Burn Your Agendas: Five Ed Tech Organizational Tools For Teachers and Students

If you’re a teacher, it’s likely that you asked your students to take out their homework pads and to jot an assignment down.  If you’re a parent, it’s likely that your student has an agenda of some kind (perhaps you even sign the thing), and it’s probably in bad shape (if not misplaced or destroyed).

But kids aren’t the only ones struggling with organization and task management.  Let’s face it – your agenda may be in tatters as well (presuming you use an agenda and not a conglomeration of napkins, index cards, and scraps of brown bags).

Fortunately for all of us, there are a number of incredible apps that promise to help manage (and gamify) your time, your tasks, and your “things.”

(0) Got an iPhone?  You’re already equipped with a to-do list (“Reminders”) and a high quality calendar (“iCal”) that effectively to all of your devices.  You can even use Siri to program these items for you (i.e. “Siri, schedule Hamlet reading, act five, tonight at eight”).  Got an Andriod?  Reap the same benefits with Google Calendar and sync across your Gmail accounts!

(1) “CARROT” – I’m admittedly obsessed.  This app is essentially a gamified to-do list.  Simply load up your tasks and watch “her” put you to work.  You can expect all of the positives (i.e. points, unlocking features, leveling up) and negatives (i.e. public shaming via Twitter for not staying on top of your work!) that come with efficient task and behavior management!

(2) “iACHIEVE” – If you dig “CARROT,” you’ll appreciate what iAchieve has to offer.  Rather than operating as “task management,” this app simply allows you to input tasks, assign values, and monitor your behavior via dynamic status bars.  An easy and flexible way to gamify any aspect of your life.

(3) “GOOD HABITS” – There are a slew of apps available that offer streak management.  This happens to be one of my favorites.  Input a habit (i.e. “grade an essay every day” or “post to my blog” or “finish all of my homework” or “read for English!”).  Then, if you engage in that behavior, mark the day.  After two or three consecutive days, you’ll notice a chain across multiple dates… Something that the crazed inner-workings of your OCD simply you won’t want you to break…!

(4) “IFTTT” – This app is an absolute gem.  Not sure how it isn’t most popular, but in an effort to maintain its undercover reputation, I’ve tucked it this far down the list.  IFTTT stands of “If this then that,” essentially giving you the power to automate many facets of your phone (and your life).  For instance, you might program: “If I get an email from my boss, then text me letting me know! ORIf it’s a Tuesday, then remind me to take out the recycling!”  For the purposes of task and time management, I’ve found the GPS-based reminders to be the most helpful.  That’s right – you can program reminders based on your physical location on the planet!  That means: “If I arrive to my home, then remind me to complete chapter five” … “If I am at the library, then remind me to research Stravinsky” … “If I am leaving my house, then remind me to bring my art project with me!”

(5) “REMIND 101” – I’ve seen the popularity of this app skyrocket over the course of the past year.  You might not be the first to the party, but it’s not too late to dance.  This app allows students to sign up and receive alerts from their teacher – that means HW reminders after school, extra credit during dinnertime, and pop quizzes before bed!

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Nonfiction Technology That Transforms To Meet Readers At Their Ability Level

If you haven’t seen NewsELA yet, stop reading this and check it out at www.NewsELA.com.

Still here?  Shame on you.  Here it is in a nutshell.  NewsELA allows students to read news articles on current events.  (I’ve noticed that many of the primary headlines parallel those on most popular news sources – CNN, etc.).  But, beyond simply providing static content, NewsELA gives readers the power to wave their 21st-century wands and to instantly transform the articles to match their reading ability (indicated by “Lexile score”).

You’ll notice a blue bar on the right-hand side of each article on NewsELA with multiple Lexile scores to choose from(Lexile to grade-level equivalents here: https://www.lexile.com/about-lexile/grade-equivalent/grade-equivalent-chart/. FYI, I ran this post through Lexile’s “Analyzer” and it registered at 1150, meaning high achieving 8th graders should be able to read it – and, as per Common Core measures, every 11th and 12th grader should be able to read this with fluency.)

Anyhow – I was instantly impressed by NewsELA’s ability to toggle between complexities.  I can’t help but feel a bit like our abstract notions about reading in the 21st century are materializing before us, and while the little devil on my left shoulder is suggesting these kinds of reading options will simply allow our struggling readers to remain struggling readers, the angel on my right insists that they offer endless possibilities for instruction that were previously impossible.

Will a student who reads an article at the lowest available Lexile level be able to achieve solid comprehension of the same article when complexity is progressively increased?  Will that increase generalize to new articles?  Will the prior knowledge he develops at the lower levels scaffold his understanding of language as he re-reads more challenging versions?  Can students break the articles down by word or sentence to enhance their understanding of language in context?

All of that, and it’s free to sign up.  I don’t know about you, but I’m excited.  If you’ve already explored NewsELA, implemented it with your students, and/or plan to give it a whirl, share your experiences with us!

