15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year: The Final Four

It’s real. I’m officially teaching a new group of fifth graders from a distance. My goal was to finish this series two weeks ago, but as many of you know, working as a full-time classroom teacher is time intensive work! Much of the time, things we set out to do take much longer than anticipated. So, I made the choice to abbreviate the final four lessons into one blog post.

Here are the 11 lessons that led up to my first day of school…

And, this now leads me to the final four: The final four lessons learned and applied last week, which was my first week of school. These final four lessons are overarching big ideas. All four lessons are going to get me through the challenges to come, and my hope is that they can help you, too.

Lesson #12: Use Your Time Wisely

Without students physically in front of me, I’ve found that I can easily become distracted. Since my goal is to put a hard stop to my work day at 3pm each day, I know I have to use all of my time wisely. This past week, I’m happy to say I did just that. The biggest time suck for me in these strange times has been social media- Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. So, during the school day, I avoid them.

Additionally, I’m also a fan of lists. I make a list each day and check items off as I complete them. There is nothing quite as satisfying as crossing items off a list and watching the to-do’s shrink. Sounds simplistic, but sometimes the simplest solutions are the ones that work the best.

Lesson #13: Consider Sharing the Work

My fifth grade team and I are sharing all of the work this school year. I let go of control and agreed with my teaching team to departmentalize. So, instead of teaching many lessons a day, I’m now only teaching one reading lesson to 66 students at once on Zoom. While I’m the main teacher, my 5th grade colleagues are also in the Zoom call acting as co-teachers. They handle all the tech issues and behind the scenes questions while I’m teaching. After the lesson is over, we all break into our homeroom classes and even smaller breakout room groups for independent work time based on the lesson. We like to think of it as an expanded and flexible workshop.

We didn’t know if this crazy idea would work, but we are finding that it is surpassing all of our expectations! I only have to prep and teach one lesson a day, I get support from my colleagues during that lesson, I have the privilege of acting as a support co-teacher in their lessons, and I get to save most of my energy for small groups and conferences. Most importantly, our students and their families have only given us positive feedback about our new learning system. Sharing the work has truly been a dream.

Lesson #14: Seek Out Feedback, Accept it, and Adjust

This is really hard work. Teaching from a distance is unlike anything I have ever done before. Because of it, I’m a new learner. I’m engaging in something to which I have no experience. Sure, I have two decades of teaching experience. But all of that was done in person and not during a pandemic.

What I know about being a new learner is that feedback is critical to growth. So, I’m seeking out feedback. I’m not seeking it from the experts, nor am I looking to them for advice. After all, there are no experts in this. This is new to all of us. None of us have ever done this before.

So, I’m seeking out feedback and even some advice from those who matter most- my students, my students’ families, and my colleagues. No one else matters. I’ve seen a lot of opinions on teacher social media about what schedules, norms, procedures, etc. should or shouldn’t be. But, all of this is new. No one is an expert here, so no one really knows what’s best. I’ve decided to ignore the opinions that are out there. Some of the experts would probably scoff at some of the things I’m choosing to do- and that’s ok. I’m the one doing it, not them. The only opinions that matter come from those three groups I serve: students, families, colleagues.

Feedback will come in the form of honest frequent conversations and opportunities to offer thoughts and ideas through Google forms, individual meetings, and email. It will not come from those who have never met my students. So, when in doubt, ask your students how it’s going for them. Don’t ask the experts. After all, there are no experts in this. I feel like I’m doing a good job, but I won’t truly know until the people that matter most give their feedback.

Lesson #15: Don’t Forget About #1

Mostly importantly, please take care of yourself this year. None of us can fully serve our children if we are not first serving ourselves. Don’t forget about Lesson #1 in the series: Prioritize Yourself. This is hard work- probably the hardest work any of us will ever face. The only way we can take it on and serve our students in the way they deserve is if we take care of ourselves first. We got this. You got this.

I hope my 15 lessons were helpful. I’d love to hear some of your lessons as well. The catch phrase of the moment is true: We’re all in this together. Good luck, friends! We’re in for quite the adventure!

15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year: #11 Get Books in Their Hands ASAP

Friday, March 13, 2020

7:30 – My grade level team and I met in one of our classrooms for our usual early morning chat. “Think today will be the day?” We knew it was only a matter of time before our school district would make the call to close schools. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to say or think anymore.”

8:00 – I open the door for my fifth graders. Two families had already chosen on their own to keep their kids home from school. I notice only 20 kids were in class that day instead of the expected 22. Two more families must have made the choice to keep their kids home as well. However, the day started as usual. Kids came in, put their backpacks away, then settled in to our morning independent choice reading routine.

8:25 – My class moved into our morning circle, where we gathered shoulder to shoulder in a circle every morning after independent choice reading. The topic of our conversation in morning circle was this new Coronavirus. We heard a handful of people in our community (not our school, but the greater community) had been diagnosed with it. Lots of discussion ensued. Our day then went on as usual until recess time.

