Famous Last Words; “It should be super quick and easy”

I can’t believe how far my students have come in terms of their technological abilities.   We started the year with many students having difficulty learning to log into their accounts, navigating the Google platform, and typing quickly and easily.  The first weeks took what felt like the entire writing block to log in and type out a few sentences.  We have reached the point where login information is memorized and within a minute students are in our Google Classroom and working on various writing assignments, practicing math, and accessing multimedia resources.  Everything has been going smoothly, so of course, I started to get cocky…

My third graders are currently working on a biography project where they are researching, writing about, and then presenting information about a figure from the American Revolution.  The classroom teacher, ESL teacher and I found a great graphic organizer that students used to take notes on their famous American, and we wanted them to be able to type into it.  Of course it was a PDF, making that difficult, so I had what seemed like a genius idea… “Let’s create a google form, have the kids fill it out with their information, and then I can mail merge the data into text boxes on a Word document, and it will look like they typed into the organizer.” Then came the always famous last words “It should be super quick and easy”.

The students started typing, and then writing time was unexpectedly cut short for a special rehearsal.  The entire class logged off, as they always do, except with a Google Form, your work needs to be completed and submitted in one sitting.  ALL OF THEIR WORK WAS GONE!

That afternoon we learned a very important lesson about using technology: It doesn’t always do what you want it to do, and sometimes you have to start again.

To be honest, the class didn’t even seem to be upset that they had to start entering their information into the Google Form again.  They were also faster typing the second time around, hopefully because they had retained the information they were typing with additional reading and practice of it.  Everyone was very careful to hit submit, and they were very excited to watch me mail merge their information and watch it auto-populate into their graphic organizer.  Once the information was typed in again, it really was quick and easy!


Data! Data!

Here’s What I Found:

At the onset of this experiment, I suspected that the answer to my “is using technology more engaging” question would be affirmative.  But the data suggests that it is a vibrant, enthusiastic, resounding “wahoooooo!” from my students.  I have shown them myriad tools in the Google suite with which we have accomplished all sorts of feats.  They have puzzled through creating Google drawings without many directions, they have created and taken surveys, they have inserted images, they have conquered the Google classroom.  But most of all, they have written.  Much like I am doing now, they have composed on the keyboard happily tapping away at their desks.  I see them actively working.  I see them able to switch from screen to trade book, searching for quotes, and back to screen.  But the most exciting to see is the data here collected from our Google Form:


Will They Surprise Me?

The next piece of data to collect, though, will be the pièce de résistance (I wonder whether my students might use the read/write tools to look that little french number up! — because THEY CAN!).  The “end of year” assessment piece in which I will ask them to hand write and then type two pieces of writing.  I will be asking students to do this in a week or so, as they are pretty fried from standardized testing.  

Next Year Will be a Breeze!

On that testing note, after this experience of closely observing students working (and working diligently!) using the Chromebooks, I am no longer anxious about what they can accomplish online next year when they are asked to compose on a keyboard rather than with a #2 pencil.

Scream for HELP? Or “Google It?”

Leah Bruosta, fifth grade teacher here and I.NEED.HELP! What happens when I need help with technology in my classroom? To whom do I turn? Well…. the easy answer as one of the “technology” favoring teachers is to “Google it.”  I Google it, then I ask someone who might know, then I forget about it for a while, and then reengage in the puzzle.  PS – When did “Google” become a verb? Because it is one, and I rarely use it in the noun form anyway…
Definition of Google: Merriam Webster
Merriam Webster suggests that to google is a verb! Hallelujah!


I have been wanting to ask students to do more and more pre-writing digitally.  Their writing lacks organization and this used to be a larger part of our practice in fifth grade. My research question this year revolves around writing engagement when technology is utilized.  So far, I am impressed with their speed and skills with word processing, and have noticed that they are in need of organization.  “Googling it” didn’t render me with the answers that I hoped for.  I wasn’t able to find “editable graphic organizers” or “lock tables” so that students would be able to edit — I even had a hard time explaining to colleagues what it was that I wanted.  I could make a PDF form (I think I know what that is!???) and have students edit it — good idea, but it didn’t work when I “made a copy” for each student on Google Classroom.  With some fancy saving strategies and trying to skirt the issue, it was figured out- but how do I explain this twenty-seven step, nonsensical strategy to students? Nothing was as simple as I had hoped.  So I kept asking around.  And I think I have hit on something today.  Our technology specialist attended a professional development course wherein she designed just this type of graphic organizer that students can manipulate.  And would you believe it, it fulfilled her requirement for Special Education PDPs!? Next step: check out this class!


