Learning Gain #1: Friendship Found

During a meeting back in October with my fifth grade teaching partners and principal, I expressed that I was worried about one of my students. “I’m really concerned that Jill does not have a close friend in the current cohort. She needs that connection to feel safe,” We were working to place our students into cohorts of 10-12 kids each as we were moving from a full distance model of school to a hybrid model. In our hybrid model, students would remain with the same cohort of children for all activities both in and out of the classroom each day- they would learn together, eat together, and play together with no physical exposure to any other children at school. So, we spent quite a bit of time creating, rethinking, and then recreating our cohort placements. Ultimately, many of the placement decisions ended up being out of our control as we had to ensure siblings were in the same cohort time frames in addition to a few other considerations as well. So, we did not have as much flexibility as we would have liked.

On our first day back I was worried for Jill as her two closest friends were placed in a different cohort. The first hour and a half of the day went smoothly. We reacquainted ourselves with physically being back in school and of course read some great books! Around 9:30 that morning, I decided to bring my students outside for some unstructured extra play time. I figured that they had not been with other children in 8 months, so the more play time together, the better! As students moved into our designated play zone for the day (each cohort is assigned a rotating play zone everyday in order to stay physically distanced from other cohorts), I noticed Jill stayed back a ways and just observed the others. The rest of the kids quickly gathered together (at a safe distance of course) and started chatting. It looked like they were figuring out what to do. I’m a firm believer in allowing kids the space and freedom to structure their own play time, so I decided to hang back and just observe. As a little more time went on, the kids all moved into a game with jump ropes. They all grabbed ropes, helped tie a few together, and formed a line to take turns running into the spinning jump rope two at a time. It brought me immense joy to watch them giddily play together after months of being separated. However, Jill was still hanging back on her own.

As I was about to walk up to Jill to invite her to play with the other kids, Layla, another student in class, looked over and gleefully yelled, “Jill, what are you doing? Come play with us!” I took a step back and just looked at Jill. As she quickly glanced up from whatever she was staring at on the ground, a smile grew across her face, and she ran over to the other kids to join the jumping line. That’s all it took.

Every single day since, Jill’s cohort has played together like a family out at recess and during extra play time. All kids in the cohort of ten are always included. They do this completely on their own without my prompting. Instead of small groups of two or three children doing their own separate things, they always make it a point to play as a whole group. The ten of them, all coming from different friendship groups in previous grades, have become a caring and nurturing bubble of classmates. Not only do they continue to play together without my intervention, but they also share their personal poetry with each other, audibly laugh with each other in class (mostly at my frustration with tech issues!), and even resolve conflict with each other in a compassionate way. Our days are not always without conflict, but that conflict is now met with a layer of compassion that’s much deeper than I’ve ever previously observed as a teacher.

Someone recently asked me how I work to foster friendships in a hybrid model classroom. I honestly answered that the kids have done it themselves. They just needed the adult around them to get out of the way. Or, I should say, they needed the adult around them to give them the space to apply what they have learned and experienced as humans living in a pandemic to build relationships with the people around them. It didn’t matter that Jill wasn’t placed in a cohort with her best friends. What mattered on that first day back and still matters now is that the people with her value her as a fellow human being and she values them as well. Friendship was found in simple, beautiful ways because of our situation, not in spite of it. Imagine if I would have intervened with Jill that day. I would have taken away that feeling of acceptance she felt coming directly from the other kids. Adult intervention is definitely necessary at times, but more often than not, the kids just don’t need us- and we have to recognize what a beautiful thing that is! 

Interestingly, when chatting with students’ caregivers at our conferences a couple weeks ago, a few parents mentioned that they were concerned at first because their child’s close friend was placed in a different cohort, but that the concern quickly faded as new friendships were immediately formed. In talking with a few of my colleagues, they are also noticing the same level of new friendships blossoming as well.

Whether our kids are in a full distance, hybrid, or even back to a full classroom model of learning, one thing I know is true. Our kids have realized and prioritized the importance of friendships and relationships during this trying time- whether those relationships are developing in-person or online, human connection matters now more than it ever has before. Being physically away from others has really demonstrated how important we all are to one another.

