5 Super Cool Teacher Hacks

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)

Illustrated by Sutthiya Lertyongphati

Supplementary video: 

I’m now 36-years-old. The years have flown by, and they have taught me that my life and time are both very precious. 

As a young and rather gullible NQT at 23-years-old, I was a massive time-waster. I wasted time on almost every nuts-and-bolts aspect of teaching. I wasted time writing reports from scratch. I spent hours creating tests and assessements and homeworks, and then hours marking them because I stupidly forgot to source or create an official mark scheme. I put kids on detention and then realised that I had to supervise those detentions, and that ate into my free time. 

Nowadays I have long-since scrapped all of those clumsy behaviours and I now streamline everything I can for maximum effectiveness.

So, grab a cup of tea or coffee and sit back because I’d like to share my new and improved teacher behaviours for maximum effect and efficiency.

Hack #1: Copy, paste and modify school reports

Writing school reports used to be a massive chore for teachers. I still remember receiving hand-written reports when I was a kid – imagine how long those must have taken for my teachers to write!

jenga

Well, the cat’s out of the bag now, and I don’t feel ashamed to say that it’s okay to do a bit of copying and pasting with school reports – so long as you always modify the reports to match each student.

Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Write a really good set of original, unique school reports for your students. Save these to your computer somewhere (e.g. on Microsoft Word® or Google Docs®) and be sure to comment on attainment, progress and overall characteristics. This first stage will take considerable time (but it’s time that’s well-invested).
  2. When the next reporting cycle comes around, look at your student data and and use your own judgement to see which students match your old reports you wrote. For example, Jennifer from this reporting cycle might be very similar to Susan, who you taught last year.
  3. Use the ‘Replace’ feature on a word processor (like MS Word) to quickly change names, adjectives, genders and other key terms.
  4. Add some unique descriptors and features for that student. Make sure the report accurately reflects the student you’re writing about.
  5. Highlight the report you’ve just modified so that you know that you’ve used this one (you don’t want to duplicate copies)
  6. Copy and paste the text into your report-writing system at school.

I like to be quite prosaic in my report-writing – it ensures that my reports are accurate and professional. I sometimes use a template to help me.

Create a S.W.A.P. template

Every report should contain these four elements (at the very least):

  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses (including targets)
  • Attainment
  • Progress

They don’t necessarily have to be in that order, but they should all be present somewhere.

A good template can save you tons of time, and will ensure that your reports are detailed and accurate. I’ve given an example with applications below. Please feel free to copy and paste and use this as you see fit:

x has had a disappointing/steady/good/very good term/half-term/year/semester. He/She has shown strengths in a number of areas including……………………….. . This is pleasing, but even further progress could be made by………………………………. x’s most recent recent assessment score was ……………., which indicates to me that……………………….. Progress has been disappointing/steady/good/very good, as exemplified by the fact that………………… 

Let’s see this in action below:

Example 1: An excellent student

Joshua has had a very good half-term. He has shown strengths in a number of areas including modular arithmetic, definite and indefinite integration and differentiation. This is pleasing, but even further progress could be made by completing more of the Higher Level assigned tasks on MyiMaths, as he does have the ability to challenge himself further. Joshua’s most recent assessment score was 83%, which indicates to me that he is completing the necessary revision at home. Progress has been very good, as exemplified by the fact that he has jumped from a level 6 to a level 7 in the space of just seven weeks.  

Example 2: An average student

Lisa has had a steady half-term. She has shown strengths in a number of areas including balancing chemical equations and completing laboratory practical work. This is pleasing, but even further progress could be made by completing more practice questions on Quantitative Chemistry and using the model answers as a good guide for improvement.  Lisa’s most recent recent assessment score was 54%, which indicates to me that she has a good knowledge of some areas of the subject, but needs to work harder to revise identified weaknesses. Progress has been steady, as exemplified by the fact that Lisa’s assessment scores have been consistently above 50% since the start of the course. 

