Digital Tools for the Intermediate ELA Classroom

One of my dear friends recently sent me a text message. Her son, entering grade six, failed to meet the benchmark on his state reading test, and is completely uninterested in reading. However, he is completely interested in technology, and “can you help?”

What a tough place to be in, as a parent. Your child has come out of the current public school system without a) a love of reading and b) the ability to achieve a proficient status on a state standardized test. Now, I could go into the many, many flaws in our assessment system, but let’s remove that from the equation. What are we doing to kill the love of reading in our classrooms?

The Book Whisperer, Donalyn Miller, has the same concerns. What she suggests is offering the students the choice in what to read. Good reading skills are not built with test prep periods and practice tests. They are built with reading, pure and simple. And the most important thing to note is that not all students enjoy the same type of reading material.

But how can you provide many different types of materials at a cost that you can afford in your middle school classroom? Or, if you are a parent, how can you provide reading material that will excite your child?

OverDrive-AppFor fiction, I highly recommend the Overdrive app. To see my full post, click here. In a nutshell, Overdrive allows you to borrow digital e-books (and audiobooks!) from your local or county library. All you need is a library card. There are no late fees. No hidden charges. There may still be waiting lists for popular books, but you will be notified and can grab your book when it is convenient for YOU.

storiaI have not tried Storia, but it is an e-book app from Scholastic. Since I am such a huge fan of Scholastic, I may install it on my devices and play with it. I think I can use my bonus points to purchase some titles. Can our students share their thoughts about their books too?

6056bd7b0a1d42163f5dec0c014f2febThere are loads of other sources for nonfiction reading. My favorite this year was Newsela. Each day, Newsela publishes five new current event stories. Every student wins as the lexile level of each story can be adjusted! Some of my students were reading on a fourth grade level, while others could handle high school wording. Newsela leveled the playing field. Many of the articles include quizzes, and a premium version ($$$) will allow you to track progress of individual students, individual classes, and individual common core anchors. The premium version will also allow you to create open-ended questions. The program worked very well for me, but the premium price is a bit steep. A customized quote is recommended.

1269245I’ve started to receive emails about the updated TweenTribune site. It is now being run by Smithsonian Education. I’m definitely leaning towards this tool as it also has an iPad app! What do you think? Do you use either of these?

20130423-1817062In addition, I’m thinking of resubscribing to News-O-Matic. I’ll be watching my free app websites and   I’ve noticed that a yearly News-O-Matic subscription often goes on sale. With five days of original news/week, it might be worth it. See my original post here.

WonderLogo-MathI also absolutely love Wonderopolis. It is less conventional than the other options above, but it is a terrific source for nonfiction that is engaging and exciting! See my full post about Camp Wonderopolis here.

BiblionasiumAnother new tool that I plan on using this year is Biblionasium. It has taken me a while, but I am finally convinced that reading and writing need to be social experiences for my students. They will learn just as much, if not more, from their peers, both near and far. Bilbionasium is a safe, free, social networking site for children ages 6-13 to share their reading experiences. They can read and write reviews, post comments, search for titles, recommend books titles, etc.  I think it will be a terrific way to give my students a voice that is simple, safe, and fun!


Do you have any other tools that I should consider?  Please let me know by commenting below.

Connections are Essential

If I could only choose one take-away from #BLC14, it would be this…

This is Cecil Intermediate School, my school home 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh PA.  We lead 400 students in grades 5 and 6. CecilIntermediateSchoolCecil

This is my Twitter page, @susie.lavallee. 115 followers. 449 Tweets. ipod teacher twitter.58.33 PM

This is Van Meter, Iowa.  Home of 650 total students in grades K-12. vanmeter_ia

This is the Van Meter Community School District librarian, Shannon Miller,  @shannonmmiller.

This is her Twitter page. 34,000 followers.  67,000 Tweets. Shannon Twitter

At the recent Building Learning Communities conference in Boston, I attended Shannon’s session on how a Makerspace can give kids a voice.

This is me tweeting her a message and sharing a picture of my cuties at the Make Shop at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. pgh kids cuties

This is her favoriting my tweet and replying.

pgh reply

This is how I felt about that connection.


Twitter is digital. Twitter is limited to 140 characters. Twitter appears impersonal. But Twitter is fundamentally human.

What you don’t see is my administrator and I talking with Shannon later that evening where she told me that she thought she and my husband would be good friends as they both like to create things, even if it gets messy.  What you don’t see is her hugging me and taking a picture of my wrist while wearing a bracelet that was made by one of her students. What you don’t see is, perhaps, the smile on her student’s face when she tells him/her that I live far away and am still wearing it.

