Supporting Student Learning with Digital Tools for Communication

In Eric Sheninger’s article titled “Transforming Your School with Digital Communication” he states that the most important transformation occurs when leaders use digital formats for communicating information to stakeholders.  He states, “Just as teachers differentiate instruction for a variety of learning styles in the classroom, school leaders should differentiate our communication efforts if we want true partnerships between home and school. As leaders, we have the power to shape the culture of our schools. Using social media and digital tools as a lever, we can open the door to new ways of learning, thinking, and communicating for all members of our community.” 

At Mill Plain Elementary, Claire Baylor took an opportunity to branch her communication efforts through digital formats.  As she was preparing for the school year, Claire was configuring the best ways to keep staff members informed of student needs.  Handing paraeducators stacks of IEPs has not been a good use of time in the past.  Claire still wanted to ensure that paraeducators had information to work with students.  Born from this need, Claire jumped at the opportunity to use digital binders.   

Digital binders is a folder system, mainly used through Google Drive, that Evergreen High School has used for the past four school years in order to connect information from classes throughout the building to students who attend those classes and staff members who support students in those classes.  It also provides information on students so staff members can work with students; applying accommodations, supporting independence and advocacy, and building on strengths and confidence in order to increase overall achievement.  In seeing the success that Evergreen High School had in using digital binders, Claire saw an alignment between use of digital binders and her vision for supporting student learning.

Claire began with creating schedules of students and support staff with Google Docs.  Using an online system allowed for staff members to see where Claire would be supporting students throughout the day, where students with IEPs would be located throughout the day, and where support staff would be utilized to support student learning.   

Having a starting place that displayed overall schedules for the school day, Claire was able to make minor adjustments to the schedule throughout the school year.  She scheduled a daily time to check in with students and paras; often times overlapping her lunch with the paras in order to receive information from paras.  This supported the work and provided Claire feedback on the access students and staff members were receiving as a result of moving to digital binders.   

At first, the buy in was not easy.  People get used to taking notes and data by writing the information down.  Once paras saw the benefits of using digital binders, the transition became easy.  Digital binders provided more than just schedules: 

  • Reminders of work being done in previous days for specific students through notes 
  • Access to teacher unit plans to track upcoming events and activities 
  • Access to assignments and/or tools for classroom activities (i.e. graphic organizers, etc.) 
  • Sub notes so in the absence of a staff members, others could pick up where they left off 
  • A map of the school to find locations with ease 
  • Personalized Learning Profiles of students 

With the Personalized Learning Profiles (PLPs), staff members were able to access current IEP goals for students, student interests and motivators, a list of accommodations to support access, and other pertinent information for each student.  Those who needed access had the access through sharing of files and folders in the digital binders.  In working with subs, Claire found a need to include pictures of students in their profiles so the support staff could find the students they needed to support with ease.  These PLPs met Claire’s initial need for providing access to student information to others by organizing important information in a short, concise manner.  

Once the support staff was able to accept online note taking as part of their responsibilities, both Claire and other teachers were able to access up to date information on students in the digital binders.  Paras put a link to in their lesson planning that provided what they did that day and what the plan was for the next day.  Taking ownership in what they were doing and making the system work for them was key in allowing Claire to be informed of the work, and make minor adjustments.  Having a clear goal with ease of access to pertinent information made the daily work seamless in providing support to students in hopes of closing the achievement gap.  

Claire, teachers, and support staff also used Google Forms to collect behavior data.  Google Forms provided immediate access to information and displayed multiple snapshots throughout the day of a student’s behavior.  The information was shared with necessary parties.  This allowed Claire the ability to connect with parents regarding the data that was current.  By tracking the data through Google Forms, Claire was able to work with IEP teams to create meaningful social/emotional goals for students.  With the access to more information that was in the moment and objective, Claire was able to target frequency, duration, intensity, location, and time of day for student behaviors.  Analyzing data and teaching focused social and behavioral skills aligned with the idea of supporting the whole student. 

