A high school teacher’s 12.9 iPad Pro setup

A high school teacher’s 12.9 iPad Pro setup

Hi all,

I work as a high school English / English as a second language teacher, and I thought I would share some workflows in case anything I’ve learned over the years might be useful to someone else.

While I think there’s a broad recognition that Google has really been owning the education space from the device management / cloud software / student side, I think there is a relatively untold story about how excellent the iPad is specifically as a teaching device.

Let’s start with some hardware thoughts, then enter the Dock, and finally dip into the folder on the side.


The essential thing here is that the hardware actually fits the nature of my job better than any laptop does. The aspect ratio matches a projector (which will likely still be true in 20 years—VGA never dies); the flat, document-sized screen allows me to easily conference with students about their work, and perhaps most importantly, the pencil support allows me to use the screen as a true blackboard replacement. We have some special projectors in the school (so-called “SmartBoards”) that do the same thing, but those are rapidly becoming outdated, I can face students as I annotate and think aloud, and obviously the software driving all this is superior.

In terms of what I miss from a laptop setup, I am one who thinks that mouse/cursor support can only be a good thing. The obvious benefits of this include more comfortable text editing, better screen sharing support if I want to remote into a “desktop” for some “desktop-only” software (a rarity, but it happens), and a way to control the screen from across the room; since I am often circulating and all over the room, it would be great to have this access. Maybe, as a side benefit, the cursor control feature on my Logitech Spotlight remote would work. Further into speculation territory, It would be really great if the Smart Keyboard Folio was updated or if there was some new device that integrated trackpad support. If rumours are to be believed, we may be getting this tomorrow, so fingers crossed.

I would also be remiss not to mention the fact that the iPad’s keyboard is far and away more reliable than modern macOS laptops are right now. That shouldn’t be a point to make, but I think it’s true. Further, it’s obvious that the keyboard folio would be far easier to replace should it ever stop working.


It changes, but here’s my current dock:

  • Timepage: Moleskine’s calendar is really nice. I wouldn’t recommend getting a subscription for it (as it is now), but I got it when it was a pay-once deal. I like the integration of weather and how fluid it is to manage views/information density. As I tend to favour block-scheduling when planning the days and weeks this works well for me.

  • Messages: Not much to say here. :slight_smile:

  • Gmail: I’ve tried all of the email clients on iOS, and I go back to Gmail because our school board uses Google Apps for Education, the integrations with the rest of GSuite is important to me. Thankfully, I get a lot of email but not so much that I can’t be a completionist, so most of the time there’s nothing there. I will snooze emails if I know I won’t act on them until the work week. I think it’s important to keep margin in one’s life and snoozing is a cognitive trick that helps me do this.

  • Safari: Again, not much to say here. I actually use Chrome for all of my work browsing, and that’s mostly for marks input and attendance. I like that I can easily silo and separate work and home this way. I use a web browser at home far more, so Safari goes in the dock.

  • Tweetbot: Yup… I go back and forth on this, but on the balance I find that keeping a few private lists and only looking at these keeps things manageable. It’s incredibly helpful to see what other educators in my district (and beyond) are doing, and between this and local communities, like cycling, on the balance using Twitter regularly has been good for my professional practice, in addition to keeping up with the news. The private lists are the essential part here. There’s often an “end” so I can jump back out and get to work.

  • Unread: This is the calmest RSS reader. Much like private lists on twitter, I keep it subscribed on a select few feeds to define a natural limit on use. I keep it connected to a Feedly account with a select few feeds so I can jump in, get my news, and jump out quickly. An important connection to my job is that I’ll find articles I’ll want to keep or read later, which I’ll save to Instapaper or Pocket. It might be a current article of relevance that I’ll assign to a class, for example. This helps me (1) prepare the text for a clean handout, and (2) save the piece in the first place so I can go back and integrate it in my planning.

  • iA Writer: This might be more unusual. I don’t use it to write articles or the like per se; I actually use it for class exercises, agendas, board work, instructions, etc. The reasons for this are that Quattro is a highly legible font, there is no UI around the text, I can easily resize the text with keyboard shortcuts, and the syntax highlighting feature can be very helpful in English as a second language courses. Lastly, it’s very easy to add a new sheet and get writing right away with a keyboard shortcut. Sticking with one app for this purpose also keeps any writing-based process/board work in one place, in a timeline. I think more could be done. I would like the addition of a toggle to add or take away interpuncts showing the syllabic construction. Still, I’ve found this to be the simplest and best solution for this area of my work.

