Tech Tips For Teachers: Free, Easy and Useful Creation Tools

                                         You might be looking for ways to refresh or update your bag of tricks. Or maybe you’re trying to meet new technology requirements, such as using interactive whiteboards. Or perhaps you’re just curious to find out how technology tools can enhance your teaching and your students’ experience and engagement in your courses.

If you’ve hesitated to incorporate technology tools into your practice – due to either discomfort or limited time – we’re here to help.

Ryan Goble, who often coaches teachers in what he calls the “mindful” use of technology, has written today’s guest post on user-friendly tools that enable the creation of student projects. Ryan is an adjunct professor of education at Aurora University and Roosevelt University in Chicago, and the founder of the site Mindblue Productions and the social network Making Curriculum Pop.

All of the tools are free as of this writing. Some do ask you to enter your e-mail address, but don’t be spooked – usually it’s just to help the site protect and identify your work and communicate with you securely. (Remember, too, that of the great tools and other resources out there available for purchase, some may well be worth the cost.)

We hope you find these suggestions helpful. Please feel free to share your experiences with these tools and your recommendations for other sites and programs to add to Ryan’s list.

Tech Tips For Teachers: Free, Easy and Useful Creation Tools


New technologies are a powerful way for teachers to take their instruction to the next level. With so many choices, the trick is to locate user-friendly tools that allow you to craft differentiated learning experiences that engage students and help them develop 21st-century skills.

In that spirit, below are five ways to support student creation and “public displays of learning” using online technology tools.

If you’re a Luddite, not to worry: these tools are easy to understand and easy to use, and they can make your classroom more interesting, interactive and student-centered. And if you don’t have computer access in school, you can still use many of them by making handouts or assigning the sites to be used at home.

1. Visualize Texts

Tech Tools: Wordle, Tagxedo or The New York Times Visualization Lab

Wordle is a fun tool for playing with language and making meaning from texts. (And it’s quite safe for classroom use.)

This self-described “toy” allows students to analyze word frequency in any text, from a poem to a science book chapter, by simply copying and pasting “a bunch of text” into the box on the top of this page. Click on “go” and you’ll get a snapshot of the most common words in that text as shown by size. (The most frequently appearing words appear larger.)

For example, looking at a word cloud for Act 1, Scene 5 of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” might illuminate the major characters, themes and issues of that part of the play, and/or the writer’s style and diction. And Wordle can be used for expository and nonfiction texts too (even crossword puzzles!).

Visualizations of New York Times articles can help highlight key vocabulary, content and concepts. For instance, students could create a Wordle using three articles on the recession to try to identify key terms they should learn more about.

Examining word clouds can not only provide new vantage points for literary and language scholars, but also help English-language learners, and others who have trouble with complex texts, to see patterns.

Students can play with the font and colors and make as well as save and reuse “Wordles” of their own, so the possibilities are endless. They can use their own writing to see what words they overuse, perhaps, or create Wordle versions of a famous poem, speech or song that visually reflects the way the text “feels” to them.

The Times has created some fascinating word clouds to help readers gain a visual understanding of current events. See, for example, the word cloud from the 2008 presidential election compares speeches made at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and the interactive “word train” that let people submit the words that best described their state of mind on Election Day.

The New York Times Visualization Lab – an offshoot of I.B.M.’s project Many Eyes – allows readers to explore visualize text, values, maps, data points and parts of a whole in any Times article as well as some public records, like the Consumer Price Index.

More adventurous users might explore Tagxedo, where you can create word clouds in the shape of an object.

2. Make Content Comic

Tech Tools: ReadWriteThink’s Comic Creator, Professor Garfield’s Comics Lab or MakeBeliefsComix

On any of these sites, students can pick from a wide range of story elements – characters, expressions, actions, settings and dialogue boxes – to create unique visual narratives. They can use these tools to illustrate any concept or curricular content, such as a scientific process, historical event, personal narrative or literary text. Suddenly every student can access his or her inner artist, and you’ll have material for a great display of student work.

