Digital Tools for Writing

I wanted to diverge slightly off the suggested resources for Thing 8 of 23 Teaching Things and share what I use for digital writing in my iPad classrooms. Although we all have access to Google Docs, I really like taking advantage of the digital mark book offered by iTunes U, combined with PDF Expert for its superior annotation functions!

A really successful task I did with my Y11 Classics class recently involved the students choosing a Greek sculpture of their choice, then creating a submission to the curator of the Auckland Museum. We imagined that the Museum had the funds to put on a show of Greek sculpture and was inviting suggestions from the public; they had to use their knowledge of Greek sculpture to identify and recommend a particular work. The students wrote their submission using the app of their choice (usually Pages) and we did a peer review lesson where they worked in groups of 2-3 to read and critique each other’s submissions, before handing in their final version. I don’t normally do this but, somehow, they were very self-conscious of their peers reading their spelling and grammatical errors! (They don’t have the same feeling towards me, unfortunately…)

Here you can see the dialogue between me and the student as they hand in work
This is the student’s written work, which I have annotated in PDF Expert then imported back into iTunes U
This is my mark scheme, adapted for an NCEA L1 Context

I export the assignment into PDF Expert (it can be directly annotated within the iTunes U app, but I find this really glitchy!) and I mark the work as I would on paper. I then import it back into iTunes U and fill out a mark scheme using a document I’ve imported from Pages into PDF Expert, which links to the level/standard we are studying. Despite how complex I’ve made it sound, the process is pretty efficient and has been working well so far this year!

Advantages of iTunes U for Digital Writing

  • All my marking is easily located on my iPad, so I can do it at school or home. No more carrying around (and losing) bits of paper!
  • Students can use a range of different apps to do their writing; they just need to export it as a PDF for me to annotate.
  • It’s pretty quick and easy to mark on my iPad (with a bit of teething time) and I find I write longer comments because I can type faster than I can write.
  • Both the students and I keep my feedback – invaluable for parent-teacher interviews and report writing!


  • The process does involve several steps and can be confusing until you get used to it.
  • Students have to have, and bring to class, their iPad – iTunes U doesn’t work on all platforms.
  • The dialogue is just between me and the student concerned, so it is tricky for students to collaborate on work – I get them to upload a copy each, and I give them both the feedback separately.

I would love to encourage students to take greater pride in, and ownership of, the work they produce. I am keen to get students to do some blogging next year, so that they can investigate topics in more depth, create resources of improved quality and share them with the world. I think this would also help my teaching to reach a more transformative level!

Write in the Cloud

Since acquiring my iPad, I’ve done a fair bit of experimenting with writing in the Cloud so that I can access my work across multiple devices. I use iCloud with my Apple devices but haven’t really tried sharing documents with others (except between my work and personal Apple IDs.

I do use Google Docs quite a bit, ever since starting teaching in a BYOD school where it was one platform which could be accessed by all different types of devices. My usual way to use Google Docs at my current school is to make collaborative notes in class, allocating students separate questions or parts of a topic so that we can get a thorough set of notes more quickly and efficiently than getting everyone to make their own!

My preferred Google Docs activity is a Speed Debate, which I was introduced to at an NZACT Conference. Here is an example which I’ve done with my Y13 Classics class. 

Selected students (usually the fastest typists!) are each allocated a page on a shared Google Doc, with a question. The rest of the students are split into groups and rotate around the different questions. Each facilitator reads their question to the group, who discuss their ideas for the facilitator to type down. Each group has a chance with each particular question, which is usually a controversial or meaty question. At the end of the activity (five minutes per question is plenty!) I get the facilitators to summarise the two sides of the argument, then give their own opinion. I find it’s a really good way to scaffold students into having good discussions, without putting too much pressure on the shyer members of the class. 

Image of clouds via user theaucitron (CC BY-SA 2.0). 

Copyright Matters

I’m now up to Thing 5 of 23 Teaching Things, which involves copyright rules and Creative Commons. This was a useful lesson for me to learn, as I’ve begun creating my own resources and sharing them on my public iTunes U course. I’ve also been trying to encourage students to attribute the sources of information they use by modelling that behaviour, mainly by naming the author of works which aren’t mine and providing a link to the original source.

The intricacies of Creative Commons are something new to me which I want to learn about, especially what our school policies are. That way I can also help my students to attribute their sources correctly as well!

For Thing 5, here is a stunning picture of the Colosseum I found, taken by Sean MacEntee (CC BY 2.0). I can’t wait to return here, hopefully sometime soon!

Something New – Comics Head Lite

I recently tried out the app Comics Head Lite with my Y9 class and was really pleased with how it went. Recommended to me by my HOD via Joe Dale, it’s a free app that enables the students to create a comic strip on their iPad. We used to it create a Latin comic using the story pastor et leo, from the Cambridge Latin Course.

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Although it took a while to download on school wifi, the boys quickly got the hang of it and really enjoyed using it to retell the story. Many of them figured out how to insert and edit their own images to enhance the story even more. The free version of the app doesn’t allow you to put the frames together into a continuous story (maximum of four frames), but we saved the images and put them into a Keynote. I’ve also seen some examples online where the images have been made into iBooks using Book Creator, so I’m keen to give that a go.

I really liked how this activity went and having the boys retell the story in Latin was a good challenge, but I’m sure it would work just as well with an English translation. I’m also keen to try it with my French class (I’m thinking daily routine) and I’ll get my Y12 Classics class to retell the fall of the Roman republic too!

Progress Update

I’ve now got to the end of my flipped topics and having a class away on camp has given me the opportunity to reflect on my practice and survey the students about their thoughts. Here’s where I’m at:

What’s gone well? (according to me, anyway)

I was able to overcome a lot of the technical difficulties and having the resources already prepared did save a lot of hassle this year. Student access to the iBooks and videos was much simpler and having the information in text and video format helped a wider range of students. I was also able to come up with a wider range of activities for the students to complete in class with the information they had gathered for homework. Discussions could often be quite successful, and differentiation worked well initially to bridge the gap between my Y13 beginners and those who had already taken Classics.

In terms of results, I think the Level 3 ones definitely improved – I felt that they had a much better understanding of the topic than my class last year, especially given that so many were new to the subject. My Level 2 results were a bit more mixed, but they have been very unpredictable over the past few years.

What needs work?

I didn’t chase up students who didn’t do the work, but I know that some of them really slacked off and couldn’t engage in the lesson. I want to come up with a way to hold them accountable to doing the prep (as much as possible) that does not involve me spending half the lesson checking their notes! Kahoot quizzes did work well but I want to look into an app like Socrative so that I can check on all the students’ results.

I also want to work on finding activities to engage more of the students in the class. When given a creative and an easy option, they tended to go with an easy one and I don’t think we took advantage of all the opportunities offered by their devices.


What did the students think?

The good

The students were overwhelmingly positive about the iBooks, which I am really pleased about given the amount of time and thought I put into them! They found the information tailored to their needs and relatively easy to digest, and liked the interactive elements.

While no one was particularly excited about the approach, the students were much more positive (or neutral) than I thought they would be. They felt they had a pretty good understanding of the topics, found them a manageable level of difficulty and interesting (to a certain extent).

They liked the variety of activities we did in class and I think I managed to appeal to their different interests.

The bad

Very few students claimed to have most or all of the notes. Some wanted to be held accountable for this and a variety of reasons were given for not doing them. No one said that I was asking too much of them for prep, although they could get confused about what was due when. One student would like it made even easier…

Some of the students found it difficult to put individual lessons together into the bigger picture. I need to think about a way to tie everything together, and link the lessons to show a chain reaction of events.

The interesting

I was pleasantly surprised by the feedback – I don’t know whether the students like to complain (but are actually reasonably happy) or whether I’m being overly critical of myself, but I think they are, to a certain extent, seeing the value in what I’m doing.