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!

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

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

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

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

Mistakes I Made in the Spring of 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mistakes I Made in the Spring of 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Resources

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

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

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