We Already Have Google Classroom. Why Do We Need Seesaw?

These two learning management systems are a match made in LMS heaven.

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Photo by airfocus on Unsplash

My history with Google Classroom

I’ve been using Google Classroom since 2016. I’ve taught in a total of three Google-hosted schools in the years since I first started using it, so I’ve had plenty of time to build competence and confidence with this learning management system.

For the uninitiated, Google Classroom is a platform that utilizes the storage and sharing powers of Google Drive. It’s not especially powerful and doesn’t offer the nicest user experience. But it’s clean, efficient, and does most of what teachers, students, and parents need it to do.

I remain a big fan of Google Classroom and respect the ways this (still free) platform has iterated over time to improve its management of teacher instruction and student learning.

My history with Seesaw

This is now my third year using Seesaw as an eighth grade teacher. When I was first introduced to this learning management system in 2018, I was skeptical.

What was the point of Seesaw when we already used Classroom? Wasn’t it a little redundant? Wouldn’t parents be annoyed by yet another point of contact?

It didn’t take me too long to become a Seesaw believer, however. It was slow at first, but over time — with more risk-taking and experimentation — things started to click. I began to recognize what sets Seesaw apart, and how it could play a powerful role in the learning process for my students.

Experiencing both platforms from the parent perspective

With my own middle schooler also plugged into both platforms, I was able to experience Google Classroom and Seesaw from the parent side as well. It was a great experience.

From Google Classroom, I received daily automated emails informing me of class announcements, learning activities that were due soon for submission, and any assignments that were missing or overdue.

From Seesaw, I received notifications that let me know when my son (or his teacher) had posted photos, videos, or other products of student learning. I was able to view, like, and comment on his work in real time.

From Google Classroom, I received raw information and dates about my son’s learning. From Seesaw, I could see it and hear it in practice.

It was a great tandem.

Why should teachers, schools, and districts use Google Classroom?

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Let’s start at the beginning of the learning management conversation. Why should schools use Google Classroom at all?

In my view, there are lots of reasons. Here are some of them:

  • It’s free.
  • It’s completely cloud-based, allowing students to use Chromebooks as their primary device for learning (significant cost savings for schools and districts).
  • Smooth integration with Google Drive allows teachers to create learning activities in the G Suite and share them with ease.
  • Google Drive education accounts offer unlimited storage. Also for free.
  • The Google Classroom to-do list allows students to track all of their outstanding work in one place.
  • The ‘Make a Copy for Every Student’ option allows teachers to drop into student work (on Docs, Slides, Sheets, Drawings, Jamboard, etc.) and offer feedback in real time. Amazing!
  • It also tracks assignment submissions in real time, so teachers can see at a glance how many assignments are outstanding and who the holdouts are.
  • Its integration with Google Meet allows a convenient and secure way to meet virtually with remote learners. Google admins can disable student creation of Google Meets, making the link in Classroom 100% secure.
  • It allows teachers to design numberless rubrics based entirely on curricular competencies and proficiencies.
  • Integration with Google Forms allows teachers to post formative assessments that score themselves (if you’re into that) and give students instant feedback.
  • Private comments on every posted assignment allow for efficient teacher-student communication, feedback, and support.
  • Tight integration with Google Calendar means that Classroom due dates appear automatically in teacher and student calendars.
  • Countless third party apps and platforms allow quick importing of class lists or quick exporting of learning activities (from the app to Google Classroom). EdPuzzle and Khan Academy are two well-known examples.
  • The ‘Guardian Updates’ feature automatically does the important work that teachers have done manually for decades: they let parents know which learning activities are due soon for submission, and which learning products are missing or overdue.
  • It allows for quick and convenient email communication with selected guardians.

Okay, so you’re sold on Google Classroom. If you’re reading this post at all, perhaps you already were. Let’s move to the question that brought you to this post in the first place.

Why should teachers, schools, and districts use Seesaw?

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If Google Classroom already does so much, why should we use Seesaw as well?

Here are some of the reasons why schools and districts should also use Seesaw (and to be clear — this is NOT a paid promotion).

