Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.
I will never forget the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. Two solid weeks of laptop distribution, intense virtual training, online courses construction and constant communication with school families and co-workers had my mind spinning. Like most teachers, I thrive on routine and love starting each school year with at least two or three months of lesson plans. This school year has forced me to loosen my tight grip and perfectionist tendencies. My district started the year teaching remotely, but students might return to the school building after the Labor Day holiday, or we could shift to a hybrid model. And, yes, there are about a dozen other possible scenarios!
Navigating the new and submitting to the unknown can be hard for teachers. Yesterday, three of my teacher friends came, individually, to the library, laptop in hand and tears in their eyes. I offered them chocolate and a place to express their frustrations and then reminded them that their frustrations and tears are caused by the grief of being separated from their students and not knowing how to best teach, guide and love them over the next few months. Teachers all around the world are working hard to overcome to 2020’s challenges and to master its new learning landscape, in which almost nothing goes as expected.
For the week ahead, I have a full schedule of synchronous classes, where I will be in the digital classroom at the same time as my students. Naturally, I have everything ready, planned and prepared. But I know that the next five days will bring an assortment of frustrations as my students and I attempt to connect with each other and build community through our screens. I’ve stuck a Post-it note with the word “grace” next to the keyboard on my laptop. It reminds me that I need to have grace for computer failures and slow Wi-Fi, grace for students who can’t (or won’t) mute their microphone or who constantly change screen backgrounds, grace for parents who email me multiple times a day, grace for applications that freeze in the middle of a lesson and grace for myself as I learn how to teach through a computer.
During the first month of teaching, I will focus on forming connections, building community and embracing change—ideas that are everywhere in the books in this column. Below, I’ve provided suggestions for how to use these books as foundations in virtual learning settings. But the most important virtual learning suggestion I can offer? Teach from a place of grace. Godspeed, teachers!
by Jennifer Black Reinhardt
Alfred, a lonely possum, has trouble making friends because his “nervous nature” causes him to “freeze and play dead.” One day while browsing an outdoor bookstore, he notices Sophia, an armadillo with a similar problem. When they initially encounter each other, Alfred plays dead and Sophie roles up into her shell. After they unfreeze and unfurl, Alfred and Sophia bond over their anxious natures and reach out to other woodland creatures with similar defense mechanisms. An empowering story of empathy, Playing Possum will resonate with and reassure shy students and offer insight for more outgoing spirits.
- Emotion scenarios
Email emotion cards to families. (You can find a variety of versions for free online; choose the ones that work will best for your students.) Ask students to print and cut out their cards before the next class meeting.
At the next meeting, tell students to lay out their cards in front of them. Share emotional scenarios with students and invite them to hold up the card that best describes how they would feel in the situation. Discuss how everyone reacts to situations differently and how the same scenario can cause two people to have different emotions.
- Animal adaptations
Prompt students to discuss whether Playing Possum is a fictional story or an informational text. After they identify it as fiction, ask students if there are parts of the story that can be informational. Use this discussion to launch into learning about animal adaptations and self-defense behaviors and to read informational books on the subject. I recommend Showdown: Animal Defenses by Jennifer Kroll and Animal Defenses: How Animals Protect Themselves by Etta Kaner.
- Mindfulness routine
Ask students how humans can “play dead” or “curl up” like Alfred and Sophia. Share strategies we can practice when we feel nervous or scared, then lead them through a mindful breathing exercise. Begin and end your next few virtual class meetings with a mindful breathing routine.
by Nikki Grimes,
illustrated by Wendell Minor
Jayden is not happy about his family’s move from New York City to rural New Mexico. With his baseball hat pulled over his eyes, he pouts for the entire plane ride. He falls asleep under a picture of Lady Liberty, convinced there is nothing great about New Mexico. When he wakes up the next morning, he is surprised by the beautiful mountain outside his bedroom window. Guidebook in hand, he ventures out for a walk and his preconceived notions about the his new home begin to change as he discovers colorful flowers, towering rock structures and desert creatures. Lyrical language and sweeping illustrations will capture children’s attention in this story of how unexpected change can be surprising and beautiful. Southwest Sunrise will help students cultivate wonder and an appreciation for new circumstances.
- Reframe our perspective
Jayden did not want to leave New York City and move to New Mexico. Ask students if Jayden’s emotions reflect how they feel about virtual learning, cancelled plans or separation from their friends and teachers. Let each student share something that makes them sad, frustrated or disappointed. Using Google Slides, Padlet or another online learning space, record students’ disappointments. Share your screen so that your students can see one another’s responses.
Revisit Southwest Sunrise and Jayden’s experience with his new home. Ask whether Jayden’s new environment was as terrible as he had anticipated it would be on his plane ride. Invite students to shift their perspective on remote learning by sharing positives about this new way of learning. Record these responses and share your screen with the class.
- Google Earth explorations
Google Earth can be a fantastic virtual learning resource. While sharing your screen, show students some well-known streets in New York City, such as Broadway, Fifth Avenue and Canal Street. Then “fly” to the New Mexico desert and let students help you hunt for some of the wildlife that Jayden discovered on his nature hike.
- Otherworldy visitors
Ask students to consider your region of the country. What are some features that make it unique? Remind them to consider climate, geographical features and wildlife. Give students this writing prompt:
You are an alien from another planet, and you have just landed in [your hometown]. You stay here for two months. Write a letter to your friends back home describing your vacation in [your hometown]. Be sure your letter includes the unique features of our region.
Invite students to type their letters on a shared class document. Encourage them to include photographs to support their writing.
Our Favorite Day of the Year
by A.E. Ali,
illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell
On his first day of kindergarten, Musa is skeptical when his teacher says, “Look around the room. You don’t know them now, but these faces will become your closest friends this year.” He guesses that Moises, Mo and Kevin, the other students at his table, are also doubtful about this proclamation. For show-and-tell, each student is asked to share their favorite day of the year so that the class can celebrate it with them. The children become close as they learn about favorite days including Eid al-Fitr, Rosh Hashanah, Los Posadas and Pi Day. Brimming with energy and cheer, Our Favorite Day of the Year is a classroom story celebrates diversity, acceptance and friendship.
- Favorite day bags
Ask students to think about their favorite day of the year. It can be an official holiday, but it can also be an informal day like the first day of school, the birthday of a personal hero or a specific observance such as National Pancake Day.
Have students to fill a brown paper lunch bag with items that explain or represent their favorite day. For the next few class meetings, allow students to virtually share their favorite day bags and explain why this day is special for them and their family. Encourage students to add music or movement to their presentations.
- Celebration days
Students (and their teachers) love daily class routines. Make every day a holiday by starting each class meeting with a slide that explains the significance of the day. Like the favorite day bags, each day doesn’t need to be an official holiday. Include the birthdays of significant historical figures, international cultural celebrations and quirky observations. It’s a festive way of marking each day and exposing students to a wide variety of new information.