If You’re Not Using Figment, You Should Be


I’ve always believed that when you hear about something more than three times in various situations, it’s time to investigate further. A few months ago, a parent I know asked me if I had used Figment with my students. Next, I stumbled across the Alice’s Tea Cup pop-up cafe/bookstore and as soon as I entered, I noticed a Figment bookmark right under my nose. More recently, I was Skyping with a faraway teacher-friend who mentioned Figment to me in passing. Finally I decided that I better investigate this “Figment business” and see what it’s all about…and boy am I glad I did. I will be sharing about Figment with every teacher, parent and student I know. And as for EdTech entrepreneurs, keep reading to find out how to use Figment as a model…

What is Figment All About?

Honestly, Figment is my dream come true. Writing has always been my favorite area to teach and learn. Figment addresses 21st Century Learning by bringing the idea of the writer’s workshop online. It is a friendly, online community of writers (and readers of course) who want to share their own work and read the work of others. This may not seem so unique, there are other forums where writers can share their work. What is so special about Figment?

Figment is Special Because:

  • The interface is highly engaging for middle school and high school students.
  • There is an educator feature where a teacher can create a private group where his/her students can share their writing, interact and offer each other support.
  • This kind of friendly environment, where community members follow you, heart your work and share feedback is encouraging to young writers.
  • It offers a unique opportunity for a group of friends, classmates and/or the public to offer feedback that can help young writers grow.
  • It offers a solution to teachers who want to give meaningful feedback to their students, but don’t have enough time during class. I imagine I would use this to add comments from my home computer.
  • This writing community is a step in the right direction for encouraging non-techie teachers to take the plunge and incorporate technology into their teaching.
For EdTech Entrepreneurs:
Here is your model! Having attended multiple conferences and spoken to a variety of educators ranging from tech guru to tech terrified, I’m telling you, use Figment as a model. Figment is less intimidating to educators than other technologies for a few reasons:
  • At Figment’s core is a model that is used IN THE CLASSROOM: the writer’s workshop. Teachers are more inclined to feel comfortable with a tech tool that supports what they are already doing in their classroom.
  • It’s interface is engaging for students, yet simple for teachers.
  • The Educator Page is inviting and the video uses animation to literally teach an educator about all of the different Figment features
  • While learning this new technology may take a little time for a tech newbie, in the end it will save time (especially in the area of giving feedback) and peak engagement.

Figment Groups

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The New Era of Posterboards

Yesterday, I had a moment where I thought about my old art teacher, Sid. She was one of the hippest teachers I’ve ever met. I remember feeling a breath of fresh air every time I entered her classroom. I loved that part of the day! Even though I loved art class, I remember that some of my friends felt uncomfortable because they struggled to think of themselves as artists. As a teacher, I have come across many children and teens who demonstrate anxiety over producing artwork.

I recently learned about two tools that can help kids overcome their anxiety. Let’s be honest, while I could spend hours coloring – not everyone will love to draw! That is acceptable, but we need to teach kids how to express themselves in creative ways. I propose using these two tools as an alternative for your child if he/she feels uncomfortable drawing with pencil and paper.

Mixel is a social art-making tool for people who don’t think of themselves as artists. The app makes it easy to collage together images from anywhere, in any way you like. You can remix works from others, and see the surprising ways they remix yours. It’s fun, free and incredibly addictive.” (From the Mixel website)

Four samples of how artists use Mixel (Artists: Armand Dembski, Dietmar Henrich, Lauren Feldman, Marie Innes)

Smore is an online page-builder that allows you to create beautiful posters/flyers with ease and publish them!

Look to Mixel and Smore When…

  • Your child is asked to make an artistic representation of a concept and feels anxiety over drawing or seems disengaged
  • Your child is asked to design a poster or flyer
  • Your child is asked to create an illustration for a story or for a poem
  • You want to teach your child to use technology in an engaging way
  • Your child wants to try something new!
  • You and your child want to teach the teacher something new and exciting!