  • It’s more mobile-friendly than Google Classroom. There’s a designated app for parents that optimizes beautifully on mobile devices.
  • It’s powerful but simple enough to allow students of all ages to construct, share, and reflect on their learning.
  • It makes the learning journey more visible for all parties: for students, parents, and teachers. Google Classroom never shows learning activities to parents, and it can’t track work effectively over more than one school year.
  • It’s built for engagement, interaction, authentic audiences, and shared ownership. By allowing parents to view images, videos, and content, and then like and comment on those artifacts from their child’s learning, we’re letting them into the process. We’re also letting students know that their learning matters and that it happens in community. It expands the audience from the narrow vertical experience of teacher-student and student-teacher.
  • It allows in-app screencasting, allowing students to discuss their learning while typing, writing, or manipulating a stylus (without leaving the app). Thanks to Seesaw, I can watch and listen to every one of my 25 eighth grade Math students narrate their process as they provide solutions to given problems. That’s the kind of magic that is difficult to pull off on Google Classroom without a lot more clicks and the use of third party applications.
  • It allows teachers to easily add audio instructions and feedback.
  • It redefines teaching and learning for all stakeholders. Seesaw helped me evolve in my thinking about the nature of the learning process itself. Sure, I was already using learning targets to plan my lessons before Seesaw, but my teaching practice on this platform has only clarified my vision around purpose. Every time I share a photo or video of student work or students in action, the rationale should be more than just assembling a scrapbook of moments. These artifacts should show learning in motion toward clearly defined goals. And that’s a critical paradigm.
  • Seesaw allows us to build a more complete picture of a student’s learning. A child’s Seesaw journal is a record of all of their learning artifacts and reflections, viewable in a single stream or filtered by skill or subject folder. These pieces of learning don’t need to represent perfection — instead, they should show learning happening over time.
  • Seesaw allows schools to build longitudinal records of student learning over multiple years. Although I’ve never seen this in person, schools should be able to track a single student’s learning over 13 years in a single place. To track a student’s journey of growth for even a portion of that time — say, a student’s middle school learning journey — would be incredibly powerful.
  • Seesaw makes student-led conferences more impactful and interesting. It promotes agency, ownership, and student voice by allowing students to walk parents and teachers through their learning journey in a user-friendly format — basically impossible to pull off in Google Classroom.

A shorthand way to think of the two platforms

In short, Google Classroom remains the place where students DO most of their learning. Seesaw should be the place where they SHOW it.

That isn’t a perfect way to understand the partnership between the two platforms, but I think it’s a good summary.

Won’t students and parents be overwhelmed by two learning management systems?

That’s a fair question, but it hasn’t matched my experience.

Helping students understand how to manage both platforms has been fairly simple. What it comes down to is maintaining Google Classroom as the primary place for students to track learning activities. By posting any Seesaw activities on Google Classroom, students are reminded to complete it simply by checking their Google Classroom to-do list.

I’ve been on the parent side of both platforms at the same time, and it was far from overwhelming. But for any parents concerned about a perceived blizzard of communications and notices coming from multiple directions, my advice is to make their inbox their one-stop-shop.

Google Classroom and Seesaw both utilize email, so parents should feel no need or obligation to visit either platform without an emailed notification (they actually can’t visit Google Classroom, anyway).

My recommendation: centralizing teacher communication

Schools and districts who live in Google Classroom and Seesaw will want to talk about how and where teachers communicate with parents. Yes, both apps generate a fair number of automated notifications, but that’s not what I’m thinking of here.

I’m talking about particular messages, updates, or information that teachers need to share with parents. Things like class newsletters, field trip forms, or important announcements. Which app should teachers use?

There is no right or wrong answer. Both Classroom and Seesaw can be used to communicate quickly and easily with parents. In my context, our school is asking teachers to use a school app to share and access news, reporting, and class communication. Whether your school decides to communicate through Classroom, Seesaw, or a third option, the key will be consistency.

The learning business is now the change business

This year I have the challenge of helping to introduce Seesaw to teachers who have been using Google Classroom for years. As teachers, it can be frustrating to get the sense that we’re being asked to make another fundamental change to our practice every time we turn around. I completely get that.

Educators should never be asked to give up our capacity to think critically. We’re fighters, and I’d be less concerned as an administrator if I heard strong and sensible pushback to a policy versus hearing nothing at all.

But I also want to remind educators that we are in the learning business. And because it’s the twenty-first century, we are also in the change business. Our profession was turned upside down by COVID-19, but we’ve been in flux for a long time before the pandemic.

Ten years ago I used an overhead projector in my classroom and carried a monstrous stacks of papers to and from school each day. A lot has changed in the years since.

Adapting to change is going to be a part of our profession from here on out, and it’s a necessary part of our growth and improvement as learning leaders. Whether it’s Seesaw, another LMS, or another fundamental change to our assessment practices, it won’t be the last change we’ll make.

