There’s quite a weight to all that’s unknown right now. We’ve all seen (and questioned the feasibility of) some of the CDC suggestions for schools re-opening, and I think we’re all wondering if there’s really any chance we’ll be back in school come fall.
And even though school might be done for you right now, and technically you’re on vacation, I’d bet all these unknowns are keeping you up at night. Because how on earth do you make a plan for fall this summer if you don’t have any idea whether you’ll have a classroom full of students or a tenuous virtual connection to a bunch of kids you’ve never met?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I have a plan. I wanted to share it with you, because with all this uncertainty, plans mean a lot right now.
Here’s what I think you’ll like about the unit I’m going to share with you today:
- It’s flexible to various scenarios. If you’ve got students in school, it works. If you’ve got students signing into Google Hangouts or Zooms for Day one, it works. If it’s a combination of in-person and virtual, it works.
- This unit puts building classroom community and relationships between you and your students at the forefront. Whether kids are coming back from the strain and pain of quarantine or getting to know you and each other through their computers, I believe this is really important.
- This unit requires no text, so you don’t need to worry about uploading PDFs, distributing books, or emailing docs. Leave your favorite books for later, when you can hand them to your students with a smile. The “texts” for this unit are the life histories of the members of your classroom community.
The basic premise of this opening unit is identity. It’s a chance to get to know your students, and to activate their ELA skills with the purpose of community building. One of my favorite things about English is that its skills – reading, critical thinking, writing, speaking – can be applied and practiced in so many different scenarios. In this case, kids will be developing those skills by sharing about themselves in creative ways. You’ll set a strong foundation for the year, and also see where your students are in their development as communicators.
Here, I want to share activities you can weave into your unit. I’m sure you’ll add many ideas of your own, but I’m hoping today to provide you with a basic blueprint.
Listen in to today’s episode on the podcast player below (or on the platform of your choice), or read on for all the details.
OK, let’s dive in!
Unit Activity Idea: Digital Bulletin Boards
I’ve long since learned that day one is NOT the time to read the syllabus out loud. Any first day I spent standing in the front of the room talking for longer than one minute was a first day I regretted! Set the tone from the start that the class will be a place of active learning and creating.
Normally I suggest having kids work on name tent one-pagers on the first day. This simple activity gives them a chance to share something about themselves with you and their classmates and helps make it easy for you to learn their names when you take quick photos of everyone with their name tents before they leave.
For an easy virtual twist on this activity, kick things off by having every student make a digital bulletin board about themselves. Just open and send out a collaborative slide show (anyone with the link can edit) in Google Slides for each class, with your slide about you at the top. Let every student fill one slide with photos, quotes, and a little about themselves. By the end of class, go on a virtual gallery walk together and meet everyone. Then you can study up on photos/names later on!
Here are some ideas for what to ask students to put on their bulletin boards:
- Write the name you wish to be called in class (first and last) across the top. Please make it big and bold so we can see it easily.
- In the center, include at least one photo of yourself.
- Across the bottom, add a quotation that is meaningful to you.
- In the upper right hand corner, represent (with words and/or images and symbols) something you love to do.
- In the lower right hand corner, put in the name of your favorite book.
- In the upper left hand corner, represent a place that matters to you.
- In the lower left hand corner, represent your greatest current goal in life.
Unit Activity Idea: Watch “The Danger of a Single Story”
Once everyone has begun to introduce themselves, this amazing Ted Talk can lay the groundwork for the concept of this unit. You want to get to know your students, and for them to know each other, with depth. Not just from one single story they might share. As they watch, have them create sketchnotes with some of their key takeaways or a one-pager like this one.
Unit Activity Idea: 6 Word Memoirs
Six word memoirs are so cool. They make a really low-stress, high impact assignment for getting students writing about themselves and seeing how much power really is in a few words. There’s a lovely six word memoirs website with a teaching section for you to check out. But I bet you already have the idea. You can invite your students to write a six word story about a time in their lives, a six word story that somehow represents their identity now, a six word story about their experience with pandemic… you get the idea. Then, if you wish, extend it by having them reflect on their six word story or illustrate the six words. Perhaps bring them back into a collaborative Google slide presentation again, with each student adding their six word story, illustration, and reflection on a slide. You can find my version of this project here, if you’re interested.
Unit Activity Idea: Personal Infographics
Here’s another project to get students reflecting on their lives and sharing about themselves, but it also introduces an important medium for today. Infographics are everywhere these days, and understanding how they’re created and how to make an impact with design elements that complement the research is a great skill for students to have. I’ve already gone on a pretty deep dive into this one in another blog post, so I’m going to send you there to find the tips and tools that help make it easy to teach about infographics. Just add a twist – the students themselves will be the topic of their infographics! I suggest you introduce the project with a short screencast showing them some infographics from around the web and point them towards the Canva introduction video in the other blog post, and then have them use Canva to create and download their infographics to share back to the class.
