Search form

Our Favorite Gadgets

A couple of years ago, Alma Row wrote an Ed World column on gadgets -- free online tools that make teaching easier, better, or just more fun. But new gadgets pop up online every day, and we like to keep up with the best of them. So, this year, we asked members of the Education World Tech Team to share their favorites. This is what they said.


Your Favorite Gadgets

Do you have a favorite gadget -- -- a free online tool that makes teaching or living -- easier, better, or just more fun? Share it with your colleagues on our Facebook page.

"I love tools that are simple and do one thing really well," Doug Johnson, director of media and technology in Mankato Minnesota, told Education World. "I call them 'tools for people who have better things to do than mess with tools.' " If I can get my elementary teachers excited about a program, I know it meets the criteria. Here are a couple that do...

"One of my most-used tools is Motivator, which allows users to create a motivational-style poster in about three minutes. Upload a photo, supply a headline and short text, and -- badda-bing-badda-boom -- you get an inspirational poster. I've used the posters in handouts, in multimedia presentations, and as blog-entry illustrations. They can be part of a very simple activity for students as well."

"My favorite gadget would have to be Wordle," said Cossondra George, a 7th grade math and social studies teacher in Newberry, Michigan. To use Wordle, simply choose any text or series of words, and paste them into a box at the Web site. A graphic display of the words is then created, with the size of each individual word being determined by its frequency in the original word set. The possibilities for this tool are exciting! I use it to display my classroom rules uniquely, as well as to display grade level content expectations for my classes. Students can use the tool to create unique book reports, social studies notes, or even to analyze their writing for overused words. Wordle's many options make it fun to use over and over again. The displays also can be added to projects or posters to enhance the presentations.

Another fun tool I like is Let Me Google That for You. It seems students (or teachers!) often have trouble finding information on their own. Use this gadget to help them learn how easily Google can suggest appropriate sites. For example: Student X simply cannot find information about the population of Russia. Go to Let Me Google That for You and let it lead the way. Students, especially middle schoolers, love the humor of the tool and quickly learn to use it to "help" others find information.


Guy and Shelly Whitman, both middle-school teachers in Fremont, Nebraska, collaborated to recommend the following gadgets: Zap Reader is an online application that allows users to copy and paste text into a text box and then "zap it." Essentially, what the program does is foster quicker reading speeds, increasing a student's wpm reading pace. As research has shown, increasing the pace at which a student can read text silently fosters increased comprehension over time. Students can start out at whatever pace is most comfortable for them and work their way up as their speed increases. We've used this tool in the classroom as a fluency-building device, having students read the same passage multiple times, increasing their speed when they feel comfortable. Asking students to read aloud fosters reading expression as well, improving oral reading fluency at the same time. Students like that the words come across one-at-a-time, which is less daunting for less skilled readers. This is not an application I would use over a long period of time, but it's great for remediation, to build fluency through pacing.

Blogger is one of the most user-friendly Web site builders we've ever encountered. We both use it as a communication springboard with our students, and families have found wonderful success in building motivation for out-of-school learning as well. The site walks users through how to build a blog, and it can be customized in a variety of ways. We personally like this better than some others we've used, in that there are more functions with Blogger, and it flows so easily from one application to the next. We use this extensively in the classroom -- for out-of-class contests, research opportunities, extra-credit assignments, keeping absent students up-to-date, communication with parents about classroom climate, and much, much more. I've just renewed my blog site for the new school year.

Mindomo allows for mindmapping in a very sophisticated way. Users can create idea flowcharts on whatever topic you would like; and then create subtopics, multimedia links, and more. YouTube videos show up right on the map; you can collapse the map, expand the map, look only at one section at a time -- the possibilities are endless. You do have to create an account, but it's free (there's a version for $6 a month, but we've only worked with the free one). If you do any type of main-idea lessons with kids, this software would be essential. It reminds us of Inspiration, but much more sophisticated. This site is so cool! It's a new favorite!"

"I really like Maps of War," high-school history teacher Marcella Ruland noted. "It contains some wonderful interactive maps. My favorite maps to use are The History of Religion and The Imperial History of the Middle East. Each map shows several thousand years of history in about 90 seconds, and they're great hooks to put things into perspective for students. I primarily use the Maps of War site with my world history classes, but there are some appropriate U.S. maps as well."

Mary Kreul, a 4th grade teacher in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, provided a few new -- to me -- tools that I've learned about lately from many amazing and creative educators via Twitter.

  • iSpring Free: This tool can convert PowerPoint presentations to Flash movies that you then can embed on your blog or share with students and colleagues.
  • The Differentiator: Use this tool -- when writing lesson plans, objectives and goals, or rubrics -- to connect thinking skills to content, resources (online and offline), products, and groups.
  • BeFunky: Here, users can change photos into various forms of artwork, including cartoons, ink drawings, charcoal, line art, stencils, and more.
  • Zamzar: This site allows users to convert -- and then download -- a wide variety of files from one format to another, including text files to speech files, which can be useful in the classroom.

"I took a look at your Gadgets of the Week Archive," said tech consultant Janice Friesen, "and noticed that you don't have voicethread on it. Voicethread is a powerful way for more than one person to comment online (orally or in writing) about the same image or PowerPoint-type slide show."

Krystal Weiss, a 4th grade teacher in Houston, Texas, recommended a number of useful tools.

