This fall, K-12 leaders have needed to rethink their approaches to schooling in ways that would meet health protocols. Decisions on in-person, hybrid and fully online approaches to teaching were made prior to fall, but have been subject to constant change based on the current crisis.

One Washington, D.C. based school, Milton Gottesman, has caught the attention of both the D.C. Department of Education and the Association of Independent Maryland Schools because its innovative approach has been so successful.

“We’ve gotten amazing feedback from the students and parents,” said Ronit Greenstein, Director of Communications at Milton Gottesman. “Our approach has been a combination one. It’s what we call a ‘Virtual+ model.’”

Milton Gottesman, which serves more than 470 students from pre-K to 8th grade, enlisted an off-campus design team that worked over the summer and was tasked with optimizing virtual learning experiences. The school took feedback from students, parents and teachers alike to make for a thoughtful user-friendly model. The school saw the fall as an opportunity to be strategic and expand upon its learnings from the quick shift to online which occurred in the spring.

The Virtual+ model works by dividing classes into cohorts of 8 to 11 students on in-person days. This limits the number of students who interact with each other, as well as the number of teachers they have contact with. To accommodate this approach, the school needed to rent two offsite locations in addition to its two current campuses.

“We educate the whole child – the academic, social, emotional and spiritual,” Greenstein said. “We recognize that one of the reasons for our success aside from our unbelievably talented, dedicated, creative teachers when we had to pivot to online learning in the spring was the relationships they already had with their students. We didn’t want to start the year without that because we understood how integral that was to the success.”

With an understanding that online learning may be more challenging for younger students, the school has enlisted different online to offline learning day ratios based on age. Most 2nd to 8th grade students go in-person once a week on different campuses, with the other four days of learning occurring online. Pre-K and kindergarten students attend in-person four days a week, while first graders attend in-person twice a week.

For Rebecca Ravski, a 2nd grade teacher at Milton Gottesman, the start to the school year has presented some obstacles, but also opportunities to enlist creative strategies to ensure student engagement.

“Because there are so many social and emotional things happening with the kids at this point, we realized that this year was not going to be like any other year of teaching, and that we really needed to drive our teaching by looking at that social and emotional piece,” Ravski said. “Our in-person days are treated almost like camp and really geared toward that social emotional learning and team building.”

For second grade, the in-person days are taught on campus in ‘tents without walls’, essentially designated areas with an overhang. Ravski uses the tent days to get creative, doing read-a-louds with her kids and even dressing up as the character from the book they’re reading.

As a teacher in 2020, there’s a lot of planning involved, and different types of planning, Ravski said.

“Online planning for a lesson is much different than in-person learning and code switching for in person and online can be tricky because you have to think of so many materials and in different ways.”

Ravski also needs to account for a range of learners in her two pods, which present additional factors to consider. Students with diagnosed reading disabilities, diagnosed behavior ADHD and ADD and one student with a visual disability are a part of Ravski’s class and require additional aids in the learning process.

“One thing I realized is because our 2nd graders lost so much time last year, as everyone did, even though they were on Zoom, their reading is not where it should be, or where my kids were last year.”

To account for this, Ravski has added images and helpful icons to her Google Classroom to help her kids better navigate what they need to be looking at. She’s also enlisted some creative strategies and choice-based activities to keep her students engaged while they learn online via Zoom.

“We’re also doing a lot of choice boards. The choice board takes into account the different modalities of learning – kids can draw, read, dance, do a math challenge, help others, write, do a spelling challenge or do free choice. Some of it is fun and some of it is geared toward what we’ve done in class.”

Ravski also noted the importance of incorporating movement breaks when online teaching, using GoNoodle which her kids love. She’s also using Flipgrid for student engagement and Screencastify as a way to make videos.

Ravski said she is using a lot of videos to fuel engagement. For example, she has her class do a read-a-loud to a book online. After listening to it, the students then use Flipgrid and create and share a video of their responses to it.

“There are so many possibilities. I’m not very tech savvy, but now I’ve now created Bitmoji classrooms, a Bitmoji library with tons of books and resources for the kids. I’ve created a Bitmoji app for the kids, and now we’re creating choice boards all the time. For me as an educator and an ongoing learner, a life-long learner, it has opened my eyes to things we can do and we can do them now because we need to do them now but we can do them in the future to be better educators,” she said.

Ravski said she’s amazed at how many more resources are now online for kids due to the shift to online learning.

“The amount of books that have been put online is incredible. It wasn’t there before [the pandemic] and now they have access to so many books they can now enjoy via Safetube.”

Ravski said she’s already been thinking about the technologies that she’s embedded in her teaching process that are here to stay and she can incorporate post-pandemic.

“All of the kids have their own Chromebooks, so there are opportunities to do handwriting via a Bitmoji classroom instead of me ‘speaking at them’ during an asynchronous learning time.”

Milton Gottesman presents one use case of technology being incorporated to continue to engage students creatively in what can easily be defined as trying times.

With so many technologies available now, we’re here to help guide you as well on ones that could be useful. Additionally, accounting for the needs of students with disability requirements is also critical during this time. Feel free to check out our Live Room tool which can help these K-12 students.