Adopting a positive mindset that embraces growth will be essential. And as we model that lifestyle of learning, our students will recognize it and benefit.

Our ultimate filter

When it comes to curriculum, instruction, and assessment of learning, our decision-making should always come down to two questions.

Is this good for kids?

Is this good for learning?

When it comes to these two platforms, I believe the answers are yes and yes.

Episode 101 – Nancy Frey

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Meet Nancy Frey

NANCY FREY is a Professor of Educational Leadership and Literacy at San Diego State University at the graduate and doctoral levels. She’s also an instructor at Health Sciences High and Middle College, a secondary charter school which she co-founded 13 years ago with Doug Fisher and others. The school runs from grade 8-12 with about 700 students, and her teaching practice there helps to make sure that the ideas she advocates for in her research and writing actually work in practice.

Nancy has also authored or co-authored a number of books, including PLC+: Better Decisions and Greater Impact by Design.

Rocked By a Hurricane

When asked about a low moment, Nancy thinks back to the time she spent teaching in south Florida. One year, Hurricane Andrew hit the area just days before school opened. The storm exacted a heavy toll on the communities across the region, causing her district to expand very quickly due to damaged and destroyed schools in nearby counties. More significantly, almost every additional student came into the district with significant emotional trauma.

It was a difficult year that even made Nancy challenge her place in the profession, partly because she felt so unprepared to offer the guidance, comfort, and support that her learners truly needed while also promoting their academic growth and development. Thankfully, with a mix of inner commitment and support from colleagues, Nancy remained an educator, and she now credits this year with giving her valuable experiences and perspectives regarding trauma-informed education.

What is Visible Learning?

Visible Learning is the terminology used to refer to the research engineered by John Hattie, who used a meta-analysis to review hundreds of academic studies in an effort to determine what truly works in education. From this research, he and his team have created an index of what he calls effect sizes: how do different interventions positively or negatively affect learning outcomes?

With close to 300M students represented in these studies, this research can say with authority what works and what doesn’t in education. Supported by the groundbreaking research and resources from Visible Learning, schools and districts no longer need to guess about where to apply their energies. 

Taking Your PLC to the Next Level: PLC+

PLC+ by Nancy Frey and Douglas FisherIn PLC+: Better Decisions and Greater Impact by Design, Nancy and Doug Fisherlook at the power behind professional learning communities and apply the latest research to suggest ways to take PLCs to the next level. The ‘+’ in PLC+ is you – what it is that you bring to your learning community.

The book organizes the PLC+ process around five key questions:

  1. Where are we going? What is our destination?
  2. Where are we now? Take a situational assessment.
  3. How can we move learning forward?
  4. What did we learn today? How are we enriching ourselves as a PLC so that we can continue the work that we’re doing?
  5. Who benefited and who did not? This is the essential question of equity.

These questions are grounded in four universal values:

  • Equity,
  • Higher expectations,
  • Activation, and
  • Individual and collective efficacy – belief in our ability to effect change.

In Nancy’s view, PLCs and our perceptions of them have tended to become more restrictive over time. Twenty-first century manifestations of PLCs should actually integrate well with PLNs in the sense that every member of a PLC must remain engaged in a PLN in order to further support their own learning and allow them to better contribute to their PLC. Other strategies like micro-learning and learning walks must be parts of robust PLCs as well.

Building Literacy Through the Tools of Metacognition

When I asked Nancy for some quick advice for the literacy classroom, Nancy pointed back to John Hattie. Do you know your impact? Do you know when your students have learned something? These are the questions that must drive everything we do in literacy and throughout K-12 education.

In the literacy classroom we must also ask ourselves how we are bringing students into the learning. This goes beyond ensuring content relevance – it means that students must understand WHAT they are learning, WHY they are learning it, and HOW they will know that they have been successful in learning it. Learning intentions and success criteria must be made clear to learners in every lesson, and when it comes to English classes, progress tends to be incremental – they’re generally not leaving a 30-minute lesson with a brand new skill.

With that in mind, we must give students the tools of self-assessment: how can students look at their own work and gauge their own growth and progress? How can we equip our learners to critique the work of peers? For English teachers looking to empower their students in this area, Nancy points to a few titles including Developing Assessment-Capable Visible Learners, Grades K-12: Maximizing Skill, Will, and Thrill.

Other Areas That Are Setting Nancy on 🔥 in Education

Nancy is very intrigued by the ways that technology is being effectively embedded and woven into instruction today. She points to the ways that our views of technology in education have changed from past decades: from computer lab to essential tool. Technology tools can be a double-edged sword, however, because technology itself is no assurance of learning, and in fact, we still don’t fully understand how technology changes the ways in which students learn.

