The Education Frontier

One Teacher's Journey in Online Education

The Education Frontier - One Teacher's Journey in Online Education

Virtual Pockets

Unfortunately during the school year there is very limited time for professional reading and that’s just the time when I most need encouragement and new ideas!  Lately I’ve been attempting to be more deliberate with a dedicated time each week to focus on professional reading.

One of the ways that I’m doing that is through a tool called Pocket.  This is one of those tools that’s been around for a while but has the potential to be really powerful if we use it regularly.  Basically, it gives you a virtual pocket to stick links, videos, and articles in so that you can come back to them later.  Before moving to Pocket I would spend 3 or 4 minutes on articles as I came across them and then mentally “move on” because I knew I had to get to the rest of my to-do list.  Now, as I find articles in my update feeds or Twitter updates or even Pinterest, I’m adding them to my Pocket account instead (usually using the handy-dandy Pocket add-in on Chrome).  Then I can come back to them when I have time to really peruse the content and think about how to apply it in my world.  It’s been a minor shift in my work flow that has had major positive ramifications.

What about you?  How do you make time for professional reading?

Trello for Time Management!

My absolute favorite tool lately is called Trello.  Trello is a super flexible time management/project management tool.  You can set up boards for different areas of your life like Work, Personal, etc. and then add lists within those boards.  (See the image below)

Trello Boards

My Work board includes lists for ongoing projects, next action lists, someday projects, and done.  It’s so rewarding to get to move those little cards around and to make sure that I’m keeping my daily to-do lists in line with my overarching values and priorities.

Trello Board

I’ve also been using Trello to manage some “shared tasks” with my children.  I homeschool my kids so within Trello each child has a board and that board is shared with them.  I then assign them cards for a weekly to-do list.  They move those cards from “to-do” over into their “Today” list at the start of each school day and then move them again to “done” when they finish a task.  It’s beautiful!  They know they need to complete about 6 cards per day to keep up for the week and more if they’d like to have a light day at the end of the week.  The kids are accessing via their Amazon Kindle tablets and I’m able to oversee their work via the web interface.  AH-mazing!

Now, of course, my brain is spinning on how I could use Trello with my online students.  Surely we could turn it into a powerful learning tool?

Time Tips for Online Students

A reader this week asked about what specific time tips I share with online students.  What a great tie-in to a project I’ve been working on this year!  I’ve been trying to add regular posts to my classes that specifically focus on how to be a better time manager and a better online student.  The feedback from students has been really positive.  I know that too often we assume students come to us with time management skills and it’s not always true, as I mentioned in a post earlier this year.

It occurred to me today that those time tips might be helpful for you all to see too!  (And maybe share with your students?)  Below is a Google doc that I use as an archive of all the time tips I share with my students.  Feel free to share.  It’ll continue to update as I add additional time tips to my classes.

The Power of a Spreadsheet

My favorite teaching strategy in the last few months is so simple I’m almost afraid to share it on this blog.  However, as with so many things, the simplest strategies seem to have the most impact and this one has been amazing.  It’s a spreadsheet!

In teaching online, there are so many different avenues of communications that it can be overwhelming.  Texts, emails, Schoology messages, and phone calls are all part of my regular communication routine.  Add in communications with parents and other stakeholders in a student’s life and it gets downright confusing.  (What did I talk to Johnny about last week?  Did I ever call his mom about that?)  While I had always kept records of these communications, I had never done it in a centralized place and, thus, when I needed to update myself on a student’s status, I had to check at least three different systems to see what we had said about what and when we said it.

Enter the spreadsheet, an online teaching super hero.  I’m now keeping a basic communications spreadsheet for all of my classes.   On that sheet, I keep the student’s names and contact information.  I also have a column to keep track of special needs such as 504’s, IEPs, and health concerns.  There’s also a column for note-taking on accommodations, special situations, etc.  But that’s not the powerful part (although it’s pretty cool).  The cool part is that I add a column every few days to keep track of communications.  For each communication I have with a student, I make a note of the type of communication and the date.   Then I use the “notes” section of a cell to jot down a quick summary of what was said.  Using conditional formatting, the cells are color-coded by what form of communication we used.  (You can see an example below.)  I also export my grades once a week and add a column with an updated grade to the spreadsheet.



