I am a math and science teacher at a high school in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. This blog documents some of my journey as I explore the use of the Flipped Classroom model with my classes.

Thursday 9 September 2021

Preparing to Enter the Jungle of Modified Semesters - Flipped Pandemic Teaching in Toronto

"Jungle" flickr photo by Anders Adermark
Shared under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

First, some context.

I teach high school math and science (chemistry and grade 9 science this year) in the Toronto District School Board in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I'm not going to get into all the details of our COVID-19 situation, but I'll share some of the factors that affect my practice:

  • We still have to wear masks indoors in schools, though we can remove them as needed to eat or drink, and generally when we are on our own in a classroom/prep room/department office/etc. We can remove them when we are outside, so long as we can keep a 2 metre (about 6 foot) distance from others.
  • None of the classrooms I teach in have windows, though those who have windows are supposed to have them open. All classrooms have an air filtration unit in them (these are to be run on high for an hour when we first arrive for the day, and then we can turn them down to a lower setting for the rest of the school day, turning them off when we leave).
  • Desks are to be spaced apart as much as possible, not placed in groups/circles/etc., all facing the front. My largest class this semester has 32 students, and even though a few of them are virtual, this still means that I cannot maintain the 2 metre (about 6 foot) distancing that was the rule last school year.
  • Group work is still allowed, as well as labs; any equipment that has to be shared during the same class is supposed to be sanitized before another person handles it.
The instructional model in my school board this time around is "simultaneous learning." This means that most of my students are attending my classes in person this semester, but I have at least one student attending virtually in each class, as my school board does not have a dedicated separate virtual school this year for those who have opted for virtual learning. I am required to teach my face-to-face and my virtual students at the same time (that is, simultaneously, hence the name of the model), which I did not experience last year (not all my colleagues were so lucky last year). I will basically be streaming my class through a Google Meet, paying attention to my virtual students using the chat (and, if they are gracious, the students' microphones and cameras, though they are not required to turn those on in my district), and I will have to determine ways to have my virtual students involved and assessed even as I try to get my face-to-face students back to hands-on learning. Some of my students have already asked me through our virtual classrooms how that will work -- I'm not fully sure how it will myself, yet, but I've told them we'll manage it together :)!

Modified semesters and our first day(s)

In an attempt to reduce the exposure of students to others, our high schools are running "modified semesters," where students take two classes in one week (one class in the morning, another in the afternoon), and then two different classes the next week, then switch back and forth from week to week between these two sets of classes. Here's a more visual explanation of that:

There will be no exams this year, although we will still have a division in the marks of 70% for term work and 30% for end-of-course summatives.

For various reasons, even though we normally start classes the first day after Labour Day (which is the first Monday in September), this year our students' school year started on Thursday, September 9. At my school that was turned into a grade-9-only day, where the students got to have a half-day getting their feet wet in the building, so to speak, running some icebreakers, hearing a video from admin and student leadership groups about the expectations put on them and the Code of Conduct, getting a tour of the school, and picking up some free school swag. I don't teach grade 9 students until semester 2 this year, so my role was solely to take one group of students on a tour of the school with another teacher.

My first day with some of my own students will be Friday, September 10, which will be a regular Week 1 schedule. I will have two courses that day (grade 12 Foundations of College Mathematics and grade 11 Chemistry). Next week (starting Sept. 13) will be a regular Week 2 schedule, so the students I meet for one day on Sept. 10 will not see me again until we return to a Week 1 schedule on Sept. 20. I have posted some welcoming announcements (including a 4-minute video I recorded of me talking to them) in our virtual classroom spaces, but it's definitely an odd start to the year, and a disjointed way of meeting everyone. (I wonder how long it will take me to learn names this year?) In Week 2 I only teach one course, and it is another group of grade 11 Chemistry students, so I will repeat with them the material I did with my Week 1 Chemistry class but of course adjust it to meet that class' needs. This is definitely a good year to have two sections of the same course in a semester to cut down on the overall prep, because there is enough to think about just teaching these two courses.

Guiding/overall thoughts for how to manage

The one-week-on, one-week-off schedule, coupled with a ban on assigning homework to students for their weeks "off" from our courses, suggests that students may have a hard time bringing information from one week forward to the next time they have the course. I need to divide the course material into self-contained one-week "chunks" that can be managed somewhat independently of each other. This is easier in one of my courses than the other: there are very large differences between teaching the trigonometry unit and the personal finance unit of the grade 12 Foundations of College Mathematics course, but in the grade 11 Chemistry course, four of the units really go through a progression of building on each other. I will have to build in ways of helping my Chemistry students recall and draw forward concepts as we go through those units.

We have been reminded that students may be feeling a lot of anxiety about doing school, as some of these students have never had a regular high school year or have a very fuzzy recollection of what things were like before the pandemic shutdown that started in March 2020 here. Our school board has provided a resource to us with a lot of mindfulness and stress management activities, including suggested activities for each date. I will be using several of these. Student voice and choice, and culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy, is also all supposed to play a larger role in our classes this year than ever before. Alongside that, I want to use this unusual schedule as an opportunity to explore how we can get the students more involved in some authentic learning, hopefully even bringing in connections to the community around us. My hope is that the more hands-on and "real" I can make the concepts to the students, the better it will stick with them, and the less it will stress them out.

How will I incorporate flipping into all this? I would have liked to ask the students to do an Edpuzzle with some embedded diagnostic questions about the coming mini-unit the weekend before each learning block, but every time I've asked for clarification about the homework policy this year I've been given the impression that that will not be allowed. Instead, I am considering having students do their final evaluation of each mini-unit in the first half of Friday classes, take a small mindfulness break, and then do the diagnostic for the material they will see in the next block. That will also give me time to plan ahead during their week "off" from that course to address any misconceptions or gaps that come up related to that unit. I will also likely use flipping strategies to assign video lesson homework in the first half of the week, using the in-class time to dive deeper into concepts and learn how to apply them in practice, moving them along Bloom's taxonomy over the course of the week. We're also moving away from tests this year in my science department, and that may also be a good idea with the clientele that take this particular math course, so something more authentic-like or analysis of a portfolio might be a good end-of-unit assessment each week. I'd also like to incorporate some of the "in-flip" model by having helping videos students can access during class time if needed to move them along in the unit.

The plan for Day One

Here's my plan for the first day of my two Week 1 courses tomorrow:
  1. General welcome, attendance, and helping everyone understand how the "simultaneous" model will work (getting the in-person kids to wave to the virtual kids, and help them understand who's doing what)
  2. Mindfulness activity: "Three Good Things" - and have them answer on a Padlet at least one of their responses
  3. General course overview (with a more detailed trek through the course outline planned for the next time we meet)
  4. The same 30-minute video from our admin and student leadership teams that the grade 9s saw Sept. 9 (Code of Conduct, who's who, getting involved in clubs, etc.)
  5. Mindfulness activity: "Looking Back, Looking Ahead" (not including the Extension)
  6. Going for a walk outside to our back field (including a mask break), relaxing a bit, and discussing how math/chemistry is involved in the world around us
  7. If there is time after that, I have an activity planned for the math class using cubilinks (real or virtual), and the chemistry class will go over WHMIS 2015 symbols and play a related Kahoot.
I told some of the grade 9s today that one of the keys for our mental health this year is going to be being able to be flexible in the face of the disorganization and uncertainty we're facing, and trying not to get too tense about it. It feels a bit like entering a jungle as we start this new school year still facing upheaval caused by COVID-19, but we will all manage it together. Welcome to the jungle. May it be more fun and games and less fever and disease, by the grace of God.

Here we go.

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