We have gone through so much loss as a global community. Our children have not been spared from this loss. In these overwhelmingly difficult times, friendship, love, and compassion for each other have been found and fostered. It’s not perfect. After all, who has ever heard of a perfect friendship or a perfect love? But, it is real and it is perhaps more important than anything else. Authentic human relationships and budding or growing friendships have been shining lights in the darkness of this pandemic. Our kids see it, believe in it, and most importantly, act upon it. It’s time for us to follow their lead. 

Learning Gain #2 of this series, Mistakes Modeled, is coming out soon. Click on the follow button to have the post delivered to your inbox or check back here in a few days. Until then, follow the lead of our kids- they clearly know what they’re doing!

-Christina

Learning Gained: Understanding & Knowledge Found During a Year of Teaching Pandemic School

Close to one year ago, on March 13, 2020, my school along with many others across the country closed our physical buildings. We spent the remainder of that spring figuring out how to both teach students from a distance and navigate life in a pandemic. I took the lessons learned from that spring and paired it with reflection and study over the summer to write and share the blog series 15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year. When I wrote those 15 lessons, I had no idea the learning and knowledge my students, colleagues, and I would gain between August 17, 2020 (our first day of school) and now, about two-thirds of the way into this school year. We’ve not only gained knowledge and understanding about teaching and learning, but we have also gained many lessons about how to better care for ourselves and each other. From my perspective, nothing is more important.

Those removed from the actual work of educating our children have been crying “learning loss” for months. Their fear mongering and scare tactics have prompted many politicians and decision-makers long removed from the classroom to make hasty decisions and declarations about the schooling of our children. Frankly, I’m done listening to their nonsense. Enough of the deficit approach to education- it’s time to move forward with a different mindset. Not one more word of this post or upcoming blog series will even acknowledge that harmful, deficit-based noise.

In the coming days and weeks ahead, I am excited to share another blog series, Learning Gained: Understanding & Knowledge Found During a Year of Teaching Pandemic School. With this blog series, I plan to share the stories of my students’, my colleagues’, and my own learning over the past year. While so much has been lost in our world that we will never get back, namely dear family members, friends, and loved ones to the pandemic, we have also gained quite a bit. I’m excited to name and highlight some of those gains. I’m hoping this blog series will bring some much needed love, light, healing, and motivation to my fellow teachers and all others who choose to follow along.

Click on the follow button to have the posts in this series delivered to your inbox or check back here in a few days. Until then, take care of yourself and do something good for others.

-Christina

Learning Gain #1: Friendship Found
Learning Gain #2: Mistakes Modeled… coming soon!

Getting Books in Their Hands from a Distance: It Takes a Vision & a Village

This past Friday, teachers, aides, my principal, our secretary, our custodians, a crew of parents, and community members came together to make sure our close to 400 distance learning students in kindergarten through fifth grade have access to physical books to read for the next few weeks. In 5th grade, our students even chose their books! While we did not all physically come together, we were united by one mission- getting books in all of our students’ hands.

Now, I have to say that making this happen took a ton of work and an unwavering determination from many people. There are no hacks, tricks, or gimmicks involved. It took an organized effort from a lot of staff and volunteers and a principal who believes that kids need books. All kids.

You may approach the long list ahead of how we made this happen thinking this is way too much work for one or two people to complete- and you’d be correct. There is no way one or two people could make this happen in a timely manner. This was a school community-wide effort. Everyone chipped in to make it happen.

Our school mascot is the dolphin. I don’t know which staff member came up with this saying, but at the beginning of pandemic teaching in March, one of my colleagues came up with the following: Whatever the weather, dolphins swim together. And, it’s true. We do. We do because we are led by an unwavering and dedicated principal whose motto is we all teach all the children. Indeed, we do. We especially did for this massive effort.

