Everything about Ray, from his seat choice to his body language in class, indicated that he didn’t want to be noticed. And for the first half of his 9th grade year, he did enough to pass, earning Cs and Ds. Ray was the kind of kid who could easily have slipped through the cracks.

But Ray taught me an invaluable lesson about buzzwords, experimentation, and unintended results.

Any connected educator has heard buzzwords like flipped classroom, gamification, SEL, differentiation, and personalized learning. And while these may just seem like fads and flashes in the pan, the latest bright and shiny object to capture our trending eyes, if we step back and examine the pedagogy supporting these “buzzwords” we can see the importance they have in reaching our students.

Ray stops me, “No, Mrs. Baker. That was my FIRST A. Ever.”

While Ray was my student, I was intrigued by gamification, but worried about becoming overwhelmed with managing XP points and narratives like a Dungeon Master. I decided to test out gamifying my Greek Mythology Unit with Edmodo. I created a new Edmodo class, chunked the content into small groups, added resources, and provided my students with a paper game board for the unit. Some students criticized my game design (as it didn’t have the action or polish of games like Fortnite or Clash of Clans), but Ray took off like a rocket. He autonomously and expertly completed the tasks on the gameboard, flying through levels to complete the game first and earned an A.

The day grades were due, I pulled Ray aside at the end of the class and lauded his accomplishments.

“Ray! Awesome job!”

“Thanks, Mrs. Baker. That was my first A,” he said humbly nodding his head and avoiding eye contact through his hair.

“Oh, don’t worry about that. Freshman year is always a tough transition and you just had a slow start…” I started to rationalize.

Ray stops me, “No, Mrs. Baker. That was my FIRST A. Ever.”

As the bell rings and Ray walks out the door, I’m left standing there with my mouth hanging open. How does a 14-year-old student advance through school without ever getting an A? No wonder he hid in the back corner! Ray never thought he was good enough, and his lack of an A reinforced that belief.

When I designed the gamification unit, I had no idea the effect it would have on Ray. If I want to teach my students effectively, I have to be willing to experiment with methods that may be out of my comfort zone. I can’t be happy with the status quo of instructional techniques if any of my students aren’t happy with the learning experience. One method of instruction will not reach all students, but many modes of instruction can reach many students.

Ray’s story is a reminder that we are not merely teaching content: we are teaching young humans how to be better.

What is SEL?

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a researched based organization committed to establishing high-quality, evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) as an essential part of preschool through high school education, SEL is “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” Additionally, systemic SEL is promoted every day by educators and students as they focus on honing skills in core competencies like self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, relationship skills, and social awareness. SEL focuses on meeting the needs of community members so that they can function well together. Social and emotional learning in the classroom requires students to examine themselves and their connection to others in the classroom and in their greater community.

CASEL’s Framework for Systemic Social and Emotional Learning

Why SEL?

Social and emotional learning is learning about life and how to function as a member of society. Look no further than the evening news and the importance of integrating SEL becomes apparent. Classroom learning and management all begin with relationships. SEL is not reserved for special projects but woven into the daily culture of the classroom. When students lack social and emotional skills, they become disaffected and potentially disruptive.

How to Get Started with SEL

Teachers can emphasize social and emotional learning with their students from day one of the new year by flipping their class expectations and beginning with activities that get students talking and collaborating. Nothing makes establishing rapport with students more difficult than mispronouncing student names during roll call and forcing students to share personal information during classroom icebreakers. Trust and community culture need to be established before students are ready to share personal information.

Rather than presenting your list of class expectations to new students and sending home a paper for parents to sign (often without reading), flip the experience by creating a short 15-minute screencast that provides an overview of the course and explains the procedures to be followed throughout the year. The video can be delivered to students via a Post to your Edmodo class or as an assignment. You can also check students’ understanding by having them answer follow-up questions on paper or an Edmodo Quiz.

Trust and community culture need to be established before students are ready to share personal information.

Invite parents to participate in this activity so that they can become part of your classroom community too. Then, watch the magic happen on Back to School Night. As parents turned the corner to my hallway and saw me standing at my classroom door, there was a moment of recognition and an instant connection.

So if you flip your class expectations by assigning the video homework, what should you do with the students in the room? Launch into low-stakes activities that will get students talking to one another and follow that with supporting activities in your Edmodo class.

