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Starting the School Year [Virtually!]

Jul 23, 2020

Can you believe it? Another school break has almost come and went! My school's teachers already returned this week [yikes!] and our kids return in about a week and a half. This [CARAZY] year is just scootin' right along isn't it? 

So I've spent much of my summer falling further and further down the Bitmoji/virtual classroom rabbit hole. If you followed any of my posts you can probably notice that already. For those of you who are new here, I'm a full-time virtual teacher [before COVID made that a thing]. Last year was my first year teaching in a virtual public school. For those of you who are struggling to embrace the virtual learning curve, let me provide you a bit of solace by telling you, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Last year was a HUGE learning curve for me [and virtual is what I signed up for!].

Let me just say, I consider myself a pretty tech-y person. For a while now I've enjoyed creating resources and tinkering with websites. I enjoy tech. I consider myself decent with tech. BUT, teaching in a full tech world is HARD. I get that. It's not just about getting on a computer and sending out some assignments for students to complete. It's not just about getting in front of a camera and teaching a lesson. It's so. much. more.

Attendance. Engagement. Participation. Assigning work. Collecting work. Getting students to actually complete work. Collaborative learning environments. Meaningful learning experiences. And that just skims the surface.

Now, I'll be totally up front and honest and say I do not have all the answers [not even close!]. I'm on the same journey as you, figuring it out as I go. I just hope to be able to share what I learn along the way. [cue Zac Efron and crew] We're all in this together... and together is the only way we are all going to get through it and come out as better, more skilled teachers for it [and I truly believe we will!].

 Now for the juicy stuff...

Ok, pep talk aside, this post is about sharing with you some ideas for how to start the school year virtually. The ideas I'm sharing are coming directly from what I plan to do with my own students. Let me preface by saying I'm a 9th grade special education teacher. My day may look a little different than yours, but I believe that the things I am sharing can be incorporated across subjects and grade levels, as well as in both virtual and non-virtual settings. You may just need to tweak things or provide a little extra scaffolding here and there. Hopefully these ideas can at least give you a starting place for making plans for your own student group!

[#1] Create Your Virtual Learning Environment

 The very first thing I recommend doing is setting up your *virtual* learning environment. Think about it... when you are in a brick-and-mortar school and you're preparing for students to come on the first day, you spend hours upon hours getting your room set up and ready to welcome their bright little faces. You want them to walk through that door and feel welcomed, comfortable, and totally excited about this space they will spend their year learning in. We want to create that SAME feeling on the first day virtually. Yours is a classroom [albeit digital] and you want them to have and keep that expectation from the get-go. For this reason, I recommend creating an actual virtual classroom [white board, seating, bookshelves, you name it] to replicate the learning environment you want to provide your students.

Before we go any further I just need to say, there is SO MUCH beauty in virtual classrooms. They can be ANYTHING you want them to be. Have you always wanted to have comfy seating in every corner of your classroom? DONE. How about wall to wall shelves filled with books, Beauty and the Beast style. You got it. String lights and lanterns? Ok. Teaching under a palm tree? Sure thing. Virtual classrooms can be anything you want them to be, you’re not limited by money or circumstance. Your only limit is your own creativity.

So, figure out how you want your students to FEEL in your classroom and try to create a space that embodies this. This is your “home” virtual classroom. Your “go-to”. You may decide to use various themed classrooms throughout the school year. For example, I plan to take my students on a trip around the world using my Classrooms Around the World themed classrooms, among others. But your HOME classroom should be a reflection of how you want your classroom space to feel.