    Sample Smore by Kimberly Hoffman


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A Reminder a Day for ELA

For those of you who are in New York like me, today is the first day of the ELA test! Your children will be tested in reading comprehension and will have to demonstrate some serious stamina so make sure to give them a break tonight:) We all want to help our kids but sometimes in the heat of the moment, we offer too much! Overwhelming students on testing day is a bad move. Most humans cannot hold 25 reminders in their brain at one time. Here is what I propose. Know the testing schedule so that you can have specific and meaningful morning-time conversations with your children. Offer them one or 2 reminders, but no more than that. You want to show them that you care enough to know what they have ahead of them on that day, but that you trust them enough to get the job done. Supportive is they key word here.

Firstly, click here to see the testing schedule so you know which tests are on which days. If you are interested in learning more about what happens on each day, I’ve compiled the most important information so feel free to download it here: Guide to ELA and Math 2012. This information was compiled and condensed from the Guide to the 2012 Grades 3–8 Testing Program in English Language Arts and Mathematics.

Here are some suggestions for tips you may want to give to your kids in the morning. I am including more than 2 for each day but you SHOULD NOT use all of these with your child. Make sure to pick 1 or 2 that you feel your child should be focusing on.








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“In the passage, it says…”

(llustration: David McLiman)

This week, I received an email from a parent. The email contained a link to this article: “A Test You Need to Fail’: A Teacher’s Open Letter to Her 8th Grade Students.” Firstly, I want you to take a few minutes to read the letter.

Okay, now that I have your attention…

For the most part, I try to keep my opinions about test-prep and teacher politics out of my blog, but this letter really hit a soft spot.  I want to share about an experience that I have dealt with repeatedly over the past few months. So much of teaching has become test prep, and so much of test prep has become what I call, “In the passage, it says…”

I have been working with a lot of students who have been taught to write, “In the passage, it says…,” in every long response question. When I ask them if they can phrase it in a different way, their response is often, “but my teacher wants me to say it like that!” This worries me for a few reasons.

  1. It gives children the idea that evidence can only be presented in one way.
  2. It makes children sound like robots.
  3. It makes children fear what will happen if they stray from routine and try something new.

I have been in a variety of classrooms where test-prep needed to happen. It is so tempting to teach students to use lines like, “In the passage, it says…,” or “According to the article,” because many of us are told that it is a surefire way to get kids to add 2 details and raise their score. BUT, we need to remind ourselves that being able to regurgitate a line like, “In the passage it says,” does not make our kids strong readers and writers. In fact, it often persuades students that they don’t need to think, they just need to underline two parts of the text. This is what can end up happening…

Question taken from NYS ELA Book 3, 2010

How does the girl in “Butterfly House” feel at the end of the passage? Why does she feel that way? Use details from the passage to support your answer.

Possible Response

In the passage it says, “We carried out the box and raised the lid.” In the passage it also says, “I watched her falter as she felt the first warm touch of sun, saw trees, felt breezes brush across her wings.” 

Note: This response demonstrates that the student can find and copy two sentences from the text, but this response does not answer the question. Too many times, I see kids become so focused on underlining and copying their 2 quotes, that they forget to think about what the question is actually asking and offer a response that makes sense.

For those of you who say to me, “But we need to do test prep even though we don’t want to”…I hear you!

Here Are Some Things We Can Do

  1. I always like to tell students to imagine that I am standing in front of them asking the question verbally, and to think about how they would respond if this was a conversation. Most students would not respond by immediately referring to the text.
  2. We can remind students to underline the last few words before the question mark and to stop and think what the question is really asking before running to find a quote.
  3. We can teach and remind students that a response is strongest when it is an original idea that has been supported by quotes. We can also point out that using quotes is not an alternative to offering a thoughtful response, but rather a way to use text evidence to support a thoughtful response!
  4. We can model using a variety of ways to use different language to prove a point using text evidence. This can happen on a daily basis in non-test-prep activities for example: when responding to a read aloud, when discussing how to approach a word problem, when using a non-fiction science text, etc.

