Three APPS to Help Support Students with Special Needs: Helping all Kids Grapple with Grade Level Expectations  

by Dr. Bryan Drost

I had the best time with teachers the last few days—curriculum mapping away.  It’s what curriculum directors live for: discussions of vertical and horizontal alignment.  However, about halfway through the second day I could tell that I had “lost” two teachers: more specifically, two intervention specialists.  Attempting to bring them into the conversation, we had a bit of a heart-to-heart, and this phrase came out “My kids can’t do these standards.”

My heart broke with these sentence: of course, part of it is that we haven’t made the shift that students with special education needs are part of the “ALL” in all of our students, but at the same time, it was clear that these teachers needed some strategies to help work with their students. Although I knew that in the short time I had to work with these educators, I would not be able to solve all, I did know that they were capable and that they could use APPS to help students acquire our college and career-ready standards.

As we worked together, I shared with her my version of the acronym APPS for technology integration within the classroom: how will an application help students Acquire meaningful content standards; how will an application help students Progress through meaningful feedback; how will an application measure Proficiency of student learning, and how will an application Support the student in learning content.  (You can find more examples of this in my blogs on Achieve the Core’s Aligned blog at

The following are three APPS that I shared with her that I believe you too can use to help redefine your classroom and facilitate higher order learning activities that encourage self-directed learning and ongoing assessment for our students with special needs as well as the rest.

One of the concerns with some special needs students is that they can’t read the complex text that is required on them at grade level.  Research has consistently proven that we need to make sure kids get exposure and regular practice with grade-level text.  In other words, simply giving students texts that are not at their lexile level is problematic.  So what to do?  Why not try one of these free Google tools.  Take on an grade-level text, maybe from Newsela. Download the freeTextTeaser extension.  TextTeaser allows students to summarize the content from a webpage as a list of sentences or in paragraph form.  What’s really great is that you adjust the output using a slider to give different detail levels of the passage or article.  This gives teachers the opportunity to frontload texts for students so that they can participate in those rich, on-grade level conversations while the intervention specialist is working in small-group or one-on-one with helping the students make sense of the larger passage. An alternative to TextTeaser is SMMRY, a tool that performs basically the same task.TextTeaser

Desmos is my second APP for you all.  Often, students with special needs that are struggling math need some type of visual to represent mathematical relationships and as a result, when this isn’t provided, will shut down and become frustrated.  To be frank, many of us need those visuals.  In addition to helping provide a visual, Desmos harnesses the social nature of online interactions into meaningful math inquiry.  For example, by using the Function Carnival tooll, students are given the freedom to experiment with functions and are given direct feedback that allows them to revise their thinking and improve their mathematical practices and improve on that sense of perseverance. Lastly and what is most powerful about this tool is that the system also gives teachers the ability to randomly pair students with electronic devices, allowing students to create questions and challenges for each other based on aligned content. This can help students with special needs as it provides a model for mathematical thinking. Check it out at  In Ohio, at least, keep in mind that this is a crucial tool that students need to be exposed to as this is the same calculator interface we will be using on our State Achievement Tests.DESMOS

My final app is really one that can be used in all disciplines, and isn’t limited to say math or ELA.  As students progress into higher and higher grade levels or as content gets more and more challenging, it is essential to help students see the relationships between ideas. Often times students with special needs that have difficulty with organizing information need support in keeping ideas and these relationships straight. Ideament is a great app that allows you to draw a diagram – a mini map, concept map, flow chart, etc. and convert it to a text outline and vice versa.  This is a great way to help students with special needs organize information for something that they need to write, but also can be used to in relationship to text.  For example, copying and pasting a portion of text into a word document will allow the software to create a diagram of the text to help students organize this text and make sense of the relationships amongst ideas, perhaps say in a science text. Students also have the option of manipulating these diagrams to reorganize them in ways so that they too can learn how to process the information.  Although it is appropriate for all students, adults can benefit from it as well. I used when I started writing this blog!Ideament

While these APPS don’t solve everything, they do transform classrooms as areas of grade-level learning for all students.  Through the use of APPS, I know that you will discover additional ways to help support all students.  I encourage you to respond to this blog or e-mail us to tell us how you’re using them.  I’d love to learn more too!


Using Model Essays: Writing Show-and-Tell

by Tricia Ebner, M.S. Ed.

During the past few days, I had the opportunity to attend a conference with teachers from across the country as we prepared presentations to showcase some work we have been doing over the past year. One of the comments I heard more than once was, “It helps to see what other presentations look like.” We like seeing examples or models as we work, so that we have an idea of the target we are aiming to hit.

