The Life-saving Power of Routine

Old computers” by eurleif is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Last spring, when the rug was pulled out from under teachers and students everywhere, some things were surprisingly difficult, and others were much easier than expected. Though our teaching situations may be different, it’s the same deal this year, right?

Interestingly, noticed a pattern last spring: if we had developed a routine around [insert stuff we do in a classroom here], it wasn’t too hard to translate [insert stuff] to our new online learning situation.

For example, we had been our district’s online learning management system fairly regularly before the pandemic had struck. So, when we moved to online learning, students were quickly able to adapt to navigating the platform for their assignments. Posting to a discussion board was no big deal–nor was accessing my feedback on their work.

Other routines also made the transition easier. Students were used to receiving feedback…and the applying feedback to their work because we did this kind of thing every day through reading and writing conferences. Students were used to setting their own goals and having a teacher follow up with them. Students were used to reading mentor texts closely for writing moves they might steal.

As a result, students were able to continue on the above practices without too much transition when we moved online.

Our routines are what saved us.

Routines saved me as a teacher, too. Every day, I put on dress clothes as soon as I woke up because, somehow, this act signaled to my brain that it was work time, which prevented me from losing hours of my morning to the Netflix Monster.

I started each school day by sitting at my desk and looking over and revising plans, watching a Penny Kittle & Kelly Gallagher YouTube video, and then digging into the school work for the day.

My wife marveled at my level of productivity. But I’m not productive. Quite the opposite, usually.

Routines, routines, routines!

So, as I first set out to plan for one of the most uncertain school years I’ll (hopefully) ever witness, my first thought was to think about what routines I want to establish early and often because, on any given day, who knows could happen?

Or as The Beatles might say, “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

So, my first semester beat will be all about different kinds of structures and routines we can lean into that will make life easier no matter what life throws our way this school year.

Routines that Build Community

We were supposed to move to British Columbia this summer, but you know, COVID. So, I’m currently teaching English Composition to college freshmen . The first routines I set up were around building community. .

Now, the thing about routines is that they don’t usually run smoothly until…they become routine. So, I had to remind myself, “It’s okay that this sucks. It will get better once it becomes routine.”

And isn’t that the most important thing for us to remember right now? Since more things are new, fewer routines come premade for us when students enter our classrooms (or for online teachers like me: “classrooms”). This means, more things than usual might fail at first. What I’m saying is, we need to not just give ourselves grace, we need to give MORE grace than usual. We need more patience than ever before, not just with students, but with ourselves.

Okay, I know you don’t come her for me to wax poetic, so on to the strategies!

Sign-ins that build community: I learned this one from @BethRimer, the co-director of the Ohio Writing Project. When she runs a Zoom session, she links a Google Doc Sign-in Sheet in the chat. Here, she provides a three column chart. In column one, folks sign in. In columns two and three, they answer fun questions. As people sign in, Beth reads through some of these and asks people questions about what they shared in the doc.

This one would be so easy to adapt for an in-person class, as well. All you’d need would be a chalkboard and chalk, a Smarboard and stylus, or some kind of Pinterest-thing?

Here’s a really basic version of what this could look like:

Taking attendance in a way that builds community!

Teaching into community with small groups: By the end of the first week of class, I thought we knew each other enough to start having class discussions. Holy mother-of-brother was I wrong. So much awkward silence! So, we had to problem-solve. Let’s pause here to talk about problem solving next, and we’ll come back to this one in a minute…

Troubleshooting to build community: I never try this while a problem is “active”. Usually I like to dig into this type of problem-solving after the heat of the moment has passed. So, the next class period–the one after The Day of Awkward Silence–we opened with a problem solving session.

I re-shared our sign-in sheet, and under our sign in, I created a 1-column table entitled “Reasons Why Sharing in Zoom-class Can be Tricky”. I asked students to just type whatever came to mind into the table. Here’s what they said:

Student’s Collaborating to Make a List of What Made it So Difficult to Share in Class
(I revised their answers slightly to protect their privacy)

So, then, I asked them to make another list: “What We Might do to Make it Better…”

Students’ Ideas for How to Solve our Problem
(I revised their answers slightly to protect their privacy)

This process alone made things a little better for folks. They saw that they all had the same struggles in this situation. Judgement was removed.

After class was over, I studied their responses to think of things I might try on my end. Obviously, breaking people into small groups would be an easy starting point. I also needed to create opportunities for students to show that they (and I) wouldn’t bite if somebody shared something that was embarrassing.

This problem-solving process probably sounds familiar if you’ve read any of my other pieces–because I talk about it all the time. It works for so many different kinds of situations. You might even say, it’s a routine I lean on.

Teaching into community with small groups, Part II: So, we started the next class with breakout rooms. I provided some simple conversation-starting questions for them to work through, and I taught a communication mini-lesson called “How to Keep the Conversation Going”. In this lesson, I provided some social tips like how to show through body language that you are listening–even on Zoom, and I provided sentence stems that good conversationalists use (“Interesting. Say more about that!”, “Wow. That must have been [feeling], yes?”). In the active engagement part of my mini-lesson, I even demonstrated how to listen for things you might ask more about.

Then, I put them into groups (Zoom breakout rooms), and I broadcast our conversation starters + conversation strategies to the chat. In a regular classroom setting, I would have these things displayed on Anchor Charts.

It didn’t end there. I then bounced from breakout room to breakout room, listening and coaching. If a group struggled, I’d say, “Okay, let me jump in here. Which strategy would be a good one for what we are experiencing now?”

Again, not the first time I’ve talked about this kind of strategy. Aren’t routines just the best?!

Reminder: Routines Still Stink Until They Become…Routine

Of course this didn’t fix everything!

Some of those small groups I joined were still emitting radio silence. Other groups fumbled their ways through the strategies. Some groups nailed it. That’s just like anything we do in school, though, isn’t it?

We kept at it, practicing communications strategies to “De-Awkward” our class. Not surprisingly, things are steadily improving as we work our way toward removing the anxiety of online class discussions–as we work our way toward routine.

What community-building routines are hallmarks of your classroom? What other kinds of routines do you lean on to make life easier? I’d love to know more…feel free to comment below, visit us on Facebook, or find me on Twitter @MrWteach.

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