The Education Frontier

One Teacher's Journey in Online Education

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

YouCanBook.Me (and no, it has nothing to do with getting arrested!)

A tool that helps me schedule more time with my students?  I’ll take it!

I’ve talked before about being very picky about the tools I introduce in my classroom.  They have to be really exceptional to get incorporated into my daily work habits.  This spring a colleague shared one that’s amazing and I wanted to share it with you.

One of the huge challenges of being an online teacher is helping students to know that you’re a real person also, with a real work schedule (not 24/7, unlike the course content).  While most problems can be solved via digital communications or my online course content, sometimes a student needs more.  They need structured ways to get personalized help at a time that works for them and for me.  One of the most amazing tools I’ve found for helping to schedule my f2f and phone time with students is called YouCanBook.Me.  It’s a free online tool that creates an interactive booking page for anyone to book an appointment with you.  The video below shows all their services:

While the tool wasn’t specifically created with teaching in mind, it adapts beautifully to this environment.  I simply set the times when I’m available to meet with students f2f or on the phone (usually about 5 hours per day) and set those times as “available” on YouCanBook.Me.  Then a student can use the tool to book an appointment with me at a time that works for both of us.  Since the tool can be embedded, I put it right onto a page in Schoology so it’s front and center as a part of the course content.  When a student books an appointment, I get an email and the appointment gets added to my Google Calendar.  (Genius, I tell you!)  In fact, don’t tell Google, but this tool has stolen my affections away from Google Calendar Slots.

Next step?  I want to share the tool with parents to that they too can have real-time access to set up appointments.  What a wonderful way to structure parent-teacher conferences!

The real goal?  Modeling professional communications with students and increasing their access to the help they need.  Let me know if you try it out!  I’d love to hear your experiences.

Graduation Inspiration

Last night I attended Jeffco Virtual’s graduation ceremony.  I love attending graduation and celebrating our student’s accomplishments.  Each year we ask a student who has a particularly remarkable story to speak at graduation, in addition to our valedictorian’s address.  This year’s graduation speech was remarkable.  One of my students shared his struggles and how the online classroom fit his unique needs.  He was articulate, thoughtful, and inspiring, moving much of the room.

It reminded me once again of the promise of this unique method of education.  Fully online classrooms are not the best fit for all students but, for some, they are an absolute life saver.  I’m proud to be a part of that work.

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?