My step-dad has a cell phone. Has for some time now, in fact, but that is not to say he’s easier to reach than he used to be. Sure, every now and then he’ll answer it when it rings (if it’s even on to receive the signal of an incoming call), but more often than not, it sits, idle, hugely under-performing. Merely representing potential, nothing more.
This is how I’ve come to feel about the majority of teacher websites (like the one pictured above, for instance). Technology such as it is, blogs (websites) for teachers have become ubiquitous. As they should. But much like my step-dad’s cell phone, so many of these sites are but scratching the surface of their potential. Teachers have them because they can, because it’s so easy to start, and they use them for a week or two each year, but then they’re left to gather digital dust as their owners get back to the task at hand. Teaching. Or, if they are used regularly, they’re just a place to find the syllabus, or a teacher bio, or the weekly homework.
Poor websites. Abandoned. Alone.
True, maintaining a website takes work. It’s another thing, right? Another task we’re responsible for. But unlike, say, the newest app, or Twitter, I don’t think teacher websites, at least for middle school and above, are optional anymore. I don’t think we can, or should, justify not having a robust, useful, interactive digital space for our classrooms.
Some of the things I believe a teacher/class website is great for:
- Providing up to date information to students and parents regarding classwork, homework, deadlines, events.
- Embedding a video lecture for students to review in preparation for the following day’s activities.
- Student writing, and the associated peer/teacher review/feedback.
- Digital portfolios for student work.
- Weekly or monthly Sandbox - unrelated to coursework, an opportunity for one student each week/month to share something they have an interest in, talent or passion for, curiosity about, etc, for the class to use as a jumping off point to explore.
- Highlighting relevant and compelling resources that do more than transfer knowledge - resources that motivate and inspire and, if we’re lucky, little by little, convince students to care about what they’re learning.
- Guest posts from other teachers to encourage cross curricular teaching/learning.
- Providing ‘internet exclusive’ extra credit opportunities for those who take the time to visit the website regularly.
- Create a sense of belonging and community that extends beyond their physical time in the class and encourages them to engage beyond the bare minimum.
- Providing opportunities for formative assessment - embedding forms or other tools to give students the ability to demonstrate understanding and retention of key learning outcomes (or signal to you that they need more support).
- Collaborative story-telling.
This is a partial list, of course, and the possibilities approach the infinite - the more seasoned teachers among us could certainly expand on this list. But regardless of the potential, none of it will be realized with the standard teacher website. The one that is visually uninteresting and, more to the point, reflects little to no commitment or investment by the teacher. Yep, takes time, effort, perhaps a change in perspectives as it concerns technology in the classroom, but in my mind, from my vantage point, the potential benefits far outweigh the costs.
Self Hosted Teacher Websites
My final thought on this is that our teacher websites should also be self-hosted. Meaning, not of the ‘free, but hosted (and, therefore, controlled) by someone else’ variety. I am a huge fan of WordPress, and I think their free option, where they host it and give you a domain name similar to www.yourdomain.wordpress.com, is generous and useful and a perfect fit for a lot of people.
But as teachers, if we are to have effective websites, I think we need to go a step further. Having a domain name that we own, and a hosting account for that domain/website, also that we own, is key. Yes, again, it’s a little more work and a little more money (around $70/year, total), but the flexibility it offers, and the ownership we get to feel, makes it well worth the cost. Being able to customize the site to our own personality, classroom needs, etc. is a key feature of having a self-hosted WordPress site. I think it also ups the ante in terms of our commitment - if we’re paying for it, even that small amount, we’re more likely to use it the way we should.
A slight variation on this, one that offers similar flexibility without the cost, is for the school to maintain a WordPress MU (multi-user) site, and give each teacher their own space on that site. It’s a great option if the school is committed to it, and if there is someone available who can manage it and teach/train the individual teachers.
I have had my teaching credential for precisely 18 months, and I’ve only substitute taught since that time. But rarely a day passes that I don’t think about how I could increase engagement by using the digital tools available to us. My own childrens’s teachers’ websites, where available, though well-intentioned, are underwhelming. They offer a link to the syllabus, discuss classroom rules, list the daily homework, provide teacher bio information.
No engagement. No encouragement of curiosity. No meaningful resources. No clear proof whatsoever that the teacher is excited and grateful to be in a position to lead/mentor/guide/encourage/inspire our young people.
There are always reasons. Justifications for not living up to our potential. But just because we can think ‘em up, cite them with vigor, support them with example after example, doesn’t mean we should.
Technology is transforming education whether we accept it or not. By getting out in front, showing our students that we understand this (and, thus, understand much of their experience as young people in the world today), helping them to learn good digital citizenship and to use the tools available to improve themselves and enhance their learning, we’re fulfilling our roles as teachers and, perhaps, beginning to make the kinds of impacts we all came to this profession to make.