Writing students interact through Chromebooks

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“I was able to edit at home,” says Guilderland High School student Natasha Permaul of Google Classroom. “It was very quick and easy."

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“Everything is on my computer,” high school student Zachary McNally tells the Guilderland School Board last week of using Google Classroom.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“It was stunning in every sense of the word,” Guilderland High School teacher Alicia Wein tells the school board of working with Google Classroom.

GUILDERLAND — Alicia Wein, who teaches an advanced writing workshop to high school students, proudly told the school board last week that she had been to the copy room just twice this year.

She is using Google Classroom, a program that allows her to check in on and communicate with her students through their computers. “It frees up time for more substantive work,” said Wein.

“This is a game-changer, more than any other innovation in education,” Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton told The Enterprise this week of using Google Apps for Education. “It’s changed the way students manage, create, and organize information.”

Asked about drawbacks, Singleton said, “I haven’t seen any yet.” He said, unlike earlier programs that were “designed for the business world,” this is designed for education.

Guilderland started using Google Apps for Education in 2009, Singleton said. “We’ve gradually started working our way in.” Google Classroom came out this past September, he said.

The only cost, he said, is $80 for the district to maintain a domain; the fee covers two years.

Asked about computers, he said every one of Wein’s students uses a Chromebook; there are currently 18 classrooms between the middle school and high school where each student has a Chromebook. Next year, as part of the capital project, Chromebooks will be introduced at the elementary level, too.

The Chromebooks, laptops that work with Google Apps, are “$200 a pop,” said Singleton, as compared to roughly $1,000 for a typical laptop computer. The district has paid for them by phasing out textbook purchases, he said.

“When we started out with the Chromebooks,” he said, “teachers had to apply.” Teachers in the pilot program spent two days over the summer being trained by Natalia LeMoyne, Guilderland’s educational technology specialist.

“Now we’ve created a professional learning network, as they experiment and share with other teachers,” Singleton said. He also noted that, on April 25 and 26, a “Google Summit” will be held at Guilderland High School, which 350 area educators will attend.

One of Wein’s students, Natasha Permaul, told the board that the new system made it easier for her peers to critique her work and for her to do the same to their writing. “Last year, I had to be face to face,” she said. “I had to write in the margins of everyone’s paper…It’s so messy…This way, we accepted comments from our peers through Google Classroom, which was much more organized.”

As a Farnsworth Middle School student, Permaul wrote a children’s picture book, “Mister Karner Blue,” which was published by the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission.

Permaul told the school board last week that, with Google Classroom, she was able to revise two or three papers in a single classroom session. And, she said, “I was able to edit at home; it was very quick and easy.”

Zachary McNally, another of Wein’s students, agreed. “When I’m at home,” he said, “I can sit down and do what I need to get done. Everything is on my computer…Last year, I had to print everything…When I did a reflection, it was difficult for me to find all my papers.”

Now, Wein said, a student’s portfolio is “all in one spot.”

Singleton said the district had historically maintained writing folders that collected a student’s work from kindergarten through 12th grade. The hope is it will become easier to keep the materials electronically.

Traditionally, he told The Enterprise, teachers put one or two pieces of a student’s writing in a folder each year and passed it along to the next teacher. “Students have no engagement in the process,” he said. “There is no reflective component from the student’s perspective. We hope...to go to a digital platform so students are the curators of their own work.”

Not only is the collection of written words different in the Google classroom, so is the way they are created.

Wein projected images of the sorts of messages she would typically send to her writing students on their computers.

For example, she gave a two-day in-class assignment where the students, each working on a scholarly article, had to pretend that they had run into two other scholars in a coffee shop and had a discussion about the topic. The students then had to use a play format to write a dialogue they imagined had taken place at the coffee shop.

Wein was also able to ask her students, via computer, what kind of feedback they would like from her. She summarized the results in a bar graph that showed the most, 67.4 percent, preferred an in-person conference. Next, tied in popularity, at 32.6 percent each, were a Google Conference or Jing feedback, which is a screencast with audio. The least popular option, at 30.4 percent, were Google comments after the papers were turned in.

“It helped them take control over what they needed,” she said of the survey. While Google Chats allowed her to give her students feedback in the margins of their work, she said, “Some students would walk to my desk and talk face to face.”

If, during class, she saw a student “staring off into space,” Wein said, “I could drop in and ask, ‘Do you need help?’”

Even when she was out sick, Wein said, she could continue to check on her students through Google Classroom.

Often, Wein’s inquiries were witty.  One checklist she shared elicited gales of laughter from the board table.  Just before Christmas break, she asked the students how far along they were with a rough draft and listed four answers, with one to be chosen.

