Building Community in Digital Spaces

Earlier this month, I co-led a Conversation to Build Capacity, titled: Building Community in Digital Spaces with Garry Smolyansky, @gar_small, for @TheMentoree.

There were seven of us in the conversation and during the one hour session we started to build a community of adult learners on Zoom.

How did that happen, you ask?

I think we set this in mention because we agreed to adhere to a few norms of participation that allowed all members opportunities to have their voices heard. That’s why we intentionally keep these conversations to no more than 10 participants, not counting the presenter(s).

This intentional design allows everyone to speak up and be heard. The presenters guide the conversation based on a limited number of carefully crafted questions that invite participants to actively engage in the discussion, whether through the chat, unmuting your mic, adding comments to a jamboard, or by sharing the link to the presentation and inviting the participants to respond to questions or prompts by writing directly on the slides. Although I would have never thought to do that, my creative co-presenter made it it work allowing everyone to have a new way to join in on the conversation.

As I listened to the voices in the Zoom meeting, my most important takeaway was this: the way to create community in online spaces is to remember our humanity.

Sounds simple, but it requires a particular mindset. It means that we teachers need to let go of negative biases about what would happen if we opened up online spaces so that ALL our students are included.

Let the kids share their pets.

Let them stretch and turn off their cameras.

Let the occasional sibling into the classroom.

Let them use the chat!

Let them show you a piece of their lives. And, make sure you share something of yourself, too.

My students have said they want time to talk to their friends. Who doesn’t?

Building community is about getting to know each other, making connections, discovering commonalities and learning how we are different and celebrating those differences in meaningful ways. That does not change when in a virtual space. It’s just a little harder and takes more time, but it’s doable.

So, I log in to our Google Meet a few minutes before each class so kids can chat with each other. They can also come in to the drop-in times to chat with their friends then.

I always ask if they need to talk to me first. If not, I am just a presence in the room. I keep my headphones and my camera on. My mic is muted. I listen in. And my students chat about the stuff that 9 and 10-year-olds like to chat about. Unless someone needs to talk with me, I use the time to work in the background. If I need to talk with a student who is present, I ask them if it’s OK to do that with everyone there. Usually that’s not a problem and the other kids are treated to vicarious learning by eavesdropping.

Connections matter. The more the kids connect with each other by cementing previous friendships and starting new ones – my students come from three different schools in two different areas of the city – the more likely they will be to engage in learning and the more they will be willing to support each other throughout our time together.

Admittedly, a highly contested aspect of our class online experience has been the use and misuse of the CHAT. Although we are struggling and learning together, I am adamant (obsessed might be a better word) that we figure it out together. I will be writing more about that in another blog post.

I don’t have all the answers, or even most of the answers, to how to build community in an online space. I am observing, reading, chatting about it here and there. So, I invite you to continue this conversation with me.

Leave a comment below about how you are building community (online or offline – we can adapt) or what questions, suggestions, ideas etc come up for you about what I’ve shared here. Pushback is welcomed! And in the spirit of collaboration, I thank you for your contribution!

Cross posted to The Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Story Challenge.

What I’m Learning About Teaching Online

I used to think that online school was a terrible idea. Now I know that the right combination of patience and the ability to be flexible in the moment can make it work for the teacher and students.

But you know what? Being patient and flexible with situations gone amok is not any different from being in a f2f environment. It’s just that used to be my normal and now it’s not.

We need to invent something new by getting rid of what doesn’t work, reclaiming the good stuff, and creating alternative views of what it means “to go” to school.

Here’s my short list of what still matters in teaching and learning, no matter what form of school you’re in right now.

Small group instruction and student collaboration on projects matter.

Conversations and one-on-one conferences matter.

Independent writing and reading matter.

Read alouds and making connections to people, characters and real events in the world matter.

Being able to read and write together and sharing a laugh or two still matters.

Developing and nurturing kids’ “rough draft thinking” still matters.

Giving kids choice still matters.

The teacher listening more than talking, still matters.

Laughter still matters.

Meaningful assessment still matters.

