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093: A Plan for your First Fall Unit (Unknowns and All)




There's quite a weight to all that's unknown right now. We've all seen (and questioned the feasibility of) some of the CDC suggestions for schools re-opening, and I think we're all wondering if there's really any chance we'll be back in school come fall.

And even though school might be done for you right now, and technically you're on vacation, I'd bet all these unknowns are keeping you up at night. Because how on earth do you make a plan for fall this summer if you don't have any idea whether you'll have a classroom full of students or a tenuous virtual connection to a bunch of kids you've never met?

I've been thinking about this a lot, and I have a plan. I wanted to share it with you, because with all this uncertainty, plans mean a lot right now.

Here's what I think you'll like about the unit I'm going to share with you today:
  • It's flexible to various scenarios. If you've got students in school, it works. If you've got students signing into Google Hangouts or Zooms for Day one, it works. If it's a combination of in-person and virtual, it works. 
  • This unit puts building classroom community and relationships between you and your students at the forefront. Whether kids are coming back from the strain and pain of quarantine or getting to know you and each other through their computers, I believe this is really important. 
  • This unit requires no text, so you don't need to worry about uploading PDFs, distributing books, or emailing docs. Leave your favorite books for later, when you can hand them to your students with a smile. The "texts" for this unit are the life histories of the members of your classroom community. 
The basic premise of this opening unit is identity. It's a chance to get to know your students, and to activate their ELA skills with the purpose of community building. One of my favorite things about English is that its skills - reading, critical thinking, writing, speaking - can be applied and practiced in so many different scenarios. In this case, kids will be developing those skills by sharing about themselves in creative ways. You'll set a strong foundation for the year, and also see where your students are in their development as communicators.

Here, I want to share activities you can weave into your unit. I'm sure you'll add many ideas of your own, but I'm hoping today to provide you with a basic blueprint.

Today's episode is brought to you in partnership with Angela Watson's 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Course. These last few months have been so hard. None of us know exactly what teaching is going to look like come fall, but I do know that extra support in managing your workload and keeping your life in balance is going to be welcome.

The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek is an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next group of teachers will be starting the program soon, with new updates that cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Whether you’ll be teaching remotely, working on a staggered schedule, using a hybrid model, or some other new reality, you won’t have to figure out what next school year is going to look like on your own. The next group going through the course will officially begin in July, but you can start using the early bird bonuses in just a few short days to help you maximize your summer and get ahead for fall.



Click here to learn more about how to take control of your professional life with Angela's course.  

Listen in to today's episode on the podcast player below (or on the platform of your choice), or read on for all the details.



OK, let's dive in!

Unit Activity Idea: Digital Bulletin Boards




I've long since learned that day one is NOT the time to read the syllabus out loud. Any first day I spent standing in the front of the room talking for longer than one minute was a first day I regretted! Set the tone from the start that the class will be a place of active learning and creating.

Normally I suggest having kids work on name tent one-pagers on the first day. This simple activity gives them a chance to share something about themselves with you and their classmates and helps make it easy for you to learn their names when you take quick photos of everyone with their name tents before they leave.

For an easy virtual twist on this activity, kick things off by having every student make a digital bulletin board about themselves. Just open and send out a collaborative slide show (anyone with the link can edit) in Google Slides for each class, with your slide about you at the top. Let every student fill one slide with photos, quotes, and a little about themselves. By the end of class, go on a virtual gallery walk together and meet everyone. Then you can study up on photos/names later on!

Here are some ideas for what to ask students to put on their bulletin boards:
  • Write the name you wish to be called in class (first and last) across the top. Please make it big and bold so we can see it easily. 
  • In the center, include at least one photo of yourself. 
  • Across the bottom, add a quotation that is meaningful to you. 
  • In the upper right hand corner, represent (with words and/or images and symbols) something you love to do. 
  • In the lower right hand corner, put in the name of your favorite book.
  • In the upper left hand corner, represent a place that matters to you. 
  • In the lower left hand corner, represent your greatest current goal in life. 
Unit Activity Idea: Watch "The Danger of a Single Story"


Once everyone has begun to introduce themselves, this amazing Ted Talk can lay the groundwork for the concept of this unit. You want to get to know your students, and for them to know each other, with depth. Not just from one single story they might share. As they watch, have them create sketchnotes with some of their key takeaways or a one-pager like this one.



