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Creative commons photo by Mark Knol on Flickr.

I’ve worked a lot with Google Docs in the past.  I’ve used it to collaborate with colleagues, formally taught educators how to use it, researched ways to incorporate it into teaching, and I’ve used it on a small scale with students.  This was my first term regularly using Google Docs on a large scale with all of my classes.  It was an interesting experience and I thought I would share some of the things that I’ve learned along the way.

I want to note that my university uses Google Apps, and all students have a Google account.

Purposes for incorporating Google Docs into my courses:

  • Help new freshman develop technology skills needed in future classes.
  • Provide students with effective collaboration tools.
  • Increase the quantity and quality of feedback I am able to give students.
  • Enhance my own organization and efficiency as I move between working in the classroom, my office, and my home.

As I went into this venture, I realized there were some other handy benefits.

  • Students who use the computer labs on campus have useful file storage right on hand.
  • Revision histories are very helpful for a variety of reasons.
  • Easily archive student examples.
  • I’ve become more efficient at grading, taking less time to provide a greater amount of feedback (I type WAY faster than I can write!).
  • My desk is cleaner, with less physical paper to shuffle.
  • My backpack is lighter, since I wasn’t carrying as many stacks of paper between school and home.

Whenever you try something new, there are some roadblocks.  Here are some of the issues I ran into:

  • Formatting problems both with GDocs itself and when uploading MS Word documents or PPT files.
  • Student complaints of “imploding” email in-boxes when I began giving feedback.  GDocs sends a separate email for each individual comment added to a paper.
  • My own email in-box imploding with GDocs notifications for every student assignment turned in.
  • Students constantly asking if I received their assignments either because they didn’t trust GDocs or their own skills with the technology.
  • Issues with students forgetting to share their assignments (one place where the revision history came in handy).
  • Not enough class time spent in the computer lab for initial instruction on how to use this and other important technology.

Here are some of the ways I approached the use of Google Docs.

Sharing – Instead of using the big blue Share button, each student created a course collection (or folder) of their class assignments that they shared with me.  I chose to use the collection route to help students better see the development of their work throughout the term.  One of my classes also includes a portfolio, and I hoped this would help make that process easier.  Using collection sharing was a problem at times, since the big Share button is so tempting to push.  When students would use the Share button instead of sharing documents into their collection, it caused organization issues.  Most of these were ironed out by the end of the term.  A handy tip for using student collections: Color code the collections for each class with a different color. Then you can quickly look through the GDocs home page to see the documents for each class.

Naming Conventions – To help both students and myself with organization, I instituted a system for naming files.  The search box in GDocs makes it very easy to type in part of the file name and get the list of student assignments that need feedback.  When students used their own file names, don’t use spaces, or abbreviate file names, it caused organization headaches for me.  Instead of quickly and easily using the search box to get assignments, I had to go through student collections or the long list of GDoc files and search for individual student assignments that were named incorrectly.  I hate being picky about such little things, but I think I need to really stress using correct file names for my own sanity.  I spent a LOT of time just searching for individual assignments at the beginning of the term.  Originally, I had students add their last name and first initial to the end of a file name.  I realized this was an unnecessary extra step since each document is already tagged with the owner’s name, so I stopped requiring students to do this.

Templates – I found in the previous term that students had issues including everything they needed in the handwritten reflections for class.  To help with this, I created a template for each reflection with a small grading/feedback chart.  The chart serves as a checklist for students, as well as a way for me to quickly organize and give more detailed feedback.  I use templates for other assignments in class as well.  I make these files so they can only be edited by me.  Students make a copy of the document and type their assignment into it.  This would sometimes cause me to receive panicked emails from students who told me GDocs wouldn’t let them type their assignments.  I just had to remind them to make a copy of the template and all was well.

