The Four-headed Web Monster I Love

Thoughts about my use of this website, Turnitin.com, Schoology, and Google Drive/Gmail in concert:

I’m using a ton of different web-based applications with my classroom, and that is both good and a bit scattershot. It would be nice if I could find the “one suite to rule them all,” but that seems unlikely. At present my setup and logic is a four-headed beast that provides every functionality I can presently imagine needing.

First of all, I use Google Drive every day. At the beginning of each year I have my students create an academic Google account, one that they don’t use signing up for games and other websites. Policing this is a drag, but it is a mess if you don’t. Most students don’t really understand the concept of email, so they tend to get their email accounts so spam-ridden that they don’t even notice when they receive important emails. Plus I am trying to get students used to having a professional persona on the internet that they can use for jobs, college, applications, etc. So once they have these quasi-official accounts, I share two folders with them.

One way I use Google Drive is with a “ReadOnly” folder dedicated to their particular class (Honors World, US, etc.). These class ReadOnly folders contain a folder for each unit and some general folders. I put all the readings, powerpoints, images, slideshows, rubrics, unit plans, and what-have-you in the relevant sub-folders. This way everything is easily accessible to the students. The students can’t edit anything in the folder, though they can copy as they please. This keeps the folder neat. I don’t put this on the open web because I don’t want to have to worry about copyright issues or student privacy issues. The folder is only available to the students in my classes and I can kick them out the following year.

The second set of Google Drive folders the students and I share are student turn-in folders. These are folders that I have the students make in their own Google Drive and then share with me. The students name the folders according to a guideline I give them (ClassName.Period#.LastName.FirstName – 2017-2018). The students then turn in their electronic work by just dropping the file in or creating the file in that folder. I have to create a set of master folders, one for each class period. Each of the class master folders contains the student-created turn-in folders. There is a decent amount of clicking to get to student work, but on the other hand work can’t be lost, the teacher can check date stamps and revision histories, the teacher can help or check in, and the students have to make an effort to lose their work. This folder become a de facto portfolio. Also, if you make them follow the naming format, the folders will be in alphabetical order. The resultant teacher folder structure looks like:
StudentWorkFolders>WorldAP1>StudentCreatedFolders
Generally, they make copies of assignments from the ReadOnly folder, rename them according to instructions, and then type into those now-personal files. Then they drop their personalized files in their turn-in folder. The cool thing here is that I can make editing comments, paste in rubrics, and otherwise manipulate their files as need be.

There are costs and benefits to Google-based (or any electronic) work. At this date, electronic work cannot replace handwritten work and still maintain accountability. Like all student work these days, anything short of an extremely controlled environment is easily cheatable, but Google makes it perfectly simple. They can share work easily, their parents can ghost-write work on the student login, etc. Phone cameras allow the same with written work of course, but Google makes it easiest. On the other hand, Google allows students to work collaboratively on single documents. There are a ton of interesting assignments that can be created this way, such as group papers, slideshows, image collections, spreadsheets, etc. I also think that knowing that students can cheat perfectly is a useful thing to internalize. One must create assignments that deal with this new reality and also spend real time and effort on creating a culture of intellectual honesty.

Since the students have Gmail accounts with Google, they also email me a lot asking for clarifications and such. This is extremely handy on my phone, since I don’t have to do the long school login. I can also mass email announcements such as schedule changes or resources easily and efficiently. I also build parent email lists for obvious reasons.

After Google, I use Turnitin.com. This is only handy for formal work. The automatic plagiarism checker is crucial. It’s not so much that it does anything other than scare the students, but that is enough. After a few times showing students how well it finds plagiarism, students mostly stop trying. It also pretty much ends those irritating parent complaints that their perfect angel would never cheat. Turnitin is also more formal than Google Drive. Turnitin is a second login and can’t be edited live again and again. So that is handy.

