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!

15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year: #1 Prioritize Myself

I bet some of you are reading this thinking I’ve lost my mind. Prioritize myself? But, we’re in a global pandemic! I’m a teacher! I must prioritize my my own children, my elderly parents, my students! Now is the time to take care of others! I’m fine. Well, I now have a different take on it.

Image: Huddart Park, Woodside, CA. Lyrics by Linda Creed, 1977, made famous by Whitney Houston, 1985

When we prioritize ourselves, we’re not only modeling self love and self respect to those around us, but we’re also better equipping and positioning ourselves to take care of our children, parents, students, and even other members of our community. When we don’t prioritize ourselves, we can potentially develop unhealthy stress, unhealthy habits, and even an unhealthy mental state. In March and April, I actually fell into a really difficult, painful, unfamiliar mental space, which I learned was a type of adjustment disorder. Because of this, I realized I was not fully capable of taking care of others, so I needed to make a big change. Indeed, learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. But, even though it sounds beautiful, it’s just not that simple. It’s not easy to get there and stay there- in fact, it is extremely difficult and often requires uncomfortable commitments and outside help, which eventually helped me. If it seems overwhelming or impossible, I urge you to seek help outside of yourself. It made a huge difference for me. In addition, perhaps reading about my mistakes from the spring may help a bit.

Mistakes I Made in the Spring of 2020

As soon as our shelter in place was called back on March 13th here in California, I jumped into what I thought was productivity mode. I sent my classroom families daily emails, spent hours trying to create perfect instructional videos, monitored my classroom discussion board at all hours, called my own parents to lecture them about staying home, and joined every single social Zoom to which I was invited.

I eventually learned those daily emails to classroom parents became more of a burden on them than a help, the videos I tried to perfect were actually more effective the simpler they were, my students were not using the discussion board at all hours so my constant monitoring was unnecessary, my parents were already making good choices for themselves- my frantic calls only frustrated them, and that I needed to pick and choose which Zoom events to join- Zoom fatigue is real!

I completely burnt out, and in doing so I left no space for self love and joy for myself, let alone for those around me. During the past couple months, I’ve been taking a new approach, and will continue that approach as the school year starts.

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

There are three simple steps I’ve adopted and will continue to apply to show love to myself as I officially start the school year on August 10th.

NUMBER 1: Start each day doing something I love and put a HARD STOP on the work day to fully engage in other aspects of life. For me, this means brewing a pot of coffee and going for a quick 15 minute walk or run in the neighborhood before I do anything else for the day. I find I am happier the more I move. I’ll be teaching full distance come August, so intentionally moving before sitting down at the computer each day is critical. Plus, walking into the house to the smell of fresh coffee after a short workout is just heavenly. Running, walking, and coffee is not for everybody. What brings you joy? What might something you love to start the day look like?

Also, working until after 8, 9, sometimes even 10pm did nobody any favors in the spring, including myself. So, I made the intentional choice to put a hard stop on my school work day at 3pm. My workday starts at 7am, so putting a stop to it at 8 hours is more than reasonable. Of course flexibility will be necessary to accommodate occasional meeting needs and other events, but for the majority of each week, my work day will stop at 3pm, and I’m not hiding it. Stopping the work day at 3pm will allow me to better take care of myself, enjoy my family and friends, and engage in the things I love outside of work. Plus, it will also keep me refreshed and allow me to be my best self for my students at the start of each new school day. Later in this series, I’m going to discuss time management and how I will actually make my 3pm hard stop a reality. Look for that post on Tuesday, August 4th.

NUMBER 2: Say no and own it. One of the most effective ways to practice self love is to embrace the act of saying no. For many teachers, myself included, saying no to a request is extremely difficult. The last thing we want to do is let anyone down. However, saying no to the things that may drain our energy or use up precious after-school time will only open up more possibilities for the things we value and love.

For the school year ahead, I have personally promised myself that I will say no to the the following in order to open up space for more things that I love.

I will say no to…
– Any requests to sit on a district-wide committee- after all, I have other smart colleagues who will gladly fill in.
-School work on the weekend- whatever it is can wait until Monday.
-Any social events that might be more of an energy drain than an uplifting renewal- I’m looking at you, Thursday afternoon Zoom happy hour.
-Any favors or extras for those not in one of my inner circles: family, close friends, trusted colleagues, etc. I know I cannot be all-things to all people, so I won’t even waste my precious energy trying.

Much of this may sound harsh or uncaring to some, but that’s ok. I’m trying to focus on loving myself so I can be the best teacher, daughter, friend, sister, colleague, and self that I can be. I’m ok with saying no, and the people who matter the most to me will be ok with it, too!

NUMBER 3: Name what brings me joy, what drains my energy, and act accordingly. The simple act of writing down the things that bring me joy and the things that drain my energy has been incredibly helpful. I placed my simple t-chart list in a space where I will see it often. I’m consciously making an effort to do more of the things that bring me joy and less of the things that drain my energy.