Hack #2: ‘Live’ Marking

I have personally wasted so much of my free time both at school and at home marking student work. Many late nights; many lost weekends. All for nothing.

Discussing homework

Well, not completely for nothing – at least now I’ve seen sense and can pass on my experiences to you so that you don’t go through the same pain.

You see, I now know that feedback only works if it is relevant, specific and somewhat emotional. How do we achieve this? – we must mark student work with the students. They have to be involved too.

As soon as I started doing these things, my impact skyrocketed:

  1. Simply walk around the classroom with a colored pen in hand. Tick, flick and mark student work as you walk around. 
  2. For larger pieces of work, set the kids on a task and call the students to your desk one-at-a-time. Sit with the student and discuss the work, adding written comments in front of the student along the way. Use praise effectively and remember – praise only works if it is sincere, specific and collective (tell your colleagues and get them to praise the student too). 
  3. Use peer-assessment and self-assessment, but don’t do this for everything. Students still need to receive acknowledgement from their teacher.

I’ve written a useful article about peer and self-assessment techniques here. Some general advice on giving feedback can be found here.

Here’s a video I made about the Four Rules of Praise:

Hack #3: Education Apps

I had the chance to rigorously test out the apps I’m about to show you and, I can tell you: they really do make life easier (and they can do some cool things too!).

1. Nearpod

Where you can get it and use it: App Store, Google Play, Microsoft Store, Chrome Web store and on the web at Nearpod.com

Cool Feature #1: You create a slideshow on Nearpod. Your kids login with a code that Nearpod generates (they don’t need to sign up, which saves tons of time) and, boom!: the slideshow will play on every student’s device. When the teacher changes a slide, then the slide will change on the kids’ screens.

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“An AMAZING Book!”

You can choose to show the slideshow on a front projector screen/smartboard, or simply walk around the class with your iPad or laptop as you’re instructing the kids.

Cool feature #2: Put polls, questions, quizzes, drawing tasks, videos, 3D objects, web links and audio segments into Nearpod presentations to make the experience fully ‘interactive’.

When I tested Nearpod I thought it was super-cool because I could write an answer (as a student) and it would show on the front-screen as a sticky-note with everyone else’s. Chelsea Donaldson shows this excellent image of what I experienced over at her blog:

As you can see, other kids can click ‘like’ and can comment on the responses, making this an ultra-modern, ‘social-media’ style education tool.

Another feature I loved was ‘Draw it’. It’s similar to ‘collaborate’ (the feature above with the sticky-note answers), but this time the students either draw a picture or annotate a drawing you have shared.

I can see this being great for scientific diagrams and mathematical operations.

Students can use a stylus/Apple Pencil, their finger (if it’s a non-stylus tablet or phone they are using) or even a mouse to draw the picture. Once drawn, the pictures will show up on the teacher’s screen together, and this can be projected if the teacher wishes.

Cool feature 3: Virtual reality is embedded into Nearpod (and I need to learn a lot more about it!).

I don’t understand it fully yet, but Nearpod themselves say that over 450 ready-to-run VR lessons are ready on their platform, including college tours, mindfulness and meditation lessons and even tours of ancient China!

Now that sounds cool!

My thoughts about Nearpod

I like apps that are quick, useful and free/cheap to use.

Nearpod ticks all of those boxes.

The features that I tested which were super, super cool include:

  • Kids log in with a code and your presentation appears on their screens. When you change a slide, the slide changes on their devices!
  • You can put polls, drawing tasks and questions into your slides and it’s all fully interactive. Kids’ answers will appear on the projector screen for all to see (if you wish), or simply on the teacher’s screen (for private viewing).

I love this app and I look forward to using all of its features with my students.