To-Do List – I realized pretty quickly that I needed an easy way to handle incoming assignments.  The approach that I came up with worked pretty well for me.  I left documents “unviewed” on my Home page until I was able to provide feedback.  Once a document received feedback, I used the “Don’t Show in Home” option to move it off of my to-do list.  I could always click on “All Items” to see all of the documents I had access to.

GMail Filters – When I first started using GDocs on a large scale, I knew the deluge of email notifications had to go.  I set up a GMail filter to keep any GDoc notifications from ever hitting my inbox.  However, I chose not to set the filter up to delete them so I have a time-stamped record of submissions (I’ve been told students can tamper with submission times that show up on GDocs itself).

Some things I would like to work on in the future with Google Docs:

  • When I have an assignment that needs a more specific length requirement, I will be switching to a word count range rather than page numbers.  This will help with the formatting issues that students and I encountered this past term.
  • One of the main topics of my courses is time management.  I see potential in using the time stamps in the revision history.  Students could use this tool to be more reflective about how they use their time and they could also use it to evaluate their own writing process.
  • Use the comment feature to encourage more two-way dialogue with students.  Right now I get an occasional comment back from a student, and I see the potential of this feature as a two-way communication and revision tool.
  • I would like to use the computer lab more during class to help students learn the ins and outs of this technology.
What questions do you have about using Google Docs with students?  Do you already use GDocs and have some suggestions or thoughts you’d like to share?  Thank you!

Creative Commons photo by Andreas Ebling on Flickr

Think about how you learn best.  What motivates you?  Excites you?  Encourages you to know more about a subject?  If you could learn using any instructional strategy you wanted, what would you choose?

Next, think about how you teach.  What is comfortable for you?  What strategies do you enjoy using most and are your “Go-to” instructional methods?  If you’re having a tough day and didn’t get the time you wanted to plan a stellar new lesson, what practices do you rely on? What methods do you struggle with, enjoy using the least, or possibly avoid?

Now, think about how your students learn.  What motivates them?  Excites them?  Encourages them to know more about a subject?  If they could direct how you teach, what would have you do?

For some students, how they learn and how I learn fit very well.  When I plan lessons and think about learning, I feel I can do pretty well by them.

For other students who learn differently than I do, it can be a struggle.  I have to consciously make an effort to include instructional strategies that I don’t like, because I don’t learn that way.

I am more of a visual and auditory learner.  It’s pretty easy for me to come up with teaching techniques that utilize these types of learning.  I am not a very good hands-on learner.  I have to work pretty hard to come up with something that engages my students who learn this way.  I have been lucky enough to work with some fantastic colleagues who are hands-on learners.  They have helped me to develop a better understanding of this learning style and how to better integrate it into my own teaching.

When I discuss with students what works for them and what they’d like to see more of in my classes, competition is almost always one of the responses.  I struggle with competition.  I am not a competitive person and I don’t understand this mindset very well.  It’s actually something that can set me on edge.  When I think about the students I have difficulty motivating or don’t connect with as well as I’d like, many of them have a competitive nature.

So I’m asking for your help.  I am looking for resources and instructional strategies on how to better reach my competitive students.  What works in your classroom?  Are you someone who enjoys competition?  How do you leverage that for your own learning or teaching?  What instructional strategies do you find comfortable or challenging?  Do you find yourself teaching how you learn?

Winter Term 2012 Goals

“I find the great thing in this world is, not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving…”

-Goethe

I learned a lot during my first term as a Developmental Educator for college freshman.  To continue moving forward, I have decided on the following three goals for the upcoming winter term.  We are on the quarter system, where a term lasts 10 weeks.

