This is a guest post by one of our blog writers, Robby Burns.
Everyone likes to organize themselves differently. Teachers prefer different tools, organization methods, and preference over how much of their workflow is digital. Whatever your approach, there are a handful of great apps that can help you create your plans, search them, group them, and collaborate on them. The following apps are some of my favorite tools for managing lesson ideas, plans and resources.
Many of them have similar features as one another, but all of them have unique strengths. My philosophy is that there is always a better and more specific tool for the job.
1. Google Drive
Google Drive, along with Microsoft Office, and Apple’s iWork suite, fulfill the traditional role of document creation tools, and text editing. I remember writing all of my college lesson plans, and observation notes in Word. Google Drive did not reinvent the paradigm of “office apps,” but it propelled them into a web based, collaborative future.
Google Drive, and the Google Docs suite of apps are available on Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, and web browsers like Chrome.
If you are someone who likes to write lesson plans in text, use traditional formatting tools like bold text, lists, and headings, you probably do not need an introduction to how to use a Google Doc, Sheet, or Slide. However, the sharing features of this suite add a new layer of teacher collaboration that never existed before. I will touch on my favorite strategies for using Google Drive here, but more importantly, I will describe how it integrates with the other apps in this post.
Personally, I work best with native software like Microsoft Word and Pages. I like having an application that looks and feels like it lives on whatever operating system I am using. This created a hurdle for me when I first started using Google Drive, because it lives entirely inside of a tab of a web browser.
Whenever I get a new computer, I first install Download Backup and Sync.
This installs your Google Drive folder in the directory of your computer so it appears as if it is any other folder alongside the rest of your documents. For example, if you look in the Finder on a Mac, you will now see a folder called Google Drive.
If I have a shared folder in GDrive that I use to share lesson plans with my music team, I can access all of the PDFs, images, audio files, and other documents right from within the Finder.
I can open them in macOS applications like Preview and QuickTime, drag other documents in, and also out with ease. Documents that are created in Google Docs, Sheets, or Slides also appear, but because these are web based services, double clicking on them will launch you into those documents in a web browser.
I still prefer Dropbox and iCloud Drive to Google as a platform for sharing documents and folders, because Google Drive’s sharing features are needlessly complex at times. I frequently find myself sharing a public folder of teaching resources with my students, only to get 10 emails the next morning requesting access to the very files I just made public.
The real strength of Google’s platform is just how reliable it is when two or more users are editing the same document at once. No edits are made without an internet connection, so you can be sure that every keystroke is being saved to the cloud.
It is worth noting that Microsoft Office and Apple’s iWork suite now offer the same collaborative document editing features.
Many users associate this feature with Google Drive’s “brand” but it really is worth testing the competition. Microsoft Office is still a school standard in many districts, and iWork is still best in class for its intuitive editing tools.
Evernote is a cross platform note taking app for Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, and Web. It is fully operational on Chromebooks, and syncs all of its data over the cloud.
Of all the great note taking apps out there, Evernote has all of the bells and whistles. It supports organizing by folders or tags, file attachment, notifications, hand writing, collaboration, clipping websites, and more. The experience of using Evernote has grown cumbersome over the years, but it still packs the most features into the same tool.
It’s easy to get information into Evernote. On iOS and Android, permanent widgets can be fixed to the home screen, allowing users to view recent notes, and quickly add a new text, video, or scanned document, at the tap of a button.
On the Mac, there is a permanent widget, fixed to the Menubar, that can pop up when you type the keyboard shortcut Option+Command+N. And of course, web browsers like Chrome and Safari have extensions that can clip web content into Evernote, saving websites in their native format, or smartly stripping just the text and images out of them like newspaper articles.
Whether an Evernote note contains text, a scanned document, a Microsoft Office file, or an image, finding what I want is usually as simple as typing a few relevant keywords. I treat Evernote kind of like a digital file cabinet. Evernote’s search features are robust enough that I do not usually do much more organizing than to add a few tags to my notes.
Evernote supports all file types, so if you prefer its user interface, it can replace some of the utility of the Finder on Mac or the File Explorer on Windows. Microsoft Office documents, PDFs, and images are text searchable with a premium account. And Google Drive can even be linked, allowing you to see the content of your web-based documents right in your notes.
One of my favorite power features is the ability to forward an email right into Evernote. Evernote provides each user with a unique email address. I added this to my contacts application and named it “Evernote.” Now all I need to do is start typing Evernote in the To field of an email and it will go right into my notebook.
