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Build an awesome class website with Google Apps

By Doug Johnson
July 23, 2014
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Let's face it: Teachers can use all the help we can get. To have the most impact, we need to form partnerships with those other educators who spend even more time with our students than we do — their parents.

Parents haven't always been welcome in schools as partners. In the past, many students' lives were segregated into two distinct realms: school and home. But in today's always-on, 24/7 learning environment, that dynamic is changing. Parents are increasingly invested in their students' academic lives. And in recent years, flipped and online learning have positioned the classroom firmly in students' homes. That's why it's more important than ever to give parents a reciprocal window into their children's education.

In the Mankato (Minnesota) Area Public Schools, we believe that teachers should share everything about their classroom with parents. Transparency builds trust and, hopefully, engagement. It enrolls parents as helpers in holding students accountable for their success, and it helps them provide the support their kids need to learn.

One of the most efficient ways we have found for teachers to develop a culture of transparency and trust is by communicating with parents through a class website. Don't have one? Don't worry — it's easy.

Class websites 101
Since our district signed up for Google Apps for Education in 2010, our staff has been able to easily post class information online and organize it so that both students and parents can find and understand it. The Google suite of Google Docs, Google Drive, Google Sites, Google Forms and Google Calendar is robust, flexible and user friendly, and it offers a generous storage allotment for free.

Google offers a full line of online tutorials for using these tools, but they are pretty intuitive to use. Here's a basic outline we recommend for setting up your website:

  1. Start with a Google Site. Google Sites are user-friendly, easy-to-create websites. Google has mastered the WYSIWYG (" "what you see is what you get" ") model of website development. Users can add, stylize and manipulate page content by simply clicking on an edit pencil icon.
  2. Add Google Docs as needed. Anything formerly stored on paper can be made available with Google Docs. The beautiful part of Docs is that you can share it publicly or privately between a finite number of people. Homework assignments can be entirely virtual with this tool. You can include links to various Google Docs on your Google Site, expanding the range of possibilities for information sharing and updating.
  3. Embed Google Forms. You can use these easy-to-use questionnaires with students as surveys, formative assessments, comprehension checks, interest inventories and more. They also allow teachers and administrators to collect feedback from any audience.
  4. Add a Google Calendar. This tool allows for transparent communication of events, due dates, expected outcomes or unit progression. Calendars can be edited by just one or multiple parties for easy collaboration.
  5. Set up a Google Drive folder. Folders in Google Drive allow users to organize files, much like the traditional " "My Documents" " folder of your desktop hard drive. The difference is that you can share these folders with any other Google account holder worldwide. The generous storage allotment of Drive will also let you transfer files that would be too large to email.
  6. Create class YouTube and Blogger accounts. As instructional tools, YouTube and Blogger allow students to revisit content provided in class and let teachers make pre-planned activities available virtually so they can facilitate multiple learning paths simultaneously. Because this content lives forever in the cloud (if you want it to), you can keep evergreen videos or blog posts for review or for future classes. Both tools allow you to keep students posts private or make them public for a worldwide, authentic audience.

It's all about the information
The real heart of your website is the information you put on it, so you want to make it as easy as possible for parents and students to find it and use it. We've outlined some of the most common types of information below, along with links to examples, the Google App that works best for posting it and a suggested schedule for updating.

General classroom info. Most of the basic information, such as your contact information, is static and probably lives in various places already, including your school's website and on a paper syllabus. That means you can enter it once at the beginning of the year or term and not have to worry about changing it unless something unexpected comes up.

  1. Teacher name and contact information page

    Google App: Google Sites

    What to post: You know the drill. This info includes your name and preferred salutation (Mr., Mrs., Ms, Dr.) as well as your school phone number/extension. If you choose to add your home, cell or Google Voice number, you probably want to add the best times to contact you. Include your email address as well, but be sure to write it like jbrown (at) to foil spammers. This would also be the place to list your professional information, such as the college(s) you attended and degrees, awards you have earned, and your special interests and hobbies. Finally, to really develop a welcoming community culture, consider adding a personal note of welcome that includes encouragement for parents to contact you with any concerns or questions. For the parents' convenience, include links to the school and district homepages and anything else you can think of that is necessary for your students' success.

    Update schedule: This information isn't likely to change much, so you can get away with updating this page annually, or as needed.

  2. Contact and communication information

    Google App: Google Sites with an embedded Google Form

    What to post: You gave them ways to contact you; now tell them how you're going to get in touch with them, beyond your class websites. Some possibilities include individual emails or an e-mail list, student information system mailings, voicemails, texting, email, a Facebook group, Twitter or a parent portal on a student information system. Embed a Google Form so they can enter their contact information and preferences. If there's a district or school communication tool, like a parent portal, link to that and to instructions for using it.

    Update schedule: Annually.

