4 apps you probably don’t use in your classroom—but should

Even in the best of years, teachers can always use some fresh tactics come early March. It’s post-winter holidays and pre-spring break; it’s not quite one season or the other. Whether you’re teaching remotely, in person, or in a hybrid arrangement, this is a bit of a distractible time made even more chaotic this year by COVID-19.

I’m teaching fully remotely, trying to keep sixth-graders engaged in their math assignments. I go to great lengths to make them laugh and feel seen through a teeny Zoom square. But other than silly accents and impromptu songs, how can I keep pursuing their engagement? And how can I do it in a way that feels easy, relevant, and, dare I say, cool?

Lately I’ve been grabbing my students’ midyear attention with four unexpected apps. These dark horses might initially warrant an educator write-off, but hear me out: they might just be the kick you need for some fresh classroom vibes.

1. App you already have but aren’t using in the classroom: Instagram

What it is: You know what Instagram is.

Why you should rethink it: I’m not here to champion creating a classroom account or having a fake profile for Shakespeare in your AP Lit class (even though I love those ideas). I’m here to share the gospel of making videos that you never post.

How to apply it to your classroom: Once you quickly learn how to film yourself with a silly filter and download it to your phone (without posting it for your followers), you’ll love creating student instructional videos that grab their attention. Simply insert them into a Google Slide or directly into your LMS. Here’s one of me telling my sixth-graders the joyous news of a fresh assignment on Khan Academy.

2. App you’ll balk at but should try for yourself: Photomath

What it is: A camera-scanner app that detects a written or typed math problem and solves it, with explanatory steps, within seconds.

Why you should rethink it: These days, of course students are Googling answers. If we’re honest, aren’t we adults using the internet the same way? You might not like that Photomath gives kids the answer. Photomath does solve math problems but, more importantly, it breaks down the steps in easy-to-understand ways that alleviate math anxiety and allow students to apply the basics to more complex problems. Of course students can abuse this app—and they might, whether or not it’s in your classroom. Since it’s here to stay, let’s bring it to the Light Side.

And since I’m a math teacher, I will also say this: if your students can swindle you with this app, then you might need to redesign your assessments. #hottake

How to apply it to your classroom: Share it with parents and families who need refreshers on math they learned long ago. Assign a problem and ask students to write an alternative solution to the one presented in Photomath. Use Photomath to “backwards solve,” and ask students to predict what the original question was. Use the supplemental materials to augment students’ learning.

3. App you’ve heard of and should rethink for the classroom: TikTok

What it is: A short video app that you’ve absolutely heard of, even if you haven’t downloaded it.

Why you should rethink it: TikTok videos are more than just about dance choreography. TikTok has started an art form, and it’s chock-full of topical and creative videos by everyone from your own students to Gordon Ramsay to Snoop Dogg. When Twitter first arrived on the scene, it was largely dismissed by academics; now, it’s a major player in global events. Just sayin’.

How to apply it to your classroom: Download TikTok and browse for hashtags that correspond to your curriculum (a search for #electoralcollege, for example, yields a whole class worth of discussion material). Find wordless videos and have students analyze them for tone in ELA. Use a TikTok from Bill Nye as an icebreaker at the top of science class.

4. App you haven’t heard of and should work into your curriculum: Acapella

What it is: A multi-video sharing system where anyone can collaborate on a synchronous piece of art—not just music!

Why you should rethink it know about it in the first place: Acapella allows students to share videos that, similar to a Zoom call, all occur synchronously. Videos appear in their own windows. Here’s the thing: I love this app for music, of course, yet imagine other possibilities.

How to apply it to your classroom: Students can perform skits with each other or easily create one-person performances with themselves as multiple characters. Students can layer on soundscapes around their homes, passing the assignment around until all their peers have added their part. Students can co-teach a lesson with a peer, one acting as the teacher and the other asking questions to further the lesson. And, of course, students can create music, dance, performance art, spoken word, and movement pieces, all to be enjoyed together as a class.

Commitment-free zone

We teachers can prickle when we’re told fresh ideas because so many “new” teacher initiatives feel heavy: a new grading system, a new LMS, a new attendance record, a new disciplinary approach, a new PD plan… So I want to remind you—and myself—that we are free to try something in our classrooms and never, ever return to it. One TikTok video does not beget another. But if one is all it takes to get my students talking about my class? Hand me my phone!

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