Learning Gain #3: Listen to the Children

Last week, on the one year anniversary of teaching pandemic school, my fifth grade teaching colleagues and I invited our students to reflect on the past year. We asked our students to consider what they’ve learned, how they’ve grown, what they’ve missed, and even what they now understand that they didn’t understand 12 months ago. Our fifth graders were given space and time to share their thinking through writing.

Not one of our 64 fifth graders, 1/3 of whom are learning from home full-time while the other 2/3 are learning in a hybrid school environment, mentioned that they worried about “learning loss,” academic standards, or about keeping/catching up. Oddly, many adults removed from classrooms or direct work with children are loudly sharing concerns with anyone who will listen about our children falling behind an arbitrary benchmark or standard. These same adults have likely not asked any children to reflect and share their thinking.

Let’s listen to the children. I have gained quite a bit by listening to our fifth graders over the past few months. Here is what some of them had to say last week, on our one year anniversary of doing school during the pandemic…

On Themselves

  • “Through this pandemic, I have realized more about myself, from my personal preferences to how I think. I have learned a lot of life lessons, and now I know how to better cope with bad things that come my way. I think I have also become a better person, I’m more self-aware and persevering.”
  • “I think that I have learned to be patient, and I still am learning because the virus hasn’t stopped yet. One thing that I have realized about myself when I was stuck in quarantine was that music and singing could help with my anxiety. Music has really helped. I can always depend on my music.”
  • “I really miss what life was like before COVID-19, but I’ve grown during this time. I’ve learned how to have fun with myself and that I need to appreciate time with others. But it’s really good that I know how to enjoy my time alone. It’s ok to be alone sometimes.”
  • “I’ve learned that sometimes just making it through is an accomplishment. We should all feel accomplished.”

On Relationships

  • “I have learned to be grateful for what I have and to not take things for granted. I’m so grateful for my family. Other people have lost so much and I realize I am so fortunate to have my family. I will never take them for granted.”
  • “I’ve learned the importance of family, even if we drive each other crazy. They are the ones I love and care about. I need them just like they need me. We all need each other. Especially now. We are united, together, and a team.”
  • “I miss playing with my friends everyday. Even though I don’t get to see them in person I’m glad we have found other ways to do things together. I appreciate my friends more than ever.”
  • “This year has been filled with tears, laughter, and new friends. I met new people! I actually met new friends in school but in weird ways. It wasn’t like how I used to meet friends. I feel more confident to talk to new people now. Everybody needs friends and I see that now.”

On The World, Advocacy, and Change

  • “I’ve learned that the world is a really big place and a really small place. I’ve learned that it’s important to care about other people and other places in the world. That if I can help I should help. I want to help all people in the world.”
  • “I also think that I have learned how bad racism is, which makes me so mad and upset. I know I need to do something about it. I need to speak up. I will speak up.”
  • “I have realized that we need to adapt to our environment, it won’t adapt to us. But, I have also realized that if we want anything to change we have to do it together. We have to actually do something. Not just wait around for others because if everyone does that then nothing will actually change.”
  • “This pandemic has turned the world upside down, and once the vaccines are done, hopefully it will be turned back again. No matter what happens, it will always stay a little tilted from all the changes it has made to the way we live. It showed the human race how no matter what challenges we face, there is always a way to persevere. It showed us that even in the darkest tunnels, no matter how overwhelmed you feel, there will be light at the end.”

On Overcoming Obstacles

  • “I have also come to understand that we will face big problems in our life that we can’t always fix alone. We have to take them slow like a math problem that we don’t understand yet. And slowly, but surely our problem will start to get fixed. Not just like that, but it will fade away slowly with work. We can’t always solve the problems in our lives, but we have to try different ways to solve them and never give up. I know that these days are really hard for everybody, so we all have to try to make a difference.”
  • “Everything has been so hard. But I now realize that I can overcome hard things. It’s not easy, but it can be done. Sometimes I need to ask for help and sometimes I don’t. No matter how hard something feels I now know that it’s probably temporary. It’s ok if things are hard sometimes.”
  • “The pandemic has brought us problems, but also solutions, solutions that can carry on even after these days of troubles. Solutions that will make a difference even in the far, cloudy future where kids will be learning about how this year was one of the strangest humanity has seen. This year has taught everyone how easy our society can shatter, but also that we can put the pieces back together.”

