Tagged: email

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E-mail as a ‘secret weapon’ to teach writing?

 The introduction of a recent article in The Atlantic caught my eye. James Somers describes a machine that uses e-mail to help students with their writing.

After the clever hook, though, you find in “Composition 1.01” that this experiment in artificial intelligence is not some robotic incarnation; rather, it’s just a professor from the University of Michigan who e-mails his students about their work.

Is this anything new? Somers thinks so.

Perhaps it’s new in college, but teachers have long encouraged students to submit their work online for revision and conversation.

In fact, e-mail is passe. Most teachers now use Google Docs. So do I.

But as I get ready to launch this year’s version of Google Docs, I admit I’m getting nostalgic about e-mail. There’s something quaint about it.

And in some ways, e-mail might be better than Google Docs.

1. It’s better for targeted writing and revision.

In e-mail, shorter is better. Google Docs is for full essays, while e-mail (no attachments, of course!) is for thesis statements.

In his article, Somers writes:

It’s deliberate practice: goal-directed, supervised. It’s unfolding in smallish chunks in a series of tight feedback cycles.

The key here is “smallish chunks.” We know that students (and adults) grow through repeated practice of discrete skills. Even though I can do the same thing on Google Docs, I’m more inclined to read the whole essay. E-mail forces me to stay focused on just the one thing I’m trying to teach.

2. It’s easier and takes less time.

Although e-mail can’t do as many things as Google Docs (colors, annotation, chatting, and more!), it’s probably quicker. When I’m on e-mail, I read a message, write a quick message, and get out. When I’m on Docs, I’m endlessly organizing and clicking and wondering what I’ve read.

Students, though they don’t use e-mail, find it easier than Docs. It’s just a simpler interface.

But here’s the truth: There’s no actual solution here; responding to student work takes eons, no matter which technology you use. If I have 100 students, and I spend just 1 minute on each piece, that’s about two hours, if you factor in paper shuffling, deep breaths, and other distractions.

3. It’s better in tracking growth.

As a teacher, I want to help my students write better, but what’s perhaps more important is the process. The student also should recognize her growth and attribute improvement to hard work and mentorship.

The new comments system on Google Docs — where you can delete comments and “resolve” them — is clunky. Sure, nothing is lost; the revision history allows for side-by-side comparison of drafts. Comments are saved chronologically in “discussions,” but they’re so piecemeal that they seem fragmented. And the worst part is that you get e-mail notifications of changes, which are impossible to turn off automatically.

E-mail seems saner: the student sends me her thesis, I respond in a paragraph, another thesis (and perhaps a kind note) comes back, and I repeat. The thread is preserved in a logical and readable way.

Somers is correct when he writes (and quotes the professor):

The conversations can be referenced, excerpted and combined; there is a clear trail of progress. “By the time we’ve done our half dozen email back-and-forths about their thesis, a lot of the time I can see direct evidence — and they can see direct evidence — that it’s gotten better.”
That sounds good to me. There’s a difference between “direct evidence” and broad generalizations, which teachers and students use too often to characterize academic growth.
Reading “Composition 1.01” has definitely gotten me thinking about whether to limit my Google Docs to completed essays and to rely on e-mail for targeted practice. Just because e-mail can’t do everything, it doesn’t mean I should abandon it as a tool. Besides, changing things up will provide the variety necessary to keep things fresh. 
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Encouraging students to use email

faviconIn my experience, I’ve noticed that one of the biggest indicators of the digital divide is how often and how (un)comfortably students use email.

Show me a urban ninth grader of color who has an email account and checks email more than once a week, and I’ll show you a college-bound student.

(One condition: The student’s inbox must include messages other than hundreds of MySpace notifications.)

At my school, the opposite is true. The majority of my students, particularly those who struggle academically, look at me weird when I tell them to check their email.

I worry about the email gap because it correlates with academic achievement, job opportunities, and college acceptance rates.

Part of the problem, of course, is access. Students without computers at home have less chance of having an email account.

But at my school, despite racial and socioeconomic demographics, most students have Internet at home. So what’s the real problem?

Email is passe
In my opinion, for my students, email is passe. When you have a cell phone, Facebook, texting and instant messaging, the medium has become too slow for my never-at-home students.

Although shocking to 30-somethings like me, it’s entirely possible that my students have never heard of email because it’s too old.

In addition, email is just too formal for my students. There’s a big blank page where you can write real sentences and paragraphs. It’s like a block paragraph formal business letter. Might as well write an essay.