It’s amazing to look at a record of all of my communications over the last several months lined up with the student’s current grades.  I can see which communications I’ve tried with each student and which method has gotten the most success.  I can also see at a glance which students may need some TLC.  They’re the ones who haven’t heard from me enough or whose grades are dropping.  I can say, hands down, that my communications are more effective than they’ve ever been due to this very simple tool.

Even more powerful?  The option to sort.  Want to find out how my 504 students are doing?  I sort by that column to see all of them at once.  Want to make sure I’ve sent some praise to my students with A’s?  I sort by their latest grade column to see what I’ve sent them in the last week.  It’s a life saver.  Not only that, but it’s saving my poor brain some stress.  Keeping all that information locked up in there was not going well!

What about you?  I’d love to hear how you’re keeping track of communications.

Google Calendar Appointment Slots (almost like magic!)

This week I’m using Google Calendar to set up phone call appointments with my students who are currently in the 30-69% range in class.  These are the “bubble students” who, with the right encouragement, will be able to pass for the semester.  These phone calls are hopefully encouraging to them and also give them a chance to connect with me.

If you’ve never used Google Calendar’s appointment slots feature, you’re in for a treat.  It’s super easy and a great way to be efficient with your phone call time.  Here’s how you do it:

First, decide on a block of time that you’d like to offer for student appointments.  Go to Google Calendar and click on that block of time.  At the top of the screen, choose “Appointment Slots” instead of “Event.”

appointment slots

From there, Google will give you the option to offer appointments in 5-45 minute slots (or a custom number).  I like to use 30-minute slots since it gives me flexibility if a call goes long.  Also, I can use any extra time between calls to look up a student’s grade and prep for the next conference.  Then you can add all the details such as if you’ll be using a phone call or a Google hangout for the meeting, etc.

On the appointment details page, Google will give you a custom link that you can send to students.  That link allows them to sign up for available appointments on your calendar.  When they follow the link, they’ll see something like the image below, with buttons they can use to choose an appointment time.  (And blocked out areas for those appointments that have already been claimed.)

Appointment slots student view


And voila!  Easy appointments set up with a lot of students all at once.  One bonus to using this method for setting up appointments is that Google Calendar takes care of reminding the students that they have an appointment coming up.  Also, for those students who are on the bubble of passing, having that appointment on the calendar encourages them to turn in a lot of late work.  That way, they have a better grade by the time we get to our meeting!  Students love the flexibility and I love that my calendar is efficiently organized.  If you want more details on how to use appointment slots, Google has a great blog post on how to do it.

Time Management–a skill we forgot to teach

Last Thursday I spent the day working with students in our Instructional Support days.  These are special intervention days for students who are failing 3 or more classes.  It’s always an interesting (and challenging) day.

This time, as I was driving in to work, I started brainstorming some ideas for how to help these students.  Since I’m a huge fan of efficiency and time management strategies, I thought I might start the day by teaching some of my favorite time management strategies.  I enthusiastically stood in front of the group and talked about two strategies I use most: Most Important Things and Eat Your Frog.

Most Important Things is where you take your to-do list for the day and identify the three most important things on the list.  Then those things get done first so that, if your day doesn’t go as you planned, you at least accomplished the most critical tasks.

Eat Your Frog is a strategy I learned from Tsh Oxenreider in One Bite at a Time.  It’s from a quote by Mark Twain where he says:


The idea is simple.  You look at your to-do list and choose the thing you least want to do.  Then, you “eat your frog” and do that thing first.  That way, it’s off the list and nothing worse can happen all day.

As I explained the strategy, there were lots of head-nods and kids who were engaged.  That was a positive start!  Then they all tried out the strategy and got to work for the day.

Here’s where the trouble started…  As I walked around to check out their lists of most important things and frogs, the lists were troubling.  Instead of the very specific things I expected to see like this:

  • Complete English essay
  • Do assignment 1.43 in Algebra
  • Take WW2 quiz in history

I saw very, very vague goals like this:

  • English
  • Math
  • History

Oy!  No wonder they’re having a hard time getting organized and focused!  I quickly realized I had put the cart before the horse.  Our struggling students have no idea how to begin to write a to-do list, much less organize it.  Even the simple strategy of writing down a to-do list requires very careful, focused instruction.  Things like writing down very specific tasks don’t come naturally to them.  They need my help and guidance.  And not just the struggling students.  They probably all need that guidance because where, exactly, in the curriculum does time management fall?  Nowhere.

