Starting the year off write, 2020 version

It’s 2020, so basically, if it can go wrong, it will. I know I don’t have to tell you that, because you’re living through it right here with me.

In my school, pretty much everything we do is different this year. For starters, we’re entirely remote for at least first semester. For the first time, we’ll be 1:1 with all students receiving a school-provided laptop. We’re using Canvas for our LMS, and that is A LOT to learn. For our live classes, we’re using Microsoft Teams, and I’ve decided to use OneNote for digital notebooks. Our schedule is nearly impossible to explain, but essentially I’ll see each group for 60 minutes twice per week, except when I only see them once. Phew. There’s a lot going on.

School starts Tuesday and I’ve been working hard to get ready. I can’t wait to “meet” my new students Tuesday and Wednesday. Unfortunately, our laptop order was delayed, so many students will be starting the year on their smartphones. Definitely not ideal! I’m trying to keep my first class short and do everything within the Teams app, which students downloaded to their phones this week at a tech orientation session.

The beautiful thing about the tech orientation was that, since all kids were in the building for a few hours (staggered throughout the week, of course), we were able to set up an entire classroom of independent reading books, in Spanish and English, for students to check out. All of my students, theoretically, have checked out at least 2 Spanish books to read over the course of the next month or two, before we can host another book checkout event at school. This is a huge relief, as I know many students don’t want to read digital books.

Students have books, now I just have to get them to read them. I’m working on a plan for that, which includes using some of my very limited live class minutes for independent reading. I think it’s important to show kids that I mean it when I say reading is one of the most important things that we can do to improve our language skills. And if reading isn’t part of our class time together, that really doesn’t send the message that I value it. So, we will read, together but apart. I imagine it will be pretty awkward at first, but we’ll make it work.

With a plan for reading, the next big question is writing. I know that to get students invested in the class and willing to take risks in their writing, we need to develop a strong, trusting community. I’ll be doing a lot of small group and whole class team-building activities, but on the first day, I will continue the tradition I started last year: I’ll be reading aloud a letter that I wrote to my students. The letter serves as an introduction to my class and will also serve as a mentor text for my students when they write their own letters. In it, I attempt humor, I share some info about my expectations and goals, and I demonstrate honesty and vulnerability in writing about some very personal moments from my life. This letter is our common starting place, and is the foundation for future writing.

This will be the main activity for day one. Rather than have students write a response, since I’m trying to keep class short and my students will have technology limitations, I’m going to ask them to unmute their mics and give a single word or short phrase in response to my letter. I just want to hear their voices so it feels like we talk to each other rather than me talking and them listening the whole time. Once they have their laptops, I will use breakout rooms probably every class, so that students can talk to each other and work in small groups together. But for now, these few minutes are all I will hear of them.

What is your teaching context this year? How will you build community in your heritage classes? Leave a comment to let me know!

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