It is okay to teach students how to refer back to  a line from the text so they can offer strong evidence to prove a point. This is a skill they will need in the future. Using text evidence can make a reader’s opinion stronger!

It is NOT okay to teach students that every time they see a question that says, “use details from the text,” to start their sentence with, “In the passage, it says.”

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Adora Svitak: Teenager, Published Author and Youth Activist

Check Out These Words of Wisdom…

  • “How many of you still dream like that and believe in the possibilities?”
  • “We kids still dream of perfection…and that’s a good thing, because in order to make anything a reality, you have to dream about it first.”
  • “I think that adults should start learning from kids…learning between grownups and kids should be reciprocal.”
  • “Adults often underestimate kids’ abilities. We love challenges but when expectations are low, trust me…we will sink to them.”
  • “The goal is not to turn kids into your kind of adult, but rather better adults than you have been.”
  • “No matter your position or place in life, it is imperative to create opportunities for children so that we can grow up to blow you away.”

Who is This Genius?

The quotes above were taken from a TED Talk by a teenager, published author and youth activist by the name of Adora Svitak. If she doesn’t make you want to attend the Penny Conference…I don’t know what will. This remarkable young started a blog called “Write With Adora,” an online youth literary magazine. Children are encouraged to submit writing to the site which is curated by Adora herself.

Adora, thank you for speaking out on behalf of kids everywhere. As a teacher, learner and childish adult…I am completely in awe of both your mission and your sensational imagination. I am amped up to hear you speak at the Penny Conference!

If you have 8 minutes, check out Adora’s TED Talk, it’s amazing!

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Contests for Inspiration

I remember back when I was little, I used to feel this huge sense of inspiration whenever I saw an ad for a contest. I remember Nickelodeon always had advertisements for how little kids could cause great, big change and I remember thinking – “Hey, i’m a little kid. It could be me!” I was reminded of this passion for contests recently while working 1:1 with a nine year old. She said to me, “Marisa – have you heard of this writing contest? I need to enter!” Motivation comes from many different places, but contests are definitely one really great way of inspiring kids to dream big.

Here are some really fun contests that can be super motivating for your child:

Kids Are Authors

Contest: Students work in teams of 3 or more under the guidance of an adult coordinator to create their own original piece of writing with illustrations. The pieces can be fiction or non-fiction.

Ages: Students in Grades K-8

Dates: Accepting submissions until March 15th, 2012

Prizes: Winning books will be published by Scholastic and sold at Scholastic book fairs around the country!


Wouldn’t It Be Cool If…

Contest: Dream up the coolest idea powered by math or science to make life more awesome!

Ages: 10-12 and 13-15

Dates: Accepting Submissions until March 28th, 2012

Prize: The opportunity to develop your idea


National Geographic Dare to Explore O’ahu

Contest: Write an essay about why you want to explore O’ahu

Ages: 9-15

Dates: Accepting Submissions until April 16th, 2012

Prize: A trip to O’ahu


Adobe Youth Voices Essentials

Contest: This contest is different from the rest in that a teacher needs to submit the work on behalf of a young artist. They are looking for original, high-quality youth-produced multimedia created to address critical issues and effect positive change.

Ages: 13-18

Dates: Accepting Submissions until April 20th, 2012

Prize: Your work will be displayed on the Adobe site and there are a range of other prizes that will be given out at the end of the contest as well.


If you know of other contests, post them here! Also, National Geographic Kids has a Contests page that I love to look at from time to time to get an idea of what’s out there. Happy entering!

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The Heart and the Bottle App -by, Oliver Jeffers

It is not so often that a children’s author is able to touch the lives of adults through picture books. There is just something about Oliver Jeffers though…something about his style of illustration and storytelling that just gets me. His picture books are stunning:

[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0399257373[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0399255451[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0399254528[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0399250972[/amazon-product]
[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0399250743[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0399247491[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0007304331[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0399242864[/amazon-product]

I also love that he is a true artist who just happens to create children’s picture books. When you stop by his site, be sure to look through his paintings as well.

