5 Tips For Improving Your Digital Workflow

The picturesque teacher desk is clean, organized, color coded, and a safe haven for teachers looking to hide from students! I see a lot of teachers struggle with translating that vision online, where desktops are often cluttered beyond comprehension. It’s an important issue for people learning to cope with the digital world, because organization online is a little different than organization in real life. Here are five tips that anyone could do to improve their digital workflow.

#1: Clean That Desktop

This is the first and most important one: get rid of that clutter on your desktop. When you have 40/50 files sitting on your desktop, how do you expect to find any of them? All you have to look at is their filename if they’re all Word documents, and it slows you down tremendously. First, put what you don’t need in the trash can. Second, make files in “My Documents” that could hold what you have sitting on your desktop. Last, try to limit yourself to only a few active pieces laying there. File everything else, just like you would in real life.

#2: Filenames Matter

This one does not translate well from the real world. The name you give your files on your computer matters, because it makes finding them a lot easier. If you have several different worksheets on the same topic, having filenames like “Gas Laws Worksheet 1”, “Gas Laws Worksheet 2”, etc. is actually helpful because it let’s you know they all do the same thing. However, if those same worksheets are named “Gas Laws Worksheet” and “Gas Law Problems” then it becomes a burden to have to see what they each cover. Also, being descriptive in your filenames helps the next point.

#3: Use The Search Function In Every Computer

One thing computers can do that we can’t is find stuff for us. For teachers with hundreds of files, it may become tiresome to browse through all of them. Use the Mac Spotlight or the PC’s CTRL+F in the folder your files are to save yourself minutes of time every day you need to locate something. On Google Drive and similar programs, use the search bar to help yourself out. By naming files descriptively, you can easily filter results by just typing in what you want. This won’t save you hours per day, but the time you save each day by doing this adds up quickly.

#4: Make Email Lists

While this one seems like common sense too many teachers don’t do it. Spend the time to go into your email program and make lists for your students, parents, and groups of staff that you frequently email at school. Then, make more lists for your club, your sports teams, and anything else you can think of. Any time you need to send two or more people an email, you automatically save time by having their name in a list, since a list only counts as typing one email.

#5: Don’t Spread Yourself Too Thin Online

In a world where a continually larger amount of teaching tools are available to use online, it’s easy to want to sample all of them. Don’t. Your students are far better off having a decent experience with one online tool for the whole year than they are having mediocre experiences with several different ones. Children require consistency to grow and that will never change, not even online. An example would be my use of Edmodo throughout this year. I switched my students from having online Blogs for their homework to using Edmodo and I didn’t like it. I didn’t start the students on their Blogs halfway through the year though because it would take away from the effectiveness of both. The point is choose a select few online resources, stick with them, and become a master of their implementation. You can always try new ones next year.

Just Google It: Internet Literacy Hurdles Facing Our Students

One of the most fascinating observations I’ve had while teaching in a classroom with iPads is about how students do “research”. One of the goals of our Integrated Science class is for students to generate and answer researchable questions. It’s one of those objectives that sounds a lot easier than it is to accomplish. We started like anyone would, and figured teaching students to generate the questions first would be  good idea but that proved difficult. Freshmen in high school have trouble generating any questions, let alone researchable ones. We decided that showing the students researchable questions and how to answer them would eventually lead to easier generation. We tried many exercises involving our library specialists, and the progress was slow, but it was progress. It was in the middle of these exercises where I made this observation that has really helped me understand why this is so challenging for students.

“Google it” has become a phrase of distinction for the 21st century. People can just take out their phone and look up the answer to everything. The students are born into that world and are raised in it, and thus they enter high school bred to “google” things. The problem is that Google can’t look up answers to the critical thinking questions that we want students to generate and answer. In class, the students learned this the hard way because they tried, trust me, and every time they pointed me at a source they found for the “answer” to “Was Lance Armstrong a hero for american cycling and fighting cancer, or a villain?”, they were told to use it to formulate their own opinion and continue to do research.

It goes beyond just trying to google an answer though and extends to how they use the search engine itself. I’m only 25, but when I went through school Google was not what it is today. You weren’t able to go to answers.com or wikipedia and find some answer to almost everything. Students grow up with these tools. Now that Google links to them, students typically type entire questions into the search engine and get results that include only those types of websites. “Just google it,” ironically made Google’s search scope extremely narrow.

