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.