Two eighth-grade teachers discuss the success they have found in co-teaching in a distance learning setting during the pandemic. They highlight collaboration strategies to create an accessible and mutually supportive teaching model for math instruction that engages all learners.
We teach at Rockport Middle School (RMS) in northeastern Massachusetts. RMS is a public school in a small town, serving between 210 and 240 students in grades 6 through 8. The students either live in town or opt into the system through school choice. Most content classes are built on an inclusion model, with a special education teacher or a paraprofessional assigned to classes to support the general education teacher based on IEP service delivery grids. Caroline has a special education certification and is the middle school interventionist. Before the closure, she worked with small groups and individual students in targeted areas of literacy and math for one to two quarters. Yvonne typically teaches four sections of eighth-grade algebra to mixed-ability groups. This year, the students were split into five sections to accommodate the needs of the class. Two sections were run as co-taught classes with a special education liaison, and the other sections were partially supported by paraprofessionals.
Intentional Organization At The Start of School Closure
At the start of the closure in March 2020, our district chose to provide all students with enrichment opportunities remotely. As our district’s plan developed, teachers were assigned to co-teach three mixed-ability classes, and we were partnered to teach the eight-grade Algebra 1 classes. Though we knew each other, we hadn’t taught together before. As soon as we found out we would be working together, we began planning, because we knew the critical importance of strong organization and streamlined accessibility for all learners, but especially those with executive functioning challenges.
We think of executive functioning as the management system of the brain, including skills like self-regulation, working memory, and flexible thinking. Students use executive functioning skills to manage themselves in school, get organized, and get things done. We’ve noticed over the years that many of our students, including those with disabilities, struggle with executive functioning skills in ways that require direct support. We anticipated that the move to distance learning would exacerbate these challenges. Supporting executive functioning for all of our students through the design of our distance learning approach was a key focus in our planning.
The first step was choosing a platform and organizing it so that any learner and parent could log on, find assignments, and access work easily. We focused on creating our Google Classroom as a space of intentional organization. We provided clear instruction, predictable routines, easily accessible materials, and opportunities in every class for students to give feedback on the structure of our lessons. We found that this intentional organization was the key to student success. While our students still struggled with challenging math concepts, we established an atmosphere that was safe for risk-taking. We saw students who previously had not participated in the traditional face-to-face classroom engage in remote learning.
“It’s important to deeply value your personal relationships with your students — especially in subjects that can cause high anxiety, as math does for some. Taking the time to use strategies for developing relationships and lines of communication will help you to connect in meaningful ways when students are struggling.”
A Deep Focus On Building Student Success And Engagement In Distance Learning
Our focus during remote learning was on building student success and increasing engagement rather than the mastery of math content. However, in an unexpected result, we actually got further with the curriculum than we anticipated given the constraints of distance learning. We believe that this was because our students’ executive functioning skills were being supported through our online teaching practices.
To achieve this takes a lot of time, and collaboration was key! We collaborated on the structure of our lessons, focusing on identifying specific goals and narrow essential questions that we felt we could address in 15-minute, synchronous lessons. We decided it was equitable to offer each lesson in two formats: live Zoom and pre-recorded.
The Details of Our Approach
Each live session began the same way — with a welcome, a review of the daily agenda, and a warm-up activity. This was usually a Kahoot game that reviewed the previous lesson’s material. We would then present the essential question of the lesson and move into a period of 10 to 15 minutes of direct instruction. We felt these relatively brief focus lessons would allow us to deliver engaging, systematic, and direct instruction around critical topics that students could then choose to revisit on their own time. We thought of these lessons, anchored to narrow essential questions, as mini resources that students could leverage again and again. The brevity of each lesson supported student attention needs during online instruction, and allowed for flexibility around when they were able to do their schoolwork given competing familial needs and varied technology resources.
Once the lesson was complete, students were given between 15 and 30 minutes of independent skill practice. To provide flexible support options while students worked independently, we worked with intent to differentiate instruction, while also taking a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach. Our collaboration was focused much of the time on identifying which skills we wanted individual students to build and how to make lessons more accessible for each student. We also worked to find ways to give students choices, providing them with options that would be a significant challenge (spicy), a little less challenging (medium), or easily completed (mild). We gave students the option to stay on Zoom while they were doing their work so they could have direct and immediate support from us. Or they could go do the work and then return to Zoom with any questions.
