Social Distancing in the Classroom: Keeping Literacy Meaningful and Engaging During a Pandemic



Though my district is going back using distance learning for the first 6 weeks, I know that I was very worried and nervous about how I could still "do" school where the kids can still do fun activities while keeping their distance.  So things like laminated centers, bins of materials, and things like that were probably going to be a no-no for at least most of this school year.  And I panicked, like I'm sure so many teachers out there are!  I want to be prepared for when we return to school in person with some great ideas that I can use, especially if they are things that I already have!

I've been doing a lot of thinking about things that I already use that are no or low touch, so I wanted to share some center ideas and things that you might be able to use as well.  These are activities that will help keep your students engaged, learning, and having fun while not sharing germs!  While these are great for a pandemic, they might also be useful during flu season as well.

I do so much hands on with shared materials during my literacy centers, whether it's laminated sorts, or word building activities with magnetic letters and stamps.  I know that it will be so difficult to do these activities safely without having to do a ton of disinfecting- and I know that disinfecting wooden word tiles and magnetic letters will be a nightmare!

One way around this is to use cardstock to create sets of letters for your students.  Then you can laminate a set for each child and keep them in a personal container for that child.  I love Dollar Tree's snack boxes for individual items.  I love them so much, I have a whole post on how to use them!  Of course, any small box or even a baggie will do.  With the individual boxes and letter sets, my students can still practice building sight words and making words.  It may not be nearly as fun as stamping sight words and building them out of play doh, but at least it's still hands-on.  You could also add a few small rings or links to their individual containers and punch holes in the cards so they can still build the words by linking them together.


If you had enough sets of magnetic letters, you could create letter boxes for each child and label them with each child's name.  Then they could pull out their box when they were doing a making words or building words center.  I would have students keep this in their book box as well.  


Individual book boxes are going to be a huge part of how I stay organized this year.  I have used individual book boxes for several years now.  I've used both plastic and cardboard book boxes throughout the years, but now I have a nice set of plastic ones that are easy to wipe down with a wipe to clean off if necessary.  My students keep their books they are reading, poetry notebooks, reading notebooks, and their independent books in their book boxes.  I may also add things like individual clipboards, dry erase pockets, and sets of magnetic letters or laminated letters in their book boxes as well.  That way, all their materials are on hand and easy to grab.

Numbering items that you don't normally assign to your students individually might be a great way to make sure each student is using their own "stuff" while not writing student names all over it.  I assign my students a number for their mailboxes, lockers, etc... anyway so it wouldn't be too much extra work to write numbers 1-24 on the back of my class set of clipboards or in the corner of my dry erase pockets.

If you don't have individual items like clipboards, book boxes, and dry erase pockets for each student, and you don't want to purchase them yourself, or simply can't afford to, you could use Donors Choose or even an Amazon wishlist to ask friends and family (or total strangers) for help!

For literacy centers, activities that are printable, or something I can slip in a dry erase pouch and easily be disinfected are the way to go.  I hate using so much paper, but I simply don't think I'll be able to constantly disinfect laminated items like I usually use.  So anything that can be printed in black and white for individual student use will definitely be my go-to once we return to the classroom!

One of my favorite activities to do with my students are sight word stories.  These sight word stories give my students practice with a sight word they are learning or need extra practice with, and when they are finished creating their book, they have something they can read over and over again.  I have them keep them in a pouch in their book boxes to read whenever they have independent reading time.  You can grab a freebie of my sight word story, "I Get Ready"in my TPT store.

The pouches I use were donated to our school several years ago and look like the bags that sheets or pillowcases come in, but you could use something like cosmetics pouches or even the mesh zipper pouches you can find really inexpensively on Amazon.  Even ziplock bags could work, though they might not be quite as durable.


I also love phonemic awareness and phonics sorts.  They are easy, and they really show me how my students are doing with beginning sounds, or hearing middle vowel sounds, or whichever phonics skill we are working on.  Best of all, because these sorts are printable, they are really easy to differentiate.  I give different students sorts based on their levels, so that students who are struggling with a skill can get extra practice while students who are ready to move on can.


I really like center games like this Spin a Word Family game.  All students need is a spinner (which should be easy to keep disinfected if you have plastic ones, or they can just use a paper clip and their pencil.)  Their work is their recording sheet, so you don't have to worry about reusing any laminated items with another child.  You could also place this in a dry erase pouch and they could use their dry erase marker to write the words.  You can grab a free Word Family pack for the -ing word family in my TPT store.


Alphabet and word family books are something I used a lot in Kindergarten.  I've used these both as a center and for practice when I'm teaching a certain letter or word family.  Like the sight word stories, when they are finished with their books, they put them in their plastic pouches in their book boxes to read again and again.


Poetry notebooks are an awesome "on your own" center that students can complete fairly easily.  I've used songs we sing in class, greetings we do during morning meeting, and phonics poems as well.  I just type them up so that two poems fit on one sheet of paper.  Students glue the poem in their notebooks.  For phonics poems, we look for words that follow that phonics pattern.  Sometimes we look for sight words, or certain letters, or they just read and illustrate the poem.  Poetry notebooks can be kept in their individual book boxes as well.  Poems are easy to find and students just love reading their poems in their poetry notebooks!  


Read/Write around the Room is another center that is pretty much hands-off and could be used socially-distant in a classroom.  I would hang the cards in places that they wouldn't be near other students- on our lockers, for example, or near the classroom door, by the sink, etc... Then students could go around the room with their clipboard and write the words they found on their recording sheet.  My students love this activity because it gets them up and moving!  

Of course, we can't forget digital centers!  If your school is 1-1, this is an easy center to keep germ free!  If your school is not, you could wipe down devices after each use.  Our students use different online programs and apps during center time.  Boom Learning is one of my favorites but I intend to try to incorporate more Google Classroom activities during our center time this year, since it uses no paper, has very little prep, and the kids enjoy anytime they get to use a tablet or computer.

I plan to use my Digital Sorts for Google Slides during distance learning once again, but I also plan to use them once we are back in the classroom for a quick check in activity for students to do, or as one of their center choices.  I like how I can check their work and provide feedback before I return it to them via Google Classroom.  Now that I've had a chance to use it during NTI, I am excited to use it more to differentiate instruction for my students.


I mentioned above that my students and I love Boom Cards.  I have created digital versions of several of my Sight Word Stories for Boom Cards to assign to my students as well.  If I notice they are struggling with a word, or just want them to have extra practice with a word, I have them complete the sight word story book for that word.  Now that I have digital versions, they can practice them again and again at home or at school.  For a hybrid model, I would assign digital sight words to some students while assigning paper copies to my in-person students.  I also love these Boom Cards because you can assign them to your students and they can practice reading their books on any device!  If you don't use Boom Cards in your classroom yet, you really should!  You can download a free Boom Cards Sight Word Story here.


Going back to school in person this year is going to be difficult and so different, but I am doing my best to find ways to make our literacy centers engaging and meaningful while keeping my students socially distant.  Stay safe and healthy!







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