15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year: #8 Tech Play Before Academics

Think about a time you introduced a new tool to your students. Perhaps you’re thinking about the time you taught them how to change their backgrounds on Zoom? Maybe you’re thinking about the time you first handed them a personal white board and dry erase marker? Some of you might be thinking about the time you introduced Google Drawing or even new colored pencils to your class. Whatever it is you’re thinking about, consider how students first responded. In my close to two decades of teaching children, never have I experienced handing a new tool to a class of children (whether it be in-person or digitally from a distance), and then having all of them look at me with their hands perfectly still and voices off waiting for instructions on how to use the tool…

They’re kids! Of course we don’t expect that to happen! I don’t even expect that to happen when I’m working with adults! Kids want to play, experiment, discover these cool new tools on their own! In fact, whenever someone hands me a new device or introduces me to a new digital tool, my brain immediately turns to what I want to do- it rarely focuses awaiting directions from the more knowledgable person.

In the year ahead, we are going to teach using so many new tools. We’re going to ask our children to learn using methods that are completely unfamiliar to them (and many of us!). It is not reasonable, nor is it an effective teaching practice to introduce a new digital tool to students and not give them free exploration and play time with that new tool before using it for academic purposes.

For Example…

Consider the turn and talk between a learning partnership for a moment. This is a small teaching method that holds a massive amount of power. Not only does it allow students a safe and secure environment to voice their thoughts, opinions and questions, but also it affords many students the opportunity to listen and grow their thinking while pondering their partner’s ideas. But, how do we introduce this simple in-person idea digitally, and how do we prepare students to use this important tool all year long?

In a workshop a few weeks ago given by Mike Flynn, my mind was blown! I finally learned how to support my students using the turn and talk method over Zoom. Here are the basic steps (and yes, I am going to tie it back to the idea of play in a moment)…

  1. While in a Zoom meeting with students, open a new tab or window in your internet browser. Pull up this Google Doc (Feel free to make a copy of the doc and edit it for your needs. Make sure the share settings of your doc open it to all students).
  2. Share your screen with students so they will be able to see the Turn and Talk/Type Google Doc. Explain to them how to use the doc: Partnerships first locate their row. Partner A types their thoughts in the left column while partner B types their thoughts in the right column. They then read each other’s thoughts and respond. The cool thing is, all kids in class now have access to everyone’s thoughts!
  3. Copy and paste the link to the Turn and Talk/Type Google Doc in the chat box so students can access it.
  4. Remind students who their partners are (only if necessary), and then invite them to Turn and Talk/Type. If students choose, they can also write in the doc by using voice to text in Google docs. This is a fantastic feature in Google docs that provides more accessibility. As a writer myself, I actually use it quite often! If Google Doc’s voice to text capability is new to you, learn more about it here.
  5. Obviously, this will not be a typical 30 second turn and talk. It will take a little bit longer, but once our students become accustomed to it, the more efficient everyone’s use with the tool will become.

So, here is where the play comes in… before this tool is used for academics, students should be invited to have some fun with it! In fact, during the first week of school, they should only have fun with it! It can even be used as a fun way to continue building your community by learning more about each other. If you need some help coming up with fun questions or prompts for students to ponder, start simple. Starting out simple is always a good idea to engage everyone. Perhaps consider some of these questions/prompts.

  • What is one thing you read or watched this summer and enjoyed?
  • What is your favorite dessert- why?
  • Which is the superior food- pizza or spaghetti?
  • What would you rather be doing right now? So, some teachers may not approve of this one- but, I think it will at least make the kids laugh! For example, I’d rather be at the beach right now!

You get the picture. Fun before academics not only to teach efficient and proper use of new tech tools, but also to continue to build your classroom community. Having fun with the turn and talk/type is just one example.

As an aside, I highly recommend taking Mike Flynn’s self paced Distance Learning Course. Mike offers many practical ideas and tidbits of distance learning advice- plus, the price is a complete steal for what you get!

Post #9 is coming up tomorrow! Tomorrow’s writing will discuss embracing the power of conferring right away.

All posts in this blog series will be housed here: 15 lessons learned for the 2020-21 School Year, July 20-August 7th Click on the follow this blog link to have the posts delivered to your inbox each day, or check back tomorrow!

15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year: #7 Establishing Routines for Learning

After starting to establish relationships with students, perhaps the next most important action we can start to work toward is establishing predictable and consistent, yet flexible routines and procedures for learning.

When routines are in place and understood by all involved, it’s much easier for a seamless school day to take place. I’ll never forget the day I learned the importance of the routine of clearly writing the schedule on the board in the morning in the same place each day. It went something like this…

I arrived to school a little bit later than usual one day. I didn’t have the chance to write the schedule on the board before I opened the door for my students. I set a few things up and then opened the door to greet students as they arrived to school.

Henry walked in first. “Good morning, Henry!”

“Good morning, Ms. Nosek! Umm… where’s the schedule?”

“Oh, I arrived a little later than usual today. I’ll write it down once everyone is settled in.”

Then, came Ella. “Good morning, Ella!”

“Hi, Ms. Nosek!” She walks a little bit farther in the room. “Wait, Ms. Nosek, you forgot the schedule!”

