Another Internet post dissecting the troubling EQAO math results and the state of math education as we know it…

EQAO Results

*Record screech* *Freeze frame* Yup – that’s us. You’re probably wondering how we got here. Well, let’s start from the beginning.

Okay, we’ll start in 2009 instead, when math assessment results from the EQAO began trending downwards for our elementary students, and people — educators, parents, and anyone who cares about the future of society — are getting frustrated. There’s a lot of mudslinging, finger-pointing, and general crankiness. Understandable, but let’s take a deep breath. There’s not one single reason why this is happening, but rather there are a lot of contributing factors.

Discovery vs. back-to-basics

There’s this never-ending (and often misrepresented) saga between “discovery math” and “back-to-basics” approaches to teaching. Many experts agree that there needs to be a combination of individual sense-making and skill practicing to best support students’ conceptual understanding and fluency in math facts. Using one approach over the other exclusively will produce incomplete thinkers. This discourse on the false dichotomy between the two approaches only hurts our students and puts them in the cross-fire.

Teachers’ confidence in math

Many elementary teachers are struggling to teach math. That’s not their fault. Their job descriptions ask them to be generalists and able to teach pretty much everything. School boards, however, have not emphasized the need for incoming teachers to be specifically skilled in teaching math. According to Dr. Mary Reid, assistant professor at OISE, four out of five elementary teachers do not have post-secondary mathematics education (of course, having that doesn’t automatically make you a stellar math teacher, either). I don’t have an answer to what amount of formal math education is needed for teachers, but there is something to be said for knowing the math well enough to teach it; otherwise, teacher anxiety kicks in, and that doesn’t bode well for students. Again, that’s not teachers’ fault. It’s just what the education system has allowed to happen.

Students’ confidence in math

Students aren’t overly confident about their math skills, either, especially females. According to the EQAO, there’s a noticeable drop in female students’ self-efficacy about math compared to reading and writing — 45% of grade 6 females think they’re good at math versus 71% and 51% for reading and writing, respectively — and their assessment results reflect that drop. Having said that, male students don’t see themselves as good writers — only 35% of grade 6 males think they are — but nonetheless seem to be meeting writing expectations at a decent rate (73%). So, confidence is part of the equation, but not all of it.

Struggling students aren’t better off separated

Generally, how we treat struggling learners is only making things worse. What typically happens when students don’t meet math learning expectations is they are given below-grade level questions, exposed to more structured and rote learning of the “basics,” and separated from students (either to a different table, classroom or course altogether) that are doing fine. Time and time again this type of ability grouping has been shown not to benefit struggling students. On top of that, these practices further marginalize students from racialized groups and lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those perceived to have a disability. Organizations in the United States, including the National Education Association and the National Association of School Psychologists, as well as People for Education in Ontario, have called for an end to these types of practices. Many studies conclude that heterogeneous groupings benefit struggling learners without disadvantaging advanced learners. Finally, there’s also a great deal of evidence to show that struggling students benefit most from complex problem solving, open-ended questions and focusing on the big ideas, rather than burying them in repetitive worksheets.

The math curriculum could use a freshening up

The last time Ontario’s math curriculum was reviewed, Paul Martin was the Prime Minister of Canada, Twitter was still just an idea, and We Belong Together was Mariah Carey’s gift to humankind. The overall philosophy of the curriculum still works, but the details need some calibration after twelve years. For instance, I feel there should be a greater emphasis in and support with connecting mathematical concepts and teaching as many with a cross-curricular approach (this is already in the front matter of the curriculum documents, but how many people read that, really?). Making math relevant and creating interconnections between ideas are essential for lasting learning. Digressing a bit to high school, statistical literacy and critical thinking need to be emphasized in the world of “fake news” (SAD!). However, many students’ explicit exposure to statistics will end in grade 8 — students can navigate through high school math courses without seeing a bar graph (and then they’ll get fooled by shenanigans like this). Finally, financial math doesn’t really play a big role in senior university preparation courses, which is taken by the majority of students in grades 11 and 12. Is that why more and more young Canadians are going bankrupt?

So what’s there to do?