Tip: you can add words to the Subject line with a # or @ symbols and Evernote will file the notes with tags and notebooks, respectively. For example, if I added to my subject line “#work @Evaluation Year,” it would tag the email “work” and file it in my notebook that I use to store information on going through teacher evaluations.
Both Evernote notes and notebooks can be shared and collaborated on with other users.
I have a shared notebook with my music team where we do things like…
- Share lists of packing lists and instrument needs for concerts
- Share repertoire ideas
- Create to-dos for collaborative projects
- Share reference documents related to the program
You can even share a note as a read-only public note that anyone can access from a web browser. Evernote also has a lot of rich text editing tools, much like a word processor, so this is a great way to present information with your students and parents just the way you want.
Evernote has a suite of iOS apps that are complementary to the service:
- Scannable is a scanning app that allows you to take a picture of a physical document. It then magically trims the edges, turns it to grayscale, and makes it into a text-searchable PDF
- Penultimate is a digital handwritten notebook app that supports the Apple Pencil, multiple paper styles, and handwritten text searching (handwritten text searching for premium users only)
Evernote has a lot of competition. Bear notes and Apple notes are premium competitors on iOS and the Mac. Google Keep is a web and Android based alternative. While all of these apps get the job done, none of them cover quite the breadth of features that Evernote does.
Evernote is weakened by being overcrowded with features, complicated to use, and pricey for the premium tier. Stock apps like Google Keep and Apple Notes are gaining features as time progress, and they don’t cost anything to use.
If I could suggest the strength of each note app in few words, I would suggest the following:
- Bear is the best for writing text
- Apple Notes is the most intuitive to use
- Google Keep is the “smartest,” leveraging Google’s AI to remind you to do things, and find more search results. It also integrates better with other Google products, like Google Drive.
These days, I am using Apple Notes, as they are forecasted to get nearly all of the unique features of Evernote in iOS 13 this fall, and because I am an iPhone user. Whatever you use, there is no shortage of note apps out there.
Trello is a collaborative, web based, project management tool for teams. Like Evernote, it is available on Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, and the web.
Trello uses a Kanban style user interface for making the management of long term projects simple and efficient to conceptualize. Once you start a Trello account, you can create a “board,” which can contain many “lists.” Other Trello users can be invited to your board to create a team. Multiple boards can be associated with a team.
The “lists” inside of your board could represent multiple phases of a project, but they are flexible enough to represent anything you want. In these “lists” are “cards,” which most closely resemble tasks, or todos.
“Cards” in Trello can have rich data associated with them. You can give a card a due date (which will notify your device at the time it is due), labels, file attachments, and a checklist. You can also assign a card to another, or multiple, members of your team.
Cards can be moved to a list titled “Done” or you can archive them once they have been completed. This way, multiple users can be viewing the big picture, the small steps to completing them, and the timeline at which they must be completed. Because everyone sees everything, teams can share the load, completing another’s task. Or simply be aware of their context in a greater goal.
My music team has Trello boards for:
- managing concerts
- trips to perform at Hershey Park
- pie fundraisers
- repertoire selection for classes that are team-taught
If you are a team teacher, you might also consider using Trello’s lists to represent units of work, and then use the cards to represent lessons within those units.
Because Trello is a web service, it really easily integrates with other web services like Google Drive. By setting up a Google Drive “integration,” you can link files in your team’s shared folders to the cards inside of your Trello boards, giving greater context to your work.
Most lesson plans involve some amount of text. And if your lesson involves a lot of text, chances are you have written in Microsoft Word before. Microsoft Word is a flexible tool, but it is overkill for documents that are mostly just text. It can also be easy to get lost or distracted in the many features and formatting tools. This is why I like to write my lesson plans in plain text.
Ulysses is a plain text editor for iOS and macOS that has Markdown support (more on that in a moment!). It is an app designed for writers, but I use it as a place to write and store all things text. I draft books in Ulysses, blog posts, emails, and show notes for my podcast.
The Ulysses user interface looks kind of like a note-taking app, with folders on the left sidebar. Once a document is opened it appears in a main writing area on the right side. I like this because it removes the need to think about files and folders on my hard drive and creates a more straightforward environment for organizing work.
Because Ulysses only deals with plain text, you can’t use bold, italics, headings or hyperlinks. Instead, you can use the Markdown “language” to format your text.