“I’m on it!” I responded. “Don’t worry.”

Antonio followed Ella. “Good morning, Antonio!”

“Ms. Nosek, the schedule. What are we doing today?”

And so on…

And, with that, I never forgot to write down the schedule again. I didn’t realize how important the routine of walking in and glancing at the written schedule was to my students. I quickly learned that day!

Kids thrive on a predictable routine, and as a teacher, so do I. There should always be room for flexibility, as you never know what might need to be adjusted as the day goes on, but having consistent and predictable routines in place can only set everyone involved up for success.

So, what does this look like with distance learning?

My Goal

When thinking about what this will look like for distance learning, I realize much of it can actually look the same. For example, that ever important schedule written on the white board can be shared at the beginning of each day and referred back to again throughout the remainder of the day with a shared Google doc or on the school learning management system (LMS).

So, my goal is to create a predictable system of routines and procedures with students from the get go. I’m just going to do it from a distance. I know I can definitely make this happen for my students.

One Thing I’m Planning From the Start

While there are countless routines and procedures in place throughout a school year to support teaching and learning, only a few should be introduced and practiced at a time in order for them to stick. Once a few are introduced and practiced over a few day period, then a few more can be introduced and practiced. Here is one routine I’m thinking about for the first week of school…

Personal greetings each morning and independent choice reading were how I started every single day in the in-person classroom. I would stand at the door and greet every student as they entered the room. Students would then settle in and start reading a book or other piece of reading material of their choice. This was a relaxing and productive way to start each and every school day. I learned about starting school this way, as a soft start, from Sara Ahmed and Smokey Daniel’s book Upstanders. I now realize I can do the same exact thing from a distance!

One of the safety measures every teacher at my school uses is the Zoom waiting room. Not only does this allow us to monitor who comes in the room, but also, because we have the ability to let students into the room one at a time, it allows us to individually greet and briefly chat with every person who enters. While entering the Zoom meeting room this way takes a longer time, it also allows us to acknowledge and truly see each of our students at the start of each day. It allows us to have a quick personal connection with everyone before the meeting starts. At the end of our time together on the first day I school, I imagine I will share and thoroughly explain something like this with students…

By chatting about this procedure at the end of the first day and then practicing it starting on the second day of school, students will start each school day in a predictable and hopefully comforting manner. Eventually, after a few days, not only will the routine be in place, but also the start of a reading community will be born! It should be noted that this independent reading time is only the first of the day. There will be an instructional reading workshop time later in the day as well.

Starting with just one or two consistent and predictable procedures and routines will support our students (and ourselves as teachers) in starting the school year off on a positive and hopefully comfortable note. Not much about our lives has been predictable over the past few months. Something like this is just a small start to a positive change, but can possibly be a powerful one.

Post #8 is coming up on Thursday! Thursday’s writing will discuss the power of play before academics when it comes to tech use.

All posts in this blog series will be housed here: 15 lessons learned for the 2020-21 School Year, July 20-August 7th Click on the follow this blog link to have the posts delivered to your inbox each day, or check back tomorrow!

15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year: #6 Building Community on the First Couple Days of School

In past years, the first day of school has always been joyous- the anticipation of a new year, and in the case of my students, the final year of their elementary school journey. I loved throwing open the classroom door to see my students’ eager and nervous faces lining up ready to start the first day of their final year of elementary school. At my school, as I discussed a bit in post #3, our parent community was always welcome on campus. So, after my new fifth graders walked into the room and met me and each other in our first morning circle, I looked to the large group of parents gathered trying to steal a final glance at their little big kid as they started their final year in elementary school. “Families, you have one minute, come in and join us.” The fifth grade families, not expecting the invitation, eagerly came into the room and lined up along the side wall as I started our first of 180 morning circles. After we all introduced ourselves in the circle, we waved goodbye to the other adults in the room, and the first day of school was well underway.

This year will be different.

Hopes & Guiding Questions

One thing that I found difficult this past spring was following a mostly asynchronous model. In that model students watched videos and completed school work on their own time rather than spending most of their school day interacting with other people- this caused feelings of isolation and disconnectedness for many of my students. While there is still room for some asynchronous work, I really am hoping the majority of our school time can be synchronous, interactive in real time, to try to build community. I’ve been keeping two questions at the center of my thinking for planning those ever important first couple days of school.

I searched the internet and chatted with many of my teacher friends around these two questions. The amount of new technology and ideas online is just incredibly overwhelming- at least to me it is. So, for the first few weeks of school, and perhaps longer, I’m keeping it simple with technology.

Two Simple Things I’m Going to Try Using Zoom & Google

Using the familiar and friendly-to-me-and-my-students tools of Zoom and Google, I have two ideas so far for the first day of school: 4 Slide Wordless Intros and What do We Have in Common?

Word of caution- if you’re looking for tech hacks and how to use other tools, this is not the blog for you. There are dozens, probably hundreds, of great blogs that beautifully serve that purpose! My method is simple- stick to two known basic tools to start the first few weeks and slowly build as the school year goes on. Again, the point is authentic connection with students from the start, not demonstration of advanced technology skills. So, for now, I’m keeping the tech very simple and to what I know is easily accessible for all of my students and fairly reasonable to complete within 30-45 minutes at the most without much new teaching needed.