Today, high school students walk around with computers in their pockets – devices more powerful than the computers that first sent spaceships to the moon. On the one hand, these phones can be the bane of a teacher’s existence, but on the other hand, educators must better harness this technology in order to advance learning.

The questions around phones and phone policy in schools are not easy ones to answer, but we must continue to struggle and learn in this area. (Editor’s Note: Check out my exploration of this issue at On Schools and Cell Phones.)

Is Handwriting an Essential Literacy Skill?

Should pens and pencils remain part of the writing classroom? Nancy says that students should be exposed to a wide continuum of learning experiences. Evidence also suggests that the motor functions involved in writing seem to inform the abilities of young learners to break the code (decode letters and words). Young children should know how to engage in print and cursive, and older students should at least have the capacity to sign their name. Nancy shares her experience from a recent class of seniors – many of whom struggled to sign a document in cursive. Yes, young learners should learn how to keyboard, and voice-to-text will continue to change the nature of composition. 

Professional Goals for This Year

Nancy’s annual and evergreen goal is to ask: How can I be a better teacher this year? If that isn’t a question you’re asking, Nancy chuckles, it may be time to look for a new profession. Lately, Nancy has been writing about the intersection between teacher credibility and collective efficacy and the ways in which these two constructs can support and promote the other.

Nancy is also intrigued by the ways that students learn about their own learning through practice tests. Do students know what they’re learning and what they’re not learning?

Personal Passions Outside of Education

One activity that ignites Nancy’s passions and brings her alive as a human being when she leaves the halls of education is her work with kettlebells. She has participated in functional fitness workouts with kettlebells and the kettlebell community for the last six or seven years, and she is consistent. “Strong is the new skinny,” she says. She hits her gym about six days out of seven, and it’s formed a big part of her personal wellness.

A Productivity Habit: Meditation

The personal habit that has been making the biggest difference for Nancy in the productivity space is meditation. She meditates for 15 minutes after waking up each morning, and she finds that she is more productive as a result. It’s time to be quiet, to be mindful, to be self-aware, and to slow down. Nancy uses the Calm app and is competitive enough that her personal streaks are important to her, and she even appreciates the badges earned over time.

Voices & Resources That Inspire Nancy’s Practice

On Twitter, Nancy is a big fan of the #G2Great hashtag and regular Twitter chat.

As far as edtech tools go, Nancy loves what smartpens do for learners and learning in the classroom. There are so many uses for smartpens that fit within UDL and increase equity for all learners.

Tis by Frank McCourtNancy’s all-time favorite read is Tis: A Memoir by Frank McCourt. This classic describes the life of an English teacher in New York City from an earlier time.

In the world of podcasts, Nancy’s pick is Disgraceland, which unpacks the spectacular missteps and disasters that have followed countless pop music stars. It’s a guilty pleasure and Nancy can’t get enough of it.

On YouTube, Nancy is a big fan of the resources shared on the Teaching Channel. Get to know the Teaching Channel on Twitter @TeachingChannel

Yes, Nancy does occasionally find time for Netflix! One of her favorite series of late was Russian Doll

We sign off on this conversation, and Nancy gives us the best ways to follow her and connect online. See below for details!

You can connect with Nancy …

Connect with the Teachers on Fire podcast on social media!

Song Track Credits

Listen on YouTube and subscribe to the Teachers on Fire channel!

Episode 61 – Chris Chappotin

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Subscribe to the podcast on your mobile device HERE: iTunes | Google Podcasts | Anchor | Spotify | YouTube

CHRIS CHAPPOTIN is the principal at Steam Middle School in Burleson, TX. He’s a husband, father, Engage 2 Learn Coach, certified Google educator, and big sports fan. He’s also a bit of a rapper as well.

Follow Chris:

*Watch his district’s music video parodies (in which Chris has played an instrumental part) and subscribe to the Burleson Independent School District YouTube channel.

Episode Summary

Chris is the principal at STEAM Middle School, a grade 6-8 campus in Burleson, Texas. He helped start the school in 2015, when he served as assistant principal. After leaving briefly to another school, he was blessed to be able to return and take on the principalship in January 2018. The school’s mantra is all about creating engaging learning through an instructional design process called Engage 2 Learn.