I’m sharing our process with the hope that other teachers and administrators can read this with a lens of possibility. Our kids, all kids, need books. It should be a right. It should be the norm, not the exception. The vision of a few and a village of dedicated staff and volunteers made this happen. It can be done. It’s not easy, but it is possible.

Here’s how we did it…

1. Start with A Vision

My fifth grade team and I are departmentalizing this year. I’m the reading teacher for our entire group of students. I knew I had to somehow get choice books in our students’ hands in order to teach reading workshop. I also knew that the books would need to be safely rotated in and out of the classroom without students and families actually coming to school. We are not a traditional neighborhood school with all families in close proximity, some are, but not all. Our students are spread over a massive geographic area. So, I knew this would require a lot of driving. If you’re familiar with San Francisco Bay Area geography, in my classroom alone, I have students who reside in East Palo Alto, Los Altos Hills, Stanford, Redwood City, and in the southern end of Palo Alto. It’s a huge area to cover by car! Since I’m teaching all day long, I also knew I couldn’t be the one doing most of driving. I realized this would have to be a massive team effort. So, I took this idea to my principal as I knew she would gather all the necessary staff, PTA members, and community volunteers to make it come to life.

2. Enlist Others in the Vision

I told my team that I was going to start photographing all of our classroom library books in order for our students to have choice in what they read. Book choice is one of the tenets of solid reading instruction, so I knew I had to make this happen- even from a distance. My team was in support of my idea, so we got to work with the help of Liz and Carla, two of our amazing aides at school.

We also made intentional delivery plans with my principal. There are so many rules we have to follow, such as not having parents or volunteers on campus, so we knew that a group of staff members would eventually need to get these books to a group volunteer drivers. My principal was determined to make this work- and so were my colleagues. And, together we chatted with other staff members and started putting this vision into place. Our principal also started working with our school PTA in enlisting volunteer drivers for each grade level.

3. Create a Visual of Classroom Library Books

In 5th grade, it was very important to us to offer choice from the start. Not every grade level at school started this way, but everyone has the goal to eventually teach and offer choice over the coming weeks and months so students can have a say in the books that are delivered.

I safely (masked and always at a distance) worked with Liz to photograph our 5th grade libraries. Since photographing an entire classroom library would be a massive task and we were in a time crunch, we decided to just start with realistic fiction only for the photographs. We then put all the photographs on a Google slide show for students to view. More genres and sections of our libraries will be offered for choice later.

Images of the the photograph slideshow for student book browsing

4. Teach and Offer Choice

After our book slideshows were created, during one of our reading workshop Zoom sessions, I book talked a few books and authors, talked about book choice a bit (many more book choice lessons will be coming later), shared the realistic fiction library slideshow with our fifth graders, and invited them to make their selections using a Google form. Their choices were due the next day- book choice takes time and thought. It shouldn’t be rushed. We also encouraged the kids to talk with each other about their choices in Zoom breakout rooms and to search for more information about books that piqued their interest. A day later, we had a spreadsheet full of the choices the kids made.

Seen here is part of the survey we created for our students to make their choices. One of the final questions (not pictured), asks students to tell us anything they think we should know about them as readers in order to create their book stacks. So, while we could not exactly replicate in-person book choice, we came fairly close!

5. Create Book Stacks Based on Student Choices

This was the most time consuming task in the process, but it was also the most fun! Using the Google Form spreadsheet automatically generated from the Google form survey, we were able to gather our students’ choices and preferences into stacks.

As a side note- we were fully masked and gloved during the book gathering process- during this entire process actually. And it is important to state that our rooms are cleaned each day even though there are only one or two staff present at a time in a room (when two are present, we are always at least physically 6 ft apart and masked). All safety precautions are being strictly followed. Additionally, only the staff who feel safe/comfortable coming in to the building come in. Some staff did this work from home by communicating with other staff at school. I’m grateful our school district allows us the choice as professionals whether to work at home or at school during this time. It should be this way everywhere.

Back to the book choices… Not every student received their first or even second choice as we only have so many copies of each title, but everyone did receive books that matched some of their preferences and 3rd, 4th, and 5th choices.

