Shrewsbury EdTech

Tech resources for Shrewsbury Public School educators


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Sending “canned” emails with GMail

Do you ever find yourself sending the same email, over and over again?  In the course of my teaching day, I often send the same email out to multiple people — a missing homework alert; a quick response to a parent, letting them know I’ll respond in detail later; or a reminder that something is due…  Sometimes, I’d go to my sent folder, find the emailI had fired off previously, copy it, then paste it and tweak it a bit.

It occurred to me that there had to be a simpler way to do this.

After a bit of searching, I found it.  Sure enough, there’s a feature hidden in GMail which allows you to create “canned responses” – as they call them – and then use them whenever you need to.  Here’s how it works.

First, go to the little settings wheel – the cog / flower pull down button and select “settings.”

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Next, you need to look to the right — there’s a tab called “Labs” where they have some experimental features.  Once you click this, look for one called “Canned Responses” and click “Enable.”

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Once it’s turned on, all you need to do is start a new message.  I will type a canned response without a “to” or “subject” filled in — just to get the text of the message.  When the message is set, look to the bottom right of the screen – there’s a little down arrow next to the trashcan.  Inside that menu, you’ll see “canned responses.”

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Select the canned responses option, and you have several choices.  You can “insert” a previous response you designed, “save” your current email over a previous canned response, “create a new canned response” based on your current email, or “delete” a response you no longer need / use.

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When you choose to create a “New Canned Response,” it will give you this pop-up to name it.  Just give it a name, and it will be available any time you start a new email.

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I use these for several repetitive emails, specifically:

  • alerts for missing work (with a space where I fill in the missed assignments)
  • a “thank you for contacting me” email, letting parents know that their email was received, and I’ll get back to them shortly
  • a generic “Warning: an error was detected in your email to the instructor” response, for whenever a student sends me something without a greeting / closing or with poor grammar / mechanics
  • a request for the student to post their question to me on Schoology, so I only have to answer it once (about assignments, quizzes, etc – class questions that apply to more than one person

Overall, I find this little tool to be a great time saver — give it a shot!

Per usual, if you have an idea you’d like to share, let us know… we love having guest posts.

Derek & Jeremy

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Get organized with an online planbook

I switched from a paper teacher planbook to a digital version a few years ago because it just worked better for me. When I made the switch, I looked into various websites, programs, and apps but none really stood out to me.  I eventually created my own Google Doc.

This was a great solution for me because it was always readily available, and I could make changes to my plans when things arise without having to cross out or erase and rewrite. I know there are quite a few teachers out there who use Google Docs for this purpose and are very happy with it. There are others who use Google Calendar, and they’re happy with that.

I was doing some curriculum work the other day and noticed a few colleagues planning out their first week in a paper planbook, and it motivated me to take another look at some digital alternatives again. After all, it had been a few years, and new products were always being developed. I found an article that recommends eleven online software and apps for lesson planning and used that as my starting point.

Most of the digital planbooks in the list have a free and paid version, though some were paid only. I focused on just the free versions. If you’re interested in trying out an online planbook, I encourage you to check out the list for yourself. I ruled some out due to a lack of features or because I just didn’t like the interface.

My Recommendation

Out of the the eleven online planbooks, I have decided to use Common Curriculum.

The Common Curriculum planbook has a lot of features available to teachers for free. You can create multiple classes, attach unlimited files, and connect each lesson to specific standards. For the science teachers reading this, you can link lessons to both the new and old standards! My favorite feature is you can customize your lesson templates to make it as simple or detailed as you like. Each element of a lesson plan is a “card” that can be moved to a different part of the lesson or even to different day. Entire lessons can also be moved around in case things pop up, like snow days.

There are two additional features that made Common Curriculum really stand out to me. First, it has some cool collaboration features for teachers. With the free version, you can create a group and share your planbook with your colleagues. This would be great for teams, especially if they are doing any type of interdisciplinary work, departments, and for the special education/ELL teachers and aides.

The other cool feature is you can make various parts of each lesson plan publicly viewable on a website that can then be shared with students and parents. You may not want to share the standards or any accommodations, but you could show them the agenda, materials, and homework for instance. When a student is absent and asks you what they missed, point them to this website!

If you currently use an online planbook or plan on trying one out this year, feel free to leave a comment below and share your thoughts!


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Global Day of Design and Pi Day Maker Faire

The “Hour of Code” encouraged teachers around the world to introduce their students to computer coding for one hour. It was a huge success with over 200 million people participating worldwide. Just like how the Hour of Code opened millions of eyes to computer programming, John Spencer and A.J. Juliani hope their Global Day of Design will do the same for design thinking.

