building community

But How Do We Build Community? Ideas for Virtual and Hybrid Learning

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.

Link to these webinars
Link to blog
Link to blog post
Link to blog post
Link to blog post
Link to blog
Link to book
Link to blog post
Link to Google Doc
Link to Youtube
Link to resource
Link to article

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.

building community, new year, writing, Writing Identity

Illustrated 6-Word Memoirs

We continue to work on developing our writing communities, slowly settling into what it means to write together, to be writers, and to feel free to write. We have written directions, we have discussed the rules of writing, we have read great writing, and we have set up our writing circles. All this work is centered in identity. All this work is centered in learning who each other are and developing a feeling of safety and community as we grow into this year together.

Now we inch closer to writing personal essays on topics centered on our own lives and so we used the 6-word memoirs. This ingenious little foray into writing has a long history. A great place to read more about them can be found here. They are exactly what they sound like; 6 word stories about our lives.

I introduced them by showing them examples of other 6-word memoirs, some serious, some not so much. I showed my own example…

Then we discussed the perimeters of the challenge: Exactly 6 words, it cannot be a list of adjectives, should reveal some part of your life that you feel comfortable with.

Then the kids brainstormed for a bit it their writers’ notebooks, playing around with sentences, words, and punctuation.

When they felt satisfied with their chosen words, they had someone spell check their final sentence. A few spelling errors were missed, which happens.

Then they illustrated them using these free blank face printables. I printed one out and drew a line down the middle, then made enough copies with directions on this handout. One side was for them to illustrate either as a collage or as an abstract image of of their words. The other side was for their words. I told the kids that they would be displayed so to put their names on the back for privacy unless they wanted it to be known that they made it.

We listened to music. Kids played with words, drew, and then handed them in. I couldn’t believe the care many took. While certainly there were many that spoke of sports, dogs, and other seemingly small-ish parts of their lives, every single one spoke of something they found important or showed a sliver of their personality.

A small lesson that showed so much about their identity once again. See for yourself, how they turned out.

being a student, being a teacher, building community, new year, student choice, student voice

Getting to Know Our Students Survey

Every year, I do several surveys at the beginning of the year, I don’t think I am the only one.  As we try to get to know these kids that have come into our lives, I think it is so important to gather as much information as they are willing to tell us in order for us to be better teachers for them.  But I also think about how hard it can be to answer questions those first few days of school when you don’t really know what your answers will be used for, when you are not quite sure who this person is who is asking you these questions, when you are perhaps not even sure what the questions mean.

So this year, I am changing my approach a little bit.  The questions have been changed to be more of a progression of trust, not because I am under any impression that from Tuesday to Friday the students will trust me, but because I want to honor the relationships we are building and the fact that they take time.  Students will be asked to answer a few questions every day, but can also choose to speak to me about these things.  They are focused more specifically on what the child needs from me potentially to be successful and not so much on academics.  Students will do a separate survey every day, while not ideal, it will allow me to see their answers as the week progresses and then create one answer froup per student at the end of the week.

Along with these questions, I will also give my reading and writing surveys during that first week.  Those will be on paper as I place them in my conferring binder alongside the notes I take during our conversations.

Before the children have shown up, we will also have asked those at home about them.  We want to reach out to parents and caregivers as experts on their children and honor the knowledge they have through a home survey.  It is sent electronically before school starts and I respond to each person that takes it with follow up questions, those who do not have access to email or choose not to take it online are handed a paper version once school starts.

While the first-week surveys are not done, I am sharing here in order to receive feedback.  What have I missed?  What have I misworded?  What would you add or remove?  You are more than welcome to make a copy and make it fit your students, just please give credit.  To see the surveys, please see here:

Tuesday – Go here

Wednesday – Go here

Thursday – Go here

Friday – Go here

Thank you to those who have already helped me make it better, here are all of the questions together.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

Be the change, building community, community, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity

A Few More Steps Toward a Successful Reading Experience for All

Voting ends for the Global Read Aloud 2019 in two days. In two days, they will be tallied, I will sit and ponder, feel the gravity of the decision and finally, at some point, make it official. The weight of it is sometimes paralyzing. After all, I am not just selecting a book to read aloud to my own students, but making the largest recommendation to the world as I can. Holding titles, and with them the creators behind the work, and telling the world that these experiences are worth every moment of their time.