On the form, I inserted another column titled Books Given Out (shaded blue in the image below) so we could track who was being lent which books.

A snapshot of part of our book choice spreadsheet with student names hidden for privacy
Four of us in three separate fifth grade classroom libraries started assembling stacks of books. Again, we were masked and remained physically distant during the entire process.

6. Teachers and Our Principal Emailed, Called, or Texted Families

We got in touch with families to let them know that books would be on the way and to enlist more volunteers at the same time. We already had a big crew of volunteers who were enlisted at the beginning of the process, but we needed more. Also, we needed to make sure we had permission from families to share their addresses with our volunteer drivers. Initially we had permission from most, but not all, so this involved some phone calls from teachers to gain permission to share addresses for book delivery. It is important to state that books were delivered with permission from families.

7. Our School Secretary Created Grade-Level Lists of Geographic-Based Student Addresses for Delivery

Since our students and families are spread over a big geographic area, our amazing secretary, Becky, worked to lump close addresses together for our volunteer drivers. This took a lot of work on Becky’s part! Once she did this, she distributed the lists to each grade level to start bagging and boxing our books for our volunteer drivers.

8. Teachers and Aides Bagged and Packed the Books in their Geographic-Based Boxes

Again, this was all completed following our safety protocols.

9. Staff Members Drove Boxes to Our Volunteers

Since it is not yet determined to be safe to invite volunteers and families onto our school campus, multiple staff members drove and dropped off boxes for our volunteer Book Fairies (I couldn’t resist with the name!). I drove to four different volunteers’ homes and dropped off boxes in a safe way- masked, contactless, and physically distanced the whole time. Other teachers and aides did the same.

After school on Friday, our principal and our custodian even got in on box delivery duties! Our custodian volunteered to use his truck to drive more boxes to more volunteers. They packed the bed of his truck with boxes and drove to safely drop book boxes off for volunteers to deliver. Again, it’s important to mention that everyone was masked and remained physically distant throughout this entire process. This could not have happened unless everyone involved agreed to follow our strict safety guidelines.

10. Our Volunteer Book Fairies, Parents, and Community Members, Delivered Books to 6-10 Students Each

One of the greatest parts of this process was receiving emails from our volunteers and from my students’ families about how much fun it was to deliver and receive books. Now, our kids have books that they chose for the next few weeks!

Next Steps

Honestly, all of our next steps have not been figured out yet. We do know that our students will once again choose books in a few weeks. We also know that we will go through the process again of packing up books and delivering them. When the new books are delivered by volunteers, students will hand back their current bag of books at the same time (following all safety protocols, of course). Once we receive back the current bag of books that students have, they will remain in book quarantine for a couple weeks before the next delivery.

Since we have a record of who has which books, we should easily be able to get most of the books back. However, I do know that we will likely not see some again. That’s what happens when books are lent out- and that’s ok. We knew that before embarking on this journey. We plan to go through this process as long as our students are distance learning. We know that will be at least through mid-October at my school and maybe longer depending on our county’s status as far as our state reopening requirements go. So, we could be doing this for the next month and a half or for the entire school year. We just don’t know.

The one important thing we do know is that kids need books. We took a vision, enlisted our village, and made it happen. We did this one step at a time. This can happen at any school. It takes the willingness of administration, the determination of staff, and the kindness of volunteers to see it through. It takes hours of work. It can be done. It is is worth every ounce of energy and hour of time that it took.

I hope sharing our process can help more kids get books in their hands.