The first Global Day of Design will be held on April 26th. It’s a one day event that focuses on using the Design Thinking process in schools. Their goal is to inspire students to create, make, and build. A new design challenge will be released each week leading up to this event on the Global Day of Design website. Teachers can choose from one of these design challenges to use with their students on this day. Design challenges range from 45 minutes up to 5 hours long.

Register on their website and receive a FREE Design Thinking toolkit!! 

Pi Day Maker Faire

If this event sounds interesting, you might also like to attend the Pi Day Maker Faire at Shrewsbury Library! It takes place on Pi Day (Saturday, March 12th) from 10am – 3pm. Read more about this really cool event.


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OpenDyslexic Font

(This is the second tech tip brought to you by our friends on 7 Green!)

OpenDyslexic is a new open source font created to increase readability for readers with dyslexia. The typeface includes regular, bold, italic, and bold-italic styles. It is being updated continually and improved based on input from dyslexic users. OpenDyslexic is free for Commercial and Personal use.”

Elin asked a friend whose son is dyslexic to read documents in a regular font and compare it with the OpenDyslexic font. He claimed it was easier to read the OpenDyslexic font. She now tries to put all of her documents into this font. In fact, you can see what the font looks like in her Emoji exit slip. It is such an easy way to accommodate your dyslexic students.

If you download and open the zip file from their website, you can copy/paste the font files into the “Fonts” folder. This can be found by going to Macintosh HD –> Library –> Fonts. Installing these fonts will make them available on programs installed on your computer such as Microsoft Word and Pages. Unfortunately, the font is not available in Google Docs.

OpenDyslexic on iOS

It’s also possible to install this font onto an iPad. Visit this link on your iPad and hit “download” to install the font. This adds it to the iOS font list. Therefore, students will be able to use this font in apps that use the default iOS font list.

I checked a few apps on my own iPad. While the font is available in Pages, it’s not there in Notability. From what I can tell, Notability uses the iOS font list, so I’m not sure why this font isn’t available. I reached out to both the makers of Notability and this font on Twitter, but I haven’t received any clarification yet. One thing for sure is the font can NOT be used in Google Docs. They use their own set of fonts.

In the end, if this font doesn’t work on Notability, I’m sure how useful it would be to install it onto a student iPad.

OpenDyslexic Extensions

It’s also worth nothing there extensions for Google Chrome and Safari. These extensions are able to display most text in the OpenDyslexic font. Below is a screen shot of the OMS website with this extension enabled. Using these extensions on a teacher laptop might be helpful for students, but it cannot be used on the iPad’s Safari app.

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Emoji Exit Slips

There are many different ways to elicit feedback from students to assess their current understanding of a topic or concept. We have Schoology and Socrative quizzes, Google forms, and more. Sometimes though, a quick check in is all that you need. Rather than worrying about a grade, you just a general sense of how students feel about your lesson.

We shared this post on Plickers, which let you quickly poll your students using cards with QR codes on them. Now, thanks to the wonders of Pinterest, Elin Dolen and her 7 Green teammates have a new idea to share with you…emojis 🤔 😳 😀 😬

This may not be very high tech, but middle school kids LOVE their emojis, so I’m sure they would love this idea! Below is a screen shot of the exit ticket Elin used to get a quick sense of how students felt after learning about natural selection. She had them choose an emoji and give an explanation for why they chose that particular emoji.

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Below is a variation I created using a Google form. Even though you cannot technically add photos to the multiple choice options, I highlighted the emojis and copied them into the boxes…and it worked! I just chose four random emojis, but you could offer more options.

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What do you think? Would you use this idea in your classroom? If so, we’d love to hear how it goes!

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Step-by-Step Guide For Introducing Genius Hour

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will chronicle my team’s attempt at piloting Genius Hour with our students. I’m hoping it will give some guidance to teachers who are considering a test run as well. Remember though, no one is expected to implement any type of “Genius Hour” project this year. If nothing else, you will be able to learn from our successes and failures next year. I’m assuming there will be plenty of both!

Instead of calling it “Genius Hour”, we decided to go with “Passion Projects”. (Same idea, different name.) I felt it was a more accurate name because 1) we are not giving them one hour each week to work on projects and 2) we’re not expecting them to all be geniuses. That’s a pretty high bar to reach. Instead, we’re simply encouraging them to “follow their passions”.

**Special thanks to Emily Bredberg at Shrewsbury High School for sharing all of her Genius Hour resources with us!!**

Here is a step-by-step guide for how kicked off Passion Projects with our students. All of the resources mentioned below can be viewed here in Google Drive.

Step 1: Watch Dan Pink’s Ted Talk on the puzzle of motivation

The big takeaway from this video is that extrinsic motivation limits creativity and critical thinking. School does not foster these skills because student performance is often tied to extrinsic motivators (parents, grades, course placement, etc.) Very rarely to do students want to learn for the sake of learning.

