Outside the Walls: Bringing the K-12 Classroom Online

Recently John, a sixth-grade teacher with whom I work, received this email message:

From: (6 th grade teacher in Michigan)
Sent: Tuesday, August 16, 2005 2:22 PM
To: (John)
Subject: Blackboard Information Request


My name is ______ and I teach 6th grade in ____Public Schools of Michigan. This month I have just been introduced to the idea of keeping up a Blackboard site. During our conference, we were shown your site as an exemplary site to base ours off of.

I am completely convinced that it will be wonderful and worth it. I do however have a question for you since you seem to be experienced in the use of your own Blackboard site. How do you introduce this to your students and parents? Do you have any parent letters, lesson plans or other information on how you would suggest I introduce this new technology to my students and parents?

Thank you for your time,


Michigan teacher

The interesting fact about this message is that John resides here in Central New York. He doesn’t know who did the presentation at what conference. John does know, however, how to respond to this teacher.

Since December of 1999, staff at the Central NY Regional Information Center has been gradually “growing” a project that would allow K-12 teachers at any level to provide classroom support using a course management system that packages a variety of tools into a “classroom” paradigm. This system, provided by Blackboard.com, has gradually evolved into, for us, a portal system that supports thousands of teachers in many local school districts.

While it is difficult not to talk about Blackboard’s system itself, the purpose of this introduction is to show a path to the future, a narrow path we have been gingerly following for five years. It has become increasingly more mainstream as we progress. The rest of this article will showcase ONE teacher, his school district, and its efforts to use this system. A series of follow up articles will feature other teachers and their districts, demonstrating varying efforts and outcomes. Each article will feature something different that, in the aggregate, should clarify the vision that we can connect and extend the learning done in our schools into the lives that our staff members and students lead outside the walls of their K-12 educational institutions.

Here is an outline of the short articles to follow:

  1. John the 6 th grade teacher and how he connects to his parents.
  2. Rob, the Advanced Placement superstar teacher.
  3. Marlene the reluctant, and how she became the 3 rd grade mentor teacher.
  4. Bill, the Science Department head who supports the homebound and the laptop kids.
  5. Mike the maintenance supervisor assesses his people.
  6. Dan the principal, who sponsors middle school teams.
  7. Dan (the author) and how he started up one district from scratch.

Next, for Story One and how John responded to the opening question: “ How do you introduce this to your students and parents?”

Outside the Walls: Bringing the K-12 Classroom Online
By Daniel Lake

John’s Story

John is a successful user of an online support system that supports the work of his classroom. His support site has become a model for other sixth-grade teachers in Central New York – and beyond - who have seen his work.John came to the online course system through his early involvement in a National Science Foundation grant, which promised to help him better focus on teaching science. During the second year of that NSF grant, in the summer of 2000, John began working with an early version of Blackboard instead of a mentoring product that never came to market.

During the 2001-2002 school years, John experimented with numerous elements of the system, but always had a main focus of trying to make his classroom activity available online for parent observations as well as student access. He created letters explaining his course support and how to get to it. He brought parents into the computer lab on Open House night, with his students taking their parents online to the site and showing how it worked. He wrote a number of newsletter articles for local publication.

During the 2003 school year John supported a deaf student in his class by developing three initiatives: 1. He had some class members learn sign language; 2. He assigned two students to act as mentors to the deaf student; and 3. He used the protected chat function of his system for after school connections. At least one night per week, his students would use the Blackboard Virtual Classroom’s chat function for pre-scheduled communications with the deaf student. Sometimes social and sometimes educational, this use of the protected chat function was innovative and helpful to all of his students who joined in. And it was highly beneficial to the deaf student, of course!