Our students are no different. They, too, like to see examples of what their work my look like. When it comes to writing, we have two excellent sources of models for students to use. One is through the Vermont Writing Collaborative models available through Achieve the Core. This collection of student writing samples provides the student writing samples as well as annotated copies of the samples. Another is the Practice Test Scoring Guide for the Ohio State ELA test, available through the student resources page on the ODE web site. This provides a range of student writing samples to the prompt on the practice test, along with the scoring guide and rationale for the scoring level.

A good way to use these resources is to begin by providing students with the rubric used for that kind of writing. Consider using your building or district’s writing rubric, or you may want to use Ohio’s rubric for informative/explanatory writing or argumentative writing, depending on the student model(s) you’ll be using. Having students read through the rubric carefully, annotating key words and developing an understanding of what it means, is important. Once students have an understanding of the rubric, handing them student samples, without annotations or scores, and asking them to evaluate the samples against the rubric, is a powerful exercise. I’ve found it works well to have students work individually at first and then come together within small groups to discuss their evaluations. When I use a variety of student samples within the same class, I have the groups share their evaluations while I project the clean writing sample on the screen. The discussions around the qualities of these essays help students not only see model essays but also the process of how to go about reflecting and evaluating their own work.

As you’re beginning to think about organizing and preparing for the school year, consider including a lesson or two looking at model essays and evaluating them. By taking time in the first few weeks of school to do this, students will have a strong sense of the targets they are aiming to hit during the year. When we have an idea of what our work could ultimately look like, we can see more easily the path to reaching that goal.


One Thing

By Tricia Ebner, M.S.Ed., NBCT

Every year friends and family ask me if I’m ready to wind down the school year, and I usually reply, “There is no winding down–we wind up.” There are so many end-of-year activities added into the typical academic day, and squeezing it all in can be challenging.

Yet even in the rush of poetry coffee houses, 20Time presentations, and mock trials, I find my morning and afternoon commutes filled with reflection. What went well this year? What needs work? How could I change what I’m doing to make it better?

Over 20 years ago, Indiana Writing Project leaders encouraged me to focus on changing one thing each year. Trying to change too much is overwhelming and exhausting. Focusing on that one thing gives me permission to devote intense focus to the change I want to make. I’ve been trying to follow that advice ever since.

Last May, the “one thing” was inspired by our technology department. Eighth grade moved into one-to-one technology for the 2016-17 school year, and we had a brand-new LMS to go along with it. My principal asked me to be part of the team rolling it out and supporting our teachers in learning and using it, so my one thing was learning how better to integrate technology into my classroom. Two years ago I spent time analyzing my classroom assessments to ensure they were aligned to our standards. Three years ago it was mapping out a plan for implementing 20Time in my classroom. The “one thing” approach has been an ongoing journey.  

This year, I’m mulling over several options for my “one thing.” There are always lots of possibilities and options: developing a stronger focus on vocabulary, for instance, or continuing to search for fiction and nonfiction texts that will challenge my gifted children while still being appropriate to their social and emotional development. The one that keeps resonating with me, though, is working on narrative writing.

The challenge I have with narrative writing is that I tend to settle it lower on the priority list because it’s not tested on the state assessments.. That’s truly not a good reason; narrative writing is still part of our standards and needs attention, too. It’s also a great entry point into writing and getting to know students; middle school kids love storytelling and sharing their lives. When I don’t provide opportunity for that, I miss out on the chance to build those relationships with my students.

I’ve blogged before about ways of addressing narrative writing, such as this blog about using Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick as a springboard for writing. Earlier this year I asked my students to take a poem by Gary Soto and write the story within the poem as a story, in prose, rather than in poetic form. I know there are other approaches, too. So this summer, I will take some time to investigate ways others are addressing and incorporating narrative writing within their classrooms. I’ll start by looking at some of the mini-tasks and modules on the Literacy Design Collaborative web site, and then I’ll branch out from there. A few hours this summer can result in big payoffs next school year, and it’s an investment well worth making for my students’ learning and my own professional growth.

So let me challenge you. As you drive to and from work in these remaining days of the year, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What worked really well in your classroom this year, and why?
  2. What didn’t work so well and could use some improvement?
  3. How could you change that to make the learning and classroom better?

And most importantly . . .

What is one thing you can change to make learning better in your classroom next year?


