class periods or having one day per week devoted to teacher planning.

Principal Sarah Gillam of West Valley High School in Fairbanks, Alaska, was among those who responded to the survey. In a typical year, her school operates on a six-period schedule, with students changing classes after the first semester. This year, students are taking three classes at a time for just one quarter. Student feedback drove the change, Gillam said. In a survey last spring, students resoundingly reported that six daily virtual classes was overwhelming. So faculty and staff devised the quarter system, along with other adjustments, including:

  • A shortened instructional day — Students start at 9:15 a.m. instead of 7:45 a.m.
  • A common prep period for teachers — This 60-minute period occurs before the student day.
  • An additional section of classes for each teacher — Since the prep periods occur before students begin, there’s no prep period during the student day. Gillam said this change was made with the need for physical distancing when in-person schooling begins, and it brought class sizes down to around 25, compared to the usual 30.

When civics teacher Amy Gallaway heard about the proposed changes, her first reaction was relief. Trying to recreate brick-and-mortar school for seven hours per day online was “untenable” for both students and teachers, she said. But after relief came something else: “What was that feeling? Trepidation.” 

Gallaway, who is Alaska’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, said that she wondered “Can I do this, and can I do it well enough that my students learn something really meaningful and their time isn't wasted?” Toni Hawkins, a math teacher at West Valley, alighted on those questions more quickly. “With math, you can't really go onto the next concept until you've really solidified what the previous one was,” she said. “So I got really nervous about it.”

Hawkins joined a committee to help redesign core math courses for the fall, and Gallaway got busy reinventing her U.S. government course. After two quarters, both teachers said the compressed schedule is full of challenges, yet holds benefits beyond reducing student and teacher overwhelm. It also has led to increased emphasis on higher-order thinking, more connection with individual students and an opportunity to make bold changes.

Math and metacognition

During the summer, Hawkins worked with other teachers to distill their Algebra I sequence to the essentials. Statistics, for instance, is usually a stand-alone unit, so it got the boot. And while students normally learn to solve systems of equations through multiple methods, this year they might only learn one. Hawkins said the teachers created a document of suggested changes that served as both a guide for colleagues and a record for future years to know what was missed.

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That was just the start. Hawkins had other adjustments to make. To avoid online cheating, she scrapped her standards-based assessments and created one assignment per standard, with different weights based on the work involved. She said this move pushed her to limit procedural questions — which students can solve with Snapchat and other apps — and prioritize tasks that required students to explain their mathematical thinking

When her classes learned to write equations of lines, for example, Hawkins assigned a project called “My Favorite Mistake.” At the start of the week, she told students they’d be diving into a complicated skill, and she asked them to note the steps they found tricky. At the end of the week, the students created Flipgrid videos describing their mistake and how they resolved it. Though Hawkins worries about retention with students only taking math for one quarter, she hopes that this increased focus on metacognitive skills will mitigate the issue.

Although eliminating tests saved some time, Hawkins noticed that the lack of discrete units made it harder for students to connect the dots between topics. So she shifted assignment deadlines from the start of class to the end of the day. That gave students the class period and office hours to get more help. It also gave her a better pulse on students’ confidence with the latest topic. If most students turned in an assignment before class, she moved forward. If they didn’t, she took more time for review.

With one quarter under their belt, Hawkins said her quarter two students “were a lot more savvy about what they needed to do right off the bat.” But by early December, their energy was flagging. “There’s more kids who are just like, ‘Uh! I just can't do it anymore,’” she said. “So I find myself being more of a cheerleader and trying to keep their interests up.”

Freedom to experiment

As Gallaway prepared to condense her U.S. government curriculum, she asked herself a basic question: why do I teach? The answer — “to create empowered and engaged citizens who can go out and change the world” —  led her to abandon her familiar routine of six units lasting two or three weeks. Instead, she envisioned the class like a figure eight, with students using key skills, such as media literacy and constitutional analysis, to “constantly move and spiral” around two topics: foundations of government and current events.

Though daunting, Gallaway said reimagining the course also gave her freedom to experiment with anti-racist teaching practices. In the wake of the country’s latest racial reckoning, she wanted students to engage deeply with issues of identity, power and oppression. To do so, throughout the quarter, she asked students to respond to recurring questions on those themes, drawn from the work of scholar Gholdy Muhammad. “I don't have that luxury to fall back on what I usually do,” Gallaway said. “So I've been able to integrate that a lot better.”

Gallaway didn’t make those changes alone. She said that having a common prep period every day enabled West Valley teachers to collaborate within and across departments more than in the past. Social studies and English teachers, for instance, used that time to tackle shared challenges, such as how to facilitate fishbowl discussions, debates and student dialogues online.

Another gift of the schedule was being responsible for fewer students at a time. Gallaway normally has about 125 students per semester. With quarters, she has 60. “It allows me to know students better, get back graded work more quickly, and more easily personalize learning,” she said. “Small class size has been a veritable dream.”

The biggest challenge, Gallaway said, is for teachers to strike a balance between bare-bones and jam-packed courses. She’s heard from students who were disappointed about certain activities or content being skipped in her class while at the same time feeling saddled with hours of homework in other courses. Despite those complaints, Gallaway said that most students reported loving being able to focus on just three classes.

West Valley completed its second fully remote quarter before winter break. The district is planning for high school students to have the option to return to in-person classrooms in February. Gillam, the principal, said the same daily and quarterly schedule will continue for the rest of the year.

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For Gallaway, the schedule is imperfect, but given the imperfect reality of pandemic schooling, the best option. “I think six classes a day — it would just pummel students.”