When we were first ordered to stay at home, I spent way too much time on the things listed here than drained my energy. Not only that, but I allowed myself to feel guilty when I indulged in the things that brought me joy. As soon as I decided that guilt had no place in my life, I started feeling much better. Now, I have no issues with sitting in the backyard for hours at a time reading, binge watching The Walking Dead (there’s something about a zombie apocalypse that oddly makes me feel better about our current situation), or going for a hike with my phone turned off. Creating my joy and energy drain list really changed things for me. I highly recommend making a list of your own- and, I’d love to see it!

My joy/energy drain list. I’d love to see your list as well!

As the school year is quickly approaching, it is more important than ever to to completely love yourself by not working obscene hours, embracing the gift of saying no, and naming/acting upon what brings you joy and drains your energy. After all, learning to love yourself, indeed, is the greatest love of all (cheesy, I know, but it’s true!). As soon as we can embrace loving ourselves, we will have so much more to offer the other people in our lives as well- our family, our friends, our colleagues, and our students.

Further Resources

Post #2 is coming up tomorrow! Tomorrow’s writing will explore the mistakes I made in the relationships with my students this past spring and what I plan to do to build positive relationships with my students 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!

15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year: A Blog Series

Photo taken while on a run on Half Moon Bay’s Coastal Trail, July 2020. All photos in this series are my own

All of my good friends, family, and anybody who has ever spent more than 20 minutes in conversation with me knows I am a huge Pearl Jam fan. The words seen here are from the song Release off 1991’s Ten album. I found myself humming, singing, and listening to these lyrics over and over again the past few months, “I’ll ride the wave, where it takes me…” Never have flexibility, understanding, and patience played such a role in my world. I venture to guess in your world as well. What a wave it has been the past few months. Ups, downs, sickness, health, fear, relief, loss, love, and still complete uncertainty.

Our role as teachers has never been so important and has also never been so undefined. I don’t know where the wave will take us in the coming months. I don’t think any of us know, but I have a few lessons to offer and ideas to share to potentially help us all ride the wave together.

I am not an expert in online learning. In fact, I struggled with it this past spring. Like many of you, I am a classroom teacher who spent the spring of 2020 trying it, reflecting on it, noticing successes and complete misses, and listening to feedback from colleagues, my students, and my students’ caregivers. I rode the wave, and I’m about to dive in again. We all are. So, I decided to share some of the lessons I’ve learned to help my fellow classroom teachers as you join me in riding another wave of uncertainty: the 2020-21 school year.

The 15 lessons that I’ll share in the coming days and weeks are born of the mistakes I made, successes I had, and the many conversations I’ve had and books I’ve read over the past few months. The posts will include helpful resources, recommended books, and maybe even a video or two. This blog series is meant to offer ideas, support, and a little camaraderie as the 2020-21 school year approaches.

How This Series is Organized

  • Posts 1-5, July 20th-24th- the human aspect of teaching: our relationships.
  • Posts 6-10, July 27th-August 4th- establishing care and trust: those critical first days of school
  • Posts 11-15, August 6th-13th- striving for a productive year for all: big overarching ideas

Each post will be short by design and will only take a few minutes to read. In the comments section each day, I’d love to hear about the lessons you’ve learned as well. Teachers freely and openly sharing with each other is more important than ever.

Subscribe to the blog by clicking on the Follow this Blog link to get each post delivered to your inbox or check back here. The 15 lessons learned will be posted over the next three weeks between July 20th and August 12th.

We have to support and lift each other up right now. I’m here for you. And, I just might ask you to be there for me, too. Let’s ride this wave together.

-Christina

Posts in the Series Will be Added Here as They’re Published

Journaling: The Most Important Writing of the Moment

I’ve now been offering optional screencasted journaling sessions for my fifth graders for a little over a week. Tomorrow marks week three of being away from the classroom. It will be the start of week two for those of us in California sheltering in place.

I’m screencasting a new journaling session each day for my fifth graders. The kids who are taking part are saying that it is really helping them sort through their feelings and just feel better about this situation we’re all in. The cathartic side effects of journaling are like medicine right now. Some of my classroom families have even mentioned they’ve started a journal as well to capture their thoughts at this moment in history.

If they can be helpful to you, I am adding these sessions to this document as I make them. They are not mass made for all, but rather are made specifically for my fifth graders at this moment in our history. If they might help you as a teacher, as a parent, as a human being right now in these trying times, here they are- just know they were made for my students, not for all students.

If you are a teacher, consider recording some journaling sessions for your students (if you’ve never done this before, there are tons of tutorials online, or just reach out- I’m happy to take a little time to help out a fellow classroom teacher right now). We’ll never have this time in history again- I hope. The most important writing, capturing, composing, and sketching our kids (and we) can do right now is to create from the heart, not from a set of standards.

Ten years from now, I suspect many of my students and families will look back on their journals to remember. I know I will.

Stay safe and take care.

-Christina