PenPal News in Action

Over the past few months, I have been working with Michael Bernstein at PenPal News to develop curriculum for PenPal Red/Blue, a six-week exchange where classrooms across the country are sharing and learning about election-year issues. I recently had the pleasure of spending the morning with a sixth grade class in Manhattan who has been participating in PenPal News Red/Blue. It was incredible to see the program come to life!

During my visit, students were learning about our economy and reading a piece called What America Does For Work. The group of students I observed decided to take notes on the article before responding to their penpal. Because the article presented two visuals, a few students decided to create T-Charts in their notebook to help them understand the data in the chart. I was overwhelmed with excitement when I saw the initiative they were taking! Students were able to compare and analyze the information to make important overarching observations about the change in jobs over time.

While the students were undoubtedly remarkable, I was most blown away by the teacher! When building curriculum for PenPal News we try to provide enough structure so that teachers feel comfortable, while at the same time leaving enough room for creativity so that teachers can make each lesson their own. The teacher I observed created two tools to help her students with PenPal News. Firstly, she created a protocol poster to provide students with a visual agenda and some simple rules to abide by when using the program (see below.) She also created a “Power Word List,” where she chooses powerful vocabulary from the article (which she has pre-read!) to preview with students so they begin the article feeling prepared.

I am so fortunate that I had an opportunity to observe this incredible class. Get into the classroom if you can…especially if you are developing an EdTech tool!

Make sure to check out PenPal News and take a look at our one-minute explainer videos to see how we take challenging issues and make them accessible for 12-18 year olds.

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Citelighter: Storing, Sharing and Organizing Your Education and Research

I recently began working with the team at Citelighter, a startup that supports learners in storing, sharing and organizing their education and research for free. Citelighter is currently being used in 1500 schools worldwide. Initially the tool was developed with higher education in mind, but an increasing amount of middle and high school teachers have been using Citelighter to support younger learners.

As a K-12 special education teacher, tutor and instructional coach my major focus is on making learning accessible for all students. I am always looking for ways to minimize the distractions and keep things organized in order to maximize student independence.  Citelighter allows learners to highlight and cite texts online with ease but I was initially drawn to the tool because of its natural relationship with differentiation in the classroom. There are so many possibilities for using Citelighter to tailor research projects to student strengths and weaknesses.

The team at Citelighter is unique because their mission first and foremost is truly to support the learner. They have a passion for talking to teachers to find out what we really need. Our goal is to make Citelighter a tool that is focused around the learner and the best way to do this is through getting feedback from the user so if you are out there using Citelighter, feel free to reach out to say hello, ask a question or share a story! Stay tuned for more ideas about how to use Citelighter to support the needs of all learners.

Glad to be back,


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Peer Pressure Hits the Adult World: Why Not Use Blackboard…Everyone’s Doing It?


Isn’t it odd how we are constantly teaching tweens and teens about peer pressure, yet in our adult years we sometimes find ourselves unable to resist it? I had my most recent experience with peer pressure while becoming an adjunct lecturer for the summer. I will be teaching a graduate course on Inclusion for Students with Disabilities In General Education. Teaching teachers is the most inspiring experience. You have the opportunity to model all of the things you hope they will go off and embody with their students: high engagement, rich resources, collaboration, student-centered learning and more!

The faculty at my college (and at many colleges) uses Blackboard for course management. Years ago when I was a student, I often felt frustrated with Blackboard so it came as no surprise when I began entering my course information and realized I had quite a few questions. Perhaps the most important question that came to mind was, “Why do we use Blackboard?” It’s sad to say that I think the reason most people use it is peer pressure. It becomes “Everyone uses it so it must be good. Now lets stop asking questions.” This year I left the classroom to begin a long journey filled with questions and pondering about teaching and learning and I didn’t feel that now was the time to stop.

After chatting with some colleagues and looking into my options, I decided to pilot Lore to manage my course. This may sound silly but I felt connected to the simple design of the site. It was reminiscent of turning in my Sony Vaio and buying a Mac years ago. Lore is so attractive and simple to use. With Blackboard, I relied mostly on one-pagers to walk me through the process of completing each task. Lore is pretty intuitive. It took me about ten minutes of play testing to figure out how to use the site. Lore’s videos helped me with the small things I couldn’t figure out myself.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been uploading information and resources that will support my students. I have filled in the calendar with dates for class times, assignments and exams – which are all color coded. I uploaded articles, links, and videos, and shared ISBN numbers for reading materials. Finally, I recently linked my Blackboard account to Lore (I know this sounds blasphemous) so my students could login and see what I’ve been up to. I invited students to set up their profiles. So far I have a few students who have gone through the full process of filling out their bios. I like the idea of the profiles on Lore. I am able to connect with students before our course begins. This will help me match faces to names and will give me background experience of each of my students.