On More Traditional Academics

  • “I learned things! I learned how to draw better and I learned more math! Which has surprised me and everyone around me! It’s inspired me to work harder. I know I don’t really need normal school to learn new things.”
  • “The pandemic has also shown me that I love to draw and I’m good at it. For example, in fourth grade I didn’t know how to draw, I didn’t even really try. When the pandemic started, I began to draw to fill the time. Now I enjoy drawing and have found it as one of my hobbies. It even helps me with my writing!”
  • “I learned a very important lesson. I learned that I can choose my own books. I don’t have to just read books others want me to read. That helped me so much. I actually like reading now.”
  • “I learned that school can be done anywhere. I miss going to my actual school, but I know I can learn from home. I actually kind of like it. I like doing math and writing at home. I never thought I’d say that.”

So, the next time someone makes claims about our children, ask them if they’ve given children the opportunity to reflect upon and share what they’ve learned and realized over these past 12 months. When we take the time to give our kids an opportunity to truly reflect on their feelings and learnings and express themselves, we can learn so much more than we could ever anticipate.

It’s time to listen to the kids. It’s long past time.

-Christina

All posts in this series can be found at this link.

Learning Gain #2: Blunders & Missteps Modeled

“I can’t hear you. I see you’re not muted, but I can’t hear you.” The images on the Zoom screen showed mouths moving and gestures of conversation, but I could not hear anyone on the other end.

Suddenly, messages started flooding the chat…
I can hear her, Ms. Nosek.
She sounds fine to me.
Ms. Nosek check your settings.
Are you connected to audio Ms. Nosek?

I started to grow a tad frazzled as we only had a short amount of time for the reading workshop ahead. The added pressure of seamlessly managing the tech know-how of Zoom meetings while simultaneously leading a reading workshop is real. Not only did I need to respond to student reading needs in the moment, but I also had to respond to tech-issues, often my own, in the moment as well.

The advice continued in the chat…
Remember this happened before.
What was it last time when this happened to Ms. Nosek?
Ms. Nosek, is your computer volume turned all the way down AGAIN?

I immediately looked down at my keyboard, repeatedly pushed the volume button, and watched the volume symbol on screen grow from zero to ten. Yep. That was it. My computer volume was once again turned all the way down and I didn’t realize it. I planted my hand on the familiar spot on my forehead, took a deep breath, and sighed, “Thank you, fifth graders. What would I do without you? Shall we start reading workshop now?” Then, a friendly, understanding response came my way…

“It’s ok Ms. Nosek. These things happen.”

If your teaching is anything like mine, you’ve made quite a few missteps and blunders this year. Not only have I continually made these flubs, but I have made them publicly, in front of my students and even their families on occasion due to being broadcast into some of their homes. However, the power of this lesson does not come from the blunder itself being made. Rather, the power comes from watching me, the teacher in charge, publicly make them, learn from them, and eventually bounce back.

Some of the missteps and blunders I’ve unintentionally modeled in front of my students have included accidentally ending the entire Zoom meeting instead of closing breakout rooms, allowing my own typos to go unedited on assignments while realizing it as I’m explaining said assignment, and even making a simple arithmetic error in front of everyone while modeling a strategy on how to add fractions with unlike denominators. In all of these instances, rather than trying to cover my tracks or make an excuse for the blunder, I named it, owned it, repaired it when I could, and moved on…

Some of these lessons from the blunders have been simple- make sure double check the button I’m about to click in the Zoom meeting before I click on it. Others have been a bit more impactful- when I speed through my work without rereading it, even as an adult who is well versed at doing school, errors are bound to go unfixed. So, be sure to always reread or double check my work. The public and often unintended modeling of noticing, naming, accepting, and then finding the remedy to the errors is where the power of the lesson resides.

After a few weeks together, I noticed students started going through the same process with their small blunders. When minor blunders were made, students would say things like, “Oh well. Let me just fix this and move on!” or “Oh, now I see. Got it.” The embarrassment and self-consciousness of school years past has transformed into a humble confidence of sorts. During this school year more than any other, students are granting themselves grace or are even partially celebrating their minor blunders and then are just moving on.

I’m not able to draw causation from my public unintentional modeling of my missteps and blunders, but I do wonder if this has had an impact on my students when they make a minor misstep as well. I wonder if my frequent publicly made blunders are putting students more at ease for when they make them. I may never have an answer, but I do know I will carry this thinking with me well past this school year.

Learning gained: blunders and missteps publicly modeled are a beautiful thing.

-Christina

Learning Gain #3 will describe the power of listening to our kids. Click on the follow button to have each post delivered to your inbox, or check back here in a few days! All posts in this series can be found at this link.

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, Blunders & Missteps 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

All posts in this series can be found at this link.

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: Blunders & Missteps Modeled
Learning Gain #3: Listen to the Children

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!

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!