4 Slide Wordless Intro: I know my incoming 5th graders are already familiar with Zoom and Google Slides, so both tools can be heavily relied on the first few days of school without much new tech know-how needed. In the 4 Slide Wordless Intro, the idea is that students will create a simple, visual introduction about themselves. This is something I plan to share in our whole group Zoom morning meeting on the first day of school. Here’s how I envision it going-

1. I will first share my 4 Slide Wordless Intro with Students so they can both get to know a little bit more about me and see what the end product may look like. I plan to keep it simple- as teachers we tend to want to add flash and lots of graphics, but I often think that backfires on us as it can look just overwhelming to some students. Plus, this project is not meant to be a video or stand alone item that’s passively viewed. The point of this is for students to verbally share the story of each of their images, so that’s what I’m going to model when I share my finished project. When I share each slide, I will tell a little bit about the picture that is displayed. Remember, the point of this isn’t to show off my tech skills and make something inaccessible or overwhelming, it’s to allow students to get to know me on a human level. Then, in turn, it’s for them to get to know each other. Here is what this might look like in a live meeting with students. My plan is to deliver this lesson live in Zoom by sharing my screen (this video is only to show how it may go, it won’t replace the live instruction). Again, I have a dual goal: share myself with my students and model how this may look when they create and share their intros. No flash, pizazz, scripts, or special effects- just me sharing myself with my students.

2. Then, I’m going to invite students to spend 30-45 minutes or so creating their own 4 Slide Wordless Intro using this Google Slides Template. My goal is for students to keep Zoom open while they are working in Google Slides in a separate tab or window. I then plan to invite students into a breakout rooms so I can confer with them about how it’s going and to offer support where needed. Because I’ll be conferring with students while they are creating their slides, I’ll be able to provide support as needed. Some students may benefit from sentence stems to build their talking points, some may need support uploading photos, and others just may need a few words of encouragement or questions to help their thinking along. The magic of teaching really comes after the lesson itself and during small group and conferring time. This is where we can provide individualized support.

3. The next day in class, once students are finished creating their 4 Slide Wordless Intro, I plan to give them about 10 minutes to review their slides and what they plan to say. Then, each student will be invited to share their screen with us in Zoom and tell us the story of each of their slides. After students share, others will be invited to ask questions and even share connections. The goal is to start to build community by getting to know each other.

4. With student permission, we will house each of their intros on a class Padlet or Google doc in our online learning management system (my school’s is Schoology). If students prefer not to share their intro slides on the shared Padlet or doc, they won’t have to. Students deserve voice and choice in what is shared or displayed. This activity will hopefully help all of us get to know each other a little better from a distance. Another great thing about this activity is that we will save the slides and revisit them every few weeks. With each new visit and revision session, students can change or add images, add music or voice tracks, and fancy up the tech as we all learn more!

Again, for day one we are keeping things simple and accessible for all.

What do we have in common? Another activity I love engaging with on the first day of school is a simple discussion activity called What do we have in common? During in-person school, students would engage in this activity in their table groups of 5-6 kids. Their task was simple: In 10 minutes, find out as may things as possible that your group has in common. The kids loved this activity in class, and I’m looking forward to trying it using Zoom breakout rooms. While the kids are in their 10 minute breakout groups, I will bounce in and out of each to provide support or more likely to just listen in. No fancy tech or use of anything outside of Zoom is needed here except a piece of paper that a group notetaker will use to capture everything they all have in common. To get things started I usually challenge students to find 5 things they all have in common and if time is left see if they can find more. Then, at the end of the 10 minutes, we’ll all come back together in the Zoom main room to share all that we discovered we have in common. Some past responses have been…

  • We’re all 5th graders.
  • We’re all the oldest sibling.
  • We all were born outside of California.
  • We all love sushi.
  • We all play soccer.
  • We all speak two languages.
  • We all love video games.
  • We all have read a many of the Diary of the Wimpy Kid books.
  • All of us were born in the spring.
  • All of us love math.
  • All of us have a pet.
  • etc…

I plan to do this activity each day of our first week of school, but to place the kids in different groups each day so they can get to know or talk with each of their classmates in a smaller group to get to know them a bit more and to become a bit more comfortable in our community.

Whether you plan to also use these two community building activities or others, I hope all of us just keep our students at the center and not get too lost or wrapped up in tech. We’re teachers of students, not technology. We all have to use tech in ways that we have never imagined before, but tech should support us in building community and getting to know our students on a human level. It should not become the focal point of our community taking away from the people we serve as teachers.

Post #7 is coming up on Wednesday! I’m taking a blogging break on Tuesday. Wednesday’s writing will discuss establishing routines for seamless communication and learning.

All posts in this blog series will be housed here: 15 lessons learned for the 2020-21 School Year, July 20-August 7th Click on the follow this blog link to have the posts delivered to your inbox each day, or check back tomorrow!

15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year: #5 Continue to Nurture the Most Important Relationships in Your Life

Quote from Misty Copeland. Image is my own of my parents.