The website, the one you are on, I didn’t even use for the last two years. For the first 19 or so years of it’s existence (in its various forms), I used it as I use the ReadOnly folder in Google Drive. It was a place to disseminate readings, images, etc. That worked great, but I ran into five key problems. (1) Typos and embarrassing mistakes happened and were a constant irritation to fix. (2) Twice I got death threats based on factual information about religious history from people I have never met. (3) Putting up documents and images occasionally ran afoul of copyright issues and I had to change things, or never post things in the first place. (4) The website also didn’t work well on phones, and in the last few years it has become obvious that if it doesn’t work on phones, it doesn’t work for students. Luckily, the new website building tools are designed to work elegantly and easily on multiple sorts of devices, eliminating this issue. (5) Finally, the website is a bit cumbersome to update quickly and easily, unlike Google Drive which I can fix over drinks on a Saturday night on my phone if need be. So now I am using the website to disseminate videos, particularly read-aloud videos. I tried a Youtube channel, figuring that this would be easier for “the kids,” but that turned out not to be true. Also, back when I had the website I do know that other teachers and parents (from far and wide) used and were thankful for material I made broadly available. So the website will be a sort of best-of-and-legal-to-post of my Google Drive ReadOnly folder and it will organize the videos I’ve made. Plus I can include this lovely blog, which may or may not have some value.

The final element of my web-based teaching is Schoology, our district’s educational apps suite. I could host files and videos here, but this site is pretty clunky and requires a somewhat tricky login for the students. More importantly, since the district set it up, it is a compromise, cheap and controllable enough not to get sued. Schoology is clunky. I stick with Google Drive for most file dissemination to avoid having to delve deep into something the district might walk away from one day and which I cannot easily share or interact with easily. That said, Schoology does allow two useful apps that I use a great deal. The most important is online quizzing. I can build a quiz to do almost anything, and the quiz auto-grades itself. I can easily see if the students finish on time as such. This works great for practice and  low-points sorts of assignments. Unfortunately, anything on the web is fairly easily cheatable (mostly through screen-capturing images), so it is tricky to use with actual tests, unless the students are in the room with you at a particular time. But for vocab practice, basic reading checks, or any memorization stuff, the quizzes are great. There is also a discussion board element on Schoology that has some promise, but teaching the students to do online discussions well is difficult. Still, there are times when this is handy. So I do need Schoology or something like it for that small element of my teaching.

In addition to this four-headed monster of web-based services that I put to use there are more than a few small web-based thingies that I can’t get rid of. One is electronic book logins. These are a blessing and a curse. Students can’t lose or destroy the expensive books electronically, but these web-based books are also a pain for students to use with phones and they often have browser issues. Poorer students can’t use the web-based books at all reliably. Setting up the logins is a pain and the district forces that work down to the teachers, which takes hours. My Youtube channel is also technically an addition to the four-headed monster, but that is what the website is for, to make that navigation go away.

So that is my web-based setup at present. I can’t imagine any additional functionality I could use at the moment. When I started teaching, I could imagine each of these elements and how they could help me teach better. I’m just glad they are here in the late middle of my career to take advantage of. The tech I need is finally here, and making it work for students is one of the most entertaining and useful parts of my job. Most importantly, the tech constantly suggests new and more effective ways of teaching that would have been impossible or too time-consuming in the past.

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Recommending a Student Laptop

I’m trying to decide if I should recommend that my students, particularly my freshmen, get a cheapo Chromebook laptop for school.

We have laptops at school, but they are a pain to use. They are Microsoft machines, and crippled in a lot of ways so students can’t mess up the school network, access porn, or otherwise be malicious. The problem is that these machines, particularly with the blocking software and slooooow logins are usually less functional than most student’s phones. And given that students are not good at managing logins, they are a pain for me to troubleshoot. Plus getting the laptops in and out of the cart and running for all students means I waste about 20 minutes a period playing computer guy as opposed to teacher. They have tiny screens, poor keyboards, and trackpads that the students don’t like. Additionally, the laptops are not reliably available. The computer labs are better, but testing and weird usage make them even less reliably available.

