Being a teacher is hard work. And COVID-19 made that work even more challenging. Having taught high school entrepreneurship for 6 years now, I've got some sense of the struggles full-time teachers go through. Whether teaching 12th graders or kindergartners, educators can use all the help they can get. This article outlines some best practices, tips and tools I've personally learned and observed other teachers using.

5 Tools for Educators

A quick Google search for "best tools for teachers" and you'll find thousands of apps and software solutions to help engage students, deliver lectures, manage homework, run quizzes, and more. Here are five of the most useful and easiest to add to your classroom for the fall — whether we're back on campus or still on Zoom.

Engage Students with Video Project Updates Using Flipgrid

Flipgrid is a social learning platform that lets students to share experiences, tell stories and give progress updates with video. Of course there are a million ways to have students take and make videos, but Flipgrid is pupose built for educators to assign, collect and organize these videos. Whether using individually or as teams, students enter a pre-assigned code, shoot a video and click submit. Teachers are notified and videos are organized by project both on their website and mobile app.

Most of the projects I assign are team based and I use this tool to have students give progress reports on their work. I've found that having them do team update videos on Flipgrid gets them 5x as engaged as they are in class — sad, but true.

Markup Hero is a free and easy to use tool to take screenshots, annotate images and PDF's, collect student feedback, comment on homework, prepare lecture materials and so much more. It's played but still true, pictures say 1000 words, and when it comes to teaching, our time is limited and our student attention is fleeting. Sometimes it's easier to explain things with images and annotations. Markup Hero makes it easy to accomplish a ton of tasks educators deal with daily.

For me, Markup Hero is my go-to tool for taking screenshots of content from the web and adding arrows, callouts and other markup to explain ideas. When students submit homework assignments I find it easier to just add comments and feedback using Markup Hero vs. Schoology (the LMS we use at my school). Sometimes I send students share links of images or PDFs and ask them to add their own annotations. This is super useful and I find students end up giving better comments when they use markup tools rather than writing paragraphs in Google Docs. And sometimes I have students directly submit homework assignments using Markup Hero so I can just keep everything organized in one place.

Stay in Constant Communication with Students Using Slack

Slack is like iMessage on steroids. It's a communication platform for chatting with teams in group or direct message. You can attach files, organize conversations and share documents with ease. For any teachers out there who have worked in the corporate environment in the past 5 years, you probably already know this tool. But surprisingly, Slack hasn't really found a home in the classroom that much yet. It's one of the best things you can add to your course in the fall.

Staying in communication with students is critical, even more so with COVID-19 where students and teachers aren't in the same room. Slack makes this ultra simple and your students are already used to communicating with their friends in chat format.

For most classrooms Slack's free version will be plenty, so no extra expense here. Every semester I invite my students to my class workspace and create private channels for any project teams I create. I encourage students to use Slack to communicate with each other as well as with me. In fact, I hold them accountable to talking to team members by including myself in the channel. I can spark engagement by asking them questions as a team or direct messaging students that I think need a little more push. I rarely share documents and assignments via email anymore, I just post them in Slack.

And, bonus, Markup Hero #2 above has a slick Slack integration that allows me to share annotated files directly in channels or direct messages and enables students to instantly add markup to images and PDFs that get posted in Slack.

This amplifies the engagement I get in and outside of the classroom and I couldn't imagine teaching without it.

Engage With Younger Students and Their Parents Using Class Dojo

Class Dojo is a free tool to improve student behavior, keep parents updated on class activities and engage students with ease. Generally Class Dojo is best for grades K-5, so I haven't used it from an educator perspective. As a parent of 5th grade twins, I found it super beneficial the past 2 years to keep on top of what's going on with my kids at school (because of course, they barely tell me whats up).

In talking to my children's teachers I've learned how useful it is for them too. Educators can easily create lesson plans and directions for students to follow along, create random groups for projects, encourage student-to-student engagement, set timers and much more. One thing teachers seem to really like is Class Dojo's built-in reward system that empowers educators to get students motivated with small rewards. And, of course it's important for teachers of younger students to keep parents engaged too - Class Dojo helps with this big time.

Class Dojo works on all platforms: web, iPhone and Android and it's 100% free!

Create Interactive Quizzes and Games with Content for Any Grade Using Kahoot

Kahoot is an online quiz and game platform that lets educators quickly create learning assignments for individual students or to play live in a group setting. They also have a huge library of pre-built quizzes and games. The tool is very easy to use and makes learning fun for students at all grade levels K-12.

While many of the pre-made games are good, I often use Kahoot in my classroom to create quick interactive tests covering topics we're working on in class. Usually I assign these to individuals or teams but occasionally I use it during class to have students run through various scenarios to spark outside the box thinking.

I've found that even for 11th and 12 graders, Kahoot helps me get students engaged in topics they otherwise would be disinterested in. When class presentations aren't sticking, Kahoot helps me get students in the conversation and the concepts stick — they actually seem to have fun playing games vs. getting lectured.

And, Kahoot is perfect for remote learning during COVID times. I can easily run live interactive games over Zoom and keep everyone involved and engaged even when I'm not face-to-face. It's a winner.

5 Tips for Educators

Even with all the tools above, teaching is still hard. Not just because it's a lot of work and commitment, but also because young people have a million things going on and get distracted easily. Keeping them fired up about the work is a constant focus.

Ask any teacher for a tip and you'll get an earful of great stuff. Here are five things I've found really helpful in keeping my students engaged, motivated, excited and inspired throughout the entire semester.

Work in Teams to Make Sure Everyone is Contributing

In any class you'll have your stars and your slouches. It's the law of distribution at work. And just because one student isn't about raising their hand or freely contributing in class doesn't mean they aren't smart or even able to participate. It just means I have to do more work to get them rolling. One of the ways I've found success here is to create team projects. I frequently put the engaged students with the unengaged ones and encourage the stronger kids to focus less on sharing ideas and more on practicing leadership. I suggest they work to get their team members to contribute more and I tell them that I'm grading them on how successful they are at that rather than how much they add to discussion. In fact, I'm pretty vocal about the idea of working together to leverage each others strengths to raise everyone's contribution levels up. And this works really well.

Give Less Written Homework and More In-Class Sharing

Rather than giving each student assignments where they submit a written response, I tell students they will be sharing their homework in class verbally. I call it "stand and deliver". With this approach I won't have time to have every student stand and share their responses to homework in class, but they also don't know who I'm going to call on. And I distribute the callouts pretty evenly so everyone participates numerous times during the semester. I do encourage students to write an outline of their homework they would use if they were presenting in class in an effort to know what they would say if called on, but I don't require them to submit anything. Yes, sometimes students just skip it and hope they don't get called on, but generally they do the work.

Moreover, this approach is great because it starts a student-to-student conversation which I find is the best way to teach. Many students don't respond as well to lectures so I try not do too many of them. When students share ideas about homework assignments, other students seem to step up and get involved more than they normally do.

And finally, as a teacher, I have enough grading to do as it is. Not having students submit written homework means less grading for me, bonus!

Prompt Students with a Question and Let Them Debate in Pairs

I started doing this just a couple of years ago; It works great, so I'm doing it even more frequently now. For whatever topic we're working on, I come up with several very open ended, thought provoking questions related to the subject. Then I pick two students and prompt them with one question. I give them 3 minutes to talk about the topic, debate answers and share ideas. The rest of the class listens and makes notes for follow up questions. After the two students finish, I ask the rest of the class to ask follow up questions they made note of. We all discuss for another 3-5 minutes and I repeat the process with two other students using a different prompt.

I've found this generally empowers students much more than just asking the questions to the entire group. When I do that, I usually only get responses from a handful of the most talkative students. This approach helps me bring in my less engaged students and I often find putting two students who would otherwise stay quiet helps them step up and shine.

Give Students Projects in the Real World

This may be easier for some courses than others. Finding a project that can be done in the real world for an Algebra class might be tough, but I encourage you to try and find a way. Students live in a bubble, both at school and at home, and they are itching to get out of that bubble. That's why friends and social media are so important to them. When homework and school projects exist inside that bubble, students tend to take them for granted and care less, sometimes not at all. But when I give students projects that take them out of the building and into the real world, something just lights up.

One of the ways I've done this is to reach out to experts in certain fields that we're discussing in class. As a teacher it's actually really easy to get experts to participate. Even the busiest people tend to slice off some time to help educators help young people. It usually takes one email and I can get an expert in just about any field to give my students 30 minutes or an hour. The easiest project is to ask students to interview this person. I try to be sensitive to these peoples time so I don't have them do 20 interviews with 20 students, so I often assign different people to different teams (again with the teams).

This also works better because when I ask the students to present the findings of their interview in class, we end up with many different discussions rather than everyone sharing the same thing.

Encourage Students to Work With Other Students Outside of Class

I've been able to get students super pumped about topics when they share them with friends and peers outside of class. This is pretty easy to do since my class of 20 represents a small portion of the entire student body at our school. To accomplish this I create projects where my students need to bring the work they're learning to other students at the school.

One example is by having students create a real world experiment to administer to other students. After a bit of brainstorming on a particular topic, we can usually come up with a pretty fun way to showcase the learnings in the form of an activity other students can participate in. Once we have the details of the experiment, I have a few students send an email to the grade(s) that the work is relevant to and make an assembly announcement about the day/time, usually lunch, of the activity. We often provide pizza or something to entice students to come and participate. But usually it's not hard because students just want anything to do that's different from the daily grind.

The benefits of this approach are many. First, students tend to take a real interest in topics when they are showing off to their peers. Moreover, there is a lot of prep work that goes into such an experiment and that is great learning for my students. Finally, there's the analysis of the results. This is where all the in-class discussion comes from. And we usually do these as an entire class so each student is assigned a role for the experiment. So everyone participates.

Last semester, we were working on a small consulting project for a local business. We were trying to help them understand their customer better since they were largely selling products to teenagers. This was the perfect project to create a student-to-student experiment. We created 3 stations with interactive Q&A that students each spent about 1 minute at. From this we collected a lot of data around first impressions and body language. Ultimately the students were able to give the consulting company a lot of insight around how teens felt about their products and services.

Conclusion

There are a million resources out there for teachers. And more than anyone, educators are time strapped and overworked. But hopefully this little article gives you at least one leg up over last semester.