I chose to create a classroom that mirrors me and who I am as a person. One of my biggest priorities is to build relationships with my students, right from the get go. From my experience teaching virtually last year, I learned that if I don’t have a strong relationship with a student, it becomes very hard for me to be able to support them. I never get to see my students face to face [you miss so much when you lose that face to face interaction]. In my teaching role, I am offering support to my students per what is outlined for them in their IEP. But they don’t have to accept my support. There’s no ramifications for them if they choose not to come to my class, or not to engage with me even while in my class. Yes, I’ll probably blow up their phone calling them and trying to get them to engage. But they don’t have to answer. They don’t get a grade from me. They don’t pass or fail my class. So for this reason, I have to work extra hard to get their buy-in so that they will agree to LET me teach them. For this reason, I need to humanize myself as much as possible. I need to establish a sense of trust and get them seeing me as a real person, not just their virtual teacher. So that's what I had in mind when I created my "home" classroom.

 

So, once you've created it, how can you USE this “home” classroom? If you are using Zoom, you can screen share so that students see the classroom when they enter the Zoom meeting, almost as if they are “entering” your classroom space when they join. I’ll be doing something similar to this with mine. In the platform my school uses, students enter the classroom and there’s a slideshow presentation as the first thing they see. You can also save your classroom as a PDF and share it by email with your students, using it as a navigation point for any links they need to follow. If you have a Google Site, you can set the image as the first thing they see when they navigate to your site [see my example]. If you are using Google Classroom, you can post your virtual classroom as "Material" under the "Classwork" tab.

[#2] Build Your Classroom Community 

Once you've got your learning environment created just the way you want it, you'll want to shift your focus to classroom community. Whether virtual or not, the community of your classroom can be a deciding factor for how well your school year is going to go. When I think of this topic, my favorite example of a dream-worthy classroom community that comes to mind is Mrs. Gruwell's in Freedom Writers [if you haven't seen it, run to Netflix NOW and watch... seriously!]. Most of those kids didn't start out as friends, they barely tolerated each other at all. Yet, Mrs. G found a way to bring them together through the community she created within the confines of her four brick walls. And once united, they blossomed. That's the goal here.

My best advice for this is to give students ownership of the community they want to be apart of. I think this makes the learning experience so much more authentic and likely that students will give you the buy-in you are looking for.

To help with this, I created a Values-Based Classroom activity [find it in the Digital Resource Library]. In this interactive activity students are challenged to analyze 50 values cards and think critically about their importance in the learning environment. The top classroom values determined through this activity can be used as a foundation for the classroom experience and as as springboard for student-led rule and classroom expectation creation. 

 

Conducting this activity gives students a chance to not only analyze and think critically about the values they want to see in their learning environment, but they are also challenged to collaborate with one another, show adaptability, exhibit leadership skills, and practice oral communication skills. 

This activity is a collaborative one, so you will need to think ahead about how you can implement it using whichever virtual platform you are teaching in. With my students I'll likely start them off in their own breakout rooms to complete the first step of the activity. When the timer goes off I'll move them to small group breakout rooms, 2-3 students in each, to discuss and narrow their lists. When the timer goes off I'll bring them all back together to finish the activity as a whole group, which is the time we will determine the five ultimate values important to our group as a whole.

[#3] Establish Your Classroom Expectations

 The Values-Based Classroom activity is one tool you can use to help your students determine their most important values in the classroom and then work together as a group to create expectations that all students will agree to follow. You may also want to review expectations you've created as well, so students can know what you expect from them. I think this is especially important in the virtual learning environment, where many students may not be as familiar.

To do this in a bit more jazzy of a way, I created these expectation graphics [find them in the Digital Resource Library] to show at the start of every lesson. If you choose to let your students create their own rules for the class based on your class values, you could create additional graphics that reflect this as well. You can make a meme saying anything you want using imgflip.com, there are 1,000+ meme images you can start with. Go wild!

By the way, these are GIFs [so fun!], you can download the GIF version in the Digital Resource Library.

Last year I did something similar to these graphics and assembled them all on one slide. I put the slide at the beginning of my presentation and reviewed the expectations before we got into the learning, just as I would before starting a lesson in a traditional classroom. Simple, but my students really enjoyed them and it made it more fun than just listing expectations in a bulleted list.

[#4] Get to Know Your Students

 Now this is the really fun part... get to know those bright little [or big] people who you get to share your classroom with! 