That’s the point, though. Email has become the standard communication method of dominant culture, business culture, college-educated culture, and that’s precisely why I need to teach email to my students.

In previous years, I made sure all my students had an email account on Yahoo. Then last year, when we moved to Google Apps, all students got a professional, slick-sounding account at our domain. I could rest assured that students would represent themselves well on a resume.

But despite those advances, students still are not using their email accounts very much except to notify their friends that they’ve shared a Google Doc.

Therefore, I must do a better job this year at incorporating email into my curriculum. And it can’t be how I’ve done it before. I have to figure out ways to engage my students and encourage them to use email. I need to figure out why email would be useful to my students, why they would care. I’ll keep you posted about my attempts, and please let me know if you have ideas. favicon

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My Google Apps Journey: Signing Up

Back to my Google Apps story! In a previous post, I explained how I got the idea last year to bring Google Apps to my school. Now came the crucial part: signing up. After all, having an idea is one thing; making that idea a reality so that it’s a systemic part of your school is another.

Despite my excitement, I had a lot of questions: Would signing up for Google Apps Education Edition be easy? Would it really be free, or would there be a catch? And would there be support if I got stuck?

(You may ask, What about getting IT support for the shift? I have to say, That part was easy for me. My school is relatively small, and there was a definite need, so it took just one conversation with the Director of Technology to get the ball rolling. If you’re in a big school, there may be more hoops. Here are 10 Reasons to try it.)

It was June, and school was out, so I had a lot of time to make mistakes and do things the right way. Tip: Don’t try a major tech overhaul in the middle of the year. I found out quickly, though, that the process was easy. Google even has a six-week integration plan to help you get started.

First I had to buy a domain name. This seemed daunting but ended up fairly easy. There are a number of web hosting companies, and after a few minutes of research, I decided on Go Daddy. The hardest part was to find a domain that had not yet been taken but that would be short enough and simple enough for students to remember. After all, nobody wants an email address like markisero@thepublichighschoolinsanfrancisco. I persevered, found a good domain name, paid the $10, and had my first big realization: All my students are going to have free accounts for just $10 a year!

This can’t be true, I thought. Well, it was.  I found that out by doing the second step, signing up for Google Apps. This was ridiculously easy. I typed in just three pages of information, and I was done. Really? Yep.

As a non-techie kind of guy, the only slightly challenging part was the last. I had to “verify domain ownership,” which means I had to prove to Google that I indeed owned the domain on which they were going to add hundreds of free email accounts. This sounded tricky, but fortunately, the site gave me two options: (1) creating a CNAME record, or (2) uploading an HTML file. I chose the first one, which required me to go back to my domain on Go Daddy and change some settings, and within five minutes, I was finished. Yes, it was really that easy.

Even had I stumbled, I could have relied on Google’s support information and videos. It’s remarkable how such a powerful service was so easy to implement. What I thought was going to be hard ended up being easy.

And now, I could focus on the fun part: creating users, setting up all the services, and deploying Apps at my school. It was still June, so I had a lot of time to get ready for the upcoming year.

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My Google Apps Journey: The Beginning

I promised you stories, so here’s one. It all started about a year ago when a student tried to print an essay on a school computer using his flash drive. The problem was, the drive had the virus Disk Knight on it.

And then things went crazy.

Pretty soon Disk Knight had infected the majority of computers on campus. While we dealt with the problem, I started thinking that it might be time for a better way.

For too long, our school’s technology had too many moving parts. For example, we used Microsoft Office at school, but students used Works or WordPerfect at home. (This tech divide is typical in urban schools.) Some students ended up spending more time learning about file formats than doing their work. And it left everybody frustrated.

All of this mayhem led me to think about trying out Google Apps Education Edition, which includes free email accounts and collaborative online word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications.

The free email got my attention at first. Up until Google Apps, not all of our students had email accounts. If they did, they ran the gamut. How would you like to email a student at pimpdaddy11, babyangel89, or my favorite, xxx_califoneeyas_finest_xxx? The idea of a common, professional email account structure for all students sounded perfect.

But what ultimately got me to sign up for Google Apps was its simple, easy-to-use office applications. I’ll say more in an upcoming post, but it became clear very quickly that Google Apps would solve nearly all of the problems our students were experiencing. No more flash drives. No more viruses. No more anxiety about file formats. No more emailing documents to yourself. And, most important, no more lost work.

With that vision in mind, I began taking steps to make Google Apps a reality at our school.