For example, if I type a # before a line of text, it will be interpreted as a first level heading. ## is interpreted as a second level heading. Putting an asterisks on the outside of a phrase makes it bold, and putting a number with a period after it creates a list.
Markdown has support for headings, hyperlinks, lists, tables, image attachment, quotes, footnotes, and more. A guide to all of the Markdown syntax can be found in the Ulysses settings or by viewing this cheatsheet.
Because of this clean, distraction-free, environment, Ulysses helps me to concentrate on the content I am writing, rather than the features of the app itself.
When I export the document as a PDF, Ulysses interprets all of my Markdown syntax and applies the style I have selected. This makes it tremendously easy to create documents that are legible to others but that do not require the extra work of fussing through menus in Word.
My favorite way to use this app is for sub plans. I like to take my iPad to a calm place, boot up Ulysses in full screen, and start typing until my hands fall off. When I am done, I export the plans as a PDF that is printed out and shared with the sub, alongside other relevant documents.
If you like the idea of using a text editor for making lesson plans, try out some of the following alternatives: Byword (Mac, iOS; also has Markdown support), Sublime Text (Windows, Mac), Atom (Windows, Mac).
OmniOutliner is a Mac and iOS app for making outlines. If you have ever used the outlining tools on the sidebar of Microsoft Office or Google Docs, you are familiar with this concept. The hierarchy of headings and subheadings in your document can be browsed in linear order, collapsed and expanded, to reveal and hide the different levels of your work.
I have begun using an outline for my rehearsals because I do not require a lot of detail when I direct bands and orchestras. Instead, I write very high level skeletons of each lesson. Next, I use OmniOutliner’s template editing tools to design a look that can be read off my iPads screen from far away. This is important because I put my iPad on my music stand, where I am also using it to read my scores simultaneously, in the forScore app.
So why use OmniOutliner over Word? OmniOutliner is centered around features that make outlining great: polish, ease of interaction, and user customizable.
The interface puts giant disclosure triangles next to each line of the outline, making it dead simple to collapse and expand entire sections of a document, or to drag them around to different places in the outline. Users can customize the formatting of every level of the hierarchy.
My outlines are far away from my face, so I like to make my text a large size, and have bright and contrasting colors for the varying levels of my outline.
OmniOutliner can also be used for higher level planning, like managing units and lessons. Units might be represented by level 1 of the hierarchy, lessons by level 2, steps of the lesson by level 3, and so on.
OmniOutliner allows users to add notes to each level of a document, attach files, and record voice memos. It allows you to export to PDF, Microsoft Word, and even take your entire document and transfer it into their task manager app, OmniFocus. When exporting to OmniFocus, all of your hierarchy remains, the different levels of the outline being represented as checkable tasks, with sub tasks.
MindNode is another Mac and iOS exclusive. Like OmniOutliner, it excels in its rich visuals and intuitive design.
MindNode is a mind mapping application. So in a way, it is the same kind of tool as OmniOutliner, but it presents information as a mind map instead.
The title of your document starts as a central cloud in the center of the screen. “Nodes” can be dragged out of the center of the cloud to represent sub-ideas, which can then of course, have nodes that are dragged out from them, until you have created a visual network of all your thoughts.
The visual nature of this software allows you to “brain dump” your thoughts very quickly, and have the result appear very attractive and readable.
From there, you can add images, notes, and checkable todos to each of the nodes in your mind map. Different style templates can be applied, and you can even collaborate with other users over iCloud.
You can view your outline in a linear fashion (much like OmniOutliner) on the sidebar, and even export it to OmniOutliner or OmniFocus as an OPML file once you are ready to turn your map into a more formal lesson plan or project.
If you are looking for alternatives to this software, check out iThoughts HD or OmniGraffle, though they are both iOS and Mac exclusives as well. On Windows, you could check out FreeMind and Freeplane.
7. Keynote/PowerPoint/Google Slides
Presentation apps can be effective tools for organizing and displaying student resources during class time.
The organizing tools in Keynote, Google Slides, and PowerPoint are powerful enough to support light outlining, by allowing users to embed strands of slides within a top level slide. This means teachers can store large databases of units and lessons in the same file, with collapsible disclosure triangles to show and hide large selections of slides, much like an outlining app.