What I am most impressed with is actually a new app called “Heart and the Bottle.” This Ipad app is so exciting. It fuses creativity and art with literacy and imagination! Watch this trailer to get a glimpse of the app in action. It is even Apple’s ipad app of the week. The trailer gives me the chills – it is truly amazing what can happen when an adult captures the unique imagination of a child through art and literature. Thanks for the inspiration Oliver!

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What do you want to write about today? I don’t know!

Many students struggle with topic generation during Writer’s Workshop, meaning they can’t get started because they don’t know what to write about. This can be frustrating for teachers and students because if it takes too long to get started, there is not enough time for the student to complete their work. Strong teachers have all kinds of tricks for how to support topic generation in the classroom. (If you are a parent or teacher looking for more tricks, be sure to check out this article.) Just to list a few tools/strategies:

  • Offer sentence starters
  • Create a class brainstorming chart about ideas to write about
  • Create a personal brainstorming chart about ideas to write about
  • Use a website such as Scholastic Story Starter
Today, I want to talk about what happens when your child comes home with a vague writing assignment such as “Write a story about something that happened to you,” or “Write a story that is at least one page long.” This can be daunting for students, especially those who already find it difficult to put their thoughts into writing. One thing that helps is making the prompt more specific, such as “Write a story about a time when you felt scared,” or “Write a story about a time when you got to eat your favorite food.” Specific prompts can narrow down the list of possibilities, making it less daunting. Fear not families, there is something else that you can do to help!


Keep a Home Journal
If your child has writing homework that includes keeping a journal or writing personal narrative (stories about their lives), you may want to keep a home journal. Here are some tips on how to keep a home journal that is effective:


Step 1: Choose a time that works for you (ex: after dinner) and be as consistent as possible. I recommend a time in the afternoon or evening if possible, because by that time most of the events of the day have already passed.


Step 2: Everyday at the designated time, stop what you are doing and list 1-3 things that happened that day. These don’t need to be things that have happened at home, you can help your child recall events that happened in school. (ex: “During gym I twisted my ankle and had to go to the nurse,” “We had a family dinner with my cousins,” “My teacher chose me to share my work during math).”


Step 3: When it is time to write, take out the family journal. Help your child choose one of the many things that have happened throughout the week to write about.


Note: This can ABSOLUTELY be used in the classroom as well. A teacher can keep a class log of interesting events that take place so that students can choose what to write about during Writer’s Workshop.


How Does This Help?
This strategy offers guidance and structure for students. Rather than having to recall an event that happened in the past out of thin air, they are being asked to review a list that they have been keeping, and then to choose from a field of options. Choosing from a field of options is definitely helpful, especially when you want to help your child become more efficient with writing. It can take students an hour to generate a topic and write just one paragraph – keeping a journal can move the process along more quickly, eliminating unnecessary frustration. Often, I hear families say “I try to help my child by telling him/her what to write about, but he/she just doesn’t listen!” This is common. Many students crave independence. By telling them what you think they should write about, you are taking away a piece of their ownership over the story. By supporting them in keeping their own journal of ideas, you are providing them with the assistance they need, but allowing them to take ownership over their own ideas.


Silly but it works…
This may sound silly, but buying a “brand new, special, fancy journal” can really motivate students. Giving your child the chance to choose a brand new journal that they love is giving them control over their writing in a sense. Here are some pretty awesome journals that could be motivating for kids:
[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]B001LY7XKY[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]B001TNVYVQ[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]B000BWZQE2[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]B0050G8O66[/amazon-product]

And of course, I also recommend using Penzu for journaling. Penzu is a really fun online journaling tool that you can use with your child. Read this article to learn more about Penzu and this article to learn more about other non-traditional journaling tools.

