There are no excuses in Mr. Sheridan’s class.
The sixth-graders at Elmer Avenue Elementary School can ask Michael Sheridan for homework help via Twitter, text or email. They can go to his class website and watch videos explaining the lessons they were supposed to learn.
Their parents can sign up for texts listing every homework assignment and the upcoming tests.
They can even check on their child’s hour-by-hour behavior, or wait for the weekly report to be automatically sent to them by email.
“My goal was to be as approachable as possible,” Sheridan said. “A lot of times they’ll text me, ‘Hey, I forgot my homework, can you send me a copy?’ I guess my goal is there’s no excuses.”
But it appears to be doing much more than that.
One girl who rarely raises her hand in class tweets him almost every day. She can send him direct messages that only he can see, preserving her anonymity while letting her feel safe enough to ask for help.
Other students are taking photos of their work on their math homework and tweeting him to ask if they’re doing it right.
He responds with quick videos that he makes from his living room. Using his iPad, he records his voice explaining the lesson while writing out the math problem by hand. Students can watch the video over and over, pausing and rewinding, until they understand it.
“It takes me, what, four minutes to do it? If I don’t have time to spend four minutes for a kid who’s reached out to me, I need to find another job. Seriously,” he said.
And because he sends the video out on Twitter, every other student can watch it too, without ever admitting they needed help.
“If they won’t come to us, we’ll go to them,” he said.
And it’s working, he said.
“More kids are coming to school with correct homework. That shows up on tests,” he said.
He’s also learning from the students; When four of them tweet him about question 4, that’s the one he goes over in class the next day, he said.
Sheridan has been expanding his technological teaching for years. As he became successful, other teachers have joined in.
Rick DeCarr, another sixth-grade teacher at Elmer, started using Twitter last year.
So far students have mainly used it to ask him for permission to bring in treats on birthdays. But this year more students have followed him than last year, and he’s hoping it will grow.
He has had more success with Xtra Math and Ten Marks, websites with free math games. His students have user IDs and passwords to both sites, and he assigned them to play the games during Thanksgiving break.
One student tweeted him to say that his password wasn’t working. DeCarr fixed it immediately, and the student was able to spend the weekend practicing math.
Of course, not everyone has access to a computer at home. And of those that do, some aren’t allowed on Twitter.
So DeCarr put a Twitter feed on his classroom website, allowing the students to see his tweets without going to the social media site.
Sheridan has thought about burning his Twitter videos onto DVDs so that students without computers can still watch them.
But in school, there are computers. That’s where both teachers turn to Class Dojo.
It’s a free behavior-tracking site. Teachers can access it with their iPhones, allowing them to report on students’ behavior as they see it happen.
The program is linked to speakers in each classroom, and when a student loses a point, the entire room echoes with a disappointed sound.
Likewise, when students win a point for good behavior, a loud happy sound plays through the speakers.
When the students hear the “bad” sound, they look around to see who was misbehaving. When they hear the “good” sound, they focus a little more.
“It makes kids sit up a little straighter, be on task another few minutes,” DeCarr said. “It’s that immediate response. They like it. They crave it.”
When he’s working with one small group, he’ll tap the app to give out points to other groups that are working hard. It tells those students that they’re doing the right thing, encouraging them to keep at it, he said.
“This is another way for them to know they’re meeting your expectations right now,” he said, adding that the app allows him to be “in two places at once.”
Parents and students log onto the site regularly to see the behavior reports for the day. The teachers can also add messages, but Sheridan said he usually doesn’t have to do anything. Parents call him.
“I get six emails a month from parents asking about it,” he said. “They want to know what happened, how they can work with their kid. I’ll have kids come in and say, ‘I’m sorry about yesterday.’ ”
None of that happened before he used the site.
“Never,” he said.