GarageBand iOS Quick Start Guide

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Nested Hashtags for Organizing Notes

From tabs in physical notebooks or virtual tabs in OneNote to the hierarchical file structure of Windows or Google Drive, we’ve all been conditioned to use a folder structure to organize notes and documents.

However, it wasn’t until I started using the minimalist note-taking app Bear some weeks ago (after reading this glowing Lifehacker review), that I began to appreciate the power and fluidity of hashtags over the traditional folder structure. Part of the reason for my new-found appreciation was that Bear, unlike nearly every other note-taking app or word-processing app, does not offer the option of folders: you are forced to use hashtags if you want to apply any kind of organization.

The limitation with traditional folders is that notes/documents can only be filed in one folder: you are only likely to come across a particular note again when browsing through that folder. Moreover, it is often apparent that our notes do not necessarily fit neatly into a particular folder but are relevant to several different topics.

When I first began using Bear, I just used the tags as folders: I assigned a tag to each note, and there it rested. But, it soon became apparent that I could add several tags to one note. In this way, instead of a note being in a single location, it is simultaneously ‘filed’ under several tags: when I open a tag ‘notebook’, every note associated with that tag is housed there.

Although the popular note-taking app Evernote does also have the functionality of hashtags,Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 8.52.21 PM Bear offers a further feature that provides even neater organization: the ability to ‘nest’ the hashtags. Evernote does not offer the nesting function: you can “stack” your notebooks under one parent, but I have always found this to be a little cumbersome.  However, Bear offers “infinite” nesting: so far, however, I have only taken it to 4 levels. The nesting itself is very much like a traditional file system, but the nested layers open at a snap, and if you apply some consistency in labeling your tags, the notes are easily found. (The nesting here is similar to my favorite list app Workflowy which also provided seemingly infinitive collapsible nested levels).

So, rather than the 45 notebooks I have in Evernote, in Bear, I have just 5 main tag categories in Bear, but each has several nested layers. (The Bear website provides simple instructions for importing notes from Evernote or elsewhere to Bear).

In addition to utilizing this unusual organizational system Bear is a beautifully simple app with a clear and delightful user interface.

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10 Useful Amazon Echo Skills for the Humanities Classroom

Almost two years ago now, one of my students loaned my classroom his brand new Amazon Echo (a voice-activated internet-connected speaker). At first, aside from playing music, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. However, my students loved it, and when the student took his Amazon Echo back home several months later, I bought an Echo Dot for my classroom. It was just $49, and it works even better than the original stand-alone cylinder now that I have connected it to speakers in my classroom. Since the June 2015 launch of the Echo, the number of Skills (apps) for Alexa (the name the device answers to) have grown significantly. Here are ten that are particularly useful in the humanities classroom:


The Amazon Echo Dot


1. “Alexa, inspire me.”  For setting the tone at the start of a class, there are a plethora of Echo skills for inspirational quotes. The first time I tried this command, Alexa answered with a 45 second recording from Steve Jobs’ 2005 superb Stanford commencement speech with inspirational music in the background.
2. “Alexa, ask Mindfulness for a minute meditation.” This enabled skill began with an instruction to close your eyes and listen carefully to the music for one minute (with an option for longer). The ambient music was accompanied by the sound of waves. There are all kinds of opportunities for mindfulness in the classroom, and again there are a large number of Skills available that provide sounds of thunder, waves etc. including prompts for mindful breathing.
3. “Alexa, set the timer for X minutes.” This one is obvious, but it is also the easiest and quickest way to set a timer for any and all classroom activities.
4. “Alexa, ask WebMD what is tuberculosis?” I wouldn’t recommend this Skill for actual diagnoses, but it is useful when discussing the physical and mental health issues of fictional or historical characters.
5. “Alexa, what is 237 times 17?” Alexa can quickly provide straightforward mathematical calculations which is particularly useful in math-compromised environments.
6. “Alexa, news.” This command will prompt Alexa to provide flash news briefings from a wide variety of respected news sources including NPR, BBC, Fox News, and CNBC.
7. “Alexa, when did India gain its independence?” Alexa can provide quick geographic and historical facts including dates, distances, and climates.
8. “Alexa, what is the current weather in Brisbane, Australia?” Additionally, Alexa has knowledge of current conditions all around the world (including, of course, your own).
9. “Alexa, tell me a joke.” The Echo has many fun applications including jokes (in all kinds of categories) and a wide variety of voice-based games.
10. “Alexa, play Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.” While my students like to play more modern/popular music between classes, the Echo can play almost any music during class either to enhance the humanities curriculum or just for a pleasant background ambience.

I currently use the Echo on a daily basis and am excited to discover even more uses for it: please add a comment if you have used it in your classroom!

Surviving the Black Hole of Grading

I don’t know about you, but I began the school year with such good intentions. I wrote a two blog posts that were quite well-received (one on switching back to Evernote from OneNote, and one on Google Classroom). I felt so good about this that the day before classes started, I determined that either writing 500 words or reading 25 pages of an life-improving book every day was a reasonable goal.

I managed four days, and then the first wave of grading came in: personal essays and reflections on the summer reading (otherwise known as proof-you-did-the-summer-reading), and I missed my goal one day, two, then ten.

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During last year, I had tried various methods to streamline my feedback on student writing – rubrics, color-coded feedback, text expanders – but I have found that there is no substitute for personalized comments and strategies for improvements. I will continue to explore these strategies and others, but I cannot help but add personalized comments to student work.

I grade before school starts, I grade between classes and at lunchtime, I grade after school, in the evenings, and on weekend mornings, sometimes afternoons, and furiously on Sunday evening to meet my grading goals. (It has become a little sad that my main professional goal, week in, week out, has been to get through the pile of grading in as swift and conscientious manner as possible.)

When colleagues or former students drop into my classroom, I am torn between gratitude for their friendship and the loss of productive grading time. I do my best to stay present, but my brain pings notifications, warning me that I’m not going to get through the ten papers I promised myself I would do before going home.

And then there’s the drudgery; as much as I value each of my students as a unique individual and want to celebrate their achievements, the enthusiasm does begin to wane when reading the 38th of 51 papers about roughly the same topic.

So, I’ve come up with three strategies to weather the storm, to evade the black hole, to mix the metaphor:

– Give my students greater choice not only in the content of their work but also in the media in which they communicate. Clearly this is mutually beneficial: the students have choice (and hopefully intrinsic motivation) and I have variety;
– Try to be less stressed about getting through a pile of grading at school, and instead take the time to enjoy talking to colleagues and students; I will grade a little longer into the evening, and it is probably OK to take a day longer to return work.
– Use the Pomodoro method: grade intensively for 25 minutes at a time with a set goal in mind, then take 5 minutes to play Candy Crush, get a coffee, watch a YouTube. Then back to another 25 goal-oriented minutes.

So this is where I am. I am confident these new school year’s resolutions will last a little longer than my writing/reading fantasy because I know that grading is my reality for the next ten months and I really have no options.

How do you do it? How do you manage the workload and still have time to speak to your friends and loved ones? How do you provide meaningful feedback, while still fulfilling your non-grading dreams (if such things exist)?

From Evernote to OneNote and Back

After being an Evernote Premium user for three years, I was a little dismayed by the recent dramatic price increase for this elegant digital notebook. Moreover, the new device limitations for the freemium service (which I have occasionally used) seemed a little draconic. So, last month I took this opportunity to weigh my options and look for a new note taking app.


Evernote to OneNote
Montage by David Doherty. Source images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Evernote does everything I need from a digital notebook including the ability to quickly create and edit notes, clip text from websites or emails, convert photos of documents into digital files with searchable text, and edit notes across all my devices (somehow, I have nine!) My new note taking app would need to match these actions, and my research across my favorite tech sites (notably Lifehacker) all pointed in one direction: Microsoft Office’s OneNote.


However, I had not used Office products for more than four years: after a decade or so of using Word, Outlook, PowerPoint, and OneNote, I was tired of Microsoft’s clunky cloud backup service, the overly-complicated menus, and the somewhat messy UI. However, the recommendations for OneNote were glowing, and moreover it is free, so I took the leap. After downloading OneNote on several devices and using their note importing tool which was designed specifically to lure Evernote users like myself, I was ready for the switch to OneNote.


The import process was straightforward, and I was soon ready to access and edit my 1,279 Evernotes filed into 49 notebooks. However, in my use of OneNote over the past three weeks, I have been aware of small issues that I never had with Evernote. (Disclaimer: since ease-of-use was one of my primary criteria in selecting a note taking app, I spent limited time trying to fix the issues I came across in OneNote; I presume that most of these issues have work-arounds!)


  • Signing into to OneNote on a new device (iPad, iPhone etc.) is not sufficient to get started: you then need to connect to/ open individual Notebooks on each device. This process can be a little fiddly; signing in to Evernote on a new device instantly gives you access to all your notebooks.
  • Formatting is less slick on OneNote than OneNote particularly when copying and pasting text: pasted text in Evernote tends to stay close to the formatting of the original text. In OneNote, pasted text is sometimes re-formatted;
  • Opening OneNote is generally slower than Evernote particularly on the iPhone (on average, Evernote opened a second quicker than OneNote). Similarly, in my experience, Evernote’s web clipper is faster than OneNote’s;
  • The iPhone app for OneNote has a few quirks: when viewing a screenshot/ text pdf, touching the screen can bring up a large circle with a four-way arrow in the middle that can obscure text.
  • The web-clipper is less intuitive on OneNote than the Evernote clipper: I never did figure out how to clip pages, articles or text to a specific location on OneNote – everything had to be clipped to a web clips folder in a notebook I didn’t use and couldn’t see how to change. With the Evernote web clipper, it is a simple and easy process to clip to any notebook;
  • For my personal taste, Evernote’s UI is cleaner than OneNote’s. Evernote’s is also more customizable: it does not appear to be possible to change the purple header in OneNote. (The Evernote green is a much more soothing color!)
So, when I found the Evernote was offering its users a free month of Premium (I can only assume that the price hike has lost the company market share), I switched back with a new appreciation for Evernote’s clean design and pleasant user experience. When the month is up, I will need to evaluate whether I am willing to pay the $70/ year. More realistically, I am hoping that Evernote will offer a significant discount to bring the price down to a more palatable $50. With regard to my students, I’m not sure I can recommend that they switch from their familiar OneNote to Evernote until Evernote reverts to allowing free users to access their notes on all devices.

Google Classroom: One Killer Feature and 5 Perfectly Nice Functions

I’ve been using Google Classroom for two years now, and I highly recommend it for the following reasons:
  • My students love the simplicity of this platform: it is very easy to navigate, there are no files to upload, and it integrates with their Google Drive, Calendar and Gmail;
  • Using a very simple menu, you can add an assignment, pose a question or announcement, or re-use a post;
  • Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 9.07.27 PMEverything is one click away (unlike some classroom management systems!)
  • Everything is backed up on Google’s servers rather than significantly more unreliable local servers;
  • It is an integral part of Google Apps.

The Killer Feature
However, the most powerful feature of Classroom is that it does what the revered Doctopus add-on script used to do. (Sidebar: I sat next to Doctopus creator Andrew Stillman at a Google Classroom demo at ISTE 2014, and he seemed to be all onboard with Classroom). Using the “Make a copy for each student” option when you create an assignment, Classroom distributes individualized copies of this document for each student. Moreover, the Doc is added both to the student’s individual Drive, and a folder containing all the students’ Docs will be added to your Drive. (However, you can also access all the Docs in Classroom).

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That’s it. Classroom emails the students their individual copies of the Doc (or they can open it from Classroom), they write their paper/ answer the questions/ create an image/ edit it, then simply press the “Turn In” button in the top right corner to submit it. Classroom will show which students have submitted their Docs, and you can then grade/edit the Doc and adds comments; they will see your edits but not the comments until your “return” the Doc to them. (I will often put the grade in a comment so I can control when they see the grade).

Aside from eliminating the need to upload documents, share docs, or track multiple versions of a document, the most powerful aspect of this feature is that you can include almost anything on your template: detailed instructions, drawings, rubrics – anything you could possibly add to a Doc. You can use the document distribution feature for almost anything: I use it to write my college recommendations, communicate with an athletic team I coach, and to lead technology training sessions.

Nice Feature 1
You can easily add other teachers to a course Classroom by using the “Invite teacher” button on the About tab. Other teachers can then edit anything on your course or merely audit it. Once again, this process is simpler than on some other course management systems.

Nice Feature 2
The course header is easy to edit/ customize. I usually take panoramic pictures of the students in my class (a long and narrow image is necessary), and use this as the header for the Classroom course.

Nice Feature 3
Add students either by inviting them through email or giving them the class code. As ever, this is a one-step process with a minimum of clicks.

Nice Feature 4
All assignments are automatically added to your Google Calendar (which then can be added to student calendars if you share it with them).Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 8.59.15 PM

Nice Feature 5
Using the “Question” option, you can create quick surveys/ exit tickets for your students: Classroom provides charts of the results immediately.


Clearly, Classroom is (not yet?) a fully-fledged course management system: it can record grades for each assessment, but there’s no grade book as such. However, in tandem with a grade book, Classroom provides a powerful and highly streamlined document and resource management system that eliminates a lot of wasted time clicking through menus and uploading documents.