Technology Tool for Increased Student Achievement

I can’t believe it is October and I haven’t yet touched Recipe for Time. As many of you know, I am teaching a few sections of English this year, and wow, what a wild ride it has been so far. I am blogging about my experiences as a way to process my thoughts and reflect. Recently, I posted information about using screencasting as an assessment tool. If you are interested, please read on. I have copied the post for you to read here in Recipe for Time:


Today, my students reviewed their first graded essays. I tried out a new way of assessing student work — screencasting. Instead of collecting printed papers, I asked students to write in Google Docs and then share their papers with me so I would also be able to view them online. Instead of scribbling marks in the margins of printed papers, I opened each student’s paper in Google Docs, highlighted text and inserted comments to clarify my thoughts, and then turned on the screen recorder (Jing) to record my voice as I scrolled through the paper and pointed to items with my mouse. Right after recording, I uploaded the finished recording to Jing’s companion hosting site, and then I simply copied and pasted the link to the recording directly into the Google Doc. It was slick like butter.

I waited while they listened to the feedback today. It was strange, watching my students as they stared at their screens, headphones covering their ears, no typing, just silence. After about four minutes, they began the next task, copying and pasting my reflection questions into the bottom of their docs, and then responding to those prompts as they reflected on their work and my feedback.

They were engaged, and I was impressed with their dedication to the task. As I watched them, I couldn’t help but remember the way that I used to provide feedback. Students would receive their graded papers, flip past the comments I had scribbled in the margin, glance at the final grade, and then forget all about it. Over the years, I used various strategies to get my students to reflect, some of them more effective than others. Still, I knew that the written comments were incomplete. I always knew there was more I wanted to convey to them about their writing, about how they had or had not created meaning for the reader.

Using screencasting for assessment has been one of my grand experiments. It took me about 10 minutes per paper, times 68 papers, so the last week and a half have been intense. If you’re doing the math, that’s over 11 hours of paper grading. If I am going to put in that kind of time for grading, I must see my students growing as writers. Period.

I “collected” the next round of papers today. “Collection” simply means that I told the students that 3:00 today was the cut-off time for any last minute edits. The finished work awaits my feedback in Google Docs, bu prior to grading this new batch, I just had to know how my students felt about the first round of assessment. I solicited responses via a Google Form.

All I can say is “wow.” Check out a few of the comments:

“I loved how in depth and personal jing allowed you to be in grading me.  Unlike years before where I was unclear on what teachers meant, I am not confused with this method.”

“I liked how personal and clear it was because it was like having a conversation with you.”

“I really liked the verbal feedback. It was like actually having a conference, which I find really productive.”

“I liked the verbal screencast because it also portrayed your emotions and reactions to our writing.”

“I like that i could hear you telling me what i did wrong. It was very helpful and now I know what i need to improve on for next time so I can keep improving my writing and growing.”

And my favorite…” I liked knowing that my essay got individual attention, individual feedback, and I feel like you cared about what I wrote.”

This is not to say that everyone was thrilled. A small number of students (actually, fewer than 5) said that they didn’t feel that the verbal comments were all that helpful. Two of those five said that it felt more hurtful to hear me say out loud what was wrong with their papers. I will be speaking with them individually to clarify my intentions. I don’t blame them for feeling hurt. Writing is personal, and feedback can feel like an attack. I have to minimize that.

Still, the vast majority of my students indicated a sincere appreciation for this assessment feedback. Simply put, it really worked for them. Their gratitude fueled me for the next round.

I love my job.


This post generated a bit of traffic on my blog. I have over 250 hits per day for several days. It was gratifying to me to see that others found the information useful. One man used Diigo to highlight and comment on the post, and because he made his notes public, I was able to read them as well. I thought he made a very important observation. He said, “Technology tool is NOT a time saver. The main goal for using the tool is not increased productivity by the teacher, but instead increased understanding by the student.” YES. This is so true. It is very important to realize that sometimes technology doesn’t save anyone any time — and that’s ok! We don’t just use these tools for expediency’s sake. We use these tools because they help kids. Period.

If you would like to meet with me to learn more about using screencasting as an assessment tool, please ask.