What matters hasn’t changed. Only the ways we are inventing the space for what matters, online or otherwise, is what is changing.

Today, during one of the three drop-in times I offer students throughout the day, two girls stayed on just to chat. They didn’t have any questions about assignments or the big ideas we are studying. No. Instead, after everyone else had logged off they got to chatting about their Leggo creations.

During reading workshop we talked about how we can celebrate when we finish reading. Most of the ideas were doable and then there were two that didn’t sit well with me for different reasons: (1) eating and (2) watching a movie after reading 10 books. My first reaction was, “Nope. We ain’t doing that.” The first for obvious reasons and the second one for even more obvious reasons.

Then, I thought. Well, eating is what people do; they break bread. What if a student wants to celebrate with food? What if we everyone brings something to eat during reading workshop? I can live with that!

I am not about external motivation, especially for reading. I never had pizza parties in my classroom to reward students for reading 100 books in the year. I think we can do better than that to encourage a life-long love of reading in our students.

So, watching a movie after reading 10 books just doesn’t sit well with me. Yet, I want to make sure my students feel heard and respected. So, I suggested watching a movie, either commercial or one a student creates, as something we can do during a drop-in time.

Connections matter.

Patience is key.

Being flexible while remembering what matters is essential.

If you are teaching online, what is working for you? I’d love to hear your ideas.

Cross posted to the Two Writing Teachers Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge.


This is the year that I will practice patience.

First of all, and for the record, I am not a patient person. Although I don’t mind waiting in lines or for a table at a restaurant, I do hate having to wait for my doctor to call with test results.

I’m not a patient person. Although I don’t mind waiting for a library book I put on hold to make it’s way to me, I want the book I’m writing to magically write itself right NOW!

I’m not a patient person. Although I know everything that’s worth anything takes time, I want reassurance that it’s going to happen. After all, why wouldn’t I get that leadership position this time. Even though I applied for it before, why not NOW?

It all comes down to having confidence in myself. I want to know that I’m doing a good job or that I’m a good person or that my contribution has made a difference. I struggle with looking inside for that validation; I desperately need it from others as well. But I’m learning about the impact that internal (positive, relaxing) vs. external (creates anxiety, impatience and negative feelings of self-worth) validation has on my physical and emotional well-being. It’s really a no brainer when you think about it.

In this day and age of instant gratification via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, we have become even more impatient than we were before. As soon as we post something on social media, we want to know how many likes it has, who commented on it or if it was retweeted and shared with a larger community online. Our SmartPhones are always within reach. And, although social media has been touted as a place to carry on a conversation about a myriad of topics, it has become a place for people to get pats on the back for all the things they’re doing, the number of followers they have, or the reach of their influence in a digital world.

And we grow more and more impatient to see if we have been tagged, liked, etc. And we grow more and more unsure of our role in the world and we seek validation from people we don’t know and may not even like if we were to ever meet them face to face.

Well, that’s not what matters. External validation is just not what it’s trumped up to be. (Isn’t that what we tell our students?) What matters is how we perceive ourselves. What we think about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it is what matters. The more we affirm this simple truth, the more we will be able to nurture a sense of inner peace, and the more satisfied we will be about what we have accomplished and what else we want to do in our personal and professional lives.

That’s why I intend to cultivate a patient disposition by letting go of what I can’t control. By not worrying about social media stats. By putting out there what I would like to share with the world. By being aware of my physical responses and taking deep breaths. Staying in the moment.

That’s what’s important.

Cross posted to The Two Writing Teachers Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge.

There Are Days…

There are days when I start writing and I’m not sure where it’s going to take me. Today is one of those days.

There are days when I write in the morning and it’s early evening before I can get back to my writing. Today is one of those days.

There are says when life intrudes on carefully crafted plans. There are interruptions, meetings, meals to prepare. Or maybe it’s just time for a break. Today was one of those days.

There are days when I have so many ideas for my students that I want to talk about then with anyone that is willing to listen. Today was one of those days.

There are days when I’m excited about collaborating, rather than just planning with my team, and there is a difference.

