Experimenting with Slack in the Classroom

A reflection on my initial experiences using Slack in online and face-to-face classes.

This past March, I came across some resources about how educators were using Slack to collaborate and do PLCs asynchronously and at a distance.  I was very intrigued by the potential of this platform to help me solve an issue my education students face.  Most of the teacher candidates in our programs end up working in rural schools.  This means they are often the only person teaching their grade level or in their content area in the building, and sometimes even in their entire district.  This holds a lot of potential for isolation and can be a roadblock to effective professional development.  Our programs are cohort models, so I started looking for ways to help our cohorts stay connected to us, their professors, and to other students, their future colleagues (all be it at a distance).  I wanted to model how an effective Professional/Personal Learning Network (PLN) functions.  I believe PLNs are an excellent way to help insulate teachers from isolation in rural schools.  In addition, our hybrid programs are about to significantly reduce our face-to-face time in favor of online learning (due to severe market pressures), so I’m searching for ways to help students feel more connected in a mostly online learning environment.  As a result, I decided to bring Slack into my classes this spring to see if it would meet my needs.

I looked at a lot of different resources on Slack (I listed several at the bottom of this post) and decided it was worth trying for a few reasons.  First, I saw it has the potential to be a way to keep teachers connected when they work in isolated areas.  Second, I’m looking for ways to allow course conversations be more natural and informal (I’m not a fan of formal discussion boards).  And third, I want something that allows students and professors to problem solve more easily while students teach in far flung K-12 classrooms for the duration of our hybrid programs.  Our students do create their own private Facebook pages which seem to help the cohorts, but these do not allow for professor involvement in problem-solving and modeling how an effective PLN functions.  Slack does seem to do these things.

First, I test drove it in a methods course with 6 students I taught for the previous 8 months.  I find it more effective to test drive new technology with students I know well.  Then, I tried it in a short 1-credit situation with 29 students at the end of their MAT program.  One of the topics of this short course included DIY professional development (including PLNs), so it fit well into what I was already doing.

How I Used Slack

“Getting to Know Slack” Assignment – I used this assignment to help students become familiar with the platform and to show students the types of things I’d like them to use it for as we learned about opportunities for online professional development.

Slack App – I encouraged students to download the Slack app for their computer or phone.  This seems to encourage better engagement than using it in a browser.

Students shared assignments – Assignments turned in via Slack were mostly lesson plans and curated resource lists that I wanted students to share with one another.  Students directly uploaded documents, shared with Google Drive or Dropbox, and dropped in links to social bookmarking lists using services like Diigo.  Since this was my first foray with Slack, I also had students turn in documents to Canvas (our LMS) as a failsafe.  All grading was done in Canvas.  It was handy for students to have immediate access to each other’s work, but over the long term, it was too disorganized to have that in Slack.  We decided a Google Drive folder or a Google Drive Team might serve better for sharing work.

Announcements – I did all announcements for the face-to-face class in Slack.  I found this meant I provided them more information of this type than I normally do, but I tried to keep it brief.

Lots of DMs – Students in both classes used the Direct Message feature a lot.  In the larger class, I told students to DM me rather than email me.  Personally, I liked this method a lot better than email.  Some of my students told me they liked it better as well.

Silent Chat – Students in the face-to-face class had a silent chat to help familiarize them with the platform and share classroom management strategies.

Organize a field trip – My online course used Slack to help organize a field trip.

Polls & RSVPs – I tried a poll app, but it was too clunky and not user-friendly.  So I reverted to using emoji responses for easy polls.  Students voted on things and RSVP’d for optional class events.  Here is an example of a RSVP:

Slack RSVP

Sharing Resources – I shared resources with students as I came across them in my own professional reading.

RSS Feeds – Both students and I added blogs feeds, YouTube channels, and Twitter feeds through various RSS type apps in Slack.  I didn’t like how the Twitter feeds only came in as a link to the Tweet instead of the Tweet itself.  I used Zapier to bring in YouTube channels.  The RSS app was handy, but students found it challenging to locate RSS information to add. (Lots of blogs seem to have abandoned RSS in favor of email subscriptions? This is disappointing to me.)  I also created my own private RSS feed channel for blogs I like so it could serve as a sort of personal feed reader.

Directed students to create their own channels – I did this more in the online course and had the students decide most of the channels they wanted for the team.  However, I don’t feel I set up that particular project too well and it didn’t work out how I wanted it to.  I like the flexibility for students to create their own channels, but I need to provide better context on how this can work to their advantage.

Created channels for the other classes they were taking & invited the faculty – One of our faculty was good enough to interact with students a bit in the team.