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Searching in Google Docs — Part Two!

Since I posted information about how to sort items in Google Docs, I have heard requests from several of you to keep these tips coming your way. Indeed, there is much more to say on the topic.
Check out the following questions, each answered with the search trick that will help you find your file fast:

Question: “I have been collecting student work via Google Docs. Now, I have a massive collection of files. I have a parent conference tonight, and I want to show the mom all of her son’s work. How can I get just his stuff?”

Answer: In your search box, type “” (obviously, insert their actual yssd email address). Google Docs will automatically spit back everything that this one particular user shared with you. And, for the record, this works with the word “” if you are looking for something you know you shared with someone else.

Question: “I forgot to name a doc, or if I did, I now have no idea what I named it. How can I find it again?”

Answer: In the search box, type some of the words that you would have used in the doc, then hit enter/return. If you are confident about specific wording, put the words in quotation marks.

Question: “I know I worked with a doc a long time ago — right around Christmas. Now, how do I find it again?”

Answer: In the search box, type “before:2011-1-01” and hit enter/return. Using “after:2011-1-01” works too, if you are looking for something you made after a certain date. I like to use this trick to find all the throw-away docs I made for a particular day of training, so I can trash them all in one swoop.

Question: “I assigned work, and all of my students followed the YS Naming Protocol. I asked them to use “Guatemala” as the key word. Is there a way to get back to all of these at once so I can grade them?”

Answer: Yes! And good job using that protocol, because trust me, it will make your life SO much easier! In the search box, type title:”Guatemala” and you will see all of the desired docs in a list. You may want to create a collection and then highlight all of these files and drag them into the collection. Click on the first one in the list, hold down your shift key, and click on the last one in the list. That will highlight all of them. Perhaps you want to select a few items in a list, but they’re not all in a row. Windows users, hold down the control key as you click on the ones you want. Mac users, use your command key (to the right and left of the space bar) to do the same.

If you have a particular search trick that you really like, feel free to share it in the comments. Go here if you want to read more about searching in Google Docs. Once you get used to the versatility of Google Docs, I think you will find that you like it better than the locked-in file storage of the past.

Icon by DryIcons.
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Searching in Google Docs (aka: where’d my file go?)

I experienced some weirdness yesterday with newly-created Google docs not showing up in my docs list when I looked for them moments after creation. I heard from others that this was not just happening to me. Google indicated that the issue was happening all over the place, just as of yesterday, and that they were expecting to have the issue fixed within a day. I checked this morning, and all of my docs are in my list, and a newly-created doc shows up immediately in the list. I hope the same is true for all of you. There are two tricks that you can always use to find docs, no matter how you have your list sorted:

1. Use the search box at the top of the Google docs list to find your doc. If you encourage (even require) your students to follow the file naming protocol, you can search by the keyword you told them to use. This is a great way to quickly list all the docs collected for a particular assignment. You can then even select them all and drag them into a collection where you can easily locate them in the future. For this reason, among others, I strongly encourage you to use the YS File Naming Protocol that we use at the HS (the MS version may be slightly different — Jamie?).

2. Apparently, if you type an asterisk (*) in your search box, docs that seemed to be missing will appear again. I tried it. It works. We’ll call it the Google Doc Zombie Trick.

Please keep in mind that there are many ways to sort your docs list. I didn’t like the new layout initially, either, but I have come to like it. Explore the options — there are many. You can sort using the descriptors in the left column. You can sort by type of document using the blue drop-downs at the top of the docs list. You can also sort by priority/title/etc. using the “sort by” drop down at the top right of the docs list. Docs can be dragged and dropped in collections, and can even exist in more than one collection at a time. Pay attention to the search box: if you have criteria listed there, your search will be limited to those criteria. You can click the “x” next to the search criteria to clear the limit you may have placed on your search. While all these options initially seem like overkill, they really do give you ultimate flexibility.

