Teaching With Evernote 2/2 The Software of Everything

If you already use Evernote and can already see how it might be useful in teaching, read on. If you’re less familiar, it means you didn’t read my previous post. Go now, I’ll wait.

Is everybody sitting comfortably?

Then I’ll begin

Evernote is a great way to organise resources and commentary on them. The note can include your thoughts about the lesson, while attached files contain a formal plan, printable resources, presentations, even audio files. What I find powerful is that everything for the lesson is in one place, and stays there. If – or more accurately, when – the specification changes again, you simply put a new contents page together, with links to your new running order of lessons.

Like so much in life, you get more out if you put more in. In the case of Evernote, this is literal; the more information you add to your notebooks, the more useful links you can make and the more material you have access to. I use it as an external memory for my brain, and these are some of the approaches which have helped me to make it work.

A note can have lots of Tags, and the tags can be put in ‘families’. So aqa has subtags P1, P2, ISA and so on. I could tag relevant lessons with the appropriate unit for another exam board too, and probably will in the future.

It’s really only recently that I’ve made the most of being able to have distinct Notebooks. A note can only be in one at a time, but you can move them freely. So a note might get moved from freelance to old projects when I finish a piece of work. I find that tags for lessons work better than notebooks, because the same resources might be helpful with two year groups.

You can set up custom searching very easily and saving these searches will make it easy to find what you need. This might be for recent notes, or a combination of tags, or either of two tags in a particular notebook. Along with creating your own contents pages (one of several ideas in this Lifehacker post) this means information is where you expect it to be with a minimum of fuss.

One Place For Everything…

I try to use bits and pieces of David Allen’s Getting Things Done; this is practically a religion in some parts of the internet, mainly those that spell colour without the u. (A simplified version is explained by ZenHabits here.) Some aspects aren’t useful for me, but I really like the idea of ubiquitous capture. Put simply, this means that if you’ll need something, anything,  later then you record it in one place. It might be a notebook – I’m a Moleskine fan myself, I must admit – but for many online things you need an electronic destination.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly by recording ideas and jobs as they come to mind you can stop worrying about them. Reducing those background thoughts reduces stress. Secondly, it means you can spend time going through everything in one go, when it’s convenient. Each item then gets deleted, finished, added to your jobs list, saved for later, turned into a reminder on your calendar… you get the idea.

A lot of notes will be saved for reference – addresses and dates for example. You won’t need them on a regular basis and you don’t need to do anything with them. But many of the others will need to be tagged #action, or merged with other notes as jobs lists for individual projects. How fast you make progress on these will be, if you’re anything like me, highly variable.

Churchill: "Action This Day"
Churchill: “Action This Day” from Lateral Works


…And Everything in Its Place

To make this easier I’m slowly turning everything I do into a ‘funnel’ for Evernote. Sometimes it’s as simple as making a note on my phone, or snapping a picture. If in doubt, these go to the default folder, Inbox. (This is actually _Inbox for me so it shows up at the top of the list, as explained in this productivity post.)

There are several ways to link with your browser so you can share directly, adjusting tags and destination notebook as you prefer. Often you can choose whether the whole page, a selection or just the address is saved. You will need admin rights so unfortunately this may not be practical on work machines.

evernote tips

Download the above flowchart as a .pdf

I use Gmail which means I can use labels and filters. These are rules which act, for example, on any email I label as ‘work’ by forwarding it to another account. Your Evernote account comes with a dedicated email address which leads to your notes.

For mailing lists which I know will produce work items, I can use a dedicated alias (eg yourname+work@gmail.com) which your filters can be set to recognise and forward without you ever seeing it. When you move workplace, the filter gets changed but you don’t have a dozen mailing lists to alter.

A final powerful tool is IFTTT (If This Then That) which links different online tools. A trigger in one account will cause a response leading to another. So if I add a star to one of the blog items in my RSS reader, IFTTT notices this and sends a copy to my Evernote. Because the categories are matched with my notebooks, it arrives already organised.

Actually Doing Stuff

Of course, organising everything is a waste of time if nothing happens. Going through the Inbox is when I finish small jobs, or start the bigger ones. Sometimes it’s about ticking off the next step in a process. My earlier post talked about how I’m using Evernote to save all the resources for each individual lesson. The lesson itself is planned back to front, starting with how I’ll evaluate the kids’ understanding of the ideas, then thinking how to engage them, then considering ways for us to explore the concepts. Regular readers will recognise these as shuffled steps in the 5/7Es process. Of course your own planning process will vary but can easily be converted into a template for comprehensive notes.