I've got a couple ideas that I plan to use with my own students this school year. These ideas call on their creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and tech literacy skills.

The first idea is one you may have already ran across when I shared it in the Bitmoji Facebook group [if you haven't checked that out yet make sure you do, there are SO many fabulous resources shared there on the daily!]. It's a *get to know you* activity where students can design their own virtual lockers to tell about who they are[find it in the Digital Resource Library]. 

 

Thinking back to when I was in school [gosh has it really been 10+ years!] getting to decorate your locker was like THE highlight of starting school. I remember going to Target and getting all the things... cute magnets, a locker mirror, a shelf, and so on. I printed pictures of my besties and taped them inside. I stashed my favorite candy [and lots of mints]. But the reality for a lot of students this year is that they won't get that locker they so look forward to. For some students, this would've been a long-awaited right of passage. So this activity is one way to bring an alternate locker experience to them. 

Another reason I love this activity is because [just like with virtual classrooms] students aren't limited by money or circumstance when decorating their lockers. Maybe their real locker doesn't get to have all the fun and fancy things they dream of, but their virtual locker can. And more importantly, it can be a representation of who they are and how they want to portray themselves to both you and their peers.

When I shared this in the Bitmoji Facebook group, so many people commented on it and wanted to incorporate the idea with their students [which is amazing!]. I realized that the younger crowd may not use lockers, but they use cubbies instead. Sooo I created a 2nd *cubby* version as well!

 

I've received a lot of questions about how I plan to introduce this to my students and provide them some direction in completing the activity. So again, my students are mostly 9th graders, so they may have a little more autonomy than younger age groups. My plan is to model for them how to search for a picture they have in mind [it helps to add "png" on the end of the search term], remove the background [if they choose to] using the website remove.bg [you could also show them how to do this in PowerPoint if you are familiar], how to insert/resize/crop the picture, and anything else that comes up during this time. This is a GREAT opportunity for them to practice tech skills and for me to gain a better understanding of a.) their level of comfortability working with tech tools and b.) their willingness to try. 

I will be doing this during a live class session, so I'll be able to model the activity for the students I am assigning it to. But I do understand that some teachers will be sending this as an activity for students to complete on their own, possibly via Google Classroom for example. If this is the case for you, I would recommend doing a screen recording of you modeling the task for your students, just as if you were teaching them during a lesson. [I'll be creating a Screencastify for my students to reference too and I'm happy to share if you want to use it too!]

For me, I want to give students the opportunity to share about their lockers with their peers [if they choose] and definitely with me. In our learning format, students have the ability to share their screen, so they could easily show the rest of our class their locker this way and explain using the mic. If they decide to share only with me, I'll ask them to write a short summary in the "speaker notes" section of presentation, just telling me why they chose to include the things they did.

An additional idea if you want them to share but live class sessions are not an option, you could put all of their lockers in one Google Slide document and each student with access to the document can see all edits that are made. If you go this route, you'll want to put their name on each slide and have them "find their locker" to decorate. You'll also want to be cognizant that it's possible for students to potentially delete other students work if they aren't careful. 

I'm also hoping with their permission, I'll be able to assemble all of their lockers in a cool way and display them in our Google Classroom. I'll be facilitating a LitCom [aka, literacy community - more on that to come in the future!] and each student will have their own blog, so I'm hoping for them to post their locker in this space as well.

[#5] Set Them Up For Success!

Ok so what better way to end a party than with a goodie bag??? Now, think DIGITAL goodie bag... one filled with tools to help set your students up for success from the get go!

I'm super excited about this because what I'm including in my digital goodie bag [so far] are things I saw my students desperately needing last year. I say *so far* because I would love to continue adding to this goodie bag as new ideas strike!

