High school students don’t read email, right? (BTW: Neither do teachers, but that’s a different story.) Why don’t they? Because that’s not their medium. Our students operate via text messages, Snapchat, and Vine, not email or even Facebook. If we’re going to communicate with students effectively, then we need to find a system that works for all of us.
Moreover, students don’t do websites. Personally, I’m a big fan of Canvas and Google Classroom, but LMS’s, in general, feel like static, old-school wikis that work well for people of a certain generation, but not so much for this generation.
I’ve heard a number of students complain about LMS’s, saying that they can’t believe they actually have to open a web page and click around. After using Google Classroom for nearly three quarters of the year, I still had students who were struggling to find the information that they needed.
Communication is a two-way street. Transmission of information is not communication. My beautifully organized Google Classroom pages and my articulate emails do not constitute communication unless someone out there receives it and understands it.
In my quest to get information in the hands of students, I have to continue to try new tools, so this quarter I’m piloting Slack. (NOTE: Slack’s user agreement requires users to be at least 16 years old, so this may not work if you teach younger students.)
Slack is a cross-platform communication tool that at first, quite frankly, looks like a confusing morass of chat rooms and text messages. In effect, it’s a chat and direct message system that also has the ability to integrate with important applications (e.g., Google Drive) to give you a robust, yet simple communication environment centered on short messages distributed in a timely fashion.
Slack is used by a slew of corporations that you’ve heard of and a quick Google search or a look at their website will show you just how common it is in different companies. Since it’s something that students might encounter in higher ed, internships, or their future workplaces, I thought it would be a good idea not only to use it in class, but also to teach students how to use it.
Why teach them how to use it?
Well, this is one area where we often drop the ball. We believe that our so-called “digital natives” know how to do everything on a computer, but most high school students lack computer skills. Word processing immediately comes to mind. The idea, for example, of setting tabs to create a hanging indent for an MLA Works Cited page is absolutely obtuse to them. (I spend a great deal of time showing them how to drag the little triangle on the ruler to different positions.) I don’t believe we can, nor should we, give students a tool and then not show them how to use it.
In order to get students into Slack, I asked them all to login using their school email addresses and their real names. Then I turned them loose with an introductory assignment where they had to figure out a host of things to do. (NOTE: I stole this idea from Elizabeth Becker. I took her “Getting to Know Slack” assignment and modified it for my purposes.)
Within twenty minutes, most students had completed the checklist and managed to post a selfie of themselves giving a thumb’s up to indicate that they had completed the checklists. Students worked together to figure things out and all managed to complete the list.
What I’m looking forward to…
Quicker Messaging and One-Spot for ALL Student Communication.
Slack gives me the opportunity to fire back SMS-style messages to students in rapid fashion. I don’t need to worry about the formalities of email or logging into a website like Canvas. Student asks a question, I respond to it. Moreover, all of my electronic communication with students will happen in one app. No need to worry about whether they got my email or saw my comments on Google Classroom. It’s all in Slack and it’s all searchable.
Staying on Top of Student Work.
As students work at different paces through my Scarlet Letter unit, I hope to stay on top of giving them feedback by using Slack as a “real-time” feedback loop. I’ve chunked out much of the work of the unit into small assignments that students can complete and submit at their own pace and complete in a variety of ways. They will post their work to a certain channel in Slack. My plan is to take moments throughout the day to keep up with that.
In-Class Polls and Voting.
Slack allows me to create polls, have students vote on options, and +1 each other’s work. For example, in preparation for a class discussion, I can have students post potential discussion questions. They can then respond to those questions with emojis. The question with the most +1’s is the question that will start our discussion!
In order to create a quick visual reference for everyone involved, I intend to respond to student work in Slack with emojis. Sounds crazy, right? Not really. As a fan of single-panel rubrics, I believe that students either meet the bar or they don’t. If a student submits something that meets the bar, then they get a thumb’s up. If it doesn’t meet the bar, then they get a question mark emoji with some more written or verbal feedback as to how they can improve. If they do an exceptional job, I give them a thumb’s up and a plus sign. My hope is that students will be able to look for their Slack messages and quickly see what work met expectations and what work didn’t.
By instituting Slack, I am telling students that they are encouraged to collaborate on everything. I teach five different sections and I’m hoping that students will work together and use Slack to accomplish this. For example, one of my dreams is to hear about a student in an AP section pairing up with a student in a non-AP section to complete some assignment. I hope that Slack will open up a natural avenue for communication across all of my classes.
Quick Exit Tickets.
As I mentioned above, students are working through this unit at their own pace. Consequently, students spend a lot of class time doing different things. Some are working on one of the assignments while others are taking class time to read the book and still others are having conversations in the corner about what a particular passage meant. (I know. Sounds like a good dream, right?) In any case, as an exit ticket, I intend to ask students to leave me a couple of sentences in Slack telling me what they accomplished that day.
Slack apps allow you to create bots that will automatically post messages. One of the apps that I’ve integrated with Slack is Google Calendar. For each class day, I post the agenda in Google Calendar. The Google Calendar app on Slack will post the agenda for the day in advance so that students get a reminder of what to expect.
What I’m worried about…
Let’s face it: any time we try something new in our classrooms, we are destined to encounter some problems. I’m absolutely sure that something is going to happen which I haven’t foreseen, but here are a couple that I am concerned about.
New System That LOOKS Tougher Than It Is.
When you first open Slack, it definitely looks intimidating, especially for those of us that are tad bit techno-phobic. I am worried that some students will immediately be turned off by this fancy chat room.
Keeping It Organized.
Slack relies on search, plain and simple, rather than organization. I am worried that things will feel very disorganized. I tend to create classroom spaces in LMS’s that are hyper-organized. This will definitely take me out of my comfort zone.
Ideas and Feedback?
In a few weeks time, after braving my new systems, I hope to have some feedback from students that helps me to either ditch all of this or work to make it even better.
Do you have any ideas, questions, or feedback that you’d like to share? Feel free to respond in these comments or hit me up on twitter (@sbhebert).
Stephen Hebert teaches American Literature and AP English Language & Composition at the Oakridge School in Arlington, Texas. Feel free to reach out to him via twitter: @sbhebert.