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Every January, I launch a brand-new edition of my Teacher’s Guide to Tech. As challenging and time-consuming as it is to put this guide together every year, it’s also pretty magical. I find myself sitting at my keyboard with a million browser tabs open and it happens—that moment when I come across some idea that someone has brought into the world and I think Holy cow, this is good. The thought that someone saw a problem or a need in the world, and they used code to create something brand new to meet that need—that process, that realization of human creativity, is just incredible to me. I watch as these tools come and go and change over time and I marvel at the people behind them, the risks they take, their willingness to try new stuff and push their ideas out into the world.
I don’t think technology is the end-all be-all, and of course it brings new problems into our lives, but just watching the creativity behind these tools makes me so excited to live in a time when so many ordinary people can actually bring their ideas to life and watch those ideas impact the world.
So every year, I choose six of these tools that I think are worth a little extra attention. Before we get to the six—plus the two “honorable mentions” I squeezed in at the end—let’s take a quick look at the 2019 guide:
1. Equity Maps
Figuring out which students participate in a class discussion—and how often—can be a huge challenge. Equity Maps is an iPad app for keeping track of that.
You start by creating a seating chart that shows where students are sitting for a discussion. When the discussion starts, you just tap each student’s icon as that student contributes to the conversation. Equity Maps keeps track of how long each student talks so that when you’re done, you can get a summary of how often each class member participated, how many were active participants, and whether there was equal gender distribution among those who actively engaged.
Other features add more functionality: There are buttons to record periods of silence, pair-shares and small groups, and even a “chaos” button to keep track of times when the formal discussion dissolved into many smaller conversations. An audio recorder even lets you record the whole discussion so that you can review it later with the map, helping you and your students reflect on the quality of their participation.
Equity Maps would be a useful tool for most grade levels and subject areas—in any class where you want students to actively participate.
We have a lot of good writing tools out there, but this is one of the most comprehensive I’ve seen. ProWritingAid does a really deep dive into the quality of your writing, looking at everything from passive voice to overused words, from the use of clichés to sentence variety. Just compose in the tool itself, copy and paste, or upload a document and you’ll get a summary report with all kinds of statistics about the strengths and weaknesses of the piece, plus suggestions for changes when you hover over highlighted places in the text itself.
Here are just a few of the things your summary report will tell you: the readability of your piece based on four different reading scales, the number of times you used certain words, the most unique words in your piece, your average sentence length (along with a graph that actually shows you where sentences of different lengths are placed), how often you used adverbs (which can weaken your writing), and how often you used weak or passive wording. It has a free and a paid version, but you can get a lot of mileage out of the free version.
If you’re an English teacher you really need to take a look at this tool—it will reinforce a lot of what you’re trying to teach your students, and will draw their attention to individual strengths and weaknesses, which will make it much easier to personalize instruction.
3. Google Tour Creator
A lot of teachers are already familiar with Google Expeditions, a virtual reality platform that lets users experience hundreds of places in the world in 3D. But what you might not know is that you can now create your own tours using Tour Creator. This tool enables us to create our own tours, using imagery from Google Street View or our own 360 photos, then publish them right into Poly, Google’s library of free VR and AR objects.
Students can create tours as part of a research project, use them as a way to reflect after a field trip, or even as a supplement to a creative writing project. They can be used to create tours of your school, your classroom, or your town. If your school doesn’t currently have much VR technology, start with an affordable Google Cardboard—just pop a smartphone into one of these and you now have one VR headset that can be used by a small group of students.
4. Great Big Story
Great Big Story’s mission statement reads as follows: “We believe there is magic in the world and it’s our mission in life to help you discover it. We search for stories showing a sense of optimism for the world…because goodness can grow through the smallest cracks in the sidewalk.”
How they help us discover the world’s magic is through video: short, professionally produced videos about people and phenomena all over the world, stories that will pique your curiosity and give you the sense of wonder about the world. Videos can be browsed by themes like Human Condition, Planet Earth, and Flavors (yep, all about food), or in curated playlists. There’s one on America’s oldest female BMX racer, one about a 12-year-old scientist who took on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and one on the accidental invention of the best snack food ever.
Video is becoming a well-respected form of “text” that can be consumed and analyzed as deeply as any print text, so collections like these should become a part of your school’s library of options for classroom materials. One word of warning: Although the content on the site has been rated safe for all audiences on YouTube and Facebook, the videos on Great Big Story were not made specifically for a student audience, and some material will not be appropriate for younger viewers. Teachers should preview videos before sharing them with students.
This one is my absolute favorite.
This addictive game plunks you down somewhere in the world using Google Street view. You literally start on some country road and the whole point of the game is to figure out where in the world you are. You can navigate down the road in the app, and you can turn around and zoom in to look more closely at things, but because the game often chooses the most remote locations, you often find yourself traveling for quite a while before you see any clues. Once you do see something—a road sign, ideally, or something at least with language on it—you can start figuring it out.
I don’t even know if this is following the rules, but the times I’ve played this, I’ve been amazed at the number of resources I ended up pulling together to figure things out: I do Google image matches, use Google Translate to figure out what a language even is, and even look things up on Wikipedia to figure out if I’m on the right track. I’ve had four or five different tabs open to try and narrow down a precise location, and all the while, I’m learning stuff. I had no idea, for example, that there was an island called Gotland off the coast of Sweden! Or that there’s an animal called a springhare in South Africa that looks an awful lot like a kangaroo.
Whenever you think you know where you are, you choose a location on a map, then you’re rewarded with a certain number of points based on how close you got. When you get close, it’s just thrilling. This would be a fantastic option for early finishers, lame duck days, or even as a reward for good behavior. It’s that fun.
When you first look at Webjets, you might think, “Oh, it’s like Padlet.” And in some ways, you’d be right: In Webjets, users create boards where they gather items on cards, placing these on a desktop that feels like a bulletin board.
But with Webjets, these cards work even harder than they do on Padlet, and they come in a variety of formats: A card can contain an image, an embedded video, a live Google Doc, an attached file, or a table containing a variety of elements organized into columns. Probably the best feature is that cards can be collected into folders, where the items are listed along the left, and the selected item appears in a larger window on the right. You can keep multiple folders on one board, and all cards can be collapsed or expanded, making it easy to neatly collect large amounts of resources all in one place.
Webjets would be an excellent, flexible tool for any kind of group project or curation task, whether it’s done by you or your students.
If, like me, you were completely devastated when the backchannel tool TodaysMeet shut down last year, you’ll be happy to know that you can have almost the same experience on YoTeach! Just set up a free room, give your students the URL, and everyone can come on in and chat just like they did on TodaysMeet. What’s even better is that you can password protect your room, participants can add pictures and drawings in the chat, and rooms don’t appear to ever expire.
This simple website solves a problem that so many teachers have: students waiting for the teacher’s attention. Rather than have them wait with their hands up or get off-task, they can add their name to a digital queue, adding a note about what they need if they like. The teacher sees the names in the order they were submitted, and once the student has met with the teacher, their name can be checked off with a single click.
Where to Get the Teacher’s Guide to Tech
Single-User Licenses: If you just want a copy for yourself, you can get a copy at Teachers Pay Teachers or on Teachable.
Multi-User Licenses: To get the guide for your team, school, or even district, you can save a lot by getting multi-user licenses. I offer the deepest discounts for these on Teachable.
*Since the publication of this post, I have become an affiliate for ProWritingAid, which means Cult of Pedagogy receives a percentage of any subscription that comes through my links. This relationship was not established until after I wrote the post, and my decision to choose ProWritingAid as one of these six tools was not financially motivated in any way.