  • WordSift takes Wordle to another level. Once you enter your text, a word cloud is generated -- as well as a word web and pictures. I like the more academic structure of this tool, especially for my ESL or struggling readers.
  • Loads of screencasting sites are online, both free and pay, Internet-based and downloadable. I personally have used Screencastify (free and Internet-based). I like having the ability to record lessons and have students view them later.  There's also RecordCast which is a free online screen recorder and video editor.
  • A few comic strip generators also are out there, but I've seen only Storyboard Creator and Read * Write * Thinks Comic Creator in action.
  • ReadTheWords allows users to enter any text to be read by an avatar. The "recordings" are embeddable, and also can be used on an mP3 player or ipod.
  • Animoto creates videos from your pictures. Very fun!"

"Our district decided to be brave, and we took the leap with Google Apps for Education," Matt Shea, a technology director in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, told Education World. "Last summer, we switched our e-mail hosting to Google, and we've never looked back. With Google, we were able to transfer our domain name (so no one sees or anything like that). We were able to add our school logo and info, so the screens have our look and feel. There's a management piece that allows me to create new accounts, listservs, global settings, and so on. Some of the big features that have helped our communication are the shared calendars, Google chat, and of course Google Docs. We're starting to upload many of our district forms for the staff to access. Because we're an education account, all the ads have been stripped out. Last, but not least, it's hard to argue with the price of Google for Education: It's free! Will Google someday charge for their service? Maybe -- but this fully functional e-mail suite would still be worth the price."

Editors Note: Be sure to also visit Google for Educators.

One of my favorite tools at the moment, said technology consultant and teacher trainer Nik Peachey, is Tokbox. This is a video conferencing type of tool that allows users to e-mail video messages as well as have live video interactions, 1:1 or in groups. For me it's the asynchronous aspects of the tool that appeal. It works in your browser and doesn't require any downloads or special software -- and it's completely free. I used it as a tool to create examples for an article I wrote called 20 WebCam Activities for EFL/ESL Students.

Bomomo is a tool I really enjoy using to create art work. I'm not an artist, but I found that, with just a little practice, I can create interesting and colorful images for use with students, or on Web sites.

Another really interesting tool is Xtranormal. This is an easy-to-use tool that enables students to create short animated movies using a range of characters and settings. They can animate the characters with various gestures and movements, as well as add sound effects and get characters to speak using text-to-voice technology.

"This might not be a tool in the traditional sense of the word," Michael Hutchinson, a social studies department head in Vincennes, Indiana, noted, but as a social studies educator, I find the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) Network Ning to be invaluable. There are some excellent discussions on pedagogy and teaching strategies that occur on the network, and the interaction between teachers is helpful to me professionally. The network also plans a series of webinars featuring online resources in which teachers can participate.

In addition, I use Discovery Streaming constantly in my classroom. Although I generally stick to downloading related videos and embedding them in my Power Point presentation notes, other teachers might want to use such additional features as writing prompts, online quizzes, and the ability to index video content via teacher, school, or district.

Finally, as a government teacher, I find C-SPAN Classroom to be an excellent resource. Video clips from C-SPAN programming are available and can be viewed from the Web site. In addition, teachers who sign up for C-SPAN Classroom receive a weekly lesson plan via e-mail, with related video links, questions, and other information. C-SPAN also provides free resources for teachers, such as a giant electoral college map that shows each states electoral college votes, and DVDs, including a recent series on the White House.

Middle school geography teacher Katy Wonnacut also shared a couple of her favorite links: National Geographic has a terrific interactive museum. Xpeditions helps me introduce the concept of map projection and viewing the world.

I also use Read * Write * Think as a source of lesson plan ideas and interactive sites for students to use in reading, and Thinkfinity as a source for lesson plans and ideas on a variety of topics.

Of course, Education World is my favorite place to find ideas to use in my classroom.


Who Are They?

The Education World Tech Team includes more than 30 dedicated and knowledgeable educational-technology professionals who have volunteered to contribute to occasional articles that draw on their varied expertise and experience. The following Tech Team members contributed to this article:

* Janet Friesen, technology instructional partner, Barton Creek Elementary School, Eanes ISD, Austin, Texas
* Cossondra George, grade 7 math and social studies teacher, Newberry Middle School, Newberry, Michigan
* Michael Hutchinson, social studies department chair, Vincennes Lincoln High School, Vincennes, Indiana
* Doug Johnson, director of media and technology, Mankato Area Public Schools, Mankato Minnesota
* Mary Kreul, grade 4 teacher, Richards Elementary School, Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin
* Nik Peachey, freelance learning technology consultant, writer, teacher trainer, based in Morocco
* Marcella Ruland, high-school history teacher, Glenelg High School, Glenelg, Maryland
* Matt Shea, director of technology, Lopatcong Township School District, Phillipsburg, New Jersey
* Krystal Weiss, grade 4 teacher, Memorial Drive Elementary School, Spring Branch Independent School District, Houston, Texas
* Guy Whitman, grade 7 social studies teacher, Fremont Middle School, Fremont, Nebraska
* Shelly Whitman, grade 8 english teacher, Fremont Middle School, Fremont, Nebraska
* Katy Wonnacott, grade 7 geography teacher, Signal Hill School, Belleville, Illinois

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © Education World