My Keynote file is where I share an agenda for the day in my performing ensembles. But it is also where I store volumes of sheet music for display in my general music class, slides with guided listening reflections, rhythm comprehension slides, and more. I keep most of these slides in the same file, expanding and collapsing the slides relevant to which unit or topic I am working with for the day.
One feature I love: slides can be automated with timers. Bullet lists, audio files, and video files, can all automatically be animated by using transition tools and timers.
In my band rehearsals, I have some play along, call and response solfege tracks that are already running in a Keynote slide when students walk in. This slide is timed to end at the moment I expect everyone to be in their seat.
Then Keynote automatically switches to the next slide, which has The Breathing Gym video series embedded inside of it. This guides students through breathing exercises. While all of these slides are running automatically, I can greet students at the door, address instrument repair, and take attendance.
Once the breathing videos are done, a slide with the day’s agenda appears.
These features are available in all three of the major presentation apps: Keynote, PowerPoint, and Google Slides.
In my experience, Google Slides has fewer options, but it does have one spectacular feature that I wish the other could do: Slides allows you to embed web video and audio into slides. For example, you can embed a YouTube video right inside of your presentation, saving you the need to download it first.
8. Day One
Day One is journaling app for iOS, Mac, and the web, which means it can be used by any computer through a web browser.
Day One seems like any other note-taking app, until you experience the user interface. Day One has a design that looks and feels like a journal.
It leverages the features of your mobile device to automatically add data to your entries like time, location, weather, and photos from your camera at the location of your entry. Day One features multiple journals, tags, image attachment, Markdown support, and a variety of ways to view your entries. I like viewing my entries either by a calendar view or by looking at a grid of photos spanning across my life.
I separate Day One into a few different journals. My two most used are a Default journal (dedicated to miscellaneous entries) and a Professional journal (for reflecting on lesson plans.) The latter is really useful for writing down the things that did work, the things that didn’t work, and what I would like to focus on the next day.
Day One is a good companion to my OmniOutliner workflow because I do not save my lesson plans from that document, I overwrite them every day.
Day One also supports checkable tasks which helps me organize any things I might need to get done when following up or preparing for a lesson. If you are particularly pleased with the look of an entry, you can export to a variety of formats, including PDF.
The ultimate hand written note experience on iPad, GoodNotes allows users to create digital notebooks with paper that supports drawing, text, shape, and image tools. You can specify a paper style that can include lined paper, graph paper, staff paper, and more!
GoodNotes allows you to save the following:
- Stand-alone paper documents
- Notebooks – which contain a volume of connected paper documents
- Folders – which can also contain paper documents of varying paper style
PDFs can be imported and annotated and it’s in this area that the GoodNotes app excels. Drawing is the main focus of the GoodNotes app and it makes effective use of input using the Apple Pencil.
When you open a PDF in GoodNotes, you can immediately begin drawing on it, without the need to click through menus or trigger an annotation mode. For this reason, GoodNotes feels more like writing on a physical piece of paper than any other iPad app I have installed.
GoodNotes fits into my lesson planning workflow in numerous ways.
First, if I need to organize a lot of different PDFs for my lesson, I usually choose to open them in GoodNotes because it has a tabbed interface. This makes switching between recently viewed documents easier because iOS cannot currently view more than one window of an app at the same time (although this will change with the next iPad OS update.
I usually have my seating charts, my school bell schedule, a piece of staff paper, and a few other classroom documents open in tabs side by side. This is also useful for field trips where I need to have a bus list, health forms, and parent phone contact list all a tap away from one another.
GoodNotes is usually open in split-view alongside my score-reading app forScore, so that I can take notes on top of students names and my musical score at the same time. It’s also perfect for grading student work if you prefer to work with a ‘red pen.’
Whether you are interacting with your calendar in an app or on the web, they are very intuitive ways for managing lessons because they are presented in a timeline where you can see them in context of one another.
Calendar events support more than just a title and a calendar group association. They can also support notes, URLs, and file uploads.
I teach on a busy music team of four. Google Calendar, syncing across our iOS devices, helps us to communicate with our classes, pull out sectionals, concert performances, with each other and the community.
I have become comfortable with adding lesson plans and other pertinent class information in the notes field of the calendar events that make up my class schedule. This allows me to see plans by the context of their dates.
There are varying ways I handle this data:
For sectional pull out groups, I enter the names of students who are in those groups. This way, when a student of mine needs to attend their clarinet schedule, the teacher can go to our sectional calendar (which is an embedded Google Calendar on our music department’s website), and click on the current class to see if that student is in that group.