10:00 – I excused kids out to recess and immediately headed to my teaching partner’s room to chat. Rumors were spreading that we were going to close. Our county health commissioner was going to make an announcement in the 11:00 hour. Recess ended and the day went on as normal until just before lunch.

11:40 – “Ms. Nosek can we chat for a moment?” My principal popped her head in the door, I stepped in the hall. She asked if we could use my classroom for a mandatory staff meeting at lunch (being a 5th grade classroom, my furniture fits adults better than most. Plus, my room is out of view of the lunch area, so we could safely have a somewhat private staff meeting in there). I knew what was coming.

11:55 – I excused my students out to lunch, my colleagues slowly started piling into my classroom, and it happened. My principal announced we would be closed for four weeks. Little did we know we were closing for the remainder of the school year. She said many things to us in that meeting. I don’t remember them all. But, I do remember her saying, Make sure they have books.

12:30-2:30 – is a hazy blur. I remember talking with my students about closing. I remember telling them that I am so excited that we were all reuniting again exactly one month from that day on April 13th, which also happens to be my birthday (again, at the time none of us knew we were saying our final in-person goodbyes on that day). I checked out Chromebooks and chargers to a few. I remember supporting them each in picking 5-10 of my own classroom library books to take home. We said goodbye with hugs at 2:30- yes, I know we shouldn’t have hugged, but I really didn’t care at that point. And, that was that.

We then all engaged in figuring out distance learning for the next two and a half months… you might be wondering what this little timeline has to do with book access. Well, on March 13th, one of the last things I did was check out 183 of my own classroom library books to my kids. Those books were with my students, away from the protection of the classroom library for quite some time!

Did I get my books back? I sure did.

On Thursday, May 28th, I drove around town for five hours to pick up the books I lent out. Every book, except five, came back to me. Some families even donated many other books that were already read, loved, and ready for new readers. So, instead of shrinking, lending out books actually helped me grow my classroom library.

Book access is a huge issue. It was an issue pre-Covid and it remains an issue today. However, it doesn’t have to be. There are some things we can do to ensure that our students have access to books. It will just take a little time, teamwork, and intentionality.

Many have written about book access before me. In fact, some educators have tirelessly made it their mission. I offer these two thoughts from four book access leaders in literacy education:

Children and adolescents need meaningful and consistent access to books at school and home. When they have access to books, they read more and they read better. Period. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s true.” Donalyn Miller & Colby Sharp, Game Changer! Book Access For All Kids, pg. 5 (Scholastic, 2018)

Additionally, “Research demonstrates again and again that access to an abundant supply of books in school and classroom libraries increases both motivation and reading achievement.” Clare Landrigan & Tammy Mulligan, It’s All About the Books: How to Create Bookrooms and Classroom Libraries That Inspire Readers, pg. 3, (Heinemann, 2018)

Kids need books. Not only do they need books, but they need continual access to books. They need continual access to a wide range of books by diverse authors in multiple genres over a long period of time.

So, what does this look like in our current, unrecognizable education landscape?

What I Plan to do in the Fall of 2020

Pre-Covid, scenes like these were common place in my classroom…

When thinking about book access, this is what I want to recreate in our new distanced reality. My hope for my students is that they will have consistent access to a large library, choice books for relaxed reading each day, a wide range of books to choose from for book clubs, and a book always at the ready to read anytime. When we were all in class together, I made this happen. Now that I’ll be teaching my students from my home through the internet, I’ll have to be a bit more creative and intentional in my quest to get books in their hands ASAP.

About a month ago, my thought was that I would be able to deliver books to all of my students to get them started for the first couple weeks of school. However, the first day of school for my students is coming up on August 17th. Today is August 7th and I still don’t know who my students will be. I’m guessing I probably won’t know until just a couple days before school starts. So, even if I wanted to deliver books to my students before school starts, I honestly don’t know if I’ll be able to.

My goal is to keep a constant stream of physical books in my students hands in addition to the digital resources they will be able to access. Pre-covid, I was able to keep a physical stream of books in students’ hands without much outside help. Now, I am going to rely on others to support me in this work. The visual below shares a few ideas for getting a steady stream of physical books in kids’ hands.

Please note, these ideas are only realistically safe if everyone involved wears a mask covering their nose and mouth 100% of the time- all volunteers, kids, and adults. Additionally, all people involved should always remain at a minimum of 6 ft. apart. Kids can easily browse for books with gloved hands and a mask out of the back of a car with the adult or two present standing at a distance. No need to crowd the kids while they’re choosing books!

While having a steady stream of physical book access is important, this school year more than ever we are also going to have to heavily rely on both digital print books and digital audiobooks.

All of us in education are extremely fortunate to have access to the work of Clare Landrigan. Over the past few months, Clare has curated a comprehensive digital bookroom using Padlet. I will let her work speak for itself. Check out Clare’s incredible virtual bookroom below!

Made with Padlet
Made with Padlet

In addition to curating this comprehensive site, Clare has also extensively written about creating digital classroom libraries. I’m still in the process of creating my start of year virtual library for our fifth grade classes, so I’m not sharing it quite yet, but I will once it’s ready!