Unit Activity Idea: 6 Word Memoirs

Six word memoirs are so cool. They make a really low-stress, high impact assignment for getting students writing about themselves and seeing how much power really is in a few words. There's a lovely six word memoirs website with a teaching section for you to check out. But I bet you already have the idea. You can invite your students to write a six word story about a time in their lives, a six word story that somehow represents their identity now, a six word story about their experience with pandemic... you get the idea. Then, if you wish, extend it by having them reflect on their six word story or illustrate the six words. Perhaps bring them back into a collaborative Google slide presentation again, with each student adding their six word story, illustration, and reflection on a slide. You can find my version of this project here, if you're interested.

Unit Activity Idea: Personal Infographics

Here's another project to get students reflecting on their lives and sharing about themselves, but it also introduces an important medium for today. Infographics are everywhere these days, and understanding how they're created and how to make an impact with design elements that complement the research is a great skill for students to have. I've already gone on a pretty deep dive into this one in another blog post, so I'm going to send you there to find the tips and tools that help make it easy to teach about infographics. Just add a twist - the students themselves will be the topic of their infographics! I suggest you introduce the project with a short screencast showing them some infographics from around the web and point them towards the Canva introduction video in the other blog post, and then have them use Canva to create and download their infographics to share back to the class.

Unit Activity Idea: Podcast Stories

For this project, students will have a chance to try out the world of audio as they share a little about themselves in a short interview. Consider starting by sharing a podcast episode from Guy Raz's show, How I Built This, in which he interviews famous entrepreneurs about their lives and businesses. You know your students best, but I like the shows on Ben & Jerry's and Milkbar. Once your students have a chance to hear how Guy Raz questions his guests and shares their stories, invite them to craft a short audio story of their own, about their own lives. They can ask a family member to ask them questions or just start with a question and then record their own stories about it. This task can be as complex or as simple as you want it to be, depending on how far you want to dive into the tech of podcast mixing. Students can use a simple audio recorder (like this one) or go so far as to upload onto anchor.fm.

Unit Activity Idea: I am From Poem Project

The "I am from" poem is one of the easiest, most automatic wins in the world of poetry. The template for creating a poem to mimic George Ella Lyon's beautiful piece about her heritage makes it simple for students to write detailed, unique pieces of their own. I've got a whole blog post devoted to this one too, so if you'd like to get kids writing these poems as part of your opening unit, check it out here.  This project would lend itself beautifully to the creation of a collaborative poem on a shared Google Doc, or again to a collaborative final display in Google Slides, with each student creating a slide with their poem and a variety of images representing its pieces collaged together.


Unit Activity Idea: One Word Project

Finally, I suggest the one word project. This is an easy tone-setter for the year. Every student brainstorms a word they want to use as a guiding force for the year, to inspire their words and actions.  Have them create a poster for their word, perhaps taking a picture with their poster to share, or else recording a short video to explain why they chose their words.


When you finish your unit, whether you're in the classroom with your students, or connecting with them online, this series of assignments would culminate very well in some kind of final gallery or identify portfolio. Remind them of the Ted Talk you started out with, "The Danger of a Single Story," and ask them to choose works they have created that show the varied parts of who they are. Then they could create a blog portfolio (on a free host like Blogger), a video featuring their work, or a set of Google Slides. Even a private Instagram feed would work.

Hopefully by the time you read through their final portfolios and respond to them, you'll feel like you know them much better, and you'll also have a clearer picture of their ELA skills. They, in turn, will have had lots of time to reflect on who they are and what matters to them, while trying out a range of real-world ELA skills they'll be improving throughout the year. They'll also be getting to know each other, and hopefully be getting to trust each other a bit more too.


Distance Readers: Encouraging Choice Reading in the New Normal



It's hard having students so far away from classroom and school libraries, not knowing how to get the right books into their hands. I know you want your students to develop as readers, and this distance learning feels like a major disruption to that process.

So this week I'm sharing my brainstorms about how to keep helping students access books. I hope you can find some options that will work for your kids.

092: Distance Learning, A Creative End to the Year



Well, it doesn't really feel like it, but the end of the year draws near. Without the usual hoop-lah of graduation. The end of the year is usually a time to think about creative final projects, classroom cleaning, and meaningful goodbyes.

Everything's different this year.

