Starting the School Year Off on the Right Track
#6 Blog of 2021
I was meeting with an administrator on the fly—as in, I followed her into an office and sat down while she was heating up her lunch—and the talk turned to social-emotional learning. We were talking over NEST, our school’s version of an advisory period, and I offered to show her the Conversation Cards I’d created for my own Restorative Circles. As I was pulling them up on my phone, she shared an important story with me, one that got me thinking. I’m paraphrasing, but she said she’d been to a conference where she’d been asked to bring an item with her, ostensibly, I’m guessing, to use as a talking piece. She’d chosen something, kind of rehearsed her thoughts about it, but when it came time to share in this circle of strangers, she’d gotten way more emotional than she considered ok for a room of strangers. She told me how it had taken her by surprise and how uncomfortable she’d become, even though she thought she’d prepared herself ahead of time. Understandably, when I began telling her about my plans for Restorative Circles, she grew curious about how a classroom teacher could navigate the emotions around “real talk” that happens in those trusted spaces.
This conversation had been rattling around in my head when I was scrolling through Facebook and found a post from an organization called Restoration Threads titled “‘Back to School’ Activities That Can Traumatize Your Students and What to Do Instead.” I LOVED the advice they shared about creating activities that do not trigger any students. To be completely honest, my own attempts to do activities that are non-threatening and trauma-informed had never really considered foster care. I’ve always paid more attention to socio-economic issues (maybe not compare vacations, right?), but this made total sense to me. I reposted with my own admonition to “Please read as you plan ‘welcome back’ activities. Some of the worst harm we can do happens without ill-intentions, but we need to do better when we know better!”
This year, more than ever, I’m trying to be mindful of these first days of school.
What can we do to start the school year off on the right track without unintentionally triggering our already nervous students? How can we be sure that an activity or question won’t bring to the surface negative emotions or cause a student to put up a wall around themselves? This year, more than ever, I’m trying to be mindful of these first days of school. My son is going into eighth grade, and he hasn’t been in the building since November of last year. I have a long list of fears for him, and I’m sure he has a bunch of his own. I’m currently planning out those first few days carefully, and here’s my plan to ease the way for students and avoid triggers that might add to their normal middle school jitters.
I’ve written about this before, how I used to think I was the cool teacher who let kiddos sit wherever they wanted. Then I learned better, and I’ve provided assigned seats to begin the year for over a decade. However, this year, the need is even greater to provide this one simple courtesy, no matter how you choose to assign seats. Why? Some students, like my son, have only been on Google Meets with the same few dozen kiddos, many with their cameras off. The anxiety invoked by “sit wherever you want” is actually really sad. So many kids are disconnected and don’t have the normal comfort level of seeing the same students in their classes. Disrupted education, social distancing and masks make it really hard to know the social cues of entering a room, so please use some sort of system for seating. Alphabetical works, but I like to randomize it, so I’ve created seating icons that I’ll laminate and Velcro to the backs of seats in my room (or the wall above the couches). This year my icons are Pusheen, Hello Kitty, Mater, Kermit and Walter, but I change it up. I like groups of five, so that is why I only have five different icons. As students walk in, I’ll hand them a laminated index card with one of the icons. They’ll have to find one of the seats with that icon. It will give them some choice, which I love, but it will also prevent anyone from being scared as they search desperately for a seat. Immediate disaster averted!
No tech in class for two weeks
Pre-pandemic, I LOVED being the teacher who used tech all the time. We’ve been paperless for seven years, and if there is an electronic review game, I’ve tried it, especially if it lets kiddos use their phones. Quizlet Live is my favorite (you can read about it in this MiddleWeb blog post), but Kahoot is so cool that my 16-year-old and her friends used to make them for fun to review. However, that was all pre-pandemic. While I loved technology for how it allowed me to still connect with my students while they were home and how it helped me prepare engaging lessons, we’ve all felt “Zoom fatigue.”
I’ll still use all the tech that I’ve used in the past, and some really awesome new platforms like EdPuzzle that I picked up during the pandemic, but my special education co-teacher and I decided we are going no-tech in class for two weeks. First, it is a relief for all of us, but more importantly, there are many kiddos who were absolutely miserable learning online. The last thing I want to do is dredge that up. We are going to use an 11 x 17 posterboard and have students cut and glue from old magazines to do a “one pager.” We will ask them to include in their collage their name, a few quotes they like, a few song lyrics and a picture (drawn or a photo) of themselves, as well as some of their favorite things. As they are working on this, we will circulate, ask questions and start the important work of building relationships! I’m more than a little excited.
Survey students and their families
I’ll be sending my students and their families a survey via email, along with important information about our class. This is posted on the “ELA 8 Fam” tab of my website, so feel free to take a look. I know that this defies my “no tech for two weeks” policy, but it will happen outside of class. The main purpose of the survey is to gather basic details about how students see themselves (shy, outgoing, organized, disorganized, artistic, athletic, musical, etc.) AND how their families view them. Believe it or not, these are often very different, and the data from the survey can paint a clearer picture for me as I plan activities. There’s a section that asks, “Is there anything I need to know that will help me teach you/your child?” and “Is there anything else you’d like me to know (confidentially)?” This section always provides crucial information to help me know if there are any triggering topics. For example, last year I had a student whose brother had died a few years ago, and his mom shared that on the survey, noting that he might talk about it more than appropriate. The student didn’t mention it at all on his survey and, as it turned out, never mentioned it in class. However, I would not want to unintentionally trigger a student in a situation such as that.
The survey information is always useful to me, and I often marvel at how much information that I definitely need to know somehow doesn’t show up in school records. I’ve found out that students were homeless, survived a car accident, were adopted, couldn’t use the internet because they’d been stalked by a sexual predator, or had parents in jail or moms who were actually the grandma. The list goes on, but I make sure this survey gets done. If it doesn’t, I send a reminder email. If the email doesn’t prompt its completion, I call that family and talk through it in an informal conversation. The most important data I can have about a student is from this survey.
The most important consideration is to create a calm classroom community.
Asking students to share out about their vacations (many students don’t have this luxury), having students create a family tree (foster kiddos, adopted kiddos or those who simply don’t know will be mortified), and forcing chaotic get-to-know-you activities can trigger students. Forcing trust without it being earned, and having students touch in any way (hold hands and try to untangle), can cause anxiety to spike. The most important consideration is to create a calm classroom community. Play-Doh. Coloring. Optional participation. The best barometer of the activity, for me, is to think of a student in the past who struggled and weigh out how they’d do. Then, consider whether a room of adults would want to do the “icebreaker” or not. If they wouldn’t, skip it. Adults have the luxury of walking out of the room for a phone call or a bathroom break, and many do when the “forced fun” begins. Students don’t have that ability, and the last thing we want to do is make them want to flee the space.
This blog isn’t meant to shame anyone. Trust me when I tell you that I’ve learned from my many mistakes, and I will continue to do so. If you make a mistake and can tell that an activity or question has upset a child, be honest and say, “I’m sorry to see this is upsetting. Let’s switch gears,” and then move on. This year, more than ever, I think we should plan to make our classrooms calm, peaceful and predictable—in other words, the opposite of the outside world.
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