Other digital book access resources include the following:

If you’re interested in getting books in kids’ hands who may not have internet or who may not have easy access to physical books, check out the work of First Book.

One size will not fit all when it comes to book access. Finding the right fit for your own situation may take a lot of trial and error. It will definitely take time, teamwork, and intentionality. The goal is to get and keep kids reading, and they can’t read without a steady stream of reading material. Simply put, we have to make getting books into kids’ hands one of our biggest priorities at the start of the school year.

Posts #12-15 are coming up next week! Next week’s final four posts of this series will discuss four simple but big overarching ideas as we start the school year from a distance.

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: #10 Keep it Simple- Embrace the Power of Just One!

One Moment in Time– Whitney Houston
Once in a Lifetime– Talking Heads
One Way or Another– Blondie
One Love– Bob Marley
One– Three Dog Night
Once– Pearl Jam
One– Metallica
One– U2

One, Singular Sensation… for years, musicians have embraced the message and power of one. It’s about time educators do as well.

Mistakes I Made in the Spring of 2020

I did not embrace the idea of the power of just one until recently. This past spring, I wanted to do all the things! I wanted to create three videos a day for my students, share links to multiple sites for them to explore, and send multiple emails a week to caregivers to make sure they were informed. I completely burnt out in trying to achieve this. Plus, this wasn’t what my students or their caregivers even wanted or needed.

I wanted to do all the things and was neither emotionally or even physically equipped to do most of them. I tried to take everything on, so the result was that nothing went as well as I intended or hoped. Don’t get me wrong, there were definitely successes this past spring, but for this series, I’m deeply reflecting on the things that weren’t successes in order to turn them around.

So, through reflection and a great deal of discussion with colleagues, students, and their caregivers, I’ve really embraced the idea of just one. Often times, all it takes is just one in life, right… Just one date with the right potential partner. Just one song to spark a love of a musician. Just one conversation to know you’ve found a friend for life. I really should have embraced this idea with distance teaching in the spring, but now I know better. So, I plan to fully embody the idea of just one this fall.

What I Plan to do in the Fall of 2020

In the spirit of this post, this is going to be a short, bullet-pointed section for ease of reading. Here we go…

My motto for the fall is just one! Repeat after me, friends- just one!

  • Just one email to caregivers each week to provide needed information without inducing more overwhelm. As I mentioned in lesson #3 earlier in the series, my team and I are going to choose a predictable time each week to send the email and let caregivers know to expect it then.
  • Just one time to check email in the morning and one time in the afternoon each day. Constantly checking email is just not necessary, and can often be anxiety inducing. Just once in the morning and once in the afternoon is all that’s needed to get the job done.
  • Just one Learning Management System (LMS)- and keep it clean and simple for ease of use. Fancy and cute can be fun, but we have to make sure whatever we create is easy for kids and caregivers to navigate. If it’s not, it’s more for the teacher than the student.
  • Just one supply pick-up or drop-off with all-the-things included for the first month of school. I’m really hoping schools make plans for this to take place for both ease of teachers in their planning and families in acquiring learning materials for their children. For example, my school is planning a supply pick-up over two days. For families who can’t get to school, my team and I plan to drop supplies off for our students.
  • Just one writing notebook– that’s all they need to make their writing their own to start.
  • Just one web based system for digitally producing writing to start- my preference is all that is included in the Google Suite: Docs, Slides, etc. Eventually, once things settle, more can be learned and introduced. Students can even introduce them to us- on their time!
  • Just one paper reading notebook to start.
  • Just one Google doc to create a digital reading notebook of sorts (I plan to describe this in a post bit later in August or early September!).
  • Just one new procedure each day. At the beginning of the school year, we are often tempted to teach all of our procedures in one or two days. Really, there is no need. Our time will better be spent if we focus on building community, getting to know our students, and most importantly, putting supports in place for them to get to know each other. There’s more than enough time to teach that new procedure (or those 10 new procedures) another day.
  • All of the just ones really add up. This list alone is quite a bit for kids and caregivers to manage. As we all know, this is not even close to an exhaustive list. Let’s all make the choice to be intentional in our messaging, lesson delivery, and amount of stuff required for our kids and families as they all embark on their school journeys alongside us this fall.

My only exception to the just one idea is with books. Kids need books. They need more than just one to start. In fact, they need a flood of books and other reading material as soon as possible! We can make it happen. I’ll discuss this in depth in lesson #11.

One Day More…

Post #11 is coming up on Friday! Friday’s writing will discuss getting books and reading material in kids hands 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!

If you are a music nerd like me, here the songs referenced in this post…
One Moment in Time– Whitney Houston
Once in a Lifetime– Talking Heads
One Way or Another– Blondie
One Love– Bob Marley
One– Three Dog Night
Once– Pearl Jam
One– Metallica
One– U2
One– A Chorus Line
One Day More– Les Miserables

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!