By the summer of 2004, John was designated a regional Teacher of the Year by the Syracuse Technology Club. This helped him publicize his activities to his students’ parents even more. During that same summer, he involved central office administrators in the placing of math diagnostic testing instruments into Blackboard. Previous to this, the scoring of these diagnostic tests took weeks to receive from an offsite scoring service. By placing all the questions into the system’s online assessment program (after getting permission from the provider of the questions), teachers could take middle school students to a computer lab, have them do the assessments (using notebooks for recording work), and then get instant results and statistics. That process saved time and assisted their program immensely. This process is now used for grades 6, 7, and 8 in McGraw Central School District.

McGraw, with John’s continued advocacy, is now embarking on the use of a classroom-based “template” to enable all teachers to post homework easily and quickly. This template, developed by John and this author, has now been established for all of his colleagues as a simple point of departure for learning the course management system.

A five- to six-hour training program called “Assignments Always Available” (the AAA program) focuses on content delivery for students and parents, without requiring authentication via user-IDs and passwords. This is offered during a second program called “Strategies for Electronic Exchange,” which focuses on document exchanges and communication interactions. In the AAA program, teachers are taught to provide documentation to students via the Web, easing some of the paperwork burden created by students who are absent or absent-minded when homework must be moved between school and home. Guest access is allowed so parents can review or retrieve the work given. Keeping this stage of training simple and focused will allow John and his McGraw colleagues to move toward 100% participation, a goal they have set for this next school year.

A Michigan teacher recently asked John: “ How do you introduce this to your students and parents?”

Here is his response:

_______, here are several things that I do:

Prior to school starting I send a letter home to all parents and students welcoming them into sixth grade. In the letter I briefly discuss the site and encourage them to log on. I will attach a copy of the letter for you. Blackboard is my vital artery to connecting home and school. When parents and students discuss school at home learning does increase. It is also a way to make parents accountable to what is going on in their child’s classroom. In my classroom I’ve seen changes even in the most reluctant learners.

I get students involved: I make them feel that the site is not mine but ours. I tell them “To make it work, I need your help.” I make a mindmap/web with students, “guiding” them/seeking input on how we can work as a team to make it successful.

I take them on a tour of the site in our computer lab. This way I can use the projection system and they can practice accessing the site. As we are touring the site I draw connections to their ideas for the web. I then go through the steps to getting on the web. Afterwards, to their surprise I shut down all computers and they are to get there without assistance. A first assignment for them is to make a “web” of how the site can be helpful to their learning. (I used Kidspiration with them last year.)

We discuss what they had written as a whole class. Their ideas are then incorporated into the site as appropriate.

Scavenger Hunt: I give them a set of questions that they must answer. This year because of the new format I will have them go into different school sites also to find information.

By posting their assignments in the system on a weekly basis, I encourage its use both in school and out. I do get this information out to the parents.

I don’t worry about the size of my site - it will grow on its own over time. I visit other sites. The global networking is a wonderful aspect of the system.

Two excerpts of letters from John to his parents:

Dear Parents and Sixth Grade Students:

Another school year is underway . I am so pleased to be working with you this 2005-2006 school year! As always, I anticipate many wonderful moments, memories, and skills that we’ll share this year. Let’s pull together to really benefit form this school year experience. Our room is ready and looks great. Students, you can also use passwords that I gave last year to get on to our own web site. Parents, you can also go to OCMBoces ( http://blackboard.ocmboces.org), click on tab at the top “Find a Classroom”, and type “pinto” into the search box. You will also find a direct link from the school website, elementary school, staff pages.

Parents and Students: I need your help in various ways : Parents, keep in touch with me via notes, phone calls and visitations. You will also have access to our Blackboard page that will keep you informed at all times.

Dear Parents,

In October the sixth graders in my class will take part in an exciting program with the State University College at Cortland. The program involves pairing up each student with one or two college students from Cortland. This is being done to individualize instruction in order to meet the learning needs and levels of each child. After their initial meeting on October 3 rd each student will then be corresponding with their SUC Student Instructor using Blackboard. We are in the process of also setting up a site dedicated to the program. Students will be given topics to read and activities to complete using the book “Wolf Journal” written by Brian A. Connolly.

Email:Dan Lake