In this series I'm going to cover some classroom basics, these are the things that any teacher who has been in the classroom for more than a few years probably takes for granted. For the most part, anyone willing to stay in the profession for more than a few years will eventually find their "teacher identity". This identity includes how you see yourself as a professional educator, how you manage relationships with your students and their families, and how you want the administration to view your work. All of these things evolve over time, but until you've made a conscious effort to develop and improve these processes, you're probably going to feel unarmed every school year. That being said, lets talk about how you can leverage your efforts from the previous year, organize the resources into something you can access quickly (and from anywhere), and how you can get rid of the stuff you don't need without actually deleting it.
In other words, lets talk about applying the D.R.Y. principle to your teaching.
What is the D.R.Y. principle?
In other words... Don't Repeat Yourself!
Get a Content management system (CMS)
AKA, where you're going to keep your stuff
First things first, lets define "stuff". When I say "stuff" I mean handouts, assessments, lesson ideas, notes from plc's, meetings, pictures of successful projects, examples of student work, etc... these are all of the things that you will continue to use on a daily or weekly basis that fit into your instruction. This can even be something small like a link to a resource you really like, but are definitely going to forget as soon as you step into class tomorrow morning.
Ok, now what don't I mean by "stuff"? When I say "stuff, I don't mean the physical stuff you use to teach. Pens, Pencils, chalk, whiteboard markers, bovine hearts, paint, and styrofoam are all examples of things that won't be managed by your CMS. Unless of course you're in charge of ordering supplies for yourself, an entire department, or possibly a whole school; in that case you should check out my bonus idea below.
Checklist for identifying a good CMS
- Accessible from any browser (or app)
- Inexpensive (or free)
- Closed System
- Beautiful - easy to use
- Backend system updates automagically!
- Simple publishing interface
Bonus idea for poor souls in charge of ordering supplies
I strongly encourage you folks to keep stock of your equipment via Google sheets if your district isn't giving you a system to do that already. This way you can plan at home and know exactly what you have back at school. If multiple teachers are using the equipment, share access to the spreadsheet and update it diligently! This is a seriously good idea; populate your sheet at the beginning of the year and as you use stuff up, just subtract it as you go and after a year you'll know who used what and exactly what you need to order for next year. - D.R.Y.
Curated list of Content Management Systems
And why you should consider using them.
Google Drive is my number one option as an education CMS because it's free, easy to use, has basically unlimited storage, and integrates with the whole google apps ecosystem. Google Drive is also cloud-based, meaning you can access your resources from any device that's connected to the internet. And if you find yourself running out of storage (this has never happened to me because of Google's world class compression system) you can always pay a few bucks to upgrade your capacity.
Dropbox is also an awesome option for keeping all of your educational resources in one place because, like Google Drive, it's free (with an optional paid version for expanded storage), it's cloud based, and very simple to use. Unfortunately Dropbox doesn't benefit from a huge ecosystem of companion applications, but it might be a good option if you haven't bought into the Google ecosystem yet.
Squarespace is on here for different reasons than Dropbox and Google Drive. It isn't intended to be a dedicated hosting service, and it isn't free, but when used in tandem with Google Drive and Dropbox it's the best way of presenting your information to students, families, administrators, other educators, and pretty much anyone else you want to share your content with. When I first realized it was in my best interest to create a CMS, I chose Squarespace because I didn't just want to display assignments and other forms of communications in the same way my colleagues were, I wanted to present it beautifully; Squarespace does that and more. If I were you, I would definitely shell out the $8 a month if you want to create your own online classroom experience, you get way more than what you're paying for. And as an added bonus, if you pay for a year at a time you'll get a great domain, specific to your class which will be easier to remember and share in the long run. To be clear, this option is for educators who really want to stand out and take their CMS to the next level.
Evernote is also a great way to capture all of your resources, keep them in the cloud (accessible from anywhere as long as you have an internet-connected device), and organize them logically. I used Evernote for a while before I started using mostly Google Drive. I can't say it was because there was anything wrong with it, but I ended up using a lot of Google's apps so the migration was one of utility. One thing I can say that I really love about Evernote, and is rarely mentioned, is how you can transfer, mark up, and categorize physical notes. For a long time I took pictures of my students notebooks (Evernote makes the text searchable) and repurposed those images as an online interactive notebook.