  3. Class rules and expectations

    Google App: Google Sites or Google Docs, which allows comments

    What to post: This page is for your policies on classroom behavior, homework and extra-credit assignments, as well as your grading philosophy. If you take the time to carefully articulate this up front and get agreement from parents and students that it is reasonable, you can likely reduce misunderstandings later in the year. Include links to your school's student handbook and parent handbook so they can easily find school and district policies.

    Update schedule: Again, this all tends to be evergreen information, so just revisit it at the beginning of each year.

  4. Supply list

    Google App: Google Sites or Google Docs

    What to post: List everything students will be expected to purchase during the school year, such as school supplies, gym shoes, calculators, etc. If you have a district BYOD program, include the recommended devices, features and functions, as well as the district's policies on how to obtain these items if parents cannot afford them. If your school or district has its own supply list, link to that.

    Update schedule: Annually, or at the beginning of each term if the supply needs change.

  5. Requests and registration for parent volunteers

    Google App:
    Google Sites with an embedded Google Form

    What to post: List all the ongoing volunteer opportunities you anticipate throughout the year for both in-class help and outside-of-class projects. Include guidelines for your parent volunteers. Embed a Google Form asking prospective volunteers what they would like to volunteer for, their availability and their contact info. Gauge interest in chaperoning field trips and special events with this form, but let them sign up for specific events as they arise on a special event page (see " "Communicating about class events and happenings" " below). Link to any building or district guidelines for volunteers. 

    Update schedule: Annually or as needed.

  6. Feedback forms

    Google App: Google Form

    What to post: Embed Google Forms for teacher and course evaluations on your site, or link to your school or district's forms. Include instructions for use.

    Update schedule: Annually or at end of each term.

    Class events and happenings. One of the biggest advantages of a classroom website over old-school paper communications is in its ability to keep parents up to date on what's new in your classroom. You can easily make weekly or daily entries about news and events without any paper costs. And because it all lives in the cloud, you don't have to worry that your letters and forms will get lost on the playground or buried in a backpack instead of making it home.

  7. Class calendar

    Google App: Google Calendar embedded in a Google Site

    What to post: At the very least, mark the beginning and end dates of the school year and quarter/semester as well as all holidays, breaks, inservice days and other days the students are not in school. List events — including athletic events, open houses, field trips, book and science fairs, assemblies, parties and standardized testing — as far in advance as possible. Then add academic dates for your class, such as the beginning and end of units, deadlines and tests. Link to your building and district calendars.

    Update schedule: Weekly or daily.

  8. Field trip/special event information and registration

    Google App:
    Google Sites or Google Docs with embedded Google Forms

    What to post: List each field trip and event, which can include guest speakers, as you plan them. Include a description of the event, date, timetable and any costs. Embed a general permission form as a downloadable PDF that parents can print, sign and return (extra points if it's fillable!). This is also the place for a specific call for chaperones and an embedded Google Form asking for parent volunteer registration and contacts. Link to school/district liability forms.

    Update schedule: As needed.

  9. Class news

    Google App: Blogger, Google Sites, Google Docs and/or YouTube

    What to post: This can be as involved or basic as you want to make it, but the web allows you to do a lot that a paper newsletter couldn't, such as posting photos and videos from field trips and classroom happenings. You can even make it a blog where you update parents and other classes about your students' current projects and interests, but be sure to keep it regularly updated. Get permission from parents at the beginning of the school year to post students' photos/videos, and don't use their last names.

    Update schedule: Daily, weekly or monthly, depending on what's happening and how interested the parents and others are.

Unit information and assignments. This page should give the broad outlines of what you'll be studying for the year, so students and their parents can prepare for what's coming and review what they should have already learned, as well as more detailed information for specific units as they happen. If you already keep current unit information in a class learning management system, such as Moodle, D2L, Schoology or Blackboard, just link to it from your site and provide guest access for parents, rather than repeating the information. This is a time saver and will reflect the most current content.

  1. List of units in each subject area (elementary) or class (secondary)

    Google App: Google Sites

    What to post: Again, this is just a general outline of the major areas the students will be studying throughout the year. You can include a short description of topics covered in each unit if you like. Link to your district's curriculum site(s).

    Update schedule: Annually or as dictated by curricular changes.

  2. State requirements

    Google App: Google Sites

    What to post: If your units are part of a state-mandated curriculum, you should list the standards and any related rubrics so students and parents know what they are expected to learn. Indicate any testing the state requires to demonstrate mastery. Link to your state's curriculum and standards sites.

    Update schedule: Annually or as dictated by curricular changes.

  3. Major goals or essential learner outcomes for each unit

    Google App: Google Sites

    What to post: These can just be simple declarative statements of what the students should know and be able to do, such as: " "By the end of this unit, the student should be able to identify the major landmasses on earth and be able to locate the major countries in Europe, Asia and Africa," " as well as a detailed list of the skills and information that students need to have mastered. Link to your district curriculum site(s).

