The Most Important Educators

An elementary school teacher’s struggle to get on the same page with all of her parents.

GUEST COLUMN | by Danielle Fugazzi

CREDIT Danielle FugazziI chose to be a teacher to help children be successful at school so they get the best possible start in life. Despite my best efforts in the classroom, I know that was only half the opportunity. Parents are the first and most important educators for their kids, so I always strived to get them involved in my classroom to support my teaching, and to build a strong and thriving community.

But guess what? As perhaps many of you have also experienced, I was challenged to reach some of them, to channel their efforts to the right kinds of engagement, and frankly, to even build trust with a few. The biggest issue in my classroom over the years was that parents were not checking folders or getting all the information and extra work that I would send home. So, I used to have the same parents involved over and over, struggling to get the support and involvement that I, and my students, needed from the rest of them. All I would get from many were merely complaints: “I didn’t see this information” or, “I didn’t know I was supposed to do this with my child”.

These tools either created more work for me, were hard to use, or parents simply ignored them. As a result, after all these efforts—nothing seemed to improve.

I knew there was a better way and tried to find a tool that could help me achieve my objective to involve parents. In the four years I’ve been teaching kindergarten class in New York City, I went from one solution to the other—without clear results. These tools either created more work for me, were hard to use, or parents simply ignored them. As a result, after all these efforts—nothing seemed to improve.

This past year, I was invited to be a part of a pilot program, and I took another chance. I had my doubts going in, given my prior experience, but once I saw the platform I was very intrigued by its simplicity, very intuitive design, and fun feel.

What I discovered over the past year of using it completely changed my perception of what is possible and truly transformed my classroom. I build a close-knit community with my parents and kept myself very organized with a system that consistently delivers great parent engagement.

I used to think that parent engagement was a lot of work because of all the follow up e-mails I needed to send to get parents’ attention, weekly e-mails I used to write on the weekends to update parents, and the need to remind all parents at the pick-up about some important events. It was not only taking a lot of my time, but occupied a lot of my attention and mindshare.

I found that such a platform—I use ClassTag, which is free for parents and teachers—makes it easy to put a system in place, improve engagement and save time along the way. All of the families in my class signed up within days. I had parents thanking me for this new way of communication, one even told me, “Now I feel like a better parent. I always know what is going on and it is so easy to get involved.”

There are so many features I love, here are my favorite three:

  1. One-click signups for field trips, parent teacher conferences, events in the classroom and in the school community. Parents bring materials into the classroom that the teacher requests through the To-Do List. It is so easy and it automatically reminds them without the teacher having to follow up!
  1. Week at a Glance is another great feature that helps me with my parent communication! I don’t have to rewrite any of the information I would normally write in a weekly email to parents because it is already done for me! It automatically pulls all upcoming events, I can add a custom message and parents get beautifully designed weekly summary in their inboxes every Friday.
  1. Stats are simply amazing! I know exactly which families have been participating and engaged with the classroom. If I see that parents haven’t been participating I can always reach out right from the stats page or make sure I can select them once they do volunteer.

Now, as the new school year is starting up, I am very excited to use my favorite app/platform with my new class because I know we are not only going to achieve excellent results, but the parents are going to love it!

Here is how you can get started to produce results for yourself this year:

  1. Set expectations with parents at back-to-school night or as soon as you have parents’ e-mails that your chosen platform is the way you are going to organize your classroom communications.
  1. Add upcoming events to your platform before the beginning of the year so that you have the system in place before the year gets busy: Pin announcement to welcome parents, Days off, Events that you already know about and To-do requests for any assignments e.g., reading logs, sight words assignments and whatever else you need parents to do.
  1. Set aside 30 minutes on Wednesday or Thursday to add events and activities for next week and beyond, add custom message for weekly summary.
  1. Remember to share moments about what you are learning and how parents can support you and fun pictures from the field trips.
  1. Monitor engagement with Stats to see how your parent community is responding

This is what got me the results last year, and I am very excited to share my lessons with you. It’s truly transformational—I have never seen this level of parent support before. I’m glad I persisted and gave it another shot. Are you ready to find and create a system that consistently gets ideal parent engagement?

