App Breakdown: Graphite

When implementing new technology in a school or classroom, it’s important to go in with a purpose and a plan. Handing students and teachers laptops or tablets with no support will lead to storage closets full of unused equipment as it did in Hoboken, NJ. So, how do we use technology with meaning and impact? It takes a lot of research and a lot of support. Luckily, there are platforms like Graphite to help us out.

Graphite is a free platform from Common Sense Media that helps educators discover and research the latest in education technology. It’s been around for about a year now, and I’m a little ashamed it took me this long to discover it–it is an amazing discovery tool with built in support for teachers trying to implement technology in their classrooms. And now that I’m done gushing, here’s a little bit about what it is and how you can use it:

What it is:

As I mentioned, Graphite is an edtech discovery platform. It’s a place to learn about the latest apps and tools for teaching and how to use them. The site offers comprehensive reviews of all of the products listed, which can take some of the scary guesswork out of implementation. As CNN Money put it, it’s a “’Consumer Reports’ for ed tech.” It also has a Teacher Center that offers professional development support for effective integration of technology in your curriculum.

Why we like it:

Discovery: There are reviews for many of the latest apps and ed tech tools on Graphite that are written by expert educators, and you can count on them being impartial. There are also field notes from teachers about their personal experiences using each tool. It’s super easy to browse the reviews to learn about new apps and how they can be used.

Support: The Teacher Center gives you all of the tools you need to start using Graphite, and the apps you discover there. We especially like the App Flows, which provide a framework for seamlessly integrating technology into your lesson plans.

Common Core Alignment: The apps on Graphite are searchable by standard. Meaning, if you’re looking for an app to help your students reach a specific standard, you can click on that standard and find an entire list of applicable tools. This helps you make sure the tech is being used meaningfully and with purpose.

How you can use it:

First, go to and set up an account. The website is completely accessible even when you’re not signed in but, the account is nice for fully participating in the community. With an account, you can get the Graphite newsletter, which delivers featured blog posts to your inbox, and you can submit your own field note reviews of apps and create boards. You can also recommend apps for Graphite to review.

Graphite can be used in a few different ways. If you’re just starting off with new hardware in your classroom, it can be used as a jump-off point for developing an effective implementation plan. Before you put the hardware in students’ hands, know which apps you’ll be using with them and why.

If you’ve already been using a lot of tech in your classroom, the Teacher Center can help you use it more effectively. The App Flow and Common Core Standards alignment will help you make sure you’re getting the most out of the tech.

Things to keep in mind:

Not all tools work for every school and classroom. Just because something gets a positive review on Graphite, doesn’t mean it’s going to be the perfect fit for your students. Leave room in your lessons for experimentation and have back-up plans for when the tech doesn’t work.

LitLife’s Favorite Summer Reads (for grown ups!)

As July comes to an end, we’re starting to get ready for all things back to school, but it’s not too late to get to one last book from our summer reading lists. Here at LitLife, we love reading for all purposes–to learn, to enjoy, to escape–and we think summer is a great time to cultivate and share our love of reading. Are you still looking for that last great summer read? Here are some of the titles we fell in love with this summer.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Excerpt from Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Excerpt from Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

If you’re looking for something a little different to wrap up your summer reading list, this self described “tragicomic” may be your best bet. Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel/memoir explores her complicated and heartbreaking relationship with father, a closeted English teacher and funeral home director, as well as her own story of coming of age as a lesbian.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert


Elizabeth Gilbert returns to writing fiction in this novel about Alma Whittaker, a brilliant scientist and the daughter of the wealthiest man in Philadelphia. The novel traces Alma’s explorations into evolution, botany, spirituality and the divine in the early nineteenth century, as well as her relationship with her artist husband, Ambrose. The story is full of interesting characters and exotic locales ranging from Amsterdam and London to Tahiti and Peru.

