As the semester pushes on toward its mid-point, I often find myself in search of the perfect tool that will re-focus my energies, improve my efficiency and help me wrest some precious hours of life from the clutches of feedback, grading and emails. This fall, I’ve got a few new tools that are helping me fight on and—while not exactly perfect—they are helping me feel accomplished rather than depleted at the end of each day (when I’m smart enough to use them!) I will be discussing these at CTN’s Fall Institute as part of a mini-session series called “How we Use Tech” alongside colleagues who will also share the “hacks” they use inside and outside the classroom. Here’s a what’s helping me this semester to improve focus, productivity and efficiency:






If you find yourself checking your phone several dozen times a day (and often for no reason at all), it may be time to pull the mainline. But How? Dr. James Hamblin, from The Atlantic’s “If Our Bodies Could Talk” series asserts that our emotional responses to stimuli are intimately connected to color perception. Consider how the color red is used to alert us on our phones; this was thoughtful and intentional design meant to keep us coming back for more as Paul Lewis reports in his searing article on “smartphone dystopia.” Thus, one of the basic defenses we have is to eliminate this emotional response by pulling  the plug on color and switching our smartphones to grayscale. Here’s how:


On iPhone:


Settings > General > Accessibility > Vision > Display Accommodations > Color Filters > Grayscale


Want to easily toggle between color and grayscale? Try:


Settings> General > Accessibility > Accessibility Shortcut > Color Filters


Now, you will be able to toggle back and forth with three clicks of the home button.


Android phone vary but they all have similar options to enable grayscale. Even the elusive Pixel and Nexus.






Pomodoro Technique:


Ever heard of Parkinson’s law? Work Expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. This technique purports to help you “get more time” out of your day. First outlined by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, this time blocking system works to “condition” the brain toward greater productivity.


How does it work?


Break your work time into 25 minute blocks where you focus on one task (no multitasking) – this can be grading, emails, research, reading, writing, etc. While the clock goes do only one task.

At the end of 25 minutes, you get a 5 minute break.

You repeat this four times – at the fourth “Pomodoro” you get a 15-30 minute break.

Try to collect as many pomodoros as you can throughout the day.

Desktop Resources (both offer timers suited to this technique):




iOS: Focus Keeper


iOS: Be Focused Pro


Android: Clockwork Tomato






If you’re like me, you often find yourself typing in the same sentences day after day, month after month, year after year: “This is a comma splice…” Okay, maybe you don’t write that (unless you are a fellow English teacher) but you probably write the same 10, 20, or even 100 phrases every day over and over. Textexpander runs in the background allowing you to create custom short codes that can be typed into any place you use text (Microsoft Word, emails, the web, Blackboard) to generate a longer response. For example, instead of writing “This is a comma splice” I could create a code like: ^cs and whenever I type this, the entire line will appear automatically. Pretty cool, right? It’s easily my favorite tool for offering feedback on student writing but it’s used across many industries and for a multitude of purposes from communications to coding.


There’s a bit of a learning curve at first, so here are some tips (pay attention to number 3: special characters are your friends!)


Here’s a 2 minute review if you’re not sold yet.


Oh, and it does come at a cost: currently between $3.33-4.16 per month depending on the payment option you choose. Easily worth it in my book but if you’re still skeptical, there’s a free demo. There are other alternative as well to consider.



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