Michael Williford is a middle school principal in California. Follow him on Twitter at @mwillifordjbms.
As a middle school principal, I know the jump from sixth to seventh grade can feel scary, even in an ordinary year – and for students who are English language learners or qualify for special education services, it can seem even more daunting. In this uncertain back-to-school season, it’s especially hard for kids and families to feel confident about this transition. I can’t take away every anxiety they’re feeling, but I can give them a place to go for information, connection and support.
I built an online orientation through Google Classroom to welcome our new students and their families to our school community – take a quick tour below!
When students and their families enter the classroom, the first thing they see is a quick introductory video from me. This was my first touch point with new students and their families, so I used it as an opportunity to orient them with the rest of the site and with our school community, too.
As they scroll down, they see our welcome slideshows, which we built in English and Spanish. 93% of our students identify as Hispanic, and 19% are English language learners, so it really mattered to me and my team to make the site feel completely welcoming and accessible to students and their families. Normally, we would share these slideshows at our back-to-school event, but we decided it was vital to provide them online so families could take their time exploring the site with their kids and send us questions. It’s so important to me to let students and families know that while they’re facing an uncertain fall, they’re not facing it alone – the site is always here for them, and so are we.
Below those welcome links, we have information on our after-school clubs – everything from engineering and animation to the Harry Potter Reading Club. Kids do so much growing during their years here, and they can feel a lot of pressure to decide who they are right away, so we want to counter that by giving them plenty of opportunities to explore different interests and discover new passions.
After the welcome materials, we walk our incoming learners through all the meaningful resources our school has to offer. Like our “Counselor Corner,” which introduces our counselors and lets our students know they can reach out anytime for personal and academic support. Or our breakdown on what it means to be an English language learner at a dual immersion school, where we offer resources on everything from state testing to special education. It’s important to let our students know that we’re here for them – not just to help them grow academically, but to help them grow as people, too.
We want to provide that same type of encouragement to families as well. Middle school students can feel less comfortable having their families get involved at school, but they still need that involvement – and the families still need to be part of our community. So I try to be really proactive about creating different ways for families to connect with us. For example, we have an English-Spanish family book club, where we all read the same book in both languages.
We want to make sure all our students and families feel personally invited to log in and get to know us, so we have an eye on who has and hasn’t accessed it yet. We keep it very low-pressure, but we do reach out to those who aren’t using the site, just to make sure they feel comfortable logging in. This system gives us a chance to offer some support to a kid or a family member who might be feeling anxious about taking this first step into our school community.
This site was a real labor of love, and I’m so proud of my team for all the work they put in to tell our new students’ families: “It’s a stressful time to start a new school, but we’re going to make sure your kids are okay. We’re going to make sure they feel comfortable and confident in our community. And we’re going to make sure they feel inspired to reach their fullest potential.” Right now, we school leaders don’t know as much as we wish we did about how this fall will work, but there’s one thing we always know: how to make our students and their families feel informed, encouraged and supported.