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Common Core and the Emergence of Non-Fiction

With all the recent Common Core commotion (all that fussing and finger pointing), it can be hard to keep a level head – in the classroom and on the message boards.  Here, I’m hoping to set sensationalism aside for a moment in order to discuss a few interesting takes on teaching something that was actually born from the adoption of these [now controversial] Common Core State Standards. 

Ready?  Set.  Non-fiction.

As it so happens, you’re reading some right now.  And perhaps that’s the point.  Non-fiction and so-called “informational texts” make up the bulk of what highly productive members of society most regularly consume.  You’re reading this post to expand your repertoire of educated perspectives, to hopefully uncover some new morsel of learning, to discuss and reflect and refine your craft.  Is that what makes you successful?  Is that the panacea for college and career readiness?

Who knows…?

But I do know that since non-fiction has been written (quite boldly) into the Common Core, curriculum and instruction across the nation has been impacted, for better and for worse.  I have heard rumor of school districts that, in a flurry of misunderstanding, have offloaded nearly all of their fiction titles in order to make space for biographies, memoirs, and the like.  I have read a number of articles that misquote the standards, most often claiming that 70% of books students read in their English classes must be non-fiction titles.  (Please declare shenanigans on this claim!  The CCSS makes mention that, in grade 8, 55% of students’ overall reading – across disciplines – be non-fiction.  This number is upped to 70% by grade 12, but given the battery of required Social Studies, Science, and Math coursework, wouldn’t this make sense?)

I have also seen great teachers adapt with this fresh push toward informational texts, seen great educators reimagine their lessons with an emphasis on non-fiction, ultimately cultivating some incredible student learning.  As I’ve recently seen this thing flourish, it seems to have taken two major (and seemingly effective) forms:

1 – Making fiction more meaningful through non-fiction.

I’ve seen this explicitly posed to students as an essential question (i.e. How can the work of fiction we just read be made more meaningful through non-fiction?  What research can you do to pull more meaningful understandings from this story?  How can historical context, science, psychology, and academic research empower the literature, empower our comprehension, empower our earthly existence?).  This has been a mainstay of ELA curriculum for years – the traditional “research paper” (i.e. pairing Gatsby with a 1920’s research project), the classic psychoanalysis (i.e. answer this psychoanalytical personality survey from Holden Caulfield’s perspective)… but as non-fiction has increased its share of the curricular “market,” these strategies have become increasingly valuable!

2 – Empowering fiction writing with non-fiction 

I had the pleasure of seeing this in action this morning, in a 7th grade ELA classroom.  Students were asked to research particular topics of their choosing with the ultimate purpose of writing a work of fiction revolving around this information.  In essence, these students are becoming accustomed to engaging in the research process on a regular basis (i.e. “intelligent Googling”) while simultaneously honing in on their writing skills.  Rather than drawing from their experiences, students are drawing from the informational texts they’re reading!  Rather than writing “fluffy” stories about summer reading or fabricating statistics rooted in picture prompts, they’re engaging in an authentic process utilized by real authors on a regular basis.

3 – Fighting for fiction!

All of that being said, let’s not lose sight of all that fiction and literature have to offer us.  I won’t beat a dead horse here – but if you need any convincing, please check out “Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer,” “Reading Fiction Can Make You More Empathetic,” and, my new favorite (MRI scans included!), “This is Your Brain. This is Your Brain on Fiction.”

Share your best practices for integrating non-fiction below!

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Top 5 Uses of Google Docs for Educators

 1.    Creating and Sharing Lesson Plans.

Google Docs were practically built on the ability to share and collaborate on documents.  In recent years, educators have been working to catch up on all of this collaboration business.  (We’ve just about made it!)

Use Google Docs to create and share lesson plan documents with your colleagues, your supervisor, and your students.  We love this idea because:

  • This is a fast and easy way to store your entire lesson plan library in an online space, available to you from any device.  Plan in your classroom on your PC, at home on your tablet, or in Starbucks from your smart phone (work on that thumb dexterity!).
  • This is one big step in the right direction for co-teaching.  As any co-teacher will tell you, finding the time to collaboratively pool resources and plan lessons can be an impossible task.  We’ve seen the co-authoring features offered by GoogleDocs utilized by co-teachers who are working together to plan lessons, now free from the time constraints of the school day.  Mismatched prep periods, night owl syndrome, whatever the disconnect – we’ve found a powerful solution.
  • Feedback!  Share your lesson plans with your supervisor or building principal.  We’re certain he or she will appreciate your savvy and thank you for the organizational edge.  Further, you can a healthy dose of “live” feedback through document “comments” (a Google feature that can be likened to Microsoft Office’s “track changes”).  Start a digital, asynchronous, professional dialogue on the documents themselves!
  • Feeling particularly transparent today?  You can post links to your documents anywhere – share your plans with students, parents, and colleagues.  Google Docs gives you the ability to determine who can do what to your document – for instance, you might (1) give editing privileges to a co-teacher, (2) give “comments-only” privileges to your supervisor, and (3) give “read-only” privileges to parents and students.  Given that this is a real-time document, your viewers will always see your latest changes!

