I got an email today from the father of one of my sophomores in which he confessed that he doesn’t have the need to connect to me in more ways than the good old fashioned telephone or email.  I genuinely appreciate this kind of candor, and I intend to meet that parent where he is on the technology continuum.  If email and telephone calls work for him, they work for me too!

I just want to offer the parents of all my students options so communicating with me is easy. If communicating is easy, then I can become aware of issues as they arise.  Some parents might be using social media like Twitter or Google+ at work or on their mobile devices; therefore it might be a quick way to get a heads up.  Some parents might have their own WordPress blogs and so commenting might be very easy.  I have the blog and Twitter so parents don’t have to contact me if they are merely curious about what their kid is doing in English class.  They can browse this blog weekly or once in a while, without having to feel like they are bothering anyone.  I dutifully write this blog weekly and so far I am thrilled when I get a response with a supportive comment or a question.  So please, feel free to contact me however you feel most comfortable.

This week, I wanted to briefly detail how we use Edmodo.  Edmodo is a free web-based piece of software that is similar to Blackboard used at some area universities. It allows me to communicate with my students about assignments, to post assignments and quizzes, to keep track of grades, and also to directly message students in a closed, safe online environment. Kids generally feel comfortable with it because it looks and feels a lot like Facebook.  I don’t use Facebook, mostly because I am not of the generation that came of age with it.  I know there is a debate among educators to use Facebook for school activities, but I am not among these educators.  Right now, having used it for two weeks with 75 students, I can report that most students are comfortable with it.  There are still a few who are having trouble with it and that’s why I’m enlisting parents to help verify that their student is able to connect and navigate on edmodo easily.  If they are not, please contact me immediately and I will sit down one-on-one with those students.

I invite you to take a look!  I do ask, however, that you talk to your student about whether or not he/she feels comfortable with you setting up a parent account.  Parent accounts allow parents to view all the course content (assignments, grades, comments, etc) without the students really ever seeing you there. I don’t think students have anything to fear from their parents having accounts, but some students might want to “do it on their own” and so I encourage you to have this discussion with your son or daughter.  If your son/daughter is comfortable with it, he/she can give you the personalized “parent access code” that appears on their edmodo homepage.  Here are some instructions on how to activate parent accounts.

What I like so far about Edmodo is that I can post assignments there with due dates and students can submit directly there.  This cuts down on the shuffling of papers coming in and going out during class.  I like that.  It also allows me to grade work immediately and students can see their grades immediately.  This of course puts the onus on me to keep up with it, but with access even from my smartphone, I find that I can work from remote locations, like when I’m at the playground with my kids and I have a few minutes on the park bench to read a couple papers.

While this will help keep better track of nightly homework, I don’t expect it to make my job of reading, responding to, and grading student essays any easier.  The school has been using a subscription-based service called Turnitin for the past two or three years now and I’ve been pleased with the grading interface, even though students still complain that it takes forever to get back their essays.

Even with the aid of all these new technologies, I expect that it will still take me two to three weeks to finish grading a class set of essays.  The only benefit of using the online system is that students can get results as I grade, whereas when I grade by hand, I don’t hand back papers until I’ve finished grading all of them.

Getting back to Edmodo, I am not very impressed with the gradebook functions.  I am not able to calculate weighted grades on Edmodo.  I’ve been doing weighted grades for about ten years now so I have to get comfortable with the point system again.  Right now, I’m telling myself that I’ll see how the gradebook works on Edmodo for term 1 and if I’m unsatisfied with it, I will switch to Engrade, which many of my colleagues use.

One other feature that Edmodo has is access to a support community of educators who use it.  I will post a few questions to that community to see if there is a way to get more out of the seemingly simplistic grade book.  I’ll keep you posted on that one.  You don’t have to worry that any of this means that student grades might suffer. I always keep a paper back up and this discussion is about which platform I use to do all the calculations.  So far, Edmodo is working because it allows students immediate access to their grades so they know how they’re doing at all times, as long as their teacher keeps up with the grading.

Keeping up with the posting of grades has been the biggest challenge with my junior SAM and my MGC classes, mostly because I have given students the choice to hand hw in on edmodo or on paper in class.  Because I then have to sift through stacks of paper and then scroll and click through pages of turned in assignments on Edmodo, I have been slower to post grades.

But I”m working on it!  I’m confident that once I’m certain that students are comfortable using Edmodo and know how to reach me for help, it will make us more productive with our class time.

And so far, I have enjoyed every minute in class with your wonderful kids!

Welcome, Parents!

