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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Start the Year With a ‘Primary Focus’ on Relationship-Building

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 03, 2020 14 min read
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(This is the final post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What introductory activities are you planning to do, or have done already, with students to begin this highly unusual new school year (specifically—first day, first week, second week)?

In Part One, my colleage and co-author Katie Hull Synieski and I shared a book excerpt from a chapter on long-distance learning with English-language learners. It’s coming from our upcoming second edition of The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide.

In Part Two, Andi Jackson, Ann Stiltner, and Kelly Love offered their suggestions.

Today, this three-part series is “wrapped up” by commentaries from Emily Burrell, Melanie Gonzales, Dr. JoEtta Gonzales, and Dr. Theresa Capra.

Look for the next question-of-the-week at the bottom of this post!

A two-week plan

Emily Burrell is a mathematics teacher and co-lead mentor teacher at South Lakes High School in Fairfax County, Va.:

I teach high school mathematics students who have been marginalized by the public education system. Traditional teaching methods have failed them. It may not be surprising that many of them have failed a math class. My students are uninspired to do math that doesn’t matter to them. I reach these students by providing a curriculum that does matter: a project-based curriculum that provides choice and helps students build their voice. Relationships are the first key because this type of active learning, while more engaging, is also more work. Explicitly teaching executive-functioning skills is the second key to helping students who have not yet developed habits for successful learning.

On Day 1, we will begin to build the working norms necessary for students to feel comfortable taking the risks necessary for learning and sharing understanding. Then we will introduce ourselves by decorating a Google Slide with words and pictures that describe ourselves Students will add comments to each others’ slides about how they connect to their classmates. Finally, I will ask students to fill out a survey to learn more about their interests and talents and to determine whether there are any students in class with whom they would or would not work well.

Armed with information about my students, I will build their first collaborative groups. On Day 2, the groups will complete an activity about why they like group work, why they dislike group work, and how an ideal group works together. Then I will give the students a scavenger hunt to see which group can be the first to find all of the items in their houses. We would also play “unique and shared,” an ice-breaker where the group has to find one thing they all have in common and one thing that makes each group member unique from the others. At the end of class, students would reflect on what worked well in their groups, what didn’t work well, what challenges they could work to overcome, and what challenges their group might need the teacher’s help with.

If we have any time for math in the first two weeks, we will analyze and discuss graphs from the news. I cannot build relationships with my students if I ignore the ways their lives have been directly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and recent developments in the Black Lives Matter movement. This will also give us an opportunity to grow as digital citizens as we discuss news sources and their perspectives and biases.

Through the first few weeks, our primary focus will remain relationship-building and our secondary focus will be building executive-functioning skills. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child has a helpful Executive Functioning Activities Guide. In the spring, my virtual students became extremely unfocused. This year, I will explicitly teach executive-functioning skills in my class. We will make plans for building sustained attention by identifying our distractors and committing ourselves to ignoring them. We will get organized by scheduling and prioritizing tasks. We will set goals and monitor our progress toward them with rubrics. By focusing our first few weeks on relationships and executive-functioning skills, my students will be ready to be successful learners and doers of mathematics all year long.

“Consider students’ emotional and psychological needs”

Melanie Gonzales is an elementary math curriculum, advanced academics, and early-childhood coordinator in Texas. She has been in education for over 25 years and has served as a classroom teacher, instructional coach, interim assistant principal, session speaker at local and national conferences, and continues to be a passionate learner. She is a member of the Texas Association of Mathematics, the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, and is active in her local McMath organization:

In the past two years, in my role as curriculum coordinator, I have asked teachers to start their math units with “The First 20/30 Days” document that consists of lessons for the first 20-30 days of school to guide teachers in establishing a mathematical community of learners and teach the routines and procedures necessary to be a successful mathematician. These lessons are based on The 1st 20 days of Independent Reading by Irene C. Fountas & Gay Su Pinnell but put the lessons into a mathematical context. I built on the work of Fountas and Pinnell as well as math consultants Allison Lentz and Jennifer Jones. I took parts of their ideas and rewrote the lessons to match my district’s scope and sequence and particular audience.

This year, it will be even more important to consider students’ emotional and psychological needs before attending to content. Teachers were given the opportunity to take a virtual, self-paced professional learning session that provided information about Maslow’s and Bloom’s hierarchies and how we will need to consider both when planning for the first few weeks of school. Teachers were asked to consider how to integrate both models. In addition to checking in on students after being out of the classroom for an extended period of time and re-establishing or building relationships with students, the other goals of these lessons are: to help students think of themselves as mathematicians who enjoy and actively participate in math; to establish consistent classroom roles, rituals, routines, and procedures that support teaching and learning; and to increase rigor by having students explore, express, and better understand mathematical content though process skills (communication, connections, reasoning, representations, and problem solving).

Some of the activities and lessons include learning and discussing what math is and what mathematicians do and inviting students to draw a self-portrait of themselves as a mathematician. Classrooms will create a “Treatment Agreement” or agree on norms for their math community. Students will read about and discuss math that is found in our everyday lives. Teachers will introduce their routines and procedures and provide time for students to practice. Time will be provided to set up individual math notebooks and math tool boxes (especially important in these times of social distancing and limiting cross contamination).

Students will be asked to work in small groups (most likely virtually through Google Slides or Seesaw) and agree on what makes “groupwork” successful such as equitable participation, setting up roles and norms, agreeing on quality work, etc. Teachers will teach how to appropriately respond to each other, how to disagree respectfully, and how to include more students in discourse vs. just calling on one student at a time. Sentence frames, graphic organizers, and math walls will encourage precision with vocabulary and be a support for all students, especially those whose first language is not English. Students might be surveyed about their feelings and attitudes toward math.

