Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Become a Communication Ninja: 7 Free Tools for Teachers

The image above is a compilation of photos depicting a common sight.  Smart phones and texting have become a way of life.  What was once considered a luxury item has become common place, and it is even considered as essential as food, water, and shelter by many of our students.  That last bit might seem like a bit of a stretch, but when polling students, I often get "texting" as the #1 answer to the question "What do you do in your free time?"

*The graphs below are from a study by the media giant Nielson designed to help "developers, publishers and advertisers better understand who owns a smartphone, and if those devices are successfully penetrating the low-end income brackets thanks to lower price points."   The answer, as you can see, is a resounding YES.

What is my point in all this?  Know your audience.  When I first started teaching, we were instructed by administration and mentors to call home often and keep detailed call logs when we did.  The problem I found with that tactic was outdated contact information resulting in wrong numbers or disconnected lines.  When email becomes common place, I quickly concentrated my efforts on weekly email newsletters.  Over time, I found email to be a more effective communication tool for MOST of my parents, but I was still not reaching 20-40% of them.

Enter the modern day.   Today we see a world much flatter than it was just five years ago.   Smart phones, text messages, high speed internet, and web applications all make communication much more transparent.   The premise of this post is to provide you, the teacher, with 10 free tools that can help you become a Communication Ninja.

The Tools 

Google Voice - Google Voice is an amazing free service available to anyone with a Google Account.  The idea here is to register a "virtual number" with Google, and then tie it to all your physical numbers.  A "One Ring" for your phones, if you will.   The virtual number can not directly place calls, but it can forward calls to your physical lines (as previously mentioned), send and receive text messages, and receive voicemail messages.  While not specifically designed for teachers, it is the one communication tool no educator should be without.  Here are just a few ideas of how it can be used with parents and students:

  • As primary contact number or voicemail service.  Put it on your syllabus,  your email signature,  etc.  It is safe and secure. When parents or students use it, it automatically logs the call and transcribes any voicemails you may receive.  Voicemails can be forwarded to your email account for convenience or sharing with administration.  The number can be "shut off" at night and new calls forwarded to voicemail so you can sleep uninterrupted.  Prank calling the teacher is a thing of the past with the ability to block any number.   Where legal, live conversations can also be recorded.
  • Text Message. - "When in Rome..."  Email, is NOT the preferred tool of the people.  It is very much a corporate tool and is viewed as such in the eyes of our students (and some parents).   If you want to reach your students, or the parents of your student that do not have a work email, your best bet is with a text message.  Google Voice allows you to send and receive plain text messages (sorry no MMS - media/picture messages at this time).  Just like the voicemail messages, text messages are time and date stamped and stored in your Google Voice account.  
I could go on forever about the wonders of Google Voice, but you would be better-suited spending that time playing around in their UI.  Enjoy and feel free to ask questions or share with us the innovative ways you are using this service in your classroom.

Google Calendar -  If you are already using your Google Account (or Google Apps for Education account) for Google Voice, you would be remiss not to give Google Calendar a solid look.  While already tied into may of our smartphones (Android by default), chances are you may already be using it.

Google Calendar is actually an aggregator for multiple calendars.  You can subscribe to various public calendars and/or make your own.  As a classroom teacher, I would have a separate calendar for each prep.   Each of them can be embeded into any webpage and then updated directly from your Google account or smartphone.  Students can also subscribe to your calendar  using their own Google account, making  physical agendas a thing of the past.

See my earlier post on attaching Google Docs directly to calendar posts for an even greater level of awesomeness.

Remind 101 - There are literally dozens of mass-texting tools out there on the web, but my absolutely favorite is Remind 101.  It is secure, simple, and clean.  You can set  up free account in seconds, and it even comes with printable pdf directions for subscribing to your blast texts that you can send home with your students.  You can schedule prewritten messages to trigger at a specific date and time.  Remind 101 also has both an iOS and android app.

Edmodo - Edmodo is a Learning Management System (LMS) and social networking site all rolled into one.   The students take to it easily because it resembles Facebook, and parents like it because it is secure and they can see their child's work. Edmodo lends it self well to the flipped classroom model and  I have seen it used successfully in a blended setting too.  I have mentioned this tool numerous times on this blog and even wrote a dedicated post about it here.

Blog - I am surprised by the number of teachers that would never consider creating a classroom blog.  As a classroom communication tool, blogs are ideally suited because of their structure (most current post at the top).   It is my opinion that this structure works very well for daily homework or daily communication home.  Blogger is an obvious first choice for me and if you are already using Google Voice or Calendar, then you already have a Google account and is all you need to get started.   Blogger also has a email subscription option built right in that will email parents automatically when you update your blog.

Doodle - Finding a common time to meet for any group can be a challenge.  With Doodle, in just a few seconds you can offer up a selection of possible meeting times and dates, then email out a special link that will allow potential attendees to choose the time slots that would work best for them.  Everything is transparent, so nobody feels like their voice isn't being heard, and it saves time and energy.

Signupgenius - This is an interesting tool that many of my teachers use to create signup sheets for parent teacher conferences.  It would also work well for potluck meetings and PTO events.  The UI is not the most user-friendly, but the end result cannot be argued with.

While this a brief list, every tool on it is priceless and can make the world of difference to teachers trying to balance instruction with communication.

 photo credit: kevin dooleyMarkKelleyGoodNCrazy,  Daniel Stagner all via photopin cc

The photo of the pin was taken from  The image is linked to the actual button for sale.  I have no affiliation with Zazzle, nor do I  receive any compensation from them, but I could not resist. 


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