The moral of the story: Now more than ever, in our current state of education, we need to be asking questions about EVERYTHING! I’ll keep you posted on how Lore goes.

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EdSurge – Helping us ask the right questions so that we can choose educational resources that actually promote learning


Awhile ago I mentioned EdSurge as a go-to site for technology in education. I have been receiving the regular edition of the EdSurge newsletter for some time now, but the more recent EdSurge Instruct newsletter for teachers is what I’d like to discuss today.

If you are a teacher, you NEED to be reading this newsletter weekly. To be honest, I’m not a “newsletter reader” in general, but this one catches my attention every week. I always make time on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to click through every link in the email.

As a teacher, it can be really difficult to stay on top of the latest in educational innovation. Often, if you need a tool and you “Google it,” you run the risk of finding something that is borderline academic at best. EdSurge does a great job of vetting resources so you can be sure that if it’s coming to you through the newsletter, it’s something worth taking a look at.

Our educational system is at a point of major struggle. We need to be asking more questions about the tools we use to support learning inside and out of the classroom. Many educational resources that come in shiny packages can look appealing, but we can’t afford to be judging books by their covers these days. EdSurge can help us figure out what we should be asking and can lead us in the right direction for tools that really do support learning.

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In a recent edition of the EdSurge newsletter, I stumbled across Wallwisher. (By the way, if you don’t get EdSurge you’re seriously missing out!) Wallwisher’s elevator pitch: “We give you a nearly blank page (a wall). You put anything you want on it, anywhere. Simple, yet powerful!” EdSurge used Wallwisher as an invitation for ideas, which I’d love. I don’t think Wallwisher is the most beautiful tool in the world but it’s simple and it does the job.

There are quite a few different ways I could envision using Wallwisher but today I want to draw your attention to the obvious implications in teaching.

Have a SmartBoard or a projector? Try starting each day with a Wallwisher question:

  • What is something you are looking forward to today?
  • What is something you feel anxious about this week?
  • Where are you in your independent project?

Try starting every (ELA, math, science, etc.) lesson with a Wallwisher question:

  • Today we will continue our study of geometry. What 3D shapes can you name?
  • Think back to yesterday. What can you remember about angles?
  • Create a shape in your notebook. On Wallwisher, enter the formula for to find the area of your shape.

Use Wallwisher to elicit responses in real time:

  • Give an example of a memory you have when you felt like a hero.
  • What is the first step you took to solve this problem?
  • Vote: Would you rather take a field trip to the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

Here is my first Wallwisher and I really hope you’ll take a minute to add your thoughts. Question of the day Teachers and Parents: What kind of EdTech do you wish someone would make for your classroom or to use with your child at home?


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Google Search Education Lesson Plans

It’s pretty upsetting that so many teachers don’t realize that Google is more than just Gmail. Honestly, I was a latecomer to Google tools for education and I am mostly self-taught but I am learning more each day. I recently found out that Google has a series of Lesson Plans and Live Training videos for teaching students to use the Internet effectively for research. Each lesson plan comes at three levels: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced.

So many companies come out with curricular tools that don’t feel like they have been thought out or test run by a teacher but these lesson plans are actually quite helpful! They cover:

  • Picking the right search terms
  • Understanding search results
  • Narrowing a search to get the best results
  • Searching for evidence for research tasks
  • Evaluating credibility of sources

Screenshot of Lesson Plan Topics and Levels

Depending on your position and in-class setup, you may be able to use these as whole-class lesson plans. For teachers who want to teach all of the lessons as a unit, be sure to check out the Lesson Plan Map. The classroom is a great space for these discussions but I must admit, If I were a parent I would definitely be making use of these resources at home. While these lesson plans are designed to teach students about using the Internet for research, parents can use them to teach their children, tweens and teens about safety and maintaining an appropriate digital identity.

If this helped, make sure to check out: How to Teach Students About Digital Identity

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Shout Out to Mentormob


Oh man…I remember back to October 2011, when I first began my blog and thought Twitter was a joke. All of my friends told me it was something I needed to learn more about but I was convinced it was ridiculous. Finally, after called Twitter “Tweet” repeatedly for weeks and having my friends intervene to scaffold learning of Twitter vernacular for me…I got a Twitter handle.