When we collaborate there is a rush of excitement. Ideas flow back and forth. We are not constrained by curriculum documents, school mandates or new initiatives. When we collaborate we create something better than if we’d worked by ourselves.

Instead of the excitement of a project that we are hopeful will engage our students, we get mired in preparing documents intended for others eyes. Documents that we may or may not end up using.

If teachers had a greater sense of autonomy, we would be collaborating on projects and units to engage our students and enhance their learning.

There are days when I despair about the state of education, the world, and life in general. And, then there are days when I am hopeful that we can find our way out of a mess that we may not have created, but are responsible for maintaining.

There are days when writing helps me sort it all out or, at least, by writing I know that it needs sorting.

Today is one of those days.

Cross posted to the Two Writing Teachers Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge.

My Writing Life

Source: WordPress Free Photo Library
I am a member of the #Time2Write online writing workshop started by Jen Laffin at TeachWrite. We meet on Zoom at four designated times during the week. I try to participate in as many of the sessions as I can. Sometimes I can only make it once or twice.
Knowing that I can log in to Zoom and write with other teacher-writers several times a week has helped me to stay focused on my writing. I hear what others are working on and it helps me broaden my own writing. I take more risks and write more because I am part of a community of teacher-writers.
But what about the days I can’t join in on a #Time2Write session? Or the days when a writing session isn’t on the calendar? How can I keep the momentum going?
To address this issue, four of us from #Time2Write have started an accountability chat to check in with each other every day. Did you write today? What did you write?
Having a message pop up on my phone makes it harder for me to brush writing aside; I can’t let my group down. It’s peer pressure in the best possible way because it's organic and meaningful. It works!
In the past, I have tried different ways to develop a daily writing habit, such as putting a reminder on my phone, writing at the same time every day (usually first thing in the morning), and putting writing as an appointment on my calendar. But these strategies haven't worked for very long. Somehow, knowing that there are other people who are counting on me and cheering me on in my writing journey, can make all the difference in the world.
So, on the first day of this accountability experiment, I set my phone's timer for a 50 minute writing session. I journaled,  wrote a draft of this Slice of Life (#SOL) post, and revised a section of a writing project I am working on...and sticking to.
I also started to keep track of the writing I do every day. That way I can see the progress I make over time and affirm that I am indeed writing. In the same way that I keep track of what I read on @Goodreads and share pictures of book covers on my #Instagram feed, I am documenting my daily writing. For now this is for my eyes only, but maybe I will find a way to make it public to encourage others to keep writing.
How are you ensuring that you write every day? What has helped you stay accountable to your writing? Leave a comment so that we can support each other as teacher-writers.
Continue reading

Another First Day of School

The days are starting to get cooler, but it’s not winter yet.

The days are inching towards September. August is over and done with.

It’s time for a new school year, but nothing will be the same.

My grade level team was in the school building this weekend, but I stayed home to read, write and rest. The work is never done, but we always think a few more hours will get us “ready” for the first day of school. I don’t blame my teammates; in years past I would be right there with them.

This will be my 35th first day of school, but I was on medical leave all of last year, so does that make it my 34th? Hmm.

But nothing in this first day of school will be the same. And, we’ve all accepted that fact, but we’re not happy.

I’m so tired of thinking about this pandemic and all it’s done to our lives, but still we push through. “We’re wired to do hard things,” someone famously said, but no one said it would be easy.

The uncertainty of what may happen is making this new school year feel surreal like we’re all waiting for something to go wrong and then we can say, “Told you so!” That would not be our best moment, but we are all struggling to make this time be OK. Is that even possible?

So, all 3 teacher work days are in the book. Today some students arrived, but not all students. The rest will come tomorrow and some have opted for the online learning hub.

My classroom was bare, sterile someone called it, except for 22 physically distanced student desks, but not really. How can that really happen in a school? The desks are in rows facing the white board or what would be the front of the room. Kids stay in their seats and the teacher is at the front of the room.

I know teachers will make this work. We always do. No matter what is thrown at us teachers hunker down and figure it out.

