Connecting with Families 2017 Style

Looking Back

When I began this so-called journey into exploring how technology can increase parent communication and curricular understanding I had a very different vision of my plan than where I am at now.  Let’s travel back a bit to see how it all played out…

In my previous post (which seems years ago but might actually be a few months ago) I outlined my plan to make the best website ever.  A beautiful, carefully crafted website with all the relevant documents and tools parents would need which would be presented to them in a highly visual space that parents of varying language backgrounds could access and understand.  Then I realized that I am not actually a trained web designer.  Boom.  I realized that even the very “user-friendly” platforms like Google Sites and Weebly are quite tricky and time-consuming for the completely inexperienced user.  Boom.  My shattered visions of my wonderful website almost came crashing down when I came to the realization that SO many people had already come to…. Websites are boring.   They are are early 2000’s.  2017 is about instant news, instant updates, apps not sites.  And so my vision changed and I left my half built websites to linger in cyberspace while I began to pursue a new avenue that has led me to where I am now – in the midst of exploring and using a great teaching tool for parent communication known as Class Dojo.

Enter the Dojo

I first heard about the website classdojo.com from a teacher in my school who was using it to help with classroom management.  “It’s great,” she told me, “I can give the kids rewards, and their parents can see it.  I can also chat with parents on Dojo.”  That day I set up my free Teacher’s account on ClassDojo.  Within a week I was a pro.  ClassDojo, as I explain it to people, is like a twitter feed, except I am the only one tweeting.  It allows to me to share news and stories from our classroom in realtime.  I post pictures of the class, give suggestions to parents about websites to check out or things do with their kids at home.  I post stories to the class newsfeed or for individual students.  I can also give the students “rewards” for showing responsibility, working hard, good teamwork, etc.  All of this can be seen by their parents.  A great feature has also been messaging.  Parents can send me informal messages through ClassDojo, similar to texting.  

Crunching Numbers

How has this all impacted student learning?  Are parents more aware of curriculum?  Are they more involved in their child’s learning? Let’s look at some data…

It’s hard to make a direct correlation between my web connections with parents and student learning.  But here’s how I can see it having a positive impact:  As I mentioned, I make suggestions to parents about things to do at home, for example reading websites to try with their kids.  When I sent home a reading log, I posted a picture of it and explained to parents what the kids needed to do each night.   Earlier in the year I only had 7 children return a reading log.  After posting this one on ClassDojo I recieved 13 back on the due date.  I even had one mom comment that she hadn’t seen her son’s log – I checked his backpack (surprise! It was there!) and he was on his way to reading.  When I assessed my students with the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) this March, I had 5 students reading at or above grade level – more than I’ve ever had at this time of year with my ELL students.  I had 4 more students who were just 2 levels below grade level.  Like I said, I can’t make a direct correlation, but I can say confidently, that by directly communicating the importance of reading with parents is increasing my students’ daily reading at home – and I KNOW that yields results.  

So how do I know that parents are checking ClassDojo?  Like most social media sites, they make it easy.  For every post I make I can see the number of “likes,” and views.  Parents can also comment on posts and one of my favorite features – they can have the posts translated and I can see how many of them (and who) have viewed translations.  So here’s some data:

I have 17 students in my class and 13 of them have at least one parent who is on Class Dojo.  I’ve posted 24 times since January.  On those 24 posts I’ve had a total of 141 “likes,” 294 views, and 42 translations viewed.  That averages 12.25 views for every post I make.  So thank you ClassDojo….parents are viewing, reading,  and commenting. And let’s not forget about messaging…  Since I’ve started teaching I’ve had the capability to email with parents, but I have had VERY few contact me via email over the years.  Once I launched ClassDojo I started getting messages from parents – sometimes just to say hello or thanks.  Sometimes a quick question.  Sometimes to bring up a concern.  It became clear to me that particularly with my students’ parents who are not native English speakers, this quick, informal way to communicate was a more comfortable way to reach out than with an email platform.  I recently searched through my emails from this school year and found I had only 3 emails initiated by parents this year.  I have already had 13 messages initiated on ClassDojo by parents since January.

Keeping parents informed + sharing positive class news + direct communication with families = student success.  That’s what I think… stay tuned for more great results!