  • Feedback – I will provide students with timely feedback.  As I’ve said before, I feel that quality feedback is an area that should be continuously worked on.  While in the past I’ve also focused more on informative and specific feedback, I’ve decided to work more on the timely aspect this quarter.  I feel I am giving informative and specific feedback.  However, I have noticed that my tendency towards perfectionism in those two areas has bogged down the grading process.   With only 10 weeks in a term, it is crucial that students know how they are doing right away.  My motto has become “Prompt, not perfect feedback.” (Thanks Molly Smith!)  This is one of the reasons why I am having students turn most assignments in using Google Docs.  I tend to do better with electronic feedback rather than toting around the stacks of paper.  Since I have a toddler running around, I do a lot of sporadic grading (a few papers here and there instead of all at once).  Doing it electronically helps me to keep track of where I am without my daughter trying to use a stack of papers as confetti.  :)  Typed comments also take much less time than handwritten ones, so I am more efficient.  Side note: I will be thinking about how I can use Standards Based Grading practices in my CORE 101 the next time around.  I am thinking of setting up a mastery learning system for study skills.
  • ConnectionsI will better emphasize the connections between class activities, course assignments, and how they are related to the life of students at EOU.  Thanks to inspiration from a colleague who is great with the big picture, I realized that my courses need to be a more coherent whole.  It can be easy to get caught up in specific study skills, reading strategies, and what not and lose site of the overall purpose.  I will strive to make clear connections for my students so they see how things are integrated.  This will hopefully help them easily transfer what they learn to the rest of their college education.  I will do this by stating specific connections more often, planning more from the big picture than just teaching isolated skills, and pushing students to make their own connections.
  • Instructional MethodsI will diversity the instructional methods I use in class.  I realized over the past term that as I was learning the ropes of my new job, I tended to fall back on the instructional strategies I found most comfortable.  I need to go back to the drawing board and review a multitude of strategies to find those that will best help my students learn.  I noticed that many of my students are more hands-on, so I need to do more in that area in particular.

Do you have any feedback or advice on these goals?  I would appreciate any advice, resources or insights.  What are your goals?  I encourage you to post them here or elsewhere.

CORE Facilitator

Overlooking my new community, with Mt. Emily in the background.

This past summer, my family made the move from Wyoming to Oregon.  I am now working at Eastern Oregon University, a small state college that primarily serves a rural population.  I am one of two instructors in our CORE program.  This program is designed to serve first year students using a developmental framework.  Students are enrolled in these courses based on placement test scores.  Many of my students are first generation and/or non-traditional.

CORE is part of the university’s Integrated Studies Program and counts towards General Education requirements.  The first course that students take, CORE 101, is paired with a writing course (WR 115).  With no more than 20 students per cohort, they attend the same CORE and writing sections back to back.  I have two cohorts this fall with a different English/Writing faculty partner for each.  This structure is intended to help develop community in the cohorts and to take advantage of some of the benefits seen in small learning communities.

CORE 101 is basically a college survival course, while WR 115 is a basic intro to college writing.  In CORE, we focus on improving students’ literacy, critical thinking, metacognition, reflection, and study skills.  The seminar introduces students to university resources and the culture and traditions of higher education.  We also strive to help students become integrated into the wider EOU community.

CORE 102 is an inquiry course where the primary focus is career and academic major exploration.  It includes personal assessment of student values, interests, and abilities.  Students also develop skills in financial literacy and health/wellness awareness.

It is now finals week, and I am wrapping up my first classes of CORE 101.  I have learned a great deal and I am retooling 101 for next term and working on my syllabus for CORE 102.  I have always enjoyed working with students on study skills and metacognitive processes.  I regularly integrated college prep skills in my high school courses and it’s interesting being just on the other side of that.  I have always enjoyed working with people in situations that involve change and transformation, and this is certainly one of those.

While I am not directly teaching history or social studies, this background in critical and analytic thinking is very beneficial.  I plan to remain active and involved in the social studies community while connecting with professionals in first year experience and university developmental programs.

I really love the small town and small school atmosphere of this university.  Our largest lecture class on campus is about 100 students and none of my own classes are over 20.  The university highly values the benefits that come with small class sizes and greater faculty/student interaction.  My husband and I have really enjoyed teaching here so far.  It’s a great community to be a part of.

Do you have any questions about this new position or the program?  Do you work with students on study skills at any level?  Are you involved in a first year experience program? Do you have any other questions?  I’d love to hear from you.

Resources:

Behind my Wyoming neighborhood, where the Oregon Trail comes through.

Earlier in the year, an experienced teacher and parent asked me “With the baby, doesn’t this feel like your first year of teaching all over again?”  I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but yes! It did feel that way.  And just like my first year of teaching, I have learned a lot about what it means to be a good educator.

Here is the summary of how I did on my 4th Quarter goals.

Assessment – I will work to deliberately define for students what they are expected to learn.

Progress: I continued to develop and use the unit outlines in U.S. History.  These were helpful in keeping me on track when other topics tempted me. (“Liz, you don’t have time to teach everything about the Vietnam War.” But it’s all important! Haha!)  I think these will also be helpful when I go back to teach these units again.  I will continue to use this strategy, but with more of an emphasis on student use.  I may also tweak them from an outline to some other formats I’ve seen.

Feedback – I will provide students with more informative, specific and timely feedback.

Progress:  I felt that things went a little better here this quarter, but I will always continue to work on this area.  I began utilizing more formative and summative assessments.  Since I feel to strongly about the importance of good feedback, I will be making this my main focus when I get back into the classroom.

Parental Communication – I will communicate more regularly with parents by calling or communicating by email with a minimum of 20% this quarter.

Progress:  I had some great conversations with parents that I believe benefited my students.  While I didn’t meet my quantified goal, I feel pretty good about the communication that I did have.  I always think of a former colleague who called every student’s parents at least twice a semester.  This is something I would like to do in the future.  Parent communication is an important facet of feedback and I will continue to strive to improve in this area.

Efficiency - I will become more efficient with my planning time, feedback, and various other responsibilities while maintaining quality standards.

Progress: I reorganized the class calendars in FirstClass to be easier to follow and use.  I need to carve out an uninterruptible time to make sure they are all updated daily.  I have started to do research on using Moodle instead of FirstClass since the later just doesn’t seem to be user-friendly enough for my students.  I spent a lot of time correcting confusion on how to use FirstClass.  The Instructional Facilitators were great about setting up times to plan with me, since I do big picture planning better in a collaborative environment.  I was able to give students feedback more frequently by focusing on grading small amounts more frequently rather than large marathon grading sessions.  I had good conversation with Molly Smith on Twitter, who pointed out “kids need prompt not perfect feedback,” because it keeps you and your students better informed.

Overall – As I mentioned earlier, I learned a lot this year about being a better teacher.  With so many new things going on in my life, it did feel like I was first year teacher again.  It was good for me to see things from a new perspective and to struggle through challenges I’d already conquered in a different context.  This is due in no small part to my amazing colleagues, both online and offline.  I am thankful for all of you.

Next Time Around – Due to my relocation to Oregon, I am unsure when I will be in the classroom again or where it will be (Apply for my fantastic job in Wyoming!).  However, I wanted to document that my focus for future teaching endeavors will be on quality feedback.  I believe this is the heart of good teaching and learning and there needs to be a continuous conversation between teacher and student.

I just wanted to take a moment and thank Molly Smith, Shawn McCusker, Jamie Josephson, and Analiese Smith for a great conversation we had on Twitter regarding reflection.  It gave me a lot to think about and I appreciate your insights.

How would you like to teach history in a place like this?  Known for its Collegiate Gothic architecture, Natrona County High School is on the National Register of Historic Places.  It had the first indoor poor in the state of Wyoming, the second oldest JROTC unit in the United States, and is a 1:1 High Access school.  These are only some of the pieces of NCHS’s innovative history.

I love teaching here.  However, after a great job opportunity came along for my husband, it is time for my family to move on.  I want to be sure they have some great candidates to choose from, so I decided to write a little about the job here.  Maybe you’d like to consider applying?

Here is the official job posting.  It doesn’t give you a lot, so here is some additional information.

Technology – As I mentioned before, NCHS is a 1:1 High Access school.  This means that the ratio of laptops to students is 1:1.  Each student is issued their own MacBook with a great variety of software to use in class and to take home.  Along with a bent towards more liberal internet filtering policies, this provides great opportunities for the use of technology in the classroom.

Instructional Facilitators – Also known as Instructional Coaches, these master teachers are available to help you with your individual professional development needs.  They provide a myriad of optional services tailored to individual teachers, as well as some college credit courses.

Professional Learning Community – NCHS will be entering its first year of official PLCs.  I know people have different opinions of PLCs, but in this particular Social Studies Department, I see PLCs as a major strength.  NCHS will be implementing a late start for students on Wednesdays to provide built-in collaboration time for teachers.  In a department that already works very well together, PLCs are a bonus.

Funding – Lately, Wyoming seems to be one of the only states that is operating in the black.  This, plus a state emphasis on education, has resulted in Wyoming being 6th in the nation in student spending (an average of $14,573 in 2008-2009).  For someone who started their teaching career in the Michigan recession, being able to get adequate classroom supplies is an important consideration.  And while salary is not my largest consideration for a job, the pay scale is competitive and if you are a National Board Certified Teacher, you receive an annual bonus from the State of Wyoming.

Classes – While I am unsure which classes will be shuffled and assigned to the new hire, I do know that it would most likely involve 2 preps.  The mainstays of the department are 10th grade Modern U.S. History and 11th grade World History.  We have honors and IB courses and several more specific electives (Sociology, Psychology, Philosophy, World Religion, Asian Studies & African Studies). Our 9th grade Academy style position has already been filled.  We are on an alternating A/B 90 minute block schedule.

The Staff – I can’t say enough about the staff in this building.  When I came to NCHS, they welcomed me with open arms and did everything they could to help me out when I had my daughter.

The Social Studies Department – My number one reason for working at NCHS is the Social Studies Department.  They are a wonderful group of professionals who are passionate about educating students.  This is a “low drama” department that works hard to take care of one another and their students.  They cultivate a collegial and collaborative atmosphere.  They are a team that is always willing to share materials, help problem solve, and innovate new approaches to the curriculum.  I love them and the hardest part about moving is having to leave this family.

If you are interested in this position, go here to see the steps to apply.

Note: I am posting about this opportunity because I want to help make sure the department has some quality candidates.  While I am happy to answer general questions, please keep in mind that I am NOT involved in any way with application reviews or interviews for this position, and I am unfamiliar with the district’s new hiring process.  The NCSD Human Resources Department will be more than happy to answer any questions about applying for this position.  Good luck! :)

 

Yuyuan Garden, "The Garden of Contentment" - Shanghai, 2009

In the middle of the hustle and bustle of one of the world’s largest cities is the Yuyuan Garden.  Here you can find a fairly quiet bench to sit and contemplate, while taking in the garden and watching the koi glide through the water.  When you are ready, you can go back out into the metropolis and continue on your way.  I feel like I’m at that point right now.  I am in the middle of ever-busy Shanghai again, only this time it’s the life of a teacher and a new parent.  Writing about my progress is a chance for me to sit on that bench again, take stock, and make my way back out into the city.

Using this photo is also my way of celebrating the acceptance of my elective world history course proposals for next year.  I am very excited that I will get to teach two of my favorite classes again: Asian Studies and African Studies.  I already have enough student interest to have at least one section of each class.  Being an educator is that much better when you get to share what you are passionate about with your students.

I have been making steady progress on some of my revamped goals for the 3rd Quarter.

Assessment – I will work to deliberately define for students what they are expected to learn.

Progress: I feel I had some good improvement in this area.  I used the unit outline created by U.S. History PLC team for our Civil Rights Unit.  I felt that it not only helped to inform students, but helped to keep me focused and on track with my lessons.  It was also helpful to have the test written before planning the activities of the unit.  I enjoyed using the outline so much that I used the same format to create a unit outline for my Vietnam unit.  I will use this outline the same way we used the Civil Rights outline to write the assessment for Vietnam.  Going through this process has helped me to fine tune what I want students to learn and it has helped me to have a better focus.

Revamp: I will work to deliberately define for students what they are expected to learn. I will be keeping this goal as is and focus on making it a habit in my planning process.  I hope to create unit outlines for each of my remaining areas of study in U.S. History.  I will give those outlines to students at the outset of a new unit and refer to them frequently in my planning and with students in my teaching.  In the future, these could be a good basis for creating my historical content standards in my move towards more Standards Based Grading practices.

Feedback – I will provide students with more informative, specific and timely feedback.

Progress: Who would have thought that changing one word in your vocabulary and thought process could be so challenging?  Going from the concept of grading to feedback seems like it should be easy, but it hasn’t been.  I’ve come to realize how entrenched the concept of grading really is for me.  However, I have begun to focus more on formative assessment and reminding myself that feedback doesn’t have to mean a letter grade.  As for the timely aspect of things, I still need lots of work here.  The times I had set aside to grade didn’t really work out as I had hoped.  The baby had her own schedule in mind and it was different than the one I had so neatly planned out!  Ha!  I did use our grading program, Infinite Campus, more this semester.

Revamp: I will provide students with more informative, specific and timely feedback. I am going to continue to work on shifting my mindset from grading to feedback.  To help with this and to get at the more timely aspect of this goal, I am working on incorporating more formative assessment opportunities into my lessons.  Both my students and I need to have a better grasp of what they are learning and what needs to be retaught.  I will be going through my resources and working with an Instructional Facilitator to incorporate this more regularly into the teaching and learning that happens in my classroom.

Parental Communication – I will communicate more regularly with parents by calling all of my World History parents at least once this quarter.

Progress: I didn’t get to everyone.  My plan was to call about 2 parents each day after school.  Someone pointed out to me the idea that the urgent (what someone needs right now) can often take away from the important (what I value and am striving to achieve).  After school became more of a time to complete the urgent things, rather than the important things.  This meant that fewer calls were made than I would have liked.

Revamp:   I will communicate more regularly with parents by calling or communicating by email with a minimum of 20% this quarter.  I know I need to remain specific with this goal.  I decided to move from focusing on just one class to an overall number.  I also decided to include email because some parents prefer this type of communication and I have had some good conversations this way.

Efficiency - I will become more efficient with my planning time, feedback, and various other responsibilities while maintaining quality standards.

Progress: While there is always room for improvement, I do feel like I am starting to find a rhythm with how I’m using my time.  The use of the class calendar in FirstClass to post make-up work has saved me a lot of time.  I need to be better about making sure students know how to use it well, since the user interface isn’t the most intuitive.  There were also a few times I didn’t get things put in right away, but I am working on making this a consistent habit (urgent vs. important).  My time with Instructional Facilitators has been helpful and I feel I am good at telling them exactly what I’m looking for.

Revamp: I will be tweaking the way I use the class calendar to try and make it easier for students to use.  I will continue to work on carving out time to provide detailed feedback and to use our Instructional Facilitators as a resource.

Overall – I feel that I am finally “getting my groove back” in the classroom.  I have begun to feel more comfortable, which helps me to better adapt to my students’ needs.  I am starting to pull the small things back into my teaching that I found effective in the past and I find my students are finally getting comfortable with my teaching style.  They have had a lot of inconsistency this past year with three different teachers and three sets of expectations.  And the biggest change for me is that I’ve started to enjoy teaching again.  I was very stressed (and sleep deprived!) the first few months, but things are becoming more consistent.  Having a job you love makes things so much easier.

My "Favorite Student" & Gratuitous Baby Picture: From bouncing to sleeping in 4.1 seconds!

Do you have any feedback or advice on these goals?  What are your goals?

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