    Update schedule: Annually or as dictated by curricular changes.

  4. Projected unit beginning and end dates

    Google App: Google Sites and/or Calendar

    What to post: Advise parents that these dates are approximate, or you can be vague, saying something like, " "We will be starting our unit on rocks and minerals just after spring break." " Put the specific dates on the class calendar, which you should link to, as you know them. You can also link to your building and/or district calendar if they seem relevant.

    Update schedule: Annually or as dictated by curricular changes.

  5. Major activities

    Google App: Google Sites and/or Calendar

    What to post: This includes lists and guidelines for projects, readings, tests, experiments, papers, etc. If you can, link directly to assessments (see " "Assessments/evaluations" " below).

    Update schedule: Annually or as dictated by curricular changes.

  6. Homework assignments and due dates

    Google App: Google Sites

    What to post: You can use this page in lieu of a lesson plan book. Don't forget to add a disclaimer for parents that due dates are subject to change — they might be later, but never earlier. Link to your learning management system, if you have one, and to the Google Drive drop folder for student work.

    Update schedule: Annually or as dictated by curricular changes.

  7. Drop folder for student work

    Google App: Google Drive

    What to post: Create a folder in Google Drive and share it with your class. Be sure to put a link on your website's landing page so it's easy to find. Include instructions for using it, including any naming conventions for files.

    Update schedule: Create a new folder each year or term for each class.

  8. Samples of projects from previous years

    Google App: Google Sites, Google Drive and/or YouTube

    What to post: A sampling of exemplary projects can serve as a quality indicator for students and give parents an idea of what's expected. Depending on the file type of the project, you could post it directly on the site, make it downloadable, link to a folder on Google Drive, or embed a video from YouTube. 

    Update schedule: Weekly.

  9. Lists of vocabulary words, spelling words, number facts, formulas, etc.

    Google App: Google Sites

    What to post: Include any references for facts that call for memorization. This will facilitate student practice and parent assistance.

    Update schedule: Annually or as needed.

  10. Assessments/evaluations

    Google App: Google Sites

    What to post: Checklists and rubrics for major projects can help students and parents self-assess their work. Link to your learning management system, if you have one.

    Update schedule: Annually or as dictated by curricular changes.

  11. Online practice tests

    Google App: Google Sites

    What to post: Post any practice tests that come with standardized tests, or create your own practice tests. These can be downloadable PDFs that students can print out, or they can be links to online tests. Practice tests could be Google Docs, Google Forms, created in the teacher's LMS or links to practice tests in programs like Mastery Manager.

    Update schedule: Annually or as dictated by curricular changes.

  12. Online resources

    Google App: Google Sites

    What to post: Include lecture notes and slides, links to readings and your favorite resources on the web.

    Update schedule: Annually or as needed.

  13. Suggested enrichment activities to do at home

    Google App: Google Sites

    What to post: For more advanced students, you can provide supplemental reading lists, enrichment activities and/or family activities that tie into the content of each unit.

    Update schedule: Annually or as needed.

Individual student progress reporting. This information is probably part of your school or district's student information system, and due to privacy issues, it should remain there. Just provide a link to the system and instructions for the use of the portal on your page. Do not place any student-specific data on your site. You will still be responsible for updating scores regularly on the student information system, but it will automate some calculations and postings, which will give students and parents valuable information without taking more of your time.

  1. Online gradebook

    Google App: Link from Google Sites

    What to post: Parents and students should have access to all scores for daily work, quizzes, tests and projects, as well as final grades for each grading period and the year once they are available. Teachers can usually enter all of this data into the system from any location. You could also include comments on student performance and behavior.

    Update schedule: Weekly, at a minimum.

  2. GPA and class ranking

    Google App: Link from Google Sites

    What to post: This information is of interest to some parents and students. You do not need to manually enter this data, as it is usually an automated part of the grading book on your student information system.

    Update schedule: Automated.

  3. Standardized test results

    Google App: Link from Google Sites

    What to post: This is also often an automated feature of student information systems. Be sure to include a link to guidelines for interpreting the scores.

    Update schedule: Automated.

  4. Attendance records

    Google App: Link from Google Sites

    What to post: This is a good check for parents of students who may have attendance problems.

    Update schedule: Automated.

Doug Johnson is the director of libraries and technology for the Mankato (Minnesota) Public Schools. He has worked as a K-12 teacher, is the author of nine books, has published articles and columns in more than 40 books and periodicals, and has worked with over 200 organizations around the world, including leadership positions in ISTE and the American Association of School Librarians. Check out his Blue Skunk Blog.

Marti Sievek is a former high school Spanish teacher and college of education university professor. He now serves as instructional technology coordinator for Mankato Area Public Schools in Mankato, Minnesota, where he is responsible for professional development planning and delivery, the braided alignment of district technology goals to the strategic roadmap, and addressing how this alignment impacts faculty, administration and support staff.