Digital graphic organizer created using Google Drawings and shared with students via Google Classrooms.

It’s at this point that I know what I don’t know.  I have more questions than when I began and now I have a place where I plan to ask them —  and a format on which to practice.  Google Drawings… helping kids with writing? We’ll see! 

Letting Go

Far from the sage on the stage mentality, giving students choice is, on many levels, letting go– letting go of the image of a decorous, well-oiled classroom, letting go of tried and true, familiar texts, letting go of neat, staid assessments with prescribed answers. In short, providing choice in a student-centered classroom requires us to widen our scope of what it means to be teachers and have faith that we, and the students, will survive, and perhaps even thrive.

I remember an old Billy Blanks Tae Bo boxing workout video in which Billy shouted out to his viewers, “you’ve got to give some to get some!” In the student-centered classroom, what teachers are giving is always changing, and what we are hoping to “get” is more engagement from students. Ultimately, we want to turn around the giving and getting, so that students receive intrinsic rewards from what they “give” or put into the learning process. All of this involves risk and uncertainty, meaning that we must open ourselves up just as much to the possibility of failure as we do to success.

In my four high school ELA classes ranging from freshmen to seniors, students have selected independent reading texts; they read and journal on these texts each week alongside our additional class reading and activities, and roughly once per quarter, they post book reviews to a class blog using Blogger. Using a Google Spreadsheet for each class, I also try to keep abreast of their reading choices as they change, whether students are rejecting or finishing books. Finally, I have a running survey using a Google form that students have been asked to take repeatedly throughout the year each time they finish or switch texts in order to keep general data on their preferences.

The “wins” have been numerous: from students who have cited this as the “first time” they enjoyed a book, to artfully composed, insightful, engaging blog posts, to groans and disappointment when independent reading day had to be rescheduled, there is no doubt that many students are both “giving” and “getting.”

Others, unfortunately, are not. When it came time to write our second blog post of the year, several students were still reading the same book with which they had started the year–some were genuinely still enjoying the book and were close to finishing, yet others had not used time effectively and had hardly made progress, thus, they had very little about which to write on the second blog post. Faced with the prospect of a shallow piece of writing, I felt forced to allow these students, for a lower grade, to complete their posts on classroom readings we had just finished. This is far from an ideal solution, but I do not believe in dishing out zeros when I can find some way for students to participate in the task at hand.

I also have students–many of them seniors–who, at this point in the year, are hard pressed to do any type of reading independently.  For this reason, I am exploring audio options such as audiobooks and quality podcasts for some students. Again, this is not my preference, but I feel that I must expand options in order to gain greater participation during the second half of the school year.

For the most part, Google Forms, Spreadsheets, the Google blogging interface, and Google Classroom have been helpful in disseminating, gathering, and organizing materials and data in this process with predictable glitches along the way.  At one point, our blogs were blocked by the school’s censoring mechanism, something our capable technology experts were quick to fix. At other times, spreadsheets open for students to edit and update were not accessible to all students since only freshmen and sophomores are currently one-to-one.  This required me to do a lot of “chasing down” in order to keep information current, as students frequently forget to update spreadsheets at home.

In the end, giving students choice is worth it, and I’ll keep throwing and blocking punches to stay in the ring.

They See Themselves as Writers!

The Basics

This year I have been focusing on using technology to help my 3rd grade inclusion students access grade level content and to be able to create their own work in a way that is both accessible and meaningful for them.  We started small, letting students use Google docs to type their writing in order to help with typing skills and the readability of their work.  This allowed them to make the font larger, apply high contrast backgrounds, and most importantly, edit their work quickly and neatly.   Using a Google Doc also allowed me and other teachers to go into their writing and give them real time feedback.  I noticed that it was particularly helpful for me to highlight the exact parts of their writing that needed edits.  