Step 2: Passion Project Brainstorming Survey

All students completed this Google form that asked them to reflect on what they were most interested in learning. These word clouds reflect the most popular answers.

What would you like to LEARN?

want to learn

What would you like to MAKE?

like to make

Step 3: Project Kickoff Presentation

Here is the Google Presentation we shared with students on the first official first day. It explains our expectations as well as different phases to the project, which I will explain further below.

Step 4: Develop Action Plans

Students are currently in different places in developing their action plans for their passion project. Some are still zeroing in on a topic they’re passionate about while others are nearly done planning. In the next blog post, you will find out how well these action plans helped students develop their projects!

Key elements in the Passion Project Action Plan include: 

  1. Topic
  2. Open-ended question
  3. Physical resources needed – Students must list what they will provide and what they hope for the school to provide.
  4. Digital resources – These are further divided into iPad apps and everything else (websites, blogs, wikis, YouTube videos, etc.)
  5. Game Plan – It’s important for students to have an idea what learning will look like for them. They must write down the steps they will take toward completing their project.
  6. Final product
  7. How final product will be shared with others

A few reflections at this point…

  1. Most students seem pretty excited about this project. We are realistic and know not every student will be able to identify a passion or even think of a topic they really want to learn more about. For these students, we plan on copying 7 Green’s wonderful idea to use the DIY website. Students will earn “badges” as they successfully complete various tasks.
  2. There’s an app for that! I encouraged all students to spend at least 20 minutes browsing the app store for free apps that are relevant to their projects. They have been able to find apps for everything from coding to fashion design to photography.
  3. Research is an important component of Passion Projects. Many students want to learn just enough about the apps and programs they have found so they can make something. We are encouraging them to become “experts” with these applications. If they use Explain Everything, for example, they should take the time to learn everything they can about this app. If they want to learn about photography, they should learn the advanced camera features.
  4. Resources are limited. A lot of students are interested in learning computer programming. This is best done on real computers. Others want to learn photography. They have asked for access to photo editing programs like Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. They would also benefit from computers, but our school computers don’t have these programs. If we’re serious about moving forward with school-wide Genius Hour projects next year, it would be great if we could get site licenses for some of these creative programs.


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SPS TechTip: Tracking Evaluation Evidence in Google Docs

As we all know, the new evaluation system requires a bit more planning and record keeping than the “old way,” as it requires us to document a lot more of the best practices that we all engage in.  From self-reflecting, to goal setting and making a plan, there are write-ups to create, and pieces of evidence to document.  Lots of evidence — the rubric, as you know, has many, many rows…

At first, I had a hard time wrapping my head around this system, and how I would track it all.  Remembering which evidence I had uploaded, what details I needed to document, and where I was at with my goals was somewhat daunting — and I didn’t like having to log into Baseline Edge whenever I needed a refresher on some aspect of my plan.

Being something of a visual learner, I decided my best bet was to create a “one stop shop” document where I could jot down ideas, check the rubric, track evidence when it occurred to me, and make changes on the fly — before uploading to Baseline Edge.

Enter Google Docs to the rescue.

Google Docs offers several benefits as a record keeping tool.

  • First, I could put live links to key documents into it — documents like the full rubric, the slideshow explaining the evaluation system, etc.  Basically, any materials I’d need to reference while working on my plan.
  • Second, I could create a folder for my evaluation plan, and store all of my evidence there for uploading — in fact, I could create a subfolder, called “uploaded,” and move items into there once they were uploaded.
  • Third, the document can be shared — for example, if collaborating with someone on a plan, or looking to bounce ideas around with an evaluator, you can give them access and keep a record of your discussion — all in the doc.
  • By using an embedded table, I could have an easy-to-follow chart for my evidence for each standard.  I could jot ideas into the chart, and then check them off once they were uploaded.

Here’s what the document looks like:

The top section is for some of the basics of your evaluation.

Baseline Blog 1

The next section describes the types of evidence:

Baseline Blog 2 (1)

The last section is the big one — this is where you track all of your evidence, as it relates to each standard.  Note that, if you are collaborating with someone, columns four and five can be used by a colleague.  Last year, while I was mentoring a new staff member, we shared one document and were able to support one another through this.

Baseline Blog 3

If you are interested in taking a look at the full file, it is available here.  Feel free to make your own copy of it, and adapt it to suit your needs.

Have any tips regarding other ways to use technology to enhance what we all do?  Drop us a note — we’re always looking for guest bloggers and new ideas!

Hope to see some of you at the upcoming EdCamps, and at the Summer Institute this June!

Derek & Jeremy