We all have a hand in making things better. IMHO:

Ministry, school board, and policy folks could…

  • Adjust the curriculum so teachers can focus on big ideas and connections between concepts and subjects. Also, emphasize skills that are needed for an informed citizenry, including statistical and financial literacy.
  • Promote inclusive education and monitor implementation so that struggling students learn in environments and ways that actually support them.
  • Support teachers with math knowledge for teaching, effective math pedagogy, a balanced math program that emphasizes both understanding and fluency, and differentiated instruction so high-fliers can become the next Srinivasa Ramanujan or Katherine Johnson, while others can continue to develop their math understanding to become knowledgeable adults.
  • Continue with the Renewed Math Strategy, particularly its focus on supporting students identified with special education needs and developing math knowledge for teaching. These investments take time to pay off, so let’s not pump the breaks.

School-based folks could…

  • Build students’ confidence in math: give high-fives for trying hard and not for the right answer, value process and not speed, find something genuine to praise when a student works on math.
  • Make math so freakin’ cool: Play math games, do math puzzles, make math jokes, sing math songs, do math handshakes (okay, they’re nothing to do with math, but you get the point), link math genuinely to students’ lives as much as possible.
  • Continue to learn math as part of professional learning, either formally or informally. Get a staff math group going, and have an administrator participate to show that it’s okay for teachers not to know the math yet but can work on it.
  • Resist the temptation to separate students that seem to be able to do math from those that seem to be struggling. Use alternate strategies so they can be engaged and receive support while also learning with and from their higher-achieving peers.

Families could…

  • Find the math in everything we already do with our kids (e.g. walking down the street, cooking, shopping, playing board games). Get kids wondering mathematically about as many things as possible, and then praise the heck out of them for being math wizards.

This math problem we got ourselves into has many moving parts, and hence many actions from a variety of stakeholders are needed to dig our kids out of this hole. Let’s stand up, do a Walmart-like cheer, and get on with it.

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The names we (don’t) remember

Guacamole

I’ll bet that I’m not the only teacher on the planet to forget students’ names years after I taught them. I wish I could remember everyone’s name, like Bill Clinton does, but no matter how much effort I put into it, it’s gone pretty quick. It could be because, well, I’ve taught a lot of kids. In my eight-ish years of doing this teaching thing, I’ve probably taught close to a thousand students, which sounds like a lot until I think about folks who have taught for waaaaaaaaaaay longer than I have. The students whose names have completely escape me have been some of the best and brightest students I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach, but five years later it’s “Hey…you” when I happen to run into them on the street (I’m lucky if I bump into them while they’re working retail, in which case I coolly and nonchalantly check their name tag and try to pass it off that I’ve remembered them so well after all these years).

However, for some reason, that didn’t happen when I ran into Steven (a pseudonym), a student I taught about six years ago. I was walking in my neighbourhood with my head down, daydreaming about unicorns or something, when a voice suddenly said, “Do you remember me?” Of course, at first, I didn’t, but then after he named his high school, his name miraculously came to me, and when I said his name, Steven cracked a huge smile, like I’ve validated him somehow. I even remembered his brother’s name, Billy (also a pseudonym) and we got to chatting for a few more seconds before we parted ways. Steven wasn’t the greatest student, and neither was his brother, whom I also taught. They were more likely to be in trouble than engaged, more into chatting than algebra, but I remember feeling that deep down, they were good people but just grew up in a rough situation.

After my chat with Steven, I wondered why I remembered his name when I’ve embarrassingly forgotten other students’ names in the past. And that’s when I came to the conclusion that it’s probably because he and his brother were part of one of my fondest memories as a teacher. One math class, I decided to teach proportions and fractions through cooking. It had been a tough go with this group for a while, and my prior lessons weren’t exactly the most fun and practical either, so I thought maybe doing something hands-on and fun to shake things up would provide a spark. I decided to make guacamole with the class – easy to make, no need to heat anything, and it’s a crowd-pleaser. I gave a recipe out and my students had to scale it up. When my students realized that we were actually going to make something and not just scale up the recipe for the sake of doing it, they got excited. Kids got up and were chopping, cutting, measuring, mixing, and eventually, eating. The lesson wasn’t super-awesome by any means, but for whatever reason, my students responded in the way that I had hoped. Billy had such a good time, he was walking out to the hallway telling everybody who bothered to listen that we made guacamole, all while holding a plate with chips and mashed up avocadoes. Steven eventually came to the class to visit Billy, and he thought it was pretty cool, too, and both of them looked giddy in a way that I hadn’t seen prior to that, and I was glad that I was able to make a positive connection with them that day.

