Social Media, teaching, Technology

Whither the Pen and the Lesson Planning Book?


One of the many new adjustments I made this year in transitioning to a new school was adapting to a new set of expectations and practices for how to communicate and share class materials online. For my first few years of teaching (from ~2004–2006, or so, I’d say), having a class webpage and posting homework, readings, and other resources was a decision left up to individual teachers. However, since that point, it seems as though all independent schools (granted, I have a very small sample size on which to draw, so don’t take my baseless speculation as gospel), have moved toward institution-wide content management systems (CMS) that all teachers must now use.

I personally enjoy using these CMSs and having a centralized place for my students to go to get assignments, resources, and connect with one another in ways that go beyond the classroom. I often post materials there that I find interesting and are related to what we’re studying, but which I don’t have the time to share in the course of a class. Certainly, this blog has been an important part of my process of figuring out what methods and resources work the best to facilitate the type of classroom interactions and intellectual growth I strive to foster. However, much of the work that goes on within a CMS seems CYA-(I’ll let you look that one up for yourself)-oriented and administrative. Certainly, having up readings, PDF files, a calendar, nightly homework, and a venue for students to ask questions is undoubtedly important, and CMSs facilitate that. Nevertheless, they also change one’s workflow and can create new time pressures for teachers.
All the transitions I made over this past year gave me a good opportunity to figure out whether and how I wanted to restructure the way I worked with my school’s CMS and what outside resources, if any, I wanted to incorporate.

For the prior five or so years at my previous school, we had class webpages through a centralized CMS that also connected to the school directory, had gradebooks, and allowed one to bulk email students and parents. While this system was comprehensive, there were some aspects about it I found arduous and cumbersome. In response, I worked around those by using a cocktail of other websites and gradebooks. For a brief overview, here’s essentially what I did.

Main CMS: Edmodo

I’ve written about, or at least mentioned, Edmodo a lot on this blog. The site was my go-to tool for communicating with students, posting assignments, posting resources, receiving and responding to questions, and having students communicate with one another from ~2009-2012. The layout of the site, its functionality, and the sophistication of what one could do with it really impressed me. Jeff O’Hara, the site’s founder, and the whole tech team at Edmodo worked incredibly hard to respond to user’s requests and suggestions.

The aspect of the site I found most useful was the fact that students could configure their cell phones to receive text messages from Edmodo when I posted a new assignment or sent them a direct message. From my perspective, this accessibility created a higher degree of accountability for students, as I knew they had and used their cell phones frequently. The aspect of the text messaging feature students liked least my habit of posting all my weekly assignments en masse, which meant that students’ cell phones were barraged with a series of text messages they assumed were exciting, friend-related gossip, but just ended up being me preemptively harassing them about their upcoming work for the week. Ugh!

However, when I planned my weekly assignments, I tended to do it in a traditional lesson planning book by hand first, which allowed me to figure out the pacing and sequence of the week. After I’d hand-written a general set of assignments and activities, I’d then post each night’s assignment and relevant links on Edmodo. For some reason, I found the process of hand-writing that material first more helpful in thinking through the week then just typing out the assignments on Edmodo and posting them directly.

So, with such a glowing recommendation, why would I consider switching to something else?
Here are a few reasons:

  • Using both Edmodo and my prior school’s official CMS essentially was double work for me. Certainly, I chose to do this double work, but so many of the features of Edmodo were things that I wasn’t able to do with my official CMS, so I was willing to do all the copying, pasting, and clicking in order to mesh the two systems as best I could and get the features of Edmodo I really liked.
  • While Edmodo was great, posting material in weekly bursts led to some odd features on the website that made things difficult if you wanted to change an assignment mid-stream. Because Edmodo is set up like a Facebook-style newsfeed, my system of posting daily assignments was thrown out of chronological whack if I changed one day’s assignment or posted a new one out of order because that would move to the top of the news feed and displace assignments that were actually due later in the week. While this isn’t an issue if one uses the calendar feature of Edmodo, it proved occasionally confusing for students when work changed mid-stream.
  • If I happened to change an assignment, I’d have to change it not only on Edmodo, but also on my old CMS…it’s that darn double work-bind that I created for myself again!
  • I was moving into a new situation with a new CMS and I hoped to work within the system in a way that replicated as much of Edmodo’s functionality as I could in a way that didn’t entail double work for me in posting my assignment.

