Sunday, August 11, 2013

Starting the Year Off Right: Parent Communication

Consistent and relevant parent communication is essential for a good school year. Luckily, there are many great tools that make communicating with parents relatively easy. First, Remind101 provides a free and safe way for teachers to communicate with students and parents. After signing up for a free account, you create your classes. Remind101 then  provides you with a phone number and a separate code for each class. Parents and students simply send a text message with the code to the number given by Remind101. They are then subscribed to any messages you send out for that class. Parents and students can also signup for email updates, but this is not as obvious. If you click on the print button on the left hand side of the screen, it will create a PDF with the instructions for signing up for text messages and email messages. Now you are ready to send out alerts to parents and students. Just click on a class, type a message, and then hit send. It is blasted out to everyone who is subscribed. You can even tweet the message to a class Twitter account.

Google also provides tools that help with parent communication. Google Voice is a web service that allows you to create a phone number that anyone can call or text message. When parents call the number they can leave a message, when is then transcribed to text and sent to your email. This allows parents to contact you easily while maintaining your privacy. Gmail is also an excellent way to keep in contact with parents. At the beginning of the year, have parents provide you with an email address. Then create a contact list with the emails. Now you can send out messages to parents with one click of a button.

Class websites are an important tool for keeping parents informed. My school uses the free web service Schoolloop for our school website. I put up basic class information and I also post our class agenda online for any students who are absent.

A class blogger is another way to give parents a window on what is happening in the classroom. Each week assign one student to create a short blog post about what they learned that week. This way parents can check in and see what is happening in class from a student's perspective. This also provides accountability for the student whose turn it is to blog that week. Online blogging services for students like Kidblog make this easy.

In addition, learning management systems like Edmodo are an easy way to extend your class outside of its four walls. Students can help each other, ask questions, and even complete assignments from home. Edmodo also provides a code for parents so that they can stay involved with their child's online work.

Finally, and most importantly, don't pass up opportunities to meet with parents face-to-face. Technology can make you more available, but a live meeting makes you more personal.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Using TED talks and iTunes U to Develop Students' Listening Skills

One of the goals set out in the Common Core standards is to make students better and more discerning listeners. More specifically, the standards require students to "Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric" (CCRA.SL.3). This standard considered in isolation can appear daunting. Put in exaggerated terms, it would require a regular round of speakers invited into the classroom and/or a heavy dose of student presentations. Both of these options are important in developing students' listening skills, but neither can happen on a consistent enough basis to provide the repeated practice students need to master this standard. But students can receive a steady diet of engaging presentations through online resources like and iTunes U. In addition, when videos from these online resources are embedded into units focused on Big Ideas or Big Questions, students are motivated  to do the hard work it takes to delineate a speaker's reasoning and evaluate the speaker's point of view on a topic.

First, and iTunes U are both excellent repositories of video presentations on a wide range of topics from a diversity of speakers. is best for concise and polished presentations since each speaker is only allowed eighteen minutes to communicate a message, a format that forces each speaker to narrow the topic. Anyone can stream the video directly from the TED site or download it for offline use. There are many lists available online of TED videos that are good for classroom use. In the last year, has also developed TEDEd, which is a collection of short, captivating videos teachers can build lessons around. iTunes U is another source of videos for classroom use. As the name suggests, it requires iTunes to access the videos and is generally geared towards upper academic levels. But if you are teaching Night by Elie Wiesel, the interviews available here will definitely supplement your unit. Of course, Youtube deserves a mention, especially if your district has unblocked Youtube for schools.

Second, videos discovered in the ways described above are most effective when embedded into units that focus on a particular novel, theme, big idea, or big question. This gives students a reason to watch the video and do the hard work it takes to understand the message that is being communicated. In this way, the videos, along with the fiction and non-fiction being read in class, become another source for considering the big idea or theme of the unit. For more information about designing units based on big questions, I would recommend Jim Burke's book What's the Big Idea? The first chapter of the book can be found here.

This year I plan on incorporating more video into my big question units to provide my students with more opportunities to practice their listening skills and to provide captivating sources for considering answers to our collective questions. On a side note, I am still trying to develop a helpful graphic organizer for delineating and evaluating a speaker's point of view, so if anyone out there has some ideas, please let me know.