I suppose I remembered Steven’s name not because of all the math we did, but rather because of how he made me feel while we ate guacamole that his brother helped to make. Making an impact is really about making a connection. If I can’t remember names because I haven’t made enough of an impact with students, or don’t have a memory with them that stands out, then I need to do something about that and make sure that I find opportunities to make those kinds of memories and connections with students.

My Collaborative Inquiry Journey to Date Explained Through Drake

drake-and-me

Today, my colleagues and I focused on the how-to’s of facilitating collaborative inquiry (CI) with an equity focus. In terms of my understanding of CI, I definitely felt that I started from the bottom of the group – I knew I should’ve read more this summer sixteen – but I still felt comfortable enough to share my views and contributed to the group learning. It was a tough day, not gonna lie. It wasn’t the best I ever had because I felt that I wasn’t totally getting some of the nitty-gritty details being presented about CI. Nonetheless, the over-arching message I got from today was that to effectively take care of a student learning need, the challenge of practice and problem statement need to be laser-focused, and that comes with effective questioning, data interpretation, and facilitation.

Even with great facilitation, I anticipate that school improvement through collaborative inquiry will be a hard sell in schools that think they’re too good for a coach and have little room for improvement. I get it – no one wants to do more work (work work work work) than they have to. However, rich data sets can unearth underlying student issues that can give teachers pause and say “hold, on, we’re going home to inquire about this further.” For instance, using student census data, I learned today that East Asian students are generally higher achievers in the TDSB, but report higher rates of stress and anxiety and lower rates of physical activity. Therefore, if an academically successful school with a large East Asian population needs a focus for improvement, perhaps a well-being focus would be appropriate (if the local data supports that as well).

Finally, I don’t anticipate that I’ll be the most popular guy when I come in to schools to support improvement, and I’m coming to terms with that. A principal shared today that no one really wants to get feedback, but we should all work on receiving it. In reality, all I want is to help improve student learning. Lord knows that I won’t make international headlines for saving, say, Mr. Marvins Room of students with the worst behaviour he’s ever seen. It’ll be my job to show him no student is so far gone that they can’t controlla themselves with a little bit of support with self-regulation. Hopefully, he’d at least thank me later.

Ok. I’m done.

The Faces of…

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On my way home from even more heavy discussions at work around equity in schools, I came by this mural at the corner of Dundas St. West and Cordova Ave. It’s called The Faces of Islington, painted by John Kuna in 2013. It portrays changing demographics in the style of a huge class photo. Beside it is a plaque explaining that the mural “celebrates the ethnic and cultural character of Islington as it has changed over the last century.” It’s interesting that I run into an art piece celebrating ethnocultural differences after discussing how, as a school system, there are different outcomes for students based on their ethnocultural background. I saw some pretty rough data from the TDSB about high suspension rates, lower academic achievement, and higher rates of special education designations for racialized students, particularly students that identify as Black, Latin American or Indigenous. Luckily, those heavy conversations focus around what we can do about all that. I don’t pretend that the equity work that I’ll be doing will be easy – I expect it to be messy and painful – but I know the work is worthwhile and necessary. My hope is that mural on Cordova will one day reflect a true celebration and respect of different cultures – that is, when children’s cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds don’t become barriers to success. Now that would make a nice picture.

I Got Schooled on my Unconscious Biases

yassminToday I got to watch a great TED Talk by Yassmin Abdel-Magied that challenged my own unconscious biases and how they affect my perceptions of people around me. I have to fully admit that I was guilty of a lot of the biases that Yassmin uncovers in her talk, which caused me to feel both really dumb but also relieved.

As someone that identifies as being progressive and equity-focused and has intensely studied anti-oppression education not even six months ago, I thought that I was “enlightened” and conscious of all my biases – clearly I was wrong – dead wrong. I assumed a surgeon was automatically male. I was shocked that Yassmin was part Danica Patrick, part Floyd Mayweather, and part Mark Wahlberg in Deepwater Horizon rolled into one kick-ass Muslim woman. However, I felt relieved that this unconscious bias was uncovered in a safe space with many amazing colleagues rather than somewhere else with less understanding folks, and as a result, I was able to use this moment as a learning opportunity. As a coach, I’ll be tasked with uncovering the biases that exist within teachers I’ll be working with. This work is going to be crucial in order to move forward with promoting equitable learning environments for students. I only hope that I’ll be able to develop a safe space such that the unpacking of biases leads not to feelings of shame or teachers becoming defensive, but to understanding how bias negatively affects student outcomes and begin a conversation to move beyond that.

