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Back to School

How to Plan When You Don’t Know What to Plan For

What school will look like in the fall is still uncertain for most of the U.S., but teachers can develop flexible plans that work for distance and in-class teaching.

July 8, 2020
Illustration concept for planning during uncertain times
Michael Glenwood Gibbs / iSpot

As teachers, we’re planners—it’s just who we are. But how do we plan when we don’t know what to plan for? During a recent professional development session with a local district, the number one question teachers asked me was what next year would look like. The truth is: We don’t know what’s coming our way. Even with glimpses of plans, no one really knows what’s coming.

With so much outside our control, there are a few things teachers can do now. Set up your classroom to operate in all ways: face-to-face, remote, and blended (a combination of both). Know that you’re likely to use all these methods at some point next year.

Remind yourself that you are resilient. Your students are resilient. Be confident that you can be present for your students no matter what. When you are intentional about building in flexible components from the start of the year, students’ experiences will be better.

Using the guide below, take a first step toward planning for next year. Start with items that you can control. 

Build a Communication Plan

Chances are that you experienced communication challenges at some point last year. Reflect on those challenges.

  • Write out a plan: In stormy seas, your parents, students, and colleagues will look to you to guide the ship into harbor.
  • Broadcast it: Your plan is a beacon. Remind students and parents how and when you will be communicating. Your plan should set the foundation for all other communication. 
  • Keep communication consistent: Follow through with your plan. Initially, this may involve extra work. However, as soon as something changes, you’ll be glad you made the effort. 
  • Consider alternatives to email: Text services like Remind limit characters and focus messaging. Also, texts are a lifeline for families who rely on mobile devices for access.

Organize Content

Keep in mind that your online learning environment should support your face-to-face instruction—and your face-to-face instruction should support your online learning environment. When they complement each other, both are stronger.

Guidelines for instruction:

  1. Organize content into chunks: units, modules, or weeks. 
  2. Create structure inside these chunks.
  3. Keep the structure consistent.
  4. Include all elements of instruction inside a chunk (preassessment, inquiry, instruction, practice, assessment). 

Once your online content is organized, think about how you can combine your online chunks with your face-to-face instruction. In The Perfect Blend, Michele Eaton provides excellent daily and weekly checklists that work to keep students and teachers organized and bolster the learning in both spaces.

Constantly Evaluate Your Toolbox

After completing a chunk, reflect on the digital tools you used. Ask yourself: Did I have the right tools for the task? Were students able to meet instructional objectives?

When we use the wrong tool, we know immediately: The objective falls flat. So we move on—quickly. When we use the right tool, the tool is invisible. It’s easy and intuitive, and it enhances instruction. We want to use it again. Review your toolbox, deleting tools that don’t work well for you and your students. Keep in mind that a tool that may be right for your colleague may not be right for you or your classroom—and that’s OK.

Plan Activities to Build Relationships in Any Space

To help students build peer relationships online, give them a real reason to be present.

Build a positive classroom community by integrating digital citizenship lessons, and rework your online meetings to offer authentic learning experiences that build relationships. Assigning team roles can engender a sense of purpose, and bringing in guests can help students make real-world connections.

The best relational activities are ones that allow students to shine as individuals. You might have students build an “All About Me” Pinterest board or Google slide and/or create a class scavenger hunt, and then review the results as a group.

Design Discovery Activities for Key Technology Tools

A discovery activity allows students to learn how to use a tool before tackling content learning and also allows teachers to have conversations about expectations from the start.

A discovery includes three parts: a teacher-led tutorial on how to use the tool, an outline of expectations for both students and instructors, and a low-stakes task in which students can practice using the tool.

Inside a discovery, make sure you allow room for conversation; in this process of students talking to each other and to you, you can preemptively solve any problems before deploying the tool.

If you don’t know where to start, begin by listing the top three tools you use in your classroom. Next, plan a discovery for each tool. Then think about where you can embed your discoveries into your instruction.

Create Routines That Are Consistent Across All Spaces

Whether online or face-to-face, build a consistent routine for students with opportunities for choice and self-pacing. 

Here’s a routine for any environment:

  1. Check announcements.
  2. Complete morning check-in.
  3. Open module and begin first task.

Once built, illustrate these processes with graphic organizers like process maps. Post these inside your LMS and physical classroom and attach them to announcements. Most important, minimize change as much as possible—students need consistency now more than ever.

With so much uncertainty about what next year looks like, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Start with the pieces you have control over.

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