For our school concerts, we note which of our 14 ensembles are performing on each night in the notes field of the calendar event so that parents are not confused about which nights they need to attend.
For my private students, I put their lesson assignment into the calendar event and embed the Google Calendar on my website so that they can access it easily and check what I have assigned them.
When I want more control over my notes, or when I want to conceal it from public view, I use the app Agenda for Mac and iOS. This is a note taking app that provides an interface for associating notes with events on your calendar. This way, you can easily find an event in your calendar from the note it is associated with, or vice versa. Linking a calendar event to a note automatically adds a link to the notes field of the event. When I click it, it takes me directly into the note for that event. When anyone else clicks it, it takes them nowhere.
All of my great ideas start in Drafts. I consider it to be the starting point for all text on my iOS and Mac devices. It sits on the dock, right under my thumb, and I press it every time I have any kind of thought that I don’t want to slip away. Drafts opens to a blank white screen and a keyboard so you can instantly start typing.
Adding a new Draft is as simple as tapping the plus button. You don’t need to worry about what kinds of thoughts these are, or what kinds of apps you should be capturing them in.
They can be todos, messages, emails, future blog posts, anything. Here’s an example of an email below:
Picture me at the front of the classroom before band rehearsal with 70 students pouring into the room, instruments blaring loud. There are countless questions being thrown at me at once and chaos all around. From the podium, I leave Drafts open alongside my sheet music and type anything that comes to mind.
If a student tells me they don’t have a 2nd trombone part to Air and Dance, I write a note in Drafts. If a flute is broken, I start an email to the repair shop requesting for them to come pick it up. If I want to take general notes on our rehearsal progress, I start typing that in another draft.
Here’s an example of a text message thread that I have in Drafts:
In the screenshot below, you can see that I have a variety of drafts. Meeting notes, a few tasks, a start to a grocery list, a text to my wife, and the beginning of an email.
To process these, I would use the following actions:
- Send the meeting notes to the Apple Notes app
- The tasks go to OmniFocus
- The groceries go into my Reminders app grocery list
- The text to my wife goes to Messages
- The email goes to Mail
Many of these actions happen in the background, meaning that I don’t leave Drafts, and can therefore process them really quickly.
Some of my most frequently used actions are built into the app. There is also an Action Directory where you can “steal” or share actions with other users. In fact, there are many actions on the directory to share with apps mentioned in this post!
Because Drafts is where most of my text ideas start, I use it frequently for reflecting on and preparing lessons. Drafts is quicker to start typing in than Day One so I begin my reflection inside of it. I also take notes on todos for future lessons, draft emails to parents, and even create outlines for the next day.
If you like the sound of any of these apps and what they can do to help you organise your lessons more effectively, the best thing to do is to choose just one and commit to using it for a 1-2 week period.
Do you use any of these apps? Do you have organisational tips to share? Let us know in the comments below.
Download your copy
Would you like to take a copy of this with you? Click the button below and a copy of this will be sent directly into your inbox.
About the writer
Robby is a music educator and freelance percussionist living in Ellicott City, MD. He teaches band and music technology at Ellicott Mills Middle School in the Howard County Public School System. Outside of the school day, he maintains a large private percussion teaching studio of over 20 students. Robby has presented sessions on using technology to get digitally organized all over the country. His book, Digital Organization Tips for Music Teachers is available now from Oxford University Press. You can read more of Robby’s writing about music, technology, and productivity on his blog at www.robbyburns.com and listen to his podcasts Music Ed Tech Talk (musicedtechtalk.com) and The Class Nerd (theclassnerd.com). Robby received his Bachelor’s in Music Education and Master’s in Percussion Performance from the University of Maryland, College Park.
Connect with Robby Burns
Looking for More Resources for Music Teachers?
Hello! I’m Katie Wardrobe – an Australian music technology trainer and consultant with a passion for helping music teachers through my business Midnight Music.
I’m a qualified teacher but no, I don’t currently teach in a school. I help teachers through my online professional development space – the Midnight Music Community – where there are tutorial videos, courses, links and downloadable resources.
I like to focus on easy ways to incorporate technology into what you are already doing in your music curriculum through a range of creative projects. I also run live workshops and have presented at countless conferences and other music education events.
If you want simple, effective ideas for using technology in music education, I would LOVE to help you inside the Midnight Music Community.