What about grammar?

by Tricia Ebner, M.S. Ed. & NBCT

As an undergraduate, I was required to take a course in English grammar. At the time, nearly 30 years ago, it made sense. After all, my middle and high school English classes had grammar as part of our studies. I had spent hours with my Warriner’s textbooks, carefully copying sentences and then dividing them into subjects and verbs, or learning how to diagram prepositional phrases. Grammar is part of English, right?blog post graphic 4.23.17

Well, yes. But let’s be honest: there’s not too many of us that chose to become language arts teachers because we love grammar. I’ll bet that there are far more of us whose passion for English language arts stems from our experiences with reading and writing. Yet the question of where grammar fits into the curriculum comes up fairly often in the work I do with other classroom teachers.

The answer I have for them probably isn’t everyone’s favorite. In fact, if you’re among those amazing few who love analyzing sentence structures and grammatical constructs, I know you’re not going to like this.

The best form of grammar instruction comes in our work with reading and writing.

There’s research to back this up; it’s a subject that enough of us are interested in, that The Atlantic ran this story, “The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar,” in 2014. The article plainly states what I’ve been learning through observation, trial, and error: students gain just as much about grammar through reading and writing as they do through direct grammar instruction. When my eighth graders and I spend a class period looking at the construction of the Declaration of Independence, we’re not just studying parallel structure. We make note of how Jefferson used grammatical structures to emphasize his points. During the past week, I’ve been giving feedback to my sixth graders on drafts of informative consumer guides, and I embed little grammar “micro-lessons” into my comments, pointing out the use of the apostrophe in the contraction for “it is” and how there is no apostrophe in the possessive form of “it.” While my comments may have to be repeated on another writing piece down the road, the fact that I am helping them see the power of semicolons in their own writing makes the punctuation mark more meaningful to them.

I know this particular approach to grammar isn’t neat, clean, and orderly. I am not checking off boxes in front of my standards with this approach. There aren’t folders full of worksheets just waiting to be distributed.

So what does good grammar instruction look like these days?

  1. It’s embedded in the other activities going on within the classroom. When my sixth graders spend a couple of weeks researching the R.M.S. Titanic, for example, they learn that ship names are considered the same as novel titles, and are put into italics. When the seventh graders write narratives based on the illustrations from Chris Van Allsburg’s book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, we work on proper punctuation around dialogue. In those instances, I may model it using the document camera or my computer and projector, but the real lessons come in the individual feedback, through conferencing or comments on drafts.
  2. It’s timely and tailored. I don’t tend to give a mini-lesson on a grammar issue unless i see the majority of the class needs it. For too many years, I taught about commas and coordinating conjunctions in April, because that’s when we were talking about conjunctions. What works is teaching this to students when they need it.
  3. It’s done with an attitude of caring and improving. When I conference with students or write comments on their drafts, I make it clear that I am doing this because I want their papers to be the best they can be. Pointing out grammatical errors isn’t done in a punitive way, with a tone of, “You should know better.” Instead, it’s done to help and support the learner. I am not simply correcting the errors for the students; they are the writers and need to make those corrections themselves.
  4. It’s done in both reading and writing. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the focus I put on sentence fragments when we read Hatchet in sixth grade. Paulsen uses a good deal of sentence fragments in the novel, especially in the beginning, as main character Brian Robeson finds himself unexpected flying a plane across the Canadian wilderness. Almost every year, someone will ask me, “How come he gets to write sentence fragments, but we’re not allowed to?” I counter the question with one of my own: “Why do you think Paulsen does that? What is his purpose?” The discussion goes far beyond the standard grammatical construction of complete sentences. Students soon realize that those fragment are used a key moments, they reflect the way a person’s brain works when in a stressful situation. A 12-year-old boy having to crash-land a plane in a lake is not going to think in carefully constructed compound-complex sentences. His thoughts are going to come in fragments. By the time we finish our discussion, students understand that fragments have a place in writing and can be very powerful, when the timing and purpose is right.

As professional educators, we need to think carefully about our purposes and priorities. Being able to read, write, listen, and speak effectively is our goal. While grammar certainly has a role in all of those skills, it is a role that is dependent on context. Teaching grammar in isolation doesn’t help us achieve our goals; instead, it throws up barriers and tends to make students dislike our classes. By embedding our grammar instruction in natural ways, through the reading, writing, speaking, and listening we do, we are helping our students gain proficiency in strong speaking and writing skills. This is far more powerful than any subject-verb worksheet will ever be.

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.


The Power of a Quote

Getting class started in an interesting, powerful way can be a challenge. While there are scores of bell ringers and strategies out there, sometimes none of that is appealing. One idea shared at the NCTE Convention in Atlanta last month impressed me with its simplicity and potential: using a quote as a springboard for writing.