2. Noteability

Where to get it: App Store, Mac App Store

Cool feature #1: Noteability has allowed me to make the most amazing notes and save tons of paper and paper-notebooks in the process. Just look at these beautiful notes I made during my Science JAWs training a few months ago:

As you can see, you can select a wide variety of colors and make beautiful notes, Mind-Maps®, concept-maps, flow charts, diagrams and more.

I use this feature of Noteability to:

  • Plan things in my daily life (such as my blog posts, my weekend plans, my fitness plans, etc)
  • Write shopping lists
  • Write lesson plans
  • Take notes in school meetings

Cool feature #2: Noteability allows you to annotate PDFs with the Apple Pencil. This is absolutely brilliant and has allowed me to annotate my IB Diploma Chemistry coursework (Internal Assessment) quickly and clearly before uploading the coursework to the IBIS system.

I can see this feature becoming really useful for schools that want to save paper and for teachers that want to annotate coursework, homework or classwork and then send it back to the student in some way (e.g. by e-mail, through Google Drive or through Google Classroom).

Take a look at this IB Chemistry coursework annotation I recently did with Noteability and the Apple Pencil:

Another way to use this feature is to get the kids to scan their classwork, homework or past-paper answers and then annotate each other’s work with the Apple Pencil. The teacher could also annotate it too:

Cool feature #3: Students can make revision notes, classnotes, homework assignments and submit work all through Noteability. Using the ‘split-screen’ mode on the iPad Pro they can even copy images and charts directly from a web-page they are reading at the same time:

For students, I can see Noteability being using in a range of creative ways:

  • Making revision notes
  • Annotating their own work, or each other’s
  • Creating assignments and presentations (Noteability allows users to copy content from the web seamlessly using ‘split-screen’ mode)
  • Making notes in class

There is the possibility that tablets may even replace traditional school notebooks in future too – removing the need for 11-year-old kids to carry really heavy bags around school all day (and this has already been linked to back problems).

My thoughts on Noteability

I mentioned this a few blog posts ago but I feel it’s worth a second shout-out.

I like this app because it has basically replaced all of my notebooks, and is an excellent planning, note-taking and annotation tool.

A big drawback of Noteability, at the time of writing, is that it is only compatible with iOS. Not all students use Apple devices, and schools won’t always fork-out money for them. However, I have found that my own personal investment in an iPad Pro, along with Noteability, has enchanced my life in many ways and has benefited some of my students as I have been able to annotate their work better than ever before.

3. Flipgrid

Where to get it and use it: Microsoft Store, App Store, Google Play Store and at flipgrid.com

Cool features: Flipgrid is a secure video-commenting/video-conferencing platform. Flipgrid’s mission is to “Empower student voice” and they’ve certainly achieved that with this app.

Basically, the teacher uploads a video of himself/herself asking a question, or posts a question, link, resource or video, and the students respond by taking videos of themselves responding to the material.

It’s super cool!

Once the students have uploaded their videos of themselves, other students can see them and watch them (and comment on them). They can even respond to videos with videos, so it really can get a discussion flowing!

Image courtesy of Flipgrid

Each video a student creates will receive feedback from other students and the class teacher, and the student who made the video can quickly see the feedback they’ve received.

I would recommend all tech-interested educators to check out Jess Bell’s guest blog post over at larryferlazzo.edublogs.org entitled ‘Getting Started with Flipgrid’.

My thoughts on Flipgrid

When I tested it it took me a while to figure out how to use it, and what its purpose was.

Once I’d signed up, however, the website directed me to lots of great help and resources. There’s a load of pre-made lessons and students can sign in with a simple pre-generated code (like Kahoot! and Nearpod) which saves tons of time.

Once you’ve signed up (it’s free) and you’re in on Flipgrid, your dashboard will look something like this:

As you can see: it has a very user-friendly interface.

Hack #4: Learning Journals 

Shortly after getting my PGCE and completing my NQT year in the UK, I came to Thailand to work as a Chemistry Teacher at an international school in Bangkok. I was lucky enough to have been given a very able and hard-working class of Year 10 students to teach. In fact, the illustrator of this blog and my books: Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati, was in that class. 

