Aug 29 2008

Creating an Electronic Class Management System

Want to save time, re-engage your students and bolster your classes' requirements in one fell swoop? Follow this plan.

The thing I like most about computers is that they allow me to do things that would otherwise be difficult, if not impossible. So when I began to develop curriculum for my high school media production classes, the decision to create a computer-based system was a no-brainer. It was also a great way to demonstrate an effective use of technology.

I needed to create a system to help me document what I did each day. I must admit my reason was somewhat selfish: After two consecutive summers of heavy planning, I wanted June and July for myself (and family) and didn’t want to reinvent the wheel before each school year.

Looking back, not only has the system worked better than I could have imagined, it has solved several classroom management issues and helped me create an educational environment in which I can more easily hold students responsible for getting their work done.

Keeping Schedules Straight

I think it’s our job as educators to create a positive learning environment that rewards students for being productive and removes barriers to their success. But we should also hold students accountable for their actions (and inaction). Personal responsibility is one of the most important — if not the most important — characteristic that young people need to develop.

My system arms students with pertinent information and shifts some of the responsibility from me to them while removing many of their commonly used excuses. One important part of my classroom management system is a shared drive. At the beginning of each school year, I guide students through the process of setting up folders and shortcuts to the shared drive. The shortcuts are created on the students’ desktops.

One of the shortcuts is to a file that I refer to as the schedule file, which is simply a Microsoft Word document updated with each day’s activities. I have three schedule files, one for each class I teach. I list each term’s class activities in numerical order.

For instance, one day students may need to complete a worksheet about advertising. If it is the third assignment that term, it would be numbered three and the computer filename would begin with a number three (so the files line up in number order in the folder view).

All assignments are copied to the downloads folder. When students come to class each day, they are expected to check the schedule file, open the appropriate assignment and get to work. (I used to link the Word document to the assignments, but some network permission issues prevented me from successfully doing that last year.)

It was not long after I started using the system that I realized that it solved one of my biggest problems.

Handling Missed Assignments

If you teach in middle school or high school, this may have happened to you more than once: A student shows up after being absent for five days and asks “Have I missed anything important?”

Oh no, we’ve just been sitting around, shooting the breeze, waiting for you to return.

Before my classroom management system was created, I would be forced to stop what I was doing and give them what they asked for. Or I would write myself a note and tell the student I would get them the work later, leaving me with a task to complete and the student with a reason not to have completed the work.

Now, the responsibility is on the student. They are told, “Check the schedule file and let me know if you have any questions.”

The Teacher’s Responsibilities

Updating the schedule file each day is not terribly time consuming. The schedule file also includes any important messages or announcements. Students are responsible for anything that is in the schedule file, so utterances of “I wasn’t here that day” or “I didn’t know” are not acceptable.

Last year, I started using the schedule file to post questions that would be on the upcoming quiz. (Answers could be found in activities conducted in class.) Periodically, I would post extra credit work in there, too.

In addition to the schedule file, I use Microsoft Word to create electronic worksheets. These comprise the majority of the assignments listed in my schedule files.

I used to assign traditional worksheets with books until some students told me that book work was not acceptable in an elective class. Now I cover some of the same material using e-worksheets, which are still not loved but not as widely disliked as the book work. (However, some students do like them.)

An electronic worksheet is a Word document with questions that can be answered using online sources. The sources are linked directly within the Word document.

The upside of e-worksheets is they are cheap and easy to update. I often find myself using recent articles that I think students may find interesting. (I made a worksheet about the movie “Snakes on a Plane” and how, via the Internet, the fans affected the movie script and the novelty of how the movie was promoted.)

The downside is that e-worksheets take effort to create — some take as many as four or five hours each — and the sources may change from year to year as URLs change or die. This means e-worksheets need to be updated (or at least checked) each year.

Example of an e-worksheet question: Read the article titled, “Has Advertising Sold Out?”. Define “product placement.”

It is a simple system, created so I could review my curriculum at the end of each year. Ironically, I never have. Each year, I have made changes going forward and never felt the need to go back. I do, however, reuse the files, and all of my assignments are now given electronically.

At the end of each year, I now submit my schedule files as my lesson plans. I used to have to print and insert them into a binder. This year, to save on paper and toner, the administration started accepting them electronically.

A few mouse clicks later, I was done with that end-of-the-year requirement. Now I’m ready for the first day of school before summer even starts.

sample worksheet