In one case, having immediate behavior data was powerful for one of the 3rd graders in order to keep the student accountable because the staff was all on the same page.  Allowing for follow through of the student’s plan across settings and people made the student’s plan successful.  Claire left one question on the data collection form open-ended.  The form focused on whether the student used a problem-solving strategy, and what problem-solving strategy was used. The student needed to hear the same message.  A sub could use the strategies that worked to provide student with a clear and consistent message; removing the power struggle. Having success with the plan for this student showed the power of digital communication. 

Of course, there are barriers in using digital communication tools.  Having a feedback loop, such as ongoing meetings and check ins that Claire has established in her schedule is important for taking the system to the next level and build off what has been accomplished.  Behavior data has been great; now Claire wants to focus on collection of academic data.  That includes having a vision and finding the right assessment and tool for collecting information.  Allowing for trial and error to put something out there try it out and see what works and what falls apart has been crucial to this journey so far.  The system can be endless so information has to be structured/organized, and there has to be a vision for what needs to be accomplished right now.  Claire kept asking questions, “Why do I need this information?  Why am I asking them to do it?”  Catherine, one of the paraeducators, started creating weekly lesson plans because that worked for her.  Creating flexibility and tuning into strengths of the person allowed for growth in using the system.  In collaboration with the para, Claire found a common ground to make the system work for all stakeholders.  The biggest barrier in using digital tools for communication is making the system work for each person. 

Receiving feedback from others allowed Claire to bridge the gap between what was being presented and how it was interpreted by staff members looking at it.  She noticed the more opportunities that everyone uses technology the more it models the use technology as a tool for learning.  For instance, looking up “tan bat” in a story in order to show the student the context as it relates to the story.  By creating a system for access to information, Claire opened the door to collaboration.  In doing so, she used digital tools to foster communication across stakeholders with ease of access. Students were able to take ownership in their learning, and will continue to do so as Claire and staff members at Mill Plain Elementary continue their work in closing the achievement gap for all students. 

To see more of Claire’s current system, go to this link: https://drive.google.com/a/evergreenps.org/file/d/0BwkyMlrQ8-uAU0pBcTNKS1NEN2c/view?usp=sharing 

EMBRACING STRESS TO DEVELOP A SHARED VISION

A NEED FOR DEFINING A SHARED VISION

Everyone gets frustrated at some point.  What I have learned from watching Ted Talks with Kelly McGonigal is that embracing stress is more important than reducing stress.  Clifton P. Parker discusses Kelly’s research in an article regarding the same topic.  He states, “Stress is most likely to be harmful when the following conditions are present: it feels against your will, out of your control and utterly devoid of meaning. If you can change any of these conditions – by finding some meaning in it – you can reduce the harmful effects of stress.” (Parker 2015)

When students in specialized programs move from 2nd to 3rd grade that most likely means that they will be switching IEP case managers; creating a transition for both the student and the special education teacher.  Continue reading “EMBRACING STRESS TO DEVELOP A SHARED VISION”

LIMITING TRANSITIONS: A COMMITMENT TO INCLUSION

In the book Qualities of Effective Teachers by James H. Stronge, he states, “Research has demonstrated that student achievement is higher in classes where instructional time is maximized (see, for example, Taylor et al., 1999; Walberg, 1984). The effective teacher prioritizes instruction, a process that is accomplished partially through allocation of time. One illustration of how effective teachers best use the scarce commodity of time is in smoothly orchestrated classroom transitions; they remain involved with the students during the entire class period from start to finish, allowing for no idle or down time.”

When looking at student instruction at Crestline Elementary, limiting transitions is a key to their success. For a population with over 66% of students receiving free or reduced lunch, 11.7% receiving special education services, and over 26% receiving ELL services, Crestline’s Principal, Bobbi Hite, sums this up pretty clearly when she shared with me her thoughts about supporting all students. Continue reading “LIMITING TRANSITIONS: A COMMITMENT TO INCLUSION”

Supporting our students and immigrant families in turbulent times…

I’ve been in several buildings in the past months and I have seen first hand and heard from teachers in the field, that our students and immigrant families are stressed with the recent increased enforcement of immigration policies.

