The Joy of Connection

impact workshop, professional resources

One of the main tenets of my teaching philosophy is that learning should be joyful. Not only do I want students to enjoy themselves, but I’ve seen how much deeper learning can be if it’s a joyful experience. But when I learned I’d be pivoting to the role of kindergarten teacher, I had some serious apprehensions. Although a kindergarten room is and should be one of the most joyful places in an elementary school, would there be joy in The Now? I’d seen so many images of classrooms return-to-learning-in-the-middle-of-a-pandemic classrooms from all over the world, and I didn’t see the joy.

The desks were islands.

The teacher sat at a desk at the front.

The students had clear barriers between them at lunch.

The playground was off limits.

I definitely grieved this loss for students and my own children, and then my unofficial goal for the 2020-2021 school year became ADD JOY!

“But if I’ve learned one thing about pandemic teaching it’s that just because things are different doesn’t mean that they are inferior.”

Now joy can manifest in infinite ways so I had to narrow my focus. I wanted it to be purposeful and meaningful. I was also hyperaware of opportunities from The Before that students would be missing: seeing all of their kindergarten peers at lunch, fifth grade buddies, cozy reading nooks, small group projects, choice time stations…and this was just the tip of my list of school-related activities. I realized the common denominator was connections. My students wouldn’t be connecting in the same ways as in The Before. But if I’ve learned one thing about pandemic teaching it’s that just because things are different doesn’t mean that they are inferior. Students are still connecting to others; it just looks different. I needed to figure out what I wanted my students’ connection opportunities to look like. Enter: my island vacation.

Don’t worry, I didn’t break the state’s travel orders. Over winter vacation, my family bought stock kitchen cabinets to build an island in our kitchen. The cabinets came in these huge boxes, and after emptying one, I noticed that it looked like a little store with an awning. It just needed a window. And you know that thing teachers do where they’re constantly saving things “just in case” they could use it someday? I did that. I threw one of the empty boxes in my basement. Just in case. A few days later when a Christmas present was delivered, I instantly envisioned the empty Fedex box as a mailbox. Down the basement stairs it went. That cabinet box that looked like a shop? It clearly had to become the accompanying post office. My youngest son and I spent one afternoon of that break turning them into these:

Cute? Sure. But how could I make them meaningful? What would their purpose be? While contemplating the grander meaning, I rebranded social studies as “Impact Workshop” following some PD I’d done on project-based learning (thanks, Mrs. Serafino!). I also took advantage of an opportunity to work with an instructional coach that my district provided from Better Lesson a couple times a month on antiracism. I knew that I wanted to tie the theme of connection to social justice. It seemed like a natural fit, too, since helping people search for connections makes us aware and appreciative of our own and others’ identities. My awesome coach shared the social justice standards with me, and I identified a few to guide my work under the themes of identity and diversity. That’s when I realized the purpose of this work: I would connect my students to other kindergarteners in a neighboring city via letters to help them aware of and appreciate identity and diversity. Meaningful connections with some sneaky reading and writing practice, too. Win-win!

Before starting any letter-writing, I focused on the Identity social justice standards first. After all, understanding ourselves is as important as understanding others. I read All the Ways to Be Smart and After the Fall to have students make some posters about themselves: all the ways THEY are smart and a personal cheer when they need a boost. Then we discussed families. We spent a lot of time in our daily #classroombookaday read alouds noticing similarities and differences between our lives and others’. Our conversations included questions and comments like: Is it wrong? Are they better than us? No, it’s just different, and those differences make the world beautiful and interesting.

Since I wanted to infuse literacy in their dramatic play during choice time, I introduced a new form of writing they could do every day during choice, like writing postcards, letters, designing stamps, making signs, and more. I added envelopes, fun paper, blank notecards, blank postcards, blank squares of cardboard to make signs, and blank stamps to our writing center.

They LOVED the options, and nearly every student was WRITING during choice time every single day. My trick worked so well, I infused the post office theme into nearly every aspect of our classroom. I attached simple mail boxes to everyone’s basket for any mail they received.

I changed the name of a classroom job from “distributor” to “mail carrier” to check the post box and deliver mail and papers.

I created a “post office” bin in our classroom library and filled it with picture books about mail and any REALIA from the post office: priority mail envelopes, blank address label stickers, and a philatelic catalogue.

There were even more books in here at the beginning, but I had to return them to the library

For our remote days, I made a digital library of most of the books in the bin, too.

They made signs to indicate when the post office was open or closed.

The post office is “cosd” most of the day

They role-played endlessly. All during our soft start to each day (I will forevermore recommend doing choice time at the beginning of the day!). The work was meaningful AND joyful. Win-win.

After a week or so of post office play and building background knowledge with read alouds, the stage was set to introduce the unit. I told the class I’d found a class in Springfield to be our pen pals through a mutual colleague. We started by learning about where we were in relation to each other.

A map of our county with our town and our pen pals’ town outlined.

We wrote our first friendly letters: “Dear pen pal or kindergartener or friend,…”. Students had to write a sentence about themselves, and then ask a question.

Oof. It was a process. Doing the whole letter in one session was DEF a mistake. Some of them had all of the parts, but few had them in the right order. To make sure that we had all of the parts of a friendly letter, we played Prove It. I cut up a checklist of “friendly letter must-haves” and put them in an envelope for each student. They pulled one piece out at a time and had to point to where they had it in their friendly letter to prove that they had it to their partner. If they didn’t they used spider legs to add it in.

For the next round of letter-writing, I decided to give students strips of paper with our Fundations lines on one side, and the different parts of a friendly letter on the other. Together, we found the strip that said “date” and wrote the date on the lines. Then we found the strip that said “greeting” and wrote the greeting on the other side and so on. For the body of the letter, they talked with their writing partners first to rehearse what they wanted to say and ask for their pre-writing. Then we glued all of the strips onto a sheet of paper. SO much better…and more colorful!

Every time we receive letters, I’m having students record a video reflection that answers these questions: How does it feel to get a letter from your pen pal? How have you connected with your pen pal? What else do you want to learn about your pen pal? These questions get at my original goals from the social justice standards I chose from Learning for Justice.

By our third letter, students needed much less support to write their friendly letters.

This project has been one of the most meaningful and memorable endeavors of my entire career. My normally frequent moments of genius have been so infrequent this year that I’ve been able to keep track since November. I’m up to three six. My second moment of genius was figuring out what to give my students for Valentine’s Day. I had an easy out: something rainbow-related to remind them of our classroom. But I wanted something meaningful (meaningfulness is my jam; see my intro paragraph). While thinking about how much they loved the post office in our classroom and how hard we’d been working on connecting with our pen pals in Springfield, it hit me: stamps. I’d give them USPS stamps to mail their own letters to people they love. When I went to the post office to buy the stamps, they even gave me a class set of those small glassine stamp envelopes! They were the perfect size for my Valentine’s Day cards. The only bummer? I forgot to get a picture of their Valentine’s Day cards before I put them in students’ boxes! Serious fail.

But the project overall? Major win.

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