5 Social Distancing Group Work Strategies

Many teachers and students have or are returning to face-to-face classrooms with Covid social distancing rules in effect. Wearing a face mask, staying six feet apart, and not sharing materials makes group work and collaboration seem impossible. But there are ways to use technology and our space to still have social interactions and use groups to achieve tasks including Project Based Learning.

Here are 5 suggestions to make that happen. (Sidenote: many of these strategies will also work for online distance learning.) See which ones might work for you:

1. Go outside

One of the simplest ways to social distance is to go into a larger space than the typical classroom. This way students can maintain proper social distancing but still talk to each other. Some schools are using the lines of a parking lot to measure that partners are far enough apart. As a bonus, we know that the virus spreads more inside, so taking kids outside is healthy too.

Teachers can still use talking circles by making them larger. Have student “pass” around an invisible talking stick by pretending to throw and catch it. While outside, students can talk louder so all can hear without disturbing other classes in the building.

If you plan to use outdoor spaces frequently inform students and parents with suggestions that they bring a yoga mat or towel to sit on, plenty of water, and sunscreen or hats. You will also need a backup plan for days when the weather doesn’t cooperate.

I realize that not everyone has this option due to climate, size of school grounds, safety concerns, or even school policies. A compromise would be to move your class to a larger space inside (if available) like a gym, cafeteria, or common space. Other options to consider are getting rid of your teacher desk and having student groups work in the hall. We need to be as creative as possible about where class takes place.

2. Collaborative Technology

For schools that are entirely virtual, technology is how students are working together. If you are teaching in person then use the same tools for collaboration. The Google suite of tools including Classroom, Docs, Slides, Sheets, Forms, Drawings, and Jamboard offer a myriad of options for kids to work on the same things while physically distant. Apple and Microsoft offer similar tools. Students can work in “groups” collaboratively online while sitting six feet or six hundred miles apart.

Another online tool to consider is Padlet, which allows for easily collecting of sticky notes from students. Think exit tickets or answers to a warmup question. But students can also use it in groups for brainstorming or tracking project process. Google Jamboard has much of the same capabilities.

Upper elementary and secondary students can silently communicate in a document. GDocs has commenting and a built-in chat feature. Students are used to texting so communicating this way is natural for them. Organize group discussions by posting a question in a Doc and having the conversation through writing. You could project it on the board for all to see. It may be awkward at first so try it out with a fun topic before diving into content. One trick that I use in group writing is to have each student write in a different font color to assess individually.

3. Protocols

Many of the protocols that we have used in the past can be adapted to social distancing. You can still use PBL protocols of Need to Knows, 4 corners, gallery walk, and the tuning protocol. Start off Need to Knows individually by listing in a journal or on scrap paper. Next the entire class shares in a GDoc. Finally have a whole room conversation while the teacher writes the top 10-15 on the board or butcher paper.

If you go outside or to a larger space, you can still have students go to 4 corners while maintaining distance. Gallery Walks can be spaced out in hallways or on outside walls of your building. Have students stand by their poster and rotate every 3 minutes in an organized fashion. The tuning protocol can be done via video with a tool such as Flipgrid or socially distanced outside. Another alternative would be to silently look at each other’s work online and leave written comments.

Harvard Project Zero has many Visible Thinking Routines. There are Visible Thinking Routines based on analyzing ideas, working with others, and for engaging in actions. I have created free online templates for many of them that can be used in person or remotely. Almost any protocol can be adjusted for social distancing with the help of moving to a larger space or using online templates.

4. Scrum boards

One of my favorite methods to coach students to manage their groups is scrum boards. Adapted from the business world, they are a project management tool to keep a team and the project on track. The basic form sorts tasks into three columns: to do, doing, and done. In the past teachers have used sticky notes and posters or bulletin boards to create them.

During social distancing use my GDoc student scrum board template or a business tool such as Trello to have students organize their project process online. Make sure that each group shares their scrum board with you to allow monitoring and to use it for conferencing conversations.

5. Video conferencing

Students and teachers working remotely are making extensive use of Google Meet, Zoom, Skype, or Microsoft Teams to collaborate. You can use video conferencing even when students are in the same room. Have every student bring in their own headphones or earbuds to keep the nose down.

Use random breakout rooms to have small group discussions about literature, articles, and classroom content. Combine it with a protocol to have proof of learning for assessment. Use fixed breakout rooms for project work time so that teammates can discuss their process as they work, even if they are not sitting right next to each other.

Most schools will not allow visitors, including parents. Use video conferencing to bring in guest speakers or content experts. Visitors can speak to the whole class via a projector or coach small groups on their projects in a breakout room. Due to Covid, many adults actually have more flexibility in their schedule to make a video visit than when they were working at the office.

Social distancing brings many challenges. Don’t try to implement all of these ideas at once, but pick one or two protocols and online tools to use extensively and slowly add others as needed when students are comfortable.

Let’s Connect

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL workshops or consulting on remote learning?  Connect with me at  michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele.

10 SEL ideas to launch the year

Identity Wheel

Whether you are remote, hybrid, or face-to-face to start the year, educators are realizing that the only way to begin this year is by focusing on Social and Emotional Learning. This really isn’t new as most teachers start off any school year with team and culture building activities. But 2020 brought Covid and a refocusing of black lives with the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (among others). On top of this is the trauma of poverty that twenty percent of the children in the US experience daily. Educators are reflecting more than ever on the mental psyche of their students due to national or personal trauma.

So here are ten ideas for how to start the year with SEL…and maintain a focus on SEL throughout.