In the Woods by Tana French


A crime-drama set in the suburbs of Dublin, In the Woods tells the story of Rob Ryan. Ryan and his partner Cassie Maddox are trying to solve the first big murder case of their careers and find that it has shocking similarities to the night 20 years ago when Ryan’s two childhood friends disappeared. This novel has all of the mystery and intrigue you didn’t know your summer was missing.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter


This NY Times Bestseller tells a story that spans 50 years. If you’re longing for the summer escape that you didn’t get to take, this novel, which switches between events on the Italian coast in 1962 and present day Hollywood (with stops in Edinburgh, too), is perfect for you! Supporting roles from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton top off an interesting and eccentric cast of characters.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo Decker and the twists and turns his life takes after surviving an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum. It’s a story about grief, fate and all types of love. As Stephen King put it, “The Goldfinch is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind.” At 748 pages though, it’s best to get started now if you plan to finish by September!

Summer Reading for Professional Development

We spend a lot of time talking about the importance of summer reading for kids, but as teachers and professional learners, summer is also a great time to catch up on our own reading. During the school year, there isn’t always time to stay up to date with the latest research or dive deep into specific topics. Summer, although often still busy, gives us a chance to step back and be learners. To help get your own summer reading started, we asked our consultants to share their professional development summer reading recommendations.

LitLife West Hudson Executive Director, Patty Vitale-Reilly recommends a mix of books, periodicals and digital resources this summer. Her summer reading list includes Teaching with the Brain in Mind by Eric Jensen, the Harvard Education Letter, EL (Educational Leadership, ASCD), Edutopia, Education Week, Teachers College Journal and the IRA Magazines-Reading Today and Reading Research Quarterly.

We also recommend LitLife consultant Jennifer Scoggin’s new book “Be Fabulous: The Reading Teacher’s Guide to Reclaiming Your Happiness in the Classroom,” which comes out in August–just in time to help you prepare mentally for your return to the classroom. Jen will help you reconnect to your “inner fabulous” in order provide the best possible literacy instruction.

Professional learning is even better when you have a partner to share ideas with and talk to about your reading. Our consultants often pair up in their work and learning lives. This summer, Jaime Margolies and Georgie Marley are both reading Rigorous Reading: 5 Access Points for Comprehending Complex Texts by Nancy Frey and Doug Fisher. Georgie says, “It’s a more complicated read than Falling in Love with Close Reading,” which they both read during the school year, “so I thought the summer would be a good time [to read it].”

Jaime is also teaming up with Patty to read The Differentiated School by Carol Ann Tomlinson. She also recommends Readers Front and Center by Dorothy Barnhouse.

And don’t forget to pick up a copy of Be Core Ready, the foundational book of the Core Ready series. Pam Allyn’s “4 Doors to the Core” provide practical steps for aligning your teaching with the Common Core standards in ways that meet the needs of all of your students.

Do you have a great recommendation for professional summer reading? Let us know in the comments below!

The Write Way to Spend Summer

LitLife’s Executive Director Pam Allyn is the new spokesperson for BIC Kid’s Fight for Your Write campaign, an effort meant to get kids writing more, both in and outside of school. Like summer reading, writing over the summer is another great way to help students fight the summer slide. Check out the article below for more info on how to guide your child to writing in meaningful, creative ways this summer.

The Write Way to Spend the Summer

During the school year, children are writing in the classroom – anything from essays to book reports to spelling tests. Motivating children to write in the summer, however, can be a challenge for some parents.

Summertime can be a wonderful opportunity to engage your child in writing for his or her own purposes – not because of a homework assignment. This will lead your child to the discovery that writing can be FUN! It’s also a profoundly special way for you to celebrate the unique perspective and ideas your child has and is developing. Writing in the summer can bring many gifts for both you and your child.

Here are some ideas and tips to keep your child writing during the school break:

  • Keep a Summer Journal: Provide your child with a journal that they can personalize and decorate, and encourage writing in it daily. This will provide children with the outlet to write about places they have seen, or summer trips they have taken, or even more everyday things such as a movie they watched or a game they played with their friends! Value and cherish the small moments: a walk to the park or a late afternoon ice cream. Encourage your child to write these special moments so neither of you ever forget them.
  • Summer Scrapbook: Create a scrapbook or photo album of summer activities, including photographs, ticket stubs, and other mementos. Have your child write captions for the artifacts to describe his experiences and to remember the details.
  • Take it Outside! Writing doesn’t have to happen at a kitchen table. Show your child that writing happens in the outdoor summer sun too. Give your child some chalk and decorate the driveway or walkway on a hot summer afternoon. Take a walk with a journal, recording the bright colors of the flower by the roadside, the sounds of street noise or wonderings about people you notice around you.
  • Spy on the World: For centuries, nature has been the source of inspiration for many great poets and authors. Sometimes children resist writing because they think of it as a solitary activity that has to happen inside seated at a table or desk. Spend days carefully documenting the world and the people in it, and go for field trips in nature or people watching walks. Stop every now and then to sit under a shady tree or on a park bench to jot down your wonderings and observations together.

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Apps for Summer Reading 2.0

Summer Reading is one of the best ways to help students fight the summer slide. With three months out of school, it is important to keep students’ minds engaged and learning all summer long. Last year, we gathered together some of our favorite reading apps to help fight the summer slide. We’re still big fans of all of those apps, so be sure to check them out here. However, the world of apps is constantly evolving, so we thought we’d update our list for 2014 with some of this year’s new discoveries. Check them out, and be sure to share your favorite summer reading apps in the comments below!

NYTimes Opinion App: Great for middle and upper readers, this app gives students access to an expanded NYTimes Opinion Section. Full of authentic examples of argument texts that tackle an array of topics, this app also includes interactive features to make the reading experience more immersive. Students can follow along as stories develop with real-time updates and can participate in live question-and-answer sessions with the columnists. The app does require a subscription, but the education rates are pretty reasonable (4 weeks free, and then $1.13 a week after that).


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A Word’s A Bird: There’s something about long summer days and poetry that just makes sense. This beautiful bilingual app (English and French) gives students a chance to explore the wonderful world of poetry alongside stunning watercolor illustrations. Students can read and listen to poetry in both languages, making it accessible to even the youngest readers.

Spirit Animals: This interactive game combines the digital world with print. Each book in the Spirit Animals series unlocks expanded game-play in the online world of Erdas. The 8 books are all written by best-selling Scholastic authors and follow the stories of 4 different characters. In the game, students create their own characters and complete quests to save Erdas. Students can also participate in forums and make friends with other players in the game.

Bookabi: Summer vacation is full of adventures real and imagined. With Bookabi, students can tell their own stories using the in-app illustrations, as well as their own photos. Stories can be saved and shared during family read-alouds throughout the summer months.


Image via iTunes Store

Scholastic’s Summer Reading Timer: We’re big fans of Scholastic’s Summer Reading Challenge, which encourages students to read all summer long with rewards and reading resources. With the Summer Reading Timer, students have a fun, easy way to keep track of their reading minutes, whether their participating in the challenge, or just keeping a personal record. The app also offers daily tips and articles for parents to help engage students and reading throughout the summer!

LitLife’s top 5 ways teachers can use Google Drive

There are thousands of tech tools and apps built for educators on the market, but here at LitLife, our absolute favorite tool for teachers is Google Drive and it’s suite of features. Below are the top five ways LitLife consultants recommend using Google Drive in your teaching.

 1.)   Team Planning

Units can be written collaboratively on Google Docs, modified collaboratively, and all updates are in real-time, so there’s never confusion on which is the “most recent draft.”  Team members can easily leave each other comments and chat right in the doc, so collaborating even when you can’t all be in the same room at the same time is easy.

 2.)   Sharing Resources

Google Drive is a great way to store and share resources.  Teachers can upload anchor texts, photos of charts, PDFs of student work and templates that can be accessed from anywhere.  Any document on Google Drive can be shared via email. You can decide how much access you want to give to the person (viewing, editing, etc.), meaning specialists, consultants, and parents can all be brought into a document to view information and even collaborate on it. It’s easy and seamless to keep people in the loop (rather than a long email chain of document attachments).

 3.)   Student Writing

Have students write their drafts and published pieces on Google Docs. Students can have their own folders and all documents are stored there. Students can access and work on their documents at home and on any classroom computer, so they don’t have to carry around a drive and work can’t be lost between home and school.  Students’ work will all be stored in one place, creating a virtual portfolio of their writing.