Extra Tools in Google Docs

Once the students understood the basics of how to use Google Docs and how to share their work, I was able to teach a few of my students who are working to master phonics skills, to use the speech to text feature.  This seemingly simple tool was freeing for so many of the students who have amazing ideas for their writing, but get caught up in the logistics of spelling words.  Students would often spend the entire writing block working on one paragraph or a few sentences because spelling the words was labor intensive for them.  Once they had taken the time to write the word, they had forgotten their idea and the rest of the sentence.  Students use the speech to text feature, edit their work, and then print their document to turn in with the rest of the class’s handwritten assignments.  The students were completely engaged with their writing, and were amazed to see themselves filling an entire page with their words.


Moving Toward Google Classroom

In the weeks since we started using the Google platform to help students access content in the area of writing we have continued to learn as both teachers and students.  We have created a Google Classroom where we are posting writing assignments.  This has meant that we can go in and look at students work without them having to share the doc with us, which saves time.  It also keeps all of the writing organized.  We have also been able to move from using the comments in the doc as encouragement, to really putting in some substantial edits and individual goals for students.  My favorite was hearing about how excited the students were to see that I had “popped into their writing” and was able to give them feedback  from home on a day I was not in their classroom.

From here I hope to shift more of their work into Google Classrooms.  I will most likely start by uploading their guided reading books so they can use the Google Read and Write tool to troubleshoot words and definitions, practice their fluency, as well as annotate what they are reading.

It’s hard to tell who is more excited about using this in our classroom, me or them!


The Efficacy of Student Choice

Students as Readers

I was afraid to pick up my coffee mug and flip the lid open for fear of shattering the calm concentration in the silent room.  Silent–yet teeming with mental activity.

Invariably, students requested the book I read to them–some even arguing over it, a heated round of rock paper scissors cropping up at one table to see who would get the book.

“I can’t wait to go home and read more–it really has me hooked.”

“I have other work to do at home, but this book keeps calling to me.  I feel like I’m discovering the joy of reading again.”

Above are some of the responses to the “students as readers” initiative taking place on Fridays in my ELA classroom this year. I read to students from a new text each week, one in which they may or may not show interest.  After this, students pick up their current independent reading choices, read for 30 minutes or so, and finally respond to what they have read in a journal entry. Granted, the adventure has not been without obstacles for some students, especially those with repeated absences or limited interests.  One student has already been back to the library three times in an attempt to find the right “fit.” This has made it difficult for some students to complete required journal entries, and it may prove challenging for these students to produce blog post book reviews at the end of the quarter if they have read very little of their books.  However, I still feel that I must emphasize the importance of persistence in searching for an ideal fit for each student, even if this absorbs time.  If I simply insist that each student makes a decision to meet a deadline, I fall into the same trap I wish to escape by shutting down the opportunity for student choice I am attempting to create.

Choices, Choices, Choices

Friday’s choice reading, journaling, and eventual blog post make up one component of the choice-driven, student-centered classroom I am trying to foster this year.  In addition, I am attempting to build choice into each assessment and vary my approaches to standard curriculum texts based on student input and formative assessment from the previous and current school year.

The Role of Technology

In what ways is technology integrated throughout this process?  Google Classroom has proven instrumental in both monitoring student engagement and simply keeping track of the many choices offered. One method of gauging student engagement and preferences involves poll questions through Google Classroom which are easy to post, answer, and the results of which are quickly and clearly reported. In addition, students may be unaccustomed to having so many choices, leading the choices to become overwhelming as opposed to liberating. By posting choices, resources, links, instructions, and multiple assignments and due dates for different components of the class, I can provide students with a single reference point to which they may return.  The Google Classroom application works well on most students’ phones as well; this can be a resource for students at any hour and was helpful in the classroom on a day when building copiers and the classroom LCD projector failed to function.

Moving forward

As I continue to move forward, I will evaluate the efficacy of providing students with ample choices and attempt to use both technology and face to face interactions with students to pinpoint the line between providing effective and excessive choices for students.

Paperless Research Papers

It’s March… which means we have entered the “Heartbreak Hill” section of the teaching marathon. Not only this month mark the longest stretch of uninterrupted teaching all year, it also marks the point where I embark on the yearly task of teaching research papers.

The month of March consists of me teaching students: why we cite sources, how to research with scholarly sources from peer reviewed databases, how to write introductions, why Wikipedia is not an approved source. And of course, how to capitalize letters… Just kidding on the last one.