This is my absolute favorite picture of my parents. It must be at least 15 years old- it’s the one I cherish most. I snapped this photo in the backyard of the house I grew up in. My parents have since moved a five hour drive away. It’s tough not being physically close to them right now, but we’re trying to make the most of it. I’ll never forget the look on their faces when I first FaceTimed them back in March while I was going for a walk in one of our favorite local places. Even though we are physically apart, we are still working to intentionally support each other during this tough time.

There really isn’t anything more important in our lives than our relationships with those who we love. Whether it be a partner, parents, children, siblings, close extended family, or friends who are like family, our connections with our loved ones are truly everything- especially now. If you’re like me, the majority of your loved ones live far away, and you find yourself feeling the pull of wanting to be closer. If you’re like many of my close friends, you live with the most important people in your life under the same roof and are trying to balance work life and family life. Both positions are so tough to be in right now, so relationship building and maintaining has to be a bit more intentional these days.

Mistakes I Made in the Spring of 2020

Perhaps the biggest mistake I made in the spring of 2020 was that many of my interactions with my loved ones centered around fear and worry. Understandably, many of our conversations and time spent together focused on the current state of the world. Now, I’m not saying to ignore the state of the world, but I am intentionally working on making my time with loved ones memorable and not always worry-centered.

Also, I just worked way too much and did not leave enough time for myself and my relationships. See post #1 in the series.

What I’ll Do Moving Forward As the School Year Begins

My biggest goal once school starts again is to really compartmentalize my work life and my personal life. This is hard! It’s always something I’ve easily been able to do in the past, but teaching from home is just different. So, when I actually get to safely visit or talk with my family or my close friends I’m going to make the effort to keep work at work, or should I say keep work between the hours of 7:00 and 3:00. After 3:00 will strictly be time for me and my loved ones. Again, see post #1 in the series for more on that.

The one type of relationship I have no business giving advice or reflecting on is that of parent and child. I’m not a parent myself, and I firmly believe in only writing about what I have done or experienced myself. So, I sought out thoughts from some of my trusted friends who proudly have the dual role of parent and teacher.

Some Words from My Teacher-Parent Friends– a huge thank you to the friends who offered their honest thoughts for this piece- I wholeheartedly appreciate you!

“We’re all in this together. We need to stop worrying about our kids falling behind. Everyone is home together. Focus on who they are as people. Help them grow emotionally and foster the human connections they are able to have.”
-Katie, 5th grade teacher & parent of an incoming 6th grader

“I was trying to be really strong and not show my kids how anxious I was about the whole situation, but lately I’ve been trying to be open about my worries.  Not to scare them, but my daughter is anxious and I try to talk to her about how it’s okay to be worried, that I feel worried, too, and then we talk about the things I do when I’m worried that help me feel better.  We have talked about taking action, because agency helps with worry. As a result, she started making some digital art with inspirational sayings and having us post them.”
-Angie, reading specialist & parent of an incoming 5th grader and 1st grader

“The thing I’m most worried about as we begin school in the fall, is that we will not be able to do anything really well.  I worry that I will not be able to give my daughter the attention that she needs to help her focus on a second grade curriculum, and I worry that I won’t be able to perform as I’m meant to as a professional. There was a great cost to our family and our health this last spring as we tried to do everything. We were unable to find a balance in which family was valued as much as work. Because this summer has been filled with work preparing for the school year, it has been hard to nurture the relationships we had prior to Covid. I have made a pledge to myself that I will finish my school preparation this week and then spend the next two weeks focusing on our family relationship.  My daughter needs to get out of the house as much as I do, but unfortunately I’ve been tied to a computer.”
-Jenn, 5th grade teacher & parent of an incoming 2nd grader

“I worry about keeping my son out of school because of the pandemic and our high risk family. There is a chance he will be ok and be asymptomatic and never get sick, but it’s not a guarantee and what if his brother, dad or grandma get sick, how will he recover from that? Experiencing Kindergarten is such an important and special time in one’s life, but I know even if he does go, it will not be what it was. Right now, we are spending time together, reading together, baking together… who cares what the house looks like!”
-Stephanie, kindergarten teacher & parent of an incoming kindergartener, two year-old, and four month-old

“My youngest is in high school. Spring was rough because he missed his favorite time of the year—baseball season. He’s a pitcher on the school varsity baseball team. He loves playing but he also loves the social aspect of being on a team. We all don’t want our kiddos to spend too much time playing video games but I was very lenient about that when SIP began because the games are so social. He plays with friends and they’re talking and laughing the whole time. So video games provided a much needed social outlet. He is also spending time working out on his own and with coaches, taking the time to improve his play. Baseball is his passion so he’s putting time and energy into it. All kiddos benefit from having an outlet like he does. Encourage them to find an outlet, whether it’s athletics or art or music or whatever else they love.  This is a hard time for kiddos, they’re missing out on so much. Our family also loves playing board games. Take time to do stuff together!”
-Shawn, 3rd grade teacher & parent of an incoming senior

“I’ve been trying different approaches. At the end of the day, my relationship with my children is more important than any task or academic standard. And I try to recognize that sometimes we all just need a break. Apologize and own mistakes. Kids appreciate it and they are very quick to forgive.”
-Elsa, 4th grade teacher & parent of an incoming 1st grader and 3rd grader.