Danielle Fugazzi is a first-grade teacher at Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City.

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Crash Course for K-12 Websites

Focusing on efficiency and effectiveness.

GUEST COLUMN | by Ralph Lucci

CREDIT Behavior DesignThis summer, my 10-year-old nephew is enrolling in a “Website Design” class at our local museum’s summer camp program. I’ll be tagging along to gauge how he and his peers prioritize and shape their personal interests and how they’ll share and solve for each other’s experiences.

Like many kids his age, he’s already a masterful navigator of all things digital – fluently moving about interfaces on his iPad from screen to screen and application to application. It’s effortlessly second nature, and he often plays the role of teacher, imparting his expertise and intuition upon adults.

The K-12 “website” of the future feels more like a personalized, one-on-one engagement engine centered around the relevant interests of its unique users.

He’s not necessarily the primary audience of his school’s website, but maybe he should be. Perhaps he could reveal a thing or two about how to shape a successful user experience for today’s audiences.

Then and Now

How much has the educational arena changed from a generation ago? The term “blended learning” refers to the use of technology alongside traditional techniques to support and motivate students to achieve more positive results. While books, worksheets, and paper handouts are still technically “mobile” tools of education, teaching materials can now live in the cloud and include all the modern marvels of digital and social media. In progressive school systems, these online resources are available for one-on-one teaching sessions, peer chats, and even self-study lessons; a vast leap from the days of chalkboard lectures, note taking, and take-home assignments.

According to Blackboard, 52 percent of American 9th-12th graders are taking tests online and 77 percent of parents consider the effective use of technology as important to their child’s future. This seems to afford opportunities for more relevant and targeted web-based learning and supportive experiences – opportunities that more and more will involve students directly. But how are these tools accessed, engaged and managed? What role do parents have, and where might there be overlaps?

Unsurprisingly, not all things are created equal in the world of education. In fact, you might be hard-pressed to find a greater scale of disparity across the web than that of K-12 school websites and their educational tools and resources for students, parents, and teachers.

Expectations and Challenges

Maximizing the potential of the web for K-12 schools is a noble effort rife with technical and user experience hurdles. It’s unfair and all too easy to criticize websites that clearly suffer from the emblematic challenges many municipalities face – namely the aggregation of bolted-on features, “Frankensteined” third-party components, and droves of rogue links. Many schools’ sites, despite honorable efforts, are antiquated or hamstrung for any number of reasons. Those fortunate enough to have technical departments skilled in the ways of the web may still have to employ or configure off-the-shelf tools that need to be relatively secure, template-based, and easy to use for novice internal contributors. It’s easy to see how the very characteristics that solve for these obligations present restrictions, lack flexibility, and leave little leeway for ingenuity.

The worst culprits are archetypical; websites that attempt to provide every bit of content to every possible audience at once. A clear indication of this plight is a homepage containing a kaleidoscope of logos and badges, one for each legacy or proprietary system that only handles one aspect of data or information at a time. These systems often require logins, are hard to amalgamate, and don’t allow for fluid integration – so users often jump in and out and across a school website to access or share information.

Ask a frustrated parent (and there’s a wide spectrum from “very savvy” to “complete neophyte” users) to critique a school website and they’ll often talk about having to work too hard to find and access material that’s relevant to them, or that a website is just one of a myriad of tools/places/platforms they’re required to engage and manage. The same goes for teachers. 

How Can Schools Address These Challenges?

One way to begin is by truly listening to users. Common themes amidst the feedback can be summed up in two simple points: relevance and efficiency. It’s not about access to everything; it’s about easy access to the right things.

In an ideal world, the recipe for a successful school site is one that mixes ingredients that advise, inform and serve a community or district (perhaps one-part marketing, two-parts utility). These groups represent unique dynamics between students, parents, teachers and administrators – and an effective website should highlight and market these particular strengths. But it should also provide efficient utility and foster dialogue. School profiles are richer when all of these users share their experiences and paint a broader picture of participation in a collective.

In that sense, the “public facing” content of a K-12 website can and should promote the fun and engaging events and happenings surrounding school communities, especially for site visitors that want to browse and learn about the culture. But the same website shouldn’t make constituent users (with routine goals and repetitive tasks) hunt and scour for information they need. A successful website’s priority should be maximizing relevance – centralizing and streamlining items of interest – by making content available as efficiently and fluidly as possible. This material can be assembled and customized for unique needs, and ideally delivered across any digital device for consumption.

In some cases, this is already being done indirectly. “Parent portals,” requiring authentication into secure environments, emerged from the need to access and protect sensitive student data, but they actually provide an antidotal opportunity and model user-experience. “Personal” portals serve as intranets/extranets of sorts, and can piece together schedules, calendars, assignments, lesson plans, discussion threads, faculty information, dismissal notifications and other resources in such a way as to make them highly relevant and personalized. Ideally, this approach would let users weed out clutter and noise and prioritize elements to reflect only what’s desired.

Of course, passage across various tools with a single sign-on would be the most efficient means to traverse a school’s ecosystem, but at the very least, the portal concept provides a focused “home base” from which to depart, navigate and return. Allowing for the customization of resources can be an elementary way to conscientiously serve respective end users. By having a hand in shaping their own experiences, users are given the power to manage their changing needs. Even as schools gravitate to popular, well-known unified platforms like Google Classroom and other emerging tools, there may always be a need to bridge gaps between disparate features and functionality. Moreover, teachers would also benefit from a flexible and centralized base from which to engage and disseminate.

In these ways, the K-12 “website” of the future feels more like a personalized, one-on-one engagement engine centered around the relevant interests of its unique users – following in the footsteps of individualized education programs and growing into bigger shoes.

Ralph Lucci is co-founder and user experience director at Behavior Design, an award-winning boutique interactive design studio, He has worked with the University of Michigan and the Cooper Union, among others, to evolve their web sites.

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Cool Tool | mozaBook from Mozaik Education

CREDIT Mozaik EducationHere’s an educational presentation software developed for interactive touch displays and computers, which gives teachers the resources to create engaging and eye-catching presentations. Alongside versatile presentation functions, mozaBook puts an entire library of interactive content at teachers’ and students’ fingertips, including 3D models and scenes, virtual labs, tools and games, along with audio, video and still image content. Teachers can also add their own files into presentations, create and assign tests and quizzes, and upload their own textbooks to make them interactive. With content for most K-12 subjects, it’s a great way to get the most out of the technology in today’s blended classrooms. Learn more.

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Training High School Students for High-Tech Opportunities

How districts can integrate technology to prepare students for 21st-century careers.

GUEST COLUMN | by Leslie Strong

“If we teach as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.”

CREDIT SkywardEducation reformer and philosopher John Dewey’s well-known declaration suggested years ago what we know to be true today: instruction must continuously evolve, so students’ skill sets meet the needs of an ever-changing employment landscape. In today’s world, it would be quite a struggle for most of us to find a career field or job opportunity that does not incorporate technology of some kind. Fields that once relied solely on physical manpower, and considered “low-tech,” are now just the opposite – high-tech settings that typically require post-secondary education and specialized training. With this developing career outlook, it simply makes sense for district leaders and educators to take steps now that set students up for success long after graduation day.

The K-12 education curriculum must always evolve, so students today can thrive in the workplace of tomorrow.

To gain a better understanding of the transition from low- to high-tech in today’s work environment, let’s translate the change into a numerical amount. According to Eileen Huang of the Google for Education team, about 60 percent of students in school will advance into careers that don’t exist – yet. And numerous “non-tech roles” have evolved significantly as a result of integrating technology. Tech education today should no longer exist as an elective course for aspiring software engineers or web developers only. More than ever before, it’s important for all students – with varied post-commencement goals – to have access to tech-centered curriculum and courses that encourage technology proficiency.

Districts of any size and location can integrate technology into the classroom and across their education community to provide students the tech training needed for achievement in the workplace.

Start Small

If the concept of technology integration is a bit of a novelty to your district, you’ll want to begin a new tech initiative by gaining support and buy-in from both educators and administrative leadership. Only after immediate questions and concerns are addressed and a tentative plan is mapped out, can you really dig in. Start by incorporating free online tools such as Khan Academy into existing classes for students, and make sure the basics of email and creating spreadsheets, documents and presentations are covered. Also, consider courses that allow students to experiment with multimedia tools – capturing images and video footage.

Don’t forget the tech solutions your district may already have in place. Work with your SIS or LMS partner to find out what online classroom tools they offer, so educators can take advantage of existing resources. In addition to small-step changes, consider a test run of tablets or other mobile devices – perhaps start with one grade level for the fall semester and evaluate, making adjustments, before spring. Continually communicate new initiatives and programs with students and families, so they can understand the what, why and how of your district’s new tech endeavor. They’ll be more likely to jump on board (if they haven’t already).

Build On Your Foundation

It’s time to evaluate your district’s initial steps, make alterations, and build on those foundational approaches. Consider what went right and what could’ve gone better with, say, the pilot course in automotive mechanics, the Geocaching lesson using global positioning systems, or the after-school 3D modeling club. Now is the time to take what you’ve learned from the first round of integration and build on it. Add more classes to next semester’s roster, distribute tablets to several grade levels, or implement a hybrid course for seniors. As you integrate technology further, help students understand the framework of digital citizenship and provide resources that can help them develop a positive, responsible digital footprint in our increasingly online world.

Support Growth

Champion and model your district’s future ready initiatives to foster continued incorporation of technology. Engage and involve local businesses and organizations in your community that can provide employment expertise, student internships, and learning opportunities that deliver students experiences in a variety of industries. A local machine shop could offer students apprenticeships to work alongside computer-savvy auto technicians. Or the news bureau across town could provide job-shadowing opportunities to budding digital reporters. Expand technology integration at all grade levels by rolling out BYOD, 1:1 or flipped classroom initiatives and programs. Advancing your district’s high-tech learning model will allow students to become more accountable for their education and career goals before senior year concludes.

The K-12 education curriculum must always evolve, so students today can thrive in the workplace of tomorrow. In fact, data from Pew Research Center indicates 96 percent of working Americans use some form of technology each day – and such statistics are likely to increase. By starting today, we can work together to further technology integration and close digital skill gaps not only in the current learning environment, but also in the workforce of the future.

Leslie Strong is a product line manager at Skyward and oversees the company’s Student Management Suite to ensure client needs are met by its SIS solution. To read more from Leslie and Skyward’s team of technology experts, visit www.skyward.com/blogs.

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Cool Tool | 360Alumni

CREDIT 360ALUMNIThis platform changes the way schools stay connected with alumni and cultivate their support. Their turnkey, all-in-one communication and fundraising platform makes it easy for alumni relations, advancement, and career services to collaborate and build connections and engagement between alumni, the institution, and current students. Email marketing, messaging and list management combines with the complete alumni directory to give everyone in the community – whether staff or user – a simple, powerful communication tool. Users can browse the built-in map to see who lives around them, check out their 360Alumni or social media profiles, and build lists of alumni to network with. Users can create their own groups and local networking events and instantly post career opportunities on the job board—whether full time, internships, or volunteer. In a world where the shelf life of a degree is continuously diminishing, 360Alumni maximizes the most enduring value of one’s investment: the power of the network. They build goodwill for their client institutions, help their clients maintain a marketing database for new offerings, and generate donor leads with their built-in crowdfunding features. Learn more.

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