A Look Back at a Year of Distance and Hybrid Teaching

by Mollie Kemp ‘23

Like many aspects of the 2020-2021 year, education was forced to change significantly. Fleeing from the classrooms, teachers and students alike took refuge in the world of Zoom. Solely seeing one dimensional students from tiny boxes on their computer screens, teachers were forced to improvise and evolve their teaching methods. As the slow process of returning to classrooms has begun, and a trickle of students come back to the campus, the floodgates once again open and teachers have to adapt to the whole new ball game of hybrid learning. But what has this process of constant and rapid change been like for teachers? A look back at a year like no other. 


Ms. Elkins, an Upper School Art teacher comments, “Good teaching requires us to constantly change and reassess anyway. It’s easy to get into a rut. If nothing else, the pandemic reminded me to be flexible and roll with the changes.”


Ms. Nadler, an Upper School English teacher adds, “I used to think that adapting to change meant being willing to let go of plans. And that's true. But with Zoom, you can't just let go of plans and do something on a seat of your pants, because you have to make a new document for all the kids to access or you have to create, you have to create materials a lot more for Zoom than you could in class where you're like, everyone go to the board, you know, where you change midstream. So I think it's being open to change, but then also, like, late at night working to make new things.”


Ms. Nadler says, “In all Zoom learning, I think the biggest problem for me was that it was hard to have class wide discussions, because kids are muted. And so the bar for unmuting yourself is just higher than in class just speaking up. So kids hold themselves back. And so even if they're paying attention, and they have a little germ of an idea, they're not necessarily sharing it. And so you don't get into that flow of discussing a novel or a poem or something. Doing breakout rooms can help with that a little bit. But the problem with breakout rooms is that those can be awkward for students, and you can't listen with half an ear the way you can with a small group in the classroom. And so it's been a challenge for me to kind of try to get kids to actually discuss in breakout rooms instead of just splitting up the work and writing things or leaving their cameras off and their microphones on mute.”


Profe Gasper, an Upper School Spanish teacher explains,  “It was hard to keep students engaged in a way that you can with more active plans, such as going to the board, physical games, etc. It was also hard to assess in a way that was fair but also ensured academic honesty.”


Dr. Criswell, the Upper School Orchestra teacher comments,  “The big problem was that we could not rehearse together. We're so used to working as a unit. And that was one of the huge adjustments. For me, I look at a screen and I see people playing but I can't hear them, they see their peers playing, but they are not hearing. And so one of the things that one of the hurdles has been how do we create a sense of ensemble when we're not an ensemble?”


Dr. Criswell remarks, “So obviously, it took a little while to get adjusted. But we were having silent rehearsals. Because the way Zoom works is, you cannot have more than one person who is playing at a time. Otherwise, sounds cancel each other out. So a lot of what we did was, I would play through something. And a lot of times, what I did was I had a backing track. So in other words, if we were working on a particular piece, I would have that piece already pre recorded. And so I would play that, and then they would play along to that. And then I would, and then I would isolate, I would say such and such, unmute. And let me listen to this little part here.”


Also without access to the classroom and art supplies, Ms. Elkin’s classes were “limited”. So, the art teachers quickly started assembling supply kits, “we made a lot of deliveries around the DC metropolitan area.” Oftentimes, distance learning shined a light on problems that wouldn’t have been realized in a regular school year. Ms. Elkins comments, “In Graphic Design, they could share their screens with me, which worked great. But this was harder for traditional media students. We ended up sharing a lot of photos back and forth. The first time we tried the photograph feedback approach, I realized that kids had no idea how to take good photos of their art. I couldn’t provide authentic feedback if I didn’t have an accurate representation of their work. So, we paused the first project and had a ‘how-to’ lesson on photography basics.”


Mrs. Geiger, an Upper School Math teacher explains, “Designing a hybrid lesson that engages the students in the classroom and the students online is challenging, and at times it can feel like my attention is split between the two groups (my Zoomies and my Roomies, as I call them). One tool that I have found helpful is a second monitor, which allows me to see the students at home at all times, even if I am sharing my screen during the lesson. I like to be able to see everyone’s faces so I can get a sense of how they seem to be understanding the lesson. It also helps make it feel like the entire class is all there together.”


Ms. Nadler adds, “With Zoom flex, I think it's hard to teach to the Zoomers, and to the kids in the class at the same time, basically you can make that feeling of community in the class but then the Zoomers, I think feel really left out. And all the stuff that I would do to make the Zoomers feel sort of connected, is taking away from the kids in the class.”


Profe Gasper states, “The move from virtual to 25% to 50% to full study body this week (April 12th) has been a challenge.  Just when we thought we had figured out one setup, we moved to another. The tech challenges of some at home with some in person, then some in the wrestling room on campus but unwilling or uncomfortable participating, to now being together almost normally but in really close proximity.... Each step has felt a little overwhelming and frustrating, but at the same time, each time we've added more students to the physical class, it's been better and better.”


Ms. Nadler explains, “And so this is more my personal story than anything else- But I was about eight months pregnant when we went all virtual. So on the one hand, I felt relieved, because I could keep myself safe at home. And I could sit all day instead of running around. But I worried a lot about my students, they were working on a paper at the time, and it was hard to get them to turn on their cameras. And I didn't know how to run discussions and I wasn't very good at using tools like Padlet and Jam Board, you know things that I know now. So it was really hard.”

“I leaned really heavily on an individual one on one meetings. So I did a lot of meeting signups and met with kids one on one a lot to talk about their papers. And so that actually went fine. But I do remember, not that it's a relief to give birth, but I was like, I'm so glad that I'm gonna go on maternity leave, and I won't have to do this for more than a few weeks.”


Mrs. Geiger contends, “I think this experience shows that we can adapt quite well when necessary, but I think the past year has also highlighted the value of in-person learning. Even with how successful distance and hybrid learning have been, nothing can truly replace the in-person experience and the synergy of the connections that take place in a classroom full of students.”


However, not all new experiments with Zoom have been bad, in fact some will carry over into the return to in person learning as well. Dr. Criswell comments that, “I will spend time having students do more individual exercises, assignments that I will listen to and provide feedback on. I will definitely continue doing the audio recording, where they have to individually record their tracks, and then video recording, because that forces them to really think about playing in time and playing in rhythm.”


Ms. Elkins states, “I will absolutely continue to hold digital critiques. On critique days, students upload photographs of their work before class starts. We spend the entire period listening to their presentations and responding to their work. Previously, we would gather around each student’s workspace while each artist talked about their piece. Some students could see, some couldn’t. It was much more casual. With this more formal approach, they’ve learned to present their work with confidence. They’re also learning how to respond more thoughtfully to the artwork of others. We’ve had some powerful moments this year engaging in meaningful conversations about students’ art”.


Dr. Criswell concludes, “My outlook has gotten really positive. I think everybody is more energized. I'm certainly more energized. It's been very exciting. Having more and more students on campus in rehearsal. I, for instance, today, just got done with orchestra. And we had I think we had about 16 kids out of my 19 on campus. So and they play accordingly. I mean, they play, several notches higher than they did just because it's more of what it used to be. And I think that whatever we took for granted, we're not taking that for granted now. So I think people are just excited to be back around each other, making music with each other. And for me it's definitely been hugely uplifting.”