What are the fastest, simplest ways to get student work while using Zoom and Google Classroom?

In case you missed it, here is the current situation:

  • NYC, where I live, is at the center of the coronavirus epidemic in the United States, and our governor is saying we are 14-21 days from the apex of the epidemic.
  • But, we’re still teaching!
  • I teach math to young children (3rd and 4th) as well as to older students (8th and 9th).
  • My wife is also a teacher.
  • My two young children are what some people would call “loud.”
  • And what if one of them slips off the bed while they’re jumping on it? And we have to go to the hospital?

This is my second week doing distance learning. I previously wrote about what I had figured out in the first few days of this wild experiment, and my school now has each class doing two live sessions and two asynchronous sessions every week. The live sessions are on Zoom; I post materials on Google Classroom.

By the end of last week it was clear that my next, big problem was to figure out how to make more of my students’ work visible. To me, I mean.

Before going forward: I am not interested in your favorite app. At least, not yet. There are dozens of apps that aim to help students and teachers communicate over the computer. I’m sure some of them are useful, but I just can’t deal with a new tech tool right now.

Here is what I have figured out.

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Before Class

It took me a few days to realize that it’s much easier to organize Google Classroom around classwork instead of announcements. Here is how I’ve started to organize my Google Classroom pages:

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I’m organizing things this way mostly so that students can clearly see what they are supposed to do on each day. The instructions are clear: go to Classwork, to the opening assignment, start the next if you are ready, etc.

The most important thing, though, is that each learning activity becomes its own “assignment.” During week 1 I was creating large documents that students were working on over multiple days. This was good in one sense, because I had to post only one thing. But it became very difficult to monitor the progress of kids through the assignment at all. And then it became tricky to modify the plan in the middle of the week by adding on other bits of classwork.

This is a compromise position now, and I think it’s working. It’s certainly easier for me to figure out what I’ve assigned. This also seems to be the correct way to share solutions and notes, rather than trying to organize them by topic.

During Class

There are basically three good ways to collect student thinking during class.

  1. The chat box in Zoom.
  2. Creating a separate doc for every student, and asking them to type in the doc.
  3. Taking a picture of their work and posting it.

Imagine these three ways of collecting work plotted on a grid. One axis keeps track of how easy it is to share your idea with the teacher. Chat is easiest, moving to a doc and typing is still pretty easy, but it’s pretty tough to take a picture of your work and post it to your teacher.

The other axis is about how easy it is to express yourself using a tool. Drawing on a piece of paper is the easiest, most natural approach. You can type at length in a doc, and a chat allows you only to type quick responses.

Here is how I’ve been using these three methods for communicating with kids over the course of the lesson.

Opening Problem

I saw a common mistake in my students’ work yesterday, so this morning I wanted to talk about similar triangles couched between a pair of parallels.

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This was my “opening” assignment. But how should I collect this work?

Students need to be looking at the image while responding (or else having to hold a lot of stuff in their heads while shifting back and forth between screens). It’s also not hard to type responses to these questions. And I wanted to ask a series of questions, and that might be hard to type in a chat.

I went for “type your response in a google doc” and I think it went OK. Here is what I saw from the students.

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My 4th Graders can do this, my students with shaky tech can more or less do this. Monitoring them is a little bit slow, but it’s OK. As I monitor, I start saying things over Zoom about the work. “Hey Anna, got your work. I left you a little comment.” “Jay, good stuff; here’s what you should try for the last one.” You can also leave little private comments on the side that kids can see pretty quickly. Classroom is good at this.

During a Live Lesson

This is where Zoom chat is great. You don’t want kids going back and forth between Zoom and some doc during the live, most interactive part of the lesson. I’ll quote my last post:

There is a way to sort of do whole-group instruction that opens up a tiny window into how students are thinking. It uses the chat box.

You can change the chat settings so that all chat messages are sent privately to the host of the meeting. At first, I did this because I wanted to cut down on random chat chatter. But then I realized it’s a private way that students can respond to questions.

Here is a routine I’m finding useful during whole-group discussions:

1. Ask a question. I state it, and if possible I also write the question in the chat box. That way, everyone receives the question even if they missed it when I said it.