But really, when you think about it,  it's still a time for creative final projects, classroom cleaning, and meaningful goodbyes. It all just has to be framed and delivered and done a bit differently.

Here are some ideas for making these last few weeks fulfilling. Read on for all the details, or listen in on the podcast player below or the podcast platform of your choice.

Epic Zoom Backgrounds for ELA + How to Use Them



Distance learning is no picnic, I think we can all agree. Especially in such crazy circumstances. So whenever it's possible to add a little fun, I'm all for it! I love how the world is experimenting with Zoom virtual backgrounds, and I wanted to share some fun tips for you if you'd like to try it for yourself.

Basically, any photo can be turned into a Zoom background, as long as it's the right size. And Canva has a free tool that allows you to drop your photo into a Zoom template and size it to work, then add any text or overlays you want. It's really easy! I made four experimental Zoom backgrounds, and it took me about five minutes.

Using Sketchnotes & One-Pagers for Remote Learning



As a student, I loved visual assignments. I'll never forget my biology teacher passing back my tenth grade plant collection, though, and sarcastically saying, "Here's Betsy's Ode to Crayola." I had beautifully lettered each page with the plant name and information, and I guess she saw no value in that at all.

But I do. Everywhere I go, I see words and visuals combined. Politicians need great speeches AND great logos and signs. Journalists need to be writers and tweeters, yes, but they also need to craft infographics and compelling Instagram feeds. Small businesses better have their sales copy in order, sure, but they're also going to need beautiful ads, memorable stickers, and lovely menus. And don't even get me started on websites - every single one is an inseparable mix of imagery and writing.

That's why I think it's important to help students combine the skills of ELA and the arts. Their lives are highly interconnected with visuals - on snapchat, on Netflix, on every website they visit, at every store and restaurant they go into. They know our world has moved this way. They're more prepared than we sometimes realize to step through this interdisciplinary door.

Last week on the podcast, Laura Deisley talked about how powerful it was when she and the other leaders of Lab Atlanta gave every student a camera and asked them to document their research and work in the city. The results far exceeded their hopes. Students loved adding this visual element to their work.

Now, at a time of distance learning, I think giving students space to process what they're hearing, reading and seeing on paper, using their own combination of words and imagery, is extra powerful. They're constantly taking in stimuli, they need time to make their own meaning out of it. They need a chance to put their eyes off the screen and decide what they have taken away that is of value to them.

091: Taking School into the City, with Laura Deisley of Lab Atlanta


While the sights, smells and lessons of a study abroad program are compelling, they're not easy to achieve for most high school students. Yes, our kiddos would learn a lot from a semester in Paris, Santiago, or Bangkok, but wow, that's quite the cake to frost when it comes down to the details.

What if it was possible to give them an immersive experience right in their own city? What if they could learn from the place where they live, and also learn how to use their gifts to give back?

Sounds like project-based learning at its best.

Laura Deisley thought it just might be possible. Together with a number of collaborators and donors, she started a program called Lab Atlanta a few years back, to give students from across the city a chance to dive deep into their own community.

Distance Learning Display Idea: (Free) Digital Bulletin Boards


A few days ago I was leading a blackout poetry workshop for interested students on Google Meet when I realized I really wanted them to be able to see each other's work at the end. I'm a big fan of the gallery walk, after all, even though we can't exactly drop by each other's desks right now. 

So I grabbed a different device, put up a Google Slideshow, dropped a badly lit Photo Booth shot of my blackout poem into a slide, and sent it out so everyone could add their own photo. 

It was sudden techspiration. Very last minute. A bit frantic. But in the end, it worked! I played Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" in the background while the kids figured out how to get their photos into the slide deck, and in the end, everyone managed. We had our virtual gallery walk. 

Which got me thinking, how else can we bring the visuals into our virtual learning? What about all the things we would normally be displaying in our classroom? Great student work. Helpful posters. Book selfies. 

So I designed a bright set of digital bulletin boards. You can use these to display whatever you want. choose your favorite color and copy the slide, or use them all. Move the pushpins around as you wish. It's pretty fun, especially if you're missing your classroom space a whole heck of a lot.  

Here's the link for you to make a copy of these four digital bulletin boards to your Google Drive and start playing around with the possibilities. 

I'd love to see the digital bulletin boards you create! Post a screenshot on your Instagram and tag me @nowsparkcreativity
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