…And ‘stressed’ is putting it mildly.

No matter what your political affiliation is, supporting our students and making sure they feel safe in their learning environment is a primary concern for any educator. If children, even the big ones, being scared for their family’s security doesn’t tug at your heart strings then at least an understanding of the impact of stress on the learner’s brain should give us pause.

This issue became even more apparent when I attended a recent “Immigration 101” session held at ASC. Families of immigrants were in attendance to hear about their rights and how the latest immigration policies and enforcement are impacting families of students in our community. The thing that stands out when you are in a room full of immigrant families is the level of concern these parents and guardians have for their children. Many families are facing the realities of being torn apart by detainment or deportation. There was talk of creating a safety plan should a parent or guardian be picked up or detained by ICE. Sadly, many families have reached the conclusion to leave their children behind should the parents be deported.

I myself, cannot imagine the daily stress of not knowing if my parents were going to be home when I return from school. Some students, students who are here legally, born in the United States, have been asked by their peers “So when are you going back to (fill in the blank with assumed country of origin)?” Even when these questions aren’t intended maliciously, our students still suffer anxiety. Some high school students who are on a path to graduation and college are having to make difficult decisions. One student is facing a decision to continue on the education path he has worked hard to achieve in order to stop school entirely to work full time so money can be saved for his possible deportation.

So what can you do? What can any of us do? 

Dr. Catherine Carrison, EPS ELL Department Manager, recently gave a talk at the Evergreen Faith Based-Coffee. She shared the following advice to community members:

faith based coffee ELL

  •  Educate yourself so you can tell the “Counter Story” of our children and their families. People who don’t know our families like we do may not know or realize the value our immigrant families add to the fabric of our community. Emphasize the assets our diverse students bring to our classrooms. The media and politicians have their versions of who our students are, but we know them best. Knowing a student means caring about him or her as a human being, a person with a name and a story, not just a statistic.
  • Advocate for multilingualism and multiculturalism. Emerging bilinguals in our schools bring many assets to our classrooms and our community. Diversity in our classrooms promotes diversity and creativity in thinking and innovation. An important new study by economists Quamrul Ashraf of Williams College and Oded Galor of Brown University help us understand the economic benefits of a diverse population. “Cultural Diversity, Geographical Isolation and the Origin of the Wealth of Nations,” recently released as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research. It finds that “the interplay between cultural assimilation and cultural diffusion have played a significant role in giving rise to differential patterns of economic development across the globe.” To put it in plain English: diversity spurs economic development and homogeneity slows it down.
  • Promote a message of advocacy and compassion for our children and their families. Be a “safe place.” This goes beyond our schools being safe-havens where ICE raids cannot legally occur without prior consent. This speaks to our attitudes and mindset about how we consistently work to build a sense of community and trust within each of our classrooms. Some great resources on restorative practices and mindfulness have been implemented in our buildings and the impact is evident. Learn more about these resources by contacting Carl Smith, EPS Special Services Assistant Director.
  • Pay attention to your government – WA State has more ELLs than all but seven other states (137,000+ or 10%). The old adage goes: “The squeaky wheel gets the oil”. Use your voice and your vote in local elections and government agencies to promote your concerns and values.
  • Volunteer at your local school! As educators we obviously are not ‘volunteering’ our time but we can encourage more diverse community members to be in our classrooms. Contact your community liaisons to recruit  volunteers that can be models for diversity themselves and bring in community members to get to know the diverse learners in our classrooms.

Learn more about information for families and educators by following the links below:

Information for Families of Immigrants

Information for Educators about Immigrant Students

Sprinkle a little Fairy Dust on your students…

Getting students to think at higher levels and encouraging them to use the academic language of the lesson can be a challenge. I know because I used to teach in an 8th grade classroom in Arizona and I wouldn’t normally call any technique magical, except for this one. This technique, which I refer to as “Fairy Dust”, is simple yet highly effective and gets our students thinking at more critical thinking levels and using more academic language. What’s magical about it is the almost immediate effect I saw it have on my students, even the most resistant.