We also implemented exit tickets to capture information about student experiences of the lesson, distance learning, and our class. This strategy helped us understand student preferences, as well as what was working and what could be improved upon from our students’ point-of-view. This allowed us to be responsive to student needs on a lesson-by-lesson basis and to enhance each student’s feelings of connectedness to us and our classroom community.
Technology We Used To Implement Our Approach Included:
-Google Classroom: We used the “Topics” feature to chronologically organize weekly assignments. We disabled some features of the Stream to avoid information overload when students signed in and to get them into the routine of checking the Classwork tab under the specific week for their assignment. “Topics” is a convenient space to provide an overview of all assignments because everything is in one spot. Putting all assignments and links in one spot in the virtual classroom means that students don’t have to hunt for information across different websites.
-Desmos: We used Desmos to show quick videos, problems, and their solutions so that students could learn from demonstrations, try problems, and check their work. Desmos allowed us to watch “live” as students tried problems. As students worked, we simultaneously used Zoom to have “live” supportive conversations (mini interventions) with students. Using Desmos also allowed us to have mild, medium, and spicy problems to differentiate our approach to meeting all of our students’ needs and support access to the curriculum. We found that some learners started with mild problems, then continued to medium, then continued to spicy. This strategy allowed students to see connections between equations and their graphs by allowing for the simultaneous creation and visualization of graphs from equations.
-Loom software and Screencastify: This free software allowed us to create instructional videos to enhance the personal feel of assignments for students. The videos can be uploaded into other sites, such as Desmos, and used to preview work, or as answers to questions, or for pre-recorded lessons.
-Zoom: We used Zoom for face-to-face communication with students. Zoom provided consistency through 10 weeks of online learning and allowed us to approximate the experience of an in-person class. Zoom allowed us to provide a structure for question-and-answer sessions, discussions, and activities, and it allowed students to interact with each other to support social connection.
-Kahoot: Students love this online quiz-style game. When all students play live, it has a video game feel, which appealed to a majority of our students. We used Kahoot both as a warm-up and as an exit ticket. Students enjoy the competition, and it was a great way to engage their social and emotional needs every class period. Kahoot has a free version, which you can use to develop questions and answers to publish to your Google Classroom. It also has a paid version, which we used, which collates student scores for easy data collection.
Leveraging Student Engagement To Introduce New Content and Skills
After a few weeks of remote learning and with guidance from the district, we transitioned our lessons from reviewing content to introducing new material. This was done effortlessly because of the structure and routine we had in place. As we gained experience with the format and gained confidence in our approach, we used data from the COVID-19 crisis to make the content deeply relevant to our students. We knew the pandemic could be a scary and tough topic for some students, so we made sure to continually check in with how they were feeling about these lessons. Our students’ response to this approach was overwhelmingly positive — they wanted to do more data examples like this, giving us the idea to make Thursday our weekly “Real World Data Day.”
A Step-by-Step Approach To Planning As We Learned From Student Feedback
Because this was new to us all — students and educators alike — we made sure to take our planning and approach week by week. We built explicitly on the feedback we got from students about what was going well and what needed to improve, as well as our own observations and reflections. Keeping the channels of communication open between us and students, and making lots of time to plan and work with each other were both critical to our success. Distance learning has been a constant learning process and an opportunity to grow as educators. Having each other for support and watching not only our students grow, but each other grow as educators, has made co-teaching during distance learning a very rewarding experience.
What we learned
Our collaboration has gone very well. We set aside ample time every week to plan together, and we lean on each other for ideas and support. Even though we worked together very little before the school closure, we’ve worked to develop a great relationship as a teaching team and with our students. The support that we’ve received from our school administration has helped tremendously.
Synchronous Zoom sessions and our exit ticket strategy have been important to help us determine which students might need more support. We’ve been able to tell when a student is struggling with a concept or problem, and one of us has been able to pull that student into a breakout room while the other is still with the whole class. We then can go from the breakout room into the student’s Google Classroom page and help the student work through challenges.
