The Hunt for an Email Client

I think the true sign of someone who uses iOS to get most of their work done is they have tried more email clients than they can count.

I've used Airmail fairly consistently over the last year, but am always frustrated by its UI and frequent bugs. Unfortunately, there are power user features in Airmail that keep me there.

Here are the features I need in an email client:

  • Sharing a link to or the content of an email to another app (such as Todoist or Workflow).
  • URL scheme for accessing emails (see previous item) and creating emails via Workflow or Drafts.
  • The ability to work search an entire exchange directory for a contact (super helpful in a very large school district).
  • UI that helps you see your mail and is easy to navigate.
  • Reliable Functionality

Really what would solve all of my problems is if Apple finally added a share extension to Mail.app in iOS 11 (3 years after extensibility was first announced 🙄). I want to be able to tap a link in Todoist and have it bring me back to the email I need to respond to or create a new message with one tap. One can dream, right?

Back to the Mac

No, I’m not referring to Apple’s 2010 Keynote introducing the MacBook Air and OS X Lion after being focused on the iPad and iPhone for much of 2010. But I thought it was a fitting title since after a year of working from an iPad, I have returned to the Mac.

Begrudgingly.

In an effort to learn more about software development, I once again have a MacBook Pro so I can dive into Xcode. Not only do I once again have a MacBook Pro, but I have my old MacBook Pro back. The relative I sold it to wanted a MacBook Adorable, so I was fortunate to get this back. It’s not a fancy 2016 model, but it does have a retina display and plenty of power for my novice use of Xcode.

After a year of living the iPad only lifestyle, the last 24 hours with the Mac have been more difficult than I would have imagined. That sounds like whining, but I genuinely didn’t anticipate issues beyond occasionally trying to tap on the screen. One of the biggest I have faced is remembering to use the menu bar to find app settings.

Another area where I am struggling is automation. I know the Mac is often capable of more powerful automation than an iPad, but I learned how to automate through tools like Workflow, and I have not had time to figure out how to replicate any of workflows on the Mac with Automator, Apple Script, or other shell scripts. Though I am writing this post in Ulysses on my Mac, I will pull out my iPad Pro to post to this site because it is so much easier and faster.

I hope to share more about my journey through programming here over the next few months/year, but I thought it was worth a minute to share the experience of an iPad power user moving to a Mac since most blogs cover the opposite transition.

Both platforms have their advantages, and I feel fortunate to have both for when I need them. However, there’s no questioning that iOS is where I get my real work done right now.

30 Years and A New Website

Today is my 30th birthday. I think there is a cultural tendency for people to get freaked out by birthdays ending in zeroes, and I get that. But I'm actually doing really well today. While my life isn't perfect by any means, it is great.

I feel like a lot of your 20s are trying to get life settled and figure out who the grownup version of you is going to be. A lot of the anxiety I see in people hitting 30 is not having a lot of that figured out (This is an oversimplification or stereotype I know, but stereotypes exist for a reason). I'm fortunate to enter my 30s with a great marriage, family, and job. I know there will be difficult times ahead, but they will happen on top of a firm foundation.

That being said, I'm not done learning and growing. My next project in life will be teaching myself to program. I have fallen in love with writing code through using apps like Workflow, then moving onto Pythonista and Swift Playgrounds. I want to take the next step and understand how the apps I love are made, and see if I can even write one of my own.

I am again reworking this website into a blog to be able to document the process of learning to code as well as post about everything I don't share over at The Class Nerd like thoughts on Apple, TV shows, movies, and music. I have also been inspired by Manton Reece's work on indie microblogging, and this site will serve as the host for my micro.blog account when the service launches later this year.

I'm excited about this next decade of my life, and thankful for all of you who reads what I write here. Here's to the next adventure.

Delivering Lessons with GoodNotes and Mirroring 360

Guest Post by Peter Davison-Reiber

For a long time I thought about my iPad Pro exclusively as a personal productivity device. I would research and plan my lessons there, I would design my lesson materials there, but after I’d saved everything into OneDrive, it would be the Windows PC connected to my smart board that I’d use to actually display these to my students. Because I was creating my lesson materials in PowerPoint, with my lesson plans in OneNote, this workflow made a lot of sense: one app for my students on the smart board, another app for me on my iPad.

I think it was getting my Apple Pencil that eventually tipped the balance. When I first got it, I was using it to create my lesson materials, but when I displayed them on the smart board, the only option for marking up and annotating was to use the ‘smart ink’ function on my PC. This felt buggy and clumsy compared to the precision I had when using my Apple Pencil.