What can educators control or influence in classrooms?

influence

I’m beginning my new role as a learning coach in the Toronto District School Board, and my goals for the year include being a more reflective practitioner and to model transparency. I’ll be blogging to share my journey through this new role (one in which I am both extremely excited and terrified) so that others may get a glimpse into the life, struggles and (hopefully) triumphs of a TDSB learning coach and offer any thoughts on what I write about. More importantly for me, I’ll be using it as a tool to help gather my thoughts and consolidate my learning for my own sake. Basically, I need to write to think about stuff, and you’re welcome to come for the ride…

What factors impact student success, and which of those factors do educators have influence or control over? That was one of the activities that learning coaches in the TDSB engaged in during two days of professional learning. Individually, we listed as many factors that we can think of on post-its. Afterwards, we placed each of them in one of three rectangles on chart paper: no control, influence, or control. Small-group discussion followed regarding their placements.

Most of the factors that my group identified were placed in the “influence” rectangle, with a few in the “control” and “no control” areas. Initially, I thought that “teacher expertise” was a factor that I as a learning coach will be able to control, seeing as I will be working directly with teachers to improve their practice. However, one of my colleagues, Jim, shared that he feels that as a coach, he can only influence what teachers do and he would never want to control how a teacher performs. Jim shared that as a teacher, he would never want anyone to control what he did in the classroom. I agreed. As coaches, my goal should be to guide teachers and promote good practices, and never pressure anyone, implicitly nor explicitly, into doing things a certain way.

Finally, there are some factors that affect student achievement that are not controlled by educators, such as a student’s socioeconomic status (SES). However, such factors and their negative effects on achievement can be mitigated by schools. For example, students in low-SES environments may not achieve due to a lack of food or transportation to school. In response, schools can provide nutritional support (such as free lunches or snacks) or busing services to mitigate those factors. Barriers to student achievement may seem uncontrollable, but with a bit of thought and ingenuity, they can be removed. That’s just one way equity work is crucial in improving student achievement.

Altogether, this activity was a great reminder for me that educators can influence pretty much anything that factors into student achievement, and that I play a role in that as a learning coach. As such, my professional learning will continue to centre around the skills and mindsets I need to help influence teachers to improve their practices for the benefit of students.

Using Google Apps to Support “At-Your-Own-Pace” Learning in a Special Education Grade 9 Academic Math Class

Ever get that feeling that when you’re teaching a lesson, only a handful of students are with you, while most are either lost because they have huge knowledge gaps or bored because they already understand and just want to move on?

Well, that feeling hit me hard three weeks ago. I was teaching Grade 9 Academic math to my wonderful special education class of 14 students who have all been either diagnosed with a learning disability or have struggled with numeracy in the past. In either case, only one student is working “at grade level”, with most having completed Grade 4-6 math curriculum expectations last year. The challenges of teaching students with significant knowledge gaps, a wide spectrum of prior ability, and differences in processing speeds and learning preferences were exacerbated by teaching them the highest stream of math in Ontario (in case you’re wondering, my school eliminated the Grade 9 Applied math course and placed only a handful of students into a locally-developed class because of the evidence linking streaming in schools to poor academic and social outcomes for students, particularly in low-income neighbourhoods – it’s an equity issue).

After two weeks with my group, most students were struggling either because they couldn’t keep up or they had attendance issues and missed out on prior learning. I was determined to teach them Grade 9 material and have them excel at grade level, but I knew the status quo wouldn’t work. So, I took a page from Heather Theijsmeijer and designed a class structure that gives students the choice to learn using different media, but also the flexibility to learn at their own pace.

Basically, using Google Docs, I’ve laid out the topics of study, a couple of ways students can learn each topic, and how they can consolidate these topics. Students access these docs via a class Google Site, and they go through the topics at their pace. Here’s an example of a unit layout:

Since this whole class design was done on a whim, some topics are a bit lacking in terms of the additional web resources. I’m hoping to build that up in the next iteration of this design.

In class, students either use their own devices or borrow a tablet to access the content. They learn (usually by watching the YouTube video), ask questions, try some problems, I assess them by observing what they’ve done and conversing with them, and then they move on. I track their progress with a chart:

IMG_0084

(The chart’s analog, I know. Sometimes, though, a physical copy just makes things feel more tangible)

As you can see, students are all over the place in terms of their progress. Only about half are on the pace that I was hoping for, but that’s okay. The whole point is that students take the time they need to learn a concept. As the semester continues, I’ll ask students to put in some extra time to catch up.

