empathy

One of the most important ways that we can start a new school year is by setting aside time to get to know our students. Not only should we have time to interact with them, but we need to give them time to interact with one another. Relationships are the foundation for so many positives in the classroom. Before all content and getting to the rules and classroom procedures, we have to find a way to start on day one by making this a priority. I truly believe that it needs to be a priority every day after that, because even the slightest interactions matter.

relationships

When: Some educators may disagree about holding off on the content or putting off the discussion about classroom procedures until another day. We all need to do what works best for our students and for ourselves. So you may choose to start the first day with something different, by focusing on the content and including some of the expectations or responsibilities for the classroom. Even starting with this, I’m sure that most everyone includes time to work on getting to know one another. By being at the door to greet the students as they arrive or making an effort to learn student names, and start to associate who the students are and engage in minor interactions will go a long way.

Why: I am very passionate about this now but I wish I could say that I always thought this way. I didn’t.  I don’t know how much I valued the power of relationships over the first ten years of my teaching career. Of course I cared about my students and I wanted what was best for them, but I recognize that how I was then and the way I am now are completely different.  And I really didn’t start every year the way that I’m suggesting that the year should be started by educators today. I was that teacher who welcomed students into the classroom and then started every class period on the first day, by talking about my classroom expectations and even adding in a little bit about the content material. I would even have students who were entering their second or higher level of the foreign language, write a short paragraph about topics like the summer, a movie they saw, a vacation or really anything they wanted to, so I could use it as a way to assess their skills before starting into the new material.  It’s just the way that I had been taught and I thought I needed to start like this, with no learning time lost.

Something that bothers me now about myself when I think about this, is that I remember students trying to talk to their classmates about their summers and just being excited to come back to school. I remember trying to get them to just stop and focus on the writing that I wanted them to do. The writing was more important, at least that is the message that I was sending. Thankfully I am no longer that teacher. I just wish I would have changed sooner.

No wonder I never really worried about the first day of school, even though I might not sleep too well the night before. Lack of sleep was partially because I was excited and the thought of going back after being on a break, somehow prevented me from sleeping. Why didn’t I worry? Because for me, day one was for going through some of the normal routine activities, those clerical or housekeeping tasks, that I had done every year prior. I never worried about Day One, but I always said I worried more about Day Two because that’s when I really had to start teaching.

I’ve changed my mind over the years because I’ve had some challenges, due to questioning my own methods of instruction and why something was not working for a specific class. I also questioned the ways that I handled challenges in terms of classroom management over the years, and finding ways to connect with students.  I am continuing to learn and there are days where it can feel like I’m not making any progress in building those relationships. I have to remind myself that I’m trying. That sometimes things don’t happen as fast as we want, it might take days, weeks, months or even longer to notice the impact or to see some kind of a transformation, but we just have to keep moving forward. And we may never really know what it was that made the difference, we just might feel a change one day.

How: I wish I had an answer for the question of “how.” What works for one student will often not work for another and it might take you a while to find a way to connect with some students and for them to connect with you. Have you ever tried so hard to connect with that one student, and no matter what you did it just felt like you would never get there? I have.  Many times. One time last year I tried everything that I could, and no matter what I tried, it just seemed like I could not find a way to connect. But then I saw a book, one that I had read and enjoyed, and that amazingly just so happened to be a book being read by that student. Had I not seen that book, I might still be thinking about how to bridge some type of connection.

So that’s why those slight interactions matter, why we need to be present, visible, leaning in and listening more. We need to really see our students, who they are, and show that we really care.

I could offer a few suggestions but they might not be the ones that will work the best for you, your students or even that one student that you’ve been trying to connect with. Over the years I’ve taught, there have been some days where I felt like giving up. Truly, just felt exhausted because no matter what I did, it just did not work. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way but I hope that the more that we share our stories, we can help other educators who might be experiencing this same thing.

The greatest success I’ve had in making connections, after struggling to find ways to do so, have come about because I stopped trying to think so hard about how to connect. Instead, I just sat down, made time to lean in and listen, and to really talk with a student. That’s not something that I probably would have done 10 years ago. I can only keep moving forward with what I know now.

