Thursday, September 27, 2018

Feedback and communicating with families

A goal I wanted to work on this school year is more systematic feedback on mathematical practices as well as better communication with families about what students were working on and their progress. I also wanted to do it in a way that didn't emphasize grading and evaluation and kept the student at the center of setting goals, reflecting on progress, and owning the process.

This blog post had a great suggestion for using Google forms to have students reflect each week and have those reflections emailed to parents. The prompts asked students to describe what they learned that week and how they feel about the class. To be honest, the directions for setting up the emailing were a bit too complicated for me and involved using Add-Ons that our tech administrator wasn't too jazzed about, so I did it in a way that seemed more simple and worked well for me. I'll summarize the deets below, but wanted to first say that I've done this twice now (students are reflecting every other week) and have gotten very positive responses from parents. It takes a lot less time than emailing individual parents, and I think it makes a big difference for parents to hear about progress in their children's own voice.

I changed the questions to be a bit more focused on goal-setting and learning. The questions I'm asking are:

  1. What have you learned in the last two weeks? Be as specific as you can - feel free to look through your notebook.
  2. How do you feel about your learning of this material, both from class work and homework? (3 = I can teach it to someone else; 2 = I understand it pretty well, but have some questions; 1 = I am very confused and/or have a lot of questions)
  3. How do you feel about your class engagement and work? Have you been engaged and focused? Have you worked productively with a variety of classmates? Have you been a respectful skeptical peer and asked for feedback on your thinking?
  4. How do you feel about your homework effort? Did you allocate time well during the week? Pick problems at a good challenge level? Stick with hard problems? Try different things? Ask questions? Make corrections during class?
  5. What was your goal/next steps the last time you reflected? Did you make progress towards this goal? Why or why not?
  6. What are your next steps? What should you keep doing during class and at home? What should you do differently? Do you need to follow up with your teacher?
To clarify, students have a lot of choice in their homework each week - they have an hour to spend on a problem set that has questions at different levels of challenge and depth so I find it helpful for them to reflect on their choices and make changes, if needed. They also have a single assignment due at the end of each week so they should be thinking about how to best allocate their time during the week to avoid leaving it for the last minute.

I make a new version of the form every two weeks and the responses feed into a spreadsheet. I also ask for their name so I can sort the responses alphabetically. I add a column at the end where I add any additional notes I want to share with the family. Usually, it's things like, "This is a great goal. It sounds like X is ready to try some harder problems on the homework next week." I have a list of parent emails that I can then paste in as well as two somewhat fancy things that make the whole system work (not that fancy in actuality, but let me get excited here for a sec). The first one is a cell that combines all of the student responses in one place for ease of emailing. 

The code to make that magic happen is: 

CHAR(10) just creates a line break between responses. The & symbol concatenates responses so that they appear next to the question. Otherwise, it just pulls the responses into a single cell. Drag down the formula to have this for all of the students. Then, add another column to the right that will track whether an email has been sent (this is useful if some students are absent and do this later so you end up running the email script multiple times and don't want to resend the emails that already sent).

When you're done, you have a spreadsheet that looks like this:

(your email sent column will initially be blank)

Okay, this is where the fun really begins. Under Tools, select Script Editor. I found a script for emailing from a spreadsheet and amended it to email two addresses. You can use it too. Ta da.

The code in that link is:

// This constant is written in column C for rows for which an email
// has been sent successfully.

 * Sends non-duplicate emails with data from the current spreadsheet.
function sendEmails2() {
  var sheet = SpreadsheetApp.getActiveSheet();
  var startRow = 1; // First row of data to process
  var numRows = 28; // Number of rows to process
  // Fetch the range of cells desired
  var dataRange = sheet.getRange(startRow, 1, numRows, 4);
  // Fetch values for each column in the Range.
  var data = dataRange.getValues();
  for (var i = 0; i < data.length; ++i) {
    var row = data[i];
    var emailAddress1 = row[0]; // First column
    var emailAddress2 = row[1]; // Second column
    var message = row[2]; // Third column
    var emailSent = row[3]; // Fourth column
    if (emailSent != EMAIL_SENT) { // Prevents sending duplicates
      var subject = 'Bi-Weekly Math Update';
      MailApp.sendEmail(emailAddress1, subject, message);
      MailApp.sendEmail(emailAddress2, subject, message);
      sheet.getRange(startRow + i, 4).setValue(EMAIL_SENT);
      // Make sure the cell is updated right away in case the script is interrupted

Notice that my script currently starts on the first row and processes 28 rows (I piloted this in two sections only). You might have more students so will need to process a larger number of rows. You do need to make sure you don't go too far and get to an empty row. The script doesn't like it when there's no data in a cell it's calling up. By the way, when parents respond to this script-generated email, their response goes directly to my regular school email address because Google is magical.

How do students have access to all of their reflections, you ask? I went a bit Google spreadsheet happy and added a tab to my master grading spreadsheet that pulls in the reflection responses for each student using the IMPORTRANGE function. Each student then has their own spreadsheet that pulls in just their reflection responses (as well as feedback on content learning goals). There is now a chain of Google sheets happily talking to each other and emailing parents every two weeks. What a world.

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