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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

'It's Hard To Split Yourself': Milwaukee Area Educators Adjust To Hybrid Teaching

Teacher in classroom
Emily Files
Prince of Peace School second grade teacher Jenny Wood attends to her Zoom students while in-person students wait.

The vast majority of Wisconsin schools are now open for in-person learning. Many of them also offer a virtual option, which means a lot of teachers are providing concurrent instruction: teaching to the students in the room and on Zoom at the same time.

“Alright second graders we’re going to get started!” Jenny Wood begins the day with her class at Prince of Peace School on Milwaukee’s south side, which is part of the Seton Catholic network. Wood asks her students an icebreaker question – what job would another teacher, Mrs. Stone, have if she wasn’t a teacher?

“Alexander and Josiah, I want your answers in the [Zoom] chat please,” Wood tells her virtual students. “Other students, I want your answers on your whiteboard.”

The students choose a range of professions for Mrs. Stone: mom, pizza maker and Dunkin' Donuts worker. “If she worked there, she would drink all the coffee,” one student says.

Today, Wood has 10 in-person students and four on the computer. Two of them are full-time Zoom students, and two are out of the classroom for other reasons.

Emily Files
Prince of Peace second grade teacher Jenny Wood uses a camera to broadcast a video of herself to her virtual students. The Zoom students are projected onto the whiteboard.

“We have a student who is in quarantine right now, that’s why he’s at home,” Wood says. “Then another student told me he wasn’t feeling well so that’s why he’s at home. So it just really depends, you never know who’s going to show up online.”

Wood has been teaching in a hybrid, or concurrent format, since the beginning of the school year.

“To be honest, we all, at the beginning of the year, we were so lost because this had never been done before,” she says. “You couldn’t go on Pinterest and find out how to do concurrent teaching because it wasn’t a thing.”

Wood says in her first months of concurrent teaching, she parked herself at her laptop at the front of the classroom. “Which, that’s not me, that’s not the way I teach,” she says. “I’m up and moving all the time. I don’t sit down at my desk all day when I’m teaching.”

Prince of Peace principal Ryan Krienke says teachers have made adjustments throughout the school year to improve their hybrid instruction.

“Early on, the way we did it was it kind of felt like everyone became a digital student, we got everyone on the same Zoom link,” Krienke says. “And it was like, 'Oh, this isn’t really different than if they were learning from home.' But that wasn’t why parents signed their kids up [for in-person instruction.]”

Emily Files
Jenny Wood's in-person students fill out worksheets as she teaches a lesson about odd and even numbers.

Prince of Peace bought new technology for teachers so they wouldn’t be glued to their computers.

“As principals, none of us taught in this environment,” Krienke says. “There was no best practice. You have to just figure it out.”

Now, Wood uses a Swivl camera, which follows her around the classroom. She projects her laptop screen on the whiteboard, so she can see her virtual students while she moves around.

On the day I visit, Wood expertly involves her in-person and virtual students in a lesson about odd and even numbers.

“My friends at home, please type in the [Zoom] chat, odd or even, what do you think? My friends at school, what do you think, the numbers 11 and 9 — are they odd or even?”

An extended interview with teacher John Simons.

But technology problems do happen. The in-person students have to sit and wait when Wood needs to fix the Zoom chat box or adjust her camera.

Teachers say it's inevitable — concurrent instruction requires them to split their attention.

“It’s hard to split yourself that way,” says West Allis-West Milwaukee eighth grade teacher John Simons. “It’s kind of like playing piano in the left hand, doing something else with the right hand. So it’s difficult.”

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West Allis Lane Intermediate School teacher John Simons recorded instructional videos and posted them on YouTube for his students during virtual learning.

Simons says since most of his students are back in the classroom, they occupy more of his attention. Sometimes, his virtual students fall out of the loop.

“There’s days when I have to reteach something to the kids online because I was muted and no one would tell me, because they’re eighth graders,” Simons says. “And even if they did, I’m not looking at the chat because I’m teaching and looking up at the board.”

West Allis high school English teacher Kellen Lynch takes a different approach: he concentrates more on his Zoom students.

“Because it’s so easy to lose engagement with those students,” Lynch says. “Because minutes in the class I don’t know if they’re still paying attention, so it’s making sure and checking in on those students. They take my priority.”

Another teacher in the Seton Catholic network, Elizabeth Aviles, says concurrent teaching has pushed her to up the entertainment factor.

“On our end, I feel like we’re entertainers and we’re constantly that Youtube persona, trying to keep them engaged,” Aviles says.

In Aviles’ classroom at St. Rafael in Milwaukee, in-person students do get face-to-face attention from teachers but they spend much of their lessons on their computers.

Emily Files
St. Rafael eighth grade teacher Elizabeth Aviles leads much of English lesson standing at the computer, where she can see responses from both her virtual and in-person students.

On a recent morning, Aviles was leading a lesson on the play A Raisin in the Sun.

“First thing’s first, I want your reaction on our friend George, the new character." she says. “In the chat box, let me know how are you feeling about this character so far.”

Both virtual and in-person students send their responses using the Zoom chat box feature. Later, Aviles has virtual and in-person students work together in Zoom breakout rooms.

Aviles also serves as a coach for other teachers in her school. She says this year has been hard on them.

“It’s been a lot of teaching teachers how to have patience with themselves and their students because teachers are overachievers, and sometimes we can be too hard on ourselves,” Aviles says. “So it was having conversations of, 'You’re doing the best you can.'”

As the end of the pandemic school year approaches, teachers and principals are thinking about next year. Will schools have to continue offering a virtual option?

If they do, many teachers are hoping schools will find a different model, rather than expecting educators to continue teaching to both the room and the Zoom.

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