As Back to School Night approaches, I thought it would be a good idea to get a head start at introducing myself to the parents of all my students.  You can view my brief vizify bio  here.  This might look familiar to you as I asked students to make presentations with their bios to introduce themselves to the class and  vizify was one of the options.

You can see that I’ve been teaching English at South for ten years now.  Even though I still feel as enthusiastic about coming to work each day as a new teacher, I finally feel at ease with the content of my courses.  It takes quite a few years to get to this place and I am confident that I can help your students strengthen their critical reading, discussion, and analytical writing skills with the curricula I have developed over the years.

However, I want to do more than just help students become excellent students of English.  I also feel an obligation to help them develop what we in the industry call “21st Century Skills.”  With 21st Century Skills and digital citizenship, we try to do more than just getting them to use technology in the context of the classroom; we also want technology to be a vehicle that allows them to analyze, explore, & collaborate effectively and deeply.

In order to do that, I’ve got to use technology to build solid relationship with students and their parents to collaborate effectively on these new endeavors.  That’s where this blog comes in.  I will post regularly to give parents an update on which technologies we are currently using and how things are going.  I want parents to feel included in what we are doing, and I hope that parents explore the various web 2.0 tools and mobile apps that we use in class on their own and with their kids.  I also welcome feedback and hope you will reply to my blog posts with comments and questions.

If you would like to be alerted when I publish a new post, you can click the “Follow” button on the right and subscribe via email.

In addition, if you would like to join my Personal Learning Network or PLN to engage in discussions and share articles about technology in education, I welcome you to follow me on Twitter:  @JoeSco77.  You can check out my profile on Twitter here, and browse through my tweets to see that I tweet about events at South, using technology in the classroom, and other topics in education.  If you don’t already have one, I invite you to sign up for a free Twitter account here.

I also welcome questions & comments about how things are going with your son or daughter.  You can email me at joseph_scozzaro@newton.k12.ma.us.  I also use jscozzaro@gmail.com for questions from students about homework.  I try to respond to student emails immediately, so they won’t fall behind and so I can clear up confusion to help them finish homework in a timely manner.

Please feel free to read through my previous blog posts and view a couple of photos of my kids!

Coming next week:  reflections on using Edmodo.

I hope to see you on Thursday evening!  If for some reason, you can’t make it, please reach out to me with an email, by following me on twitter, or signing up to follow this blog.



Goodreads in the high school classroom

Since my last post I have been going full blast with setting up my four classes with accounts on Goodreads. Briefly goodreads is a social network for readers and I knew It was going to be a success with students when one of my sophomores came to see after school one day and said “I hate you for making me do goodreads.”  I was concerned and asked him what was wrong and he continued, “I was on it for like three hours last night reading reviews of books and now I have like 20 books that I want to read!”
He was one of the more tech-savvy students who had no trouble following my instructions that I put in a PowerPoint that was available for download from our Edmodo site.
It took a full week and I’ve got about 50 of my 74 students up and running. Those who have smartphones have downloaded the goodreads app and have been updating their summer reads, rating books they’ve read and writing reviews. Their enthusiasm for it already makes me feel good about my choice.
The ones who haven’t gotten on yet are a bit of a mystery as of now. Some students have come to me for help during J block but others are keeping silent and that worries me. My gut tells me that they are just a bit green and do not feel completely comfortable coming up to me to admit that they need help. I’m still entering in all their email address into my gmail address book, so I can proactively reach out to the ones who are absent in the goodreads group.  But the key there is that they have to check their email.  There are a few students who are not in the habit of checking email frequently.  My three groups on goodreads are: Soph MGC D/E blocks , Junior English SAM C block ,  and Junior English B block.  I welcome parents to take a look at their student’s group and follow their progress and how they interact with other members of the group.  I won’t let you join the group, but I’d love to “friend” you so that you can follow my updates!
You might be wondering how I will be using goodreads this year. As of term one, we are going to use it to track progress in reading outside reading books. In the Newton South English Department, we are committed to encouraging kids to read broadly and deeply. We try to offer a breadth of texts for required reading and we also push kids to read other books throughout the year. This gets tricky because we end up having to assess students on their outside reading and those assessments are often tedious for students. Thus students come to loathe outside reading. A similar thing happens with summer reading among our students who don’t enjoy to read, and we’ve come up with a pretty clever way to encourage these and all students to read over the summer so they can fully participate in the One School, One Book event that will take place next Friday.
Here are my guidelines for how students are to use goodreads this term:

1. Add books truthfully to your “currently reading,” “read,” and “want to read” shelves.
2. Update your progress immediately after reading a session.
3. Include at least one quote and a brief comment for every progress update.
4. Be respectful of your classmates. Treat this as an extension of class.