Where to go next…

In a whirlwind first half of the school year, I have found myself doing exactly what I said I hoped to avoid in my first post: resort back to standard teaching methods and techniques. So far I believe I have a lot of room for improvement in terms of incorporating technology in a more meaningful way in my classroom. My students have worked on a project where they utilized ChatterPix, Explain Everything, and Padlet, but other than this example, technology use has been reserved for Kahoot review games and the online textbook. This is not what I had envisioned at the start of the year, but I am starting to figure out ways to engage the students with technology.

My goal/research question for the year is to investigate how technology can enhance student understanding of primary source documents. My approach at the beginning of the year was to introduce my standard pen and paper strategies for analyzing primary sources. This includes the SOAPS method (Speaker Occasions Audience Purpose Subject Bias) and annotation as a way of engaging with a source. As students have written essays for Document-Based Questions and have encountered more varied primary sources, I am beginning to investigate ways to analyze primary sources through the use of technology.

The first step in this next phase was to conduct surveys to gauge student comfort with technology and whether or not they would prefer to use technology to analyze primary sources. The results for my surveys conducted in my classes are below:

These results show me that most of my students are very noncommittal when it comes to primary sources, but they do feel as though they learn a lot about history through the use of primary sources. These results also show me that many students “agree” that they would benefit from using more technology and online resources in class. This was very telling for me and shows me that I need to be truly intentional with my methods and how I incorporate technology in the classroom. I know I need to avoid simply digitizing my current teaching practices and go beyond to better promote student engagement with and understanding of primary sources.

In this process I am currently gathering various tools and technological methods for students to analyze primary sources. One tool that has become of particular interest for me is the Read and Write tool from Google. We completed a professional development workshop utilizing this tool, and I believe that it would be very beneficial for my students as a method of analyzing sources in my classroom. One benefit that I love about this tool is how students can collaborate, annotate, and highlight on the same document.

My plan moving forward is to be intentional about researching and implementing these strategies over February vacation. I am looking forward to taking the time over the break to plan activities and lessons around this increased use of technology with the focus on how these strategies can be implemented in a meaningful way. As the year progresses, it will be vital for me to make sure to not lose track of my long-term goal of improving understanding of primary sources in my history classroom, and I know it starts with a lot of work on the front end in making sure the structures are in place for the students to be successful. I am up for the challenge!

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.

Technology: A Key Component to a Multi-Sensory Approach to Learning

Last year, as I was navigating through the uncharted waters, also known as my first year of teaching, I couldn’t help but notice how limited my knowledge and abilities were on the use of technology in my classroom. About halfway through my first year, I began to use a projector, but pathetically my use of technology ended there. As I went on peer visits in my school, to observe other teachers in my building, I was in awe of the use of technology in some of the classrooms I visited. Students in the middle schools have this amazing resource at the touch of their fingertips, an IPad, and I had no clue how to use it.

At the beginning of this school year, I reviewed different units and lessons from my first year, and I noticed something missing across the board: the use of technology, specifically IPads. This was not okay. I knew I needed to take advantage of the technology available to teachers and students in our district. As I started to think about how I wanted to incorporate technology into my classroom, I knew I wanted to connect the use of technology to the individual styles of learning and instruction present in a special education classroom. As a special educator, I know how beneficial a multi-sensory approach to learning is for students with disabilities. So how can I use technology a means of incorporating a multi-sensory approach to learning in my classroom?

 

The students I teach in my program are auditory, visual, and/or tactile learners. Some of my students benefit from all three approaches, and some students identify only with one learning style. As I get to know my students, I am able to identify how each student learns best, and can then adjust my practice accordingly to fit each student’s needs. However, as a middle school teacher, I know this is not only the time to teach academics and social skills, it is also the time to teach independence. A goal for most of my students is for them to become more responsible in their learning experience. With the technology accessible to students today, it is important for all students, especially those with difficulties in their reading, written expression, organization, etc., to know how to use technology to their advantage.

Students needs to be explicitly taught, and before I can have the expectation that students will use technology to accommodate their multi-sensory approaches to learning, I need to understand myself how this can be done. Through the course of this year, I will be exploring how technology can be used as a multi-sensory approach to learning, specifically for students with disabilities. The more I learn about this amazing resource, the better I will be able to explicitly teach my students on how to use this tool as a complement to their individual learning styles.

Flippin’ Out

Happy December, everyone!

I wanted to write a quick blog post about something I’ve been doing in my classroom to help my students move at their own pace and get me away from the front of the classroom: making videos.

This is something I wanted to do last year, but as with any kind of mastery, it is a slow and tedious process.  Much like this quote by Ira Glass about creativity, I’ve now been teaching long enough to know how far I am from getting really good at my craft. Ah, the burden of knowledge.

