Puzzle Pieces

My wife and I have been doing jigsaw puzzles lately. In April, we finished a puzzle that had been languishing in its barely-started state for years. Then, we moved on to others, and have just completed our third puzzle.

We have a lot of strategies that we use to fit the pieces together. We group pieces by color or texture. I’ll take a group of similar-looking pieces and try to fit them together into an island, and then figure out where that island goes in the larger picture. Sometimes, I’ll take an individual piece and compare it to the photo on the box to try to determine where it goes. Other times, we’ll have a hole, and will search through all the pieces until we find the one that fits in that particular spot.

I think this is skin. Or maybe part of a stone stair.

Working on the puzzles, I’m always amazed at how fuzzy the pieces are. Is that part of a boat? This looks like the corner of a building. No, I think it’s part of an animal foot. You would think that if they’re going to bother making a jigsaw puzzle, they’d start with a picture that’s in focus. Why are these trees so blurry?

And then, magically, we get up from the table and look back at the picture. It all fits together and snaps into sharp focus. All those fuzzy, blurry pictures come together to make a clear picture. I know the brain is filling in the gaps. It’s still amazing.

A few months ago, we grabbed a handful of puzzle pieces on our way out the door. They were blurry. And I don’t think we had all of them. And we didn’t have the box, so we only had a vague idea of what the picture was supposed to look like. Some of the pieces were easy to fit together. The Chromebook and Google Classroom and Gmail and Calendar pieces all fit nicely. The Zoom piece goes over here, as part of the synchronous area. Edpuzzle and Flipgrid and Padlet fit together in this student engagement part of the picture, but the pieces are pretty blurry, so we have to keep turning them and trying different combinations until we get it right.

I have these pieces for Screencastify and Vocaroo and Screencast-o-Matic, but I’m not even sure they all belong to the same puzzle. Where did this Office 365 piece come from? When we’re done with this, I think we’re going to have some pieces left over.

Then, there’s the dreaded, monotonous part of every puzzle. It’s always there. Look at this whole part of the photo that’s just sky. Or water. Or black. How are we ever going to get that done? Those are the assessment pieces. Or the differentiation pieces. They’re art without art supplies. Music without instruments. Physical education in a video conference. There’s a lot of trial and error in this part of the puzzle. We spend a lot of time trying to build into this area from the other parts that are already done. How do we connect all of these black pieces? Start at the shadow by that bridge and work from there. Be patient. Be persistent.

For me, puzzles work best when I pick at them in small pieces over a long period of time. I’ll work on it for half an hour or so, and then move on to something else. It’s important to have that luxury of time to work on things, and then set them aside. Sometimes the gaps give us a fresh perspective, and it’s easier to get things to fit together. Summer’s a great time for that.

Photo credit: Wirawat Lian-udom on Flickr.

I think it’s also really important to have the picture on the front of the box. While it would be cool to put a puzzle together without knowing what the picture is, I don’t think it would be very much fun. And it would take a really long time. So maybe that’s how we approach the dawn of summer. What does the picture look like? What are the pieces we’re going to need to make that picture? Then, start looking for edge pieces, and see how things fit together.

Designing Hybrid Learning

Schools are trying to figure out what fall looks like. Are we going to be back in the classroom like we were last fall? That seems very unlikely. Will we still be completely online like we’ve been for the last two months? That’s possible, but it’s more likely that we’re going to try to get teachers and students back in our buildings this fall.

Most schools seem to be looking at a hybrid model, where students come to school 2-3 days per week, and spend the other days learning online from home. That reduces the number of students in each classroom to levels that can reasonably accommodate social distancing guidelines.

Add to that these likely realities:

  • Some parents may choose to not send their kids to school and want an online-only option for them.
  • Absence rates will be higher, because people are going to get sick. When students are absent, they’re likely to be out for a couple weeks at a time instead of a couple days.
  • Teachers are going to get sick too, or have sick family members.  They’ll be out for weeks at a time as well. Substitute teachers are completely unprepared for teaching in online or hybrid environments.
  • At any point, our schools could close for 2+ weeks, perhaps with no advance notice. Instruction at that point will transition to entirely online.

How do we prepare for this?

First, we have to recognize that online learning is different from classroom learning. Way back in January, Alice Keeler put it this way:


If we take the classroom instruction that we used to do, and just put it online, then AT BEST we’ll get the same results we had before. If we want to leverage the advantages of hybrid, we have to think about this differently.

Let’s take a look at scarcity versus abundance. In a classroom, what are the abundant resources, and what are the scarce ones? This is a little easier to identify now that we’ve been out of the classrooms for two months. Wow. It was so easy to just pull a student aside and see how they’re doing, on both personal and academic levels. We could divide students up into groups and send them off into different parts of the room to do different things, and yet keep an eye on them all at the same time. We could keep tabs on them in very informal, and often nonverbal ways. It was easy to feel like we were on top of what was happening in our classrooms.

What was scarce in the physical classroom? Information was scarce. This is mostly due to cultural tradition. Our grandparents went to school because that’s where the information was. The teacher was the expert, and imparted knowledge to the students. We still do that. “Everyone put your cell phone in a pouch by the door when you come in. Put your books under your chairs. It’s time for me to disseminate some extremely important knowledge to you.”

What else was scarce? Flexible time. Each class is 42 minutes long. It doesn’t matter if I only need 30 minutes on Tuesday or it would be really helpful to have 65 minutes on Friday. It doesn’t matter that Matthew and Nicholas really need an extra 15 minutes, but Olivia and Ben could have moved on half an hour ago. The schedule is the schedule, and we have to make it work.

online tension diagram 2

What about the online environment? When we moved everyone into the stay-at-home model, what was abundant? In most cases, the students now had access to the information. While that requires some curation, the teacher really doesn’t need to spend a lot of time creating and delivering instruction. In most cases, they can point to resources that are already created and available.

