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?

“History is Dead! Long Live History!”

Not long ago, I watched this TED Talk by Conrad Wolfram, creator of WolframAlpha, on the teaching of mathematics.  In this video, Conrad discusses the use of computers in teaching math and how they can be utilized to shift the emphasis from computation to problem solving in the real world.

Shortly after that, I came across Mike Gwaltney’s blog post on Democratizing Knowledge titled “Math is Dead. Long Live Mathematics!” Don’t be shy, you should go there and read it.  But first, think about this…

Math History is Dead. Love Live Mathematics History!

Whenever you hear or see the word “computation” in the TED Talk or in Mike’s post, replace it in your mind with “fact memorization.” Whenever you see or hear “math” or “mathematics,” replace it with “history.” While every substitute doesn’t work perfectly, I think it is worth discussing the parallels.  In history, computers would not be used for computation, but rather to look up historical facts.

Please note that I’m not saying we should throw the memorization of historical facts completely out the window.  I believe there should be a balance between knowing certain facts and being able to do analysis.  After all, things like the Gettysburg Address and the Diary of Anne Frank (or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) make less sense if you don’t understand the facts and the context surrounding them.  Rather, I would like to have a conversation on the idea of how much we should shift the approach to teaching history if, through technology, students have much easier access to the facts than in the past.

So what do you think?  Do you feel it is fair to substitute fact memorization for computation?  Do you feel there is a better substitute in the field of history?  Perhaps this idea parallels another substitution in a different discipline.  What are your thoughts?

Teaching vs. Family: A Balancing Act

I’ve just completed my 8th week of teaching after returning from maternity leave.  It’s has been a very interesting experience, made more interesting by my return to the classroom from two years as an Instructional Facilitator.  I’ve been retooling my lesson plans, setting up my classroom, working to build community with my students, and trying to keep up with grading.  I’ve also been trying to balance work and family more effectively.  As many of your know, this can be a challenge.

I have been trying to come up with strategies that will allow me to be a good teacher without sacrificing my ability to be a good parent.  It is important to spend time with my daughter, and I realize that in the past my teaching style has required a lot of time spent planning outside of the school day.  There is also that seemingly endless stack of paperwork and administrative tasks that can eat up a lot of time.  I’ve been trying to figure out ways to use my planning block more efficiently while I am at school, but it hasn’t been enough.  This is where you come in.

I’m looking for ideas.  I’ve asked a few colleagues about how they balance work and family, and the response I’ve gotten from all of them is that they are also struggling and don’t have it figured out.  I’m not searching for answers that unlock the secrets of the universe (though I’d take those too!), but rather strategies and advice for things that help you be more efficient with work and allow you to spend quality time with family.  I would love to hear from you about small or complex strategies you have used to adapt to the role of a teaching parent.  I am also interested in time saving strategies in general, so please don’t feel like you have to be a parent to offer advice.

I love my job.  I love being a teacher and lesson planning is something I really enjoy.  It goes without saying that I love my daughter.  She deserves as much of my time as I can give her (and my wonderful husband!).  Please feel free to comment with ideas or even questions you have as a teaching parent or as a teacher trying to use your time more efficiently and effectively.  I would love to hear from all of you.

Come and play with me!


Education Nation Response: What’s Working?

Flickr photo by Wesley Fryer.

Today I had the opportunity to attend NBC’s Education Nation Teacher Town Hall online.  While I have my concerns about bias, I am glad there is a lot of attention being paid to education right now.  But rather than rehash my experience and opinion of the Town Hall, I have chosen to be inspired by Paula White, L. Lee and other colleagues on Twitter.  I am choosing to write about possible solutions and what I see working in education with the hope that these ideas will help others to find their own solutions.

Instructional Coaches/Facilitators

An alternative to traditional professional development, coaches are typically veteran or master teachers who collaborate with other teachers in small groups or individually to improve instruction and to raise student achievement.  What better way to improve teacher practice than to individualize and differentiate for our teachers, just as we like to do for our students?  Please keep in mind that coaches are not intended to be “teacher fixers” or traditional evaluators, but rather work with any teacher who choses continual improvement.  After all, we can all strive to be a better educator.  (Full Bias Disclosure: I worked as an Instructional Facilitator for 2 years.) You can read more about Instructional Coaches/Facilitators at the following links:

Collaboration Time

During the 2009-2010 school year, I had the opportunity to study Professional Learning Communities (or PLCs) for possible implementation in our school.  During that time I talked with people doing PLCs and visited schools currently using the PLC model.  While the PLC model is generally positive (there are negative aspects as well), what I took away was the value of built-in collaboration time for teachers.  The schools where this really seems to work have created time for teachers to collaborate within the school schedule and outside of regular planning time (because teachers have enough to do already, right?).   And by outside, I don’t mean before or after school.  It is built into the school day either on a frequent basis (an extra planning type period every other day) or less frequent on a monthly type basis.  I’ve also seen principals willing to provide subs for teachers who want to occasionally work together in this way.  Teachers seem very positive about this time to work with their colleagues and even “non-believers” have come to value this time once they have experienced it.  I often hear people say that teaching is an isolated profession.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  We can find ways to value and protect collaborative time with our colleagues.


A best practice I have seen many teachers employ is that of student choice.  When it comes to professional development, teachers also deserve that choice.  Whether it is choosing which PD session is most relevant to them, whether or not to work with an Instructional Coach and more, choice will yield better results in teacher improvement.