  • GoodNotes 5: Unsurprisingly, this is the key app that makes it all worth it. I’ll import a handout from any source (a scan with Scanbot, from a Word file, anything) in GoodNotes and be able to present, discuss, and work with the material with 1:1 parity between myself and the students. At first I took pains to organize the files in folders, but I quickly realized a smarter way to manage this was to keep physical “model binders” for each class. This also allows students to easily check their own organization. Crucially, I also use GoodNotes for marking. I can import Google Docs or scan their work in, compile it in a folder, and mark it with a combination of ink and typed comments. Then I can print the whole thing out and hand it back. It allows me to more easily retain their marked work and provide more detailed and legible comments. I can even grab some encouraging “stickers” (images) online and paste them in, if I want. At the end of each year I do a mass export, but also keep everything in a single folder marked by year. Then I can search for something I might want to use again, duplicate it, and erase any marking on it since it’s vector-based / impermanent. The key question that GoodNotes 5 answers is how to manage a hybrid paper and digital system as we need to do in education, without introducing a prohibitive amount of busywork. I haven’t found a better answer to that question than GoodNotes 5, and how I use the iPad more broadly. As an aside, I print things directly for the Google Cloud Print printer at my school by using Print Central Pro. It’s a bit costly, but it’s actually (oddly) recommended by Google as the solution for more flexible printing from iOS devices, so at least it’s possible.


There’s a lot of single/occasional use apps in the folder, which I keep mostly on a “just in case” basis. However, I’ll quickly run through the first page (what can be seen):

  • Numbers: I use this as a redundant / on the spot attendance and marks tracker.

  • Google Classroom: My main communication system for students and parents.

  • Chrome: A silo for work-based browsing (attendance, marks, etc.)

  • Word: Our board still has a license for Office 365, so I still like to use Word on occasion to draft new handouts.

  • Scanbot: Used mainly to collect pencil-based student work.

  • Things: My task management system and link collector of choice.

  • MindNode: Great as another presentation device in the classroom.

  • Fantastical: Another great calendar app. I love having multiple views of my calendars… I know that’s a little odd, but variety is the spice of life?

  • Ulysses: This is a big one. I write a weekly academic blog about trailer music and also do some occasional freelancing; there is also a lot of professional development sessions, days, conferences; misc writing such as this post; poetry; commonplace book notes… it all lives here. This is the archive, and the starting and ending place for writing of permanence.

  • Bear: I use a separate app for one-off notes, bugeting, quick reference, receipts, and miscellany—I just find it’s a good divider for my brain, and Bear is better at these types of notes, in my experience.

  • Day One: Yet another way to input text? Why? Well, yes and no—Day One has metadata categories galore; it’s a personal space; it’s one of the best ways to capture and organize audio notes such as musical ideas. It can be a visual journal.

  • Notability: Notability houses my repository of PDF readings distinctly away from the day-to-day work in GoodNotes. To be honest, though, I know I don’t need it and it might be better to consolidate further in GoodNotes. I’m a sucker for kicking the tires on PDF apps—I also have PDF Expert and Liquid Text. I think they’re all good and have their own distinct pros and cons, just like Markdown editors—and I think that’s a wonderful thing.

  • Infuse: I think that Infuse is the best video library application on iOS, bar none. It has a beautiful presentation and an embarassment of options for connecting to cloud storage, server, and local options for downloading or streaming video. It’s also a distinct haven, away from the busy-ness of the Apple TV app. It’s well worth it.

  • Flipboard: On occasion I will want to just browse without particular purpose and hopefully make a serendipitous discovery or two. I find Flipboard is still the best application for that kind of experience.

  • Books: I enjoy the experience in the first party Books app better than Kindle or the others. I think it’s cleaner, and I like the automatic highlighting with the pencil. I have quite a few books in here, with a mix of personal and professional reading (and some that overlap these areas).