I never thought that just months later I would fly across the country to stay with one of my Twitter friends! I’ve been talking to Mentormob for months now…in fact Kristen was one of my first Tweeps. We’ve skyped and spoken on the phone multiple times and she invited me to come hang out with Mentormob and attend the Flipped Conference. I’m not promoting flying cross country to see your Tweeps…but boy am I glad I did.

Meeting the Mentormob crew was fantastic. The entire team is dedicated to building a tool that truly supports learning. I had so much fun brainstorming with them and look forward to continuing our conversations. Mentormob’s work environment is so inspiring – they’re lucky I don’t live in Chicago or else I’d definitely come hang out there all day to write and plan:)

Anyways, just wanted to give a shout out to Kristin for being the best Twitter roomie ever and to Mentormob for building an innovative tool and working hard to put the user first! You guys rock!

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#flipcon12 Wrapup: Two of Everything

Two Big Takeaways:

  1. The purpose of Flipped Learning is to reach more learners, promote maximal independence and encourage students to take ownership over their learning.
  2. Flipped Learning is NOT about the video. In fact, the strongest speakers I saw at FlipCon12 said you don’t need a video for everything, but that it’s about choosing when a video can help you free up time to support more learners.

Two Quotable moments:

  1. “What we call cheating, I call collaborating.” –Brian Bennett on working together in the classroom
  2. “I don’t want to walk you through this. This is a flipped presentation. You can go learn it at home.” –Jac de Haan during his session on engaging students through video
Two Inspirations:
  1. Talking, listening and thinking about Flipped Learning all week really made me rethink my own learning process, especially in relation to professional development. I am inspired to take more action to self-assess my own development in my teaching practice.
  2. I am completely inspired by the innovative ways that teachers are using technology to differentiate instruction and reach more learners and will definitely watch some videos on creating videos so that I can become stronger at it.

Two Concerns:

1. The title of Bergmann and Sams’ new book is “Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day,” but throughout the conference and my reading about Flipped Learning I’m hearing and seeing quotes like this:

  • “Sams, the Colorado chemistry teacher known as one of the fathers of flipping, acknowledged that about 9 percent of his students have received Fs every year he has taught—both before and after he started delivering lectures through video in his school district.” -Sarah Butrymowicz, Promise of the ‘flipped classroom’ eludes poorer school districts, Hechinger Report
  • “‘Some students, they choose not to learn, not to participate,’ he said. ‘A lot of people ask, ‘What do you do with the unmotivated kid?’ I wish I had a good answer to that.” -Sarah Butrymowicz, Promise of the ‘flipped classroom’ eludes poorer school districts, Hechinger Report
  • “They have a list of things they’re supposed to do – some do, some don’t and if they don’t they’re wasting their time.” –This was one speaker’s response to the question “What are your other students doing while your giving the quiz?” from a session at the Flipped Class Conference
  • During the student panel an audience member asked, “Were there any students in your class who hated the flipped model and why?” The two students began discussing how their peers who didn’t like flipped learning were the ones who didn’t do their homework or care anyway.

I guess the concern I have here is that there are struggling learners who need a lot of structure and we must remember that often times motivation is connected to struggle. Sometimes all it takes to motivate the student who “doesn’t care” is a great teacher. I worry that the students who need the extra push may not get it with flipped instruction the same way I worry that they may not get it once the Common Core State Standards have made their way into the classroom. At one point Brian Bennett said, “You still need to DO your job,” to the audience and that struck me as the most salient piece. Videos do not replace teaching.

2. Access is still an issue that warrants concern. It does not need to be a definitive barrier but it is undoubtedly a huge challenge for some teachers and learners.

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Flipped Learning Sure Sounds a Lot Like Special Education

I’m here at the Flipped Class Conference in Chicago learning more about what Flipped Learning is all about. There are some great ideas and tools being shared and some intriguing questions being asked.

This may sound odd but listening to various speakers, watching videos and reading more about the concept of Flipped Learning, I’m beginning to draw major parallels between Flipped Learning and special education. Many of the ideas being put forth mimic the daily life of a special education teacher.