15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year: #9 Prioritize Conferring from the Start

This is going to be a tough one to write. It’s going to be honest, and it isn’t going to be pretty. My goal as a teacher-writer isn’t to paint myself in a glowing light. Quite the contrary, in fact. My goal is to show myself as I truly am: a flawed but dedicated classroom teacher. I also happen to be someone with a deep passion for literacy education- such a passion that I even cowrote a book about conferring with readers. That’s why this is going to be a hard one to admit to…

Mistakes I Made in the Spring of 2020

I was an ineffective conferring teacher in April and May of 2020. It’s true. I just really didn’t know what to do. Like all of you, my world was completely turned upside down. If you’re a classroom teacher like me, you probably just didn’t know how to balance it all. My biggest concerns did not revolve around how to confer around reading…

Rather, I was mourning the very recent unexpected loss of a former student with my school community. Additionally, I was worried about my student Aiden’s family- his sister has serious health issues and the family moved to my area so she could be treated. I was also concerned about Angela- would she remember her school login and eventually join us in Zoom? I was deeply worried about Nate- the once happy-go-lucky chatty friend to all in our classroom had turned inward and just stopped talking. My nine months pregnant kindergarten buddy teacher and her family were constantly on my mind. Would they be ok through all this? My brother was also consistently in my thoughts. As a nurse in a busy San Francisco emergency department, was he in danger? Not only all this, but I was beside myself concerned about my parents. Will their age and health conditions put them in danger? When it came to the actual work of teaching, I was exhausting myself following my district’s directions of creating original videos every single day for my students. On a related note, I was often trying to mend my broken spirit when my equally exhausted students admitted they didn’t watch the video I sent that day or that they watched it at 2x speed. Plus, I was trying to keep up with 15-20 minute scheduled Zoom meetings with small groups of students that actually turned into emotional support time for all of us rather than instructional periods. Like all of you, I was trying to wrap my understanding around what a global pandemic was and how we even got there. To be completely honest, I was falling apart.

So, it’s true. I wasn’t even thinking about conferring. And, I forgive myself. You should forgive yourself, too. Actually, there is nothing to forgive. We were in crisis mode. Let’s all collectively grant each other some grace and move forward.

What I Plan to do in the Fall of 2020

Once school starts again, I plan to start conferring right away. Why? In retrospect, I honestly think a regular conferring practice would have actually worked wonders this past spring (not dwelling on it, just reflecting on it). It would have potentially given my students, and even me, some comfort, safe conversation, and an outlet of sorts.

In our 2018 book, To Know and Nurture a Reader: Conferring with Confidence and Joy, Kari Yates and I share that we believe at its simplest, a conference is a conversation between two readers. When we are fortunate to learn alongside teachers in person, we often share our belief that every child deserves a teacher who confers, and every teacher can develop a conferring practice that really works. All it takes is a little heart, tenacity, and a willingness to learn. This also applies from a distance- just a bit differently.

To be completely honest, conferring just isn’t the same over Zoom. Absolutely nothing can replace pulling up alongside a child in person, sitting shoulder to shoulder at the same level, leaning in asking, “May I join you,” and then engaging in a friendly in-person conversation around wonder, affirmation, and learning. Yet, there are things we can do from a distance to harness much of the power of conferring.

Instead of writing in paragraph form how I plan to confer with students this spring, I thought I’d create a more visually pleasing guide.

The guide below explains three different methods for conferring with students from a distance: After the Lesson Conferring, Scheduled Conferring, and Peer to Peer Conferring.

A larger version of this image can be found here.

By providing one on one time to engage with students myself, and encouraging them to do so with each other, I’m hoping students will feel more of a connection with me and with their peers than if I did not intentionally take steps to set up a conferring practice from a distance. Plus, the more I confer with students, the more I’ll really get to know what’s going- both in their school work and in their hearts. In our work together, Kari and I keep two key questions at the forefront of everything we do:

  1. What’s going on?
  2. How might I respond?

There really is no more powerful teaching move than kidwatching (Yetta Goodman, 1978, 2002) and responding. We won’t know how to respond until we’ve explored what’s going on. We can’t exactly fully engage in the traditional instructional move of kid watching from a distance, but we can still figure out what’s going on by conferring on a consistent basis. I plan to do this from the start once we’re back at school- even from a distance.

More Conferring Support from the To Know and Nurture a Reader Blog

Post #10 is coming up on Tuesday! Tuesday’s writing will discuss the big idea that Less is More in distance 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: #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!