12 July 2007

Do You Have a Classroom Companion Website?

Are you using the internet to your advantage? My classroom companion website (The Précis) has become an excellent tool for communicating with students and parents. It sprang from my weekly printed newsletter and the content of both is the same. Students routinely visit my website to keep up with assignment due dates, look up the Journal topics, get the secret word for next week's vocabulary test, and get help in studying for specific topics or texts. Even today, a student, or a parent, visited my website to get information about the summer reading list -- I can see the search results which directed traffic to my site and "pccs summer reading list" brought someone to the site. Plus, I am not limited to the four printed pages of the weekly newsletter; a website allows me to post additional resources for students who want them. There are puzzle worksheets, book reviews, and a daily devotional. It would be very difficult to make these readily available to students in the classroom without an online repository or tons of paper which would be quickly discarded. Instead, students and their parents have unlimited access to the resources I want them to have!

There is a price, of course, but really the time and effort are minimal in comparison with the results. And, automation really simplifies things. I always try to work smarter, not harder, and I look for ways to automate the publishing process. For example, I use Google calendar and FeedBurner to manage the calendar. Anything I post to the calendar is immediately viewable from my website. I am not required to rewrite a calendar page; I simply make appointments in my classroom calendar at Google and the programming handles the rest. (Even better, I use a very inexpensive program to allow me to update my Google calendar straight from Outlook; appointments with specific categories are transferred from my laptop to Google. So a calendar on my website takes no effort at all). Moreover, I have learned how to write my printed newsletter, required by the school, from the website itself. "Cut and paste" means I always have materials ready to print in the newsletter, and the articles in the newsletter are just posts on the website!

No website is effective, however, without visitors and feedback. To get students and their parents to the website, I write the address on the board a couple of times a week. I print it in the weekly newsletter. I email it to parents (it's part of my email signature as well) and I offer rewards to students who visit the site. For example, the secret word is extra credit on the vocabulary tests. I offer extra credit once a semester to students who leave positive comments (vanity, all is vanity). I ask students for their feedback and I study the search results report to discern what visitors are seeking (and I quickly make it available to them if it fits with the overall purpose of the site).

It's not making me rich (teaching never will, I suppose), but my classroom companion website makes me just a little more effective. It can't be everything to everybody, but it can function with a specific purpose in mind. That's the most important part; keep the website on focus. Remember the target audience and the website purpose. Even though I post photos and thoughts about my family, I always write for my students. The photos fit a secondary purpose of the site: making myself more transparent and available to the students. They certainly help bring the students to the site -- my students adore my children. [Because I teach in a private Christian school affiliated with a church, I see many of my students more than most public school teachers do. After the first quarter, all of my students know my kids! And my children know most of my students by name!]

Do you have a classroom website? Do you make materials (worksheets, syllabi) and a calendar available to parents and students? The Summer vacation, or "off-season," is a great time to work on your website. Always improve it. Add more materials and more links to the websites you want your students visiting next quarter as they research course topics. Be shameless in your promotion of it; I realized how valuable my newsletter and website are when a parent, who had not known about them, said, "Now we're empowered." That's the point!

I would gladly link to your classroom website if you leave a comment with your name and the URL. Between you and me, working together, we can make more materials available to our students.

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