On another level, I had also been thinking a lot about behaviour management. I’m not someone who naturally has a huge amount of presence in a room, so I like to move around my classroom quite a bit to help manufacture this to some extent. When I was writing on the board, I always felt stuck at the front, facing in the wrong direction, at precisely the point when I most needed to be aware of students’ attention levels. Being able to move around the room while presenting material on the board was an idea that really appealed to me, and it’s been really exciting to start trying it out.

Mirroring 360

If you’re in a school where working on an iPad isn’t the norm, the infrastructure isn’t always a there to allow you immediately to start presenting lessons from your iPad. However, don’t be put off by this; there are some good solutions. The most obvious and well documented way is to connect an Apple TV to your projector. I thought about buying one exclusively for this purpose, but I wanted to test it out first to see if it was worth the money. The only Apple TV I was aware of in the school was the one connected to the TV in the staff common room, so I politely asked if I could borrow it for a couple of hours. While it worked quickly without a lot of complicated setup, I wasn’t entirely happy with the results. Whether the issue was with the Apple TV or with the projector I’m not sure, but I couldn’t get the aspect ratio the way I wanted it. However I tweaked the settings, I ended up either with black bars on all four sides, or bits of the screen spilling off the edges.

I ended up exploring different options, and settled on a software rather than hardware solution to the problem. There are lots of apps for Windows and Mac that can pretend to be Apple TVs and accept video input via AirPlay. I can’t say I’ve tested a lot of these and found the best one, but the one I do use seems to work well and it fits my needs. It’s an app called Mirroring 360, and it’s available for Windows, Mac, and Chrome OS, with client apps for iOS and Android.

I really liked the business model for this app: after a one-week free trial, I could buy a single device license for $14.99 for the PC in my classroom. It’s a one-time purchase, not a annual fee, so it’s very affordable even if you’re just buying it as an individual. This is much better than the situation with a lot of education apps on PCs, where you can only try them out if you can persuade your IT department to purchase a whole-school license.

After that, you just need to download the iOS app and you’re ready to share your screen. On launch the PC app displays the menu above: the most important thing here is the ‘mirroring assist’ button. This opens up a QR code which the iOS app can read to connect to the PC for the first time. Once connected, you can share your iPad screen via the AirPlay Mirroring button in Control Centre. I’m not sure what the implementation is, but for some reason (probably an iOS system restriction), the PC only shows up in Control Centre as an AirPlay receiver when the Mirroring 360 app is open, but once you’ve selected it, the app keeps mirroring your screen even when you’re in another app.

One slight restriction with this setup is that your iPad and PC need to be on the same network. In my case, My classroom PC is networked via ethernet, so my iPad can talk to it when connected to the school wifi. If you don’t have good, reliable wifi in your school, using a software solution like this won’t work for you, but you can fall back on the Apple TV hardware solution. The latest generation Apple TV supports AirPlay without the two devices being on the same wifi network.

What I’d love to see in future is the ability to AirPlay your iOS screen over the internet. This would mean I wouldn’t have to worry about having a particular app installed on my PC, I could just use a web browser. It would also mean that if I was in another classroom, say for a cover lesson, I would still be able to stream my iPad screen. Mirroring 360 currently has a pro version in beta which allows to you share your screen online, but you can only do this via the PC that is receiving the screen, not directly from the sending device. iOS doesn’t currently support AirPlay over the internet, but I hope this is something Apple will consider implementing in the future.

As a teacher, you do need to be aware that AirPlay mirroring shows everything that’s on your screen, including notifications and the passcode screen. With Touch ID, the latter isn’t an issue, but I’d recommend liberal use of the Do Not Disturb feature in settings to ensure you don’t have any text messages, emails, or other notifications popping down from the top of the screen when you’re trying to teach algebra to excitable teenagers. Since I just knew I would one day forget to turn it on, I decided to use the ‘scheduled’ option to activate Do Not Disturb at the beginning of every school day and turn it off at the end. Make sure you also select the ‘always’ option so that notifications are blocked whether or not your iPad is locked. While mirroring my screen, I also make a lot of use of the freeze button on my projector remote so that I can have a look at the next page of a powerpoint or navigate to another document while what students can see on the smart board doesn’t change. It would be great to have a bit more control over video output at a system level in iOS. I’d love to be able to hit a freeze button on my iPad rather than using the projector remote.