I decided to try Learning Journals with these IGCSE Chemistry students. The idea was that they were to buy a special notebook (not their normal class book) and fill it with revision summaries, mind-maps, key words and anything learnt in class each week. I wanted it to be a ‘living journal’, and not just simply a replica of the students’ class notes. 

The students mainly took to it very well. Extracts from Pop’s beautiful Learning Journal are shown below:

2 MARCH

16 MARCH21 MARCH.jpg

25 MARCH

Highly-motivated students like Pop would always hand in beautiful notes, every single week. In fact, CfBT inspectors came to that school that year and they said that Pop’s notes were the best they had ever seen!

Wow! That’s quite a statement.

However, some students didn’t take to it that well and I found out why: I wasn’t giving feedback regularly enough. Some weeks I would be too busy with other school things, so I would sometimes (to my shame) collect in the journals and simply give them back the next day with some simple verbal feedback only.

I discovered that when students were given some written feedback on a weekly basis, however small, they was a marked improvement in the quality of the journals I received each week. 

Back then, when I realised this at 26 years of age, I would write multiple comments on every page in a student’s journal. This almost killed me when I had 20 journals to mark. I soon gave that up and came up with a better way.

Oh, but did the journals work? Well…that class went on to get 100% A*-C in their Chemistry IGCSEs.

Did the journals help them achieve this? I believe so.

My updated (better) journaling system

I’ve set up a Learning Journal system with my Year 11 IGCSE and Year 12 and 13 IBDP classes. Every Monday they must bring their journals to my room and place them in the right place, as shown below:

Learning Journal System

Then, after school every Monday I write one and only one post-it note of feedback for each student; which I stick in their journals. This keeps my feedback focused on the essentials and increases my productivity.

An example of what this feedback might look like is given in this reconstruction below:

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Students pick up their journals (with post-it note feedback inside) every Tuesday, meaning that they are getting recurring, weekly feedback as well as regular, meaningful homework.

I’ve been using this system successfully for a few years now. The student-sign register system allows me to quickly see who hasn’t completed a journal and the fact that I force myself to get all of the post-it-notes filled in on Monday evening means that I can chase up late journals very quickly. 

A little ‘tweak’

I did find that the Monday evenings were becoming quite hard because of all of the journals I was marking. Now, I spread out the days to match my timetable:

  • Year 11 give me their journals on a Monday
  • Year 12 on a Wednesday
  • Year 13 on a Friday

The system allows me to give regular feedback to my students, and it seems to be showing in the progress they are making in tests and assessments.

In addition to this, I’ve turned my Learning Journals into a ‘live-marking’ recurring feedback system: I mark them in class, with the students. It means that I lose no free time, and I am able to give one-to-one feedback to each student that is meaningful and specific. 

Learning Journals Conclusion

  • Journaling is a powerful tool when used correctly
  • It can be applied to any subject area
  • It’s great for exam-level classes doing revision
  • Recurring feedback and meaningful homework come as part of the package
  • The students can be creative and present their journals in any way they choose (online is an option too)
  • The feedback process allows the teacher to get to know their students’ strengths and weaknesses very quickly
  • The Learning Journal is a permanent record that the students can treasure and be proud of
  • Journaling is not used enough in the teaching profession. I aim to change this. 

Hack #5: Self and Peer Assessment

There’s no doubt about it – getting students involved in their own assessment and marking has a wide-variety of benefits.

walking around wt laptop

Take this great summary by Rosario Hernandez at University College Dublin for example, which explains that peer-assessment benefits students in four key ways:

  • Promotes high quality learning
  • Contributes to skills development
  • Furthers personal development
  • Increases students’ confidence, reduces stress and improves student motivation

That’s quite a convincing list!