2. Then, everyone types in their answer to the question. As the answers come in, I acknowledge receipt. “Thanks, Emma.” “Got it, Jake.” I’ll comment on wrong answers without calling individual students out. “Careful, if you’re writing (x – 2)(x -3) that’s factored form.” I can also address individual students: “Tommy, what you wrote is fine.”

3. Then, I’ll share the answer. I’ll take questions, rinse and repeat for however much whole-group time I’ve decided on for the lesson. Attention spans for this vary by class and by age, of course. More than 15 minutes is probably pushing it, I think.

Classwork or Asynchronous Assignments

If you can get away with using some online practice tool, that’s great. In general these tools are less useful in this situation than I would have hoped. The problems do not ramp up in difficulty; they’re only useful for practicing something that students are already reasonably proficient at. I use Deltamath, but it doesn’t work for my 4th Graders. I’m looking at IXL for the little kids, but it looks like it’ll be very tricky to coach kids through signing up and getting used to the tool — I’m holding off on that for now. ASSISTments is too buggy for me to use right now, and I find it difficult to navigate their reports on what the students did.

If you can get away with using a doc and asking kids to respond in it, by all means. But this is incredibly limiting. To see why, let me take you back to my Sunday night. My 4th Graders were supposed to work independently on an assignment on Monday afternoon. I decided to do review; I found a useful set of fractions worksheets from the Math in Focus books. I really wanted to use them:

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But! How are kids going to fill this out in a doc? Do I need to recreate this from scratch? That would take so much work.

Same with an assignment for my 8th Graders — I wanted them to try sketching a parabola. Same with my geometry students — I wanted to see their work setting up proportions. Same with my 4th Graders today — I want to study decimals, and wanted them to shade in 0.7 of a whole square.

This leads me to my final and most important thing to share, which is how to coach kids through sharing pictures of their work through Google Classroom.

How to Coach Kids Through Sharing Pictures

My first obstacle was getting a “student view” of my classes. Google does not have this feature, and my school only allows us to add people with our school accounts to Google Classroom. And they weren’t thrilled by my suggestion that they give me a second email account under the name “fake_pershan.”

So under my personal gmail account I made a class called “Pretend Math” and registered a new personal gmail account (“fakepershan”) and created an assignment for myself.

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Then I shared my screen and walked students through the steps.

That solves the problem for most of my students. It’s not so hard to take a picture with a phone and then upload it to the assignment. I walked my older students through these steps.

BUT: my youngest students don’t have phones. And I can’t get their parents in front of the screen to coach them through this.

SO: my brilliant colleague pointed out that there is a simpler way to do this in docs, with a webcam.

In 4th Grade today I created an assignment focused on teaching photo sharing.

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I shared my “Pretend Math” screen and showed them how to use the tool. Then, I showed them how to open the assignment, and then every kid went to this doc. (I created a separate doc for each student, which Google Classroom lets you do.)

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The big question is whether their webcam pictures would be good enough for me to learn anything from. The answer so far seems to be “sort of.”

To test whether my 4th Graders could actually pull this off with some real math, I sent them to another brief assignment, this time connected to content our class was learning.

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This is what I got:

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So, not perfect. And some of them were worse than not perfect.

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But this is a crucial option that I needed for working with my younger students. And in each of my classes of older students, I have kids whose phones either are not working or they don’t have smart phones. This is a crucial method that kids can do on their own to turn in photos of their own work.

But, of course, this is sort of annoying. I tried to use it for my opening problem in a class or two and that turned out to be a bit of a mistake, as it took far too long for students to submit their work. I would have been better off using one of the other methods.

Feedback

Once students have handed something in to Classroom, things are actually pretty good. Google lets you comment on the work itself via highlighting and commenting, but I’ve found it more useful to give a quick written comment that appears under the assignment itself.

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I should say that Desmos has released a tool for adding written comments to students in their activities. There are two reasons why I’m not ready to use this for my classes:

  • My resources aren’t already loaded into Desmos.
  • Desmos is at some other site, rather than my one-stop shop Google Classroom.

But if I had more time and if my students were doing a lot of Desmos, I could see that as being useful. It seems roughly equivalent to what Classroom lets me do with assignments, but it makes it easier for me to assign Desmos “worksheets” for students to do on their own. I’ll need to do that for a lot of graphing activities down the line, probably.

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Phew! OK, that’s all I’ve got. Good luck, out there, and let me know what you’ve figured out.

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