Goodbye, Long Nights of Lesson Planning: The Secrets to Successful Virtual Co-Teaching

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Co-teaching can be an incredible asset for schools with few resources or staff. But what do you do if your co-teacher lives in another state?

In the summer of 2015, we (Zach, a fifth-year teacher in Memphis, Tennessee and Justin, an eighth-year teacher in Hartford, Connecticut) participated in the Hollyhock Fellowship Program, a two-year residential fellowship at the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching (CSET) at Stanford University that addresses the complicated educational realities that inner-city, early-career high school teachers face. Participants are clustered together in content areas and further divided into the particular courses they teach. Both of us taught an upper-level government and politics course, and quickly realized that we had common teaching practices that we wanted to hone and perfect.

Doing what normal teachers do, we commiserated around the unstable workload that we each experienced in our own contexts: grading, lesson planning, data analysis, ad hoc administrative requirements, and an assortment of additional educational woes. In our work together that summer, we decided to stop reinventing the wheel, and plan and execute similar core practices throughout the year.

Cue the first time either of us had ever embarked on a virtual co-teaching model. Here’s what we’ve learned along the way.

The First Year

In the first year of our virtual co-planning, we first wrote common assessments, then later common lesson plans and projects, before beginning video conferences to reflect on and edit our work. We discussed issues that we faced in each of our courses, identified trends, and problem-solved on potential solutions.

After a while, we began to film both ourselves and our students, shared the videos and tagged particular teacher/student moves in the classroom, and offered critical feedback. We both grew tremendously. We returned to Hollyhock in the summer of 2016 for a second time, fully confident that our experience with virtual co-planning had improved student achievement.

It was time to spread the love. In 2016, we invited two other teachers to join our “common class,” and expanded what we were collectively working on.

From a Pair of Virtual Co-Teachers to a Group

This year’s ambitions include flipping our classrooms to create more opportunities in the school day for collaborative application tasks. By utilizing this virtual co-teaching method and a host of online platforms, we are able to achieve the level of collaboration we were seeking. Here are some examples:

  • Using HyperDocs, we structure our course around a unified organizational system, divide the workload, and ensure that we create sufficient flexibility in our individual teaching schedules.
  • Besides teacher collaboration, we want to press our students to collaborate as much as their teachers. To facilitate student collaboration, we utilize the online platform Slack, a real-time message board, for our students to engage in safe and structured political discourse across the four classrooms—meaning across state lines.
  • Each week, students post, react, and upload media messages that are scored on a common rubric. In addition, students share their written essay work via Pathbrite, an e-portfolio platform perfectly designed for classrooms through their unique feedback tools. Students in one classroom are paired with partner “e-pals” in another class to score and provide weekly reflection on others’ work.
  • An example of student-to-student collaboration that is only possible because of intentional teacher-to-teacher collaboration is our Socratic seminars. Each unit of study is centered on a common essential question in which we assess via a structured socratic method. Each classroom films their discussion and uploads to Vialogues, a video discussion tool in which students tag their group’s discussion moves and missed opportunities.

The Power of Virtual Collaboration...

While having a professional learning network, or PLN, can be incredibly powerful, having a group of teachers with which you can virtually plan is even moreso. Our partnership has enriched our core instructional practices in both expected and unexpected ways.

More tools/resources: By sharing responsibilities for the design and development of curricular materials, we are building a more robust collection of tools than any one of us could have created while working alone. We not only have increased the volume of materials, but also the quality and diversity of resources. Our core classroom structure is a blend of our affinities for particular instructional practices, allowing each of us to specialize in the design of specific materials, like simulation tasks, primary and secondary sources, curated online content, and assessments.

More meaningful use and analysis of student data: Additionally, the availability of identical classroom materials, including common formative and summative assessments, has created multiple entry points for deep analysis of student performance. We now routinely norm our grading practices around selected student work to ensure that all students are held to an equally high level of academic rigor—one that we hope will adequately prepare them for the challenges of an Advanced Placement exam or a college-level government course. This practice permits meaningful analysis of student data, identification of trends in achievement, and opportunities to isolate and name best practices with a sample size greater than any one class.

More peer-to-peer student relationships: In addition to students benefitting from more rigorous curricular materials and higher quality instructional practices, we find that our students are operating with a greater sense of accountability. While the critical eyes of a close classmate or a teacher may inspire some commitment to quality work, nothing engenders higher stakes than a large audience of one’s peers. This structure of e-pals not only elevates the nature of academic discourse, but also forces them to process voices and viewpoints they would not otherwise encounter while learning in smaller, geographically-defined spaces.

...and the Challenges of Virtual Co-Teaching

While the benefits of this collaborative approach far exceed the drawbacks, the partnership is not without its challenges. For example, we do not share a common school calendar or bell schedule, so we are always mindful of when the other won’t be teaching, and make plans to adjust accordingly. Of course, this is further complicated by the panoply of interruptions that are inherent in the nature of schooling, such as state-standardized testing. We have addressed this issue, as best we can, by creating lesson structures that are both prescriptive and flexible—ensuring that our students have common experiences across days of instruction, but that pieces may be moved around to accommodate the inevitably unpredictable school calendar.

While the ability to draw on a rich assortment of pedagogical moves has unequivocally enriched our collective classroom practice, it has also required each of us to operate well outside of our comfort zones. As teachers, we frequently settle into instructional habits and routines that may not consistently meet the diverse learning styles of our students. While our approach is built on a philosophy of not deviating from a set of clearly defined instructional experiences, these experiences are inherently more diverse and dynamic than the ones each of us was developing before our partnership.

As we look at the year ahead, we are eager not only to improve our own practice, but also to share with others the principles of design that have fundamentally altered the nature of our work. It is our hope that, eventually, the ratio of student-to-student interaction in virtual spaces ultimately reflects the frequency of teacher-to-teacher collaboration. Who will be next to join us?

Justin Taylor is a social studies teacher in the Humanities Studies Program at Bulkeley High School in Hartford, Connecticut. Zach Seagle is a social studies teacher at the Soulsville Charter School in Memphis, Tennessee.

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