Now that students have arrived and my 35th (or 34th) first day of school is in the books, it will be easier to move forward because despite what some are saying, teachers want to teach their students in a classroom, but without feeling fearful for their safety.

Next Tuesday will offer another story to tell.

Cross posted to the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Story Challenge

Summer Reading

What follows are images and a list of some of the books I read this summer or currently reading.

This is a stunning book and I use the word “stunning” deliberately. It made my heart soar; I was engulfed in a myriad of emotions. Next on my Elizabeth Acevedo list of books to read is The Poet X.
Austin Kleon is my new hero. This book is giving me courage to push through my fear a little bit more so that I can become a courageous teacher creator. Because I loved the ideas in this book so much, I immediately borrowed Show Your Work – another gem!
I wasn’t expecting to like this book, but I was pleasantly surprised. Great story about finding your courage, uncovering corruption and becoming the best possible you along the way.
Great middle grades book. I know my students will like it. Lots to talk about with respect to friendships, unconventional families, and racial identity.
Detective novels are not usually my cup of tea, but this is a gem. I am looking forward to reading more books by this new-to-me Montreal author.
Haven’t yet read Dragon Hoops and Mañanaland; they are up next on my to read pile. I liked Not My Idea and am trying to figure out how to share it with my students when we start discussions around racism and white supremacy.
Powwow Summer was sooo good! Interwoven into the story about a girl who is trying to discover her identity on and off the reservation, are relevant pieces of information about First Nation rituals and beliefs. For example, I learned about Trust Circles, which reminded me of Restorative Justice.

In addition to the books listed above, this summer I also read Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis, City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert, How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, Start with Joy by Katie Egan Cunningham, Indian No More by Charlene Willing MacManis & Traci Sorell, On/Me by Francine Cunningham, and Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli & Aisha Saeed.

I loved all of these books, which makes me wonder about the fact that I rarely abandon books. I’ve only abandoned two books that I can think of and one of them I went back to read at a later time and wondered why I ever set it aside in the first place. The second book I abandoned happened recently. This was a YA book that had gotten great reviews on social media, but for some reason I didn’t like the writing or the characters. I may pick it up to read again, but with so many great books out there I don’t have to worry about not having choices from which to make a selection.

This reminds me that I need to share these stories with my students so they can understand that we need to really love the books that we read and not read them just because someone recommended them or they’re the rave at the moment. While that may be, it may not be a book for us and with so many books out there…well, you get the picture.

Currently reading: Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park. Highly recommended!

And, finally, here’s a stack of picture books waiting to be read.

As summer comes to a close, I am thinking about how I am going to keep my reading life from falling apart. How I am going to keep my writing from becoming a once a week event. One idea I have is to make sure that I stick to a schedule that allows room for all of that. A schedule that prioritizes what’s important to me. A schedule that keeps me accountable and doesn’t let me undo everything I’ve worked so hard to do as a teacher who reads. As a teacher who writes.

Cross posted to the Two Writing Teachers Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge.

Declutter to Make Space for What’s Truly Important

On Sunday, my husband and I spent most of the day cleaning and purging unwanted “stuff”.

It’s amazing how much you can accumulate over time. I was going to say “junk”, but it wasn’t junk when we acquired a lot of these things. It was what we needed or thought we needed at the time. Now, we don’t need or want these items anymore. We’ve made several donations to Goodwill and there are more to come.

We’ve been on this house cleaning/organizing project for the last couple of months. It was slow going at first, but then we picked up momentum and did a little bit every day or every few days. Some days we were discouraged at how much there was to do. Other days, it felt good to declutter and reorganize even a small section of our house.

This has gotten me thinking that when you open up physical spaces, it can also open up your mental and emotional spaces. Not so that you can fill these up with more stuff, but so that you can make room for what’s essential, meaningful and useful in your life.

As I think about the coming school year, I will be focusing on ways to eliminate what’s not valuable in order to make room for what is.

So, what does that mean exactly?

I plan to focus on meaningful learning goals rather than the bits and pieces we often agonize over in the classroom and later realize that it’s the big ideas that matter. Embedding the bits and pieces within the bigger ideas of a subject area make the learning more meaningful and longer lasting.