“This spring, we were just stressed as a family. The summer has been nice to try to recapture some sense of normalcy, whatever that can be right now. Right now, I’m going to work with my son so he can be as independent as possible once school starts up again while I’m teaching. As far as our three year-old goes, I don’t know how we’re going to make it work! We’re not worried about academics. We’re concerned about how our kids are feeling emotionally.”
Andy, 6th grade English teacher & parent of an incoming 3rd grader and a three year-old.

“When we lost my mother-in-law to COVID-19 in early April, crisis schooling was the last thing on my family’s list of priorities. Grandma Abrams’ passing gave me a perspective about schoolwork that I otherwise might not have had. I had to let go of my teacher-mother perfectionism, and I gave both myself and my children permission to fail. Yes, I had the Google Classroom app installed on my phone, and I tracked the progress of my older sons as I was more hands-on with my younger sons. But my youngest two children just never got to doing their P.E. and art assignments. No matter what, every day at 1pm, school was over for them, not just because I needed to do my own school work, but because they needed time outdoors and away from screens. Their report cards said “did not participate” in those categories. For one of my older sons, whose school went to pass/fail grading, he passed all his classes, but there were still some report card comments akin to “has great potential, but not giving maximum effort.” My older sons very clearly communicated to me that they did a lot of work and learned very little, and I believed them. If the work they’re doing is a mile wide and an inch deep, and if they can see through that, I will not take the medicine approach and tell them just to suck it up and get work done. This is a situation that calls us of all to be humane.

The saving grace for me was that in my department at CHS, we worked from the New York Times writing curriculum. I collaborated with my supervisor and some colleagues to construct lessons together. It really anchored me, and working on writing with students made me feel like a much better teacher. I could still confer with my students in Google Meet — office hours were in the evening, which works really well for eleventh and twelfth graders. I did a lot of work on weekends — much more than I would during “regular school.” And there were some days when it felt like all my husband and I did was pass off the caregiving baton and manage to eat dinner as a family. I think that my children got to see the “teacher” side of me, but I did not have much scheduled down time with them at all during remote school. I started waking up early to read and have some quiet time, and that helped me to nip resentments in the bud. It was the only scheduled down time that I could guarantee myself!”
-Oona, high school English teacher & parent of an incoming 3rd, 6th, 7th, and 9th grader.

Regardless of the types of relationships you have- whether it be with a partner, parent, child, sibling, close friend, trusted colleague, or other family member, relationships really are everything in life. Nothing is more important. We need those we love and time with those we love more than ever. Nothing else really matters.

Post #6 is coming up on Monday. Each post next week will explore those ever important first days of school. None of us have ever experienced a first day of school like we will experience in the coming weeks. I’m hoping next week’s posts can offer some ideas for practical ways to plan a strong first week from a distance.

All posts in this blog series will be housed here: 15 lessons learned for the 2020-21 School Year, July 20-August 7th Click on the follow this blog link to have the posts delivered to your inbox each day, or check back tomorrow!

15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year: #4 Lean on Colleagues & Professional Networks

Here’s my team. This was the day we went back into school to pack up our classrooms for the summer and now beyond.

If you’ve read the prior posts in this series, you’ll have probably noticed that I mention my fifth grade team quite a bit. Every single day, I think about how fortunate I am to work with a cohesive, collaborative, and supportive team. Not only are we teaching colleagues, but also we are close friends. We have the kind of friendship that feels like we’ve known each other forever. But, we’ve only been together as a team for four years (with a one year necessary grade level move and then move back). We’re the kind of grade level partners who have very different personalities and teaching styles, but who share the same exact educational values and philosophies. My team, Katie and Laura, are not only are my biggest cheerleaders, but also they’re the first people to push back on some of my ideas and challenge me to consider thinking about things in a different way. I appreciate them immensely. I wish everyone could have a Katie and Laura to work with. During our shelter in place, we talked on the phone or Zoomed daily. We laughed, cried, and problem solved together. I could not have done it without them.

This post is a little different than the first three posts in the series…

Mistakes I Made in the Spring of 2020 Something to Celebrate from the Spring of 2020

See what I did there? One of the things I can look back on about the spring of 2020 and wholeheartedly celebrate is that I heavily relied on my entire school team and they heavily relied on me. We all really worked well together, and we will continue to do so once school starts up again. In my post coming up on August 6th, I plan to share a little bit about how Katie, Laura, and I are planning to work as a grade level team to make the most of distance learning for our students. I’m really looking forward to sharing some of our ideas!

I do have to say, not only am I fortunate to have Katie and Laura, but I am incredibly lucky to have my entire school. My principal, teaching peers, and all of our support staff really leaned on each other, learned from each other, and wholeheartedly supported each other in this incredibly difficult work last spring. I am fortunate to be lead by a thoughtful principal and to work on such a supportive and open teaching staff. Last spring was hard. It would have been much more difficult without Katie, Laura, and the entire team of staff members at my school.