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German Class Visits the Holocaust Museum

Frau Falatovich’s German III students had the privilege of visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, thanks to generous funding from the Central Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Fund of The Foundation for Enhancing Communities in Memory of Sidney Slotznick. After they returned, they took two class periods to reflect on their experience and build a very quick website using Google Sites. They will share this website with their benefactor as a way of saying thank-you. I was incredibly impressed with the students, who understood the task, distributed responsibilities, and efficiently completed their work. I think the result is quite impressive. Please visit the website they built. The links to the various pages of the website are on the left, and you will get a sense for how they designed their product. Frau and I provided only minimal guidance; the product is truly the students’ creation. If you see Frau Falatovich, please extend your congratulations to her and her students.

Frau Falatovich German III

The front page of the students' site

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Pre-Service Teacher with 12 Years Experience

I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about how I want to run my classes next year. After several years as a tech coach, I have more than my fair share of anxiety about returning to the classroom. What if my ideas have messy results? I once again feel like a pre-service teacher, full of idealism, but a little afraid.

I want my classroom to be a welcoming, beautiful, comfortable place that students look forward to entering. I like what Bill Strickland has to say about the effect of beautiful surroundings on the folks who inhabit them (and please, please take time to watch the video at that link…it’s fantastic). I have a vision for the physical layout of my classroom next year. Picture round tables in the center of my room, with comfortable seating on the perimeter. As long as kids are working, they may sit where they feel comfortable. Will this happen? It’s unlikely, because of the following:

  1. I will have to share a room with another teacher, and chances are that he/she will not share my enthusiasm for progressive seating arrangements.
  2. I’d need to procure all items through donation. This morning, my father helped me transport a comfy chair into school, and I might be able to use this in a corner, but it’s only one chair. Money is tight.
  3. Even if I could obtain lots of tables and comfy chairs, the room is already full of rigid, 1950s-style desk/chair combos. I feel no love for this furniture. The bulky odd shape of each unit pretty much forces the teacher to put students into traditional rows. Some teachers arrange their desk/chair combos in semi-circles, but it’s awkward, and it makes the room hard to navigate. We’re stuck with this furniture, and this furniture is stuck in the Industrial Age. But we’re not preparing students for the Industrial Age anymore. Unfortunately, as I said before, money is tight, and these desk/chair combos are in great condition. We’re not going to see new furniture anytime soon.

So, I want to create a comfy classroom, but it’s going to be a challenge.

Perhaps more radical is my plan to destigmatize the cell phone. It won’t be a free-for-all, just as adult use shouldn’t be a free-for-all, but kids need to learn responsible use. About six years ago, I had to ask a babysitter to stop looking at her cell phone while I explained how to use the Epi-Pen on my daughter if she accidentally ingested a nut. I shouldn’t have had to ask. The teen should have already been told (and told and told) that this use of her personal device was offensive. We never asked her to babysit again. We pay really well, too. Her loss. Still, it troubled me to consider that no one had ever talked to her about responsible use. Parents ought to be doing this, but many are not. A teacher recently said to me, “Aly, it’s not our job. You show me where that is in the curriculum.” I’d like that teacher to show me all the inherent curriculum that is not actually written in our curriculum — stuff like respect and punctuality. Stuff like book cover installation.

And so, in lieu of parental involvement, I actually believe it is our job to teach kids about how not to be offensive with their phones. We don’t though, because we’re so blooming scared of cell phones. In my classroom, I hope to talk openly about these things:

  • When it’s OK to look at your phone: during a meeting with your boss, no. During the last minute of my class when everyone is packing up, sure. I expect something in return, though — your good behavior. If you are late or disrespectful, you may find that I don’t allow you to check your phone. If you want the privilege, you need to respect my boundaries.
  • How to handle that text message that you just now received: During my instruction, no. When I give the green light in the last minute of class, sure. After all, the beauty of a text message is that it is asynchronous communication. Unlike phone calls, text messages are an alert to get back to someone at your leisure, not theirs. Kids need to learn impulse control, so let’s teach it with the massively strong provocation of a text message alert.
  • When and how to silence a cell phone: As soon as you walk into a movie theatre, church, school, or faculty meeting, (ahem!) go on silent. In my class, go on silent AND turn off your vibration, too. That little rumble can be really annoying. Besides, a cell phone buzz is as powerful as Pavlov’s bell, and I don’t want my students to be salivating for their cell phones while I am trying to get them to shun passive voice in their essays. I would also like the kids to place their phones on the corner of their desks, screen side down. A pop-up alert is yet another Pavlovian bell, and we’re going to need strategies to help the kids learn how to stop all that cell phone salivation. Now, some will say that we are creating this issue by allowing the terrible devices in the first place. Seriously, though — the kids currently use these contraband devices in the bathroom stall, inside their lockers, within their pockets during class. Instead of pretending this isn’t an issue already, let’s do something about it.
  • What never to say when you text or write online: It’s amazing how bold, lewd, and crude kids will be in their posts. And right now, it’s Lord of the Flies out there (with thanks to Charlie for that analogy). They’re running wild on Social Media Island, and the adults are doing nothing but wringing our hands and lamenting how naughty these pesky kids are with their silly social media tools. Teens have always and will always do really dumb things, but we need to be giving them frequent scenarios that illustrate the terrible potential consequences. We tell them that drinking and driving could lead to violent death, but we don’t tell them how nasty text messages and status updates might come back to haunt them in their personal, academic, and professional lives. Yes, they will still do dumb things, but some of them might actually stop and think, too. We should be trumpeting our advice: If you wouldn’t say it out loud to your teacher, your priest, your rabbi, your pastor, your principal, your boss, your grandma, your boyfriend’s momma or your girlfriend’s daddy, don’t say it anywhere….ANYWHERE.

Aside from the need to educate kids about responsible social media use, we might reap some benefit from allowing managed access to these things at school. An interesting article in The New Yorker hypothesizes that banning and restricting access for adults actually decreases our overall productivity in the workplace. Read the article. The part about the coffee break was striking. What if we give kids “tech breaks” now and then? A minute or two of access might just boost their overall productivity.

My classroom might not be as visionary as the one in my head right now, and I might find that my ideas work better in theory than in practice, but I’m still reaching. I’ll give it a try. If my idea turns out to stink, I’ll change my mind. And if my idea turns out to work really well, I hope other people will change their minds.

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Fair Use Made Eas(ier)

YSSD students learn how to incorporate copyrighted material in a research paper. This is a very good thing. Beyond their formal research papers, however, students often create PowerPoint presentations, Google Sites, and Glogs. They search for images online, drop them into their work, and never stop to consider if they have the rights to do this. In truth, they often do have the legal right to use material without permission thanks to Fair Use guidelines, but they are not entitled to use the material without giving credit to its source. It is our responsibility to teach them how to properly use others’ material.

The Wikipedia article on Fair Use indicates that Fair Use is typically provided where the use of material is for “commentary, criticism, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship.” Four factors guide the use of copyrighted material. The first is the purpose and character of the use. For example, is the material being used to make money? Or to instruct? Next, one considers the nature of the work itself. If it is useful for the public good, for example, the work is more likely to qualify for Fair Use. The third factor is the amount of the work being used. I still occasionally hear someone tell students that they may use “no more than 30 seconds or 10%” of a song in a presentation, but this is only a guideline, not law. One must weigh the portion used against the whole and determine if the amount is appropriate. The final factor is the impact on commercial value of the work. If the use of the work will prevent the original owner from profit, the use is much less likely protected by Fair Use. As you can see, Fair Use is highly interpretive. In fact, when these issues come to legal blows, each case is decided on its individual circumstances. Copyright and Fair Use are not summarized in tidy and easy-to-follow rules.

Teachers must consistently urge students to consider their use of copyrighted material. They must also be crystal clear: Fair Use is not synonymous with undocumented use. When the use of copyrighted material is protected by Fair Use, the user is not required to obtain prior permission from the owner. The user is still absolutely obligated to provide attribution. This can range from an informal indication of the source (such as hyper-linking to the source in a blog entry) to the very formal application of MLA or APA citation in a research paper. We should show students the full range of options, but stress the bottom line: If you take a bite, CITE.