The speaker, Jeff Anderson, challenged us to spend two minutes writing in response to this quote, from e.e. Cummings: “Hope bounces.” Admittedly, a roomful of middle school language arts teachers may be a more agreeable, willing audience than a roomful of middle or high school students. The beauty of this approach, though, is that it doesn’t ask for an analysis. The directions are simple: Respond to this quote: ___________________________. The response can take a range of formats; the only “wrong” response is failing to write anything at all.


Choosing a compelling quote is one of the most critical elements here, especially at the beginning. The first few times this is done, having quotes that are powerful and can be interpreted in a number of ways. Giving students a variety of options for responding, from lists to poems to letters to free, stream-of-consciousness responses, invites them to focus more on their thoughts than on format. To get started with this, I have selected some key quotes within our current focus of study, A Christmas Carol. After posting the quote and sharing the focus–on responding more than format–I sit down to write my own response as well. This allows me to model the approach to this and provides me with a model to share.

This doesn’t have be limited to the language arts classroom, either. Consider how students in social studies might respond to a quote questioning a scientific theory or law. How could this be useful in a social studies class? Using a quote from a primary source document in social studies could spark writing and a powerful, engaging class discussion.

The simplicity of this approach doesn’t limit its power. Think of it this way: share a quote, write for two minutes, and invite students to share with a partner or two for another couple of minutes. Within the first five minutes of class, students have been engaged in reading and writing in response to that text. It also helps them get into the mindset of our language arts class; whatever might be weighing on their mind as they walk in the door can be set aside a bit more easily with this focus on a quote. Using a quote as a writing springboard is a win-win for students and teacher.

Looking for a resource of quotes? Try a site like

Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

How To Visualize Tone In Writing



Teaching students how to identify the tone of a piece of writing is difficult. Teaching them how to use words to shape the tone of a piece of their writing is challenging.  At the recent NCTE National Conference in Atlanta, I had a chance to attend a session led by 3 children’s book illustrators.  The focus was on using illustrations as a tool for writing.  As I listened to their insights on the process they use to create illustrations and interpret  the author’s text, I had a lightbulb moment.  What if students could view their words as the tools to draw pictures in the mind of their readers? And, like illustrators, how might they use color tones to help them understand the actual tone of their writing?

I found Erin E. Stead’s thoughtful comments to be most helpful in shaping my own ideas on how to make tone visible.  She looks at the ideas and emotions of a story and chooses a color palette. This made me wonder. What if students selected a color palette for a text they are reading or writing as a way to help them visualize the emotion of the piece? Could they go one step further and actually change the font color or ink color of the words that are creating the tone? What if they made a word palette to use as they developed their own writing? Erin also suggested students begin a picture reference library.  Imagine if students collected images that made them feel happy, sad, curious, angry, excited, and used those images as a starting point to develop tone in their writing? They could add to this collection quotes from literary or informational text that also made them feel a certain emotion.  Finally, Erin talked about the role of pictures in helping to create tone.  As an illustrator, there are times where she strikes the author’s words because she can draw them instead.  This made me think about storyboarding as a way for students to be intentional about the tone they want to set in their own writing.  Once the drawings are complete, they can become the jumping off point for students to use words to create the same tone. I liked Erin’s idea that sometimes the pictures themselves become the text, allowing the reader to put their own sound into the story.

Julie Kuo, illustrator of the book, The Sound of Silence, shared how colors can create noise in an illustration. She uses visual devices like volume that can be turned up and down.  Julie challenges herself to consider how a shape or line would look like if it were angry or frustrated. What color would it be? How does she feel when she draws it?  I liked this exercise. What if students played with words in this same way, as devices that can turn the volume of their text up or down? What words would make the text more happy, more angry, more silly?  Can the students look at a piece of text and illustrate it? Julie Kuo feels that an illustration is a way to compress words or add a new angle to the text.  I feel that an illustration might be an entry point for students to begin to understand the tone of the story or text.  Asking students to explain why they chose a particular color palette and subject to illustrate the text allows them to do a type of close reading and analysis.

Brendan Wenzel, illustrator of They All Saw A Cat, added to the conversation around color and tone.  He keeps a mood board that is full of colors and images that are inspiration for his illustrations.  As teachers, I think that we can help students curate a collection of words and images that can act as mentor texts for being mindful of tone in their own writing.  Wouldn’t it be interesting to have students create their own set of crayons or colored pencils that were labeled with sounds and emotions instead of color words.   

Our ELA standards begin to specifically address tone in 5th grade, but students as young as kindergarten can begin to understand how words and pictures can make a reader feel happy and sad, silly or frustrated. I am now looking at illustrations through a new lens.  Teaching about tone has become much more colorful!