**Primary Gradebook: Engrade**

Engrade is a nice, cleanly designed, and highly functional gradebook. I used it because it didn’t involve all the clicking of my school’s CMS-linked gradebook and it always preserved all the data I entered. Plus, it had a very logical set of keyboard shortcuts and would auto-refresh within the window when you entered grades to show how those affected a student’s overall average. Engrade is a lot more than what I’ve described (e.g. calendar, student correspondence, homework posting, and a host of other features that make it a fully-fledged CMS), but given that I was already using Edmodo for that, it didn’t make sense to delve into those features of Engrade.

Engrade also allowed me to experiment with giving students real-time access to their grades, which I wasn’t required to do at my previous school, but is a feature of my current school’s gradebook. Using Engrade in this way at my prior school gave me a taste of how that access shapes student perception about their work.

However, much like point three for Edmodo above, I was happy to avoid any redundant work, and given that I have to maintain an open gradebook at my current school, it didn’t make any sense to host an off-site gradebook just for fun.

New Arrangement: Veracross and Google Drive
Some of the technology features my current school uses helped dictate what my new approach to running my class webpage would be. For instance, the school uses Google Apps for Education and Gmail accounts throughout the institution, so it simply made sense for me to harness those resources as my colleagues and students would already be using them as well. My challenge was to figure out how to work with them in way that approximated (or perhaps bettered) the dynamic that I had established at my prior school with Edmodo and Engrade.

One of the great features of Veracross that I didn’t have access to with my previous CMS centered on embedding media from other sources seamlessly. Once I discovered that I could easily connect my homework page on Veracross to Google Docs, my homework posting and communication solution became quite clear.

What I began to do was write all my lesson plans and homework assignments in Google Drive, using a template I created at the beginning of the year that listed the week, the days, and what would happen each day both in class and for homework.

Rather than keeping my lesson plan notes to myself, I typed them out on these weekly assignments in a way to make it clear to all parties involved (students, parents, colleagues, administrators, substitutes, the NSA, etc.) what was happening on a daily basis. Moreover, in these lesson plans I embedded links to YouTube videos, assignment sheets, PDF readings, etc. that were easily accessible in case anyone missed class or lost a handout that I distributed.

I then collected all these files in folders organized according by Trimester. As a result, I now have one of the most thoroughly organized set of lesson plans and homework assignments that I’ve ever assembled.

I would then publish each of these files and embed it into Veracross. The only trick I needed to figure out was that I had to resize the frame by adding a “width=600 height=600” before the URL of the Google Doc.
The major benefit of embedding these Google Docs directly into Veracross was that I no longer had to make edits to my assignments in multiple places. If my plans or homework changed based on a unique schedule or discovering that the day didn’t go as I anticipated, it was supremely easy for my to make those changes just on my Google Docs and then have those changes echoed on Veracross instantaneously.

For the students, my class webpage looked like this. From this centralized page, students could access the lesson plans, homework, and resources from any of the prior weeks. This feature proved particularly useful for my AP European History students, as they could access any of the older Chapter Review Sheets later in the year as they reviewed for the AP Exam. Based on some of the feedback I got from my students at the end of the year, they seemed to find this method useful and were confident that they’d be able to find the materials they needed for class or homework easily through this set-up.

As an added bonus to this approach, when Veracross clears off all the webpages at the end of a prior school year, I don’t lose the work I’ve done, as I merely embedded the webpage into Veracross but didn’t invest tons of time typing homework and/or posting resources and links on Veracross itself. Instead, all the resource links I’ve compiled are embedded within my own Google Docs that I can revise and republish later.

While this work took a lot of time this year, I anticipate that I’ll be able reuse much of it in future years. Moreover, I’ve often felt that I end up re-searching for many of the resources that I’ve used in previous years, and used but never wrote down in my planning book. With these Google Docs, which are riddled with hyperlinks, I now have a set of lesson plans that are a very thorough recap of what I did each day of the year.

I’m eager to look at and think about these documents critically in upcoming years as I tweak my approach, the materials I use, and the way I sequence both the skills and the content. So while the pen-and-paper lesson planning method has gone by the wayside, I think I’ve developed a workflow method that certainly helps me both lesson plan and post materials for students in a streamlined way that avoids all the redundant aspects of my previous CMS-approach.

So, in the optimistic hope that others have some thoughts on this issue, I’ll pose the question: what techniques, resources, websites, or other insights do those of you who use school webpages have for making your class’s online presence serve both your pedagogical goals and (ideally) make your life and classroom experience smoother?

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