So, starting this week, I’m going to post a time management tip every Thursday in my classes.  If I reach even 40% of my class and help them learn how adults manage multiple tasks at once, I will have made a huge difference.  Now the trouble is…what tip should I start with?

Connected Educators Need Connected Parents

This is a cross-post of a blog I did for the Jossey-Bass Education blog during October for Connected Educator month.

Any educator will tell you that having children changes who you are as a teacher.  All of a sudden, those precious bodies in your classroom are more than just students.  They’re somebody else’s babies and you are impressed anew with Parent-teacher-Conferencethe responsibility of being trusted to educate them.  You know how much you love your own children and you have new respect for a parent’s role in building an education.

As my children have gotten older and moved into elementary school, I’m also learning what it means to take on the role of a parent with children in school.  I  am sometimes lost in the bureaucracy that is our school systems.  I  wonder what exactly is happening in my child’s classroom and I get lost in well-meaning systems that I’m not trained to use.  And if I’m lost, what about all those other non-teacher parents, even the ones from my classroom?  They must be lost too!

An encounter with a parent recently highlighted this trouble.  I teach in an online school where our student information system doesn’t share grades with our learning management system (LMS).  As a result, we post weekly grades in the student information system but all of our detailed grading information is locked away in the LMS.  I received this email from a parent.  “I’m trying to check grades using the Parent Portal but you only seem to have one grade in there.  Am I missing something?”  Here we are with a ton of information at parent’s fingertips.  They have their own logins to the LMS.  They can not only see the student’s grades, they can also see every single class activity, upcoming work, due dates, and grading comments.  It’s a wealth of information!  However, that information is only helpful if we actually teach our parents to use it.  Otherwise, it’s a wasted system.

So, this month as we consider what it means to be a connected educator, let’s also consider what it means to connect parents.  Most schools have great systems in place that help parents open the doors to our classrooms but those systems are only useful if we give parents the keys to the door, training them to use the systems to support their students.  Something as simple as a tutorial video or a newsletter can make a world of difference.  We’ll all feel more connected as a result and our children will get a better education.

Want to hear more?  I give more tips about how to teach in an online and blended classroom in my book, Teaching on the Education Frontier: Instructional Strategies for Online and Blended Classrooms.

Keystone Habits of Online Students

habitI’ve recently been reading the awesome book by Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit:  Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.  He cites some amazing studies about how habits develop and are reinforced.

One of the key ideas the book mentions is the idea of a keystone habit.  These are habits that tend to lead to improvements in other areas of your life.  For instance, people who exercise also tend to eat better.  Exercise is a keystone habit for other healthy behaviors.  Also, families who eat dinner together tend to have kids that are more successful (and less likely to do drugs).  It’s not that the time at the dinner table automatically makes kids immune to peer pressure but somehow that keystone habit of eating together leads to other habits that create successful kids.

The idea has me thinking.  What are keystone habits of students, especially online students?  Here are a few I think could be keystones:

  • Having a dedicated workspace for school and a set time to work at it.
  • Using a planner or a to-do list on a daily basis.
  • Having a regular schedule for school and what classes are on what days.
  • Conferencing with a caring adult (parent or teacher) on a weekly basis about what you’re learning

What do you think?  What are some other keystones for successful students?

Time to Reflect and the Quandary of a Teacher Leader

It’s summertime! Finally, teachers have a chance to breathe, reflecting on the past year and regrouping for the year to come. I’m always amazed by the kind of thinking and planning I’m able to do over the summer. This year, I’m spending a lot of time reading Jim Burke’s awesome book, The Common Core Companion (Grades 9-12).  Burke makes the Common Core standards far more accessible and shows you ways to apply them.  I especially appreciate the layout of the standards in this book so that I can clearly see in one glance what a standard would look like in my English courses vs what it might look like in my history courses.  I’m definitely thinking through the implications for my classroom next year (more on that in a future post!).