GoodNotes

GoodNotes 4 by Time Base Technology Limited is an excellent companion to Mirroring 360. Unlike many other note taking apps, it is ideal for presentations, since it has a mode that alters the video output feed that is sent via AirPlay. Like PowerPoint presentation mode, it presents a clean, UI-free view on the projector screen, while showing the full UI and tools to the user on the iPad. This means you can navigate pages, change writing tools, select objects and move them around, all without creating visual distractions for your students. This option is enabled via the ‘Hide User Interface’ option in the app settings. It’s worth noting that even when you have GoodNotes in split view, as long as it as the primary app on the left side of the screen, students won’t see the secondary app on the right. This is great for looking at your lesson plan, or navigating through documents while delivering a lesson. Swap the apps over, and the split view can be shown, which is also occasionally useful in lessons.

GoodNotes is also a well designed app with an impressive array of functions. You can create notebooks with multiple different paper types and then group them by categories. As a maths teacher, I mostly use A4 squared paper in landscape, but the app also offers graph paper, lined paper, and even manuscript paper for musical notation. I have one category for each class that I teach and then one notebook for each topic.

The drawing tools are simple but effective: different coloured pens, highlighters, erasers, and a tool to convert what you draw to exact straight lines, perfect circles and other geometric shapes. Other features include the following:

  • Full Apple Pencil support, as well as support for a number of third-party styluses
  • A zoom function which is difficult to describe in words, but allows you to write continuously when zoomed in without having to pan around
  • The ability to import images and entire multi-page PDF documents: great for annotating worksheets
  • Export to PDF or images
  • Auto-backup (in GoodNotes format or PDF) to your cloud service of choice
  • A slightly random one, but GoodNotes is the only app on iOS I have so far discovered which can do bulk rotation of the pages of PDF: handy if you’ve scanned something in the wrong orientation

GoodNotes has also changed the way I do lesson planning. I find writing out my slides with my Apple Pencil helps me think more carefully about the structure and timing. I still take brief notes in OneNote, but I find that I’m doing most of the thinking in GoodNotes, where I can easily draw diagrams and use mathematical notation.

It will be interesting to see to what extent I re-use these slides next year. I haven’t yet developed a good workflow for saving the original slides without the annotations and solutions I write on during lessons, so I may have to go back and tidy them up to some extent. One missing feature that I’d love to see in future is the option to duplicate a page. This would mean I could have one page with just the questions I’ve written, and another with all the answers as well. It is possible to copy a page and then paste it as a new page, but it requires far too many taps at the moment. I raised this with the developers and they have said they’ll work on it for a future version.

In terms of behaviour management, it’s been a real help. I’ve often found that with difficult classes, standing at the back of the room can be a bit of a power move, and now I can stand anywhere I like while delivering the lesson. The 12.9" iPad Pro can feel a little unwieldy at times; I think the ideal device for this purpose would probably be the 9.7" iPad Pro, but all things considered I still prefer the 12.9" and I’m not yet tempted by the #multipad lifestyle. What I’d really like next for my classroom is some kind of lectern or sturdy music stand that I could put my iPad on when standing. With my Apple Pencil in one hand and cradling my 12.9" iPad in the other, it can be difficult to gesticulate as much as I would like.

It’s also helped me to improve the quality of my lessons. A simple but effective pedagogical tool is to take photos of good examples of students work using the camera input tool in GoodNotes and display them on the board. I’ve had great class discussions based on talking through these with my class: what the particular student did well in their working and what they could have done better. I can mark up their solution in real time, adding corrections or extra bits of explanation. Students are naturally curious to see each other’s work, and they are really motivated to show good working so that their solution gets picked to go up on the board. It’s a fantastic way to finish a lesson and summarise the material, since it encourages students to reflect on their own work and others’.

Using your iPad to present lessons as well as planning them opens up a huge new world of possibilities for students’ experience. The whole of the iOS App Store becomes a potential teaching tool. I have used apps like WolframAlphaMyScript CalculatorNotability, and the wonderful but strange Qama Calculator, but GoodNotes is still the app I use most often, and the app that is most central to the way I plan and deliver my lessons.

GoodNotes is usually $7.99 in the App Store, but for a limited time is reduced to the amazing price of only $0.99. Get it while you can!

Bear for Lesson Planning

Here at The Class Nerd, we know even among teachers who want to get their work done on an iPad, there are different needs, use cases, and personalities. This applies to myself and Peter as well. While he gets a lot of his lesson planning for high school math done in OneNote, his system doesn’t work as well with the way my brain works or with a 2nd grade, general education classroom.

In my 3 years of teaching and discovering how to write the best plans for me and my students, I have found plans tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum between being able to see a full week with brief descriptions of each lesson to incredibly detailed daily plans akin to those I was required to write in grad school which can take an hour each to write.

I have tried apps at all points on this spectrum in an attempt to learn what works best for me. I began with weekly spreadsheets in Numbers, and swung as far to the other side as writing out detailed plans of every day in Ulysses, my primary text editor.

What I have learned is I actually prefer my plans in the middle of the range with an ability to switch between views. This has ultimately led me to Bear.

I was first introduced to Bear by Federico Viticci as he was attempting to use it as his primary note taking app.

As I have discussed before, I’m actually quite happy with my note-taking workflows, and Bear lacks too many features I need in my primary notes app such as Apple Pencil support, rich previews of links and other content, and background syncing from the sharing extension. But there was always a part of me that knew even though Bear wasn’t the app for me, I wanted to try it.

I realized while Bear wasn’t a great note taking option, it might be perfect for my lesson plans. I’m still giving it a try, but after a few weeks, I’m really excited about the possibilities as I move into a new semester.

Bear stands out among other apps I’ve used for lesson planning in two areas: writing and organization.

Writing

One of the primary features which has made Bear so appealing for people as a note taking app is its support for writing in Markdown. This is also why it works so well for me as a lesson planning app. For years I have longed for the ability to write my lesson plans in Markdown because I can write so quickly and still make something readable with nice formatting.

While Bear uses its own, slightly different variety of Markdown, it does have a “Markdown Compatibility Mode” setting which allows you to use standard Markdown. Bear also shows your Markdown formatted properly making it easier to read.

A Typical Lesson Plan in Markdown

A Typical Lesson Plan in Markdown

Bear also has an extensive URL-scheme allowing for automation using apps like Drafts and Workflow. The team at Workflow also recently updated the app with several Bear actions making it even easier to automate adding information to notes in Bear.

I created a Workflow helping me fill out a template lesson plan with the lesson date, subject, and unit tags (more on tags in a bit) for that lesson. While it is highly specific to how I like to write plans and my school district’s curriculum, hopefully you can adapt it to your own needs.

You can download the Workflow here. If you need help understanding what I’m doing with dictionaries in this Workflow, I recommend this episode of Canvas where Fraser Speirs gives an excellent explanation of lists, dictionaries, and how they work.

Automating this process saves time and ensures my organization system stays in shape.

Organization

The developers of Bear have put a lot of thought into how users can organize their notes. They have included 3 primary tools I use regularly: note links, pinned notes, and tags.

Note links are perhaps my favorite aspect of Bear. By enclosing the title of another note in double brackets, you can create a tap-able link to that note. I use this to create one note for each week with links to lesson plans for each subject on each day along with a brief description of the activity. This gives me the full week view I desire while still making it easy to get more details if I need it.

A Week View in Bear

A Week View in Bear

I use Bear’s ability to pin notes to the top of the list to keep the current week’s overview note at the top of my list so I never have to worry about finding it.

The final way I like to look at plans is by unit. My school district groups our standards into units by topic or theme, generally 2–3 major units per subject per quarter, so I create a tag for Science Unit 3 or Math Unit 5. My school is also an IB school, so all of our curriculum is tied to one of the 6 IB PYP units. I have tags for these as well. This helps me make sure the flow of my instruction makes sense with regard to each unit, and that I cover everything I am required to cover.

Moving Forward

As I look to the future, I’m hoping my increased productivity along with a better system for writing and organizing plans in Bear will save me time and allow for richer, more well thought out lessons.

My main concern with using Bear is overwhelming the system as I continue to add more and more similar notes. But only time will tell on this. For now, I’m quite happy and feel more prepared for my daily lessons than I have in a long time.

GTD as an Educator Part 2

A few weeks ago, I published an article discussing how difficult GTD is to implement as a teacher. It was a pessimistic view, and probably didn’t need to be published, but everything on Medium says write and publish everything.

In the spirit of growth, I made 3 major changes to my GTD system since writing the last article. Though my task management is not perfect, I have seen a significant up-swing in my productivity.

Moving Task Managers

I have experimented with different task management apps through the years which always returned me to OmniFocus. However, I realized if my system didn’t feel like it was working, perhaps OmniFocus wasn’t working as well as I thought.

About a year ago, I gave 2Do a chance based on Federico Viticci’s review, and ultimately gave it up because I missed some features of OmniFocus (defer dates and an Apple Watch complication). Then as I thought about what some of my issues with my system were, I began to consider 2Do again.

Feature wise, 2Do and OmniFocus are similar, and their differences even out in terms of pros and cons. The primary differentiator for me is their user interfaces.

2Do on the Left, OmniFocus on the Right

2Do on the Left, OmniFocus on the Right

From the 12.9" iPad Pro down to the iPhone, 2Do keeps its list navigation visible on the left side of the screen in almost every view. In OmniFocus, the further into a folder or project you dig, the longer it takes to see other task categories. Yes, you can create perspectives to help you see the information you need at the time, but there are still several taps required to change perspectives. The UI is strong on the Mac, but not iOS.

Since switching to 2Do, even without a review mode similar to OmniFocus, I’m finding I miss fewer tasks and don’t have to flag (or star in 2Do’s terms) or set due dates on as many tasks because I can more easily see tasks and make smarter decisions about what to do when I have time.

Shortly after making this switch, something David Sparks said recently in a post on MacSparky about false urgency in tasks validated my decision.

If you feel like you are drowning right now, take a look at the false urgencies you are carrying around and see what you can do about setting them down.

To keep myself from forgetting tasks, I was flagging them in OmniFocus which led to major stress when I didn’t have time to do them immediately. I now use due dates solely for tasks which actually have a due date, and don’t find myself using 2Do’s stars at all. I just get work done.

There is some potential that my increased productivity and decreased stress could be due to my system in 2Do being the new shiny thing. Maybe I’ll fall back into old habits, and if so, you’ll probably read more about that here. For now though, I’m really pleased with 2Do.

Streaks

The 2nd change helping me feel like I’m not doomed to fail at GTD as a teacher has been the adoption of Streaks. I mentioned this briefly in my previous article, but since then, Streaks has become an essential part of my workflow.

The Streaks Complication (Bottom Middle) and my two tasks

The Streaks Complication (Bottom Middle) and my two tasks

Streaks is an app to help gamify the formation of habits. I keep it as a complication on the Apple Watch face I use at school, and have it available on my phone as well.

I have 2 habits I’m trying to manage: a daily (weekday) review of 2Do and emptying my physical classroom inbox at least 3 times a week. Doing this has made sure important tasks and information are not lost, and has replaced the need for OmniFocus’s built in review feature.

Removing Friction from Email

My final change has been with email. As I wrote about previouslyAirmail was my primary email app for awhile due to its fantastic power user features. However, after a few important emails never left my outbox after pressing send, I was forced to move away from Airmail and return to Spark. After a couple months on Spark though, I found myself missing the features of Airmail and wanted to see if it had become more stable. Cautiously I began using it again, and have been quite pleased.

The Airmail feature I most missed while using Spark was its url scheme to help automate to process of email creation as well as the tight integration with 2Do which allows me to create a task from an email with just a swipe.

Using Workflow, 2Do’s Link Actions, and Airmail’s URL scheme, I have created an easy way to remind myself to contact others and remove friction from actually doing that.

Now, when I think of someone I need to contact, I run this Workflowfrom the Workflow Widget in my phone. Workflow will ask me who to email, about what, and if it is a personal or work email. It then creates a task in 2Do in the appropriate list reminding me to email that person. Finally Workflow will create a callback link for me to tap in 2Do which opens a blank email in Airmail from the correct address with the subject already filled in.

This extra automation has given me the freedom where to process a few more emails each time I sit down to do so due to saved time.

So while I still wish there were more hours in the day, my initial thoughts that GTD can’t be done well when you’re a teacher may have been a bit premature. GTD isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s my own habits. Changing those has allowed me to get a lot more done than I ever had before.

Fantastical for iOS 10 and watchOS 3

The good folks at Flexibits have released a big update to their iOS and watchOS apps. This update to the watch app has fixed one of my biggest issues with the app, and solidified it's place as a complication on my primary watch face.

Prior to this update, the Fantastical complication showed upcoming events from all your calendars. This includes shared calendars, so my wife's events she shared with me would regularly take the space on my watch face. While I like knowing what my wife has scheduled, the watch face is quick reference for what Ihave to do next. I eventually replaced Fantastical's complication with Apple's Calendar which did allow for calendar selection.

With the new update, you can now select which calendars appear in the watch app just like in Apple's Calendar.app. The new compact view in the Today Widget is also really nice.

Fantastical's natural text input for events and interaction with other apps via x-callback URL have kept it as my primary calendar app for a few years now on my iPhone and iPads. I'm really excited for this update, and am glad to have to have Fantastical back front and center again on my watch.

Both Fantastical for iPhone and iPad are 50% off in the App Store right now. I highly recommend them.

Airmail 1.2

As a teacher, much of my communication with my colleagues and with the parents of my students happens via e-mail. On a typical day, I probably receive at least 50 emails I need to manage in some way which has led me to search for more powerful options on my iOS devices than Apple's built in mail app.

With my school district using Office365 for email, I used Microsoft Outlook for a long time. It worked far better with exchange than Apple Mail did, and had snoozing features. This was great for a while, but having a small taste of power features only made me long for more, and last fall I made the switch to Spark by Readdle. While Spark still has my favorite interface of any iOS email app, it did compromise on some features of Exchange servers like being able to search for the email address of anyone in my school district.

Then in February, the iOS version of Airmail, the popular email client for Mac was released. It had all of the power features I longed for, and worked well with Exchange. While its interface wasn't quite as polished as Spark, it was definitely worth using...with one exception. Airmail was extremely buggy. There were frequent crashes, freezes, and glitches that continually slowed me down and prevented me from getting through my email. And with that, I switched back to Spark for the summer.

While Spark worked fine while I wasn't working as much, as school started again last month, I began to feel myself pushing up against Spark's limits and longed for Airmail's power. I decided to try Airmail again, but this time I tried to help squash bugs by beta testing version 1.2. Over the last month, I have watched Airmail transform into the e-mail app I need it to be. The final release of version 1.2 (out today) is both powerful and polished.

To find out more about Airmail and its features, I recommend Federico Viticci's initial review. But if you manage a lot of email on iOS, especially on an Exchange or Office365 account, I highly recommend you give it a try.

Airmail is $4.99 on the App Store.

Saturday Field Notes 8/6/16

The first week of school is always complete craziness, so I'm giving myself grace that on the 2nd week of Friday Field Notes, I'm already getting behind.

App of the Week

 
 

Interact - Do more with your Contacts!

I've had to manage the contact information of all the parents of my 20 students this week, and couldn't have done it without Drafts and Interact. They saved me so much time.

What I've Been Listening To

 
 

John Mayer Where the Light Is: John Mayer Live In Los Angeles

Not a new record, but one of my favorites. I've been listening to a lot of John again lately, and this is one of the best.

Interesting Reads

Why I Don't Post a Step-By-Step Writing Process Chart: Writing is a Recursive Process - Literacy Matters:

Marvel decides not to split Avengers: Infinity War into two movies - The Verge

Why Should You Mind Map? - MindNode

Friday Field Notes 7/29/16

Summer has officially drawn to a close for me, and I have started beginning of the year professional development. Our students return next Wednesday, and I'm really excited about this school year. As part of my excitement, I have some plans for this blog including reinstating Friday Field Notes. I'm still playing with the format, but I'm excited about having this again.

What I've Been Listening To

 
 

With pop music getting less melodic and sounding more and more the same all the time (when did I get old enough to talk like that?), I've found myself listening to a lot more country music lately. Maren Morris's Hero is everything I love about pop music (catchy melodies and clever lyrics) with real instruments thrown in.

While I love the whole record, my favorite tracks are Sugar, Rich, and 80s Mercedes. It's a great end of summer record.

App of the Week

 
 

MindNode – Delightful Mind Mapping

I've been doing a lot of beginning of school prep this week from lesson plans to my open house presentation. While MindNode has been in my toolbox for a few years now, it's proven it's worth yet again this week. If you need to get ideas out of your head and organize them, there's nothing better for me than and mind map, and MindNode is my favorite app for them.

Interesting Things on the Internet

Have a great weekend!

Note Taking Workflows

This is my first summer as a teacher where I'm not also in grad school, and I've been spending a lot of time researching ways to tighten up certain areas of my instruction not necessarily covered in my master's program.

Since adding a 9.7" iPad Pro to my arsenal, it has become my favorite tool for research due to its size and the Apple Pencil. W9th this new device, I've found some apps and developed workflows I thought I would share in hopes they're useful for others.1

Reading Articles

Throughout the summer, I've received a lot of PDFs from trainings I've attended as well as articles I've found online on topics I'm researching. To take notes and gather important information from a document, LiquidText is my new favorite app. It's the kind of app that the iPad was made for, and really couldn't exist outside of a touch interface.

LiquidText is a PDF viewer thats goal is to make PDFs, the digital equivalent of paper, easier to manipulate, view, annotate, and pull out key details.

 
A PDF in LiquidText

A PDF in LiquidText

 

LiquidText allows you to pinch pages of a document together to compare information from different pages, comment on text, and drag excerpts out. These excerpts and comments can be exported to other apps as text and images or as their own PDF.

It's important before you put a PDF into LiquidText to make sure your file is properly OCR'd. OCR stands for Optical Character Recognition, and it is how apps like LiquidText recognize the text on a PDF. If you scan in a paper article for annotation in LiquidText, you will need to OCR the PDF in order to get the most use out of LiquidText's tools. Most iOS scanning apps now have OCR built into them, but my favorite is Scanner Pro by Readdle. Many PDFs generated on a computer from another format like a Word Document will already have OCR data embedded in them. Unfortunately, sometimes the OCR data is corrupted, incorrect, or simply missing. To add or fix OCR in an already existing PDF, the best app I've found is PDFPen Scan+.

Apple Pencil Support

One of the best things about LiquidText is its excellent use of the Apple Pencil. Not only can you do standard text selection with the extra precision of the pencil, but using the stylus's pressure sensitivity allows you to highlight as an image instead of text, which comes in handy to select charts and tables.

I love that the developers took time to really support the Apple Pencil instead of just using it to control the interface. This unique implementation is a primary reason I love my Apple Pencil so much.

Notes from Events

The other place I've been taking notes this summer is in person professional development courses. Here again my 9.7" iPad Pro has been my primary tool along with Apple's default Notes app.

 
Notes from a Conference I Attended

Notes from a Conference I Attended

 

Notes.app's ability to take in many different data types easily through its share extension has been very valuable to me. While I can type my notes, I've found myself writing them with Apple Pencil. While I don't generally like to write by hand since my handwriting is atrocious, I do feel like it helps the information sink in better. When a presenter shows a YouTube video I find interesting, I've added that video to my notes. I will also scan in any handouts using Scanner Pro and add them to the note.

While I do miss the automatic OCR and more in depth organizational systems I once used in Evernote, I'm glad to get out of that sinking ship and am overall pleased with Notes.

While I may draw some judgement from others for living the Multipad Lifestyle instead of using a Mac, systems like these are a delight and make me more productive. I won't be going back to a Mac any time soon.

  1. The majority of what I do is made possible by the Apple Pencil, though the apps I'm going to recommend don't require it. ↩︎

AirTable

A few weeks ago I tweeted about how I'm using Airtable in the classroom and got a lot of responses asking for more info. This is my attempt to share how Airtable has been a game changer for me.

As a teacher, I organize a lot of data from student test scores to lesson plans for individual days or whole quarters of the school year. While spreadsheet apps like Numbers and Excel are powerful, they primarily work with just text and numbers. Fortunately, thanks to Federico Viticci's list of apps he's trying in 2016, I found Airtable. AirTable is a database app that supports many different data types like pdf and image attachments as well as barcodes. While it may not be perfect, it has become an invaluable tool in my classroom.

Overview

To begin understanding Airtable and its features you first need to understand its vocabulary. What would be a spreadsheet document or file in Excel is called a "Base" in Airtable1. Different spreadsheets inside of a Base (what would be Sheets in Excel) are called "Tables".

Currently, Airtable is available on iOS and on the web2, and the two versions have very different interfaces. Airtable on the web is essentially a standard spreadsheet with special cell types that can include dates, selections, attachments, and more.

AirTable's Web Interface

AirTable's Web Interface

On iOS, each entry is more like a single record in a database than in a typical spreadsheet.

AirTable on iPad Pro

AirTable on iPad Pro

This is my favorite way to use the service and what differentiates it for me from a standard spreadsheet.

Linked Records

To give you an idea of how these work, I'll share how I set up my 9 week planners in Airtable.

Like many schools, our year is divided into 9 week quarters. The end of these quarters serve as a natural break point for planning and curriculum as this is when students receive report cards. For each 9 weeks, my school district gives teachers a Scope and Sequence for each subject to show what Common Core State Standards should be covered in that quarter. How and when the standards are covered is up to the teacher, as long as they are being covered.

At the beginning of each quarter, I make a new Base to help me further plan out by week what standards I want to teach.

In the base I will create a Table for each subject with an entry for every standard I am required to teach that 9 weeks. Finally, I make a Table with an entry for each week of the 9 weeks and link the standards from the other tables to the week when I want to teach it.

An example of a week from the last quarter

An example of a week from the last quarter

As I go to create my lesson and unit plans for a week or individual day, I have a map laid out for me that while being flexible based on student needs, helps me remain on track.

Filters

While most spreadsheet apps can apply filters to data to make it easier to view, the fact Airtable has different data types makes this even more powerful.

My specific lesson plans are all kept in one Table, and using AirTable's "Multiple Select" data format, I create fields for the day of the week, the week, and the subject. I can then create views to let me see my plans however I need to in order to continue planning or teach from my plans. The following view would allow me to see everything I was teaching on Tuesday of Week 1. This allows me to see only what I need to see at any moment and not get distracted.

Creating a View in AirTable Using Filters

Creating a View in AirTable Using Filters

Collaboration

Being able to share and work on my lesson plans with other teachers is incredibly important, especially as a relatively new teacher. I regularly meet with my school's instructional coach to review plans and look for areas where they could be improved. Moving my plans to AirTable has helped this process greatly.

