In today’s world, the topic of using technology in the classroom can be intimidating. In this monthly column, join one teacher on a quest to discover the best way to meet the needs of her digital-age learners…moving beyond the technology tools to focusing on supporting each student’s learning.
For many of us, our school break is becoming a flurry of putting classrooms back together, creating exciting new activities for our fresh new learners, and the subtle creeping in of those back-to-school dreams (or is that just me?). Personally, the first day of school is one of my very favorite days of the year. Everything is fresh and new. The door is open to new opportunities and adventures. Students and teachers alike are excited by all the possibilities. But, as I watch all the tweets, posts, and pins, I can’t help but wonder if some of us are slapping a fresh coat of paint on an old rickety practice. Are we making things look really good and exciting on the surface without taking the time to reflect on our practice and how we can make changes to positively impact the learning of each and every student, each and every day?
There are two major areas in the world of the classroom where a strong foundation paves the way to a smooth and productive year: communication and getting to know our students. I thought I would take this opportunity to share with you some of the strategies, practices, and tools I will be using in the upcoming school year in order to kick off the school year right.
As teachers, we know that a big piece of our students’ success is building a strong bond between school and home. Practices, procedures, and expectations change each year for a student. And although students adjust quickly in school, often their parents may be confused and frustrated by all the “new” coming home each day.
We need to be prepared to deliver important information in a timely manner. At the beginning of our teaching career, we may have communicated with a weekly newsletter that we printed off and sent home. And although that may have been the most effective way of communicating with parents, times have changed. We need to think about the methods our parents and students use to receive their information now. Information gathering is quick, concise, and usually in the palms of their hands. We need to deliver updates in the digital places where parents already spend time.
In addition to our regular postings on our class blog (which my learners quickly begin maintaining), our class is active on Twitter and Instagram. We have set up a class account @RamsaysClass to let our audience know that everything being published is coming from students. Students post on classroom devices where we are logged into the accounts or they use their own accounts (with parent approval) and post to our hashtag (#RQMS6). Although my learners use both tools to share their learning and connect with their global peers, it also serves as a window into our daily learning activities. Family members cannot only see our active learning environment, but it also gives them the opportunity to join in all of the learning fun. Over the years, these tools have proven to be highly effective in keeping family members, near and far, engaged in our learning community.
In addition to social media, a major source of communication in today’s digital world is texting. There are several texting tools and apps you can use, but my preference is Remind (formerly Remind101). With Remind, you can set up different groups for free; if you teach multiple classes, you can set up a student and parent group for each class. When you send messages, you can send to multiple groups at the same time. You don’t have all the parents’ and students’ numbers and they do not have yours. You give parents and students a class code and they can receive your updates via push notifications, text messages, or email. You can even schedule updates in advance and attach files like photos, documents, PDFs, and presentations. Staying in touch couldn’t be simpler.
Getting to Know You
Life in the classroom is never dull. With so many different learners with unique needs, sometimes it can feel like we are balancing a plethora of spinning plates. How do you determine what a student knows on each and every skill and standard? How do you learn each student’s interests so you can peak his/her curiosity? The sheer amount of formal and informal data a teacher collects each day can quickly become overwhelming, especially at the beginning of the year when you are getting to know your students.
One practice I have found very useful is creating a survey in Google Drive. In a quick and easy form, I can get to know my learners’ likes, dislikes, goals, fears, challenges, hobbies, favorite books, and preference in learning styles. Setting up a Google account is simple. You can use an email address you already own, even if it is not a Gmail address. Once you are in your Google account, simply click on “create” and “form.” Type in your questions, publish, and you are ready to go. I have my students complete this the first couple of days of school. In addition to adding the link to our class website and blog, I turn the link into a QR Code so students can simply scan the code and go directly to the survey. All of that information is stored in your Google Drive as a spreadsheet, making it easily accessible.
Another way to gather data on students is through a free tool called Kahoot. Kahoot allows the user to create quizzes, games and surveys for an audience which interacts in a gaming format using any Internet capable device. In real-time, learners answer questions and teachers get an overview of the level of content mastery to drive their subsequent instruction all within the context of a game. Furthermore, learners have the opportunity to create their own Kahoot to challenge their peers’ understanding and mastery. Kahoot joins my toolbox as an engaging way to pre-assess students at the beginning of new content standards.
KWL graphic organizers have stood the test of time because they provide the learner and teacher with much valuable information before, during, and after a unit of study. Students typically have experience using them at least for the K (what they Know) and W (what they Want to know). However, often the copy they use has been lost or mangled before they ever get to the L (what they have Learned) or all of the sticky notes on the chart paper have long since fallen off the wall and walked out on the bottom of someone’s shoe. ReadWriteThink has created an online tool to bring the practicality of using a KWL back into your classrooms. Students can open the tool and add their own content; including curating any links they may discover or projects they created. Then they can save the file and return to make additions throughout their learning journey. It can be saved as a PDF and submitted to you as evidence of their learning. The KWL creator appeals to my learners because they can see their growth all within one working document.
Socrative is a powerful (and free) tool I harness to get to know my students. Using Socrative, teachers can create quizzes and exit tickets to pre-assess and formatively assess throughout a unit of study. Students can use any Internet-capable device to complete quizzes using a classroom code, which stays the same for the entire year. These quizzes can take the form of multiple choice, true-false, or open-ended questions. The teacher can view the progress in real-time and then a spreadsheet of results is available instantaneously at the conclusion of the quiz to drive further instruction. We use Socrative frequently as a warm-up at the beginning of a class or an exit ticket at the conclusion of a class. My learners eagerly anticipate the immediate feedback they receive on their progress towards their academic goals.
So as the time begins to escalate towards the beginning of the school year, let’s take some time to truly ponder our practice. Let’s think beyond the cute classroom décor and bulletin boards. What worked well? What could be improved upon? How can we grow to better serve the students who we will have for such a short amount of time?
Now is the time we have to prepare for a successful year. We can lay the groundwork for building a strong support system for our learners through our communication. As teachers, we have the ability to invite parents and family members into our learning environment. It’s time we remembered that although we may have a student for a year, the parents have been with them for their entire lives. We need to capitalize on that expertise for the benefit of each child’s learning.
We can spend the next few weeks strengthening our ability to get to know each one of our learners as individuals so we can not only peak their curiosity and creativity, but also help them become the person they want to be. We need to discover where they are on the learning continuum and guide them to where they need to be. Each student is unique; it’s our responsibility to adjust, change, and grow into the educator each one of our students need.
Best wishes on a successful start of a new school year!
Julie D. Ramsay is a Nationally Board Certified educator and the author of Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?: Collaborating in Class & Online, Grades 3-8 (Stenhouse, 2011). She teaches ELA to sixth graders at Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She also travels the country to speak, present, and facilitate workshops in applying technology to support authentic learning. Read her blog at juliedramsay.blogspot.com.