In all seriousness, writing research papers with high school students can be frustrating because so much of what humanities teachers do during the writing process is antiquated. Students simply don’t understand the purpose of writing research papers. I think most students believe we are simply trying to make them jump through hoops. “Cite that source!” “Double space that paper!” “Size 12 Times New Roman Font!” These are actual quotes from a nightmare I had a few nights ago!

This is a copy of an assignment I provide to my U.S. History II Honors students. It describes details of the assignment and the requirements of the paper.

As a history teacher at Waltham High, teaching research papers has always been the Wild West. The only requirement placed on teachers is that we have students write a research paper at some point during the year. The assignment itself depends on the teacher. I usually write a traditional research paper with my students.

This month’s blog post illustrates my attempts to utilize Google Classroom and Google Docs in an effort for students to complete research papers without actual paper. I attempted to rely solely on these online platforms for the writing, submission, and grading of papers. Not a radical idea by any means, but also one I had not yet tried.

A screenshot of the first page you see when you enter a Google Classroom. It displays the active classes you have. A screenshot of a few assignments I posted on Google Classroom.

Google Classroom is an application featured through the Google Suite and it is offered strictly to teachers. There is no surprise in the name, it offers an online classroom similar to online platforms like Edmodo. Since Waltham High School (WHS) provides all students with a google account students simply have to log in to their Google Account to access the Classroom application. Students must use their WHS account to access Google Classroom, they would be denied access if they attempted to log in with a home account.

Once students log in, they can join a teacher’s classroom by entering a password that is provided by the teacher. Once inside the

More Google Classroom assignments. classroom, an email is sent to students whenever a new assignment is created by their teacher or when their teacher has returned or graded one of their assignments.

For the teacher, Google Classroom serves as a place to post assignments. Assignments can be anything from a discussion question that asks students to post a response, to an essay that needs to have a document attached.

Over the course of this year, I have used Google Classroom for small formative assessments. This allowed me to familiarize my students with the application, so that we wouldn’t have logistical problems when we depended on it later in the year.  The early use of Google Classroom was building towards my larger goal for the month of March: to use Google Classroom as the sole platform for interacting with students’ work while they wrote traditional research projects.

A PDF attachment of a reading and questions posted on my Google Classroom.

Throughout the year, I have created many different types of assignments for my students to complete in our Google Classroom. The first week of school my students posted answers to discussion questions, and followed links to surveys about themselves. Later in the year, students completed extra credit readings and attached answers to questions. Students also were able to access links to Google Form quizzes (mentioned in an earlier post).

This year I told students that I was not accepting hard copies of their research paper. I know this may seem like a radical move, but I think going paperless makes complete sense. It cuts out excuses about printers and allows students to turn in assignments from any device. Therefore, students were to type their research papers in Google Docs and submit them through Google Classroom. Throughout the month of March, I posted assignments that asked students to attach segments of their research project as we progressed to the final copy. In the end, each student attached a draft of their paper as well as a final, edited copy.

Unsurprisingly, I have really enjoyed using Google Classroom. For one, it has allowed me to go almost completely paperless. Instead of having students flood me with paper, I have electronic copies that I can edit and grade online through Google Docs. Students can see the changes or suggestions I have made and decide whether to reject or accept them.

A paper I edited and made comments on in Google Docs.Another paper I edited and made comments on in Google Docs.

More importantly, I find myself grading electronic rough drafts and final copies much faster than paper copies. Therefore, I am saving precious time. Furthermore, I can post students grades as soon as I am done grading and send them an email notification letting them know that I have finished reviewing their paper.

Overall, I think using Google Classroom for project submission andA screenshot of the screen a teacher sees while grading on Google Classroom. Google Docs for essay writing is a no brainer. I think the only drawback to Google Classroom is that sometimes students are stumped by its interface. I have had a few students unsure of where to post on the Google Classroom, so they simply email me the paper. It is a small frustration, but one I can handle.

In sum, I recommend going paperless and using Google Classroom and Google Docs to write traditional research papers. I think it saves time, cuts out excuses about printer and computer problems, and prevents students from losing papers or forgetting to save their papers. And of course, the trees will thank you!