It is not much different, in a way, from the way we hold books up in our classrooms day after day. How we share our opinions on social media. How we give our blessings any way we can. The weight it carries is the same; we shape our students’, our children’s, our own reading lives by the choices we make. By the texts we give our time to, by the texts we don’t. We tell the world what we value within every choice, within every recommendation, within every ounce of time we give something. By ever instructional minute we offer up in order to dive in, dig in, tease out.

So when I am asked how to help someone like reading more, I keep coming back to the choices we make. The finite amount of time we have for any kind of influence. How it is impossible for me to change someone’s feelings about reading, but what I can do is provide them with an opportunity to change them themselves. So where does the work begin for us because, as we know from so many of our readers, it is not enough to simply find a book that may change their mind, even if that is where the journey may start.

Think of your environment. What are kids surrounded by as you promote reading? Is it books (I hope)? Is it comfort? Is it calm? Is it safe? Reading carries a lot of emotions and so for a child to immerse themselves in a text they need different things. Some need slight noise, others need absolute quiet. Some need to feel safe because reading does not feel safe for them, in fact, for some being surrounded by books just feels overwhelming rather than good. Some need a friend, some need a corner. Knowing how kids feel within our environment is key to helping them adapt to it in order to create a successful reading experience.

Consider asking: Where do you read best? What do you need to feel comfortable so you can focus on a book?

Think of your requirements. What are kids expected to do once they are reading? What are they expected to do while reading? So often, it is not the act of reading itself that kids want to stay clear from, it is all of the work that they have to do with it. Also, how are readers being limited? What may seem as no big deal to us, such as telling kids they can only select books that are over 100 pages or they can’t read children’s book if they are older, may be the exact obstacle that stands in the way of a reader.

Consider asking: What makes you want to stop reading? What obstacles need to be removed in order for you to have a better reading experience?

Think of your community. Do you speak books? Does your classroom or school community? When we speak book we speak in shared experiences such as read alouds or book clubs, we pass books and other texts from hand to hand, we share recommendations not because we are forced to but because we want to. We find as many people to speak books to, including all of the other adults in the building, and then we try to come up with ways to include those outside of our school community to speak books with us as well.

Consider asking: Who do you speak books with? Who are your book people?

Think of your emotional investment. We have to recognize that for some reading is a reminder of everything they have failed at, that unless we protect the hope of being readers in all kids, then we may be inflicting additional negativity when it comes to the reading experiences we create. Trust and honesty then are pillars of a functioning reading community, and that includes kids who identify as kids who hate reading to still have a space within our community. So how are all readers handled? Are their identities honored and given space to change and grow. Are the small steps toward a mores successful experience being honored or only the big ones?

Consider asking: Who are you as a reader and how do you know?

Think of your reasons for reading. Are kids reading for points? For grades? To pass levels? To avoid punishment? Or are they reading because they find true value in it? Joy even? While extrinsic motivators certainly can cause a sense of urgency within a child to read, they are often short lived, and research shows again and again that the only rewards that truly change reading behaviors long term is to have more books and time to read. Not trinkets, grades, or achievement boards. Why do we then continue to gravitate toward extrinsic motivators? Because for some kids they do work in the short-term (and yes, short-term can be a whole school year), for some kids they seem to spark a change, yet, how often do those kids then stop reading the minute the program/reward/grades are removed? How many of the kids who were motivated to read to get a high score on the test are also motivated when there is no test to be taken? We do this a lot in education; implement short term solutions that do long-term damage. So instead of going for the “quick” fix, invest in the long-term building of a reading community, which yes may mean kids are slower to change their reading identities but it should mean a more meaningful long-term change is happening.

Consider asking: Why do you read? If programs are implemented ask: How do you feel about the program? Do you plan on reading over the summer – why or why not?

Think of your timeline. Just because a child is not liking reading more half-way through the year or even by the end of the year, does not mean it has all failed. It might just mean that it is going to take a lot more time. That is why continuation of shared reading beliefs is so important for kids and for the educational communities they are are in. If there is a foundational right to self-selected, teacher-supported, independent reading in the early years then that right should be carried through until graduation. It doesn’t help if we merely implement best practices for a few years and then forget all about them as children grow older. In fact, it is awfully hard to change reading behaviors and feelings all by yourself, and it often leads to an artificial change, one that is not sustained after they leave you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, but it does mean that you should be involving your broader school community in the work as well.

Consider asking: What are the reading rights of children every year?

