When I first started teaching English with 1:1 iPads, I was really jealous of the science and fine arts teachers. They had all of the most engaging apps, and I was left with a lowly word processor and an instant thesaurus.
Fortunately, so much has changed. I now have the flexibility to duck in and out of my students’ papers as they write and leave them comments on drafts in progress. I have the resources to connect them with a real-world network of readers who authentically guide them to books they will enjoy through reviews and ratings. As a class, we can collaborate on a challenging text, asking questions of each other in shared annotations.
During the research process, students have tools to keep their ideas organized, and their resources available to others with similar interests. What follows are my top ten picks for apps that support the writing process, reading engagement, critical reading skills, and research in the humanities.
Hands down, this app has changed my classroom more than any other. As a Google Apps for Education school, we rely on Google Drive as our central storehouse for student work — everything from class notes to lab reports to essays. This year, I switched our entire writing process over to Google Drive as well. Now, my students share their drafts-in-progress with me, and I can view and comment on their writing at every step in the process. Each student has a folder, and each part of the assignment (research, citations, drafting) has its own doc. Drive has empowered me to truly scaffold the writing process, and to invisibly differentiate the type of support I provide to students with varying needs.
This easy-to-use screencasting app turns your iPad into a recordable interactive whiteboard that uploads to YouTube, and literally lets you explain everything. I love that I can easily model how to analyze passages from a novel, write topic sentences for an essay, or make nouns and pronouns match. My students use it to show me their thinking, verbally process through their arguments, and even create mini-lessons of concepts we’ve covered as review for their classmates.
GoodReads is like Facebook for book lovers. My 9th and 10th graders use GoodReads to find and share great books. Each of my students has an account, and as a class, we have a group with a common bookshelf of recommended texts. Students rate and review every book they read — for school, and for fun. Many of them find their next read through reviews by classmates and previous students.
Some texts really benefit from the interactivity afforded by an iBook. I have been wowed by the Shakesperience iBooks, which embed images of stage productions, costume design, and even audio interviews with actors and directors within each play. I have also used the Odyssey iBook, which gives students the option to tap and look up Greek gods and other allusions as they go. And when Hester Prynne needed a 21st century facelift, I created my own iBook of The Scarlet Letter with reading support and multimedia built right in. iBooks is a game changer, especially for texts in the Public Domain.
I always wanted a way to make reading a collaborative experience, especially when the text itself is very challenging. Subtext has the answer. Teachers can layer in support materials into any text, and students can ask questions of the teacher and peers. Beyond scaffolding the reading process, Subtext gives teachers a clear view into understanding where students struggle, and what passages and topics interest them most.
QR codes are everywhere — those pixelated boxes that link us to more information about everything from TSA regulations to cereal box contests. They are also in the books my students love most in our classroom library. As students finish one free-reading book after another, they rate and review on GoodReads. Then, they create a QR code that links to their online review, and glue the code into the novel to help guide future readers down the right path. This would also work wonderfully for student-created book trailers on YouTube, or for a whole-school library.
These days, my students are doing most of their research using online databases. Diigo is the perfect research companion, as it helps students collect and organize their data in their own personal library in the cloud. Diigo is a web extension, which means it pops up in their internet browser and gives students the ability to highlight, annotate, color code, tag, and save anything they read, and access those notes anywhere they have internet access. Perhaps my favorite feature is that Diigo makes it really easy for students to collaborate on research by sharing citations and notes in networks and groups.
This app couples the power of the web version of easybib.com with the camera and scanner of the iPad. Once students scan barcodes of books, the app automatically creates a citation for the text in MLA, APA, or Chicago. Students can then log on to the easybib website through their internet browser, and update their bibliographies as they go.
I love the power of a good infographic, especially when students become the creators, and their research serves the authentic purpose of informing others. Info.Graphic is the best of the apps, at least for now. While I prefer piktochart and easel.ly as web platforms, neither currently offers an iOS compatible tool. Info.Graphic has a gallery of templates, which is a great place to start; once kids get the hang of it, don’t be afraid to let them create their own infographics from scratch in sketching and inking apps.