“To one with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
This adage reveals the power tools have to shape our perceptions. What does this mean for the tools we use in the classroom? If using a hammer pushes me to see nails wherever I look, how is the grade book software on my computer influencing my vision?
One effect of the digital grade book is an emphasis on artifacts and tasks, often to the detriment of other essential tools such as conversation, observation, and feedback. A gradeless classroom that prioritizes feedback over grades requires new tools or using old ones in different ways. When it comes to documenting feedback and anecdotal evidence, a traditional grade book (digital or paper) is not up to the task. One tool that has the potential to help place conversation and observation in the classroom back on equal footing with artifacts of learning is Google Keep.
Keep is a web app (complete with Chrome extension) that also has mobile apps in the App Store and Google Play Store. It is a sticky note app with a variety of note-taking options including typing, pictures, drawings, audio notes, and checklists. Those are helpful but fairly standard features; the real value resides in Google integration and additional features such as reminders, labels, optical character recognition (OCR), the ability to copy to document, note sharing, and a variety of search options. In this post, I offer a few ideas about using Keep that will hopefully inspire and support the type of changes necessary to establish a well running gradeless environment.
Mini Lesson Cache
I use Keep primarily to organize my lessons. Student-centered classrooms tend to reduce the amount of whole-class, direct instruction in favor of targeted mini lessons and just-in-time conference instruction. Keep helps with the instructional agility and improvisation such instruction requires. I write each of my mini lessons on a separate note and label them by subject, class, and/or topic (e.g. LA + mini lesson + writing). As I move around the classroom, a student may be struggling to generate ideas to develop her writing. I’ll fire up Keep on my iPad, tap the “writing” label, search “brainstorming,” and make a selection from a few instructional options. I can even share the appropriate note with the student(s) so that they can build their own library of lessons to organize and access as they need.
Observations and conversations do not play nicely with most digital grade books. Keep helps me nimbly record and organize evidence of learning, re-establishing observation and conversation alongside products in the assessment triangle. It’s easy to snap a picture of student work or type a summary of a conversation or to record the audio of a conference (literal conversation!) and label the note by student and standards. Reflecting on the learning at a later date is a simple matter of filtering notes by student or standard.
When students settle into their work, I scan previous notes about individuals as I wade into the learning in progress. For example, one of my students, Jason, has been working on writing with active voice and action verbs. Together we compare his latest draft in Google Drive to the picture of his handwritten first draft that I have in Keep. I ask Jason to set a progress and a learning goal for next week, which I record in a note along with a summary of the feedback conference, and I move along. Savannah has been experimenting with webbing and graphic organizers during her pre-writing and research stage. She shows me her drawings in her own Keep app and tells me that she is going to share them with me as evidence of learning. At the same table as Savannah sits Brooke, who volunteers at a nearby elementary school. She reads aloud to the younger kids there and wants to know if she can somehow use that for evidence of the speaking outcomes. We discuss recording her reading at the elementary school and schedule a conference for tomorrow when she will practice reading her book aloud. I’ll give her feedback based on that baseline reading. Then Brooke will use Keep to record herself reading some key passages from her book. After listening to herself, she will write a brief self-assessment about which version most effectively implemented the feedback. I note and label as many of the conversations, artifacts, and observations as time allows.
Keep helps me ride the learning tornado of a student-centered learning environment, and the labels help me organize and elevate observation and conversation as important assessments in a gradeless classroom. Selecting all the notes connected to a student or a standard and then using the “copy to Doc” function gives me a single Google doc that contains all the anecdotal evidence for a student. The doc comes in handy at report times and parent/teacher conferences, and can easily be shared with students and parents to communicate learning in progress.
Reading across the curriculum has always presented a few challenges. How do I know students are reading the assignments? Do they understand what they’re reading? How can subject area instructors teach and support annotation when textbooks must be kept pristine? Google Keep can help students use their smartphones to organize and share their thinking as they read. The basic mechanics are simple. Instead of highlighting the book and writing in the margins, students snap pictures of key passages with Keep and type their comments in the note below the picture. Beyond the basic use of Keep, students require some instruction and scaffolding in key skills such as organization and note-taking purpose.
As a class, share and discuss different options for note labeling structures. For example, try labels at different levels of specificity like Subject, Unit, or Assignment (Biology, Genetics, GMO report). Have students visualize trying to find the note(s) next month or next semester to see if the proposed label ideas are effective. Different students will develop different styles of organizing and finding notes, so encourage them to share and compare strategies in order to create a system and style that works best for them. Imagine students creating and defending their own organization methods!
Students may know the mechanics of annotating, but that doesn’t mean they know what to take note of. Different disciplines employ different concepts and skills. The biology reading may require a focus on key terms and concepts. English students may be asked to identify imagery in a text. Instructors across subject areas need to teach and model how to select and attend to purpose in reading. As students learn to select their own purposes and guide their own annotations, Keep will be a valuable record of progress and learning.
The notes that students create become learning artifacts that can demonstrate progress over time and serve as improved formative assessments in place of reading logs or quizzes to show that students are reading and thinking. Students can improve their annotation skills through feedback and practice because their process is visible. In a gradeless classroom, the archive of notes offers ongoing formative assessment and the basis for feedback during conferences.
Keep annotations can also create new learning opportunities. Students could read a book together, each with a distinct focus. The group of readers could use the “Collaborators” function to share notes so that they can learn from each reader’s perspective. The notes would support discussion and any form of writing about the book that may emerge or be assigned. The “grab image text” function makes quoting the book a snap, too. In the hands of imaginative teachers and students, Keep can be used to create a deeper, richer reading experience in school.
When my primary classroom tool was a grade book, I focused on grades. Student-centered classrooms that are going gradeless require new tools, versatile tools that help create and express. Google Keep enables teachers to create, organize, collaborate, and share, with only their collective imaginations as a limit. It is edtech at its best.
Scott Hazeu teaches and learns with Grade 12 students in the center of Canada. They spend their days exploring literature and writing. Discover more of his writing on Medium and Re-Vision: The Continuing Education of a Teacher.
Photo by Adam Sherez