But all this reflection has also gotten me thinking about the issue of time as it relates to teachers.  During the school year, there simply isn’t time to do my best thinking.  I rush from one task to another, following the trajectory I set at the beginning of the year, but unable to stop and reflect as much as I would like. It’s a real problem of practice.  I guarantee that our teachers would do better work and be more reflective practitioners if they had the time required to plan, reflect, research, and create.

Beyond that, there are lots of opportunities out there for teachers to get involved in public policy debates, fellowships, research opportunities, etc. but the average teacher simply doesn’t have the time to tackle it all.  I’m often frustrated when I have to turn down an amazing opportunity because I simply can’t spare the time away from my students.  It’s a true conundrum.  The best teachers need to be involved in those sorts of opportunities and have their voices heard by those who make decisions about education.  But, ironically, the best teachers can’t be involved because they’re busy working with students, where they’re also desperately needed.

Thoughts?  How do we ensure that reflection and teacher leadership opportunities are a regular part of the school year and not just part of the summer break?  Beyond that, how do we help teacher leaders to get involved in public policy and research without sacrificing their classrooms?

Here are a few pie-in-the-sky ideas I have off the top of my head:

  • Provide sabbatical opportunities for teachers much as professors have.  Let them take a semester to work on a problem of practice or a fellowship without fear of losing their income or their position.  This isn’t a paid vacation.  It’s letting a teacher focus on a problem with intention and having them create a final project/product that can significantly impact the organization and/or the profession.
  • Provide teacher leadership opportunities that don’t involve leaving the classroom completely.  Perhaps a teacher would like to be involved in creating curriculum but, in not working with students, they lose touch with the reality of the classroom.  Instead, give them an opportunity to be a 0.5 teacher and a 0.5 curriculum developer, offering the best of both worlds.
  • Value personal professional development in the evaluation process.  Go beyond adding it to a rubric. Instead, offer incentives such as a non-student contact days, a stipend, or even a pay increase for teachers that undertake meaningful professional development or public policy projects.

I don’t think that workload is ever a problem we can solve completely.  The profession of teaching will always be a bit overwhelming because of the nature of the work.  But let’s find some ways to help teachers be the best they can be year-round and let’s put the best voices in the room with policy makers to truly make a difference in the way we educate kids.

A Student’s Perspective

Below is another interview I did this week, this time with one of my students.  She is writing her senior research paper on the costs and benefits of online learning.  I thought her questions were insightful for all of us to consider.


1. Have you taught at a brick and mortar public school? If so, how did it compare to being an online teacher?

I taught in a brick and mortar school for 7 years before moving into the online high school full time.  In many ways, there are a lot of similarities.  I still do a lot of planning and grading.  I still spend a lot of time building relationships with students and encouraging them.  However, taking the classroom management factor out of my job does change the work significantly.  I’m always working one-on-one with students and that’s a completely different experience than managing 30 students at once.  I feel like, in some ways, I wind up getting to know my students better on a personal level than I did when I taught face to face.

2.What type of schooling have you observed to be more beneficial for students?

I very much believe that we should have lots of different school options for lots of different types of students.  I can’t say that one is more beneficial than another.  However, I can say that for some students, online classes are a much better fit for them and their learning style.  However, for others, it’s not and they need to be in f2f courses.  We are all very different and to say that one approach will ever fit for everyone is a fallacy.

3.Did you ever attend online schooling in high school?

Online classes weren’t available to me when I was in high school.  Online learning was really in its infancy then and it wasn’t readily available anywhere.  (Yes, I’m not that old but neither is online learning!)  However, I did take two “correspondence courses.”  They were basically classes where the school sent you a textbook and a series of assignments.  You completed the assignments and then sent them back to the school for grading.  I needed that option since I graduated from HS a year early and it was actually a good fit for me.  I enjoyed learning on my own.

4.What do you notice about procrastination of online students?

Procrastination in online learning is definitely an issue.  However, it’s not an issue that’s confined to online options.  F2F students have just as much of a problem with procrastination.  Come to think of it, humans in general have an issue with procrastination!  The big difference for online students is that, since you’re not in a class each day, there’s no one in your face reminding you of upcoming deadlines.  I try to approximate that experience with regular texts, emails, calls, updates, etc. but if a student isn’t logging in or connecting with me, then they can fall behind due to procrastination.