The Center for Social Media provides additional comprehensive materials about Fair Use. A friend also recently brought to my attention materials from the Copyright Advisory Office at Columbia University. The Office, under its Director Dr. Kenneth D. Crewes, provides a very nice Fair Use Check list. I wanted to share this with you, so I emailed Dr. Crewes to ask if I may have permission to post it here. He graciously granted permission, and suggested that you may find additional resources at their website for understanding and teaching Fair Use. The Checklist would be an excellent addition to resources listed in Moodle.

Please investigate the resources provided here. Let’s all work together to help our students to better understand their rights AND their responsibilities.

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Face to Face — A New Option in Moodle! And a Surprise, Too!

Screen shot 2011-03-08 at 9.57.56 AMHey all you Moodlers! We have a new option for you to use in Moodle — Face to Face! The module allows you, the teacher, to set up available time frames, such as research paper conference slots or group presentation days and times. Students may then click on the scheduling module, see the available times, and then reserve a spot! It’s easy to use.

This reminds me of the transition that we made a few years ago, when we switched from paper computer lab sign-outs in the work room to the online reservation system. Many of you have indicated how much you like being able to reserve a lab from the comfort of your home on a Sunday night. Let’s give students the same anytime/anywhere access!

If you are interested in using Face to Face, please drop me a line. I will meet with you and walk you through your first set-up.

So, what’s the surprise? We have also added a new spam-filtering feature to WordPress, our blogging platform. If you post a comment below, you will notice that there is now a puzzle that you must put together to prove to WordPress that you are human. This is a twist on the strange, wavy “captcha” decoders that you often see on websites (I think this is easier, but Vincent informs me that some of them are tough for folks like him who are color blind…if you are color-blind, please grab a nearby color-sighted friend to help you). Please feel free to post a comment on this post so you can experience the new Captcha puzzle (you must not be logged into WordPress yourself when you do this — no one who is logged into WordPress will see the puzzle because we already know you’re human). If you would like me to activate this feature on your YS blog, please ask, and I will take care of it!

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I work with AMAZING People!

We need to celebrate each other more often. I am bursting with pride right now, pride in the work that my colleagues do. Times are tough, money is tight, PSSAs loom on the dreary March horizon, but let’s all pause for a minute and remember that York Suburban teachers are some of the hardest-working, innovative, dedicated, caring and AMAZING educators out there!

I have evidence (hey, one could even call this a data-driven post!). Have you checked out our public listing of blogs lately? I recently viewed this list. I clicked on a link to see what was going on in our blogs. I was IMPRESSED. I clicked another. And another. And another! And on and on….

Some teachers are posting daily class recaps, complete with notes and assignments. Others make announcements. Many include pictures. A few even include STUDENT work and student blog posts! I want to link to specific blogs to prove my point, but I don’t want to embarrass anyone by specifically pointing out their work (or offend anyone for not linking to them!).

Surely the students and parents (not all, but many!) utilize and appreciate this effort to stay connected. These educators are brave and confident folks, who take the time to maintain a transparent classroom — a classroom that allows the public to peek inside. We teachers need to stop being so secretive about the hard and important work that we do. These blogs stand as examples of one way that we can let the world know that we’re serious about educating children, and we strive to be connected and available.

Sometime in the next week, make sure you check out your colleagues’ work. (Hint: Right-click on links in the list to have the option to open each link in a new tab. Open a bunch in new tabs, and then view and close each tab — we’ll call it a Trojan Tab Tour.)

If you are as impressed as I am, please make sure you COMMENT on one of their blog posts to tell them that you think what they are doing is fantastic. IT IS. And they should hear that!

Way to go, York Suburban! CHEERS! I couldn’t work with better people!

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BIG Reminder — Don’t Make This Mistake with Google Forms

I’m sitting here with Kevin Willson, and we are talking about Google Forms. Many of you have already discovered the many ways that this technology can save you time and hassle. Just remember this one very important thing: You have to uncheck the box at the top of the form as you are creating it. It looks like this:


Our apologies that we can’t make “unchecked” the default setting. This setting is on Google’s end, and it is beyond our control. Some districts configure their Google Apps domains so that this feature actually collects student log-in information. At York Suburban, for various “techie” reasons, we decided to create two domains (one for teachers and one for students). We gain a lot with this configuration, but alas — this feature in Google forms will not work. We suspect that Google will come up with a solution at some point, but for now, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

If you forget to uncheck the box, you’ll hear about it soon enough. Your students will get to a log-in page when they click on your link to the form, but Google will not accept their log-in. You’ll soon hear cries of “This isn’t working! I can’t get in! This thing is broken!” If this happens, just go into your spreadsheet, select “Form” in the menu bar, then “Edit Form” and then uncheck that box and save. Ask the students to refresh their browsers and try again — it will then work.