With this new design, students are always on a topic that they can understand. If a student has been absent for a few days, they just pick up where they left off. So far, every student has been on-task, engaged, and most importantly, successful. Most students are getting over 85% on evaluations, and no one is below 75%. I recently asked for some feedback via a Google Form, and 9 out of 10 students are happy with how things are going so far. Here are some of their comments:

“Everyone learning at their own pace gives everyone a fair chance to learn.”

“I really like it when we we can watch the videos then do the questions after so I can learn how to do other shapes and sizes [in measurement].”

“I like that we use tablets to help us do our work.”

“I like working at my own pace due to the fact that it takes me time to understand something.”

For myself, I’ll admit that it’s been weird acting as a facilitator in class rather than being the typical teacher at the front, but it’s also been incredibly liberating. I get to work one-on-one with everybody and have a chance to conference with students on a regular basis. The work to get these units organized ahead of time is bananas, but it’s worth it. I know it’s been only three weeks, but having students work at their own pace has really created a differentiated environment that has so far been very successful. I see myself using this design for all my classes from now on. Having said that, I’ll keep my fingers crossed over the next few months. I’ll keep everyone posted!

If you’ve tried an “at-your-own-pace” approach, how did it go? Are there any pitfalls that I should be aware of? What are your thoughts on having students work like this? Leave me a comment!

PA Day? Why not a “PA Week”?

I love PA days. LOOOOVE them. They’re great opportunities to bring staff together and improve as a team on our collective teaching practices. Currently, these days are spread out throughout the year. For example, this year at the Toronto District School Board we had a PA day in September, November, January (elementary only), one in February, and we’ll have one in April and some in June. Although PA days provide time for teachers to learn, I find that a one-day session is often not enough to adequately explore a topic to the level of understanding and comfort that many teachers need to implement with confidence. Back in October, I attended a PD session that discussed, amongst other things, anti-colonialism in classroom practices and its effects on racialized students – try internalizing that in an hour. In many instances, I have left sessions with a general understanding of the goals, but also with lingering questions and uncertainty that prevent me from taking next steps. Sometimes, I think that if I had just another day to ask questions, plan and try something and get feedback, I’d feel a lot better and then give it the old college try in my classroom.

So, how could we extend a professional learning session beyond a single day so that the momentum can grow and exploration can go even deeper? Let’s string together some of those sporadic PA days into one “PA week.”

This is what I propose: take the first week of November and put five PA days together into a week of pure, unadulterated professional learning – kinda like training camp in baseball or football. A full week would allow teachers to explore new ideas in depth. Like, really in depth. Learning how to use a new technology? You could be introduced to it on Day 1, get really into it on Days 2 and 3, show it off to your peers on Day 4, and fix it up on Day 5 so you got it down pat and ready to showcase it to your students. Or, you can spend two or three days on two different ideas. Or have a bonanza of a first day, like TDSB Google Camp, and then structure the rest of the week to go deeper into something that inspired you – you get the picture. The idea is that there is a sustained amount of time for teachers to learn something well enough to actually give it a shot. Most teachers will say that time is the major barrier to learning something new. Well, here it is. Also, the students get another March Break, but in November. That means another chance for families to go on vacation and enjoy time together, or students can attend a fall camp (businesses will definitely create week-long programs in response to an “Autumn Break”), or at the very least there’s a solid week at home playing NBA2K16. In any case, it’s a win-win for teachers and students.

To improve education means to invest in teacher education. Let’s provide teachers with the time they need to immerse themselves in professional development so that real and substantive change can happen.

What are you thoughts? Think a PA week could work? Leave me a comment!

Can Schools “Follow Back” Students on Twitter and Instagram?

team follow back

I’ve been happily overseeing my school’s Twitter account over the past year or so. This past week, due to an intense Twitter battle with CW Jefferys CI, the account has had a sudden influx of student followers. One such follower tweeted an @reply, however, saying “Why don’t you follow me back?” My immediate thought was, “Well, I’ve been told it’s not a good idea.” But then I paused for a moment. Why wouldn’t I follow back? I mean, let’s face it. Many students on Twitter and Instagram love to see their numbers of followers climb higher and higher, and the ratio of followers to following is important to them, as well. Therefore, students are more likely to follow school accounts if they get a follow back. I acknowledge it’s all a bit shallow, but if it gets students’ eyeballs on important school-related tweets, pics and announcements, then to me it’s worth it. There are other potential benefits of following back students on social media:

  • It creates a greater sense of community and connectedness between students and the school
  • Students value being followed on social media because it validates their online persona

However, what are the potential issues around following back students on Twitter or Instagram using a school account?