What I hope to achieve by using this service is to encourage kids to explore their curiosity and read widely and deeply, while having a better way to assess students on their completion of the reading.  Each time they update their progress and include a comment, there is a time and date stamp.  It’s possible that students might fudge this, but because goodreads is a social network and their progress can be viewed by members of our class group, they are essentially reporting to their class.  I hope that this level of accountability pushes kids to post with integrity.

Another way I hope to encourage accountability among students is to invite parents to join and use goodreads.  I think it will offer families a fun way to share thoughts on current reads and favorites, as well as give parents insight into what their children are reading for English class.  To effect this, I plan on sending a welcome letter to parents via email and inviting them to follow me on Twitter (@JoeSco77) to engage in discussions around learning with technology.  I’m sure some parents will be thrilled to join the discussion while others might be intimidated by the pace and volume of Twitter.  I hope these folks will visit my blog weekly (or subscribe to follow) to keep abreast of how their students are learning with mobile devices and web 2.0 tools.

If you are a parent of one of my students, or if you are a fan of Goodreads, please reply with a comment! I would love to hear your voice!

Smartphones in the classroom?

About five or six years ago, the faculty council at Newton South High did a lot of work to rewrite the school’s policy regarding cell phones in school. At the time many students had cell phones but the cellular coverage was spotty in most of the school. Cell phones were a bit of a distraction but not in class. Students would congregate in the one or two spots around campus where they could get one or two bars to make quick calls. This annoyed most of the adults in the building but we were willing to live with the reality that parents make the decision to buy these expensive gadgets for their kids and we would have to live with them. So we worked together to draft a new policy that acknowledged the ubiquity of cell phone ownership while asking students to use them responsibly and in a way that wouldn’t disrupt the educational process.

So now we have this policy today that asks students to keep their “phones” switched off in class and to use them only in the halls, common rooms and cafeteria. When we drafted this “forward-looking” policy we did not see the smartphone in the horizon.
Now roughly 8 out of 10 students possess either a smartphone or a web-enabled device. Our policy, well-intentioned as it may be, now seems ironic at best. Do we want students to keep these powerful learning and collaboration tools, the very tool I use right now to write this blog and share it with the world, switched off while they are under the supervision of their professional teachers in class? Are we more comfortable with students using these devices out in the hallways, in areas of the school where there is less supervision?
Clearly we need guidelines. We can’t allow electronic devices to distract us from our mission of educating all kids. We can’t allow the 16 students with smartphones In a class to disrupt the process for the four without.  However, it’s clear that our school policy regarding “cell phones” be revisited and updated.

In our faculty meeting on Tuesday of this week, our principal did a good job leading us through a discussion of this issue. By having an open, honest and respectful discussion with our peers, we teachers came to an understanding that on this issue we rely on our professionalism as a group. Some colleagues feel more comfortable asking students to keep their devices off and put away during class to provide them as close to a distraction-free environment as one can hope for in a room full of teenagers. These colleagues appreciate and support those of use who endeavor to help students use their web-enabled devices as learning and collaboration tools.
Right now we don’t feel there is a crisis around student use of cell phones, smartphones, or other web-enabled devices in school. But it is awkward having a rule that few have the desire to enforce.

Teachers and school leaders should listen to what parents of high school students think about smartphones in the classroom. Please feel free to post a comment on this issue by clicking “Leave a reply” under the title.

Do parents buy these devices for their teenagers with the understanding that the students will or will not use them during class?

What about those parents who feel it best to delay purchasing their kids smartphones? Would they change their minds if they could count on teachers to help students discover the educational value to these devices?

Shouldn’t parents have the right to protect their teenagers from the insidious distraction and potential addiction to being hyper connected that come hidden inside of these elegant little devices?

What rules regarding smartphone usage do parents make and enforce in the home?

What about in civil society? Do smartphones need to be banned in certain contexts to protect the greater good? Does having such bans really curb usage or do they just force illicit use?

It’s clear to me that we are never going to be able to put the genie back in the bottle.

Should teachers hold firm and try to protect the sanctity of learning in an offline mode, the way we all learned in school?

Or should we approach smartphones with a more cautious optimism and try to harness their educational power while learning to live with the unintended consequences?

Now that I’ve written this, the English teacher in me is awakening. These questions sound like a classic work of literature.

We might benefit from reading Frankenstein as our choice for One School, One Book next year.

I welcome your thoughts!