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116: Connect with your Students as a New Year Begins

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One thing 2020 has taught me for sure is the importance of connection.

For students, it’s a constant struggle right now, to feel part of their friendship groups, their class community, their school. Whether they’re in person – but not allowed to come close to anyone, sit together at lunch, give a high five, or engage in group work – or at home, feeling like a tiny cog in a vast spinning wheel of technology, it’s very easy to feel alone.

No one exactly knows how to fix this. We just do the best we can. We keep trying, and keep caring.

So today, I want to share some projects and programs you might want to consider for January to help students connect more with you and with each other. Just as the beginning of the school year is a great time to build community and get to know students, the beginning of the calendar year is a nice time to take a week or two to refresh your relationships within each class, and never more so than this year.

You can listen in on the player below, or on Apple Podcasts, Sticher, Blubrry, or Spotify. Or simply read on for some top takeaways.

Alright, let’s do this. Here are six ways to build connection as 2021 begins.
#1: The One Word Project
I love this project! While we adults are often given opportunities to set goals (with a million different acronyms to try to guide us to make them stick), students don’t have as many opportunities to ponder what they really want out of school and life. The one-word project asks them to take a few minutes to think about what they want their year to be like, and choose one word to sum it up. Do they want their year to be shimmery? Confident? Joyful? Safe? Zesty?
You know me, I have a tendency to give a one-pageresque makeover to any activity I can, so I like to have students create a poster for their word that illustrates it a bit. You can have them add drawings, quotations, colorful lettering.
If you can, find a way to let your students share their words. Maybe you put the one-pagers up on the wall to inspire them all winter. Or you create a digital gallery and give students a chance to “walk” around it for a while and see what others are feeling and hoping for.
Revisit the words after a few weeks and ask kids to reflect on how they’re doing with their goal word.
#2 Post-Pandemic Vision Board
A whole lot of time at home alone in the winter sure is a nice time to imagine the future. A vision board is a nice activity to do with students at any time, but they might especially appreciate letting their imagination wander along unquarantined paths at the moment. This activity is easily done on a Google slide or on paper, and again, lends itself pretty simply to a gallery share. You might have students reflect on their vision boards in writing to share with you, which will likely give you a lot of insight into how they’re feeling right now.
#3 Start a First Chapter Friday Program
This isn’t the first time I’ve suggested this, and it won’t be the last! Choice reading is an incredible way to connect with kids. Sharing books they will love with them is a powerful way to start getting to know them better, because it will help them show up more in class. It will lead them to want to talk about books with you. It will help them relax and Desiree. It will let them see just one more way that you care.
First Chapter Fridays provide an easy win for you every. Single. Week. Plus, they’re so easy to prep for blended learning. Simply record yourself reading a bunch of your favorite first chapters in a single setting. Then you can play them all term long, meetings the needs of learners at home and in class, regardless of scenario shifts. Plus, you won’t get a hoarse voice reading aloud to multiple sections.
#4 Devote a little Class Time to Check-Ins
My friend Christina from The Daring English teacher shared an amazing strategy in episode 113 a few weeks ago, and I’d love for you to try it this month. She has her students wait in the waiting room for their online class for a few minutes while she individually conferences with a few kids from the class each day. She quickly pulls in kids who are failing to ask how they’re doing and suggest an assignment or two they could complete to make a huge difference in their grade. She quickly pulls in kids she wants to congratulate on something wonderful they’ve done and compliments them in a quick one-on-one.
It’s made a huge difference for her students. And it’s such a doable strategy for you to try if you’re teaching online. Click over to episode 113 here if you want to hear more about it and get more of Christina’s great ideas!
#5 Try Attendance Questions
Have you tried these yet? Do you love them as much as I do? Early on in teaching I realized the last thing I wanted was to hear all my students say “here” during attendance. So I started asking fun questions and having them respond with quick answers instead of the word “here.”
Online, this translates easily into a quick Jamboard activity to start class, or you can have kids respond in the chat.
Ask easy, fun questions like this:
  • What would you rather have, s’mores gelato or hot Cheet-ohs?
  • Who’s your favorite musical artist?
  • Would you rather have your own private plane or a big trampoline in your room?
  • Who do you like better, Ironman or Spiderman?
  • Would you rather read a graphic novel or YA fiction?
#6 Connect through a Meaningful Creative Project
If you’ve got a chunk of class that’s not full now before finals, or some room to try something new to kick off the year, this is a great time to let students explore something they really care about through a meaningful project. I love the idea of giving kids two or three weeks to pursue something they’re really interested in and then either blog or podcast about it. It’s like a mini genius hour, with a clear and easy tie to ELA through the final product. Maybe they want to blog about rebuilding cars or learning how to watercolor paint. Maybe they want to podcast about fashion, local politics, or cooking. Wherever their interest lies, they can focus in on it and create content for listeners to learn more.
Eventually, have them showcase their blogs or podcasts back to the class. Everyone will get to know each other better through this chance for an authentic audience. All the better if you can find a way to share their work with the wider world.
So there you have it, a few creative ways to build on your connections with your students after this break. I bet your wheels are turning with lots more. I hope you found at least one new possibility you’re excited to try!

hey there!

I'm Betsy

I’ll help you find the creative ELA strategies that will light up your classroom. Get ready for joyful teaching!







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One Comment

  • I've been doing a "Drop it in the chat" slide during our remote learning time. It's the first thing kids see on the screen when they come into our Zoom sessions. Great conversation starters and a fun way to have a few laughs before we move into content!


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