The Hechinger Report recently put out this article on Flipped Learning. Check out these snippets:

“She uses class time to tailor instruction to students who started the school year behind their classmates in reading and math, and she has seen rapid improvement.” -Sarah Butrymowicz, Promise of the ‘flipped classroom’ eludes poorer school districts, Hechinger Report

“Praised by advocates for letting students work at their own pace, flipped classrooms also allow teachers to tailor their instruction to individual students.” -Sarah Butrymowicz, Promise of the ‘flipped classroom’ eludes poorer school districts, Hechinger Report

Doesn’t this sound an awful lot like differentiated instruction? Yesterday, I attended a session called Alternative Assessments during which Dalia Zygas shared multiple styles of assessment including. Judging from facial expressions, many teachers in the room seemed to think these ideas were innovative, but almost all of them were taught in courses during my Master’s Degree in Learning Disabilities. (I want to be clear that the point I’m illustrating bears no reflection on Dalia as a speaker. In fact I thought she did a great job of sharing helpful information and I am impressed with her for pioneering new ideas in her classroom. Her school is lucky to have her.) 

During the Flipped Class Conference I heard a lot of people talking about:

  • Reaching all learners (AKA Differentiation)
  • Individualized feedback
  • High engagement
  • Inclusive settings that foster acceptance of all learning styles
  • Rethinking the physical space of a classroom to maximize student independence
  • Teaching using multiple modalities
  • Offering choice
  • Using multiple (and non-traditional) forms of assessment
I am not saying that Flipped Learning is synonymous with special education by any means but I do see clear parallels. A great special education teacher is already thinking of all the bullet points mentioned above on a daily basis. Let’s be honest, if differentiation was quick and simple, everyone would do it! Differentiating instruction is a a true art. The best lessons I learned here at the conference were the ones that would support general education teachers in thinking more like special education teachers, allowing them to reach a broader spectrum of learners.
I still have some questions about Flipped Learning and I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation with the wonderful people I met at the conference. I am definitely sold on the idea that using video and other technologies can maximize student independence and make differentiation more efficient. I guess what I’m wondering is, why don’t we just move past the idea of  “special education” and require all teachers to know how to teach all students?

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I’ve been in Chicago for a few days now and sadly have not had a ton of time to write. I came out here to hang out with the Mentormob crew and to learn more about the Flipped Learning movement at the Flipped Class Conference. The conference is at the Flashpoint Academy, which is a sweet space with a ton of outlets in nifty places but very spotty wifi. The only good thing about not writing is that there is more time to think. After absorbing quite a bit over the past few days, I’ll do my best to share some thoughts.
Let’s start with Brian Bennett’s opening keynote, which rocked. I was completely captivated from the start – Jon and Aaron made a great call having him kick off the event. Here are a few of his most quotable moments:
  • “I never want to see a bell curve again – I don’t want to fail kids anymore.”
  • “What we call cheating, I call collaborating.”
  • “Why do we hang onto things that don’t work? (Then he went on to give the example of the Scantron, asking if anyone had ever tried using a #3 Pencil.)
  • “What’s your rubric? When do you want it to be due?” (Some questions he asks students)

What I loved most about Brian is that he sounded like a special education teacher. He really spoke my language. When discussing the concept of Flipped Learning he talked about changes in both physical space and in mindset. He illuminated the fact that all individuals learn differently and make different choices, sharing about how flipping his classroom has allowed him to reach more learners.

At some point during the day I stumbled across this article: Can the Flipped Classroom Benefit Low-Income Students? The title alone caught my attention as this had been one of my pressing and unanswered questions about flipped learning. All day I wondered if someone from the conference would respond to the article and after a long day of thinking and learning, I read this response on none other than Brian Bennett’s blog.

I appreciate his response and agree that the title of the piece is a bit misleading but I definitely hear the concern regarding funding in low income communities. Getting funding is not impossible by any means, but it is a challenge without a doubt. Teachers are often exhausted…anything that is time consuming is often a drag for even the most dedicated teachers. Brian is right when he says “A defeatist attitude will not help anyone move forward,” and in all honesty, I wish all teachers had a little bit more Brian Bennett in them. However, I fear that when faced with choosing between spending their limited free time on applying for grants that may get denied or planning for tomorrow’s lesson, many teachers will choose the latter.

The stronger point that he makes in his post (and in his keynote) is that Flipped Learning is not about watching videos at home. He writes, “If the responsibility is put back on the students, whether its in class or out of class, the class has been effectively flipped.”

In education there is no black or white, only gray. And as with all educational movements, philosophies and products, I’m always looking to take what I can and use it in a balanced way. I am so excited to be amongst the pioneers of Flipped Learning and look forward to learning more tomorrow.

As for B. Bennett, I’m hooked. Definitely check out his website – he is one smart dude.

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