So often when we really want kids to love reading, we forget to dig deeper into all of the components that go into creating meaningful reading experiences. In fact, this goes for so much in education. We implement and support short-term solutions that do not really change the foundational experience as much as they should and then wonder why it doesn’t work for all kids. But the change can start within the very questions we ask and we reflect on. So much of what I have learned through the years have come from our students. Have come from our team conversations. Have come from our community. So while all students deserve choice, access, time, and meaningful reading opportunities, they also deserve a safe community with an ongoing dialogue about how else their reading experiences can be shaped. And that starts with us.

being a teacher, building community, first day, first week, new year

Have You Asked Parents Yet?

 

Give them a chance to tell you about their child...their stories deserve to be heard.

I have 30 more emails to go tonight.  30 more individual responses as a way to reach out.  30 more individual responses as a way to say thank you.  30 more individual responses as a way to plant a seed.  Why so many emails to go?  My team and I teach more than 150 students and every year we ask the parents/guardians to take a beginning of the year survey.  We ask a few simple questions to start to get to know our students more.  To get to know the families more.  To start the relationship that we hope to have with them all year, and every single person that takes the survey deserves to get an email in response.

If you teach younger students, this may be nothing new for you, after all, the parent survey seems to be a pillar of beginning of the year.  Yet, I don’t hear of it often at the middle and high school level. I don’t see many middle or high school teachers discuss their beginning of the year surveys.  Which is such a shame because the information that we get with our few questions is invaluable.  This is how we know that a child may have lost a parent.  This is how we know if a child has had a tough school experience, if they love to read, if they cannot sit still.  If all they hope for is a day full of PE or if they really hope that this is the year that their teachers will like them.  This is how we know if those at home may not like school much and would therefore prefer to not be contacted.

What we have found the last few years is that this small beginning of the year survey is a chance for those at home to know that we value their knowledge of their child.  That we value their commitment to school.  That we value who their child is and the journey they are on, as well as take the role we play very seriously.  We ask them how involved they would like to be to help us gauge their feelings about middle school.  We ask them how they would like to be contacted so those who do not want an email can be called instead. We ask what their goals for their learner is so that we can help them achieve that, not calling it a weakness, but instead having them help us become better teachers.

I know that we often want students to become more independent and not so reliant on those at home, yet a survey is still in place.  What those at home know about their child is worth sharing.  What those at home know about what their learner still needs or strives for is worth hearing.

So if you haven’t done a beginning of the year parent/guardian survey do it now, even if the year has already started.  Ask a few questions, send it out electronically and then hand paper copies to those who do not fill it out.  Send a few reminders and then send a thank you email.  Plant the seed of goodwill that will hopefully carry you throughout the year as you try to create a learning experience that works for every child and every parent/guardian.  Trust me, you will be glad you did.

To see our current parent/guardian survey, go here.  In the past we have also used the standard “What are your hopes and dreams for 7th grade?” but found that this survey gave us more information.

PS:  I think I blog about this every year, but it is because I am blown away every year by the knowledge we receive.

being a teacher, being me, building community, end of year

Take the Time

For in the end it is not what we got done that matters, it is how we felt doing it. pernille ripp

There seems to be no greater rush in school then these last few precious days before we say goodbye, before our time is up.  I look at my own to-do list and wonder just how much will actually get to done.  The pressure of it all nips at my heels as I wonder whether my students could possibly speak a little bit faster as they deliver their end of year speeches.  Will we get through them all?  We have so much to do still.

Yet, as I listened today to a boy share his message of hope and forgiveness.  To another who shared the value of friendship.  To one who decided to challenge our racial beliefs, and one that made me cry (actually two did) because they stood up there and spoke their truth, I knew what I had forgotten.  To take the time.

To take the time to say goodbye the proper way.

To take the time to laugh.

To share memories and stories.  To take the time and not feel guilty all of the time for all of the things we didn’t get to do.

Take the time to remember all of the great and all of the not so great.

Take the time to remember the very best books, projects, or whatever else you may have shared.

To take the time to ask just a few more questions so that you can grow over the summer.

To take the time to thank you students for the journey you have been on.

May we never forget to be grateful for the things we take for granted, for the community we create, for the memories we make.

May we never take for granted that our year, while tough at times, was still a success and that all of those students did actually grow, even if it was not as much as we had hoped.

May we never forget that for a brief moment in time we were a part of the future by being a part of a child’s life.

So take the time to say goodbye and don’t worry so much about the to do.  Because in the end it is not what we got done that matters, it is how we felt doing it.  SO take the time to take the time and don’t let your guilt consume you.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.