Rather than asking students for a complete report on their favorite things, play a game of “This or That?” Ask students low-stakes opinion questions such as, “Hot dogs or Hamburgers?” “Beach or Mountains?” “Dog or Cat?” Students can be up out of their seats and walk to the side of the room that corresponds with their answer, with some time for discussion. You can try this on Edmodo by starting a threaded conversation in the Edmodo class: The teacher posts the “This or That?” question as an Edmodo Note or Poll and students reply to the note with their preference and discuss with classmates. Students can attach images and links that extend their responses and “break the ice” as they get to know one another.

Building a Community on Edmodo

While edtech tools streamline workflows and make learning more visible, creating a personal learning network for students and staff requires more than just logging on and clicking around a website. While focusing on social and self awareness of SEL, think of the online space as a walled garden that needs to be tended: Seeds to be planted, watered, and supported as they grow. Your students also need to be encouraged to interact, both in a face-to-face learning environment and a virtual one.

Create a Personal Learning Network (PLN) experience for your students and minimize your time and energy posting to multiple classes by grouping all class periods of the same level in one Edmodo Class. Following a naming convention such as “School Year — Subject” (like “2018–19 Honors English 9”) will make it easy to identify the time and purpose of the class. This provides students with an online PLN experience and an opportunity to reinforce digital citizenship skills as they interact with students they may not see face-to-face.

With Edmodo, teachers can also use small groups within the large virtual classroom space to capitalize on personal interactions with students. Small groups can be created for ongoing projects or differentiated instruction, but my favorite purpose is as a digital bulletin board.

For example, “Share OUR Work” is an important small group in my classroom as students post a copy of their work to this small group so that their classmates can see. This builds their capacity for social and self awareness as students are recognizing the role they play in the class. Note the intentional word choice in the name of the small group: it isn’t “ Share MY work” or “Share YOUR work;” it’s “Share OUR work” to emphasize that we are in this together not only as individuals, but also as collaborators and influencers. Students contribute to the classroom community and solidify personal connections as they “like” posts and reply to another.

For ongoing support of SEL, one easy tactic is to use scheduled Edmodo posts: You can schedule birthday greetings for your students and encouraging messages throughout the year. Is there a big game coming up? Or an important band competition? Schedule an encouraging Edmodo note to the class, cheering on the students participating in the event. This will positively reinforce the community spirit when students log on in class or outside of school and add replies to the post.

Using Quizzes & Assignments for Collaborative Assessments

Test day doesn’t need to be a competition. Instead, it can be an opportunity for collaboration. Use Edmodo Quizzes as a collaborative check for understanding by allowing students to work in groups to complete the quiz. Students may use their resources and discuss the answers with their group, but each individual student must key in their answers. To prevent students from reciting a litany of answers ( 1 is a, 2 is c, 3 is d, etc), just randomize the question order. Students will need to engage in conversation of the content in order to locate the answer. This will save the teacher time in collecting and scoring worksheets by hand and also provide data that can determine next steps for instruction as the activity reveals student strengths and weaknesses.

Edmodo Assignments can also provide an opportunity to include parents in the classroom. As part of my flipped back-to-school video assignment, students are tasked with writing a reflection on the assignment as a response to an Edmodo Assignment, answering the following questions: “What was it like to do homework with your family member? What did you learn? What is your impression of this class? What goals would you like to set for this class? What questions do you still have?” Students also attach a selfie with their parent that includes their computer screen with my video as “proof” that they watched the video.

To include parents throughout the year and further support social and emotional learning, create assignments that ask students to include parents or other family members as part of the process. This may include having the student ask a family member to solve a math or science problem and writing about the experience or interviewing a family member about their reaction to a summary of a story read in class. Remember the objective of this type of assignment is to include students’ families in the class, so be sure to allow enough time to complete these assignments to accommodate multiple schedules.

Social and emotional learning is a process. While it’s obvious to focus on community building in the beginning of the school year, it’s important to maintain and nurture the community consistently so that students like Ray are given the opportunity to see their own worth and feel the thrill of success.

Ray’s story reminds me of all the good that I can do for my students as their teacher. I am very proud to report that Ray’s success wasn’t an anomaly. Having gained self confidence after the Greek Mythology unit, Ray continued to excel and earned an A during our study of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. And as he was promoted to sophomore, junior, and senior years, whenever I saw Ray in the hallway, he would look me in the eye and say, “Yup, Mrs. Baker, I’m still getting As.”