Peer assessment

Not surprisingly, similar things can be said of self-assessment. This great overview by the University of Sydney advocates for the wide-use of self-assessment with students for the following key reasons:

  • It encourages student involvement and participation, so it’s great for students who normally find group activities or active class tasks a little uncomfortable
  • When used in conjunction with group work it can be a great way to assess one’s personal role and contribution in the group experience and learning process

self-assessment

Academic appraisals aside, I’ve found from my personal experience that both self and peer-assessment are absolutely invaluable to the modern practitioner. They save you oodles of time as a teacher and students learn so much from each process.

But how should we use self and peer-assessment?

There are a number of different ways that self and peer-assessment can be used in the classroom. My experience has taught me (the hard way!) that the following tasks work really well:

  • Making corrections to tests and assessments: When any important test or assessment comes up, I don’t think it is appropriate to have students marking these themselves. They’ll get it wrong, even with a mark scheme to use, and will be overly generous on themselves and their peers (unless they’ve been trained for a period of time – more on that next). However, a great activity is to mark the tests yourself, then give the tests back to the students along with the a printed or online mark scheme. The students could then use a coloured pen to make full and detailed corrections to their test papers. You could turn this into an AfL exercise, with students writing down the question numbers they got wrong on the whiteboard, or on an anonymous piece of paper. You could then go through these questions afterwards to clear up common misconceptions. If you run a regular learning journals system (as I currently do), then students could write down the questions and the model answers in their learning journals. This causes very deep-learning to take place and is great for building long-term memory!
  • Assessing homework, classwork and regular assignments: A great time-saver for teachers. Just make sure the kids have access to the model answers. Don’t forget to collect the work in too – you need to know that the kids actually did the work you asked them to do.
  • Past-papers: Exam-level students really need to become familiar with the official mark schemes provided by exam boards. They need to become comfortable with key vocabulary, language and command terms. Provide exam-level students with regular past-papers to do as homework. Provide mark schemes too, so that they can self and peer-assess their work in class later. For older students (e.g. ‘AS’ – Level, SAT and IBDP learners) I’ll sometimes give them past papers and mark schemes to take home. Their task is to complete the past-papers under timed conditions and mark them using the mark schemes. The student then hands me the papers completed and marked (this is essential – I need to know that they have completed the assignment). I then check the papers for common misconceptions and target those in class. 
  • Technological means: There a number of ways in which technology can assist in the peer and self-assessment process. Google forms are great; as are online quizzes provided by trusted third parties (e.g. BBC Bitesize and MyiMaths) and online quizzes that teachers can build by themselves (e.g.Quizlets). Make use of these and others (e.g. Kahoot – great for getting kids to use their mobile devices), as they are really interactive and can offer a nice break from traditional methods. 

Art class

Training students to assess themselves

This is a gradual process and basically involves exposing students to exam-style questions and past-papers; along with their mark schemes, over a prolonged period of time. The process is straightforward but can be monotonous: provide past-papers as homework, classwork, projects and even through a special past-paper ECA club (which I’m currently doing with my IGCSE and IBDP students – it’s very effective). 

There are a number of creative ways to train students up in proper exam-technique:

  • Cut up the questions and answers to past-papers and hand them to students one-at-a-time. They can only come and get the next question when they’ve effectively answered and marked the previous one.
  • Give students the answers to questions and get them to write the questions! Use the same method as the previous bullet-point above, or set up a large display and get students to put their answers on post-it notes which they can stick to the display.
  • Get a big container filled with cut-up exam questions. Students have to pick out questions from the container in pairs or threes, and work on them. No two groups should have the same question. 
  • Students can make revision videos, websites and even stop-motion animations that contain exam-style questions and answers. 

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Author:

High School Science and Mathematics Teacher, Author and Blogger. Graduated from Bangor University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology and a PGCE in Secondary Science Education. Richard also holds the coveted Certificate in Mathematics from the Open University (UK).

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