Anyway, this year I started making videos to explain concepts in my class.  I use Quicktime Player on my computer to record my screen and voice while I click through a powerpoint, or record myself writing on a paper using my document camera.  I knew if I was going to start doing this, the process would have to be easy, so I did not use programs where I had to do editing or mess with an audio track.

I initially wanted to do this as a way for students to revisit instructions or catch up with the class if they were absent, but I’ve started experimenting with assigning these videos for homework.  So far, the students seem receptive to the idea of learning from a video, and I’m hoping that this will free me up to do more activities with the students, if I’ve already laid the groundwork of a concept through a video.  

Anyway, here’s an example of one of my low-fi and quickly created videos.  You can see why I asked for a USB microphone for the holidays.

Have a good one!

Alex

In the future, when we all live in underground bubble houses.
In the future, when we all live in underground bubble houses.

Mr. Robot

My name is Michael DiLuzio, I am a history teacher, and my biggest fear is that one day I won’t have a job because a robot will replace me. In my most pessimistic moments, I think I will be the final generation of an extinct species: the human teacher. If I am being truly retrospective, I think this fear comes out of an acknowledgment that I am at a teaching crossroads. I’m entering my seventh year as a social studies teacher, and I think I am beginning to enter my prime as an educator (hopefully an extended prime).

However, while I am honing my craft, new technologies and innovations continue to pop up that challenge the treasure trove of lessons and pedagogy that I have built as an educator. The bedrock of what I do is beginning to crumble. The stories I tell, the lectures I give, the readings I discuss, the movie clips I play, and the discussions I facilitate already seem as though they are from a bygone era. The style of teaching I grew up with is beginning to go extinct!

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t get up and lecture everyday. I cultivate lessons with primary sources, my students debate important issues, jigsaw difficult readings, “save the last word for me,” “take stands,” walk around imaginary museums, and complete enough exit and entrance tickets to fill the Grand Canyon. They don’t, however, own their education, they don’t drive their own learning through inquiry, they don’t complete project based education, and they are not experiencing a flipped classroom.

Teacher jargon aside. It has become apparent to me over the last few years that the role of the teacher is changing. The teacher is no longer expected to be the “sage on the stage”, but to be a facilitator or a learning partner. At the moment, I am not sure if I completely accept this change nor am I sure that this dichotomy will continue. I’m conflicted about abandoning a lot of the ways that I grew up learning, because I still see a lot of value in teacher centered learning. There is nothing quite like listening to an expert.

However, I do realize that there must be a balance struck to satisfy competing masters: inquiry based learning, 21st century skills, content expectations, and standardized tests. Similarly, I realize I need to evolve as an educator or I will be left in the past. The future of education is ahead of me, and I don’t want to be a twenty-nine year old educator that refuses to adapt. I want to embrace the use of technology and the changing role of the educator.

Furthermore, next year, my tenth grade students will enter my classroom as a part of a growing part of Waltham’s 1:1 technology initiative. These students will have been using iPads as a resource for three straight years. This both excites and terrifies me. This excites me, because I will be able to use this technology to approach my teaching in a multitude of new ways. As currently constituted, when I want my students to have access to a computer or 1:1 device, I need to sign-up for space in one of the many overbooked labs at my school. Although, it is possible to sign-out these rooms when one schedules far enough in advance. The long range planning it takes to secure a lab lacks the spontaneity of transforming a lesson that you are planning on using tomorrow.

In addition, the use of a lab every once in awhile is not the same as truly integrating technology into my classroom. This is why I joined the Waltham Integration Network. I want to work with my colleagues to develop ways that I can more fully integrate technology into my classroom. However, I am still somewhat weary about the entire situation. I want to strike a balance between complete technological integration, project based education, and teacher cultivated lessons that are sometimes (gasp) teacher centered. I think there is a place in education for all of these different types of learning.

Therefore, over the next year I will be trying to answer the following research question: How can I teach 21st century skills and integrate technology into a classroom that does not have consistent access to 1:1 technology?

 

Brainstorm

The above bubbl.us displays a brainstorming session I had when I was flushing out my research question (click to enlarge). 

 

Although this question doesn’t exactly prepare me for dealing with next year’s 1:1 initiative. It does push me to think about ways to change my teaching. Over the next year, I will blog here about my attempts to integrate technology, my triumphs and my many struggles. Tune back in next month to see my progress.