Never before have I seen so much uncertainty and anxiety surrounding heading back to school. It’s totally understandable! These are unprecendented times. This back-to-school time of the year looks NOTHING like we have ever seen before.
As summer comes to a close, many of you are preparing for the first day of school. If you are going back to school in-person, chances are you will be doing some remote learning in the future. Many of you will be doing a hybrid of in-person teaching and virtual learning.
No matter where you or your students are learning from, the first few weeks of the school year are crucial for community and relationship building between the students and with you. Fortunately, many of the beginning of the year activities you know and love can be done virtually! You just need to “think outside the box” and be creative!
To help you, I am sharing several activities you can do if you are teaching or engaging with students virtually. Consider how each idea can help you build a sense of community and encourage positive relationships among your students even in a virtual world.
Create a system to reach out to every student. It’s easy to lose track of students when you can’t see them in person. It might be harder to connect with each of them online, but it’s not impossible. Create a spreadsheet with all the students’ names and assign a staff person to connect with each student. Reach out to them to check in, address challenges and offer praise and encouragement. It might be helpful to prepare a script or important questions to ask each student for consistency and to ensure important information is collected. Make notes and jot down concerns on each student and follow-up with others who can support or help a student in need.
Host one-on-one family video calls. During the week before school or over the course of the first month try giving each of your students 15-20 minute time slots to meet with you, along with their family members. This is a great opportunity to get to know each student and their family and for them to get to know you. Allowing them to also ask questions and share concerns and for you to express your expectations and goals for the year will help everyone start on the same page.
Have students in a virtual “waiting room” at the beginning of an online session so you can admit and greet each of them one at a time by name. Imagine yourself standing at the door as your students walk into your classroom in-person one-by-one and you welcome them each by name. This is a virtual way of doing the same thing! It takes a bit longer, but it will be well worth it. (The “waiting room” is a tool available through online platforms, such as Zoom.)
Begin your time together online by asking students to select an emoji to describe their mood. Asking students to share their “highs and lows” as an opening discussion also lets students know that what they are feeling is normal among them and gives them permission to share with you and one another.
Ask students to create their own mini-me avatar using the app, Bitmoji. Be sure to create your own Bitmoji, too! You can also create a Bitmoji Classroom! Creating your own virtual classroom can help you and the students feel a bit more “at home” with remote learning. Click here for a tutorial on how to make your own Bitmoji Classroom.
Have students create a Google slide or poster sharing their interests, hobbies or talents. Click here for a tutorial on “How to Design a Poster About You”. Allow time for them to present their slide or poster with each other.
Give your students a challenge between your online sessions with a BINGO style choice board. Encourage students to complete as many activities as they can. Click here for an online template of a Bingo board you can use and/or edit.
Do weekly check-ins to keep in contact with your students. Regular check-ins gives all of your students a chance to touch base with you, hear your voice and see your face as you respond to them one-on-one. You can make this more manageable by giving each student a specific day of the week when they know you will be responding back to them. Consider using Flipgrid (a free video discussion online platform) to do your weekly check-in and for other community building activities. Click here for a video featuring all the different ways you can use Flipgrid in your virtual world!
Consider holding weekly virtual “office hours.” Your students can pop in to ask questions about the week’s assignments or just to say hi and share what’s going on in their lives.
Even in normal times, creating a strong and positive culture is always your #1 priority during the first weeks of school. This year should not be any different. In fact, creating connections and a sense of belonging has never been more important. So…
Be open to new ideas. Be flexible in adapting your old tried-and-true beginning-of-the-year traditions. Be patient with your students and yourself. Maintain your sense of humor – even when things don’t go as planned. Most importantly, believe that YOU can make amazing things happen in the virtual world with your students!
Now, go do it!