Fixing these behaviors is difficult but I found that one teacher action trumps all others and it involves what students use Google for. Ask questions that Google can’t answer. The only way students will be convinced that Google can’t answer everything is if they try and fail. Only then will they start to be creative with what they search for. Once that happens, standard teaching behaviors should ensue – modeling is great for demonstrating how to use Google and what to ask. I tell my students to search for different sides of the same story, because “you wouldn’t like it if someone googled you and was convinced for the longest time that you were a one-eared circus clown in your free time!”

Internet literacy is an important challenge for today’s students because they don’t get much real instruction on how to use it. Making an attempt to provide this instruction goes a long way but remember; shy away from saying “Just Google it.”

Redesigning The Planner: Week-At-A-Glance

As promised, we want to use this space to reveal some of the features of Planner that we’re excited about, and we’re going to start today.

Anyone who has ever used a calendar on their phone or iPad will likely express disappointment. Maybe it works correctly but the interface doesn’t help you out, or it’s just not customizable enough to meet your needs. For me, the main issue is generally that I have trouble seeing my “week at a glance” or a quick overview of what I have planned for a week. This is the main advantage paper planners have over digital ones, the week-at-a-glance. Teachers and students who love their paper planners will continue to love them unless we provide an easy way to see what they have lined up.

Since our model for this product already takes care of the customization, and we tailor the app to meet the needs of each individual school, our main focus was making an app that teachers and students can pick up and replace their paper planner in a matter of minutes. To do that, we had to solve the week-at-a-glance problem that screen size restricts. This view had to contain a person’s abbreviated schedule, the date, the day of the week, and everything the student or teacher has planned for that day. We decided to remove emphasis on the weekend section in our Planner because school isn’t typically in session on Saturday and Sunday.

Two weeks ago, we released the first photo of our Planner. That image contained the planner interface without the week-at-a-glance view. We’d like to show you the rest:


The student using this Planner has homework due Monday and a paper due Thursday.


How’d we do? Let us know on Facebook and Twitter.

Questions About the NYC Computer Science Curriculum

NYC Mayor Bloomberg just announced an ambitious project to include computer programming in curricula in numerous schools throughout the city. This is not a unique initiative and is one that’s gaining traction in the education world, since programming is a valuable skill. I run a programming club at the high school here. Every friday afternoon about 30-40 students shuffle into the computer lab to continue working on the Codecademy website, a great resource for anyone looking to learn the basics of HTML, Java, or a few other web-based languages.

This all sounds wonderful and progressive, which it is, but there’s a lot of thought that needs to go into computer science instruction at the high school level, mainly because it hasn’t been done on such a broad scale before. Here are a few questions to ask of policymakers before they start moving too quickly:

1.  Who Will Teach It?

As a teacher who happens to double as a programmer, I can tell you that we’re pretty uncommon. Most people with the technical skill to teach programming will probably get a job elsewhere, making far more money. We need to find a way to attract teachers for this job, and I’m not sure what it is. My story is a little unique in that I have only been programming for two years and never took a class in computer science. I was a chemistry teacher when I learned how to do it and still am, but I think this is an outlying situation. The majority of future computer science teachers will be math teachers who happen to be able to code, or computer science majors who are somehow lured to education. I wish I could legitimately say, “Pay them more!” but everyone knows that will never happen, so the answer lies elsewhere. Perhaps it’s to make the position a little more like that of a college professor, where the teacher has built in time each day to work on some sort of entrepreneurial side project. I know that my experience with Slate & Tablets has given my students perspective into the business and technology world that they couldn’t get anywhere else, and I can’t understate that kind of value. This is perhaps the most challenging question facing computer science instruction at the high school level – if administrators thought they had a hard time finding quality teachers in general, just wait until they need to find a group to teach computer science. It won’t be easy.

Courtesy of the CSTA Website

Courtesy of the CSTA Website

2.  What will they teach?

The next question of course involves what computer science teachers actually teach in high school. The Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA)  has actually put together a standards document for computer science at all grade levels, which is pretty spectacular. In other subjects, there are national and state-level documents of this type, which will need to be written before any real progress is made in teaching computer science.

3.  How will students be evaluated?

Perhaps the most difficult to answer is this question, because programming has two drastically different applications. The first is for future software and server engineers, who require intense technical skill to build databases, server structure, and IP management protocols. The second is a much larger market, but takes more of an artistic approach, in that it’s used by bloggers, front-end developers, and small businesses to make their web presence stand out from their competitors. Every business can benefit from having a more beautiful or well designed/developed website, and the majority of students learning this skill will use it for this purpose. So the question is, how do you evaluate student achievement in these two areas? In a time when standardized testing is under such scrutiny, this is a challenging and complex solution.