So, you’ve committed this pesky little reality to memory. So, why and when would you use a Google Form?

  • To collect contact info on the first day of school/semester
  • To assess student understanding in self-grading homework (my daughter did math HW this way last year)
  • To quiz students as a bell ringer or ticket out the door
  • To collect book numbers
  • To review — students can create forms and share them with each other or the whole class
  • To track progress in a struggling student
  • To poll students on their preferences for a project
  • Etc. etc. etc.!

Please remember that you don’t need to sign out an entire computer cart to use Google Forms regularly in your classroom. If you place the link in Moodle (or even embed the actual form IN Moodle), you can assign the work to be completed outside of class. Just remember to give more than one night for the students to access a computer. You can also provide “stations” in the room and allow kids to rotate through the Google Form station.

If you are interested in getting started and would like some help the first time around, just ask!

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Keys to the Kingdom

Our lives have moved online. Babies born today enter the world with their own digital identity already well on its way. Much of this is beyond our control, but much of it we do control. Many Americans do at least a portion of their banking online, whether it is to pay a bill or just check a balance. There are laws to protect you if someone hacks your credit card account, but what if someone cleared out your checking account? In our jobs, we have a legal responsibility to protect school and student data. And email? Well, for most of us, email provides the keys to the kingdom. If someone can get into our email, they can reset passwords in all sorts of online places where we work, socialize, and do business.

How protected are these accounts?

Passwords matter. They protect our data. Aside from locking our doors and requiring a password to wake up our computers (both of which are easy to do, but all too often not done), using strong passwords is our best defense against unwelcome intrusion.

This infographic provides a great look at just how careless many are with passwords. Hackers are bright people, and they have smart software that can quickly crack a bad password. Do everything you can to stop them.

The method outlined in the infographic is my preferred method. It’s so simple:

  1. Pick a sentence. “I was hired at York Suburban in 2002.”
  2. Mash it up: “iwhaysi2002”
  3. Mash it up some more: “20Iwh@ysi02”

Notice that the final version is 11 digits long, with upper and lower case letters, numbers, a special character, and no discerable word in any language.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you. I forget passwords all the time. That’s why I needed a system to remember them.

  1. In a safe place, I have a paper that lists a whole bunch of sentences. The sentences correspond with the passwords, but any thief would be hard-pressed to know what the heck that paper means if he ever found it.
  2. I made a Google form, and I bookmarked it. The form asks three questions: “What site? What username? What reminder?” The reminder is a key word that corresponds to one of my password sentences.
  3. When I make an account, I click on this form and fill in the fields. My answers automatically go into a spreadsheet that I also have bookmarked. I pull up this spreadsheet all the time to help me remember passwords. I keep this spreadsheet private, but in reality, anyone could look at it. All they would discover is a list of cryptic reminders like “ella” and “j calls me.” These are not passwords. They are reminders that get my mind to the right “sentence.”

One last thing. Not all accounts are created equal. Some sites are pretty unimportant, and I reuse the same password several times for such sites. Some sites are super important, and they get their own special only-use-it-here password. The super important ones are email (the keys to the kingdom!), banking, and facebook. Why facebook? Well, many, many sites are now allowing users to sign-in via facebook. That’s a powerful password! I also change passwords on a regular basis. My bank of sentences is always growing. I have even retired a few sentences! (I recently said goodbye to “michael” — the reminder which got me to one lovely sentence about my husband).

I do lock my door. I do put my computer to sleep before I walk away from it, and I require a password to wake it. I do take passwords seriously. Am I safe? Not entirely, but I am doing everything I can to prevent assault.

If you would like to have some help getting your passwords in order and system in place, please ask. I would be so happy to help.

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