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I want to start out by saying how incredibly proud I am to be a part of the teaching community.
I've been connecting with so many of you inside my R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy Private Facebook Group and in our Beginning Teacher Talk FB Group and it has been amazing to watch you grow into this strange, new normal.
I love how creative, how positive, and how willing you are to embrace and lean into the ambivalence around you right now.
I love and am so proud of you for your willingness to learn. To stay positive. And to do the work you need to in order to feel truly ready for your first (or second, or third) year of teaching.
Now I know, there is a whole lot of weirdness in the air right now as we think about what school might look like when we go back in the fall. We don’t know if teachers are going to actually be in classrooms or if everyone is going to have to start the year online, or if there is going to be some kind of a hybrid model when it comes to back to school time.
The thing is – it doesn’t really matter. However we go back to school in the fall, the point is that we will be going back to school in some format, and that’s something we can all look forward to. We all need that rhythm of knowing that August and September mean going back to school, in whatever format that is going to take, and it will likely take different formats around the world.
My little nephew in Canada went back to school for 2 days a week at the beginning of June because their school year ends at the end of June in Canada, and there were very few cases in their area. My cousin keeps telling me how excited he has been to go back to school because it’s all new.
He not only gets to see his friends and he loves his teacher, but he’s used to needing to social distance. He’s used to everyone wearing masks around him now. So going back to school, he wasn’t surprised to see everyone practicing social distancing and he expected that things would not look quite the same because he sees it everywhere he goes in his life.
So I just want to encourage you – even if your first year of teaching might not look the same as what you had originally intended or expected, your students will likely be thrilled to be back at school, even if it’s only part-time or staggered times or whatever form it takes, because they miss that feeling of community that you amazing teachers create inside your classrooms.
Now some of you might be thinking, “Well hold on Lori - what happens if we aren’t able to go back to school? What if we have to start the year teaching online? How the heck are we supposed to develop community when we haven’t even met the students in person yet?”
Don’t worry. We’re going to talk all about that in an upcoming episode. I truly believe that in today’s digital world, it’s entirely possible to develop community from the start of the school year, and we will talk about that in an upcoming episode.
But today, we are going to talk about 10 engaging lessons that don't include small groups because what I hear most often when it comes to going back to school is “but we won’t be able to do group work,” and I just want to remind you of many of the super cool and very effective tools you have at your disposal when it comes to creating engaging and meaningful lessons – even if students can’t physically be close to each other.
And by the way – before we dive into these ideas, I do want to encourage you because small groups actually can be possible if your school invests in clear plastic dividers that would allow students to sit at a table close to each other but still maintaining physical separation from each other.
So, don’t worry too much about this because I’m confident that schools will come up with creative and innovative ways to still allow you to work in small groups with students inside your classroom.
We just need to be patient and we need to be willing to contribute to the conversation. If you have ideas for innovative ways that schools and classrooms can keep kids safe but still provide opportunities for things like small group work, don’t hesitate to reach out to your administration to share your ideas. Let’s all work to become part of the solution.
All right, let’s dive into ten ways you can get your kiddos engaged beyond small groups:
The first way that you can get your kiddos engaged when they have to social distance is by considering teaching your students how to hold debates. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I had a teacher who stepped outside of the box to have us hold debates inside our classroom, and I still remember this experience because when you have to debate something, it really forces you to think about what you want to say and to get clear about what your argument is – and why you hold the position you do.
Especially if you are teaching persuasive writing or opinion writing in your classroom, it is especially helpful for kids to talk about what they want to write about before they begin putting pen to paper.
Therefore, it would be an incredibly meaningful exercise to choose topics that kids actually care about, like,
“It’s a good idea to open up the McDonald’s indoor playground,” or
“Learning at school or learning online is a better way to learn,” or
“It’s a great idea to have classes outdoors.”
Not only would these topics be an insightful way to learn about how children are processing all of this, but it would provide some meaningful conversation as a springboard for writing.
Debates are fantastic during this time especially because students can stay in their desks during this activity, and you can place desks apart but facing each other across the room (assuming you have smaller class sizes) so children still get the feeling of being on a team as they discuss their points.
Click here to check out some examples of how you can get started with holding debates inside your classroom.
Another fun lesson strategy is to have your students create movie posters as a reader response activity to a book they’ve read. Have your students imagine that the piece they just read is going to be turned into a movie. Show them examples of movie posters for movies that they might have seen in the past couple of years and highlight key features, such as the main idea of the movie, the roles the characters play and the actors or actresses who are playing each role.
Then ask your students to think about the following questions:
How will the main idea of their book be showcased in their poster?
What roles would be needed in the movie?
What popular actor/actress would play each role?
Encourage your students to use words, drawings, quotes, and color to complete their poster and create a movie poster that will make people want to see the movie! I’ve linked to a template that you can download to use as your students create their own posters – it’s on p. 33 of this free download – as well as 60 other ideas for fun and creative reader response ideas from Scholastic!
Related to creating movie posters, another fun activity to do with your students is to have them listen to podcasts and then create brochures about what they learned as they listened to the podcast!