4.   Where will schools get the resources needed?

All computer programming classes have one thing in common – they require every student to have a computer to work with. There’s no beating around the bush here – it would be similar to a student trying to learn to play a trumpet without a trumpet. Computers are expensive, require a support crew on site, and an infrastructure that many schools currently don’t have. Investment must first be made into the infrastructure in these schools, and then the machines, before instruction becomes a reality. Until then, computer science classes will be limited to electives and pilot programs.

5.  When do students start?

Albeit an easy question, this must also be answered, because a student’s math capability is going to heavily dictate how they do in a programming class. My personal opinion is that students learning this skill should start early so they have a chance to get comfortable with it while interacting with their own personal blogs and websites, but the earlier we start the more broad the above questions become.

Make no mistake – I fully support Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative to have computer science instruction become widespread in the city. This is something that already happens in other countries, so there’s no reason for it not to happen here. There has to be a huge amount of thought and investment though, before any of this becomes a reality.

EDIT: NPR Just did this recent story about a nonprofit organization’s attempt at computer engineering in high school.

5 Tips for Managing Classroom Technology


When I started teaching our Integrated Science class at GHS, I was excited in part for the opportunity to have access to iPads every day in my classroom. The constant availability provides a challenge for teachers in two different ways. The first is obvious; how to incorporate the machines into every day classroom curricula. The second is not so obvious; how does your classroom management adapt to students always having an iPad available? Here are some of the best ways I’ve seen to tackle the second challenge.

#1: Playtime

iPads will be a novelty to the students and their natural urge is to play with the machines at first. It’s important to let them because your goal is to integrate the iPads into your class to the point where using them is no longer a novelty, but “business as usual”. I planned one of my first activities as an iPad scavenger hunt to achieve this and it worked as desired.

#2: Lecturing

The lecturing dynamic is completely changed once iPads are in the mix. On one hand, they are a valuable tool for additional research for students who use them to look up vocabulary words, diagrams, and take notes. On the other, they’re a powerful distractive tool for students who want to browse the internet. The problem is that it’s difficult to figure out which category your students fall under. I’ve experimented with various management strategies while lecturing and can conclude that during lecture time it’s best to put the machines away. This does two things; first, it puts the focus on the teacher which while some argue is a bad thing, every teacher knows that there comes a time when lecturing is appropriate and needed. Second, it teaches the students that there are appropriate times to use their technology and inappropriate times, which in reality might be the most important lesson. Don’t overdo it though – a lot of what is normally lectured can be transformed into a research activity using the iPads.

#3: Workflow

Chances are that you’ll want to see what your kids are doing on their iPads. There are lots of apps out there but the first thing you’re going to want to do is to get your hands on a reliable word processor type app in which students can easily produce and submit work. I use Pages because I find the table generation on it the best and easiest to use, but Evernote is of course another great one. Taking notes using or completing a graphic organizer is a common task I think is hard on the iPad but with Pages it’s a breeze. Evernote is obviously great too. Whichever one you use, make sure you teach the kids how you want them to share their work, what subject line formatting to use, etc. These may be trivial tasks for you but for the students they won’t be, and a little instruction can go a long way towards making your end of class routine much easier.

#4: Apps

How to choose the best apps to use in your classroom could be the subject of several blog posts itself, but it all boils down to something pretty simple and is a defining principle here at Slate & Tablets. If an app can do something better than its paper counterpart, it’s generally a good idea to incorporate it in your class. This goes for things like worksheets, textbooks, writing, and pretty much every classroom task. Rarely are you going to find and use the holy grail of applications but frequently you will find something that is easy to use, effective in its goals, and beneficial to students. I’ll probably do a future post on how I evaluate apps for usage in my classroom as well as some insights from designing them in the future.

In addition, leverage social media for suggestions. The Edmodo Science community is great for science apps, and I’m sure the other ones share just as much.

#5: Start Small

1:1 technology can be intimidating for a lot of teachers and when colleagues are feeling that way I always give the same advice: start small. You don’t need to reinvent the world of education tomorrow, but start by using the iPads for five minutes each day. Have the students complete their bell ringer or exit slip through email as opposed to on paper. Ask the students to look up to definition to chapter vocabulary before you start the unit using the internet. Many classroom tasks can be translated this way and all you need to do is start small.

Having access to 1:1 technology is a management challenge for even the most experienced teachers. Every teacher greeted with a classroom full of students with devices will experience this first hand, and it’s important to be as prepared to manage the new technology as it is to utilize it to its full capacity.

