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!

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!

So, I took a risk…

This school year, I took a risk (which is so unlike me) by taking a slightly reduced teaching contract so I could open up more days to bring my deep love of literacy education to teachers in other schools and districts across the Bay Area and other parts of the West. I love teaching kids, but I equally love teaching teachers- I feel so incredibly fortunate to be able to do both. My schedule is already completely full for the year. Day one of working with teachers is this Monday! I am so excited for the opportunity to work with the teachers at Laurel School in Menlo Park… I’m looking forward to sharing these great books and discussing different ways to kick off and make the most of reading workshop for all students. I’m so grateful for this opportunity.  And, I’m now booking for the summer of 2020 and the 2020-21 school year!