Connections make us feel good. Connections move us to do more. Connections inspire us to keep trying.

This is Brian Mull, @brianjmull.

Brian Twitter

His New Orleans school building was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. On the 1st day of evacuation, he created a blog to help his displaced school community. This was 2005. He hadn’t been taught how to create a blog. Administrators had never been taught how to comment. On the very first day of turmoil, he had 150 comments. For four months, his school administrators planned their triumphant return to their hometown via Skype. Unfortunately, Brian’s position was considered non essential in the rebuilding process. They had to let him go. He went on to work as a speaker and consultant with November Learning for seven years. Now, he has come full circle. He returned to his school this spring as the Innovation and Learning Design Coordinator.

This is me, using Twitter to confirm plans to run with the BLC14 Runners Club via Twitter, prior to attending.

run shot twitter

What you don’t see is me, running through Boston Garden with the Runners Club on a route created by Brian Mull.  What you don’t see is my administrator and I sitting down with Brian to discuss our districts needs and future.  What you don’t see is how his expertise and experience will affect the students of Canon McMillan School District.

Some critics will argue that digital connections are less human than traditional connections.  

They don’t have to be.

There are no assessments that can measure the value of being connected.

But you cannot dispute that connections are vital in the teaching and learning process.

This post is also dedicated to

@jcoughlin24, @math8lpcsd, @KleinErin, @kathycassidy, @AlyciaZimmerman, @GraceLani1

 and many others that I met at #BLC14,

all of whom use technology to enhance human relationships.

Professional Development and Twitter



Twitter always seemed like such a waste of time to me.  I would see the hashtags as I watched Dancing with the Stars and think, “Why would I ever need to do that?”  My husband could spend an easy 30 minutes browsing his feed sharing tidbits about his favorite golfers and their pre-Masters routines.  What was the point??

And then I started to blog, and I realized that Twitter has become THE BEST free professional development tool out there.  Somewhere along the way, I read an article called, “The Teacher’s Guide to Twitter”.  If you are thinking about using Twitter, you can start with this.  It is bit overwhelming, so let me put out some simple steps.

1.  Create a handle.  Mine is @susielavallee.  I wanted to use the @theipodteacher, but it was already taken, and he’s been using it for some time.  Names are good because, eventually, you may want people to know who you are, and your handle will reinforce this!

2.  Select a profile picture.  Nothing screams “New User” like a preset icon.

3.  Think about who you would like to follow.  Start with those you know.  I currently follow a few coworkers including @mrsbarbarino and @DrTaranto.  Our district now has a feed: @canonmacschools.  However, my best advice is to follow some leaders in our field and some organizations that share terrific content.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Leaders in the Field:

@KleinErin – elementary teacher and #edtech guru; blogger; and Scholastic contributor

@rmbyrne – another #edtech guru; excellent content

@coolcatteacher – blogger, author

@TechNinjaTodd – teacher, administrator, #edtech enthusiast







4.  Now that you are following a few, click on who THEY are following and find a few more to follow!  Specifically, go to @KleinErin.  Click on “Following” and click on “Lists”.  She has a great list of people you can follow to build your Personal Learning Network (PLN).  This is how I started, and I highly recommend this method!

5.  Read, tweet, retweet.  Read what interests you.  Tweet to comment.  Retweet to share and give credit where credit is due.  It’s that simple!

6.  Hashtags can be stressful.  Don’t let them get to you.  You will see patterns pop up as you read and consume.  Basically, hashtags are a way to narrow your stream to particular topics.  #edtech is a popular one.  I also look at a stream of posts with the #edapps tag.  I am attending a conference in Boston next week, so I’m looking at #BLC14 for the latest updates on what to expect.  I found out that there will be a runners group each morning!

I currently do not use Twitter to communicate with students or parents, but listening to @TechNinjaTodd speak at #flipcon14, I may have to revisit this idea.  Stay tuned!



Drive About: Number Neighborhood

Age Scale: 2-6
Device: iPhone, iPod, and iPad
Quick Line: Cruise into Early Math
What Educators Need to Know:
Gentlemen, start your engines… Drive About: Number Neighborhood is finally here and ready for exploration!

Give your little learner the green light with this new app from Artgig! As we’ve come to expect from this innovative company, Drive About: Number Neighborhood is a delightful adventure for the toddler/preschool set, introducing them to concepts such as counting, ordering, matching, number identification, and number writing.