On the other hand, the scarce resources in an online environment are the personal and synchronous connections. It’s hard to get to know your students, and to keep a finger on the pulse of their well-being, both personal and academic. When we do have time with them in a Zoom conference or other interactive tool, we have to best take advantage of that limited resource.

So what’s the best approach to designing instruction for a hybrid model? Focus on the strengths of the modalities. That instruction piece, where you impart knowledge unto your learners? That has to be online. It should be asynchronous. Put the resources out there and let the students interact with it at their own pace, but on your schedule. “Between now and next Tuesday, I need you to watch this video, or read this article, or listen to this podcast.” Then, ideally, they’re going to DO something with that information. But what they’re not doing is connecting to a video conference at 11:00 on Wednesday to listen to you talk for 45 minutes.

That video conference is synchronous time. It’s the time for interaction. In a hybrid model, hopefully, this is when the students are in school. But they may not be in school very often. So you may have to do this online. Those sessions should be participatory. Use breakout rooms. Hold discussions. Ask them to analyze, critique, compare, construct, reflect. Make it about the students, not about the content.

The other thing you’re doing with synchronous time is checking in with the students. Maybe this is an informal “office hours” arrangement when you’re in a video conference a few times a week and students can check in. Maybe it’s a text chat. If necessary, maybe it’s just an email or a Google form response. Sometimes you don’t have enough synchronous time to get it all done. But that kind of connection is important.

We need to design instruction for online, because that’s the most complicated modality. Then, we can take pieces of those plans and do them face-to-face as the situation permits. That’s how we get to the hybrid model. It’s easy to have a class discussion rather than using an online forum. It’s great to provide small group help to students in the classroom instead of in a video conference. As we add classroom time, focus on the things that are abundant in the classroom and scarce online.

We know a lot about classroom instruction, and we’ve learned a lot this spring about what works and what doesn’t in an online environment. As we’re working on plans for the fall, it’s time to maximize the benefits of both modalities to create a hybrid plan that leverages the advantages of both approaches. The resulting instruction will be better than anything we’ve done before.



The Opportunity of Crisis

What an unsettling time.

In a couple weeks, our world has dramatically shifted. It’s like 9/11. It’s like JFK. It’s not, really. Those were sudden national tragedies when the world changed in an instant. This is slower. Our world changed over the course of a week, not in minutes. And, at least for now, it’s temporary.

2809961438_56d48f9969_wBut it’s like those other events in the sense that the world as we know it has come to a sudden arboreal stop. Life isn’t normal anymore. It’s unsettling. It’s troubling. It’s disconcerting. It’s exciting.

We don’t know what the effects of this are going to be over the long term. But we know what the next month is going to look like. And we have a pretty good idea that things aren’t going to be back to normal in the next few months. After that, we have to wait and see.

In the nineties, the Internet was a place that brought people together. Before the web and all the “information superhighway” hype, it was fundamentally a way for people to communicate, to find their tribes, and to be parts of communities that were geographically disparate. From my earliest days as a teacher, I thought it would revolutionize learning by bringing people together. In some ways, I’ve spent most of my career trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to help make that happen.

Three weeks ago, Nancy Messonnier, a director at the Centers for Disease Control, warned that school closings would be coming. She told the public to “Ask about plans for teleschool.” A few hours later, all of my online communities were converging on this topic. The email listservs and the Subreddits and the Twitter stream and the Facebook friends all landed on it at the same time. We’re not ready for this. What do we do now?

The transformation never happened. We built the infrastructure. We put all the tools in place. We built wireless networks and put devices in the hands of every student. We did tons of professional development, and focused on next generation pedagogy and things like formative assessments, differentiation, project based learning, portfolios, and authentic assessment. We adopted learning resources that are primarily digital resources and stopped relying so much on textbooks. But we weren’t really changing much. We were nibbling around the edges. For the most part, school was the same as it was when our teachers were students.

But this week, somehow, when faced with no alternatives, everyone stepped up. I keep thinking of that scene in Apollo 13 where they have to fix the CO2 problem.

“We got to find a way to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that.”
“Let’s get it organized.”
“Okay, let’s build a filter.”

Nobody signed up for this, but it’s the task in front of us. What do our students have at home? How can we use that to teach them as well as we can? Our teachers sorted through the pile of stuff on the table and they started putting pieces together. Our instructional coaches gave up sleeping and spent a lot of time filling in the gaps. Our curriculum director and our principals started triaging the problem and setting priorities. Nobody complained about a change in working conditions. Nobody refused to step up. We’re going to do whatever we need to do.

This isn’t a matter of life and death. The world isn’t going to end if our kids miss a month of school. As I’ve been saying, there aren’t any expectations. Anything we do is better than doing nothing. That’s a very liberating place to be. We can try things that might not work. We can roll the dice on long odds. We can try things that we weren’t willing to try a month ago. We have a get out of jail free card. There’s nothing to lose.

I’m excited about this. I’m hoping that we’re going to learn some things about us, and about our students, and about how learning can be. I’m hoping that we’re going to pick up some practices or ideas or some out-of-the-box methods that we never tried before because we never had to. In the end, eventually, we’re going to go back to school. But hopefully, we’re going to take some of these lessons back into the classrooms with us. And our kids will be better for it.

Photo credit: Max Klingensmith, Flickr.