My school was lucky enough to be mostly in person during the pandemic, although there were months when we were fully remote. When we were “live,” some of my fifth-grade math students would suddenly be remote while they quarantined or if their families changed their minds about in-person school. The question became, how do you plan for a classroom when you aren’t sure who’s going to be in the room on any given day?
I wanted to make the experience as seamless as possible—to have the in-school experience and the remote one be as close to the same as I could make them. But for the system to work, I needed a consistent way for students to access information that wouldn’t be different whether they were in school or at home. My solution was to make a simple Google Site that I used to structure all of our class activities. Students at home used the same site as the in-school students for their lessons. No one had to learn anything new if they went from being in school to remote or vice versa.
A Simple Organizational Tool
My “Weekly,” as we called it, was really bare-bones. It had a calendar of what was happening, the goals for the week, and a separate page for each day. On the “day” page were the goals for that class, the agenda of what we would do, the homework assignment, and any useful links, including the slides for that day.
For the students in school, I would use the site to guide the class. We would begin on the Weekly, reviewing the goals and the assignments. Depending on what we were doing that day, there might be classwork posted there or a link to an activity. Other times, it was simply the introduction to something that looked like more conventional classwork—maybe a discussion or even a test. Regardless, we always began with the Weekly. Remote students would pull up the same site from home. Sometimes there might be special instructions or a modified plan just for them, but it was always posted in the same place.
I have to admit that I didn’t expect this approach to work at all, but it was surprisingly effective at keeping everyone more or less together. Since we kept the site really simple and reused the same template, it did not take long to produce. There were also benefits I had not anticipated. Not surprisingly, having to produce the site changed my planning. I have always prepared well for lessons, but I rarely had to declare my goals as publicly as I did last year. The goals didn’t disappear when I erased my board or changed slides. At the end of every week, we reviewed how we did. My motivation for having us all agree we had met the goals was pretty high.
There were also less-obvious benefits. Using the same site for both students in class and those not there necessarily involved some repetition. Sometimes I would use a flipped-classroom approach when there was something I wanted everyone to experience the same way. But often I did not want to give up the interactivity of a lesson for those who could be there, and so I ended up making extra slides that only the asynchronous, remote students would use. When I did, I was teaching the class twice, once on video and then again live. Because I produced the video before I taught the class, making the video forced me to think through the lesson much more thoroughly than I normally would have. Essentially, it made me practice the lesson before I gave it in front of the class. My videos were not very polished, but they were still useful to the students who were at home. And the practice made the live lessons much better.
Increased Student Engagement
The second unexpected benefit was that students had to look at the site regularly, so it was a great place to post content that I wanted them to see. At the bottom of every cover page of my Weekly was something we called a “noticing wall” (the name and idea are based on a Lifehacker article by Michelle Woo about parenting a preschooler). When reviewing our week’s goals, I would point it out with some offhand comment like “Check out the noticing wall.” The content ranged from cartoons to short news articles to a question I found interesting.
Often, there were links to something interactive. Videos by Numberphile and Vihart made several appearances. Students were not required to look at it. They were not required to turn in anything. It was just a spot where I could post something in a place they had to click through regularly. And students looked at it. They wanted to talk about it. They had to be told they couldn’t spend time on it during class. They would go back to their favorites. That space under the calendar on a class website became a highlight of the year. I have tried many different platforms to share what I consider interesting math content with students, but this one was the first that worked because it simply put what I wanted them to look at where they would notice it.
I don’t believe that anyone could have persuaded me to create a weekly Google Site for a class that I was seeing in person. I would not have imagined there was any benefit to posting the information there instead of simply putting the same information on a slide or a handout. I only started using it because I had a problem that I couldn’t think of a better way to solve. But even if most of my students will be in class with me this year, I plan to create one every week.