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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5 Ways to Keep the Learning Flowing Throughout the Summer

Summer is already in motion for many students around the country. For us New Yorkers, it’s so close we can smell it. Teachers have started cleaning up their classrooms and students have handed in their last homework assignments of the year. But what happens after the last day of school?

Summer planning is an issue that requires quite a bit of thought for many parents. Should we continue some form of academic learning for our children over the summer? Should we send our kids to camp? Do our kids need a break from all of the pressures of school. Summer plans are a tough decision and just like in everything else education, I will advise a balanced approach.

It has been a challenging year in education to say the least. All of the hubbub surrounding high stakes standardized testing has finally come to a boiling point. Stress took over the lives of so many of our young learners this year, and the truth is: YES, THEY NEED SOME DOWN TIME! That being said, they don’t need an 8-week break completely devoid of learning. There are ways that parents can promote learning over the summer for their kids, without sacrificing fun or forcing them to read the dictionary. Depending on your schedule, here are some ways to keep the learning flowing over the next few months.

  1. Scheduling some cultural experiences with your kids can help you make learning FUN! Visit a museum, a public library, or cultural institution…something that makes you think. See a concert or a explore a park. Make sure to do something that leads to rich conversations with your kids. Learning does NOT always have to be academic or inside a classroom, and the summer is a great time to engage in other modes of learning.
  2. Find a few new tech tools you’re dying to try and learn how to use them with your kids! Some of my personal faves are: Mentormob, Mixel, ShowMeWallWisher, ThingLink. If you have a younger child, it might be a great time to work on keyboarding skills in which case you might want to get a set of keyboard stickers.
  3. Join the Figment community and publish some of your writing!
  4. Sign up for a Skillshare class with your tween or teen.
  5. Participate in Barnes and Noble’s Summer Reading Program and get a FREE BOOK from the Reading Journal list at the store!

Have other great ideas for continuing to learn throughout the summer? Share them by leaving a comment!

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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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MentorMob as a tool for Differentiation

I have been using mentormob for months now and it only just dawned on me recently to use it as a mechanism for differentiating instruction. I am a special education teacher so differentiation is always my top priority when planning out lessons. I left the classroom in September and amongst other things I have found myself tutoring a group of students in various grade levels.

Last week, I was meeting with a student and we were brainstorming some ways to take her reading to the next level. She gave me a list of non-fiction topics that she would LOVE to study including: shark attacks, vegetarianism and natural disasters. Eclectic mix, I know! I began researching websites and articles that would be appropriate for her. Suddenly, it hit me…mentormob! I began creating an individualized playlist for my tutee including a range of articles and websites. What I love most about the playlist is that I could rate each of the sources as beginner, intermediate or advanced! This supports my student in knowing which sources to attack independently and which ones might be better suited for reading together.

Right after I finished creating my first tutee playlist, I thought about another student I work with. She is extremely artistic and I wanted to use her love of the arts to engage her in writing. After discussing possible writing exercises, we decided to do an independent research project on cupcake design. Cupcake design may sound silly but you can really turn anything into a research project and believe me, the more ownership a student has over a topic they study, the more invested they are in their learning. I immediately began scouring every website possible to create a meaningful collection of cupcake design resources and curated them in a mentormob playlist. I compiled resources about famous pastry chefs, cupcake design tools, National Cupcake Day (yes, it’s true), cupcake classes and more.

Once I had created these individualized playlists, I knew it was time to share so I emailed each playlist to the parent of the child it was developed for. The parents were so excited not only about how engaging the playlists were, but also that I had taken the time to create a collection of materials that was so specific to their child. The secret that I didn’t share is that it took me under fifteen minutes to pull together each playlist. I used the chrome button to curate my playlists which made it so simple and quick.

Having spent years in the classroom, I seriously value efficiency. Differentiation takes a lot of time but creating individualized playlists can make you a differentiation artist in minutes. I am looking forward to creating playlists for more students and I hope you will too.

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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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Basher Books Heighten Engagement in Science

I was recently working with a student who showed me a new book that she had gotten about physics. To be honest, I am not too interested in physics. I know that sounds terrible coming from a teacher, but hey…we all have our strengths and our weaknesses. That being said, this book was so colorful and the pages were so engaging that I wanted to learn more so I did some research and found out that the physics book was part of a really enticing series called Basher Books, created and illustrated by Simon Basher. Here is a quick glance at a few of the books in the series…

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[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0753468204[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0753465973[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]075346652X[/amazon-product]

The Basher Books website has a ton of information about the books, the book topics and extension materials and activities. The Basher Book Series contains books (and flashcards!) on a range of topics including science, math, music and punctuation. The mission of Basher Books is to breathe life into topics that are often taught in a dull way.

Below you can find a snapshot of the Basher Books Website. When you visit, make sure to click on the tab that says “Subjects.” It is a unique take on an interactive wordwall. Simon Basher does a wonderful job of using illustration to engage learners. “His illustration style is described as graphic surrealism; a synergy of European graphic design and Japanese character creation” (Taken from Simon Basher’s biography on the Basher Books website.)

You should also click on the “Downloads” tab where you can find great visuals available for download. Here is a screenshot.

If I were a middle or high school science teacher, I would have the whole collection in my classroom available for students. What a great find! Best part, the series was recommended to me by a fourth grader:)

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Reading Tip: Give it a Subtitle

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been getting lost in the world of Ed Tech. Today, I’m bringing EdGeeks back to a low-tech/no-tech reading strategy. Today’s strategy is one that can support readers whether they are struggling, on grade level or above grade level. I will call this strategy: “Give it a Subtitle.” By subtitle, I mean write a few words that can remind you what each chunk of text was all about.

How it Works:

Many non-fiction texts are broken down into chunks with subtitles. Subtitles can be comforting because they can guide the reader to specific information. In this strategy, a student reads a paragraph and creates a subtitle that makes sense. Here are 3 simple steps:

  1. Read a chunk (often a paragraph) of text.
  2. Stop and think: What is this chunk mostly about?
  3. Create and write a subtitle for the chunk.

When to Use It:

This strategy doesn’t make sense all the time. I suggest using this strategy when a text is long and feels daunting or overwhelming. Chunking the text and giving each chunk a subtitle can help a reader:

  • Feel more confident in attacking a long text
  • Remember the begininning and middle parts of a long text
  • Organize the text so that it is easier to refer back to the text to find information
  • By boosting comprehension of a long and challenging text
  • Answer the question: “What is this text mostly about?”

What Does it Look Like?

This is a sample text that already has subtitles. The red arrows show each subtitle.

This text is taken from the 2010 Grade 4 NYS ELA Test (Book 1)

This is a sample text that did not have subtitles. I read through it and used the “Give it a Subtitle” strategy.

This text was taken from the 2010 Grade 4 NYS ELA Test (Book 1)

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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:

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[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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