I have a few wealthier, pickier, or techy-er students who bring their own laptops when I warn them that we are going to have a laptop day. Our building wifi works well, so these students prefer their bigger screens and more functional devices. Since I do everything for my class on turnitin.com and Google, they can use Apple machines, Chromebooks, or Microsoft machines without me having to worry about it. Their machines don’t require my policing or troubleshooting.

So, should I recommend that as many students as can bring their laptops as often as they can? I already let them use their phones most of the time, so it is not as if laptops would be a classroom control issue. My classes already have the digital divide problem where the poorer students don’t have good phones or good data plans. I can’t see a lot of downside to recommending a computer for all students. The results don’t seem like they’d be that different from the existing phone issues.

That said, actually recommending it means dealing with the effect of the students actually starting bring machines. I’d also have to recommend a machine or three for parents to purchase, which raises the possibility of all sorts of complaints. What am I going to do if a third of the students start bringing their machines and the other two thirds don’t?

I do plan on making a soft suggestion this year, so I’ll find out how it goes.

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Footnoting Lectures

As I rebuild this site for the third time, I am again reminded of the nagging problem of my failure to footnote my lectures as I have gone through my career.  This issue occurred to me for two reasons over the years:

  1. The handwritten lecture notes handed down to me by my mentor teacher, who was also my World History teacher at Rio Grande High School, Jo Marie Anderson, were full of facts and interpretations that I could not easily track down.
  2. After I started putting my lecture notes on the web, they became far more real than I had anticipated. I started getting questions and complaints by email. When I wrote about Islam or Christianity, it occurred to me that I might be endangering myself if fanatics chose to see what I was writing as heresy. I was teaching in the South Valley of Albuquerque, and there were some very aggressively Christian and Mormon parents who were clearly analyzing my notes for slights against God.

I have also found myself being wrong over the years. New discoveries in history, or new books I have read led me to realize that I had been teaching as facts things that were erroneous. Given that Wikipedia is basically the only source any student (and most teachers) actually use, it occurred to me that I should provide at least as much footnoting as Wikipedia does.  The whole point of footnoting is to let people track down where you found your information, and thus check its veracity. I should let people know where and why I was led astray so they can untangle the good from the bad of my work.

The problem, of course, is what to do about the seventy or eighty lectures I have written over the years. The lectures are all nicely laid out in old-school hierarchical format and they contain a great many specific dates and key assertions. But going back and footnoting all of that would take forever.

So mostly I just wish I had always done this as I went along. If I were starting again, I would take the extra five minutes for every lecture to actually footnote it all. It’s tempting to just say “it’s just crap on the web” and just write it off as a caveat emptor situation, but that is an abrogation of professional responsibility. And in a time when the world is awash with bad interpretations and loose connections to factual reality, that hardly seems like an appropriate approach.

I suppose I’ll just take the time where I can to at least attribute my notes to particular books I have read, but I don’t know that other concerns won’t take precedence going forward. Crap.

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Vocabulary List Ruminations

I just finished putting together and posting almost all of my US History unit vocabulary lists here in the early summer. For some years now, I have started my annual planning by putting together these lists. The lists allow me to focus each unit’s planning, to make sure I put the right concepts in the right units, and to set up a bunch of routine assignments before the year starts.

I’ve been teaching for 22 or so years by now, so I already have a clear sense of what units I want to teach in which order. I also have a fairly massive set of workable primary and secondary source readings I can line up. The unit vocab lists are the third layer of structural planning. They serve as concept maps. What concepts do I want to teach in each unit?

Occasionally in the past I would find myself teaching a concept in a later unit that I should have hit earlier. Alternately, I taught something twice because it was crucial in a later unit, but I had taught it earlier as well. The better students got that frustrated “why are we doing this again?” look that scratches on the classroom vibe like a needle across old vinyl grooves. So having the lists set up ahead of time is the detail level of concept presentation organization.