Apps – I used Giphy, Google Calendar, Zapier, Booky, Dropbox, Google Drive, RSS, and Simple Poll.

Basic usage stats – These were pretty interesting.  Here are the stats for the second week of the face-to-face class.  Just for reference, the silent chat happened during the first week.

Screenshot 2017-07-20 20.36.50.png



Here are the channels from each team.

This class was an online social studies methods course where I added some channels and then had students add channels for things that interested them.

Screenshot 2017-07-20 19.53.53


This was the setup for the face-to-face course in a secondary education program.  Each content area had their own channel, along with a few for the other classes happening during that term.  There were also a few topic specific channels related to what we were studying, such as #diy_pd and #grants_and_funding.  Students created some channels on their own such as #class_craft and #pe_tools.

Screenshot 2017-07-20 19.57.08


How Students Used Slack

Organize –  Students used Slack to organize their own after hours face-to-face PD session on teaching with ClassCraft.

Channels – Students created channels related to their interests.

Collaboration – Students shared resources, reviews, and helped one another problem solve.  Group pictures were also shared.

They Stopped – Students stopped using the team almost as soon as the classes were over. In both cases, the cohort already had a very active (as far as I can tell) private Facebook page that already served their collaboration needs.  However, I did get some positive feedback from some of the students encouraging me to start using Slack right away with the incoming cohorts.


What I Want To Do Next

  • Create a Slack team for each cohort instead of for individual classes.  Each class can have its own channel.
  • Do a better job of teaching students how to use Slack from the beginning.
  • Do a better job of checking in with students on notifications and ask them to review these every so often.
  • Be more intentional about channel setup.  Include the channels I know I want and allow students to add to that.  I just need to make sure it is not overwhelming at first.
  • Provide Slack as a venue for virtual office hours for students at a distance.
  • Get students checking-in, reflecting, problem-solving, & sharing resources of their own accord.
  • Connect my secondary methods students to myself and to each other before starting their methods courses.  In the previous version of the program, I had classes with them almost the whole year.  I now have them for less than half that time in the new program (but for only 1 credit less than before).  I want these students to be a solid collaborative PLN and cohort throughout the year.
  • Synchronous chats for online courses modeled after Twitter education chats.
  • Encourage students to create private channels (they don’t have to invite me).
  • Explore more app integrations.
  • Explore integrations with Canvas.

This is still a work in progress for me, but I’m happy with the results so far.  I plan to continue exploring this platform and how it can serve my purposes.

How have you used Slack or how do you want to use Slack in your classroom or for professional development?  Do you use a Slack alternative and how do you like it?  What questions do you have?


Slack Resources


Slack Teams for Educators


Ideas for Sharing Your Reading with Students

Do you share your reading life in your school community? Here are several suggestions on how to be an active reading model for your students.

2015-07-02 07.04.45
My June Reads



In my time as an educator, I’ve come to realize that it is important for me to go beyond telling students to do things I think are important to showing them that I do these things as well.  Basically, I need to demonstrate to students that I “practice what I preach” and I try to never ask my students to do something that I’m not willing to do myself.  This is especially true when it comes to reading.  As teachers, our reading lives can be fairly invisible to students.  I think it is important for us to make our reading lives visible.  There are many students who don’t have a lot of books at home and who don’t have many reading models in their lives.  I argue that as educators, we should actively seek to be reading models for both our students and our various communities.  I want to share some of the things I do and ideas I have for the future.  I would love to hear your own ideas.


Short Book Talks

Something I do on a regular basis with my classes is share what I’m currently reading.  I started this when I taught high school, and I had some pretty decent conversations.  I realized last year that this could also be useful for my college students, so I started doing this again in all my classes.  It only takes about 2 minutes, so it doesn’t need to be a burden on class time.  I like to bring the physical book to class when I have it.  After I talk about the book, I pass it around.  This allows students to hold the book in their hand and explore it further.  If I’m sharing an audio or eBook, I include a related visually striking image in my presentation slides for the day.  This term I am considering adding a discussion board on book recommendations and encourage students to use it.  This way I can also provide the titles in writing so students can easily reference them if they want.  I also tell them when books I read are available in the campus library, local library, or our Little Free Library.


