Google Accounts? Yes, They Need Them

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photo (4)Over the past few weeks we have been in the process of launching Google Apps EDU accounts with our 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade students. Today was the final day of launch with one remaining class of 3rd graders sending me their first email about their favorite books.

I have to admit that when we started this journey I was not 100% sure that our students really needed these accounts.  Does a 6 year-old need email?  Will they really use Google Docs to publish?  Are they ready for the technical aspects of logging in and managing a password?

In spite of these personal lingering questions we moved forward with Google Apps accounts because we knew that students would need greater access to digital publishing tools to meet the digital literacy demands of Common Core and frankly some of our 1st graders were already submitting homework with personal Gmail accounts.  Today as I helped this final group of students login for the first time I was reminded that we definitely made the right decision and it really comes down to equity, digital citizenship, and student voice.

Equity – The differences between students in one class has been quite striking. Whether it was 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grade every class contained group of students more digitally advanced than the rest. In 1st grade they made up approximately 25% of the class, but by 3rd grade the number was closer to 60-70%. These children had no problem finding “the curly a” on the keyboard, could easily navigate websites, and were even able to troubleshoot how to remove a previous student who logged into Chrome. They had a natural digital dexterity, which upon questioning each class seemed to stem from greater access to online tools at home.  The remainder of the students were easily tripped up by simple tasks – opening a new tab, finding Chrome when it was removed from the dock, and using the Return key to make a new line. While each of these pieces are easy to overcome with some basic computer instruction, what concerned me is that the students who struggled were often our students of color and socioeconomically disadvantaged. By providing all students a Google account and having them increasingly complete work in a medium that can be accessed from any internet-connected computer (no special software needed) we’re providing an even digital playing field where all students can be successful. They will also be prepared for upcoming SBAC exams and life as a middle and high schooler where all students at our school are provided Google accounts and expected to use them proficiently.

Digital Citizenship – It took about 48 hours for our first digital citizenship situations to appear – one student emailed another and described himself as ugly. The same day a 2nd grader emailed me wanting to know how to upload a profile picture. Like all educators, we collectively had that “Are our kids we ready for this?”  moment, but then reminded each other that we’d rather start the conversation about appropriate online behavior in elementary school with concrete examples and tools in a safe, closed environment than wait until 6th grade when they are already on Instagram and Facebook. The fact they were eagerly making mistakes is a valuable opportunity to discuss digital citizenship and make strategic use of lessons from the Common Sense Media Digital Literacy & Citizenship curriculum.

Student Voice – I have already had two teachers tell me that their reluctant writers (on paper) are suddenly prolific storytellers via email and Google Docs. I’m also engaged in quite a few email-based book reviews with students where we are sharing our favorite books – Judy Moody, Bad Kitty, and Junie B. Jones are quite popular. For some students the act of holding a pencil and “scratching across a sheet of paper with a stick” (student quote) is far too challenging. Yes, most of our students hunt-and-peck and we still need to introduce the home row, but many kids are more comfortable with a keyboard and it mirrors the type of writing they most often observe in their daily lives. Simultaneous to launching Google Apps most of our elementary teachers started classroom blogs and the we’re already seeing an explosion of student comments. Our students want to tell their stories and they often want to do it with a computer.

Has our rollout been flawless? Definitely not. We already have ideas for how to it better next year. For example, we thought it might be too much to teach the kids how to log into a computer and login to their Google account, so our computers currently auto-login. We were sorely wrong. With the help of 3X5 cards students are able to manage their email addresses and passwords without any problems. Next year we’re starting off by teaching kids how to login to both the computers and their Google accounts. We also now realize we need to plan for profile pictures in advance. Kids are eager to have a digital identify. This year we’re having them draw self-portraits (on paper with crayons) and using those as profile pictures.

Does our Google Apps EDU launch mean we’re banishing all paper from classrooms and forcing children to take their pens and pencils home? Absolutely not. We’re simply incorporating another tool into each student’s tool box. I am reminded of a statement from the Common Core ELA Standards portraits of college and career readiness,

“They are familiar with the strengths and limitations of various technological tools and mediums and can select and use those best suited to their communication goals.”

We’re simply getting students ready for that future.

Joe

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