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Steps to Make Your Students Feel Welcome This Fall

(This is the second post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What introductory activities are you planning to do, or have done already, with students to begin this highly unusual new school year (specifically—first day, first week, second week)?


In Part One, my colleage and co-author Katie Hull Synieski and I shared a book excerpt from a chapter on long-distance learning with English-language learners. It's coming from our upcoming second edition of The ESL/ELL Teacher's Survival Guide.

Today, Andi Jackson, Ann Stiltner, and Kelly Love offer their suggestions.

In addition, you might find these two resources helpful:

Links to all related previous posts appearing here can be found at School Closures & the Coronavirus Crisis.

You can see tentative remote teaching plans I've developed for all my fall classes at Here Are Detailed—& Tentative—Distance Learning Plans for All My Fall Classes.

You can expect to see at least 20 posts (and probably a lot more) in this column over the next two months answering many of the critical questions educators are asking themselves and others as we enter a potentially crazy year.  And the responses will be coming from educators who have reflected on their own experiences of last spring, as well as what will have happened during the first few weeks of school this year.

Now, on to the suggestions for introductory activities...

Building a community

Andi Jackson is a 25-year veteran teacher of middle school language arts and social studies in Cupertino, Calif.:

Spring 2020. The time where all the schools shut down and shifted to emergency remote learning. The one saving grace during that time was classroom routines and well-established communities.  Any teacher will tell you every well-run learning space is built upon a strong foundation of belonging. So, how does one build a community of fearless learners remotely?

A recent Hechinger Report reminds us of the importance of relationships and the role schools play. "Schools can help by providing real-time instruction online, opportunities for teacher-student interaction, and efforts to help students feel part of a group, even when they are working at home."

Before classes begin in August, I will send out an introductory video welcoming my students and the significant adults to our online classroom space. Included with the video will be a student Google Form asking questions regarding last year's online learning experience: access to technology, willingness to have cameras on during class meetings, and what worked and didn't work during emergency remote teaching.

As the teacher, I set the tone for the upcoming year. In Room 22, we are fearless learners who get smarter together. Every day we will strive to be better because striving is thriving. To begin, we will introduce ourselves by creating personal slides as part of the collective Room 22 slide deck. I launch this task by sharing my own. I never ask my fearless learners to do anything that I wouldn't do myself.

Next step is to co-create our online code of conduct. Here is a sample from Catlin Tucker's Blended Learning. Because I won't have the ability to correct behaviors through "a look" or a quiet whisper, it is imperative that agreements are clear and published for the community to see and adjust as needed. If an agreement is ignored or violated, it will be important to process with the student—even more so now as mentioned previously. Here is a sample protocol developed by Tucker to help students reflect on their choices.

It will be critical to develop social and emotional safety in our online classroom. I will begin that work through 6 Word Memoirs. Each student will create a Google Slide containing six words that are important to them. We will assemble a class slide deck with each student's contribution. My words will be "Reimagine in order to be better." These 6 Word Memoirs serve as a transition to narrative writing.

Another key to establishing the safe space is to recognize our differences and similarities. Liberty Middle School in Alabama created the "I Am Wall Project" inviting students to declare that they are not their stereotype. Here is the article from MiddleWeb and the detailed lesson plan. First, students conduct a quickwrite describing all the ways they are judged. They begin their statements with "I am NOT ..." Because we are in a remote setting, I will ask students to submit their responses in an anonymous (if they choose) Google Form. We will go through the statements silently in a class meeting. To adapt the lesson further, I will ask students to choose 2-3 different "I am NOT" statements and reflect in a class Padlet—What statements did you choose and what can we do to shatter those stereotypes? The next day students make their "I AM" statements. These will be posted, proudly with names, in another class Padlet. When we share our own challenges, and see that we are not alone, we can create a space for trust and relationships.

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Planning for the "unexpected"

Ann Stiltner is a high school special education teacher in Connecticut. She writes the blog from Room A212 .Follow her on Twitter @fromrooma212: 

How do you plan for the unexpected?  That is what every educator is asking themselves this summer. At this time, my district and others are making decisions that could change quickly depending on how the pandemic develops. I have accepted that my planning will have to do double duty with lessons for both in-person and distance-learning formats and I will need to be able to move from one to the other at the drop of a hat. I am expecting I'll start the year with in-person classes and then switch to distance learning when needed. Here are the activities I have come up with so far to start this unique school year. 

As hard as distance learning was last spring, at least I had seven months to get to know my students. Therefore, I am going to dedicate more class time than usual to developing rapport. I usually spend the entire first day talking about the class and going over the syllabus. This doesn't make sense now. I may only have a few weeks until distance learning, so the key is for me to get to know them and for them to get to know me and each other. 

Socially distanced ice breakers like "Sit down if ...," "This or That," and "Fact or Fiction" will give us a chance to know each other while developing a sense of community. I'll use questionnaires to learn about their interests and hobbies. We will have class discussions about how we are feeling about the school closures, how distance learning went in the spring, and, if students are ready to share, their feelings on the recent protests against police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement.       