Read more about how to support writing at home and in school:

Strategies and Tools For Topic Generation in Writing (Ideas for story starters)

Not just for kids…let’s all de-stress! (The power of journaling)

Let’s Get Organized! (Traditional and non-traditional tools for organization)

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Benefits of Teaching Typing

Some schools offer computer access for students. What does this mean? Well, it depends on the school. “Computer access” could mean:

  1. All classrooms are outfitted with computers (desktops, laptops or ipads)
  2. There is a shared laptop cart that teachers may use on a sign-up basis
  3. There is a shared computer lab that teachers may use on a sign-up basis
  4. There is a computer lab and a technology teacher, and each class visits the lab x times per week

In numbers 2 and 3, please take note that this kind of “access” is dependent on the teacher’s interest in using technology for student learning. Also keep in mind that there are some schools that do not have computer access for students at all. It is important that you ask questions about what “computer access” means at your child’s school.

Finding some way for your child to access technology is important for quite a few reasons. Today I’m going to focus on one important reason: Learning to type can strengthen literacy skills for students. While typing can strengthen reading skills, I want to focus mostly on writing.

Writing is a complex subject area to teach because there are so many components to develop including: topic generation, spelling, sentence structure, punctuation, grammar and capitalization to name a few. Writing with a pencil is one valuable way to foster these skills, while typing is another. I don’t believe that one outweighs the other or that one should take the place of the other. Balance is best. When we write, we generate letters, words and sentences independently. When we type we are selecting a particular button out of a field of options. This narrows our choices, which can be helpful for some students. When first learning to type, many students actually write more slowly (because they need are working on building motor coordination on the keyboard). This makes them stop and think about which key comes next. This can be helpful because:

  • Students must make a conscious effort to include proper spacing (by hitting the space bar).
  • Students must make a conscious effort to hit the caps lock button to get a capital letter.
  • Students slow down with their spelling and can often notice spelling mistakes more clearly on a word processing document than in their own handwriting.
  • Students must make choices about which type of punctuation to use in different situations – seeing the options on the keyboard can better help them choose the appropriate punctuation.
  • I have found that when my students type, they are more likely to stop and re-read what they have written before writing more. When they write with a pencil, they often write quickly and through stream of consciousness.
  • Students can edit their work using a variety of tools on their original document.

I always like putting these stickers on a keyboard when I am teaching a student to type.

[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]B001JICZKK[/amazon-product]

Have any tips for teaching students to type? Share them by leaving a comment!

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Guest Blog for The Cooke Center: Writing in Response to Literature

I am so fortunate to have recently joined the team at Cooke Center for Learning and Development as an instructional consultant. I love what this organization is doing in inclusive special education! If you haven’t heard of them yet, be sure to stop by and visit their site to see what Cooke is all about. The Cooke Center has a blog that shares out about teaching strategies and tools that work and today’s post was written as a guest post for The Cooke Blog.

Writing in Response to Literature: A Step-by-Step Process

My name is Marisa Kaplan and I have recently joined the team at the Cooke Center Institute as a consultant, where I work with faculty in general education schools to improve classroom instruction. Certified in special education, my main area of expertise is in modifying curriculum and learning strategies to meet the needs of all students.

What I have learned throughout my career is that one size does not fit all.  Why is this?  Because every child is different, and all children have unique life experiences that shape their learning.  All children learn differently, and there is really no such thing as “general” education.  Therefore, I hold fast to the belief that all education should be special education.

Simply put, Special Education means that

  • All students get what they need to learn – not just the so-called “middle tier”
  • Curriculum is tailored to meet the varying strengths, interests and abilities of all students in the classroom.
  • Teachers present material in a variety of ways.
  • Student may demonstrate their understanding of a topic in many different ways.