“When we know better, we do better,” as Maya Angelou said, and I definitely know better now.

Recently published on DefinedSTEM

The start of each new school year is such an exciting time for educators and students. After the summer break, educators head back into their classrooms and schools, hopefully feeling recharged, excited for the new school year, and ready with a list of new teaching ideas. Planning for the first day and first week back to school are so important, we want to set up our classrooms but also need to focus on the environment and culture we are creating. Of course, there are classroom expectations and class details that we need to share with our students, but we need to do something first. In starting to plan instruction and methods, we first should focus on learning about our students and showing that we are invested in their success. By starting here, we begin to develop our classroom culture and set up a welcoming environment for learning.

Welcoming students in and learning together

At the start of the school year, and every day thereafter, we should be intentional about being present. We need to spend time greeting all students and welcoming them back to school. Beyond the students on our rosters, It is important to acknowledge all students as we see them in the halls and throughout the building.  The power behind creating a positive and supportive climate in the building and in each classroom starts with teachers. When we are visible and show students that we are excited about school, we will start making connections that will help in fostering a positive classroom culture.

It can be challenging to start a daily routine of school after a summer break, or any extended break during the year. We must set a good example by engaging our students in conversations, showing an interest in who they are, encouraging and providing opportunities for peer connections. These intentional strategies to get to know our students will positively impact the learning environment

There are many ways to learn about our students. There are icebreakers and other games that can be used as a way to learn about one another. As educators, this is our opportunity to take time to encourage students to share their thoughts and interests with peers, and also what and how they hope to learn in your class.

Making those connections

There are many tools available to set up methods of communication and collaboration and to help students develop these critical skills for their future. For learning, we have to determine how to make ourselves available to students when they have questions or need additional support or resources. The questions do not stop when the school day ends, or over the weekend break. Without a way to ask questions during these times, students can become frustrated and the potential for learning diminishes. In our increasingly digital world, we have access to so many resources, but we also need to know how to find the right tools. First, I recommend that educators find a tool that enables students to connect, to ask questions, and to access classroom resources. Among the digital options available today, it still can be challenging to select the right one. A few examples are setting up a classroom website, a messaging app or using an LMS.

A classroom website is great for having a centralized location for students to access resources, post questions, review content and more. Websites and using LMS platforms can easily be set up using EdmodoSchoologyGoogle ClassroomWeebly a Google Site, or even Padlet.  Communication is also easier with a messaging tool that enables the sending of reminders, links to resources, or that integrates with other digital tools for learning. A few options are Bloomz (for parent-teacher communication) and Remind. There are several other options available, depending on your needs and the level you teach. I have used Voxer with several of my classes, especially for talking about Project Based Learning and sharing ideas and reflections.  One thing to keep in mind is to find out about the kind of technology and internet access available to the students.

Learning about each student

Even the slightest interactions can provide so much information about a student. It happens through those quick conversations as students enter the room, or by including fun activities in the lesson, and creating a supportive, welcoming environment where students feel valued. Engaging in some of these practices will help to build and foster positive relationships. The beginning of the year is the perfect time to start creating connections with one other.

Some quick ways to get started are by having students create a collaborative Google Slides Presentation, or use another digital tool, like Buncee or even Padlet perhaps,  for students to create one slide or add some information. Encourage each student to contribute by adding in fun facts, share how they spent the summer, or the weekend,  to help each member of the class to learn about one another. I did this with my Spanish III and IV students and it was fun to learn more about each student and their summer experiences and we had some fun in the process.

A personal goal at the start of each school year is to learn about my students and help everyone start to feel comfortable in our classroom. We used some icebreaker games, a great game of Bingo, shared stories, and it definitely helps students to learn about each other and for me to learn about them.  Our classroom culture continues to develop each and with it brings new learning opportunities.

Another great way that I have found to learn about each student is through the use of project-based learning. When students have the choice to determine what it is that they want to study and can drive their own learning, we can connect more with each student and understand who they are and what their passions are for learning.  The students can learn about their peers as well as become more globally aware of what it is like to be a student in different parts of the world and to just really explore whatever it is that they want. For us as educators, it creates a way to extend our own learning and we can continue to improve and learn and grow with and from our students,  starting from the beginning of the year.

 

 

**Slightly updated from an earlier post, but some ideas to get that energy back up

Ending  the year with 5 random ideas: Going back to basics 

The end of the school year is a great time to try some new ideas. With summer approaching,  we have time to reflect on methods used this year and to seek out new ideas and tools, to come up with creative and innovative methods and ways to welcome to students back in the fall. Hopefully these new activities will help to keep students more engaged in learning.

Here are 5 ways to have students connect, collaborate and create. These are also helpful for building peer relationships and for reviewing content or assessing skills at the end of the year. These ideas can be no-tech or using something suggested by the students.

1) Random games or icebreaker style: There are tons of ways to create icebreakers, whether by using paper and pencil or even with digital tools. For example, with Buncee, Piktochart or Canva students can come up with four statements about themselves to share with classmates. These can be in the form of three truths and a lie, as a way to help students learn about their peers and for the teacher to learn about the students. It is beneficial for making connections with one another, finding things in common, but also to appreciate the different perspectives and backgrounds students bring into the classroom. It will be a great way to enhance communication and comfort in the classroom and also, if tech is used, to start teaching students alternative ways to present information.

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2) Categories:  Create a template with 4 or 5 different categories related to the content area and grade level being taught. After deciding on categories, select 5 or 6 letters of the alphabet, or use numbers, that students must use to come up with a word, topic or date, that ties into each category. Students can randomly be assigned to small groups and can then share what their group came up with. This activity will promote communication between peers and provide an opportunity for collaboration and some fun as well. It can also be a good way to have students review, be creative and brainstorm new ideas even. It will provide time for teachers to assess student needs and decide the next steps in the lesson, as we keep moving toward the summer break.

 

3) Word art: Students need different ways to practice the content and one way that helps some learners is through visual learning. Students can use vocabulary, verbs or any content material to generate word art. Students can create a word cloud using paper and marker or try using a digital tool like WordCloud, or WordItOut, or other similar word cloud generators available. After the word clouds are created, teachers can build on the learning potential by having students post their work in the classroom, having a gallery walk where other groups can discuss the terms, brainstorm new ideas, define or translate them (if a foreign language) and increase the authentic learning materials in the classroom.

 

4) Music: Music can really liven up the classroom and be useful for helping students remember the material. One idea is to have students create rhymes or a song using a vocabulary list, names of famous people, state or world capitals, monuments or anything related to the content area. Students can work in pairs or a small group and create a song which can be used as a mnemonic device, to help them retain the information in a more meaningful way. For presentation purposes, students can then have the choice of sharing live in class or perhaps trying a tool like Flipgrid or Recap to record and share with classmates. It can even be followed up by posting the video on a Padlet and encouraging students to comment in writing, or leave a reply on Flipgrid. These student creations will add to the authentic classroom resources and engage students more in learning.

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5) Creating games: Students can create a game as a way to help themselves and their peers practice the material. It can be a game made up using paper or any materials the students decide on or created using one of the digital tools available like Kahoot, Quizlet or Quizizz. Students will have a more authentic learning experience when they select the specific vocabulary they need to practice, which will will give more personalized learning opportunities.

In trying one or all of these activities, it presents an opportunity for the students to work together, to build their relationships, to collaborate and to engage in more authentic learning experiences. And it provides the teacher with an opportunity to step aside and become a facilitator, and to use the time as an opportunity to not only assess student learning but to interact more and provide feedback for students.

 

There are many ways to practice the content material and engage students more in learning, these are just a few of the ideas that I have tried in my classroom this school year, and they are a work in progress. Knowing that something works takes reflection and student input, and one thing I have noticed in the few short weeks we have been in school, is that students are asking more questions and thinking of new ways to extend their learning. I have more time to move around and work with every student and provide more individualized instruction and really understand each student’s progress.

They are asking, “Can we…?, What if…?, Is it okay to…?” and adding their creativity into our activities. They are also suggesting improvements, “Maybe we could…, It might be better if you…, and This has helped me to remember…can we keep doing these activities?”  And my answer to all of these has been “Yes, I think we should try it.” If it works, then great. And if not, we will try again!”