Armed with this knowledge, teachers can then work together to debunk myths about mathematics such as “only some people are math people,” “math is only about one right answer,” “math is hard,” and “I’m not good at math”. Based on the work of Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler, teachers will encourage students to build a growth mindset. Additionally, time will be spent reminding students that mathematicians notice things, are curious, are organized self-starters, and effective communicators and problem solvers. Finally, they will use their math skills to count out a specific number of snack items and celebrate being mathematicians already!

By providing clear expectations and guidelines, honoring each student for what they bring to the class, checking in on each student emotionally, and establishing how mathematics will look, sound, and feel this year, teachers can launch a successful year!

Beginning with “family-student-teacher conferences”

Dr. JoEtta Gonzales is the superintendent of the Casa Grande Elementary school district in Arizona. She has been a teacher, principal, district office administrator, director of a national equity center, and has taught courses in multicultural and bilingual special education at Arizona State University, and leadership in special & inclusive education at the University of Kansas. She serves a community that sits halfway between Phoenix and Tucson:

Our students were last in school on March 13 and will return to learning on Aug. 17. After carefully considering various ways to help usher our students back to learning, our district developed an innovative plan for student re-entry. It involves: 1) having individual hourlong family-student-teacher conferences to build strong relationships; 2) taking the time upfront to assess student social, emotional, and academic skills; 3) teaching students and family members how to access our online learning resources; 4) distributing devices and distance-learning kits (to include modems, routers, etc.) for those that need them; 4) assessing and addressing food and/or housing insecurities; 5) teaching students and families about our new safety protocols; and 6) helping parents understand ways they can support student routines for success. Conferences will take place in lieu of instruction from Aug. 3 through Aug. 14.

As a district that encapsulates urban, suburban, rural, and remote areas with high rates of poverty, we believe this approach to startup will net more academic gains for students as they will become better accustomed to our new procedures and will build better communication avenues should we have to shift models of instruction abruptly.

Because of our current situation with the pandemic, many of our students: are at greater risk to fall behind academically in school, have experienced trauma during the closure, and/or have suffered emotionally in the absence of friends and teachers. Survey and anecdotal data show that members of the community and staff have wide and varying opinions about the safe reopening of schools. Sentiments include: concerns about their own/family health; excitement for a return to normal; anger/stress, uneasiness about unknowns; lack of clear expectations; skepticism of a “new normal"; student academic uncertainty; and a need for social/emotional focus. Transitioning back to school will require clarity, confidence, and community buy-in. Positive engagement between all school stakeholders will play a critical role in establishing a unified partnership toward our vision: A Community of Learners, Leaders & Innovators.

Teachers and support staff are developing an agenda for family-teacher-student conferences to ensure authenticity and consistency. A conversation guide is in the works that helps facilitate strength-based discussions that are positive, engaging, and focused on establishing trusting relationships. The goal is to support students’ social, emotional, and academic learning in a way that honors their present situation and fosters a sense of compassion, collaboration, and connection.

Emphatically, we believe this is the better model for our community. We understand that our students won’t learn from us until they know we care. After being out for five months, we believe an approach that keeps the student learning experience at the center to be foundational for our teaching and learning success.


Dr. Theresa Capra is a professor of education and clinical supervisor for teacher-candidates. She is the founder of edtaps.com, which focuses on research, trends, technology, and tips for educators:

The first day of school is a cherished milestone that has, in recent years, turned into a social-media frenzy with viral pictures of adorable children clutching customized signs noting their incoming grades. But what will the first day of remote school look like? Educators know the first days are critical to establish rapport and create a classroom culture conducive to learning. How can these objectives be achieved in virtual formats? There are some strategies to help.

Break the ice!

Ice-breakers are widely used by educators to ease student anxieties and cultivate a comfortable learning environment. They range from sharing summer adventures to exchanging personal information and academic goals. Students might partner up, chat, and introduce each other to the larger forum or individually share out in a whole-group setting through candid dialogue or a fun activity that lightens the mood. Mainly, the goal is rapport while simultaneously introducing learning expectations.

This can still happen in remote courses using appropriate technology. For example, Flip Grid is an application that can be easily downloaded on a smartphone or laptop to record and upload short videos on a thread for invited members to view and comment. Instructors can create an initial recording on the thread to kick off the welcome topic. Make it personal—let your new students know who you are as both a person and educator. Consider sending a welcome note (or a YouTube video) in advance with instructions making the activity even more personal while getting in front of any potential technological issues.

A picture is worth a thousand words!

Visual media is a powerful way to motivate students and elicit engagement, so why not harness this for remote introductions? Instead of a typical text-based discussion board riddled with platitudes such as, hello, tell us about yourself, ask students to upload a favorite picture with brief captions, not a full description. Prompt students to ask each other questions about the picture to further the introductions in a more personalized manner. This simple tweak can make remote introductions more engaging.

Look out for confusion!

It has been documented that students typically move through predictable stages during a computer-mediated course: confusion, frustration, adjustment, and managing. Confusion that does not abate leads to frustration, which is a risk factor for unsuccessful outcomes and noncompletion. How can you tell if your students are confused? Well, perhaps they’re asking good questions—should I do it this way or that way? Or maybe they’re making an effort, but it’s slightly off. If you notice any signs of confusion, a phone call or FaceTime can usually set it straight. Keep an eye out for early signs that usually pop up during the critical first days.

Remote learning is new for both students and teachers alike—the challenges are irrefutable. But implementing these simple strategies can help kick the school year off right!

Next question!

The next question-of-the-week is:

Using the framework of “Do’s and Don’ts,” what would you list as the do’s and don’ts of teaching in a COVID-19 environment?

Thanks to Emily, Melanie, JoEtta, and Theresa for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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