Here’s the process:

Instead of asking a recall level question, like “Who…What…When…Where…?” Ask a How or Why question. If students are required to elaborate more on their responses they are likely to not only think at higher levels of cognition (analyze and evaluate), they are also encouraged to use more academic language in their responses. To get the the discussion going, give students a sentence frame that connects to the question.

Here’s how it sounds:”Get ready to explain to your partner how you solved the equation.” then prompt students to share “When you’re sharing you can get started with: One strategy I used to solve the equations was… or try using transition words, First I…Then I…As a result I… Finally I…”  Then let them turn and talk, you walk around and listen in and encourage them to use the language frames they need to express their thinking.fairy-dust

I was amazed to find that within the first few tries of this technique I had students expressing themselves in more depth than I had ever heard them before. It lead me to believe that my kids had it in them all the time, they just needed a little Fairy Dust to bring it out.

Great resources for getting kids to think at higher levels and sentence frames that support them can be found here: http://padlet.com/SIOPTeacher/TeacherPage

SEL and Empathy through Engineering

As we work to support students with their social and emotional learning (SEL) at all grade levels, we need to find ways to make this learning accessible and relevant, in the same ways that we work to personalize other learning experiences. When we ask students to problem solve, are we helping them to see themselves as engineers?

Engineering instruction presents an underutilized opportunity for supporting SEL. Empathy is at the root of all engineering. The empathy component of engineering might not be obvious from reading the Merriam-Webster definition, but the acts of identifying a problem to solve, designing solutions, and optimizing those solutions require the engineer to have a level of empathy for the people (or other organisms) involved in the problem. When we ask students to be engineers, are we being transparent enough about the need for empathy?

Particularly in the early grades, students need help sorting out big problems from small problems in their interactions with others. Identification and classification of problems is a key component of the engineering design process. By making the connection between students’ work with social problems (i.e. Kelso’s Choice) and engineering, teachers can help to encourage all students to see themselves as both engineers and problem solvers.

Engineering in the classroom provides students with opportunities to fail safely and try again. This process of iteration is a great way for students to build their persistence and support a growth mindset. Students can also consider engineering (or design) in contexts outside of building. As we involve students in setting up flexible learning environments or establishing group norms, they can be engaged in a form of process engineering. A classroom culture is one example of a designed system; students can be made aware of this and take an active role in engineering the systems and processes in place at school.

Group collaboration is critical in professional engineering contexts: Engineering is a social activity. Group engineering tasks allow students to practice and develop their skills with collaborative relationships and positive social interactions. When a team goal is in place or a problem needs to be solved, many students are more engaged and collaboration occurs in more authentic ways.

Student decision-making and self-management skills can also be developed, refined, and assessed through engineering activities. Time management is almost always a factor in an engineering task – the problem needs to be solved in a reasonable time frame. As students consider the reasons why a design has failed or how to optimize a solution, they consider trade-offs and which solution is truly the best fit for the criteria. By providing authentic experiences for students to practice these skills in a way that teachers can assess and provide feedback.

Intentionally linking SEL and engineering instruction is efficient and will increase student access to critical life and academic skills. Here are a few resources for you to consider digging into that help connect engineering with concepts in SEL:

  • Teaching Empathy Through Design Thinking – a fantastic Edutopia post by Rusul Alrubail
  • An Introduction to Design Thinking – this look at Stanford’s d.school process guide begins with empathy
  • Ann McMahon’s TEDx talks in 2012 and 2015 – these videos provide a great look at the role of empathy in engineering from the perspective of an aerospace engineer and educator
  • STEM Teaching Tools #7, #36, and #39 – these tools offer ideas and insight into helping to engage students in relevant design and engineering processes that can help support a variety of SEL goals
  • TeachEngineering – as the name suggests, this site offers a variety of engineering lessons and units aligned to a variety of standards for every grade level