Toot Toot! Start your tour by visiting the slippery Sea Pickles. Whack those with the target number as they pop up from their holes. Next, it is Whale Feeding time! Slingshot cabbages into your adorable buddy’s mouth Angry-Birds-style. Skyrocket into Cloud Writing and trace numbers from one to ten. Drive on and use your Construction Blocks to stack numbers to 20 correctly. Strive to balance your See-Saw sums with either individual numbers or combinations of a few. March on to clean up the ‘hood by counting and using a Space Vacuum. Don’t forget to visit the Bakery where you will decorate your cut-out cookies with matching toppings. Catch the snowboarding yak on your way downhill, and help him touch the flags in order. Tired yet? Relax by expressing your artistic ability, or lack thereof, and Paint by Numbers.

Whew! Sounds like a lot of practice doesn’t it? Well, you are correct, but it is FUN! My three-year-old has been visiting this Number Neighborhood frequently.  And even though he pretends not to, my six-year-old hits the town often as well. The graphics are endearing and the sound effects are a hoot! Best of all, the games are designed to provide your students and children with a foundation to mathematical thinking. Numbers, reasoning, critical thinking, and problem solving are all represented with this one app. In all honesty, I can’t see how little ones wouldn’t learn from this app!

Price: $2.99 and worth every penny


Clicker Docs


Clicker Docs

Age Scale:  5-12

Device:  iPad only

Quick Line:  Top of the Line Elementary Word Processor

What Educators Need to Know:

Are you looking for a way to make writing a little easier for some of your struggling students?  Do you teach primary grades and are frustrated with the lack of content students provide due to their limited vocabularies?  If you are looking to advance your young students in writing, Clicker Docs is for you!

Clicker Docs is an elementary word processor for the iPad.  It was developed by the Crick Software Company which has been in business for over 20 years.  This team is the real deal.  They have developed a product that will easily personalize your students’ writing experiences with a few excellent features.  First, Clicker Docs uses something called a “word predictor”.  When it is enabled, the predictor will suggest words as a child types.  Students who are stuck mid-word can tap their choice without worrying about spelling.  It encourages them to, perhaps, try words that they may have avoided due to spelling frustration.  The best part?  The Sound Shift option allows students to listen to the word before selecting!  Second, Clicker Docs has a built-in reader available.  Once a child punctuates a sentence, it will be read to them.  Often children need to hear their writing before finding errors, but reading their own writing is not always effective.  This helps tremendously.  Last, numerous free word banks are available through the app itself.  Don’t like the options?  Enter your own word bank for any topic of study.  These features really make this app a stand-out.

I used the app with my own children, and they loved it.   They were especially delighted by the Reader function.  Hearing their own choices read aloud provided such a sense of ownership.  The word predictor was also super helpful.  E has a vivid imagination but can get hung up on words that he feels he can’t spell.  It slows down his process which is very frustrating.  We tried a document about a beach vacation as we are obviously looking forward to our family trip.  The word bank was right on the money.

Clicker Docs can do just about anything that a typical word processor can do such as change font size, type, and color.  Students can customize backgrounds and easily share their work through email, air printing, Google Drive, and even Dropbox!  It is a kid-friendly assistive features that really elevate its compatibility, however.  If you are a learning support, autistic support, ELL, or primary grade teacher, you should really take a good look at this app.  It will help your students reach a very high level of success without heartbreak.

Price:  $30.99

DocScan HD Pro

doc scan hd pro

DocScan HD Pro

Age Scale:  10+

Device:  iPhone, iPod, and iPad

Quick Line: No Scanner?  No Problem!

What Educators Need to Know:

How many times do you wish you had a copy machine in your classroom?  I mean, the printer is nice, but sometimes, you just need…one.more.copy.  So, you trek down to the copy machine, wait in line, waste your precious time.

Well, wait no more.  Snap a picture with your iPhone camera while in DocScan HD Pro.  Drag and set a perimeter, choose color or black and white, and save that sucker!  It even removes shadows and corrects curled or wrinkled pages!  Continue scanning and adding pages to your document, or export your new pdf to email, Dropbox, or Evernote.  Create folders for subjects, topics, or skills.  Preserve your best resources digitally or print them when you are in a bind for that single copy!

I have found so many uses for this app.  I’ve certainly scanned my share of lost/misplaced documents for students.  And I’ve copied collaborative student notes, so individuals can add on  at home.  But most importantly, I’ve used it to post resources to Edmodo, the social platform we use for our classroom.  Students who are absent don’t have to wait for work to come home.  They simply log on and print.

DocScan has made reproducing documents so easy and convenient.  I absolutely love it!

Price:  $1.99