Until AirTable, in the area of cloud based collaboration the top player has been Google with everyone else behind. No one has yet matched the effortless and immediate syncing Google Docs provides. While Microsoft has made strides in this area and there are newer services like Quip entering the field, none have really stood up to Google. Unfortunately for people like me who use iPad as their primary computing device, Google still hasn't updated their apps to support iOS 9's multitasking which renders them almost useless.

While AirTable isn't designed as a competitor to the entire suite of Google Apps, if you are someone who needs its other tools, the collaboration tools add to its usefulness.

I often sit in a meeting with my instructional coach where both of us edit and review my lessons from our devices simultaneously. Changes then appear immediately on other person's device. In the few months we've been doing this, AirTable has always proven itself fast and reliable making it a great tool for collaborative planning.

Pain Points

While AirTable is well made and continues to improve regularly, there are still a few places where it feels like iOS is a second class citizen compared to the web version. This does seem to be an area of focus for the AirTable team as every update brings features I long for (such as the most recent update adding the ability to duplicate bases or tables being in), but there is still room to grow.

My primary complaint right now is a lack of iOS Document Picker support for attachments. I like to include PDFs of graphic organizers or anchor charts in my plans, and this is very hard to do on iOS. The web version can access the Document Picker due to Safari's ability to upload files which was added in iOS 9, but the AirTable website redirects to the app when opened on an iOS device. To combat this, I login to the web app using iCab Mobile and its Browser ID function to tell the website I am accessing from a Mac. This allows me to fully use the web interface on iOS.

The other option is to post to AirTable using their API and Pythonista. Unfortunately, as a brand new Python programmer this is currently above my skill level, but I'm hoping to use this summer to improve my programming skills to solve this issue. We'll see how successful I am.

Another option for adding attachments would be to have a share extension so users could attach a PDF to an AirTable entry straight from PDF Expert.

While AirTable's iOS experience is lacking in certain areas, it is refreshing to see developers creating apps that have such a unique experience on iOS and design with a touchscreen in mind. I'm excited to see where this tool goes in the future and how I can continue to use it to help me be more productive in my classroom.

  1. I see what they were going for with this name, but it is one of my least favorite things about the service. Though if that's one of the biggest problems, they're doing alright. ↩︎
  2. There is also a public beta available for Android. ↩︎

Import a Word Document Into Ulysses

Ulysses Blog:

You can import DOCX files quite easily into Ulysses’ text library. Important text elements like headings, emphasis, footnotes etc. will get transformed into Ulysses’ Markdown XL syntax.

I've used Ulysses 2.5 since the first beta in December, and somehow missed this feature's existence. As a teacher, I get sent Word documents all the time. Being able to edit them in Ulysses is huge.

iPad Pro and iPhone 6s Plus

Stephen Aquino on MacStories:

At 12.9 inches, the iPad Pro's display is the best thing to happen to my vision in a long time. Its effects aren't only about pixel density or color accuracy; it's about sheer size. The iPad Pro's screen is huge and has completely transformed how I work. Everything I see on the iPad is better simply by virtue of the big screen, from managing email to browsing the Web to typing on the virtual keyboard. Throw in iOS 9's multitasking features – the app switcher notwithstanding – and I think it's fair to say iPad Pro is the most accessible computer Apple's ever built.

Which brings us to the iPad Pro's halo effect. Using the tablet daily over the past couple of months has taught me that bigger truly is better for me. My eyes love big screens, so much so that I started wondering if I should reconsider my stance on the 5.5-inch iPhone 6s Plus. "If the iPad Pro's screen is so great and the device itself not too cumbersome to handle," I thought, "why couldn't that same logic apply to the iPhone?"

While I don't use iPad Pro or the iPhone 6s Plus for accessibility reasons, transitioning from the iPad Air 2 to the iPad Pro did immediately make me want a larger phone.

The Air 2 was a device I used everywhere. From my desk to the bed, I would read, write and more on the iPad. While I adore my iPad Pro, it's not as nice for usage while lounging as its smaller counterpart. And while I was reluctant in 2014 to move from my 4 inch iPhone 5 to the 4.7 inch iPhone 6, the lack of a small iPad made me feel constrained by those 4.7 inches.

In December I upgraded to a 6s Plus, and I couldn't be happier. I use it not only as a consumption device, but with the launch of Ulysses for iPhone, I am writing a lot (including most of this post) on my phone. The iPad Pro is my primary computer and the 6s Plus handles my work on the go. While there are plenty of things iOS could improve software wise, I think I'll be sticking with these tools for awhile.

Now if only my Apple Watch was faster...