 4.)   Conferences

Teachers and students can have the writing in front of them during a conference. Any notes can be written in directly by the student in a colored font. Teachers can put in comments during a conference that students can check-off when they’ve read and completed it.

 5.)   Revisions

Google Docs allows for revision history, which allows teachers to see all of the writing process.  Teachers (or peer editors or group collaborators) can post a comment on a student draft, the student can make those changes and then check “resolve”, plus add a comment if they like, which creates a neat dialogue around the changes in their work. You can not only see what changes you’ve made, but you can also reread the old draft of the document, and even restore it if you want.

Have you found creative ways to use Google Drive in your classroom? Share them with us in the comments below!

New approaches to ELA instruction

By Todd Feltman

Students who struggle in reading and writing often become disengaged with traditional instructional methods. Boys in particular, who often benefit from kinesthetic learning activities, may become frustrated in reading and writing. It’s crucial, therefore, to develop instructional techniques that promote engagement and move students along the academic continuum.

These literacy instructional techniques for developing text-based writing tasks, reading to locate text-based evidence and writing independently can benefit upper elementary and middle school students. Although they were developed initially to address the needs of boys in grades 5-8, they can be helpful for all students.

Developing a text-based writing task

  • Select relevant and fascinating topics based on student interest. You might consider completing an interest inventory three times during the school year (for example, in September, January and April).
  • Choose complex and interesting readings that contain pictures, diagrams, maps and charts.
  • Visual learners will benefit from these text features.
  • Complete the writing task as if you were a student. You’ll be able to anticipate challenges and potential questions that might arise, and that particular writing task will become easier to teach.
  • Share the task with students and ask for feedback. Student voice is important. If their feedback is appropriate, incorporate their suggestions into a revised task. This will motivate students and give them ownership of their work.
  • Provide a list of clearly written and bulleted task expectations that students can refer to when completing their drafts. A checklist can also be a useful visual tool.
  • Distribute two copies of a monthly calendar page that includes specific calendar date deadlines for drafts. Students can keep one copy in their planners and the other one at home. This page with due dates holds students accountable.

Close reading to locate text-based evidence

  • Before beginning to read any nonfiction text, it’s important to provide an opportunity for students to share their prior knowledge about the topic. This technique also serves as an informal baseline assessment of what they know.
  • Students’ first reading of a text should be for understanding. The second time, students can begin to locate text-based evidence.
  • Encourage students to use a highlighter to annotate text-based evidence.
  • Students should create graphic organizers, including a place for drawing, before beginning the actual writing task. Remind students to use this graphic organizer as a road map while completing the task.

Independent writing process

  • Remind students to skip lines when writing a rough draft. This facilitates easier independent proofreading, peer editing and revising.
  • Provide stretching breaks during independent writing time. Some students are better able to focus on completing writing tasks after a stretching opportunity. Teachers can implement whole-class stretching times or just allow students to stretch when the need arises. Permitting some students to stand while they write can also help them sustain concentration.
  • Require students to proofread their work independently by reading it aloud. Students should then make corrections in blue, green or red pen. Since these three colors are noticeable, students are more likely to include their edits and revisions in their final writing piece.
  • Allow students to type their final drafts. Students will deepen their technological skills and also enjoy selecting an image for their cover page. The expectation of typing a final draft can begin as early as 3rd grade.
  • Arrange one-to-one conferences with students about their graded writing pieces to explain their strengths and areas for improvement.
  • Provide opportunities for students to share their writing with the class. Remind them to speak in their “confident playground voices.” This helps other students listen to what is being said and become active learners.

Guest blogger Todd Feltman has been molding young minds for the last sixteen years in New York City public and independent schools as a classroom teacher, new teacher mentor, literacy coach and journalism/writing teacher.  He is currently a network elementary and middle school achievement coach in English Language Arts.  Todd earned his doctorate in Urban Education from the Graduate Center within the City University of New York.  Todd has three master’s degrees, which include childhood education, literacy education and school supervision/administration. He is passionate about engaging and supporting boys in reading and writing.

*This post originally appeared in the September 26, 2013 issue of New York Teacher from the United Federation of Teachers.