His greatest struggles have related to questions of identity. At times, you wonder as an educator leader if you are having a positive impact, if you are properly equipped, and if you are making the right decisions. Often when you move into a new position you realize that you need to develop new skills sets. Learning to develop new skills in collaborative and authentic ways has been challenging for Chris at times, but the process has helped him gain confidence as a leader as well.

Lately, Chris has been diving into the work of the Visible Learning Institute, including John Hattie and Jenni Donohoo. When it comes to teacher efficacy, Chris asks himself if he is equipping and releasing his teachers to do great work, or if he is limiting them to the role of simply managing. He’s been asking these questions:

  • How are we developing teacher efficacy as a leadership team and throughout our staff?
  • Does the evidence show that our instructional designs and strategies are having the positive effects on student learning and achievement that we want to see?

Referring back to his work on instructional policy and teacher coaching, Chris seeks to grow as a leader. Better leadership means more effectiveness in his own work and also better support and empowerment for his teaching team.

Outside of education, Chris enjoys engagement with his family and community. It’s about strengthening relationships and serving people that he and his wife have known for many years. Chris is also a big sports fan, following the Cowboys and Mavericks closely.

Chris’s favorite edtech tools are the ones that facilitate strong professional conversations. Voxer is still his go-to platform for that purpose, but lately he’s also been looking at another Slack-like tool called Glip. Get to know both of these applications on Twitter @Glip and @Voxer.

On Twitter, Chris suggests following @ShannonKBuerk, CEO of Engage2Learn. In books, Chris points to Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant. Follow the author on Twitter @AdamMGrant.

As a big fan of the Dallas Cowboys and Mavericks, Chris is listening to Undisputed with Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe and First Take. Follow these great sports shows on Twitter @Undisputed and @FirstTake.

Although Chris doesn’t subscribe to YouTube channels, he’s watched a lot of content from the Corwin Press channel. You can follow this publisher on Twitter @CorwinPress. And although Chris doesn’t promote his district’s parody music videos, he’s been a big part of their production. They’re pretty amazing! Check them out at the BurlesonISDTV channel.

It’s not on Netflix, but a show that Chris enjoys when he does get the opportunities to watch some video content is Manifest.

Follow Chris:

Subscribe to the Teachers on Fire podcast on your mobile device: iTunes | Google Podcasts | YouTube | Spotify

On social media, follow the podcast on Twitter @TeachersOnFire and on Instagram @TeachersOnFire.

Song Track Credits

  • Intro: Relax (by Simon More)
  • Outtro: Starley – Call on Me Remix (by DJ Zhorik)

Listen to this episode on YouTube and subscribe for more episodes!

The Power of Authentic Writing

Some incredible things happened in my 8th grade English classroom today.

Photo Credit: Brad Neathery

I’ve been slowly making my way through Sparks in the Dark on my Kindle this year, and every time I return to this book I’m inspired to facilitate more authentic writing in my middle school classroom.

I mean, my students write every day. But how much of that writing is meaningful, passionate, or authentic? How much of it do they personally care about? I know I need to create more space for this kind of expression.

Last week, I asked my students to respond to lyrics from any song that held personal meaning or significance for them. Our learning target was “I can think critically, creatively, and reflectively to explore ideas within, between, and beyond texts.” Today, I asked for volunteers to share their pieces with the class.

Two boys accepted the challenge.

Boys. In 8th grade. In a gradeless classroom, with zero extrinsic motivation.

Sometimes we need to rethink our beliefs around middle school boys. But that’s a thought for another post. I digress.

One of the boys read a reflection about Natural, by Imagine Dragons. The other read a reflection on a song called Reluctant Heroesby Hiroyuki Sawano.

These boys spoke passionately about the human experience: the hardships we face, the expectations we bear, our families and the relationships that matter most.

And get this. As he read a closing paragraph about his family, one reader broke down into tears. If that wasn’t enough, both boys quietly sang all or most of their selected songs.

Their unfiltered emotions were on full display. They were powerfully vulnerable. Their classmates gave each of them standing ovations. I could have cried myself.

I mourn all the moments like these that I’ve missed in my 17 years of teaching, but today’s experience only deepens my resolve to do more authentic writing in the years ahead.

Because this was awesome.

“When you teach someone how to read or how to express themselves using the written word, you change a life. You introduce them to magical worlds, teach them how to access the voice within, and empower them to affect that same change in the lives of others.” – from Sparks in the Dark: Lessons, Ideas, and Strategies to Illuminate the Reading and Writing Lives in All of Us by Travis Crowder (@TeacherManTrav) & Todd Nesloney (@TechNinjaTodd)


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