Unit 0: Building Community

One Way to Adjust to Teaching in 2020-2021

Feature Image by J. Kelly Brito on Unsplash

Note: I teach in a district fortunate enough to have a 1:1 program. Therefore, I can implement a Unit 0 completely online knowing my students have access to the technology they need to be successful.

Dear Students, Parents, Community Members, Fellow Educators, Staff, Administration, and School Board Members,

Welcome to the 2020-2021 school year, one in which we reaffirm the purpose of education, build learning communities in novel ways, and discover new ways of schooling together. Administrators, teachers, and staff have been working diligently to redefine what school is for each district, both physically and academically. Soon, if not already, school doors will open to students. This unprecedented school year will begin.

There are so many concerns to address.

  • How do we keep those in the building and those who live with them safe from this highly contagious virus?
  • How do we address fears and concerns the stakeholders have?
  • How do we organize the physical environment?
  • What is the first day going to look like?
  • How do we ensure rules are followed?
  • What about the COVID-19 slide that exacerbates the typical summer slide? How will students catch up?
  • What are the expectations for teaching and learning?
  • How are we as a learning community going to overcome the challenges of multiple modes of learning (online (synchronous/asynchronous), in-person, hybrid, etc.)?
  • How can we assist families during this time?

Certainly there are many more to address, but these questions might cover most of the major categories of questions.

To facilitate this process, I offer “Unit 0 – Building Community.”

What Is Unit 0?

Instead of starting with unit 1 in our curriculum, we can start with a unit that prepares us all to adjust to new ways of “doing school,” teaching, and learning. Since many school districts are having meetings with all the stakeholders, issues of safety, conduct, policy, and procedures can be introduced during those meetings and reinforced in real time. For example, monitors in the hallway can reinforce unidirectional movement, social distancing, and mask compliance.

Many school districts have posted their reopening plans, complete with contingency plans for when infection rates increase. They are sharing videos of what the online options look like. In other words, school districts are attempting to be as transparent and helpful as possible.

What happens the first day in any particular classroom? I believe we will all have procedures to follow, but that there will be slight differences in each classroom. Hopefully, there won’t be too many, because consistency is key. I want to be doing everything properly and like the other teachers so that students are not overly confused or have to hold too many rules in their heads. Learning is hard enough. Learning during a pandemic is harder.

In Unit 0, which could be implemented by any teacher, these are the issues that remain.

  • Seating arrangements
  • Introductions
  • Examination of Feelings
  • Team Formation and Agreements (Norms and Rules)
  • Technology Training
  • Syllabus and Curriculum
  • Diagnostics / Benchmarks

Seating Arrangements

Since we need to maintain six feet between students, every teacher’s room needs reconfiguration. Most teachers will tell you it is going to be challenging; our rooms aren’t huge and some of us don’t have the furniture we need. Smaller class sizes have alleviated some concern about space. Something I thought of last week is to number each desk I have (22 in all) with even numbers in red and odd numbers in blue. Odd-numbered periods can sit in the odd-number desks; even-numbered periods can sit in the even-number desks. That will give me time to make sure all the desks from the last period are cleaned before another student sits in it.

If I have more than 11 students in the class, I need to use the tables I have, of which I only have a few. Keep your fingers crossed; I hope this works. If this plan is sustainable, on the first day I will explain to the students which seats to take as I greet them at the door. I can complete seating charts once everyone is settled.

In the LMS course, I will upload a document explaining seating arrangements. This is in support of my contention that everything should be online. I will not upload seating charts however; that can be completed in the gradebook.

Introductions

To facilitate introductions, I plan to use our LMS’ discussion feature because some students chose the online-only option. The question I am going to pose for discussion is “What is your avatar? Why does it best represent you?” Most students should know what an avatar is, I expect. They will be asked to search for a picture that best represents them, save it to their desktop, and then upload it as a response to the discussion, along with some commentary about why they chose that picture. Students will then respond to a few classmates’ posts in a positive way. I will also respond to each posting with a positive message.

Not only are the students going to learn about their classmates, but they are learning how to use the discussion feature of the LMS and they are stretching their writing and response muscles.