There are things I do to start the year that can still be used now. I will still be able to show a PowerPoint that shares things about myself and my family, allowing students to know me as a person. Students will be able to do an Autobiographical Poem about themselves, giving me a chance to assess their use of Google Docs and their level of independence in completing an assignment. Some class time will be spent going over how our common procedures, such as trips to the water fountain and borrowing pencils, will have to change. Contacting parents right away and developing a line of communication will be a priority if distance learning develops.  

Setting up class routines to provide structure, predictability, and normalcy are key goals for the beginning of the year. I will continue to assign Do Now questions, whether in the classroom or in remote learning, to maintain structure and use the prompts as a way to assess my students' feelings and experiences. A class lesson creating a contract and positive-reward system will ensure that we all protect each other's health and commit to follow safety rules. We can create this contract by having a class discussion around what we want the class to be like, what we need to do to bring this about, and what the consequences are if members do not follow these expectations. A written copy of the contract will be created as a visual reminder of our promises to each other.      

Google Classroom will be set up in the first week, and class time will be given for students to practice using it and to understand what is expected in terms of work completion and quality.  We will use the different technologies and websites I am considering for distance learning during this in-person class time. Student feedback about these technologies will be collected to tailor these experiences and ensure their success during possible remote learning. Choices concerning units and materials will be based on how easily these can be switched to a distance learning format. I'll choose texts that are available in digital and audio formats. My class book talks will introduce these books to students and give them a chance to vote on the ones they want to study to ensure their enthusiasm and ownership.

I plan to be gentle to myself, my colleagues, my students, and their families. This is, above all else, the most important thing I can plan for in these unusual times.

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"Prepare, learn, organize"

Kelly Love is an ELA/ELL and visual arts teacher at an alternative high school in South King County, Washington. She has used her blog as a way to share her thoughts, instructional ideas, and best practices about teaching for over a dozen years:

This past spring after COVID-19 closures, districts moved hastily to ensure each student had a laptop and, some who needed it, a hotspot. Providing each student with a laptop solved some of the instructional requirements; however, it uncovered many inequities. Students don't have reliable broadband service due to availability and cost, and their technical skills are not as strong as assumed. We, teachers, struggled with those obstacles during the initial closures. We worked out systems and communication quickly, and by the end of the school year, not only did we make contact with every student, update our grades, but sponsored a socially-distanced graduation ceremony. Sometimes we just need a simple plan to get us started when life is fraught with uncertainty. 

We will start the school year with remote learning with one important twist: This will be the first time for many of us that we won't meet our students face to face. Considering our rosters, whether they number 50 to 150: How do we start this school year in these unusual circumstances? We are going to have to take our "show on the road": to create virtual spaces that feel personal, relatable, and engaging. 

Before School: Prepare, Learn, and Organize!

About two weeks before school begins, take these steps:

  1. Organize your classrooms (both physical spaces and digital ones).
  2. Organize your method for letter writing and responses. Use Excel or another spreadsheet-software preference. Ask your registrar for student address labels if possible.
  3. Multiple access points: Send the students an invitation by mail for the first day of class. Make it formal, engaging, and include a postage-stamped RSVP; this is one more contact point for us to build relationships with our students.
  4. Storyboard your introductory video and "grand tour" of your classroom. Post it on YouTube. Send link to students and parents.
  5. Organize the scope/sequence on your LMS (learning-management system) for the first month.
  6. And above all else: Keep everything clear, consistent, and concise. Stick to the Rule of 3: one assignment, one discussion, and one assessment per week. 

Please keep the cognitive load manageable for ourselves and our students. One key piece of advice is if you have a PLC, reach out to your colleagues before school begins and let them know your plans. 

First Day: Introduce Students to the Resources

On the first day of school, arrange an all-day online meeting (Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or Google Meets). Note how many students pop in and keep sending out reminders all week for how to "show up" at school digitally. Include breaks with a "back at X time" message,  but keep the lines open.

First Week: Student Access and Support

Put relationship building and academic/emotional safety as the top priorities. This may be one of the hardest challenges for us—building and maintaining relationships. If past is prologue, many of my students were hesitant to log on, didn't want to be on camera, feigned confusion, or were genuinely bewildered. Provide both digital- and paper-access points. I always provide a digital reading inventory and this year will go back to mailed paper inventories with paid-postage envelopes using my building's address. This will be the week to make phone calls home, too, and reach out to families. If you share students, keep a list of who's been contacted, by whom, etc. Keep this as part of your PLC goals and work with your administration to keep in contact with students and families.

First Month and Ongoing

Resources abound to keep students engaged during remote learning, but the first rule is clear communication: One of the most heartbreaking things I heard from friends who are parents of school-aged children is that their teachers didn't reach out once. And on the other end, I saw teachers complaining about students not reaching out to them. To be blunt, it is not the job of the families to reach out during this time, it's ours. Keep reaching out and don't assume students and families are indifferent or apathetic. Now more than ever, they know how critical education is for our futures. And manage like a backstage organizer to let the students take center stage and shine!

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Thanks to Andi, Ann, and Kelly for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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