There are plenty of social media guidelines floating around for staff in schools, such as those issued by the Ontario College of Teachers and the Peel District School Board. However, they focus mainly on appropriate online behaviour of individual teachers and the need for staff to separate their personal and professional social media accounts. Also, they feel that when teachers and students follow each other on social media, the tone of the online dialogue may decline from a professional to a casual level that can then be misinterpreted as inappropriate. Generally, I agree with their recommendations, but never do they mention anything for institutional accounts that represent schools as whole entities that have no private alter-ego to shield, nor an individual person with whom students feel they are speaking. Maybe because these accounts are the “property” (for the lack of a better term) of school boards, there should be different rules of engagement. After a bit of Googling, I found no recommendations from school districts for how school accounts should engage students in this regard. So, let’s look at three main possible issues of following back students using school social media accounts (note: to clarify, this post is about following back, rather than proactively following student accounts before they follow the school’s account – that would be weird).

1. Following back students on Twitter or Instagram lets you read their tweets, see their pictures, and send direct messages, all of which are inappropriate.

If a student’s account is public, anyone can see their tweets or pictures anyway, regardless of whether they follow them or not, so following back is inconsequential in this regard. In terms of direct messaging (DM), accounts on Twitter can send DMs to followers even if they don’t follow back. Therefore, school accounts already have the ability to send DMs to students that follow them (which schools and teachers should really avoid). By following back, however, students would then be able to start DM conversations with the school account. Personally, if students tried to DM the school, I would just redirect students to tweet their message instead, so that any communication remains transparent.

If students have their accounts set as private, I believe it would be inappropriate for the school to request to follow back those accounts. The student has shown that they only want a select few to see their content. I would respect that boundary.

Verdict: Stuff is public anyway, so following back doesn’t increase viewing or communication privileges on the school’s end.

2. If schools follow back students on Twitter or Instagram, their tweets/pictures are displayed on your home page, and so you’ll be more likely to view any inappropriate content and therefore must intervene more frequently. That can become a full-time job in and of itself.

As professionals in a position of trust and responsibility, there is an expectation that if teachers come across inappropriate behaviour from students outside of class hours, they should intervene, whether it happens on the street, at the mall, or online. Whenever I come across inappropriate online content posted by students, I let them know that I can see it, and then I suggest that they should think twice about posting those things, or consider changing their privacy settings. This is digital citizenship 101.

Would following back student accounts imply 24/7 monitoring of student online activity and an obligation to report everything? If you state that the school account is not monitored 24/7 in the description, then no, it doesn’t. Besides, school accounts don’t need to follow back students to see what they’re up to online if their accounts are public (However, by no means do I believe teachers and staff should have students’ online activities under surveillance; my point is that such abilities are not enhanced by following back student accounts that are already open to the public).

Verdict: If you state the account isn’t monitored all the time, then there’s no expectation of continuous surveillance of students’ online behaviour. 

3. Even if it’s a school account, it’s still a staff member who is in contact with students online. That can lead to problems.

Now that social media is ubiquitous amongst staff and students, and blended learning is firmly entrenched in schools everywhere, the Internet is clearly an extension of the classroom. The lines that divide school and non-school hours are completely blurred in cyberspace, if not removed altogether. Therefore, if we trust teachers to interact with students appropriately in schools, then we should extend that trust to teachers when speaking to students online. Policies and decisions shouldn’t be dictated by extreme cases of teacher misconduct or fear of being sued by someone. Before I post a reply to students’ comments online, I make sure to think, “What would the Director of Education think of my message? What would this student’s parents think of my message?” If we have reasonable, well-trained teachers running school accounts, then the risk of misconduct is greatly minimized. Let’s not be run by fear.

Verdict: Trust teachers to conduct online discourse as you would trust them in the classroom.

For me, I don’t see any problems with schools following back student accounts that are already public for everyone to see. Perhaps we as educators are still figuring out the culture behind social media and the behaviours that are acceptable. Maybe it’s the unfortunate term “follow” that makes it all sound a little creepy. In any case, I would like to validate my students’ online personalities, kind of like giving a cyber-high-five, but I’ll wait to see what my superiors think…

What do you think? Would it be appropriate for schools to follow back students? Are the benefits worth the potential issues?