I doubt this will be a silent exercise. I am banking on the students already knowing several classmates. If it starts out silently, I will do my best to ensure that there is some sort of chatter. We will need to start forming our class team. Speaking of which…

Examination of Feelings

This exercise combines practice with assessments in the LMS with students sharing their feelings about our current situation. What is on their mind? What questions do they have? How are they feeling? Assessment tools might be the best to use because the results are private. This assessment would not be graded, of course!

Team Formation and Agreements (Norms and Rules)

This is a PNG of a poster I am going to hang in my room, and that I sent to the students in PDF form at the end of last year. It is to remind the students it is their education, and they should take full advantage of this opportunity to think, explore, and take risks. To support them, we will form a team to study literature to better understand the human condition and our place within the human family.

How should our class function? I don’t think that should be up to me entirely. Instead, I would like us to come to an agreement on a limited set of rules. If memory serves, five is usually a good number.

Five Good Rules

For this exercise, we could combine learning how to use a collaborative tool such as Google Docs with rule generation. A thought for an activity just occurred to me: “I Promise… You Promise…” Let me talk myself through it for a moment. Feel free to let me know what you think about it in the comments.

  1. Share a Google Doc with the students that contains a list of items I promise to hold myself to this school year.
    • My promises would include 1) To care, respect, and treasure every student; 2) To be patient and kind; 3) To guide you to the information you need to help you build the tools to be successful; 4) To address YOUR needs; 5) To be rigorous in my approach and equitable with my feedback.
  2. Ask the students to open the doc from the link posted on the LMS. Explain that everyone has editorial rights to the document, so they can add their promises. They should start their entry with their name and then create a list of their promises. Everyone should respect everyone else and not edit anyone else’s entries. They are welcome to include rules they have learned over years of schooling, but at least two rules should represent thoughts they have about how they want to behave this year and for years to come.
  3. Using the comment feature, students can highlight what they LIKE about their peers’ entries and make positive comments. This teaches one aspect of constructive feedback.
  4. Using qualitative analysis techniques (yep, you read that right), we as a group can find the most common promises and then form rules that make sense for us as a group.

I know this could take a few days. This year is going to be different in so many ways. We need to be careful, gentle, and kind – and to take the time to emphasize that we are interdependent beings in a community. Building a community takes time.

Technology Training

The students may be surprised to learn that their technology training has already begun. After all, we entered the course and then used the discussion feature and the assessment feature. We also used Google Docs. Now, I would turn to how to use the technology we have effectively and independently.

Main Categories

  1. How to write an effective email (Please, dear heavens, complete the subject line!)
  2. How to manage email (filters, labels, when to check email, etc.)
  3. How to set up a folder for the course in Google Drive
  4. How to use Google Docs, Slides, Sheets, and Forms
  5. How to use the LMS and Google Calendars in tandem to manage your time
  6. How to set up a portfolio on the LMS
  7. How to send your teacher a message on the LMS
  8. Recommendation: Install the LMS app on your smartphone and turn on notifications
  9. How to navigate the course
  10. How to use “native” LMS tools and third-party tools integrated into the course
  11. What SSO (Single Sign-On) means, the tools used for SSO, and how to use them
  12. How to gain access to other tools, like signing up for an e-card for our state’s library system

There must be other things to cover, but the students might be on overload if I put too many other items on this list. Like everything else, tutorials will be added to the course for them to review.

Syllabus and Curriculum

Saving the syllabus and curriculum for next to last might seem odd, but if you think about it, shouldn’t the students understand how things are going to run before they dive into content and activities? That is why I saved this task for later in Unit 0.

Diagnostics and Benchmarks

A common saying among teachers is to “meet the students where they are.” With the COVID-19 slide and summer slide looming before us, it is more important than ever to find out where they need the most help before starting the course. Therefore, I recommend including diagnostics and benchmarks at the end of the unit.

Our evaluation of the results will help us to modify Unit 1 to meet the needs of our students and help them be most successful during what is going to be a challenging year.

Sincerely,

Mrs. Heather MacCorkle Edick, M.S.Ed