The Learning Network graphic organizers Saying What’s Unsaid (PDF) and Telling a Times Story (PDF) guide students in developing their ideas for graphic narratives. They’re “writable,” so they can be used not only as paper handouts but also on individual computers or an interactive whiteboard.

For example, students might use Telling a Times Story to show their understanding of squirrel behavior or what happens when you lose your cool after reading the Science Times articles on these topics.

Students can also create comic strips as part of the learning process, not just as products. Try printing and distributing hard copies of the “Cartoon ‘Did You Read?’ Quiz” (PDF) at Making Curriculum Pop. It’s a learning assessment in which kids “storyboard” the major ideas they noted in assigned reading.

3. Create Interactive Timelines

Tech Tools: Xtimeline, Time Glider or Timetoast

Timelines, of course, organize information and events that have developed over time, often in historical eras, cultural movements or personal biographies. They display order and sequence as well as relationships and, sometimes, causality between events.

Why go online to create this traditional graphic organizer? Interactive versions are not only visually engaging, but also easily incorporate multimedia such as video and audio clips and link directly to source material.

There are several free online timeline creators. XTimeline, Time Glider and Timetoast are all multimedia-enabled, and they all do a nice job of creating interfaces that walk learners through steps as they build a chronology.

Students can build timelines using one or more Times articles. For example, they might use Times Topics to learn about a public figure like Chief Justice John Roberts and then create an interactive timeline about milestones and accomplishments in his life. Or they could make a timeline that illustrates the key moments in a sports event as reported in a “live blog,” such as the Goal post on the World Cup match between Germany and Spain.

Students can also explore the numerous New York Times interactive timelines, which chronicle biographies (like the life and career of Senator Robert C. Byrd), ongoing events (such as the Gulf oil spill) and political developments (such as the road to health care reform).

And for an interesting timeline-based alternative to an site search, Time Glider has an online application called The NYT Explorer, which automatically generates a timeline, with links to Times articles from 1981 and on, for any keyword.

4. Design Interactive Presentations

Tech Tools: and Museum Box

PowerPoint is not the only tool students can use to present concepts and ideas visually. Two classroom mainstays – the poster presentation and the diorama – have digital counterparts that students can use for class projects (and that you can use to present course material in engaging ways).

With students can create posters enhanced with multimedia. The interface walks you through the creation and gives students a wide range of scrapbook-inspired templates. The finished projects (such as this one on the causes of the American Revolution) can be presented with a projector or whiteboard, saved and/or printed. (Note: be sure you go to the .edu edition of Glogster. The regular site contains some content that is inappropriate for a classroom setting.)

Museum Box takes the old standbys – dioramas and presentation cubes – and kicks them up a notch by enabling the creation of 3-D dioramas with a series of interactive cubes.

You might want to give students one of The Learning Network’s graphic organizers to help them plan their Museum Cubes or Glogster posters. For example, students could read a Times article or The Learning Network’s 6 Q’s About the News feature and use The 5 W’S and an H (PDF) to plan a Museum Box cube in which each side answers a question from the article. Or the K/W/L Chart (PDF) can be used as a brainstorming sheet for students before they create their own visual K/W/L posters on Glogster.

5. Map and Brainstorm Ideas

Tech Tools:, and Cacoo

Mind Maps are idea-processing tools, made popular by the British IQ specialist Tony Buzan starting in the 1960s. Many schools have invested in popular mind-mapping software like Inspiration, but there are also many free online programs that help students develop colorful idea webs.

A basic program to start with is The “start brainstorming” button will get you underway, and a click on the “help” menu on the left hand side of the interface gives you all the general instructions you need to start “pinning” bubbles into a mind map. and Cacoo are collaborative programs (CoSketch has a particularly easy interface) that allow people on different computers to work together in real time – even from different locations, so students could collaborate on maps on their personal computers for a homework assignment.

Kids can find lots of inspiration in The Times for generating ideas on virtually any topic or in any curricular subject, from math to fine arts.

  1. July 12th, 2010

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