The final reason for setting up the words before the school year even starts is so that I can set up my vocab practice tests in the summer when I’m not under the gun. I use Schoology, our current web-based academic web-tools suite, to set up practice vocabulary tests. I put all the definitions into a quiz and let the students match to the words. They can practice this vocab test as many times as they want before the test. I try to get the students to take the practice tests at the beginning of the unit with a small “organizational skills” categorized assignment that is optional. Basically, I hope they’ll be at least familiar with the words before I use them. Having them able to study again and again just makes my life and theirs easier. For students who don’t bother to study, it makes that really obvious for parents and administrators.

Since we do really heavy mainstreaming of students with individual education plans (very low-level Special Education students in common language), I have also had to consider how to map out which concepts I am teaching to which students in the class. Since I am teaching effectively two classes in the same period, I have to have a fairly rigorous conceptual load for the “regular” students and a lighter load for students with IEPs. So in my lists, I set it up such that about a third of the words are not required for the students with IEPs. I note this in blue. Because I have the words separated out, I can much more easily set up two different sets of Schoology vocab quizzes.

If you look at any of the vocabulary lists, you’ll see that the definitions are not always entirely standard. Partially, I have put the definitions into words that I can then put into a quiz verbatim without telegraphing the answer. But more importantly, I want the students to understand the word exactly as I will be using it in the unit’s context. I used to have them make their own vocab lists by defining the word using the dictionary. This was both labor-intensive and also occasionally counterproductive because some words had so many definitions that the students would know one version of the word, but not the definition as made sense for the unit at hand.

Putting these words on the web gives the parents some idea what each unit is about. As a teacher, one always runs the risk of that combative ideological parent, but I find that radical openness is a lot safer than any other approach. Parents can also quiz their own students on the vocab if they like. I find that parents and guardians like to have some way they can plug-in and help support their students.

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Late policy ruminations

Another teacher asked me for my late policy a few days ago. I’d been trying to recruit teachers from my building to work with something like my late policy. Everyone in the building has different standards and processes, so the students don’t have any coherent expectation of what a late policy should be. Mostly they are used to being able to turn in a ton of late work or re-taken tests in the last couple of weeks of the semester to save their grade. My own stepson pulled this off at his high school, so I knew how irritating it looked from a parent point of view. Still, it was quixotic of me to expect other teachers to change their personal proclivities that they have built up over the years.

I see 6 main reasons for having a late policy.

  1. Lessons in a class come in an intended order if the teacher is competent. Assignments build on each other. It makes a lot more sense when a student completes an assignment before they move on to the next topic. Students need to be prodded to do things at the proper time so that they can actually learn as much as the teacher has organized for them to learn.
  2. Students procrastinate and they often let work pile up until they have an daunting pile. They then shut down, flail, and fail. A late policy is a prod to avoid this.
  3. Some students, and it is not a small percentage, know that if they turn in work late they can take advantage of other students’ graded and turned-back work. Or the intentionally late students know that they teacher is going to discuss the work the day or the day after it is turned in. In this case, the late penalty removes the incentive for students to effectively cheat by stalling.
  4. Being organized is a key part of what a teacher is modeling and teaching. So a late policy prods students to learn to be organized.
  5. Getting one’s work done on time is a job skill, and teachers should teach that skill.
  6. As a step-parent, I found it maddening that my stepson could let giant piles of work accumulate and then turn it all in at the end of the semester. I had trouble explaining to my stepson why to do work on time when most of his teachers made no policy decision to require him to work in a timely fashion.

I decided to only let students turn in 3 late assignments per quarter. That would be about 10-15%  of all the assignments I give. Most students have no problem with keeping within this number, though they do tend to burn their late assignment quota on essays.

Furthermore, I set a three-week moratorium on late work. This is intended to keep students from turning in preposterously late work that is entirely decontextualized from what they are learning. I rarely bother to enforce this, but occasionally I do go through my web-based grade book and mark assignments as “too late to turn in.”