5 Tips For Teaching Web Design In Your Content Area

The science course that I currently teach was written last year with a web design project. When we taught it this year, I wanted to provide the teachers that worked with me a list of basic tips to follow when doing the project. Most of these teachers had never made a website themselves, but recognized it as an important skill for the students to learn. I was digging through some things on my desktop today and came across the list, so here it is!

#1: Do It Yourself

Before you’re able to teach your students anything, the general consensus is that you should do it yourself first. This couldn’t be more true with website construction. Taking the time to make an example website in the quality that you want out of your students will go a long way towards helping you get them where you want them to be. It will also help you figure out exactly how much time they will need and what kinds of questions they’ll ask about construction.

#2: Time

Building a website takes an enormous amount of time. There are tools out there such as Google Sites that allow for quick construction via a template, but their layouts are restrictive. Teaching students how to customize these layouts is one task, but having them actually go through the process always takes longer than we think. I gave my students a full week in the computer lab after four weeks of storyboard and layout instruction interspersed with content. I probably could have provided more than that.

#3: Purpose

It helps when students have an extremely clear purpose of building their website. The purpose should be simple, concise, and relatable. It shouldn’t be a challenge for the students to come up with the content as they’re also trying to make the website. Remember, building a website is hard. Let the students have the first crack at it with a small amount of content. I wasn’t happy with our purpose this year, since it was too overcomplicated.  The idea was to provide a professional athlete a training website that could help them improve at their sport. In reality, none of our students are qualified to do this. Next year, I plan on changing the purpose to highlighting the specific polymers in various pieces of equipment in a sport, and highlighting which equipment is best for different scenarios.

#4: Focus on Specific Design Aspects

I called Brian when designing this project for his advice and his first words were that typography and color go a long way to making something look great. I made the students adopt a custom color scheme from Kuler and hard-code their font choice into the HTML editor. These two menial tasks were enough to get them excited about trying this on their Tumblr or other blog at home.

#5: Show Examples

In teaching any sort of design, and as any art teacher would tell you, showing examples is vital to the development of students’ ability to critique and identify strengths and weaknesses of work. By showing examples of poorly and well designed websites, you can foster student discussion and critical thinking. We went through about 40 minutes of website show-and-tell before diving into storyboards, and it was extremely valuable. Even a simple homework assignment along the lines of “Pick three of your favorite websites and list three strengths and weaknesses of each one” can go a long way towards gearing students towards analyzing things they see on the internet.

This project wound up successful but I am looking forward to doing it again next year. I actually felt that the web instruction for this project was great, but the content of the students’ websites could be altered to provide a more enriching experience.

Switching On

Today is the day that I say goodbye to my spiral bound agenda book and say hello to Planner. Even for someone who is overly comfortable relying on computers to teach, this process is bound to be difficult. In the design of this product, we took into account the fact that most teachers will switch on Planner for the first time already uncomfortable with its existence. Going through that process myself for the first time, I understand how difficult it might be for people to ditch the paper.  

But as I log in for the first time I’m greeted with a warm, familiar setup screen. It feels friendly, playful, and encouraging. I am asked to input my class schedule which I have on a piece of paper since it’s impossible to memorize those where I work. I am then asked to input a variety of data such as room number, class color, and class name. Inputting student names at first seems like a pain, but it only takes about three-four minutes to get all of  them in. Having done similar tech setups before via Edmodo, SMART Response Clickers, and a variety of other programs, I’m happy to see that entering student names into this one is by far the easiest. Even SMART Response which allowed you to import student names from an Excel file took more time since you had to get the file from our data management system, ensure the column titles were correct, etc. All said and done, manually entering names was just faster, albeit a little tedious. The program prompts me for lab classes when relevant, and despite having several entries that meet only one day during our eight day cycle, inputting them takes only a few seconds. It’s honestly the student name entry that is the bulk of the time spent – it’s likely that students will have their Planner set up in five minutes or less.

After about 10 minutes of entering data, I hit OK and jump off the cliff into digital planner land. What happens next makes me excited, and I think most people who use Planner will share the same experience. Because we customize the entire app around the school that purchases it, after that setup is complete, the entire planner comes to life. There are no schedule issues. There are no nuances with homeroom days, CAPT testing days, or vacations.  The times displayed for our blocks on the planner are correct, and change when appropriate. The colors I selected for each individual class light up the screen as they’re used as a reference to each section, in addition to that section’s block number. The interface is laid out like a book, and it not only looks like a planner but it feels like one too. Navigation is easy through a series of playful swipes. This isn’t just another costly program that schools use, littered with bugs and careless UI. This is worthy of my attention.  This is my school’s schedule. This is my school’s app. This is my Planner.

%d bloggers like this: