Reading Productivity

Having spent more than a year improving my personal productivity, I can sum up what I’ve learned in a single sentence: “Pick one task and do it”. However, that would do a disservice to the journey and to the great people who helped me along the way through their writing on the subject. So, without wishing to encourage you to spend more time reading about productivity than being productive, here are three books that really helped me reach a place where I can stay focused on doing ‘the work’.

Focus – Leo Babauta

If I had to recommend one book this would be it. It has really made a difference in helping me become more productive. The books’ strength lies in its brevity and the fact the Leo doesn’t over do the GTD stuff. Instead, he focuses on the underlying issues that may be stopping you from doing ‘the work’. It reads well. Eloquent prose, set out in well-structured essays that challenge you to reflect deeply on the way that you prioritise and use your time. Particularly, useful was the focus on changing and replacing habits. By replacing bad habits with useful, more productive ones, I have seen a huge difference in my productivity.

Highlights include:

  • You don’t need to respond
  • Going with the flow
  • Single tasking and productivity

Keeping It Straight – Patrick Rhone

Patrick is one of my favourite writers on the web and his work translates really well to the structured, thematic nature of a book. Keeping it Straight is Patrick’s first book – a collected set of essays that deal with personal productivity, minimalism, mindfulness and motivation. Again, this is not a long read; perfect for the daily commute or for dipping into when the moment arises. This book is very personal, much of the content gleaned from Patrick’s journal, it adds a level of authenticity that I find is often missing from books of this ilk.

Highlights include:

  • Don’t Worry
  • Doing The Dishes
  • Email (And Other Things That Go “Ding”)

#uppingyourgame – Doug Belshaw

Doug is a friend who has been fantastically supportive, helping me on my blogging journey. He has also (although he may not have realised it) had a significant impact on my approach to personal productivity. His approach is a pragmatic one and as such he begins by getting to the heart of why we should care about being productive in the first place. This is refreshing, as many productivity related texts assume that the reader already has this figured out. Like the other two books, this is a well structured, well designed text, placing emphasis on the authors voice.

Highlights include:

  • What does productivity look like?
  • How to find your personal well of motivation
  • Productivity killers

As I mentioned above, it is easy to spend more time reading about productivity than actually getting on and being productive. However, while I’m on topic, I thought I would share some of the other material that has contributed to my journey. This is not an exclusive list, just a selection of the ones that come to mind as I sit writing this.

Manifesto: Inbox Zero


Essay: Making the Clackity Noise

Essay: Cranking

Essay: The Noise

Essay: the beauty of the ellipses

Essay: Purpose Your Day: Most Important Task (MIT)

Essay: Do One Thing Well

Essay: How I Became an Early Riser

Essay: How to ‘chapter’ your life to make it more productive

Essay: The hidden power of a gift

Book: Mindfulness in Plain English

Video: Just This

Podcast: Enough: The Minimal Mac Podcast

Podcast: Back to Work

iPad + Garageband FTW!

I recently shared on Google+ how I had been using iPads and Garageband to help my Year 8 class to improve the quality of their writing. This is a reworked version of that post. Thanks to John Johnston and Helen Morgan (amongst others) for sharing their thoughts.

The learning…

I’ve been using iPads with my Year 8 class to record narrative writing that they have created. I had the students draft a piece of writing based on Down the Rabbit Hole by Lewis Caroll, which they recorded using the iPads. I wanted the students to see how punctuation effected the way the read because after reading the first drafts, I was none too pleased with the standard of their writing.

I uploaded the recordings to the VLE and asked the class to peer assess each others work. Using those comments and some live assessment in Google Docs from me, they created improved narratives with more accurate punctuation and improved vocabulary.

They then recorded their final drafts which we burned to discs. While the drafting/redrafting process is not unusual in the English classroom, recording and evaluating their written work in this way added a new dimension to the learning process. It ensured that every single student’s work was shared without the embarrassment that some students feel standing in front of the class. By putting the audio on the VLE, every student received feedback, which due to time constraints would not happen in a traditional classroom setting. What’s more, I could further differentiate my support by listening and focussing feedback where it was most needed.

To complete the unit I wanted them to present their work effectively. They created a CD cover using drawn or found images, with their narrative writing printed up on the reverse. Giving them a physical artefact to take away that represented their effort and progress was highly motivational and also contributed to the quality of the finished work.

It was a great project to end the year with and the use of the iPads and Garageband made a huge difference to the quality of the students’ work.

Here are two example recordings (personally, I think that the background noise adds to the ambience):

And here is an example cover (front and back):

Rabbit Hole Front

Rabbit Hole Back

I used SurveyMonkey to get the class to reflect on their use of the iPads and Garageband. Here’s a selection of comments:

  • “I found it useful because it helps you find your own mistakes”
  • “I found this useful because I could do y punctuation from listening to it because I would know when to put , and . as I know when I paused and stopped at the end of a sentence”
  • “It helped me to see where I need to put commas”

The technology…

The whole process was fabulously straightforward and the sound quality was excellent.

Here are a few tips if you wish to use iPad and Garageband in the same way. Garageband is super easy to use but the default settings can scupper a recording instantly. Before the students hit record make sure that they select the ‘puzzle piece’ in the top left and set the duration to automatic. Not doing so will result in the recording being cut short. Secondly, select the spanner in the top right and turn off the metronome. The iPad will record all sound so it captures the sound of the metronome in the recording.

With those settings sorted you are ready to record. The UI is beautiful and reacts to what you are doing generating relevant buttons, e.g.: when recording a stop button appears and also an undo button to easily take backwards steps. My students found it very easy to use and they (like I was) were really impressed with the sound quality.

What if I don’t have access to iPads and/or Garageband?

I’ve been working with audio/podcasting for over three years now. It is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated mediums in education. Most schools plug for video… it’s usually seen as the obvious choice but there are many activities for which I believe audio to be the best option. Capturing group discussions, for example, is far easier with an audio recorder than a video camera. I do this with my A2 students and then upload the recording to the VLE for them to refer back to and/or download. As it’s an MP3 it is a small file, there is rarely a need to edit, and I find that the students concentrate on what is being said rather than admiring themselves on camera.

I am surprised at the lack of take up when it comes to the use of audio/podcasting in schools because the technology itself is ubiquitous. You don’t need to invest in iPads or Apple Mac computers. Audacity (a free, cross-platform, sound editor) will do the same job as Garageband and most laptops (including notebooks) come with a built in Mic. However, cheap USB Mics are easy to get hold of. This one has done the job for me in the past. Furthermore, nearly all mobile devices have an audio capture function which is easy to manage (audio formats are far more malleable) whereas video recorded on mobile devices can be difficult to use due to variations in format/codec. As John stated: “It can be an instant win pedagogically and motivationally.”

Moreover, both Garageband (built into all Macs) and Audacity are standalone apps which do not require an internet connection. A common complaint from teachers when they look at using technology in the classroom is that the school network or internet is not reliable. In using these apps, or the iPads themselves, there was no reliance on the school network. This gave me and the students confidence that we would complete the task. As Helen noted it’s important to have a “fall back plan”, I briefly considered recording direct into AudioBoo but this could have easily broken down due to a bad network connection or missing plugins such as Java or Flash.

If you think audio could work for you and your students, I recommend that you jump right on in and give it a go. Results can be achieved quickly and in a cost effective way. If you would like further advice on how to use audio in your classroom, please get in touch.

Twitter for Mac: Separate Windows, Separate Streams

[Cross-posted from my Posterous blog]

T4M Separate Windows

This is my preferred way of using Twitter for Mac.

Firstly, click on the stream you wish to view, e.g.: @replies, a list you have created or a hashtag you wish to follow. Then click Shift+Cmd+T and it will open that stream in a separate window. Do this for each stream you wish to follow.

Today I have my ‘Niche’ list open in one window and my @replies in another. The main, Twitter for Mac, window is minimised to my hidden dock.

Desktop background is by John Carey.

Email productivity in

sparrow inbox zero

Be concise – check out

Be organised – try inbox zero.

Place things you need actioned at the beginning of emails NOT at the end.

If you include questions, number them in order of importance.

One day a week DO NOT check your email – give yourself a break and return to your inbox refreshed; ready to tackle the latest deluge.

Google Docs In The Classroom – Part 4: What’s Next?

This is the fourth and final instalment about my experiences of using Google docs in the classroom. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here and part 3 here.

Part 4: What’s Next? (or chipping away at the Google docs iceberg)

This final chapter is a little (cough) belated and some of the ideas and approaches to using Google docs that I will be discussing are already in place.

Growing the use of Google docs

As I have blogged in a previous post I was given a spot at my schools beginning of year conference to discuss the importance of assessment for learning. This gave me the opportunity to begin to share the work that I had already done in developing the use of Google docs in both the English and Media Studies classroom. As with any presentation that I have delivered it began with some time spent reflecting on the pedagogy behind using it in the classroom.

Before employing Google docs to support my students preparation for their exams I felt that I was an expert when it came to AfL and that it was an intrinsic part of my classroom practice but using Google docs as a tool has redefined my use of AfL with my students. Some may argue that the way that I have used Google docs (see part 3) is nothing more than an augmentation of an already tried and tested pedagogical approach. To some extent this is true but I want to take a broader view of the task by considering the differences between the standard (non connected) classroom and the ICT room (connected to the Internet) with Google docs open and ready to be used.

In the traditional classroom AfL exercises between student and student or student and teacher can actually be limited by 1. time and 2. willing.

Redrafting work in books takes considerably more time than simply editing an existing (Google) doc. I believe that this can actually inhibit learning for some students as they may not be willing to put the time and effort into it. I am not suggesting that we should be encouraging students to shy away from work but I feel that ten years into the 21st Century having student re-write text in books over and over again is exceptionally antiquated. Google docs redefines this process as the technology allows the students to focus on the mistakes that they have made, working to correct them and not making them re-write sections of text that were well written surrounding the mistake.

This was the message that I conveyed in my presentation and firmly believe that effective AfL is as dependent on the methodology as well as the pedagogy. Google docs can transform the method making the pedagogy behind AfL even more valid.

I followed up the conference presentation by presenting in more detail to the English department. This included, inviting a student to stay back after school, helping to deliver a live demonstration of Google docs. In another room they sat and edited a Google doc with me. In the document they explained why they enjoyed using it so much and what they felt it offered. Several members of the department were impressed with the tool and its potential and have begun using Google docs with their Sixth Form classes.

I am going to deliver a similar presentation as part of the school CPD programme hopefully to a cross section of staff from different departments. To prepare for this I have been investigating via Twitter and the web different ways of using Google docs. There is such a plethora of material out there to draw from. Here’s just the tip of the iceberg:

As I continue to ‘grow’ the use of Google docs in school I have begun using the following video to demonstrate how Google docs works; sending it out via email and showing it to people who have a few minutes to spare. Created by Douglas Greig it offers a clear and systematic guide demonstrating “how to use Google docs to collaborate”:

Future potential

As well as exporting the use of Google docs across the school I plan to continue to develop my own use of Google docs. I see a significant amount of potential for Google docs in both the English and Media Studies classrooms. Some uses are obvious and will naturally build upon the practices that I have already put in place. Along with assessment, Google docs offers the opportunity to teach students real life editing skills including proofing each others work; as well as making editorial decisions about fellow students work. I am looking into an opportunity for students to write separate pieces that will make up a class newspaper or magazine. After the initial writing the students will take on the roles of editors and proof readers editing each others work before it is pieced together.  It also fits in neatly with my wish to run and publish a school magazine; an idea I have been toying with for some time but have not yet realised.

Many friends on Twitter have been raving about Google forms and spreadsheets for some time now and I believe that this is a feature of Google docs that I have neglected. This is probably due to a prejudice on my part, seeing both document types as the realm of the Mathematician rather than the English/Media teacher. This is clearly, not the case and based on a lot of the material I have come across online I can see opportunities to: produce quizzes; gain feedback; and to produce documents where students could track their own progress. For example, in the English department we currently get students to track their progress in selected skills during each unit. This could work very effectively in Media Studies, where we work 100% online, as a Google form. With the ability to share access to the document I can also have a clear picture of where my students strengths and weaknesses are.  The possibilities are endless really and thus, exemplifies the fact that I am still very much in my infancy when it comes to using Google docs.

The majority of my focus in using Google docs has quite naturally centered around classroom practice, using it with students. I believe that there is an opportunity to expand the use of Google docs amongst staff in school to support planning both at the department and whole school level. Schemes of work, resources, improvement plans and even letters could be efficiently and effectively produced in Google docs alleviating the need for multiple copies of the same document being emailed/printed/re-emailed between staff members. This will perhaps be the hardest sell but like my use of Google docs so far, I will begin small and then export the use of it when I have more evidence in place.

Final reflections

I have only just begun to chip away at the iceberg that is Google docs. However, I will say from the little that I have chipped away, using Google docs with my students has been ground breaking. Why? After all, the principles of sharing resources, collaborating and accessing material from home are not new. All can be achieved through other platforms. Moodle for example, does them all.

What I think Google docs brings to the table is a system that is both fit for purpose but also evolving at the same time. Moreover, it is not dependent on a specific browser or operating system and requires almost no extra knowledge to be able to use it. As a teacher if you know how to access your Facebook account and upload a picture from your digital camera then Google docs is a doddle. Wiki’s can be over-complicated, are not real time; a forum can be too open; and Moodle as a platform needs Internet Explorer or Firefox to allow editing to function correctly. Google docs is easy to sign up to, works just as you would expect (if you use Word, Excel and/or PowerPoint) and works on any web browser. It’s a truly inclusive tool! And it’s free!