by Tricia Ebner
This year it happened: one-to-one computer access became part of my school district in grades 8-12, and computers became more easily accessible for other grades as well. In all three of my assigned grade levels (6-8), my students now have daily access to computers. When this was announced to us last spring, I was thrilled. This easy accessibility was going to make technology integration so much easier for me. Then reality struck: I needed to find technology-based tools that could help me more easily do what I wanted within my classroom.
I’ve been keeping my eyes open to other teachers’ favorite apps and web sites, often checking out recommendations on Twitter. When I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve attended professional development sessions devoted to sharing apps useful for classrooms. My focus throughout this process has been on finding tools that will be useful for my students and me as we continue to learn and grow. My foundational principle has been that the app or web site must help us toward our goals; the technology is not a goal by itself. Then I consider three additional factors: privacy protection for my students, cost, and ease of use. When an app meets these criteria, I will try it within my classroom to see how successful it is with my students.
So far, I’ve discovered a number of apps that help my students and me with our work. Here are some of my favorites:
- Padlet: This free app allows me to set up virtual “bulletin boards” where students can respond to questions or post ideas for consideration. It’s a great springboard for class discussion. Sometimes I’ll use it to start class by posting a question or thought-provoking quote, and then individual students post their responses. At other times, I’ve used it after students have discussed a question in pairs or small groups. The groups craft a responses to the question, and then we can look at the various ideas when I project the page on our interactive white board. By keeping my Padlets secret, so that only those who have the link can participate, I am able to maintain student privacy.
- Backchannel Chat: This has revolutionized certain activities in my classroom. I learned about this tool at the NCTE Convention in November, and since then I have used it with both sixth and eighth grades. In fishbowl discussions, this app allows those students in the outer circle to participate in a silent, virtual discussion, while those sitting in the inside circle conduct their verbal discussion. I’ve also used it while showing a video. When my eighth graders watched a filmed version of A Christmas Carol, I was able to pose questions encouraging them to consider why the director selected particular camera angles, lighting, or how an actor’s delivery of certain lines impacted the meaning of the words. We had these discussions in our Backchannel room, without interrupting the flow of the movie. One of my favorite features of this tool is that students who are normally reserved and quiet in whole-class discussions will often share terrific insights in the Backchannel. There is a free version, and the paid version ($15/year) provides some excellent additional tools to help manage the chat, including the ability to “mute” individual students and download a transcript of the chat.
- Edulastic: This free tool provides a huge range of questions and question formats, making it a great way to design and use computer-based assessments. There are question banks aligned to standards, so that teachers can select items aligned to standards students have been addressing in their work. Teachers can also write their own items and note which standards are being addressed. There are four levels of privacy for questions, too, including private only to me (teacher), school, district, and public. This tool is being used more and more often for common assessments in my school. The question types available include tech-enhanced options, such as drag-and-drop and multiple-part questions. This is a great way to give students more regular experience with these kinds of assessment items, reducing the need for focused, dedicated test prep work around technology tools, because students are seeing these kinds of questions on assessments throughout the year.
- PearDeck: This tool allows teachers to create interactive slide decks. It has revolutionized how I use slide shows, such as PowerPoint or Google slides. I can share information, ask questions, and even embed videos. Now I can present a skill or idea, and then I can have students practice it, so that I can conduct in-the-moment, real-time formative assessment that helps me decide upon next steps. There is a free level, which allows limited use, and a paid subscription level. (There is another tool available, called Nearpod, which has similar features and also includes a library of lessons for use, with free and paid membership levels.)
- EDpuzzle: This free tool provides the ability to embed questions within videos. It makes watching videos more interactive and helps me see what students understand–and don’t understand–about video segments we watch. There are lessons available for use, and I can also make my own. It’s a great option for flipped instruction and self-paced activities because students can watch independently, and I can still track how well they understand what they understand the video and its information.
It’s worth noting that a none of these tools are focused exclusively on English language arts. These could be very useful in just about any class and subject. Using these tools has streamlined work in my classroom, making certain activities more efficient and giving me feedback faster. For example, I used to have students complete a paper chart comparing the Christmas Carol movie to the novel. Then I would take time to read through each chart and note individual student understanding. This year, with Backchannel Chat, I could ask questions and track student understanding in the moment. Tools like Peardeck and EDPuzzle make multimedia presentations much more interactive and engaging. Having regular one-to-one access isn’t a requirement for using these; there are creative ways of using these tools in a variety of settings. If you’re looking for technology tools to make work more efficient in your classroom, consider trying one of these.
Do you have favorite apps you use within your classroom? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.