As we turn our attention to the upcoming school year, we do so with many questions and much uncertainty. Will we start the school year face-to-face or remotely? If we are face-to-face, how will social distancing guidelines change the way we teach? The list of questions is endless. And unsolvable. And possibly paralyzing. How do we plan with all of these unknowns?
How about if we start with what we know for sure and go from there? Sound good? One thing we know for sure is that connecting with and building relationships with students matters. Today I am suggesting that we plan for this question:
How will we connect with our students this school year?
This kind of planning will be time well-spent–whether we are teaching face-to-face, virtually, or a combination this year.
Why Connecting with Students Matters
First, let’s talk about why this even matters. In The Curious Classroom, Harvey Daniels explains the importance of knowing our students before we teach them. He shares a quote from Donald Graves which says that “you are not ready to teach a child until you know ten things about her life outside of school.” Children’s author Avi says, “If you want to teach me to read and write, first you have to love me. John Hattie’s research concluded that “teachers who have created positive teacher-student relationships are more likely to have above-average effects on student achievement.” Said simply, students learn better when they know we care about them.
“You are not ready to teach a child until you know ten things about her life outside of school.” –Donald Graves
So let’s think about a few simple ways that we can build relationships with our students this year, both virtually and face-to-face.
Simple Tools You Can Use to Connect with Students Virtually and Face-to-Face
Student Interviews: When Jenna’s son Cameron was about to start preschool, his teacher set aside a morning in late August to conduct ten-minute, one-on-one interviews with each of her new three-year-olds. Miss Dawn sat with him, shoulder-to-shoulder, and asked about his interests as they played with dinosaurs and Magna-Tiles. At the end of the ten minutes, she pulled out his name tag and asked him what name he wanted on his name tag. I am not sure if this was something she did with every child, or if she just remembered Jenna telling her that most days, Cameron preferred to be called Gavin (Gavin= his idol/big cousin). This small gesture made Jenna hopeful for the new school year because she knew that knowing Cameron mattered to his teacher.
When we teach face-to-face in a classroom of 30 students, we might not conduct ten-minute interviews. Instead, we find moments to get to know each child as they enter our classrooms in the morning or while they are working or playing on the playground. If we begin the year teaching virtually, we will miss out on these little pockets in our day to get to know our students.
If you have to start the year with distance learning, you can be like Miss Dawn and conduct quick one-on-one interviews with your students through phone/virtual platform calls or socially-distanced at your school playground or a local park.
Building Connections Conferring Form: Taking cues from the Harvey Daniels quote above, here is an easy way to quickly learn about students’ interests outside of school. Devote one conferring form for the purpose of gathering non-academic information. The form consists of a box for each student with a number of bullet points and spaces. Push yourself to really listen, observe, and get to know your students during the first few weeks of school. Learn about their families, hobbies, passions, and their favorites. The personal information can be gathered from many sources–while listening to students talk, by interviewing them, by observing what they draw and write about.
Can this be done virtually? Yes! Recently, Jenna, Christy, and I led a virtual meeting on Zoom. We spent the first 30 minutes inviting the participants to converse and share a few things about themselves. Unbeknownst to the participants, Jenna was listening intently and gathering information. Look at how much she learned about people she had just met:
Reading Interview: We all know that the beginning of the year is filled with assessments that help us plan for our students’ learning needs. But instead of starting with running records or spelling inventories, I always started with reading interviews. I adapted my reading interview from Sibberson and Szymusiak’s Day-to-Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop.
While the rest of my students were reading from book baskets at the centers of their tables and exploring the books in their new classroom, I sat with individual students and asked them about their reading lives. When you look at this form, you might be tempted to distribute a copy to each student and ask them to complete it themselves. PLEASE DON’T!
The purpose of the reading interviews is to connect with the new readers in your classroom. Look them in the eye. Learn what they love (or hate) about reading. Discover some of their passions so you can help them find just-right books. Let them know their reading life matters to you and that you will do everything in your power to grow them as readers this year.
Don’t let the length scare you. The questions are just suggestions–no need to ask every question. Just let the form guide some natural conversation. But DO write down their answers and DO save the form. I always 3-hole-punched mine and kept them in an assessment binder tabbed for each reader.
Can we connect with students virtually? Yes! These interviews can still be conducted via phone or your school’s virtual platform. You may be tempted to just send it as a Google form for students and parents to complete at home, but I urge you not to do it this way–I promise that the connections will be much stronger if you actually do the interview!
Connecting with Parents to Build Relationships with Students
Parent Surveys: Who knows a child better than their parent? I found that tapping into this invaluable resource gave me a headstart in building strong relationships with both my students and their families. I used a very simple tool–this open-ended Parent Survey–to start the year out strong.
Parents often thanked me for partnering with them in this simple but impactful way. I always 3-hole punched the completed forms and kept them in my assessment binder under each child’s tab. Referring to it throughout the year helped me keep a pulse on my students.
Building Student-to-Student Connections
To foster a classroom community and build student-to-student connections, we need to provide opportunities for students to bring what is important and relevant to them outside of school into our classrooms. According to Unlocking the Power of Classroom Talk, students are already building community and relationships virtually. We need to honor the ways in which they are doing this. Being in touch with what’s relevant to students is key to bridging their lives to our classroom (face-to-face or virtual). But if you’re not sure what’s going on in pop culture these days, where do you start?
What’s on Your Mind? Unlocking the Power of Classroom Talk suggests throwing out the question, “What’s on your mind?” Allowing students to brainstorm and share ideas, perhaps in your virtual chat box, will give you some insight. Just this month, Mr. Beast’s Challenge was all the rage and would likely have showed up in your classroom lists, something most of us would not know without inquiring. Once you have a compilation of what’s on kids’ minds, you can find patterns in their responses and offer break-out rooms for like-minded/like-interested students to gather around. Research has found that this kind of social small talk is directly correlated to student productivity. Social talk paves the way for work talk.
Coach into Student Conversations: Another way you can foster your classroom community and build connections is by scaffolding and coaching into student conversations. Allowing students to first talk in partnerships around a topic gives them time to think collaboratively and form their ideas in a less intimidating space. Two partnerships can then come together to form a club. As they share out their thoughts and the responses they developed inside their partnership, they can develop these ideas further in the clubs. And finally, these clubs can join the whole class for a conversation on this same topic. By this time, students have had plenty of thinking time and rehearsal within their partnership and club and often feel prepared to participate with the whole class.
I hope these simple tips for connecting with your students, whether virtually or face-to-face, will help you start this school year out strong!
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