While my district has yet to release its plan for the fall here in Wisconsin, things are not looking so good. The last two days we have set new records in my county for positive test results for Covid-19, as a family we went through our own wait-time to get results this week so we have continued to stay at home with very limited movement. And while there is a lot of uncertainty that are furiously being discussed and planned for as best we can, one thing is practically certain; our year will not start in the normal sense.
And it shouldn’t, we have changed. Our world has changed.
Community lies at the heart of everything we do, the threads that bind us together create a learning space that will hopefully work for all of the children in our care. I know most of the learning success I had in the three months of crisis teaching was dependent on the community we had spent all year establishing and maintaining. On the trust we had built, on the care for each other, on the fun we had had. We know that building that community is hard work, it is not just simply putting together fun activities and hoping kids will buy into it and immediately build trust. There is so much that goes into creating the space that we hope kids will flourish in throughout the year. But how do we do that when we are not face to face? When we perhaps are both teaching live and online at the same time?
My hope every year is that the children in my care feel safe within our community. Safe to be who they are. Safe to challenge themselves. Safe to take risks. Safe to disagree. Safe to speak up. Safe to show up even if they are not at their best. Safe to go on a year long identity journey together. One that hopefully will matter to them beyond “just” developing their English Language Arts skills.
And yet the whole determination and definition of safe is something that has been weighing on me. When we say that we want our classrooms to be safe, what do we really mean? I have been reading the brilliant book Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in Classroom by Matthew R. Kay and he writes about this as well, “…for most students, a teacher’s safe space designation doesn’t mean much.” Because we don’t definite it, because we don’t think about our cultural norms that at times exclude kids, because we don’t think about the extent of the required needs to be met for someone to feel safe. And so when I think of community building work, I want it to be meaningful, it want it to be real. Yes, there is room for fun, for get-to-know you activities, but how do we go past that? How do we get further?
For me, I plan on spending our face-to-face time on a lot of the community building we usually do. As it stands, it sounds like my district will be hybrid with some face-to-face and some online, where I teach both at the same time (no, I am not sure how that will work). This means that as always we will spend the first few weeks laser focused on laying the groundwork for our year-long identity work. We will do the work we do every year. We will reflect on our reading and writing identity. We will discuss when reading sucks. We will create our reading rights together. We will set meaningful goals for our own growth. We will read and discuss personal essays that speak to not fitting into the world, into being seen as different, into finding your people, finding your own strength. We will start our focus on whose voices are missing and how that impacts our understanding of our world. We will do all of this together so that online can become learning time. So that online can be manageable for the kids who can access it. So that the online work becomes a time for kids to go deeper with what we are already doing rather than further to-do’s. And yet, the community aspect also needs to continue to be developed while we are apart, so that we can feel connected, so that we can grow together.
A few ideas I am contemplating using:
- Ready-Set-Go conferences before the year starts, we offered these up last year face-to-face and had a good turnout. This year, depending on access, they will either be face-to-face or virtual for a chance for us to meet.
- Yard visits, for those who are okay with it, I would like to say hello from a distance before the year starts. Either by standing in the street, a public park, or some other decided place. This will be an option to see each other from a far and say hello.
- A welcome video for the students hopefully shot in our classroom so they can get a sense of what it looks like. If not it will be from my home with my kids.
- Welcome postcards. I wrote a lot of postcards in the past few months, I think they made a difference, and even if they didn’t, it is one more way to say hello. I am playing with the idea of including a postcard they can mail back to me with the postage already paid. I don’t know how many kids would take me up on it but perhaps some would.
- Weekly surveys checking in worked well for me last semester. Here is a sample of one.
- I want community to be built through the work we do, not just as an add on feature, so the work we do needs to be worth their time and dedication. This is huge as I start to plan the work and our year focus.
- Easy accessible Google Slides to work through every day they are online, only a few items but I want to focus on sharing either through video, audio, or written form. We will use Padlet, Flipgrid, or whatever else we can use to respond to each other.
- I won’t be able to do morning meetings live because I will be teaching at the same time, I will be doing recorded morning messages every day though and keep them short! My own kids scoffed the minute their morning videos were longer than 3 minutes.
I will be offering free PD on how I plan on embedding authentic choice and voice throughout our year in August, I will be definitely sharing more about my ideas for building community authentically. To sign up and see more information, please go to this website and search for my name. This is also the heart of my work alongside students and I write extensively about it in my book, Passionate Learners: How to Engage and Empower Your Learners.
I want to be mindful of a lot of things:
- Virtual teaching is inherently more inequitable than even live teaching.
- Not all kids will be able to access virtual teaching for many different reasons.
- Kids have no reason to trust me.
- Having a device (provided for all kids by my district) does not mean you have space to or time to use it.
- Students are in many different places in their journey of learning and also in how safe they feel at school. I want to be acutely aware of this and let it guide my work.
- The world continues to be overwhelming, kids are in a lot of different places when it comes to their mental health. Everything we do has to be shaped through equity and care.
- I will be one of many classes.
- We, teachers, need to deeply collaborate especially when it comes to how much work we are asking kids to do.
- We need even more safety nets such as trusted adults for every child.
- We need to find ways for students to connect with one another, not just in an academic sense.
- I keep thinking about this webinar: A conversation with Bettina Love, Gholdy Muhammad, Dena Simmons and Brian Jones about abolitionist teaching and antiracist education. I have been a part of a lot of learning this summer and this was one of the most powerful hours I spent, their voices are definitely resonating loudly as I plan for my upcoming year.
Yesterday on Twitter I asked for ideas for building community online because surely others have been grappling with this idea as well. I promised I would share the ideas here as a list not to take credit, but instead to highlight all of the ideas floating around. So thank you to all who shared. Thank you to all who took the time to share new or tried and true ideas. May we all be able to find something that will help us out.
Major take aways from ideas shared:
- Identity work and creating learning conditions that honor each child is a must.
- Having access in many different ways to allow kids choice.
- Making yourself available in many different formats.
- Scheduling virtual drop-in times where kids can hang out and also interact with you works well.
- Don’t require video or their face to be shown.
- What works for your students will depend very much on your students.
- Don’t be afraid to try things and then change them or not use the idea if it doesn’t work.
What were other ideas shared?
The brilliant Julie Jee also asked this question, here is the thread with all of the ideas shared.
I am grateful for all of the ideas shared, there were even more than were posted here, to see the original thread, click this link. We may face an uncertain future when it comes to our school but one thing remains; the kids will show up and need us to be fully human, to be present, and to be safe. I hope that you can use some of these ideas to help you move toward that.
Also, if your district or conference are interested in bringing me in virtually throughout the school year, please see information here. I have been supporting teachers remotely as they plan for meaningful literacy instruction in a virtual and hybrid model throughout the summer and would love to help others as well.