2.    Creating a Shared Calendar.

The battery of snow days and school closures may be to blame for the recent pop in Google Calendar’s popularity.  Create calendars for specific purposes and share them with people who care!  Our favorite uses:

  • Lesson plans!  (No, we’re not obsessed with lesson plans, and promise not to mention them again in this post, but this implementation was so fresh that we felt compelled to build it in!)  Create a Google Calendar for one (or more) of your classes.  Include your lesson details (i.e. unit, learning objectives, standards, instructional plan, etc.).  Upload any pertinent documents (handouts, syllabus, etc.).  And then share this document with anyone.  This is an incredible solution for submitting lesson plans (if you’re in a GAFE school, and you haven’t tried this yet, start now!), and a powerful way to keep your students (and their parents) in the know.  Gone are the days of school planners, lost agenda books, and signed homework pads!
  • In the same vein as sharing lessons, a shared calendar is a fast and easy way to share daily learning objectives, homework assignments, test dates, essay deadlines, and other noteworthy school events.  Keep students organized and parents in the know!

3.    Sharing Presentations.

Google Docs allows us to create presentations as well as documents and spreadsheets.  We’ve seen Google’s presentations start to eat up Microsoft’s share of the market, and with good reason.  A few great ways we’ve seen these in action:

  • The most fundamental benefit of a shared presentation is essentially the 21st century equivalent of having a copy of the teacher’s notes.  (Whoop-dee-doo.)  But the collaborative features kick this notion up a notch.  Now, students can (1) access the presentation from any device, (2) post comments on the slideshow, and (3) share those comments with their classmates.  Here, we see the workings of an asynchronous discussion centered around your content!
  • Last week, we had the pleasure of sitting in on a classroom where the teacher initiated the lesson by bringing up a Google presentation.  She scrolled to the sixtieth slide (it was the sixtieth day of school), which contained the “Do Now” and learning objective of the day.  This file was shared (although not editable!) with all students and parents.  The most recurring feed we’ve heard?  Enhanced discussions around the dinner table.
  • Create a collaborative syllabus or agenda!  A great way to encourage collaborative note taking, whether you’re working with a group of students in a classroom, with your colleagues in a department meeting, or with other professionals in a PD workshop!

4.    Scheduling Conferences.

With minimal tinkering (i.e. color coding, giving permission “edit,” sharing a link), Google Docs’ spreadsheets are a fast and easy way to obtain and organize information.  Consider the following uses we’ve seen in action this past year:

  • Scheduling conferences!  This month, we saw a supervisor schedule SGO “check in” times by sharing a spreadsheet with his colleagues and asking them to type their name into open timeslots.  Last month, we saw a teacher take the same approach in asking students to sign up for writing conferences.  In September, an elementary teacher shared her experiences doing this to organize her parent-conferences.  With growing intensity, collaborative spreadsheets have taken the traditional paper “sign up” form and given it new life!
  • Tracking inventory!  Textbooks?  Classroom libraries?  Shared materials?  Create a spreadsheet with a current inventory count (i.e. “25 copies of Catcher in the Rye) in an uneditable cell.  Then, create spaces for users to enter their names and how many they’ve taken out.  Suddenly, tracking down any set of shared materials will be just clicks away.

5.    Forms For Assessment 

Until recently, it never occurred to us that Google Forms could be used for more than sending out surveys.  As it turns out, survey-style data collection is only the beginning.  Google Forms are intuitively created (we build our first in just moments) and can be shared en masse to collect data quickly.

  • We recently saw a teacher email a Google form to her students, each of whom were anxiously awaiting its arrival in their inboxes.  Upon receipt, they were given five minutes to answer the math problems on the form and to submit it for scoring.  The teacher watched her students’ scores populate her spreadsheet with each submission.  Immediate scoring, immediate feedback, immediate results.
  • Use a form to streamline collection tasks that are still frequently reserved for pen and paper.  New converts include forms for ordering/requesting classroom supplies, forms for collecting student feedback pertinent to new courses, and forms for writing end-of-lesson reflections.
  • We’ve seen several districts build Google Forms to do streamline their teacher evaluation procedures in-house (rather than outsourcing to some of the heavy hitters out there, i.e. Teachscape).  Administrators bring their laptops in to conduct observations, input evidence in text boxes, check the appropriate boxes to indicate the level of proficiency, and click “submit” to send that data to a district spreadsheet.  (The best part?  It’s free!)

In short, Google Docs is being used more often and with greater flexibility than ever before.  It is becoming common place in curriculum development, in sharing departmental materials, in encouraging collaborative note taking, in writing course proposals and student handbooks and meeting agendas.

Join the conversation and tell us about the most creative and compelling ways you’ve seen, experienced, or used Google Docs!

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