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Learning Clusters: An Educational Solution for Back-to-School 2020

 //  Sep 29, 2020

Learning Clusters: An Educational Solution for Back-to-School 2020

Diane Stephens is the co-author of Reading Revealed: 50 Expert Teachers Share What They Do and Why They Do It. In this blog post, Diane describes how learning clusters can be a solution for instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overall, virtual education, as implemented in the spring of 2020 in response to COVID-19, was a challenge on many levels. Students suffered the loss of socialization that school provides. Many of them learned very little content—especially those without access to computers or the internet. Other students could not focus on school because they needed to work to help support their families or take care of younger siblings so their parents could work. Teachers relied on parents and caregivers to make sure that students were doing what they were supposed to, which sometimes created tension at home. When teachers met with whole classes, the background noises in students’ homes made it difficult for teachers and children to hear each other. To address this, one kindergarten teacher muted all of her students and just called on the children who raised their hands. Some of the children—in tears—told their parents “she [the teacher] can’t hear me” and “I can’t hear my friends.”

We need students to succeed, so something must change.

In fall 2020, some school districts are implementing a blended model for grades K–5, where half the children attend school two days per week and the other half attend school the other two days. The two days that the students are not in the classroom are taught virtually. On the virtual days, there is no real-time contact with a teacher, and parents or caregivers essentially fill the role as teacher’s aides. Teachers have Fridays at home to plan for four days a week of in-person education and four days a week of virtual instruction. Other school districts have given K–5 families a choice: in-person classes or virtual education? Teachers’ roles are designated based on responses—some teach virtually and others meet with students every day in the classroom. High schools tend to operate either 100% in-person or 100% virtually.

Even an ideal virtual setting, where students have proper and equitable access to technology and learning materials, is an inadequate substitute for in-person instruction. However, because of COVID-19, in-person instruction in traditional school buildings is not consistently safe. A recent story reported that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association, about 70,630 new cases of coronavirus among children in the U.S. were reported from August 20 through September 3.

One potential solution I’ve been thinking about is to have smaller groups of students meet in self-contained settings. Many upper-middle class families are currently doing this, collaboratively, for their children. They pool their resources, hire a teacher, and the “class” meets at one of the participants’ homes. Schools could provide all students with this kind of low-risk, in-person education.

Here’s how learning clusters work. Each class divides into two self-contained learning clusters and meets in adjacent spaces. A teacher from the school district is responsible for the entire class. The district hires a teacher’s aide for each cluster. Teachers create curriculum, observe students systematically to determine their strengths and needs, and make plans for and carry out customized instruction. The teacher’s aide works collaboratively with the classroom teacher and implements pre-planned aspects of the day. The order of events in the learning clusters varies. For example, in K–5, one cluster might first have a read-aloud with the teacher’s aide and another might open with a mini-lesson with the teacher. Similarly, a secondary education level cluster could open with a speaker or media presentation, while the second cluster might begin with instructional time with the teacher. The teachers observe daily and provide feedback to teachers’ aides.

To further ensure safety, students and teachers enter and exit the learning environment via a door that leads not to a hallway, but directly outdoors. If the chosen space does not already have a bathroom, set up a portable toilet. Deliver meals and provide portable air conditioning and heating systems so that students and adults in the cluster are not exposed to air molecules coming from other spaces. Because many schools currently do not have classrooms with doors to the outside, districts may need to look for other spaces. Cabins, libraries, business buildings, portable classrooms, and hotel conference rooms that have direct access to the open air and are not currently in use are possibilities. Ideally, all spaces for learning clusters would be located in neighborhoods so students could walk to school. To secure funding, consider seeking federal grants, gather support from foundations, or lean on community partnerships.

A typical schedule for K–5 might look like this:

  • Morning meeting: A time for children and adults to check in with each other 
  • Read-aloud
  • Discussion about the read-aloud
  • Invitation/mini-lesson: A whole group engagement customized for each cluster
  • Independent reading: Students read books they choose while the teacher has one-on-one  reading conferences with students—which serve as formative assessments
  • Strategy share: Students talk about their book and share what they learned about themselves as readers
  • Independent time/snack: Students go outside if a safe outdoor environment is available
  • Math mini-lesson
  • Science with math built in: Students investigate topics of interest tied to district curriculum (teachers might also choose to focus on science one week and Social Studies the next)
  • Workshop debrief: Students discuss what and how they learned
  • Lunch (delivered)
  • Social Studies with math built in: Students investigate topics of interest tied to district curriculum (teachers might also choose to focus on Social Studies one week and science the next)
  • Workshop debrief
  • Writing workshop: Students work on academic or personal writing while teachers have one-on-one writing conferences with students—which serve as informal assessments
  • Afternoon meeting: Students and teachers reflect on the day and say goodbye

At the 6–12 level, the schedule looks much different. Students take a total of four courses per year and each course lasts nine weeks. These courses are offered mornings or afternoons. Students can choose to take only morning courses or only afternoon courses and thus go to school half days all year. Or they could choose to go full-time (morning and afternoon) for either fall or spring semesters. Courses are offered more than once a year. This allows students time to work or to provide other support for their families. Their schedule might look like this:

  • Morning/afternoon meeting
  • Catalyst: Teachers provide engagements, such as speakers or videos, designed to help students develop questions about topics they are studying
  • Instructional workshop: Students learn about content and how to conduct research
  • Break
  • Inquiry: Students conduct research about questions they have constructed
  • End-of-day meeting

Because of the decreased group size, if anyone within a cluster gets COVID-19, the number of people who have to quarantine is reduced. Teachers could then switch temporarily to virtual education, while keeping the same daily plan.

COVID-19 has greatly disrupted education and continues to affect students, educators, and families. Virtual learning is not working for the majority of students, and the learning clusters approach offers a potential solution. It is one of many ideas circulating about better ways to conduct classes. Although it presents its own challenges, including securing funding and finding sites to host classes, there are many benefits to bringing teachers and students together to learn. 

Implementing learning clusters:

  • Reduces the risks associated with COVID-19—for students, teachers, and their family members.   
  • Minimizes disruptions to the learning process if an individual develops COVID-19.
  • Provides in-person instruction.

Teaching in a pandemic is challenging; necessarily, educators are exploring varied approaches. Inevitably, instruction will look different district by district, state by state, and what works for one teacher or school may not work for another; however, learning clusters could provide the invaluable in-person learning that all students need and deserve.

Photo (c):jakkaje879/Shutterstock