1. Mood Meters

One simple way to “check in” with students is to use a Mood Meter to have students describe their feelings at the moment (I like the image in this post). This is teaching students to identify their emotions, which is the first step before they can regulate them. It also is formative assessment for the teacher on where students are at before jumping into an activity. An alternative is to use Rubber Bracelets, which could be adapted online by having students use a color wheel.

2. Highs and Lows

We always start class by having students share “highs and lows” which means basically anything that they want to share from important life events to “I had Taco Bell last night.” We used to call this “Good News” in our class and focused on sharing positive, uplifting things, but then we noticed students wanted to share painful things and would say, “This isn’t really good news, but my grandmother is in the hospital.” We realized that what was important for building safe community was sharing any news that was important to students. I truly believe this first few minutes of every day created the culture for the year.

3. Identity Reflection

There are many ways to get to know students and for them to learn about each other. If we want to go deeper than the typical icebreaker questions and be culturally responsive than we need to talk about student identities. Two excellent ways to explore identity are the Social Identity Wheel (example pic at the top of this post) and The Paseo or Circles of Identity These activities call for deep reflection on how students see themselves and the influences in their life. These may be too personal to share out loud, especially during the first week, but it may be appropriate to ask for volunteer sharing with you (never mandate it).

Another way to talk about identity is to show how visually biased we can be. Use 10 pics before and after people were asked to smile and 6 photographers, one man to discuss how what we see and how people portray themselves is only a small part of who they are.

4. Build Relationships

As we get to know our students and community, we can go deeper by helping students realize how they prefer to work in groups and with each other. You can use an online version of Meyers Briggs personality test or the Compass Points activity. This further builds their Self-Awareness of who they are, but also leads to Relationship Skills as they can communicate how they work with team members BEFORE conflict arises in their groups.

As the teacher my main goal at the start of the year is to get to know each student. This can be challenging at the secondary level with so many kids. This 360 Spreadsheet is a way to track the data that you learn about your students so that you can use it to guide your instruction. A quick visual check will show you which students you are not spending enough time getting to know.

5. Mini-PBLs

While addressing SEL, we should also be introducing some protocols and procedures so that students become familiar with them. The Selfie Project is a way to get to know students and model the PBL process in only 1 hour. Start off with an entry event of sharing slides about you; introduce the Driving Question: “Who am I?”; spend 2 minutes on Need to Knows; and then turn the kids loose to create their own selfie slides (inquiry). End class with 30 second presentations of who they are. You have just modeled the PBL framework so that when you use it with content, students are already familiar with it.

Whether you are remote or in person you are going to use some technology tools. Instead of direct instruction, use a mini-project like above to introduce it. Here is an example for GDocs Mini-Project. This process can be used for any tech tools that you will use with the DQ of “How do I use….?”

6. Connect with Parents

Whether you are in the same room or far away from students, it is important to make early positive communications with all parents. Especially this year make it a priority to have regular communication with all parents. Take the first step of a personal phone call for each student within the first month of school. Find strengths to share early in the year to build a positive rapport with parents and let them know that you are working with them.

7. Team building

Most team building involve students either touching each other or sharing materials, which is not going to work with Covid. Here’s a couple of activities with no contact at all. Write it / Do it has one student observe an object and then describe (verbally or in writing) it to a partner who has the materials and must build it. Materials are usually things like Legos or classroom supplies. To adapt for Covid, use colored pencils or crayons and have students draw on graph paper printed colored designs.

Another favorite of mine is to tell a One Word Story I ask students to respond to the question: “What is the meaning of life?” Math teachers might try Bing, Bang, Buzz. Count to 20 is another non-contact icebreaker that can be particularly challenging in a video call.

No matter what option you choose, it’s just a fun activity unless you have initiate a reflective debriefing. Show students an image of the CASEL competencies with the subcategories. Ask them which of these skills they needed to use to be successful at the challenge. Discuss how they will need to use these same skills for projects in your class through out the year. Importantly, come back to the activity as a reminder when students are struggling with a group problem.

8. Create Class Norms

Many teachers do this, but I am not convinced that they do it well. This process has to be focused on the kids and honor their voices. Creating and posting class norms is only a piece of the process. What is vital is referring to them whenever necessary, reviewing them weekly, and modifying as required. Class norms should be a living document that grows as students get to know each other.

Another option to consider is using talking circles (can be done virtually) to Create Group Contracts. This is one of the first steps of Self-Management and building Relationship Skills in your class.

9. Introduce Routines

Introduce whatever structures that you plan to use this year. A simple See, Think, Wonder can be used at any grade level and content area to help students be more observant and break down a problem. Students are equipped with a process for Responsible Decision Making.

I have made some templates for Visible Thinking Routines from Harvard Project Zero in Google Docs and Slides that work great for remote use. Check out this post for more info. and free access to the templates.

10. Teach Content

I see many teachers making comments like, “I am not touching content for two weeks.” I think that they are missing an opportunity. One of the dangers of SEL instruction is to treat it as an add-on to your classroom. Don’t treat it as something separate from learning. SEL and content can and should happen at the same time! This doesn’t mean that you can’t do some fun team building activities. What it does mean is that you should attempt to frame everything as essential to your class.

Connect the skills that students are learning to how they will help students be successful in your class. Identity could be the basis of your first project in English Language Arts. Consider a culturally relevant project addressing Antiracism in social studies. For math, you might introduce a tool like Desmos through a Getting to Know You activity. Some open ended experiments can teach students the scientific method and build community.

You can teach routines, build community, and establish procedures while starting to introduce the standards of your curriculum. Don’t fall into the trap that content can’t be fun or student-centered. This will be a year like no other, but no matter where and how your class takes place this year, you can address SEL in meaningful ways.

Let’s Connect

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL workshops or consulting on remote learning?  Connect with me at  michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele.