Things Parser 2.0 for Drafts 5

Today is release day for the wonderful Drafts 5. There are a lot of great reviews out there, not least by Tim Nahumck, who’s published an amazingly comprehensive review over at MacStories. Also worth checking out Rosemary Orchard’s review over on her blog, and her overview of some of the other reviews published today.

I haven’t been writing a review, but since joining the beta in January I have been spending a lot of time getting to grips with the app’s new action scripting capabilities. Drafts 5 allows you to write code in JavaScript to manipulate the content of drafts in almost limitless ways, including integration with other apps via URL schemes, and with web services via their APIs. The developer Greg Pierce of Agile Tortoise has done an amazing job of abstracting away a lot of the complexity of integrating with these apps and services by creating a series of JavaScript objects that can be directly manipulated within the code. If you’re interested in how to do this, check out his comprehensive scripting documentation.

I went into the beta programme knowing basically zero JavaScript, and a few months later I’m pleased to say I have come out having learned a huge amount. I’ve written a few script actions so far, and with each one my knowledge of the language has steadily improved. I wrote previously about my Things Parser, inspired by Federico Viticci’s idea for a workflow that allows quick entry of multiple items into Things 3 using natural language. It takes multiple tasks, each entered on a separate lines within a draft, with special characters denoting metadata for each task, and sends them to Things with a single x-callback-url. I built a JavaScript version of his workflow, which expanded the natural language support, and added support for additional metadata such as deadlines and checklists.

Since then, I’ve been working on developing my knowledge of the object-oriented aspects of JavaScript. While technically JavaScript is a prototype-based language rather than a class-based language, it does have support for classes. I was keen to try to build a programme based on classes, and while mind-bending at times, it was a great way to learn some object-oriented programming. The thought process of creating classes with constructors and properties and methods is a considerable mental adjustment from a more basic functional programming approach, but I’m hoping it will be the gateway to learning more advanced programming in the future.

I may write more in the near future about this learning process, and about the apps and resources I have been using, but the result is a brand new version 2.0 of my Things Parser, completely rewritten using JavaScript classes and adding several significant new features. Before I get onto those, let me just summarise the basic syntax, which I’ve changed slightly from the previous version.

  • #Project Name
  • ==Heading
  • @Tag Name
  • //Note
  • !Natural Language Deadline
  • *Checklist Item1Each of these, and combinations thereof, can be added after the name of the task and that information will be transferred to Things. Dates and reminders are automatically detected and parsed in natural language so no special characters are required. Here’s an example:
shopping tomorrow at 5pm #Personal
publish blog post today #Blog ==Drafts
presentation today !Friday #Work ==Meetings @Important *research *make presentation *follow up //Ask Bob’s opinion on this
The headline new feature is block-based entry. Previously to add a number of new tasks with the same metadata, you would need to add that information to each line. So for example you might write something like:
task 1 today
task 2 today
task 3 today
Now you can just write the following:
today
task 1
task 2
task 3
This works with all of the metadata previously supported so even things like this are possible
today at 5pm !Friday #Project ==Heading @Tag 1 @Tag 2 *checklist item 1 *checklist item 2 //note
task 1
task 2
task 3
If a task has metadata that conflicts with the block heading, the task’s metadata wins, but it will still inherit anything that doesn’t conflict. So things like this are fine:
#Project !Friday
Task 1
Task 2 !Monday
Task 3
Task 2 will be added to Project but will have a different deadline to the other tasks. Multiple blocks can be entered within a single draft and should be separated by a blank line.

The other big new feature is project creation. Using the new syntax +Project you can create a new project and add tasks to it. It works in two different modes: in-line and block-based. With the in-line mode you can just add +Project to the end of any line and it will create a new project with that task as the only entry. Headings can also be created, and an area can be specified. Any other metadata is assigned to the task.

task +Project ==Heading #Area today at 5pm !Friday
This creates a project called Project in Area with a heading and a single task under that heading. The task is assigned to today, has a reminder for 5pm, and has a deadline of Friday.

Block-based mode works in similar way with a couple of small changes: all metadata on the block heading is inherited by the new project, not the tasks, and multiple headings can be specified. Metadata must be specified for each task individually. If a task is given one of the headings specified in the block heading, it will be put under that heading, otherwise it will be assigned to the project with no heading.

+Project today at 5pm ==Heading 1 ==Heading 2 #Area @tag
Task with no heading
Task under heading 1 ==Heading 1
Task under heading 2 ==Heading 2
In this case, the date and tag will be added to the project, not the tasks.

It is possible to combine the project creation feature with the block-based task metadata inheritance using two blocks, one which creates the new project, and then another which adds tasks under it. So for example, if I wanted to create an important work project due on Friday with three tasks I wanted to work on today, I could do the following:

+Project #Work !Friday @Important

today #Project
task 1
task 2
task 3
I hope you enjoy using my script action. If you find any bugs or unexpected behaviour, you can let me know on Twitter. For more information on Drafts 5 more generally, check out the new site. If you’re interested in finding out about what other custom actions are available, have a look at the Action Directory, and if you want to talk to others about actions you’ve built or to get help, I’d encourage you to join the Drafts Community.

You can download Drafts 5 from the App Store, and you can download my Things Parser from the Action Directory.

  1. I have also added support for customising these special characters. Poke around in the script and you will see where you can change them.

Things Parser for Drafts 5

UPDATE: I’ve just released a version 2.0 of my Drafts Parser with new block-based entry and project creation features. You can read more about the update here.


I’ve had a lot of fun lately playing around with the beta of Drafts 5. The developer Greg Pierce of Agile Tortoise has been hard at work on a number of new features, notably developing and expanding the possibilities for JavaScript automation within the app. If you can pick up some JavaScript, there are some very powerful new things you can now do.

For example, I wrote a script to automatically add Markdown Links in reference style, complete with clipboard URL detection and automatically incrementing link reference numbers. You can add it to Drafts from the Drafts 5 Action Directory here.

Recently, I was reading Federico Viticci’s fanstastic article on MacStories about Things automation. The Cultured Code team have recently updated Things with an advanced new URL scheme. In addition to a lot of new URL scheme actions, they added an add-json command which allows you to import a bunch of tasks or projects into Things with a single URL scheme action: no jumping back and forth between apps with repeated x-callback-URLs. Federico created a workflow which takes the content of the clipboard copied from a text editor, and assembles a chunk of JSON to send to Things. Each line of the text becomes a separate task, with special characters giving additional metadata about each task.

As part of its new scripting features, Drafts 5 added integration (via JavaScript) with this new add-json action, so this got me thinking about whether I could recreate Federico’s idea directly in JavaScript within Drafts.1 What I have ended up creating is a script which is completely compatible with his syntax, but expands upon it and makes it little more flexible.

First of all, it removes the need for the double backslash before the date and time of the event. I’ve built this script on top of a bit of JavaScript called Chrono. It’s a natural language parser that works for multiple languages and can detect references to dates automatically within a string. This means you can write things like “Tomorrow” or “Tuesday” anywhere in the line and it will pick that out as the day for the task. In addition, it will automatically set a reminder if (but only if) a time is also included.

In addition, I wanted my script to support all of the features that the Things add-json command supports, so as well as the special markup characters for projects, headings, tags, and notes, I’ve added characters for deadlines and checklist items. The full syntax is as follows:

  • #Project Name
  • ==Heading
  • @Tag Name
  • ++Note
  • !Deadline
  • *Checklist item

As with tag names in Federico’s workflow, multiple checklist items can be entered.

With this Drafts action, I can type multiple lines in the following format, and they are all simultaneously sent to the right place in Things.

Write blog post about Drafts and Things today at 4pm #Writing ==PolyMaths @drafts @things !Friday *drink espresso *write *publish

If you’re a Drafts user and want to use this script, you can only do so if you are on the Drafts 5 beta. If not, the full release of Drafts 5 should be coming soon, so watch out for that.

You can see my script here, and you can add it as action in Drafts by downloading it from the Drafts 5 Action Directory here.

  1. Of course, it is very simple to create an action that launches Federico’s workflow directly from within Drafts. Drafts has a native “Run Workflow” action step which you can use.

Slack for Teacher Collaboration

Slack is a tool for teams that aims to simplify communication and collaboration. It’s marketed as a solution to many of the problems inherent in email, and as any teacher knows, school email is a problem very much in need of a solution!

Before I get into talking about how Slack can help teachers collaborate more effectively, it’s worth talking about why it’s necessary at all. What are the problems with email that need solving?

School Email

First and foremost, I think the major complaint most teachers have with school email is the sheer volume of it. I would argue, however, that it is not the volume of information that is the problem, but the lack of organisation and structure of that information. The nature of email is to be an undifferentiated mass of stuff, with messages which vary greatly in terms of their relevance, urgency, and importance. Almost all of the burden of filtering and sorting that deluge is placed upon the recipient, as you quickly come to realise when you leave your inbox unattended for too long.

I’ve recently started using some server-side email filtering rules to try to create a bit more order. I’ve set things up so that the emails which are directly relevant to me go straight to my inbox, whereas other emails are automatically sent to a folder, archived, or deleted. This has helped quite a bit, but it’s still very much my job to sort through everything.

Email also creates bad habits. I think a lot of people fall into the trap of using their email inbox as a de facto to do list. The model of the single inbox with a list of items which need to be dealt with encourages this, but for many reasons it’s a very bad idea. For one thing, it’s a to do list that other people can add things to whenever they want. To be productive you need to have control over setting your own priorities.

Email also falls done when it comes to collaboration. Long chains of messages organised around ad hoc subject lines is essentially a hack which has been grafted on top of an ancient protocol. Finding and searching through emails on a particular topic is difficult, as they will often be split across several different subject lines. If someone new becomes involved in a project and they were not one of the original recipients of the emails, someone needs to forward the whole messy and fragmented email chain to them.

Slack

Slack solves many of these problems. While it doesn’t necessarily reduce the volume of information, it does impose a structure on it. Within a Slack “workspace”, messages are organised into “channels”, signified by hashtags. You start with two channels: #general and #random for team-wide announcements and casual chat respectively, and you can then create other channels focussed around particular topics. Members of your team can choose which subset of channels is relevant to them, and can even adjust their notifications on a per-channel basis.

The channel structure is a far better solution for organising discussion around a particular topic than email subject lines. It places the burden primarily on the sender to decide where they should post their message, and for the recipient, all messages received are pre-sorted into topic areas. Senders can also fine-tune the relevance of their messages using mentions. By including the @username of one or more members of the team in their message, the sender can indicate in a more precise way exactly those people for whom it is relevant. On the recipient’s side, these messages are highlighted.

Another strength of Slack is the level of customisation of notifications that’s possible. By tweaking the settings, if you want, you can only receive a ping when you are specifically mentioned in a message. That way you can be getting on with work and only be notified when a message specifically requires your attention. You can even snooze all notifications to get some quiet time.

Slack also solves the problem of the inbox as a to do list. Slack has no inbox, so as the recipient you need to be proactive in deciding which messages require action. Email is essentially an opt-out system: you need to delete or archive messages which do not require action, leaving behind the ones that do. Slack, on the other hand, is an opt-in systems: as the conversation flows, you decide what you need to capture and act on. If it’s not relevant, you don’t need to do anything: you simply let the messages disappear up the timeline. In my experience, taking control in this way makes you a much less stressed and much more productive person. This may be an adjustment for those who are not used to having to have a separate place to capture things, but it leads to far healthier habits in the long run. You can do this within Slack in a basic way by starring messages, but my recommendation would be to get things that require action into a task management system that you trust and maintain.

Slack is also built from the ground up for collaboration. Sending messages, attaching files, and replying to other people is quick and easy. There‘s a lot less friction than with email, where decisions need to be made about recipients, subject lines, CCs, and BCCs. This reduction in friction might well increase the volume of messages being sent, but I would argue that this is for a good reason. Considerate users of email minimise the number of recipients and the number of messages because they know that, by sending it, they are giving everyone who receives it a task to do. This can actually have the effect of discouraging collaboration: you are reluctant to send a message unless is is genuinely important. With Slack on the other hand, there is little cost to others if your message is less relevant or less interesting to them.

Slack in School

In my school I’ve piloted the use of Slack within the Mathematics Department. Primarily we use it for sharing teaching resources. We have a channel for each of the year groups, so that teachers can join the channels for the classes they teach. Another really helpful use we’ve found is for discussion around marking tests. We are often doing these separately at home, and it’s good to be able to chat about the mark scheme and post photos of student answers that we are unsure how to mark.

One of the concerns other teachers have about using a tool like Slack for collaboration is that it’s just another place to check. That concern is legitimate: unless using two different tools offers significant advantages, it’s inconvenient to have to use them in parallel. However, in my experience, collaboration within a subject department is distinct enough from whole-school email that a division between the two isn’t disruptive, and as I’ve argued above, Slack is a significantly more powerful tool for effective collaboration.

While I think Slack works best in teams that work together day to day, it’s interesting to think about how it might work on a whole-school level, and whether it could completely replace email.1 There are big companies which use Slack, so it does scale to that level. At the high school level, it would need to be organised around subject departments, and since each subject would probably require multiple channels, there would probably have to be some oversight to ensure there was a consistent naming scheme for channels, among other things.

Alternatives to email are becoming widespread in the corporate and charity sector2, and it’s about time that schools started experimenting with some of these tools as well. Teaching is a profession where effective collaboration is not always a given, but in my experience sharing ideas and resources with other teachers is one of the most fulfilling parts of the job. On its own, Slack is not going to magically create a collaborative environment in a school, but it can certainly enhance what’s there. If you’re looking for a better tool for your school, why not give Slack a go?

  1. I would love a #lostproperty channel that I could completely ignore.
  2. My church is all in on Slack.

Apple Notes for Teachers

This summer, for the first time, I decided to take the plunge and install the iOS 11 beta. In previous years, I had heeded the warnings not to install a beta operating system on your main work device, but this year the temptation was just too great. For the iPad (much more than the iPhone), this was a huge release, with several headline new features that I couldn’t wait to try. My 12.9” iPad Pro is my main work device, but I figured it was the summer holidays, and if I had any major problems I could probably (🤞🏻) fix them before September.

One of those headline features was drag and drop, but since I was using a beta OS, and wasn’t using any beta apps, it was only Apple apps that I could use to test out this feature. The obvious app to start dragging text, photos and documents into was Notes.

Partly because Notes was suddenly a lot more powerful than all of my other note-taking apps, I started using it more. When I got emails with attachments I wanted to keep for reference, I would just drag them into Notes.

This spurred me to do a proper tidy up of all my notes, and organise them into some kind of structure. Previously I had just two folders: “Notes” and “Archive”, the former a list of my currently used notes, the latter a junk drawer of stuff I wanted to remain searchable.

One of the iPad Diaries columns from MacStories gave me some ideas about how to organise things. I ended up with two main sections: “School” and “Personal”, and inside each one a number of sub-folders. For a reason that is beyond me, and despite its many advances, Notes on iOS still does not support the creation of sub folders. You can view them and even rename them, but to create them you need to use either the Notes app on a Mac or the iCloud.com web interface on a Mac or PC. Federico Viticci managed to find a rather fiddly iOS-only workaround, which requires the use of the Puffin Pro browser, but I haven’t always found this to be reliable. I think it’s a glaring omission from an otherwise powerful app, all the more surprising because the iOS app is in many ways more fully featured than the macOS version.

Below, I’ll go through each of the sections I created and talk about what I’m using them for.

School

This section is mostly school documents I need to refer to plus my own notes on some school activities I’m involved with. It’s really nice to have notes where I can easily drag in multiple files, add my own text and other information. Storing reference documents in context like this, rather than just as files in a folder, makes much more sense to me. In a folder, the only metadata I have about the file is its filename, whereas organised in a structured note, I have much more information. For PDFs and images I have a visual preview, and for other documents I – crucially – have some explanatory text that I can search for. Because everything in Notes has been put there deliberately by me, I find it much easier to find things than searching through a gargantuan email archive.

The new document scanning feature in Notes in iOS 11 is also great for getting paper stuff into Notes. My school still seems to occasionally enjoy distributing information via the medium of dead trees, so I like to be able to take the scan it and shred it approach.

I also keep two notes which I update from time to time called “Teaching Ideas from Podcasts” and “Teaching Ideas from Blog Posts”. These I use as part of my effort to keep up my own professional development. If I read a blog that I enjoy, I’ll save it for reference. If I’m listening to a podcast1 and get an idea that I could put into practice in my own teaching, I save an Overcast link along with my own thoughts and a couple of action points. I find this especially useful with podcasts where it’s harder to skim back through them later to find the parts that were especially helpful.

Tutor Group

This year I am a tutor, which means I have pastoral responsibility for, in my case, six boys. I keep a note for each one of them with important information like contact details for their parents. My students also recently completed a self-review for their first half term, so I have saved those in there along with my own comments.

I also have a note called “Notices” where I keep a list of information that I need to pass on to the boys when I see them. This is a case where drag and drop really comes into its own. With Mail and Notes in split view, I can drag an email straight from the message list into Notes, which creates a link to the message. After this I archive the email, knowing that I can just tap on that link in the note when the time comes to open the email again. I keep the links in a checklist, so I can tick them off when I’ve passed on the information. 2 I’ve pinned this note by swiping it to the right in the note list so that it always appears at the top.3Maths

Here I keep any department-related stuff including notes from department meetings and ideas for teaching resources, as well as things related to my own subject teaching. I also keep a couple of notes that I call “Personal Policies”. I’ve been experimenting this year with actually trying to write down the way I do things. While I’m good at concentrating hard on one particular thing, I find that my working memory is very constrained. So creating, for example, a personal assessment policy, which describes how I intend to deal with homework, in-class assessment, and class tests is something I’ve found really helpful. It helps me think more carefully about how I’m going to do things, it helps me do them more consistently, and it keeps me accountable to myself.

Lesson Plans

I had been using Bear for my lesson planning, with a similar setup to the way Craig described in his article “Bear for Lesson Planning”. However, I think I spent too long setting up a complex structure of notes, and not enough time creating a simple system that I would actually use. I found myself creating detailed lesson plans, and then not actually using them in lessons because I just couldn’t get the basic information I needed at a glance. The structure I had created was also built around planning whole sequences of lessons on a topic, and while I do believe this is the best way to plan, if you’re super busy it isn’t always possible. Sometimes you just need to make sure you have tomorrow’s lessons planned, with a very brief list for each lesson of what you want to do.

I also took advantage of both document scanning and drag and drop to add PDFs to some of my lesson plans. Sometimes I would take a scan of an answers page in the textbook, and sometimes I would drag in the PDF of a worksheet that I was planning to set for homework. Later on I could drag it out into an email to send to my students.

I haven’t decided whether I’m going to use Notes or Bear going forward, but I think I might try to create something a little simpler and grow it more organically into a useful database of lesson plans.

Archive

I have one of these for both “School” and “Personal”, in both cases notes I don’t regularly need but which contain information I might need in the future.

Note the use of emoji in these and other folder names. This helps me to easily distinguish them visually.

Shared

Shared notes, first introduced in iOS 10, has become a really useful and reliable feature. In this folder I keep a bunch of notes shared with others, mostly my wife. We still use Google Drive to share some files, but again, having documents in context along with some additional notes is much more useful than a complicated nested folder structure.


Notes for Teachers

Teachers have a lot of information to deal with and keep track of, and it comes in many forms: emails, attachments, paper documents, conversations with colleagues and students. Having a simple, reliable way to collect these things together and keep them organised and accessible is important. Notes achieves this admirably. It’s solid and unfussy, and feels like the default choice in the best of ways.


  1. My current favourite teaching podcast is the Mr Barton Maths Podcast.
  2. One slightly annoying detail is that these links only seem to work on the iPad. I’ve tried tapping on them on my iPhone, and while the Mail app launches, it doesn’t open the email I was looking for.
  3. Pro tip: you can see all your pinned notes across different folders by opening the “All iCloud” folder at the top of the folder list.

Marking with Copied

App Artwork for Copied – Copy and Paste Everywhere by Kevin Chang (https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/copied-copy-paste-everywhere/id1015767349?mt=8&uo=4)

This week I came across a fantastic little app called Copied. Copied is the best kind of utility app: both incredibly simple and extremely powerful. Stumbling across it on a weeknight while marking felt like a real bit of serendipity. It had exactly the functionality I was looking for and it’s a great looking app as well.