I've never used Edmodo. There was a big push at my school to use this system, and I definitely see the value in it (especially if there is wide acceptance at your school), but I can't say it compelled me. I'm a control freak. I want my website to look a certain way, and I want to use it for purposes other than simply my instruction. But on the other hand, Edmodo has a ton of educator-specific features so it's probably the best option for educators who don't want to deal with any "tech" stuff.
How do I know what to pick?
Pro Tip: Create a dummy gmail account, so you don't end up getting a bunch of spam later on.
Here's the beautiful thing... all of these options are free to play around with. I suggest you dive into each resource for an hour or so and see what you think of it. It's definitely worth it in the long run, and there's no one option for every teacher (like so many other things). If you don't care about creating a website, then keep your content in Google Drive, Dropbox, or Evernote. If you want to create a whole website that you can show off, then go with Squarespace or Edmodo. There are tons of reasons why you might go with one option over another; if you never test it out, then you'll never know if what you go with is the best option. By the way, if you want to start a free trial of the services I mentioned, simply click any of the headers above the option descriptions.
I've got a CMS, what next?
Or : I already had one, I want to learn something new...
Alright, assuming you've picked a CMS you want to go with, or you already had one and were looking for some tips, let's get into how you might organize these items. My first suggestion would be to put everything you can into your system. Scan the handouts you use, digitize your assessments using Google Forms, take pictures of your classroom, upload your lesson plans, scan student work (or take a pictures of it). Basically what I would suggest is to start loading as much content as possible into your new or existing CMS.
Next, when you have an hour or so, go through all of that content and start sticking it into folders that correspond to the week, the unit, the chapter, or however you organize yourself. This step alone is going to make your life a lot easier. You're basically creating collections of work that you can go back to a year from now and instantly remember what students wrote, what you planned, what you actually did, what kinds of differentiation strategies you used, etc. For me, this was a big "AHA!" moment, and it was the first step to becoming a D.R.Y. educator!
Time to organize!
Ok, now it's time to organize all of that content into a format you're going to understand. Think of it as the difference between scrapbooking and filing. If you've gone the website route (with Edmodo or Squarespace) then you're probably going to want to organize your blog posts (how I presented lessons to my students - great for class flipping) or if you've gone the route of Google Drive/Dropbox/Evernote, I strongly encourage you to revisit each of the materials after you've used them to add notes and to start thinking of a storage structure that makes sense. Remember, the goal here is to use the D.R.Y. principal so if you do something like take a dozen photos of your classroom in September, then a dozen photos in October, you probably want to create a single document with links to those photos. This way you can search for "photos of my classroom" and then up pops your file with all of the photos linked neatly. It's better to take the time to organize photos, scanned documents, and other images into a single document file (with links to the photos themselves) than to try to cram everything into a few folders.
Before I explain the "why" behind this strategy, I want you to go back to the original definition of D.R.Y. and think of your own "why". Remember, what we're trying to do is eliminate redundancy in our CMS organization, essentially distilling the number of documents we're interacting with over time into a chosen few. Then, from those we can get where we need to go based on what we're looking for. Assuming you've named everything intuitively you can also start searching for your own resources the same way you use search engines to find resources online.
know when to say goodbye
And how to never really let go of any resources
With great storage capacity comes great responsibility. Somewhere down the road it's going to start getting difficult to find what you're looking for. At this point you can either reorganize your documents (using the structure I showed you above) or you can start getting rid of things. In all honesty I never got rid of anything, in other words I never "deleted" anything. My creative solution to never being 100% sure I would never use something ever again was to put it in a folder within my CMS called "moot", which was essentially my trash bin. Once in a blue moon I would find myself delving into the moot folder, but that was rare.
You're also going to have to face the reality of not being able to repurpose things year after year. After a few years it's a good idea to start populating these folders with newer material but that doesn't mean you have to delete the old stuff (unless you're having a storage crisis) I encourage you to use my "moot" folder solution until that solution no longer serves it's purpose.
Keep The Conversation Going!
Alright, that should get you started when it comes to creating your own Content Management System in line with the D.R.Y. principle. Please leave a comment letting me know what you think of the post, what strategies I should add, resources I should include, and/or general feedback. Also follow me on Twitter for more more posts like this one, and share the ones you find useful.
Thanks for reading!
[header photo credit: Ashes Sitoula]