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In the Nick of Time: Tools for Organizing Our Teaching Life

by Julie D. Ramsay
 | Jan 23, 2013
In today’s world, the topic of using technology in the classroom can be intimidating. In this monthly column, join one teacher on a quest to discover the best way to meet the needs of her digital-age learners…moving beyond the technology tools to focusing on supporting each student’s learning.

photo: bitzcelt via photopin cc
With this being the beginning of a new year, many of us have set goals or resolutions, personally and professionally. One of the most prevalent goals is the one to become more organized. This time of year, we see advertisements for cool new gadgets that claim to revolutionize life as we know it and make our lives so much easier. Who doesn’t want to be able to fluidly move through their lives calmly and a little more stress free? Who couldn’t use some extra time in their lives? I can feel your unanimous agreement.

As teachers, one of our most precious and consumable commodities is time. I don’t know how many times I have wished for a time machine so that I could manage all of the non-teaching tasks while not sacrificing any instructional time with my students.

Recently, I was conducting a workshop and a participant raised his hand and jokingly asked, “Do you have a life outside of the classroom? How can you keep up with all of the activities going on in your classroom?” We had a good laugh and then I shared a few tools that my students and I use to efficiently manage some of the necessary, yet time consuming tasks that all educators must maintain. I noticed all of the teachers in the workshop furiously taking notes on all of the tools that I shared and I realize that with all of the things that we must manage from day to day, there is a desperate need to streamline our classroom routines and not lose out on any of our important practices.

Have I piqued your interest? Do you want to free up some time in the school day and be able to spend more time working with your students? I am going to share three apps that my students and I use to efficiently manage our time.

Take Note
Especially this time of year, we often have students who are absent due to illness. I know that recently I have had many students who were absent for multiple days due to pneumonia, flu, or strep throat. When they return, they are often out of sync with the class and they need some additional time to get missing assignments and receive tutoring on topics that they have missed.

We want all of our learners to keep up with the pace of the class and find success in all of their endeavors. The challenge comes when we really need to continue the pace with the rest of the class. How do you meet the needs of the many and the needs of the few who were absent?

Enter Notability. Notability is an app that allows the user to make notes by typing text, taking photos, or recording voice. In our classroom, each student takes a turn creating a note of the day's activities. The students understand the importance of creating an informative and accurate note because their peers are depending upon them. They know that at some point in the year, they will be depending on the notes to help keep them informed and up-to-date on our classroom learning.

The notes can include text (class activities, homework, class work, deadlines, announcements, etc.), photos (my students take photos of the flipcharts they use, review games they play, vocabulary lists we have, our science experiments, etc.) and audio (of me or one of my learners explaining something that needs more than text or photos). When a student is out for a day or two, he/she comes in when he/she returns to school, gets our class iPad, opens the note for the dates he/she was out and discovers exactly what went on in the classroom that day. An added bonus is that the notes are also easily emailed, so they can also be sent to students or parents at the end of day.

This takes a potentially time consuming practice and places it in the hands of the students. After I taught one student how to create notes, that student then taught the next student and so on. After about a week, the students completely managed this practice on their own. The students are taking ownership and responsibility for their learning and I am able to spend my time continuing to teach.

Time to Confer
How many of you have a huge binder to document your one-on-one or small group mini-lessons? Documenting all of our conferring sessions with each of our students in all content areas can quickly become a huge succubus on our time. Keeping these accurate records are necessary for us and our students to document their progress in each content area, but where can you find the time to do it accurately? I have tried many different methods and never found one that I felt was the right fit for accuracy, practicality, and timeliness.

Then I discovered Confer. I felt like my hopes and dreams of a method for documenting these daily conferring sessions had finally been answered. Once one begins using this app, one immediately recognizes that a classroom teacher created it.

Using Confer, you can quickly take notes on a student’s strengths or needs. Also, using “Quick Text,” you can create a note and apply it to a group of students. Once a note or comment is created, it is saved, and can easily be applied to other students at a different time.

With my students, when we confer one-on-one, they each set personal goals that we can add and they can look back to see when they reached each goal, putting the responsibility for their personal growth firmly into their hands.

As if that wasn’t enough, using this handy app, with the tap of a button, you can easily sort students into groups based on academic needs. Since each note is dated, you can sort students by date to see with whom you haven’t conferred with recently. Using these functions, no student can slip through the gaps and miss out on their conferring time.

In addition to documenting when you confer, on what you confer, with whom you confer, and the goals set by each student, Confer also makes it simple to share this information via email with parents, fellow teachers (if you team teach) or administrators. You can also export your data into a Google Spreadsheet or Word Document.

Confer has become one of my secret weapons for organization. My students love it because they can quickly access their goals and progress and email it to their parents. It takes a massive amount of data, organizes it in meaningful ways, and makes it accessible with a few simple taps on the screen. I’ve gone from hours of documenting and reams of paper, to minutes and the handy use of my iPad. Thank you, Confer!

Who Needs an Assistant?
We know that many times as classroom teachers, we feel like we need a full time personal assistant. How can we balance all the teaching and nonteaching tasks that we have without dropping the ball on one of them? Where can you find the time?

One of the many important tasks that we have is documenting behavior and citizenship of our students, the good and the not-so-good. We know that documentation for each student can quickly become time-intensive with the demanding needs of our diverse students. Yet, it is imperative that we maintain accurate records.

I would like to introduce you to my assistant, Teacher’s Assistant Pro. This user-friendly app has the capability for teachers to input the names of their students, as well as their parents’ email addresses and phone numbers. When a student deserves an accolade or makes poor citizenship choices, this app allows you to complete a simple note and with a couple of taps on the screen send an email to parents and the administrators. Once a comment is made for one student, that comment remains in the app so that you can click on it as an option, further saving your valuable time.

One thing that I do with my students when we privately discuss their behavior is that I have them design the consequences and future plan of action for their behavior. It puts the responsibility on them to make any necessary changes. This app is easily customizable to meet your needs. So if you like to send home positive reports like I do, this can be easily done as well. My students love that this is not simply punitive in nature, but allows me (or them) to quickly send a note praising them for reaching a goal or going above and beyond in their actions.

Although, I am not promising that these tools will completely revolutionize classroom life as you know it, I guarantee that they will make your life more organized, give you more time to work with your students, and less time on necessary, but time-consuming tasks. Wishing you a happy, more organized, and a bit less stressful New Year!

Are you a fan of Plugged In? Come see Julie D. Ramsay present a session on collaborating in class and online at IRA’s 58th Annual Convention, April 19-22, 2013, in San Antonio, Texas.

Julie D. Ramsay is a Nationally Board Certified educator and the author of “CAN WE SKIP LUNCH AND KEEP WRITING?”: COLLABORATING IN CLASS & ONLINE, GRADES 3-8 (Stenhouse, 2011). She travels the country to speak, present, and facilitate workshops in applying technology to support authentic learning. Read her blog at

© 2013 Julie D. Ramsay. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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