“I am Currently Reading” Sign 

Where I did my student teaching, every teacher in the school had a sign outside their classroom door that said what they were currently reading.  Example: “Mrs. Becker is Currently Reading…”  Having the signs laminated allowed teachers to use their dry erase markers to change the titles and keep the signs up to date.  If I remember correctly, the school library provided the signs.  These signs sparked good conversations between teachers and students about various books.  When I got my own classroom, I decided to do the same thing.  I printed off a similar full sheet, with a reading quote I love, and put it in a clear sheet protector outside my door (this works just fine with dry erase markers).  I had some really fun conversations with students.  I got to give and receive a lot of book recommendations.  When I switched to college and no longer had my own classroom, I decided to put the sign up outside my office door.  I made one for my office mate as well.  I plan to provide signs for anyone in my department who wants one in the near future.  I have a half page template and a full page template that you are more than welcome to copy or change to fit your purposes.  (Note: Since I am currently using these signs at the college level, they use first names.)


2015-08-04 07.00.26
My July Reads


Reading Life Door

I recently came across The Book Whisperer Donalyn Miller’s Reading Life Door.  While I work in a shared office and don’t have my own classroom space, I find this idea intriguing.  If you do an internet search for “reading life door” (be sure to do an image search too), you’ll find some interesting ideas.  Is anyone doing this or know someone else who has a Reading Life Door?


Take Students To the Library to Choose Books Before Breaks

When I was teaching high school, I wanted to give students an opportunities to choose books to read on their won.  As you may know, the day before any break tends to be a bit unorthodox.  I started taking my students to the library for the last 15 minutes of class before going on break.  This allowed them to browse and check out books they could read at home.  Taking students to the library also allowed me to demonstrate through action and opportunity how important it is to read on your own time.  Students typically were very pleased with this and almost all of them voluntarily checked out books.


2015-11-30 05.54.40
My November Reads


Faculty & Staff Recommendations in the Library

While I have not done this one myself, I’ve had some discussions with librarians who want to start offering faculty and staff picks.  This could be done either through a display, or through the recommendations slips you sometimes see in bookstores.  I’m sure this could also be done in poster or other creative formats.


Classroom Library

This idea is talked about a lot, especially at the elementary level.  I started my own class library when I taught high school history.  This allowed me to have books ready on hand to discuss, recommend, and lend to students.  I was also able to incorporate the books into lessons when relevant.  Since we had the school library, I focused the collection in my room on history and historical fiction surrounding the specific topics we studied.


Ad pic
The Little Free Library outside my office


Little Free Library

In the past few years, Little Free Libraries (aka book exchanges, community book shelves, book boxes, etc.) have been springing up around the country, as well as around the world.  The idea is that anyone is allowed to borrow a book, take a book, or leave a book for others.  While the concept has existed for some time, the Little Free Library organization has allowed it to expand at a prodigious rate.  Between 2009 and 2016, over 36,000 Little Free Libraries (LFLs) officially registered with this non-profit organization.  I believe there are many more little libraries out there that are not registered and don’t appear on the official map.  For several reasons, I decided to install a Little Free Library on my university campus.  Some of these reasons included making our reading community more visible, encouraging discussion about books read outside of the classroom, increasing access to books in our small rural community, and normalizing reading as a leisure activity for students who don’t tend to see this as a reasonable option (especially when they are loaded down with assigned readings).  It is located in the hallway outside of my office, which is just outside our tutoring center and just down the hall from our TRiO offices.  A wide variety of students pass by the shelves every day.  The LFL has been open for just over 8 months, and about 300 books have passed through the exchange.  There is no ongoing budget for the LFL, and all books are donations from the community.  I was recently asked if I would help set up a second LFL in another building on campus.  Of course, I agreed.


Allow Students to Share

Lately, I’m considering how to make it easier for students to share their own reading within the classroom.  Book talks are a possibility, as well as using my online Learning Management System.  If you have any suggestions on this topic, I would love to hear them.


2016-01-05 16.08.26
My December Reads


Favorite Books of 2015

Over the past year, I rearranged my personal time and was able to read a lot more books than usual.  I joined a YA Lit book club, started listening to audio books on a regular basis, got to a lot of books I planned to read for a long time, and completed my first reading challenge, Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge 2015.  I also decided to map my reading to see how diverse (or not diverse) my reading was with the Around the World 2015 challenge.  For 2016, I plan to do the Read Harder and the Read Around the World challenges again, as well as the Panels Read Harder Challenge for comic books.  I plan on reading more books set in South America, more books in translation, more books involving athletics, and more comic books and graphic novels.

In the interest of sharing reading and having good conversations about books, here is my list of top ten favorite books I read in 2015 in alphabetical order.  And yes, over half of them are Science Fiction.  With its capacity to easily discuss deep and important questions, it’s by far my favorite genre.


How do you share what you are reading with students?  How do you help students share their reading with each other or with you?  Do you have experiences with LFLs as either a steward or a patron?  What are your favorite books?

Google Docs in the Classroom

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!

Teaching the Way YOU Learn

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…”


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

A summary of my position as 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.


Where Did I Go? 2010-2011 Goal Update

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.

Want a Fantastic Job? Apply for Mine!

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! 🙂

Where Am I Headed? 4th Quarter Goal Update


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?

Cheap Videos for U.S. History

Awhile ago, I had the opportunity to read Marc Valentine’s blog post, Top 5 Cheap Videos for AP World on APWorldGuru@blogspot.  While I use iTunes regularly at home, for some reason I hadn’t thought to look there for films to use in the classroom.  So after playing around a little bit, I thought I would post a U.S. History version of Marc’s blog.  I tend to show clips from films rather than the whole thing, but it’s always nice to own your own copy even if you’re just using part of the film.  I would recommend reading Marc’s post on his ideas on using film effectively in the classroom.

Criteria for the list:
1. Inexpensive (so that if you don’t like the video, you only pay less than 5 dollars)
2. Entertaining (so that your students do not fight with the sandman during your class)
3. Educational (because if you are going to use valuable classroom time, it better be worth it!)

1. American Experience (PBS)
I’ve gotten good student responses from this series.  You have the choice of a free streaming version or prices that range from $1.99 – $3.99 on iTunes.  You can stream many of the full episodes or clips for free at the American Experience website.  If you want to purchase the videos to avoid issues that can arise with streaming, iTunes has many episodes available.  Certain episodes are also available on Netflix Instant Streaming.  The episode that my students have repeatedly found riveting is Surviving the Dust Bowl.  (Note: there is at least one potentially disturbing animal scene.)  Another bonus of this series that all of the specific episodes I have looked up on the PBS website provide lesson plans.
2. The West Wing (NBC)
I have shown clips and full episodes from this series on the White House in my classroom.  In particular, I show an episode from season 3 called Isaac and Ishmael when studying 9/11 or the War on Terror.  Written and filmed within 2 weeks as a response to 9/11, you can read more about this specific episode here.  Episodes of this series are $1.99 on iTunes.
3. Iconoclasts (The Sundance Channel)
This is a show where famous individuals interview each other.  I have used the episode Dave Chapelle + Maya Angelou when teaching the Civil Rights movement.  While I do not show the episode in its entirety (there is some content that I feel is inappropriate for my students), there is a segment I like to show where they discuss Malcolm X.  Chapelle also asks Maya about the multiple assassinations of the ’60s, which is something my students often ask about.  Dr. Angelou gives an interesting answer that can lead to some great discussion.  The segment I use is found at 16:07 – 20:48.  I am currently watching the available episodes on Netflix instant streaming for more possibilities. If you teach about Hurricain Katrina, there is an episode with Cameron Diaz + Cameron Sinclair that discusses rebuilding in the aftermath years later.  If you teach World History, Archbishop Desmond Tutu + Sir Richard Branson has some good things on South Africa. Episodes of this series are $1.99 on iTunes.  You can also currently find Iconoclasts: Season 4 on Netflix Instant Streaming.  This includes Diaz + Sinclair and Tutu + Branson.
4. Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations (Travel Channel)
I would love to teach a history through food class.  If you’re looking for a little bit of a different take on things, No Reservations is a way to incorporate this revealing part of American daily life into your class.  There are episodes on Cleveland, Puerto Rico, the Mexico-U.S. Boarder, the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, Los Angeles,  New York, Disappearing ManhattanInto the Fire NY, Husdon Vally, NYSouth Carolina, New Orleans, Hawaii, Washington D.C., Chicago, Maine, the Heartland, the Rustbelt, San FranciscoMontana, and more.  You can find the North American episodes listed on the No Reservations website.  Bourdain mixes food, history and culture to create unconventional portraits of the area he’s visiting.  You need to be aware that his topics of conversation may not always be appropriate for your students, so preview carefully.  Two colleagues of mine suggested Vietnam: The Central Highlands when studying the Vietnam conflict.  Episodes of this series are $1.99 on iTunes and you can also find many episodes on Netflix Instant Streaming.
5. Frontline (PBS)
The news series is good for understanding current events.  There are a myriad of topics including Hurricane Katrina, U.S. – Iran relations, health care, the economic crisis, presidents and their decisions, current wars, and much more.  There are also some great options for World  History.  Episodes of this series are $1.99 on iTunes and you can also view many of them on Netflix Instant Streaming or for free at the Frontline website.  Some of the episodes will also have teacher guides.

Please feel free to share your video discoveries in the comments section.  Thanks to Marc for the great World History list and for the inspiration for this post.