The first goodie I'm including is a virtual student planner [find it in the Digital Resource Library]. I've already written a blog post detailing everything inside the planner [21c Tool: Virtual Student Planner] so I won't rehash all of that, just head over to the other post and check it out when you finish here. But I WILL say this... sticker sheet, *GIF* (ahem, *gift*) box, goal-setting, data notebook [you'll have to read to see what all of that means!].

Just as a note, the virtual student planner is not something I will "check" to make sure they are doing. I won't be forcing them to use it. However, I will give them time in our class to check it and use it to make sure they are staying on top of things. If they are choosing to use it, I may ask them to screenshare with me so I can see how they are using it. If I notice students are really struggling with staying on top of things, I'll definitely be referencing it and strongly encouraging its use. I'll also take time at the beginning to walk my students through it so they have a good understanding of what it is and how to use it in the best way. Some students may prefer paper-style planners, some students may have never even really used a planner at all. Since I haven't tried a tool like this with my students yet, this year will be a trial and error sort of thing as I figure out the best way to approach incorporating this in my classroom.

Ok, on to the next goodie... digital notebooks! Last year I was constantly surprised at how many of my students didn't take notes. Not even saved screenshots of important slides from their teachers' presentations [um, I wish I had that option in school!]. So this year, I decided to gift my students their own digital notebook, in the hopes it will encourage them to practice this skill [find them in the Digital Resource Library]. 

I've got each option of the digital notebook posted on my Google Site, so I can direct students to navigate there and they can *go shopping* and make the copy they choose. You could also post each notebook as "Material" under the "Classwork" tab in Google Classroom. As with the virtual student planner, this is not something I will "check" or force them to use. I may ask them to screenshare their notebook with me, but I don't plan to assign this in a way I will have constant access to their notebooks. I will reference the notebook often and strongly encourage it, but to me forcing my students to use it would kind of go against what I'm trying to do with them. I'm focusing more on developing their intrinsic motivation as opposed to a force factor. I want them to WANT to practice this skill because they can see how it makes them a more successful student. That's going to take a lot of prompting and direction I'm sure, but this is the route I'm taking with my students.

When I posted this in the Bitmoji Facebook group, lots of teachers commented that they wanted to use these as interactive notebooks in their classrooms. If used in this way, you would need to have access to check students' work in their notebooks. To do this, students would need to share the notebook with you.

Some teachers also mentioned wanting to insert their own pages in the notebook. That's totally doable, it just takes some tweaking. All you need to do is copy/paste an image of the page you want to insert, crop so that the edges are rounded, and resize/adjust as needed. You may also need to take a screenshot of the slide after you do this and set the screenshot as the background. When you do this it will make it so that students can't move or edit the page you created. If you want to create space for students to add responses, just insert a text box where you want the response to be.

The last goodie [*last* for now at least!] is a fun way for students to review some tips for success to help them during this school year. And what's more fun than a puzzle?! 

 

When students move each puzzle piece, they reveal the *tip for success*. Assembling the puzzle as they read just makes it a little more fun!

I made this Create a Puzzle resource[find it in the Digital Resource Library] for students to review tips for success, but you could easily edit it to review anything you'd like. You could also make it a fun way of introducing yourself as their teacher. For example, instead of tips for success, you could put different tidbits about yourself. 

This is super fun to use with Bitmojis, but you can use any picture that you want. I created this version to use with my students, so they also get to see a fun picture and learn something new about me as well. 

In this resource I've included a tutorial with step-by-step directions for how to make your puzzle. You'll need to download the Google slide presentation as a Powerpoint presentation and work in Powerpoint to create your puzzle, following the directions I lay out for you. I've also included [2] versions, one that's already set up with the tips for success [like in my example] and another version that's completely editable so you can make this puzzle activity into anything you want.

 Let's do this!

Hopefully these tips will give you a boost in getting your [virtual] school year off to a fantastic start! Remember, this school year is likely to be one that's for the books, different than any we've experienced so far. But also remember, if you give it all you've got and commit to rolling with the tide, you WILL come out of this a better teacher! Think of this as the finest, real-world professional development to date!

Happy teaching! :) 

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