When I was a classroom teacher, the best “tech” I had access to was a shared VCR/DVD player and a cracked overhead projector. As a result, I was unable to leverage technology for better “personalization” in my classroom, and so I leveraged relationships, instead.
I “personalized” by getting to know my students deeply--beyond just their academic strengths and weaknesses. By knowing what was going on at home, their emotional triggers and what motivated them, I was able to make sure their needs were met beyond my classroom - which led to much greater academic success within it.
Now, I am an Assistant Principal at Alpha: Blanca Alvarado Middle School, and my school has all the technology I was missing. We have one to one laptops for every student and a blended learning model. But even with all this, when I came in, I realized that we were not utilizing technology to improve in the area that I had found to be so important in my own teaching: the relationships.
With more than 480 students under my care, I can’t have consistent, meaningful conversations with each individual student. So I found myself asking – can we leverage technology to better help us understand the human needs and struggles of each student?
At Alpha, our foundational approach to relationship-building and student social-emotional development is grounded in a program called “Personalized Leadership Training” (PLT), a combination of individual social-emotional and physical skill-building with group collaboration, goal-setting, problem-solving and physical challenges.
For a program like this to be most effective, we need to know what is going on with our students on a level beyond academic data and visible behaviors. Teachers need to understand the challenges students are facing in and outside of school to provide personalized solutions for overcoming those challenges.
For example, a student who seems to be perfectly “typical” in terms of behavior and grades suddenly starts to act out in class, not turn in work and gets increasingly frustrated. From what you have seen so far, this is not due to their academic skill level, or even their social-emotional skill level, because they have always been able to cope just fine in class. So what’s going on?
Google Forms for Understanding
I’d love to boast about some brilliant, innovative new use of technology here, but, really, for most of these situations, we just use Google Forms. It’s a free tool and process that any teacher or school could implement almost immediately.
As part of our PLT curriculum, students fill in a “Digital Check-in” first thing in the morning once a week. The Digital Check-in is a simple Google Form that has a variety of fields that students fill out to give staff a basic “snapshot” of their current social-emotional world. I should say here that by no means are our Digital Check-Ins perfect or "finished," but they are working in their current form, and thus, worth sharing.
When filling out a Digital Check-in, students let us know the following:
Their specific moods: The form leads in with an image with about 20 “smiley-face” style icons depicting various mood states. Students can select as many of the moods (plus an “other” category) as currently apply to them.
Their general emotional state (scaled): Students learn an emotional scaling system based on colors in PLT. This scale goes from red (“I am at my worst and cannot control myself”) to purple (“I am struggling and need help”) to yellow (“I am neutral”) to green (“I am at my best”). These colors do not represent specific moods, but, rather, how much help they might need (or are able to give others) to be at their best and able to communicate and learn effectively.
Why they feel that way (optional): Students can write in an explanation for why they are feeling the way they are (if they want to) - the good and the bad.
Check-in “Question of the Day”: Often, there is a particular “Check-in Question of the Day” that students are directly responding to that is related to that day’s PLT content or teacher-selected to reflect on current topics/issues specific to the class.
“Do you need immediate help?”: A check box that sends students to another form that allows them to specifically ask for academic or emotional support. We teach our students to take this box and form very seriously, to limit the number of “false positives” from students.
Each class has their own form, pre-populated with student names to select from a list, to guarantee consistent spelling if/when we want to sort responses by a particular child. Every response is also automatically time-stamped and student’s usernames are automatically collected, as well.
A few different things happen after students submit their Digital Check-ins. First, teachers have full access to a spreadsheet with responses, so they can skim through immediately, getting a quick gauge on how students are feeling, and catch any immediate concerns right away.
Second, a notification of submitted forms goes out in a “Daily Digest” to me. I take about 15 minutes the following morning to skim through different classes’ responses to catch any immediate concerns that teachers have missed. This is where our color-scale is very useful, as I can do an initial skim for any “red” or “purple” students as a first-line filter for students needing possible intervention.
Third, for students who checked “yes” to a need to speak to an adult immediately, we triage their responses immediately to make sure we aren’t missing any emergencies.
It really takes no more than about 2-3 minutes for me to scan a full class’ Digital Check-in responses and get a snapshot of how our students are doing on a general social-emotional level. This allows us to get deeper knowledge about what our students are dealing with--everything from “it is my sister’s Quinceañera this weekend, and I am really excited” to “my parents were fighting again last night, and I didn’t get any sleep” or “I am really hungry right now because we don’t have breakfast at home.”
Scaling Relationship Building
Through this simple technology, we are better prepared for situations like the one mentioned at the beginning, when “normal” performing and behaving students suddenly act out. We have been faster to get help for students suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts, and able to intervene with and “pep-talk” students who were otherwise about to have behavior issues based on external situations. All with just an additional 5 minutes of student time per week, and about 10 minutes per week (for teachers) or 10 minutes a day (for me).
We’re now almost two years into this process, and I can confidently say that technology can absolutely increase our knowledge about students’ social-emotional lives. But that’s just the beginning! Next time I will share how we have been working to leverage technology to better teach students social-emotional skills to help them take control of their own lives.
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