What have you seen work to help improve teaching and learning in our schools?  Please feel free to comment here or write your own blog post with the tag #educationnation.  Also, feel free to comment on or ask questions about the three options I’ve written about here.  Let’s focus on solutions and move forward!

SBG: Historical Analysis Through Critical Reading

Transcript of Lady Bird Johnson’s audio diary from 11/22/63 (JFK's assassination), Page 1

I’d like to present my next step in the Standards Based Grading journey.  I find myself asking other people about the process they used to develop their standards for their classes, so here is my own process thus far.

In order to create standards for the reading component of my 10th Grade U.S. History course, I have looked over several sets of standards, pulled out the elements related to reading, looked for commonalities, considered my own professional knowledge of the subject, and then selected and set up what I would like my own reading standards to be for my course.  In the interest of sourcing, here is a list of the main standards I consulted in developing my own list:

If you’re familiar with the Strengths Finder from Gallup, I am definitely an Input person. (Yes, this is another multiple intelligence/personality/preference/etc. deal. My employer asked my team to take the strength evaluation this past year.  It made for some interesting discussions and better understandings about how to leverage our individual talents on a team.  But that’s a whole other discussion!)  Some people think I’m a bit crazy when I look at so many different resources, but this helps me to internalize what’s out there and synthesize all that information into something I find useful.  After looking over the primary skills I wanted to use, I developed two categories: primary and secondary sources.  While these categories are very similar, there are some differences that are important for students to grasp.  It also allows students to prevent putting the skills into one little box and thinking they can only be used for one type of document.  I am hoping this will help students translate these ideas into other content areas.  The skills are as follows:

Skills for Historical Analysis Through Critical Reading

Primary Sources

1. Determine and summarize the central/main ideas of the primary source.

2. Analyze the source

SOAPStone Analysis Method

3. Create generalizations and inferences about the primary source and/or about the historical event based on implicit and explicit information.

-Accuracy, relevance & bias

-Determine credibility

4. Cite evidence from the primary source and your own historical knowledge to support your generalizations and inferences.

5. Compare and contrast this primary source with other points of view.

Secondary Sources

1. Determine and summarize the central/main ideas of the secondary source.

2. Analyze the source

SOAPStone Analysis Method

-Historical Fact vs. Historical Interpretation

-Reliability of sources & evidence used to support the author’s claims

3. Create generalizations and inferences about the secondary source and/or about the historical event based on implicit and explicit information.

-Accuracy, relevance & bias

-Determine credibility

4. Cite evidence from the secondary source and your own historical knowledge to support your generalizations and inferences.

5. Compare and contrast this secondary source with other points of view.

This is the basic list I can use to create more specific resources (such as detailed descriptors and rubrics).  I would greatly appreciate any comments and feedback you have on these standards/skills.  Thank you!

SBG: Developing My Standards & My Implementation Timeline

In my last post, I posed a question in regards to my Standards Based Grading study: What are the important “standards” and how do I equitably and accurately assess them? While I have thought a lot about the second half of this question, I realize I’ll be much better at designing appropriate assessments once I answer the first question and decide what it is I’m assessing.  Duh?

Since writing that post, I came across a post on Think, Thank, Thunk by Shawn Cornally that discussed the definition of “standard.”  While I didn’t think I’d just be plugging in my state standards, it was nice to get reinforcement on this issue and it helped to clarify my thinking.  Shawn puts forth that standards are “the ideas you love; the core concepts you know are important” and “Your standards are not the State’s standards, they are skills and ideas that every teacher sees as necessary to the true success of their students.” While history teachers continually disagree on certain aspects of what is important for student success, I feel more confident in pursuing the ideas, skills and concepts that I feel are critical for students.

I’ve also had some good conversations with educators that I trust and looked over different state, national, and organizational standards, my district’s Essential Curriculum, and relevant AP course descriptions while brainstorming.  At this point, I am not concerned so much with historical content standards (the what, when, where, etc. of history), those will be included as appropriate and aren’t overly difficult to design.  Rather, I am concerned with the historical skills higher up on the taxonomy.

For 10th grade U.S. History I intend to focus on reading comprehension skills, scaffolding towards critical analysis of historical reading.  Primary source analysis will fit well here and will be emphasized.  In 11th grade World History, my goal is to focus more on historical writing skills, with an emphasis on persuasive writing.  I am currently working on breaking down these big ideas into their smaller components.  I would appreciate any thoughts you have on this.

I will be honest and say that I know I’m not ready to completely revamp my grading system and dive into the SBG pool head first.  Rather, my goal for the coming semester is to get a better handle on teaching the skills I want to emphasize and to explore more effective ways to assess those skills.  I don’t feel comfortable completely rearranging my grading practices until I feel I’m doing these two things well.  Another consideration is that I will be starting in a new school after being out of the classroom for two years as an instructional facilitator/coach.  During this time, I have learned a LOT about being a better teacher and I have a lot I’m processing.  I know that if I try to change everything I want to about my teaching all at once, my head will explode.  To top that all off, I won’t actually step foot in my classroom until mid-fall due to maternity leave.  I don’t think I can convert to SBG while I have a long-term sub in my room (no matter how good they are).  I also feel that for me, SBG is a process of rethinking the way I teach rather than an event.  I will reassess at the end of the first semester and decide where to go from there.

I’d like to hear from others about their process of incorporating SBG into their classroom.  At what pace did you institute new practices?  What progression worked for you?  I’d also love to hear feedback on the 10th grade reading focus and the 11th grade writing focus.  Do these seem realistic and worthwhile to you?  I would be happy to expand on either if requested.  Thanks!