A special education teacher might:

  • Model the task that is expected before asking students to work independently, in partners or in groups
  • Eliminate unnecessary distractions in the classroom environment
  • Take a hands-on approach to learning
  • Use manipulatives in math
  • Label and organize classroom materials to increase student independence
  • Give friendly reminders and time warnings during transitions
  • Use positive praise as an approach to encourage desirable behaviors
  • Break down tasks in a manageable way

My blog allows me to explore many of these topics, and I hope you’ll read and join in the discussion.  In the meantime, today I’d like to focus on one crucial genre of writing: writing in response to reading, also known as writing in response to literature. I call it crucial, because it is a skill that many of our students will carry with them and use in their futures. Most of the adults I know today must read and offer either a verbal or written response on a daily basis…even sending an email depends on an ability to read, comprehend and form a response to written text. We need to support students in developing this skill at an early age and continue honing in on it throughout their academic careers.

Of course, being that it is an important writing genre, it is difficult to teach because at the root of this writing genre lies one of the most challenging areas of learning: reading comprehension. The ability to offer a meaningful response to literature, depends on a few different things:

  • The ability to deeply comprehend the text
  • The ability to give a verbal response that pulls from or refers back to the text
  • The ability to convert that verbal response into a written response

Take another glance at that list…each skill has its own challenges, which is why I propose teaching, practicing and fostering them separately before together. I strongly suggest teaching this skill through read aloud, before relying on independent reading. While both are important, teaching through read-aloud offers students who struggle with decoding a chance to demonstrate comprehension of a more challenging text.

The step-by-step process that you are about to read is applicable and can be modified to any grade level (ranging from pre-school to high school.) For the sake of meeting readers in the middle, I will write the steps in regards to a sample elementary lesson.

Literature: Ish, by Peter H. Reynolds

(Choose a book you are passionate about, that can naturally lead to deep discussion questions.)

Step 1: Read Ish aloud to your students, preferably on a rug. Stop every few pages to engage students in a turn and talk (as a way to get kids talking about the book.)

Possible Questions for T&T: Have you ever drawn anything in a funny place like in bed or outside? How do you think Ramon felt when Leon burst out laughing? What feeling is Ramon having when he crumples up his drawing and throws it across the room? Have you ever felt like that?

Step 2: After the book, facilitate a whole group discussion. Ask students a series of questions and have students share out. If possible, take notes on their ideas using chart paper. Make sure to ask a variety of question types including both literal (in the text) and inferential (based on interpretation of the text.)

Possible Questions for Whole Group: What did Marisol have in her room? Why do you think she collected Ramon’s art? How did Ramon feel when he saw Marisol’s room? What does it mean when something is –ish?

Step 3: When you feel like most students have an understanding of the text, pass out a sheet with a question on it (or write one on the board if your students use a notebook.) Have students go back to their tables to write in response to the text. Remind students that they may refer back to the chart paper or talk to a neighbor if they need a reminder about something that happened in the story.


Ish Questions

Differentiate! Here is where differentiation comes in. Some students might not have shared out during the whole-group discussion because they didn’t really understand the book. Keep a small group of students who you feel like might benefit on the rug. Lead them through a shared writing experience. First, lead them through a re-tell of the book. Then pose a question and take responses. Finally, have them sequence their ideas in a way that makes sense and have each student come up and write one sentence on chart paper. Voila, you have included and engaged all students using the same book, same skill, varied task!

This is only one possible way to teach writing in response to literature. As your students become stronger at this skill, further differentiation will take place. You may have some students reading their books independently and responding to a question at their tables. You may have other students working with a partner who is reading aloud a text to them and they are sharing the task of writing. Still others might be working on the rug with you responding to a short story that has been read aloud. The important thing is to always be challenging student at their level to both deeply understand a text, as well as be able to respond to it (first verbally, then written.)

Possible extensions for older students: Re-stating a piece of the question in your answer, referring back to the text, using details from the text in your response.

If this helps you, you should read:

The Importance of Sharing: Feature pieces, gallery walks, spotlights and more

Incorporate Non-fiction Text Into Your Home or Classroom Book Collection

Top Secret! (Book leveling secrets)

Strategies and Tools for Topic Generation in Writing

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