What I’ll Do Moving Forward As the School Year Begins What You Can Do if You’re on Your Own

See what I did there again? In talking with other colleagues from across the country, I fully recognize that not everyone has a collaborative or cohesive teaching team or supportive school leadership to lean on. I would have been lost this past spring without my team. But, I also have other networks in education who I seek out for support from as well. Educators need support and camaraderie right now more than ever before. Going it alone is terribly lonely and difficult- I know, I’ve been there in the past. So, if you do not have a Katie and Laura like I do, or even if you do and are looking to expand your professional network during these isolating times, you might consider one of these other options.

  • Join a professional network. I’ve been a member of NCTE (The National Council of Teachers of English) for seven years now. Throughout our shelter in place, NCTE has offered numerous online member gatherings, webinars, social hours, and so much more (learn more about NCTE’s events here). Plus, NCTE has many different caucuses, assemblies, and affiliate groups around different interests and missions in education. NCTE has been as much of a support to me as Laura and Katie have been. I’ve made so many professional connections and friendships over the years through NCTE. If you’re not a member yet, I cannot recommend membership enough! If you’re looking for support, you’ll find it with NCTE. Plus, the annual convention is my favorite weekend each year. It takes place every November, and is virtual this year (obviously).
  • Join a Twitter Chat. Twitter is much more than a hot bed of celebrity musings and government blunders. Believe it or not, I actually met my coauthor of To Know and Nurture a Reader, Kari Yates, in a Twitter chat- the G2Great Twitter chat to be exact! Eventually, we met in person- at one of the NCTE annual conventions no less! But, our writing partnership and friendship started online in a Twitter chat. So, I’m proof that the potential for creating valuable professional connections online is alive and very real. A Twitter chat is just what it sounds like- it’s a chat on Twitter around a common topic. Anyone with a Twitter account can join a Twitter chat (click here to learn how to get started with Twitter if it is new to you or here if you have a Twitter account, but need help using it). In addition to meeting my coauthor on a Twitter chat, I have learned a great deal about literacy education that I might not have learned otherwise. If Twitter chats are new to you, you can learn the ins and outs with this step by step resource or with this video. As a literacy teacher, there are three chats in particular that I highly recommend:

    #TCRWP chat led by the minds at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Wednesdays, 4:30pst

    #G2Great chat led by Dr. Mary Howard & team, Thursdays, 5:30pst. The #G2Great chat archives can be found here.

    #NCTEchat (of course!) led by different members of NCTE the third Sunday of each month, 5:00pst. An archive of NCTE chats can be found here.

    You can also seek out other educational chats by consulting this list. It’s a massive list! So, no matter your educational interest, there is a chat for you.

Until we can sit around the table to chat, laugh, and plan again in person, we’ll have phone calls, text messages, FaceTimes, and Zooms. When that won’t work out or if it’s not possible one day, I’ll have those extended professional networks that I’ve created for myself- especially through my membership with NCTE and connecting with other educators through Twitter. These are trying times for educators- probably the most trying we’ll ever experience. I think I can safely say that. It’s not the time to go it alone. It’s ok to lean on others right now. We all need each other more than ever before. And, if you aren’t sure where to start. Feel free to reach out. I’m here for you!

Post #5 is coming up tomorrow! Tomorrow’s writing will discuss the importance making time for family and friends once the school year starts.

All posts in this blog series will be housed here: 15 lessons learned for the 2020-21 School Year, July 20-August 7th Click on the follow this blog link to have the posts delivered to your inbox each day, or check back tomorrow!

15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year: #3 Predictable & Productive Communication with Caregivers

Quote from Nat Turner, Image is my own from Shoreline Park in Mountain View, CA

My school community is pretty unique. We sit right next to a big university, so we serve many of the university employee’s children. Many of our families both live and work within walking or biking distance of our school. Some can even hear the school bell from their living rooms! Because of this, lots of kids and families walk or bike to and from school and work each day. At my classroom’s front door when I greeted kids each morning, it was not uncommon to also wave and have quick conversations with former and current classroom parents as they headed off to work. As in many schools in California, my classroom door opened up to the outside- not to a hallway. Plus, my classroom is situated in the front of the school. So, I often saw all the comings and goings at the start and end of the school day. Casual conversation with students’ caregivers was the culture at my school. Much of my communication with families happened that way. In addition to regular casual communication, I also tried to send a weekly email update (if I’m being honest, it was more like every two or three weeks) to keep families informed. Communication with students’ caregivers was always pretty easy for me. Then, our school buildings shut down.

Before I get into the details of this post, I have to acknowledge that my school system provided a device (Chromebook in the case of my fifth graders) and internet connection for all of our students who needed it. In my classroom alone, I checked out 13 Chromebooks. I recognize our privilege here. I also have to say it shouldn’t be a privilege- it should be a right for all children in our society as a whole.

Mistakes I Made in the Spring of 2020

Once we were ordered to go full distance, I made three major mistakes in communication with classroom families and caregivers this past spring.

