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!

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

  1. Pingback: 15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year: A Blog Series | Christina Nosek Literacy

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