  • Music: I wish that I could sideload music and that there was a better Smart Playlists feature on the iOS side, but the Music app gets the job done. I’m hopeful that iOS 13 will move things forward.

Thanks for reading, and I’m looking forward to what anyone—perhaps especially fellow educators—has to say about this little piece.


What a great, well-thought-out writeup. Thanks for putting this together!

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I use a similar setup:

Regarding your in-class and grading workflow I have been experimenting with a few methods.

I too use a “digital blackboard”:

  • I have been using Explain EDU for about 2 years and it has done really well for me. Features: Infinite canvas, drag-and-drop images/videos/documents/PowerPoint/Keynote slides, ink over everything dropped in, templates that I use to establish a daily in-class agenda and listing student questions between class sessions.
  • Explain EDU also has great export options. I utilize Socratic dialogue which creates a chaotic classroom dialogue that I represent on the “blackboard.” I then export this in PDF form to Google Drive with 2-3 clicks.
  • It also has the ability to screen record with audio and ink strokes that I make available for students with accommodations. I just do it for every discussion and selectively export as a vid to selected students.
  • WARNING: There are two versions though. There is a one-time purchase (Explain EDU) and a subscription model with collaboration and other features (Explain Everything Whiteboard). They are nearly identical. I use the one-time purchase option.

I will be experimenting with Concepts this coming summer term. Although not nearly as geared towards education, the inking is far superior (since its a drawing and drafting app) than Explain EDU – to be honest my handwriting is weird and sometimes hard to read, so a good smoothing engine helps my students out. Concepts has great shape stencils and ruler actions that could “clean up” my “blackboard” far more efficiently than Explain EDU. It’s a tall order for me to leave Explain EDU, but we will see.

For grading, my institutions use Canvas LMS and therefore it is done all digitally. iOS plays well with Canvas but has its hiccups. I have been toying with leaving Canvas also and going fully “papered,” since currently I don’t give out or accept paper documents unless requested by the student.

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Thanks for this—interesting! I didn’t realize ExplainEDU had a screen recording feature. I have it, but it never really “clicked” for me. This might be a good idea for essential mini lessons. I’ve also considered creating unlisted, produced YouTube videos in advance about key topics, but ultimately I have found that working with them in real time is most important. This would likely change if I were to teach senior students or do any online teaching.

I’ve also played around with Concepts. We will see if it can earn a place in the toolkit… so far, I’ve found the shapes tool in GoodNotes to be sufficient, and other times I’ve prepared the PDF content to write on top of in advance. As for discussions, I usually leave an exit ticket question in Google Classroom since that’s the closest we tend to get to having an LMS.

One thing I forgot to mention with GoodNotes is the template feature, and how it automatically creates a new page with the same template when you pull the document. I’ve found that to be a revelation when I’m doing something like grading student presentations.

I would be more bullish on going all digital, myself, but it just doesn’t work for my students—I can’t rely on them to have reliable access to a computer / the internet at home.

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Quick follow up… learned I’ll be teaching senior / university track English this summer online, so I’m eager to try this stuff out in that context. Not to mention all the new tools afforded by Catalina and iPadOS. Good times!

That’s great! I have been teaching online for a few years. I love the tools, just not the limited Pedagogy.

If you plan on doing video on your iPad. Go ahead and get a copy of LumaFusion. Much better than iMovie and directly uploads to YouTube as a private linked video. Too bad iOS 13 wont be public yet before you start so you can take advantage of some of the features.

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I got LumaFusion—looking forward to giving it a real test drive.

Thanks for your work! Would there be any way you could show an example of your “model binder” or how you organize Good Notes for the classroom? I’m a notability user (primarily for the UI) but I have always been interested in the file ability of Good Notes.

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Thanks! Well the binder is just the collection of handouts in the order I gave it to the students, so there isn’t a lot to say there. As for how I organize in Goodnotes—to be honest, you would think it’s a hot mess, and it kind of is, but that’s because I rely on search and recency (organization by date). When it comes to marking, I compile those in folders and let the folders mix with the handouts and whatnot as I go. I hope this helps. The idea here is to let computers be great at what they do—automatic organization and search—so that I can focus my time on creating great materials, providing feedback, and planning, while also keeping all of my information accessible at all times.

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