  1. After we shut down, I started emailing classroom families every single day to give updates and just check in. In fact, I even numbered the emails- Update from Ms. Nosek Day 1, Day 2, Day 3… Day 16. I thought I was being helpful, I really did! Then, I received an email response from one of my classroom dads for which I am so grateful.
    “Dear Christina- Thank you for the updates. I appreciate your constant communication, but I can’t keep up anymore. Can you send one weekly email instead of daily emails?” I was shocked! But, at the same time, I was so glad that someone finally said something! It never occurred to me that I might have been overwhelming my classroom parents or that I was clogging up their inboxes unnecessarily. In retrospect, I have no idea what I was thinking with those daily emails.
  2. In addition to sending too many emails, I used multiple methods for communicating with families instead of one. In my school system, we use eMail, Schoology, and UptoUs for family communication. After sending messages on Schoology and UptoUs with little response, I learned that most parents really only look in two places for messages- their eMail and their phones. So, I decide to stick with one method of communication- eMail. Despite advances with learning management systems (LMS), I’m finding that most caregivers prefer traditional forms of communication. This study from 2019 also found the same thing. While LMSs have their advantages, such as housing student assignments and learning materials in one place, they aren’t necessarily always the best answer for communication with families. Sometimes they are, in my case they weren’t.
  3. I constantly checked school email, even after work hours. I stressed out about responding to messages right away. If this was you, too, you might want to check out the first post in this series about self care. Almost no message ever needs an immediate response. Some require a quicker response than others, but rarely is anything so immediate that it requires a response right away.

What I’ll Do Moving Forward As the School Year Begins

Without being able to see my classroom families and with the goal of wanting to inform without overwhelm, here are three small changes my fifth grade team and I are putting into place come August.

  • Change #1: Meet the 5th Grade Team Zoom. We don’t exactly know when we will do this, but we imagine being able to do it the week before school starts. We want to just meet parents face to face (via Zoom), tell them a little bit about each of us, and then answer questions. We’re hoping this will give families both a little information and a little comfort as we begin the school year. My teaching team tries to do everything together- especially now, so it makes sense for us to hold a “meet the team” instead of a “meet the teacher.” But, there is no reason why an individual teacher can’t hold a solo session! In addition, we will likely have optional Zoom check-ins with families every few weeks.
  • Change #2: Be specific with families about my role as a teacher and their role as caregivers. This became very muddy and quite a challenge in the spring. To nobody’s fault at all, many families took on too much of the teaching responsibility while other families just didn’t know where or how to start. All of us were unexpectedly thrust into positions we’d never imagined having- expectations and roles were not defined at all. So, one thing my team and I have talked about is effectively communicating our expectations for our students’ caregivers and seeking out and listening to their expectations of us. All of this needs to be clearly and honestly communicated and defined from the beginning. If it’s not, miscommunications and misunderstandings are are likely to spiral. Since our students will be doing their learning away from us physically, communication about expectations and roles for everyone is absolutely critical.
  • Change #3: Clearly tell parents when and where to expect communication from me and the fifth grade team so they will not miss any messages. For this upcoming school year, my team decided to email weekly updates on the same day (to be determined still) each week. In that one email each week, families will see all necessary information and links for the week ahead- as much as possible to plan ahead. As all teachers know, it is not possible to effectively plan multiple days in advance. Good teaching is based on what happened the day or even moment before. In addition, we’ll house all email messages to families in one Google doc that will also be housed in a “Family Folder” in Schoology, our district’s LMS. So, it will be relatively easy to refer back to a message even well after they were sent. Your situation may be different. Perhaps families and caregivers may need a different method of communication. Whatever you choose, consistency and predictability is key!

I really missed seeing my school families almost as much as I missed seeing my students this past spring. Clear expectations, defined roles, and regularly scheduled consistent communication using one mode will have to do until we can greet each other and chat in person again. I’d love to hear some ideas you have for family communication- it’s more important now than ever before.

Post #4 is coming up tomorrow! Tomorrow’s writing will discuss the importance leaning on colleagues and professional networks during this difficult time.

All posts in this blog series will be housed here: 15 lessons learned for the 2020-21 School Year, July 20-August 7th Click on the follow this blog link to have the posts delivered to your inbox each day, or check back tomorrow!

15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year: #2 Build & Maintain Student Relationships Before Academics

Building and maintaining positive relationships with students is absolutely everything. Without trusting relationships, teaching will be less effective, students will be less engaged, and much of what we do will be for naught. I made mistakes with maintaining student relationships this past spring, and have intentionally made plans to build and maintain trusting relationships come August.

Mistakes I Made in the Spring of 2020

When reflecting on relationships with students this past spring, I can pinpoint two major mistakes I made once we started distance learning.

First, I made the assumption that since I had already built relationships with my students that we could get right to the business of learning. Honestly, I was so worried about academics that I didn’t really think about our relationships. This was a huge misstep.

Second, I did not do nearly enough to put systems into place to allow students to maintain and continue to build their relationships with each other. My relationship with students is important, but I came to realize that my students’ relationships with each other were of even more importance. Students need me, but distance learning clearly showed me that they need connection with each other even more.

What I’ll Do Moving Forward As the School Year Begins

My fifth grade team and I have spent a great deal of time talking about changes we will work to actively make at the start of the school year to foster relationship building with students from a distance. It’s much easier in person, but we have a few ideas we’re going to try out at a distance.