Unit Activity Idea: Podcast Stories
For this project, students will have a chance to try out the world of audio as they share a little about themselves in a short interview. Consider starting by sharing a podcast episode from Guy Raz’s show, How I Built This, in which he interviews famous entrepreneurs about their lives and businesses. You know your students best, but I like the shows on Ben & Jerry’s and Milkbar. Once your students have a chance to hear how Guy Raz questions his guests and shares their stories, invite them to craft a short audio story of their own, about their own lives. They can ask a family member to ask them questions or just start with a question and then record their own stories about it. This task can be as complex or as simple as you want it to be, depending on how far you want to dive into the tech of podcast mixing. Students can use a simple audio recorder (like this one) or go so far as to upload onto anchor.fm.
Unit Activity Idea: I am From Poem Project
The “I am from” poem is one of the easiest, most automatic wins in the world of poetry. The template for creating a poem to mimic George Ella Lyon’s beautiful piece about her heritage makes it simple for students to write detailed, unique pieces of their own. I’ve got a whole blog post devoted to this one too, so if you’d like to get kids writing these poems as part of your opening unit, check it out here. This project would lend itself beautifully to the creation of a collaborative poem on a shared Google Doc, or again to a collaborative final display in Google Slides, with each student creating a slide with their poem and a variety of images representing its pieces collaged together.
Unit Activity Idea: One Word Project
Finally, I suggest the one word project. This is an easy tone-setter for the year. Every student brainstorms a word they want to use as a guiding force for the year, to inspire their words and actions. Have them create a poster for their word, perhaps taking a picture with their poster to share, or else recording a short video to explain why they chose their words.
When you finish your unit, whether you’re in the classroom with your students, or connecting with them online, this series of assignments would culminate very well in some kind of final gallery or identify portfolio. Remind them of the Ted Talk you started out with, “The Danger of a Single Story,” and ask them to choose works they have created that show the varied parts of who they are. Then they could create a blog portfolio (on a free host like Blogger), a video featuring their work, or a set of Google Slides. Even a private Instagram feed would work.
Hopefully by the time you read through their final portfolios and respond to them, you’ll feel like you know them much better, and you’ll also have a clearer picture of their ELA skills. They, in turn, will have had lots of time to reflect on who they are and what matters to them, while trying out a range of real-world ELA skills they’ll be improving throughout the year. They’ll also be getting to know each other, and hopefully be getting to trust each other a bit more too.
These are wonderful ideas. Thank you for your creativity and devotion to teaching and teachers.
I'm so glad they're helpful! It's my pleasure!
Thanks for your thoughts! So helpful in thinking about next year. Are you able to post the link to the 6 word memoir website for reference? I couldn't find it in the post.
Hi! It's linked in the six word memoir paragraph – just look for the purple text where it says "six word memoirs website."
When I first started teaching, I focused on identity, names, and getting to know students and allowing them to get to know each other. As the years went by, my focus on the first days of school turned to rules and expectations. If this experience ending the year virtually has taught me nothing else, it has showed me that relationships and trust are the most important components of a classroom…physically or virtually. Thank you for reminding me of that. I am both excited about these ideas and going back to starting the year with identity, and I am also experiencing relief. The students and my relationship with them is the most important. The rest are just details over which I have no control!
I'm so glad you feel a sense of relief and excitement over this path for fall, and I will be cheering for you over here!
This podcast was wonderful. I have already incorporated many of your ideas into my curriculum. As a matter of fact, I have our whole middle school utilizing one pagers after I presented your podcast and one pages at a department meeting! This encouraged me to continue to add some of the things I have been thinking about but haven't yet done. I think an identity unit to start September is the perfect way to go. I also love the I am From poetry project. I did not do it this year, but you have inspired me to include that one for sure.
Thank you so much! I'm just thrilled to hear you found these ideas helpful, and that you are spreading the word about one-pagers too! That's awesome. I can't wait to hear about how your identity unit goes – I hope you will share with me on FB or Insta. 🙂
I teach a supplemental English class for students that want to apply to an elite HS in my area. This summer is going to be online, and I was dreading it! I still kind of am, but this gave me tons of great ideas for the first day or two!
I'm so glad I could help you get launched in a positive way, Tracy! Thank you!
This is fabulous! Thank you for the reassurance, wisdom, and creative ideas!
Thank you so much, Dawn! I'm so glad it was helpful. 🙂
Betsy, Thank you for these wonderful ideas! Do you any other ideas of good Ted Talks on the identity theme? I used The Danger of a Single Story last year and will have many of the same students so I am trying to find another great talk to substitute. Your ideas and advice are so appreciated, always!
I don't see int the show notes the links that you mentioned. THere is no purple text in the paragraphs on my screen. I am looking specifically for some more info on the Where I'm From / I am from …