I’ve spent the last week or so deciding how I wanted to set up my virtual classroom for my students, so that it would be as efficient as possible for the way that I wanted to use it. There are a lot of possibilities. Ultimately, I chose what was going to be the least hassle for me over the longterm, because sure, I’ve got time now to play with things, but I don’t want to spend a lot of time troubleshooting for students needlessly, or making cutesy things that do absolutely nothing to help my students learn.
First, no Bitmoji classroom for me. Why spend an inordinate amount of time creating a clickable picture that is just a duplicate (even if it is cuter) of Clever, which is a service that my school district uses for students? Now, I love my Bitmoji a little too much, so she will still be there, just not all wild and crazy hanging from the battens in the Blackbox. Here’s an example of the header for my upper level classes, which I will be using both in Google Classroom and my class websites.
The header is incredibly easy to make. I like Canva, because there are so many free templates and resources in there, and it’s fairly intuitive. There are free and pro versions, though you can also purchase items a la carte if necessary. The free version, linked to my GAFE account, is enough for general classroom use, though I have purchased images for play posters from time to time.
The size of the header is 1000 pixels x 250 pixels. I used a free background, one of my Bitmojis, and a text template from Canva. It took me 5 minutes to make, is personal, and is much more visually appealing to me than the default themes provided by classroom. Passes my test. One caveat, that I haven’t figured out quite yet: Google seems to clip the edges of uploaded photos, so make sure that you keep that in mind when creating the header. Canva has handy dandy guides for this. The vertical borders are fairly accurate, but I move anything that I want to be seen a bit closer to center (not a lot). I think this mostly has to do with it resizing for a variety of window sizes, but I have made the windows as wide as possible, and it still seems to cut off a bit if you don’t take this into account.
Organizing the virtual student experience:
I plan to use three main means of communication with students (and parents who like to follow along): Google Classroom, Google Sites, and Blogger. Depending on student interests and their level of interaction, I may also add Google Groups to that mix down the line. That seems like a lot, but they will all contain the same material. The point is to meet students where they are, and we all have different preferred modes of communication/learning.
Google Classroom is class central. Most teachers at my school use it, so students are familiar. It’s not without its struggles. Last year, students frequently told me that they could not see upcoming assignments in their streams. I absolutely thought they were trying to get away with something, until it happened to my daughter during distance learning this spring. In her case, the teacher hadn’t put a due date on the assignment. If you don’t put a due date on an assignment, it does not show up in their assignments list. I put due dates on all assignments, but not always on questions for discussion, so students were missing them. Something to think about… you may want to spend some time teaching your students how to organize themselves to keep track of assignments independently of Google Classroom/Calendar. Otherwise, they will only look at the to-do list on the classroom. As much as I love technology, I still keep a written calendar with important due dates; if you write it down, you’re more likely to remember it.
In the physical classroom, each student has a process journal, which is essentially an interactive notebook. Checking them is always an adventure, as I frequently wanted gloves and a mask before an international health emergency, so I was already looking for an alternative. I probably would have gone to something digital sooner, but my classroom is low on the technology totem-pole (unless its theatrical technology- we get what we need in that regard), so 1:1 is not possible. Until now. I. am. so. excited.
Instead of creating a pinterest-worthy digital interactive notebook using slides, we will be using Google Sites. Why? Artists need to keep a digital portfolio, and creating a website to do that will teach them important 21st Century Skills that will be transferable to other subjects as well. So, I will also create a website that duplicates Google Classroom in a visual format that works for me. This kills two birds with one stone: modeling the student portfolio and providing multiple modes of learning. Students will know that they can go to the Google Site for their class, and see an example of what I would like to see from their work, as well as a source for class information.
The last piece to start the class for the year is a class Blog. The benefit of the blog is that students and parents can subscribe so that they receive an email every time I post. Yes, Classroom does this, but most of us turn off Classroom notifications because they can take over your Inbox in no time. I plan to post twice weekly: Sundays (created/scheduled on Friday) and Wednesdays (our class schedule includes enrichment/support on Wednesdays, so we do not have regular class that day). I figure that this will allow me to flip the classroom by providing them with materials ahead of class, as well as giving a recap of each 2-day unit we have together. If it seems excessive, then we’ll cut it down to once a week. The blog will also be embedded on the class website, so everyone can find it.
Most of this will be copied and pasted from one place to another, so it isn’t as time-consuming as it would seem. This year is going to be difficult for everyone– why not make the communication piece as clear as possible, while giving your students/families options about how they receive the information?
One last thing...
Don’t assume your students know how to do this stuff! It is as simple as being able insert images, textboxes, and other items, but simple does not always mean easy. I spend as much as the first month of class every year teaching classroom norms and routines – trust me, kindergarten isn’t the only level that needs this. Since the computer is the classroom this year, that means our first two to four weeks will be learning how to use the Google Suite in addition to getting to know each other and theatre work.