Idea #1 Before the start of our school year, we are going to try to safely (with a mask and physically distanced) visit each of our students either outdoors at their home or at an agreed upon meeting place near their home. Since we know we are going to be teaching at a distance through a computer, we want to meet each student in-person to casually chat, answer questions they may have, and get to know them before the school year starts. This will take time, but the time spent up front will only support everything we will try to do in the future.

Idea #2 Schedule twice weekly Fun Zooms with our classes. This will look different with different age groups. With my fifth graders, this was a huge hit in the spring, and we did not do it nearly enough! We need more connection through fun and joy right now that is not attached to academics at all. For example, my fifth grade level partner Laura loved playing MadLibs with her class. This is something they all laughed around and connected on each week. Students really enjoyed sharing their outside interests as well- one of my students played his guitar for us, another often shared her drawings, while another just wanted to chat about her annoyance with her younger sibling. This unstructured, free, fun time was always a welcome experience for all involved. It really helped us stay and feel connected with each other. So, instead of doing this every now and again, we’re going to schedule it at a regular time twice a week during school hours. Some weeks, we may even do it more!

Idea #3 Create many opportunities for students to build and maintain relationships with each other. Before we sheltered in place, I had systems in my classroom set up for group work and different partnerships throughout the school day. Every single school day prior to March 13th, students collaborated with multiple peers on an ongoing basis. This fell by the wayside when we were in crisis mode and following an asynchronous teaching model this past spring. Well, my fifth grade team and I are bringing back regularly scheduled, real-time human interaction for our kids- and ourselves! This was sorely missed in the spring. In July 28th’s post, I’ll go into much more detail about how we are going to make this happen from a distance, but for now, here are a two of our ideas.

  • Daily class Zoom morning meetings where students will have rotating morning partners for small group and whole group discussion. In these meetings, we plan to have casual conversation, read alouds, and play a game or two to start each day. Students will be able to both freely ask questions, offer ideas, and share stories.
  • Reading, writing, and math partnerships or trios for each learning unit. After our synchronous whole group mini lessons each day, students will break off to independently work offline, but they will all have their Zooms still open and computers within earshot in breakout rooms so they can easily ask questions or collaborate with their partners when needed. This will also allow us teachers to pop in and out of break out rooms for small group instruction and conferring during independent work time. More importantly, it will give students the opportunity to collaborate on their terms when they feel that they need it.

Idea #4 Regularly seek out, listen to, and apply feedback from students. One thing we do not do enough of in education is ask students how we’re doing and what they’d like to see more of in class. We rarely ask them how we’re making them feel and what they’d like to see change in school. I did not do this in the spring, but have made a habit of it in the past. This can be done through a Google Form survey or even a casual class discussion in the morning meeting. When we invite students to let us know how we’re doing as teachers and how they’re feeling as students, trust has the potential to exponentially grow, and relationships tend to become much stronger. But, not only should we ask them their opinion, we should also apply what they tell us. That’s key!

Here’s an example of a beginning of year survey and a mid-year student survey from last school year.

Idea #5 Allow students to get to know you, too! As teachers, we often make efforts to get to know students, but we should equally make an effort to allow students to get to know us. My students know me almost as well as my friends do, but in a more professional manner, of course. They all knew I was a massive Pearl Jam and San Jose Sharks fan, had a fear of flying, loved singing (poor kids heard me break out into song often!), and that I despised ants more than any other creature on Earth. These things may sound trivial, but opening up and allowing students to get to know me only made our relationships stronger. One rule of thumb I try to follow each year is to connect with each student around something outside of school. For example, with my students Eddie and Nicholas this year, we talked hockey all the time. My student Angela and I shared a fondness for cats. Elsa and I connected over a shared music interest while Vince and I talked ramen. You’d be surprised how much there is to discuss about ramen (unless you’re a ramen lover like Vince and me!). Making a point to find an outside of school connection with students goes a long way in relationship building, trust, and connection.

I’d love to hear some of your ideas for building relationships with students. What have you done in the past that has worked well? What are some new things you plan to do in our new teaching and learning landscape moving forward?

Further Resources

  • Book: Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy by Gholdy Muhammad, particularly chapter 3, Toward the Pursuit of Identity. My fifth grade team and I are reading and discussing this brilliant book over the summer. We are really examining how our literacy practices impact our students and what we should do differently. Chapter 3 is all about inviting in and honoring students’ identities in the classroom. By acknowledging and honoring our students identities, they will more likely feel safe, more likely trust us, and we will more likely be able to better build relationships with them that are authentic. I cannot recommend this book enough!
  • Book: No More Teaching Without Positive Relationships (disclaimer: I have not read this book myself yet, but I have learned a great deal from Heinemann’s Not This, But That series and heard this is a great new book, so it is high on my to-read list!)
  • Blog Post: Building Student Relationships Online from the NCTE Blog

Post #3 is coming up tomorrow! Tomorrow’s writing will explore the mistakes I made in the relationships with my students’ caregivers this past spring and how I plan to effectively communicate with students’ caregivers once the new school year starts in just a few weeks’ time.

All posts in this blog series will be housed here: 15 lessons learned for the 2020-21 School Year, July 20-August 7th Click on the follow this blog link to have the posts delivered to your inbox each day, or check back tomorrow!