So, technology in the classroom is one of those big things we always hear about. Tied to differentiation! Tied to student success! Buy our software package! Ancillaries available! On and on the signs cry out for our attention and we, as the savvy 21st century educators we are, flock to the demonstrations and the booths, seeking out that technological tools that will reshape our practice.
Unfortunately, the reality often distances itself from the rose-colored posters of the vendor booths and brochures. In our schools, division or building specialists purchase technology, place it in the hands of some of the faculty, and then expects results. Sometimes the technology sits on a desk in a classroom, holding down papers, keeping the dust all to itself, mutating into a hairy monster that one should not get wet or feed after midnight. The end of the year comes, administrators call for results and examples, people make things up to justify expenses, and technology becomes another term thrown about to justify big bottom lines with very little substance.
One victim of this policy of technological salutary neglect is the iPad from Apple. In case there are people who think that Apple still only means Macintosh computers, the iPad is a friendly little tablet that is about a thin as a class set of quizzes and as broad as a text book. The processing power and display have gone through subsequent improvements; Apple is currently developing its fourth generation iPad. Since the dawning of the iPad day, teachers and administrators have sought ways to incorporate this stylish technology into daily classroom life for a number of reasons, some noble and others not.
The truth of the matter is that this technology presents a fair number of challenges and a fair number of rewards. These vary from subject to subject, class to class, and student to student. As part of my transition this year to the Commonwealth Governor's School, I have had the opportunity to work with one of these pieces of technology all year. My site has even been assigned a cart full of 30 iPads to engage students in classroom activities. As a result, I have been exploring some of the apps available for the iPad in order to make it a seamless part of my daily classroom routine. This is my top app list for this past school year, 2012-2013.
1. ThinkBook: Ever outline or teach others how to outline? How about teaching good note taking strategies? ThinkBook is your app. Intuitive and easy to use, ThinkBook has been one of the most easily adapted apps to my classroom practice. I have used it to teach research outlining and I have used it to outline my own writing. Most helpfully, I have used ThinkBook to organize lesson and unit plans. Beyond this adaptability, ThinkBook is affordable.
2. Essay Grader: As an English teacher, I can appreciate the company that created this app: Gatsby's Light. Essay Grader is the answer to the question: "How many times do I have to write this comment?" I will be posting again soon on this app by itself, but I wanted to include it here since I use it so much. In the app, there are pre-set comments and space for custom comments. After you have set your matrix of comments, all you need do is check the box next to the appropriate category and the app generates a detailed feedback report based on your pre-sets and custom comments. For those who want even more freedom, there are free write sections at the beginning and the end that allow teachers to personally address the student being assessed; these sections are also integrated into the final feedback report. Teachers can instantly send the feedback to the student via e-mail, or they can export them and print them off one-by-one. More on this one soon.
3. Remarks: There are a lot of annotation apps for the iPad, but the most seamlessly integrated one has got to be Remarks. As far as I have tried, remarks offers the best method for pulling digital copies of student papers and, forgive me, remarking on them. There are a variety of options for putting commentary on papers from handwriting to typing. My preference is to use the underlining/highlighting option because I can attach sticky notes to the underline/highlight that students can view by simply hovering over it with a mouse cursor.
4. Storyist: This app, endorsed by the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) program, allows students (and their teachers) to organize, develop, and write a novel. This function is accomplished in a variety of ways. The most exciting are the story sheets - individual "sheets" that allow for the development of setting, character, etc. These sheets are kept in folders within each separately named project file. I have found that this app makes discussing the process of writing very transparent as students can see their own and their teachers' processes at work. Using it in conjunction with the NaNoWriMo curriculum would be a great activity for any class studying the structure of stories.
5. iThoughts HD: iThoughts HD looks like a very familiar educational technology program, Inspiration. Beside the fact that it is much more affordable than its PC counterpart. The interface is clear and easy to use. The maps are uncluttered and easily manipulated. I've used this program to model essay outlining, to analyze characters, to map out plotlines, and to define problems. All of these exercises have been done through either an LCD projector or an Apple TV, making the development and final use of each map a whole class activity, and an opportunity for open class discussions. I've even labeled bubbles in the map with students' names to identify their contributions to the finished map. This both recognizes each student's contribution to class and makes grading whole class discussions easier and more justifiable.
6. Nearpod: Nearpod is a great app for presentations. Remember the last PowerPoint presentations you sat through. They usually drag on, each slide pounding you further into your seat, making you wish for any opportunity to escape. Unfortunately, we are usually forced to watch these in Professional Development sessions; sessions required by our employers. Students have the same frustrations. PowerPoint-based classrooms can be a grind that wear students down. This takes the computer-based presentation and makes them interactive with videos, quizzes, and other feedback mechanisms. For the teacher, there is a student list that instantly provides feedback on how much the students are learning from the presentation. There are even free response sections that allow each student to respond to open-ended questions. The best part of this app? The fact that it is free. The downsides? First, you need a full class set of iPads for this program to work. Second, the Nearpod "Store" (all of the lessons I've seen thus far are free) contains a limited number of lessons at this point; however, many of them are very interesting and engaging (see the one on Shakespearean insults first if you want to try one out). If you have the equipment, Nearpod is a worthwhile investment.
7. Socrative: A great feedback mechanism for any class because it is available through iPads and PCs. The program provides a template for taking tests and quizzes you already give to students and adapting them. The program allows for student- or teacher-paced administrations of the test. The student-paced version of the quiz allows them to move to each question as they complete them; the teacher readout allows for tracking of class progress by individual student, providing assessment data from first question to last. The teacher-paced version of the quiz allows the teacher to determine when each question will be available. This method, though it takes longer, ensures every student finishes at the same time. After the test is over, regardless of which method you've used to administer it, a report is generated which can be e-mailed or (if you are using a PC) downloaded directly from the site. This reports are then saved to the website and can be recalled at any point in the future. I've used this app on each type of assessment from simple reading check to complex free-response test. It is free and well worth the time. As I think about this coming year, I already have a bunch of quizzes and tests stored on the site that I only need to adjust and then administer.
8. ShowMe: I am going to end this rather lengthy post with this app. I will probably add to this list throughout this year as I find new apps that help, but for now this list should keep the curious engaged. ShowMe is a site on the internet accessed through either PC or iPad. The iPad helps with the writing functionality, especially if you have a stylus, but it is not necessary. A ShowMe is a recorded whiteboard presentation where anyone can listen to you speak as you write on the whiteboard. The benefit of the program is that this app allows for the generation of quick instructional videos that can be used to flip your classroom (see post from 5 December 2011 or 12 May 2012 for more on flipping). I have used this program to provide additional tutoring to students and to share strategies from my classroom with colleagues. ShowMe also contains a large community of people who have developed and shared their work for use in any classroom. Sign up and check it out.
If you have any apps you want to tell other members of the NCTE secondary community about, feel free to respond to this post. There are many apps out there, this conversation could help us identify some of the best.