Primarily, Copied is a clipboard manager. It handles text and images efficiently, and the intuitive swipe gestures make it easy to get things into and out of the clipboard. But Copied’s capabilities go way beyond copy and paste. The app offers the ability to use ‘text formatters’ to reformat a snippet in various ways. The built in text formatters apply to URLs and allow you to do things like convert a link into Markdown or HTML, but the most amazing thing about this feature is the fact that you can add your own custom text formatters using either basic templates or with custom scripts written in JavaScript.

Copied’s simplicity hides other powerful scripting tools. It’s also possible to write merge scripts, which define how a selection of snippets will be combined together into a single snippet. While I’m making some progress with Python, JavaScript is a language that I’m not yet familiar with. With apps like 1Writer (in which this article is being written) also leveraging JavaScript for their automation, I think it might be worth picking up. For example, I can imagine creating a script that would find and replace all gendered pronouns within a snippet to help prevent embarrassing errors when writing reports.

Screenshot of Copied custom keyboard in use with Airtable

It’s in conjunction with the custom keyboard that copied really comes into its own for marking. When I set a piece of math homework, the kinds of errors that I expect students to make usually fall within a reasonably predictable range. So the kind of feedback I need to give, and the information I need to record in my markbook, is usually a small selection of individualised comments from a total set of around a dozen possible comments. As I’m marking and writing comments physically onto student’s books, I’m also recording my comments into Airtable, with the Copied custom keyboard in the lower part of the screen. I use an external wired USB keyboard in conjunction with the Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter (I’ve never understood why this isn’t also marketed as a keyboard product as well). This means I can still type normally while the Copied custom keyboard is on screen. By default, custom keyboards, like the on-screen system keyboard, are hidden when you connect an external keyboard, but if you press and hold the downwards pointing chevron in the bottom right of the screen, it will appear as in the screenshot above.

Screenshot with selection copied

In my markbook, I try to record some positive comments, some points about what could be improved, and a single action point for students to follow up on. I type out the first few, and each time I write a single comment I select and hit Command + C. The custom keyboard changes to a different view as in the screenshot above, with the options to save the snippet to Copied or specifically to the current list. I usually create a list for the specific piece of homework I am marking, and copy my comment into this. It’s then added to the scrollable list of buttons displayed on the keyboard, and I can re-use it for another student by just tapping when my cursor is in the appropriate field. It makes it incredibly quick to insert a string of personalised comments for each student by just tapping multiple buttons. I can imagine this would also be incredibly useful for reports, where the combination of things I write needs to be personalised to each student, but where I can save time by not having to retype the same individual phrases or sentences repeatedly.

The visual aspect of Copied is what really appeals to me. I don’t have to remember text shortcuts as I would if I were using something like TextExpander. I can just tap one button which has the text I need. For snippets you might repeatedly use over time, you can even give them a title to aid identification. For example, I have one for my home address formatted on multiple lines, something that the iOS text replacement tool does not support.

Copied is a free download, with a one-time in-app purchase of $2.99 to upgrade to Copied+. I had upgraded within about 15 minutes of buying the app, because I could instantly see how useful it was. The free version allows you to try out the vast majority of the features, but limits you to a total of 10 items at any one time. Unlocking Copied+ removes this cap, allows the creation of lists in which to save items you will re-use, and enables iCloud sync if you want to use Copied on multiple devices. It also unlocks an amazing feature called Rules, which allows you to use Regular Expressions to automatically filter items into the lists you have created as soon as they are added. For example, you could create a rule which would filter URLs from a particular website straight into a dedicated list.

Copied is a fantastically useful and nimble little app, and wherever you keep your markbook or write your reports, it has the potential to save you a lot of time typing out the same things over and over again. By reducing the friction involved in recording my comments about students’ work in my markbook, it has made me more consistent in building up a picture of each student’s strengths and weaknesses. And by nudging me to think more carefully about what common errors arise in the work students produce, and how often particular errors arise, I have become better at giving whole-class feedback about homework. Little by little, I think that Copied is helping me to become a better marker.