Fine Print
  1. All the above links for Evernote are referrals, which means if you use them to start your own account I get a free month of Premium access and extra upload space (as do you, FWIW). It doesn’t cost you anything extra but if you’d prefer not to, follow this unaffiliated link instead.
  2. As usual, if this post has helped your professional practice I’d appreciate a brief comment via this GoogleForm; you do not need to leave your name and there is no chance of a cash reward, but it’s good karma.


Actions in Context

This isn’t a post about How Science Works, and how as teachers we need to ensure that all our little darlings always understand the relevance of the material to their lives. I mean, we should. But that’s not what this is about. This post grew out of a conversation I had with a colleague about how I try to keep myself organised. Some of it duplicates ideas to be found on the Organisation pages, as well as many other places online.

Actions flowchart

During the course of a day I tend to get half a rainforest’s worth of paper. Verbally, by email or in briefings I also get jobs to do, some of which are quick and easy while others are clearly going to be very time consuming. I’ve modified some of the ideas of David Allen (via summaries such as this one on Lifehacker) to suit the way I work and teach. Hopefully, the flowchart above makes sense and I’m not going to try and explain it in text – the whole point of a flow chart is that I shouldn’t have to! I will explain a little about the Inbox and the different kinds of Actions.

Absolutely everything should go through the Inbox. Jobs get forgotten when you’ve been told about them, but it doesn’t really register. His ideas about Getting Things Done revolve around the idea of ‘ubiquitious capture’, which is a fancy way of saying everything must be recorded in the same place. Like most, I struggle with this and effectively run two parallel Inboxes, one electronic and one on paper. I’ve found it works well to have an A4 plastic folder, attached to my planner, so I’ve got somewhere to put all the various bits of paper until I can deal with them. Anything not on paper either gets written down and stuffed in the folder, or written straight on my weekly To Do list. In the interests of work-life balance I have a separate notebook that I use for non-school stuff (like this blog), which has it’s own weekly lists. But anyway.

Allen is very specific about Actions but what it boils down to is that it must be a single action (one job) that doesn’t require much in the way of thinking. There will be a concrete result and ideally they should be phrased as something which has been completed (e.g. ‘Year 7 book numbers copied to database’). I tend to write them as active verbs (e.g. ‘copy Year 7 book numbers to database’) but I agree with his reasoning that being as specific as possible makes it easier to get them done – they then require time, but not judgement. The idea is that ambiguity (e.g. ‘book numbers’) leads to confusion and/or procrastination.

If it turns out the job needs more than one Action he then calls it a Project. This will have a series of simpler jobs, each of which will need to be added to the To Do list separately. Completing them individually still gets the whole thing done but makes it much more achievable. Keeping track of ongoing progress is important because otherwise I’ve found that Projects end up drifting. Think about students doing coursework; if they don’t have a series of interim targets then they won’t have anything worth handing in the day before the deadline.

At opposite ends of the spectrum are the items which can be done in a couple of minutes (i.e. less time than writing them on the list would take) and things which are ideas, rather than concrete objectives. These last should be reviewed regularly (I go through mine each term, for example) but not on a daily or weekly basis.


The end result is that new items get added to my To Do list each day. To help keep myself productive I use another of his ideas, which is effectively the same as tags in Twitter. Most items will have a key word next to them, one of several specific contexts that tell me where I will need to be to get them done. Instead of jumping from one place to another, I can save them up until I’ve got enough work to fill the time available. These will be different for everyone, but for what it’s worth:

  • @PC for things to do when I’ve access to the school network.
  • @phone for things that are best done verbally.
  • @home for anything I’ll need to take with me at the end of the day.
  • @lab marks jobs for my own teaching area and the neighbouring technicians.

To be complete, I’ll add that the notebook I try to use to keep my non-teaching life in order (a vain hope – I have two kids) has a couple of extra ones:

  • @work for things I need to take from home.
  • @town for jobs to do while out and about
  • @study for the room with my desk in.

Once a week (and more often if I get the chance) I clear out my Inbox, add a bunch of items to my To Do list and make sure I’m not getting behind. I check my Calender for the week ahead and move one job from each Project on to my To Do list.

Or that’s the theory, anyway…

printable: Actions as a pdf