3 Ways I’ve Used Google Apps to Help my School Run a Bit Smoother

Googly Docs and Cloud Computers Over the past few years, much has been said about how Google Apps for Education (GAFEs) have improved student learning and also how students demonstrate their learning. They can now collaborate online on the same Google Document or Presentation, create surveys that can be taken by students from halfway around the world, and teachers can annotate and embed feedback during the creative process in real-time to help guide students along. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg with respect to the functionality that Google Apps offer for students and their teachers. However, these tools are also useful for supporting teachers with some of the behind-the-scenes work that needs to be done in order for a school to function. Here’s just three modest ways that I’ve used Google Apps to support teachers:

1. Using Google Docs to create a sign-up sheet for a computer lab

Before: Prior to using a Google Doc, teachers would reserve a computer lab by going to the main office and writing their name in a calendar beside the period in the day they wanted the lab. Simple enough. However, there were clear drawbacks to this system: (1) the main office closes at 4pm, so if a teacher wanted to reserve the lab after 4pm, they were out of luck; (2) if a teacher is at home and suddenly has a great idea for a computer activity the night before they want to try it, they’d have no way of knowing whether or not the computer lab was available the next day; (3) personally, the main office was at the opposite end of the school, which made going there a bit inconvenient (I hate wasting time walking all the way there – sue me).

After: Today, we use a Google Document that, well, actually looks just like the paper sign-up sheet that was in the main office, but now it’s accessible anytime, anywhere:

Room 300 Signup Sheet Screenshot

You may wonder why I didn’t just use some online scheduling program or Google Calendar. To make a long story short, they weren’t customizable enough to meet the often-changing schedule of my school (the period times on Thursdays are different than other days, and not all Wednesdays are the same). Also, the Google Doc looked just like the original piece of paper that people were used to, so it created a sense of familiarity and continuity. So far, I’ve had nothing but thumbs up from teachers about this migration to a digital sign-up, so I’m chalking it up as a success.

2. Using Google Spreadsheet to create a school-wide parent/guardian contact log

Before: Teachers are expected to call students’ parents/guardians regarding their concerns, but particularly with regards to attendance issues. However, there was no central record of these conversations. Perhaps these conversations weren’t even happening. Also, it may be good to know if other teachers were calling home to the same student about similar issues. So…

After: Based on the original idea from Saraya Elwin, a colleague at Westview, we created a Google Spreadsheet that has student names and contact information, along with fields to log the phone conversation. Here’s what it looks like (without real student information):

Parent-Guardian Contact Log Screenshot

Not only does this log provide some valuable information for teachers with respect to coordinating parent contact, but it also provides a level of accountability for teachers to actually make the calls that are needed to ensure our students get to class and learn.

3. Using Google Forms to coordinate the school’s Oscar pool

Okay, so maybe this doesn’t exactly fit the category of making the school run smoother, but running an Oscar pool creates a sense of community and makes for a positive work environment:

Oscar Pool Screenshot

It’s also a fun and non-threatening way to show my colleagues what’s possible with Google Forms. In addition, because the picks are organized into a convenient Google Spreadsheet, scoring the results after the Academy Awards are over will be a breeze, so the winner gets their prize on the Monday.

What’s next? I’ve got a few other ideas brewing:

  • Supporting staff timetabling using Google Sheets. My school luckily allows input from department heads regarding the timetabling of teachers. We can suggest moving teachers here and there, changing their original teaching assignments to subjects that they would prefer to teach. However, many teachers are in multiple departments, so coordination between department heads is key. Last year, everyone had separate chart papers, logging changes with drawn-in arrows, and different versions of edits were floating around everywhere, leading to quite a bit of confusion. Next time around, I’m hoping that we all use a Google Sheet so that everyone’s working on one document and writing comments to log conversations so confusion is kept to a minimum.
  • Schedule meetings on Google Calendar. Many schools do this already, I’m sure. At my school, lots of things are going on, and planning meetings so that they don’t conflict with one another would be a big bonus. My hope is that next year, meetings are logged on the school’s Google Calendar so everyone knows what’s happening and that meetings are coordinated.

How has your school used Google Apps to make administrative tasks easier? Are there other tools to do what I’ve been doing even easier? I’ve love to hear other ideas.