5.Do you think check in sessions are necessary for students success? If so, why and are they more essential in specific subjects?

I think that education is multi-faceted.  We learn by interacting with the material and creating new things out of it.  But, we are often motivated to learn by our relationships with the people in our class and with our teacher.  That’s why I ask my students to have a check-in session with me.  Many are already texting and/or calling me regularly anyway but for those who aren’t, it gives us an opportunity to connect.  I hope that our connection can help motivate them if they find they’re struggling or feeling discouraged.  They know I’m there to help and they know how to find me.  I also find that during a check in session, students will ask questions that they might not otherwise reach out to ask.  I think regular check-ins with the teacher are essential in every subject.  I can’t think of a subject where building a relationship with the teacher isn’t important.

6.Has online education changed at all since you started teaching? If so, how has it changed and is it a significant change?

I think online education has gained greater acceptance since I started teaching.  We’re seeing universities that are very favorable to online learners since they know that these are students who excel at being self-directed learners, a crucial skill for college and for the workforce.  I also get fewer complaints from students when they find that my courses are not “easy.”  In the beginning, many students took online classes thinking it was an easier option.  I think that myth is getting dispelled and students are coming to us realizing that the work they will do is equivalent to a f2f course, just in a different, more flexible format.

It’s also changed because of the trend of “blended” learning.  That’s where f2f and online options are blended in a school.  Blended learning is growing rapidly and that’s exciting to see.

7. Do you think teaching through the internet is more or less time consuming that teaching face to face?

It’s actually more time consuming but the workload is distributed in a different way.  I’m inundated with messages, assignments, and texts from students 24-7 so in many ways work tries to invade my regular life.  When I taught f2f, those interactions with students were limited to 8-3 M-F.  It’s a very different kind of workload.  But, since the workload is flexible, it feels different.  I may work for a few hours and then go take a walk for an hour to de-stress and refocus.  That’s an option I never had when I taught f2f and it makes the time commitment more manageable.  (I think my online students would say the same thing about their own workload!)

8.What are some challenges that you’ve experienced as an online high school teacher?

I work with a very different population in the online classroom than I ever did f2f.  My students now tend to be more at-risk, struggling students than the high schools I worked in before.  That can be really rewarding when I help a student reach graduation who might not otherwise get there.  At the same time, it can be really discouraging when I’m not able to reach a student and they drop out or fail to earn a credit in my class.  We’re all products of the complex fabric of our lives but sometimes, as a teacher, I feel like a failure when one of my students fails, even if the reason for their failure had little to do with me or my class.

The other challenge is the one I mentioned above about work trying to invade your life.  With any teaching position, there’s always more work to be done.  When I’m working from home, it’s hard to know when to stop and just live life (read a book, play with my kids, etc.).  I’ve had to learn to be really careful and make a clear stopping point for work each day.  Otherwise I could easily be a workaholic and burn out.  Then I’m no good for my students!

9.How do you feel about tests being graded automatically by a computer?

I think it depends on the test!  If I make a test for one of my classes where it will be mostly auto-graded by Schoology, then I spend a LOT of time working on the design of the test.  I want it to have really great questions that will discern who knows the material and who doesn’t.  That’s a much more complex task than it seems at first.  You want the questions to be difficult enough that they clearly show who knows the material at a higher level but easy enough that if a student read the material and processed it, they can answer every question correctly.  I also spend a lot of time trying to create questions that require critical thinking, not just basic fact knowledge.  So, all that to say that I’m ok with a computer grading a test automatically if the test was designed well in the first place, which requires the careful design of a good teacher.  Also, I almost always include 1-2 questions that require me to grade them by hand (short answer questions usually) so that I have a good understanding of what my students do and don’t know.

10.Who gets the most out of online school, part time or full time learners?

As I said above, I think it depends on the learner.  In general, my part time students tend to perform better in my classes but I think that’s because they’re already in the rhythm of school and my class becomes an extension of that rhythm.  However, I also have very successful full time online learners because the courses are a good fit for their learning style.  Every student is different and it’s the responsibility of the parents and the students to choose and help design a learning environment that works best for them.  I’m so grateful that we have that opportunity to be flexible for our students!