The final thing, and the the key part for my purposes, is that I won’t give an assignment more than 75% of the points if it is late. That deals with the cheating-by-stalling issue I described above and it keeps students pressured to stay caught up with their work. For a long time I subtracted 25% of the possible points from late work, but that practice was too punitive. Students would turn in honestly done average work and fail. Just capping the possible earned points hurts the lazy skilled students and it limits the success of cheating, all without doing too much damage to student’s grades, especially those of middle or low-skilled students.

Honestly, I find this late policy way too easy. I’d be irritated if I was a parent of a student in my class. That said, a lot of students have a lot of issues. This loose late policy might give them a bit too much rope, but it doesn’t accidentally strangle the grade of a student who needs some slack. Importantly, this late policy doesn’t lead me to catch much flack at all from parents and administrators. The last thing I need is a bevy of end-of-semester parent-teacher conferences or angry email exchanges. The slack saves my energy for where it needs to be: teaching.

The final issue, and one that I have no idea how to address, is the question of work that becomes late due to excused or unexcused absence. At public high schools, in my experience, attendance is awful. Kids miss, skip, have in-school counseling or nurse appointments, participate in sports, etc. so often that it is rare to have a regular class with more than 85% attendance on any given day. Some parents excuse everything and some excuse nothing. Some students don’t have parents who bother with excuses or are in a position to excuse absences. When I distinguished about excused absences, I often felt I was grading parenting more than students work. So do I count work that comes in late only because of an unexcused absence as “late?” With so many missing students on any given day, it would be a real waste of time to try to keep track of whose absence was excused and whose was unexcused. I know kids skip to get another day to work and the parents often excuse those absences. So basically I just don’t pay attention to excused versus unexcused absences anymore.

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The look, the feel – day 2

So I just spent 2 hours messing around with the look and feel of the site. It’s pretty entertaining. Figuring out how parents and students will see and navigate the site is obviously step one. Putting this together on WordPress has the awesome advantage of allowing me to see how the site actually looks on a smartphone. The smartphone issue was one of the things that made me abandon site version 2.5. Most of my students will use this site on their phones, so most of the layout design involved me starting at my phone after each update. If you do build a student/parent facing site, thinking phone-first is the way to go.

The new site also allowed a number of cool little changes that I hadn’t considered before I restarted.

The Google Translate widget was awesome. That should make for some entertaining mistranslations, but it will also open the page up to a bunch of parents and students learning English. The only hassle I’ve found with Google Translate is that the pop-up window doesn’t show the language list well, so languages at the high part of the alpha list, including Spanish crucially, are not clickable. But it does work fine on computers and tablets.

The search box was also something I didn’t consider heading into this rebuild. I’m sort of leery about it. The whole idea of my site is to create a hierarchical structure of information so that my students don’t just use the “omnibox” search methodology. I want them to know how to drill down through a file structure to get information, but that search box short circuits that. On the other hand, the box will let students and parents actually find what they need. So I won’t fight that battle.

The other little widgets, “Top Posts & Pages” and “Tags” also might turn out to be useful. I have to have a bunch of students and parents clicking before I see how handy those get.

Setting up my background using a repeating toothpick took an hour all by itself. I had an old version from the last website, but I wanted a better mix of people this time. All the standard (and appropriate) inclusionary considerations came into play in choosing the people. Then I had to refresh my Photoshop skills to put the thing together and color and shade it the way I wanted. I do remember from building my last site versions that getting these little things just so at the beginning of the business really helped later, but that advice is of course true of everything.

But generally, I have the look and the structure down how I want it and I can start populating the pages now.

The site as of day 2:

Home page 20170711

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Rebuilding fashionzombie.net

For a couple of years now, fashionzombie.net has lain dormant. I moved most of its functionality onto Google Drive. However, I did miss having a public version of the website for parents and in general. Most importantly, I needed a way to categorize my youtube videos that worked better than a Youtube channel. Plus, I have the summer off and tinkering with the web is always entertaining. So here we have it.

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