We had consistently high levels of attendance. We attribute this to the high level of structure and routine, as well as the positive connection we were able to make with the kids. We never thought we would hit the “Goldilocks sweet spot.” We did not ask them to do too much or too little within the 45-minute time period. Our live meetings were well-received with consistent 85–90% attendance and a high level of respect and engagement from students. Students who were not as engaged when school was open were able to interact with us in a multitude of ways, such as comments and questions in Google Classroom, chat through Zoom, and emails. Being at home allowed students to watch videos and see material prior to, during, and after class, which helped them to manage their social-emotional well-being. The normal social issues they had with peers in school were minimized in this environment.
We were also surprised by how much math content we were able to provide. Since we were so focused on the structure, routine, and organization of class and materials, we didn’t think we’d be able to cover as much content as we do when in school. This was not the case, though — we covered more than we thought possible. Our groups of students were able to access and learn in this environment at a much higher level, since we were willing to change our expectations.
What we’re still figuring out
Whether we return to school in the fall, in a hybrid model, or are required to work in a remote learning environment again, we’ll make sure that we continue to focus on the organizational and structural components of class. It’s important to set the norms for collaborative work for both co-teachers. Setting expectations for a division of labor between the general education teacher and the special education teacher is essential to ensure ownership of the lessons and the teaching. The established rules help to build the teacher-teacher relationship, which allows for a more fluid process of developing lessons over time.
It’s important for us and all educators to use our remote learning experiences as a revolution in the way we look at students. We need to stop labeling students based on their behaviors and focus on what they each need as individuals to help them access learning. We have allowed for multiple modes for students to provide input into their learning and to reach out to teachers about their own specific needs. Individual interest and choice were built into creating lessons, and this made a huge difference in student buy-in and engagement.
Using resources such as Zoom, Loom, and Screencastify has been enlightening as to their ease of use, as well as their usefulness during this time. Videos of short lessons have become an important resource for students and can be used in the future even if we are teaching in person. Students accessed the videos during distance learning, but videos would certainly benefit all students whether they were doing homework, working on concept review, or had been absent. The videos can also be embedded into our online teaching tools, which can be modified to give students access to differentiated assignments, as we did with mild, medium, and spicy. We saw that students became more comfortable moving on to the work that was identified as more difficult after they found success with their first choice — as long as they had the videos available to them for review and re-instruction.
What we want others to know
It’s important to deeply value your personal relationships with your students — especially in subjects that can cause high anxiety, as math does for some. Taking the time to use strategies for developing relationships and lines of communication will help you to connect in meaningful ways when students are struggling. We tried to personally reach out to each student two or three times per week during distance learning — we needed to be much more intentional about making those connections when teaching at a distance. Informal conversations that we used to experience in our building just didn’t happen as often in virtual learning, so we really needed to create those opportunities. It can be as simple as sending a private chat their way in a Zoom lesson!
We’re planning to bring some of the practices we developed during distance learning to our classroom when we resume face-to-face instruction. We’ve had so many students come to office hours for additional help that we think it would be great to implement virtual afterschool office hours. Students will be able to log in to Zoom after school hours for extra support with homework and classwork.
This case outlines what Caroline Teague and Yvonne Story did to support their students through online learning. Google Classroom is one technology tool they used.
Caroline and Yvonne used Desmos to show math concepts to their students.
About The Author
Caroline is the RTI interventionist for Rockport Middle School. She previously worked with students with language-based learning disabilities at the Landmark School for five years. Before that, she taught for five years at an alternative high school in Scotland, working with teenagers who had a range of social, emotional, and learning difficulties. She is certified in history (5–12), and special education–moderate disabilities (5–12). She has been teaching for 11 years.
For the last eight years, Yvonne has been teaching eighth-grade math and Algebra 1 at Rockport Middle School. Before coming to Rockport, Yvonne was a math coach for the Lynn Public Schools and has taught mathematics in grades 6–12. She has a master’s degree in teaching mathematics and is certified in math (1–12) and history (8–12).
Jodi is the district mathematics specialist for Rockport Public Schools. She is also the mathematics curriculum coordinator for the middle school. She previously taught middle school mathematics in Rockport for 11 years and was a math, oral expression/literature, language arts, and reading tutorial teacher at the Landmark School. She is certified in mathematics (1–8), special education–moderate disabilities (PreK–12), and elementary (1–6). She has been teaching for 20 years.