The first choice, at 90 to 100 percent, said, “While you all catch up over vacation, I’ll be sippin’ gingerbread latte.” The third choice, at 40 percent, said, “It’s going to take superheroic efforts to make the soft deadline. Maybe Santa will bring me a works cited page?” The last choice said simply, “Please don’t make me say. It’s not good.”

Wein did check in over break with email to each of her students.

She concluded that there was “no flying under the radar” for struggling students and that the digital communication set the tone of conversation about paper topics and writing. Evaluation and assessment of student work was improved, too, she said because the system is effective in keeping track of assignments and it is frontloaded, which is crucial with increased student load and decreased planning time.

“I’m just amazed at the amount of interaction you can now have,” board member Gloria Towle-Hilt said to Wein. “This just opens up time for you…at your convenience or their convenience.”

“It was stunning in every sense of the word,” Wein responded. “I had to focus on what I wanted to interact about…Technically speaking, every piece of writing comes across my desk…We were able to focus on the things students really needed.”

Other business

In other business at its March 24 meeting the school board:

— Heard from Superintendent Marie Wiles that 37 community members met on March 16 to begin their work on the Repurposing Task Force. Rather than closing a school to solve the problem of excess space in light of declining enrollment, the task force is looking at potential alternative uses for empty classrooms.

Task force members are divided into four working groups — on pre-kindergarten, adult day care, incubator business start-ups, and commercial rentals, Wiles told The Enterprise;

— Learned that, on March 16, three representatives from the State Education Department visited the English as a Second Language program at Guilderland Elementary School. The visit was prompted by a letter Wiles wrote, outlining concerns with new requirements for teaching English to foreign students.  Guilderland has budgeted for only about half of the required posts. The district next year would have to hire 7.4 teachers at a cost of $577,200 to meet the new state requirements. Guilderland’s current $93 million budget draft for next year includes three new ESL teachers, one at the elementary level, one at the middle school, and 1.2 at the high school. That will cost close to $250,000;

— Heard from Wiles that, on March 19, Guilderland representatives attended a workshop on suburban poverty hosted by the Capital Area School Development Association. “This is the start of an important topic on how we see our students,” said Wiles.

Towle-Hilt noted the relationship between poverty and academic performance.  Wiles said that the suburban poor often suffer from “situational rather than generational poverty but it’s devastating nonetheless.”

After the meeting, Wiles told The Enterprise that the percentage of Guilderland students living in poverty had increased from 5 percent in 2001-08 to 15 percent now, with the highest percentage, 26 percent, attending Altamont Elementary School;

— Approved bid awards for a $17 million bond project to upgrade the district’s schools. “We got good news,” said Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders. “Our bids were lower than expected.” He estimated the savings at about $1.3 million, stating there was “a very good bid environment”;

— Approved two propositions for district residents to vote on along with the budget on May 19.  The first, not to exceed $1,125,000 is for eight 66-passenger school buses, two 30-passenger school buses, one 24-passenger wheelchair bus, and one plow truck. State aid covers about half of the cost of Guilderland’s bus purchases.

The second is similar to a proposition that was narrowly defeated in the fall of 2013. For $1,160,000, it would upgrade the high school auditorium and install new lights on the football field;

— Heard from Wiles that the district’s longtime public information officer, Amy McGeady, has accepted a managerial job at the Board of Cooperative Educational Services;

— Heard concerns raised by board member Judy Slack that the College Board is holding tests next year on school days, rather than weekends as is the current practice. She objected to the College Board, a for-profit, private company, dictating the school calendar.

High school Principal Thomas Lutsic estimated that about 400 Guilderland sophomores and juniors take the exams, and he noted that, the following year, the tests would return to a Saturday schedule;

— Heard concerns from board Vice President Allan Simpson about a proposed policy on the district’s fund balance. “That’s going to be a double-edged sword,” he said.

“We can update the numbers but the bottom line is we need to have a policy,” said board member Colleen O’Connell.

The state’s comptroller issued reports this year and last that have been critical of Guilderland’s low fund balance, or rainy-day savings.

Wiles noted that the proposed policy doesn’t say “shall”; it says “strive.” “We don’t have to hit those numbers,” she said; and

— Met in executive session to discuss the medical or employment history of a district employee.

More Guilderland News

  •  In those first 10 years, it seemed no one dared go above 30 miles per hour, “which we enjoyed, especially living on Main Street,” said Altamont resident Mya Sullivan, but over the past year, she has begun to see drivers flying down Route 146. 

  • The biggest factor in the revenue jump is the state’s commitment to make Foundation Aid to schools whole. “It looks like that three-year phase-in, at least from the governor’s perspective, is going to happen, so that’s tremendous news for our school district and school districts throughout the state,” Guilderland’s assistant superintendent for business, Neil Sanders, said on Tuesday.

  • Many of the women who supported the men who fought village fires have pressed on to fight fires themselves.

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