I plan to emphasize connections with students through meaningful formative assessment practices, such as conversations, one-on-one conferring, personalized interviews, and observations/kidwatching.

I will offer students many more choices for writing, reading and presenting their work. I want students to learn about topics and issues that are relevant to them. That inspire them to want to learn more and to share their learning in ways that make sense to them. That means that straight writing as a way of sharing will give way to make room for memes, comics, info graphics, images, and more.

I also want to be flexible and listen to what my students are telling me they need. Sometimes, we substitute expediency for the essence of things because we feel pressure to “cover” the curriculum. In our quest to make sure students aren’t “falling behind” we forget to listen and really see our students for who they are and what they are telling us they need in order to learn better.

So, making mental and physical spaces more open and less cluttered will allow room for new ideas to take root in our hearts and minds. Alternatively, we can mindfully dig deeper into the ideas that are already occupying these spaces so that we can experience joy and peace in our lives.

That is my hope for my students as well.

Cross posted to The Two Writing Teachers Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge.

Change the Channel – Take #2


Pandemic - edwin-hooper-Q8m8cLkryeo-unsplash

Image Courtesy of

My 15-year-old son, who has been visiting his sisters in the U.S., called me yesterday.

Our conversation went something like this:

I don’t feel well. I’ve had it! he said.

What do you mean? The mom in me started to worry. What was going on? Was he feeling sick? Did he have a fight with one of his sisters? What could possibly be wrong?

I’m done with this.

With what? I asked (calmly) trying to keep the edge out of my voice.

With the pandemic, he said.

I breathed a sigh of relief. OK. Nothing major. Or, at least, nothing new. If it’s the pandemic that he’s sick of, then I could deal with that. Aren’t we all just about done with the Coronavirus and 2020, in general? Well, yeah. Duh!

I want to go to school, he blurted out.

I want to go outside, he announced.

My heart hurt at that precise moment.

It’s hard, I told him. But whenever you catch yourself feeling this way, just do something different than what you’ve been doing up until that point. If you’ve been sitting, then get up and walk around. Or go out to the backyard. Maybe read a book. Eat something. Play with your niece. Just move around and change the channel.

Oh! That ubiquitous channel.

Channel Changer for TV - glenn-carstens-peters-EOQhsfFBhRk-unsplash

This is hard. But we can get through it. We have to get through it.

We’re all stuck in a time warp of sorts. There’s nothing we can do to change the current reality, but we can figure out ways to not let it depress us or make us spiral out of control due to fear, and the seemingly unending nature of this thing.

This week the Public Health Officer of Canada said that we’re likely to be in a COVID19 mode for the next 2 – 3 years. Oy vey! Just that piece of news can make anyone feel despair. Yet, we can’t just stop everything we’re doing. At least, not entirely. Life was not meant to be put on pause indefinitely, although we have been in a weird slow version of it for months now. Nevertheless, we have to find ways to deal with the uncertainty and the fear.

We have to keep going. Make plans, even if they’re virtual. Get outside. Read books. Go to doctors’ appointments. Write. Find joy in everything you do. Stay connected with others.

Get up the next day and do it all over again.

I would love to hear how are you changing the channel on this pandemic.

Cross posted to the Two Writing Teachers Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge.



Giving Myself Grace

Giving myself grace so I can continue to find joy in my life.

Giving myself grace even when I’m not feeling 100%.

Giving myself grace for those times when it would be easier to just sink down into that dark, deep void of nothingness.

Giving myself grace by focusing on what’s most important to me.

Giving myself grace by continuing to get up early, shower, and get dressed.

Giving myself grace by being present with my husband throughout the day.

Giving myself grace by continuing to write even when I just have no idea what I’m trying to say.

Giving myself grace because no one else can and then where will I be?

Giving myself grace so that I can make a difference to my students and others around me.

Giving myself grace to slow down and be grateful for all that life has given me.

Giving myself grace in spite of sometimes not giving myself grace.

Cross posted to The Two Writing Teachers Tuesday Slice of Life Challenge.