On Teachers Pay Teachers, Teach Create Motivate has a product with 24 different response brochures that you can also use for distance learning – so if you need to transition to distance learning, this might be another great option for you! Just click here to check out this super cool product.
Especially with everything that children need to process in terms of what’s going on in our world right now, taking more opportunities to help children (and ourselves) to practice stillness can help to decrease anxiety and promote happiness.
One of the most popular apps for helping to teach mindfulness to children is called Headspace. This app is wonderful because they customized their sessions for three age groups: 5 and under, 6-8 and 9-12.
So, no matter what age group you are teaching, there’s something for everyone. It may have seemed odd to have considered teaching something like mindfulness inside a lot of classrooms pre-COVID, but I don’t think you will get a lot of resistance from parents or from administration when you are purposely focused on giving children healthy ways to process their feelings and potential anxiety.
The project approach to curriculum is certainly not new, but it may experience a surge in popularity in classrooms right now because at the heart of this approach to learning is a deep exploration into a topic that is of particular interest to a child.
According to the Project Approach website,
“The Project Approach refers to a set of teaching strategies that enable teachers to guide students through in-depth studies of real-world topics. Projects have a complex but flexible framework within which teaching and learning are seen as interactive processes. When teachers implement the Approach successfully, students feel highly motivated and actively involved in their own learning, leading them to produce high-quality work and to grow as individuals and collaborators.”
With schools doing things differently in classrooms right now and with expectations being a little more flexible, it’s possible that the project approach might be a possibility inside your classroom this year. When I implemented the project approach inside my 2nd grade and my 4th grade classrooms, my students absolutely loved it. I usually did this as an end-of-the-year project in my classroom, and it really helped to keep my students engaged until the end of the school year.
As a follow-up to the Project Approach to learning, you can also have students give presentations about the topic they researched for their project so the entire class can learn more about the topic that each child chose.
We did 3 or 4 presentations each day at the end of the school year in my classroom, and it was definitely a student favorite when I asked my students to write their top 10 favorite experiences of the year as a page in our year books!
You may also want to put more focused effort into designing and implementing a social justice project inside your classroom this year. I’ve linked to a fantastic article on Edutopia about ways that we can begin infusing lessons in anti-racism into our classrooms in small and impactful ways.
From being more intentional about the kinds of books we are reading to our students and watching videos that teach tolerance to volunteering or creating your very own community project, there are a variety of creative and meaningful ways to begin this conversation and infuse these important lessons into our classrooms.
Also, giving children opportunities to talk about what they’re seeing on the news and on social media will be another healthy way to help them to process everything that’s going on in the world around them.
On a much lighter note, just because children can’t work in small groups, that doesn’t mean that you can’t get super creative and have some fun inside your classrooms!
One way that I did that with my students each year was to create puppet shows. I think that this would be a wonderful addition to your classroom this year to help students to have some fun and to create an outlet for some much-needed entertainment.
From following directions to create their own puppets in art, then writing and sharing stories in a puppet show for other classes to see, you can create lightness and fun while learning on so many levels.
I’ve had my students create puppet shows to teach all about small crawling and flying animals in science, or even to share their favorite jokes at the end of the school year!
Social distancing restrictions don’t need to hold you back because you can have one puppet on stage at all times. Again, I’ve linked to an example to help you get started with creating puppet shows inside your own classroom if this appeals to you!
Next up is Readers Theater. If you haven’t tried Readers Theater in your classroom yet, you are in for a real treat!
Readers Theater is a great way to give your students extra reading practice and have a lot of fun with reading at the same time. And, performing plays really amps up reading engagement and helps gets kids excited about reading and performing as though they were in a theater.
It also really helps students to strengthen their reading comprehension and fluency because of the repetition that’s necessary for students to master their parts.
If your students need to be separated physically inside your classroom, kids can still perform readers theater by making a large circle around the perimeter of your classroom to create a feeling of cohesiveness as they perform.
My students LOVED creating simple Readers Theater presentations using modern day fairy tales. Click here to check out a great article by WeAreTeachers to help you get started with using Readers Theater in your room.
Finally, just because kids can’t sit close to each other, that doesn’t mean that they can’t play lots of super fun games! Some of my favorite games can be adapted to play with students remaining physically separated, including one one of my class’s favorites, “Slap!” – no, it does not involve hitting anyone, Studen Jeopardy, and one of my personal favorites that would work really well because students stay in their desks to play is called Whiteboard winners. Click here to listen to Episode #12 where I share my favorite 6 games of all times to review content without wasting time!
I hope those 10 strategies for how to spice up learning inside a COVID classroom will inspire you to get creative and think outside the box – because truly, just because kids need to remain physically distanced to protect their health and keep everyone safe, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a whole lot of fun with kiddos in classrooms.
Also, I hope you’ll tune in next week because we’re going to talk about another back-to-school scenario: What if you have to teach online? How do you get confident on video when you have to teach online? I know SO many teachers who are completely freaked out about this, and I used to be as well – so I’m going to share what helped me to get over this fear and connect with all of you on video, and how you can do this for your students.
All right, until next time, I hope you have a wonderful week, and remember: Just because you're a beginning elementary teacher, there's no need for you to struggle like one!
Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor
Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at drlorifriesen.com and at howdogshelpkids.com.
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