Monthly Archives: February 2013

See it now: How TutorMate turns office workers into allies for kids’ literacy


Check out this great new video about TutorMate, the project from Innovations for Learning that allows office workers help young children learn to read by giving just half an hour of their time a week.

The video was produced by Make It Better, a Chicago-area nonprofit that gave IFL its 2012 Philanthropy Award for “Educational Innovation, National.”

Enjoy it! And feel free to pass it along.






Staff reflections: Jessica Nasset

In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work.

Today: Jessica L. Nasset, Teacher Ambassador in Seattle

IFL photo

My dream was always of being a teacher. I can remember back in fifth grade asking my teachers if I could clean the chalkboards or help grade papers or to change out bulletin boards. I wanted to stay in at recess to talk with my teacher or go help out in another classroom.

I thought teaching would be the best job … and I was right.

To begin my quest to be a teacher, I attended Central Washington University where I received my Bachelors of Education degree in Elementary Education and Early Childhood Education. While teaching near Seattle, I attended Seattle Pacific University where I received my Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction.

From there I moved to Las Vegas, Nev., for a new adventure in teaching. After a few years, I knew that I wanted to continue learning how to be the best teacher I could be. With this in mind, I chose to complete the rigorous National Teaching Certification program from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.

After a year of hard work, I was very pleased to become National Board Certified Teacher.

I have been working in education now for 10 years. My teaching history includes working as a K-8 substitute, and teaching kindergarten and/or first grade in Title I at-risk schools. I have also worked with a private school to create and establish a new kindergarten program.

During all of this, I always made an effort to volunteer, plan and oversee school fundraisers, plan and implement school professional developments, participate in family academic nights and offer my help to other teachers who were striving to become National Board Certified Teachers.

With my educational experiences in and out of the classroom, I found a real interest in teaching other teachers about education. After checking in with many of my educational contacts, I came across a non-profit educational company that was looking for a Teacher Ambassador to work with the Seattle School District.

Let me just say that finding Innovations for Learning was another dream come true! I have been able to indulge in my interest of helping other teachers, yet still work with young learners as well.

Having just come out of the classroom and being new to the “coaching” aspect, I am finding that the variety of schools, teachers, students, and classrooms to be of great interest. I am lucky to be able to visit multiple classrooms a day and see the variety of teaching and learning that is going on. There are so many different personalities, that it is fun to get to know each and every teacher and to see their relationships with their students.

Telling stories of my past teaching experiences and listening to current stories about teaching and learning, from teachers and students alike, easily creates my own relationships with everyone and helps to include me in the classroom dynamic. Sharing stories, whether it is with teachers or students, is what grows relationships and connects everyone together into one big classroom community and I enjoy being a part of that.

As a Teacher Ambassador I have had the privilege of coaching other teachers in their quest to enhance their reading instruction and to help them engage their students by adding educational technology into the classroom.

I have found that being a Teacher Ambassador is very eclectic in its job description. I am a teacher, a co- worker, a resource guide, a cheerleader, a technology guru, a reading coach, a “problem fixer,” a counselor, and a friend. I am the person who will praise your successes, help with your struggles, and lend an ear or a shoulder when you are just too overwhelmed to do one more task.

If I can do these things, and do them well, my teachers and their students will be successful. If they are successful, it will bring about a new path for technology and coaching in education, and that will in return have a big impact on the future.

A lot of teachers have asked me “why do love your job so much?” Well … here is my answer: I love education! I love to learn (about anything – random facts are my favorite, though), I love to teach (by inspiring others to love learning), I love to talk about education/teaching, and most importantly, to help other educators create a successful classroom.

I get to indulge myself in all of those aspects within my job. Nothing is better than being able to support a teacher by boosting their confidence with praise or showing them a new teaching technique and seeing a new spark of passion for their teaching! When a teacher is passionate about their teaching, the students will be passionate about their learning.

Engaging students in their learning is a key factor for academic success. When I walk into a room at the beginning of the year and am introduced as the “iPod lady,” I can already see the interest in learning rise. Students are very interested in and knowledgeable about technology. To be able to give them a fun, interesting and engaging way to learn and practice reading is very rewarding.

It is this interest in learning for both teachers and students that motivates me to do my very best as a Teacher Ambassador.

Jessica Nasset

Staff reflections: Tahra Tibbs

In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work. Today: Tahra Tibbs, Teacher Ambassador in the District of Columbia

Tahra Achieve2As an educator first, it brings me sheer delight to serve both teachers and students as an Innovations for Learning ambassador and coach.

I have the pleasure of unlocking the door of doubt, confusion, resistance and fear, and partnering with teachers to ignite change.

This partnership is an integral component to properly cultivating change and nurturing a spirit of excellence in the classroom. Therefore, at the foundation of this relationship with the teacher is trust. My non-threatening approach encourages teachers to see me as valuable resource and team member.

I was a classroom teacher for five years, mainly in Virginia. From 2007 to 2012, I worked for Achieve 3000, a private company that provides web-based tools for teaching literacy, training administrators and teachers in the Washington, D.C., metro area, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

I joined Innovations for Learning in July. Now I coach teachers to use our TeacherMate literacy-learning program most effectively, and help them become better reading teachers by serving as a resource and partner in the process of learning.

I love to visit classrooms and hear the captivating hum of engagement.

It is such a joy to see students on-task, interacting with games and activities on TeacherMate. I smile from ear to ear when I sit next to students in their comfy spot in the classroom and hear them “echo read” in Story Read and Record. This is a program in which students hear a page being read to them, and then are recorded as they read the same page aloud. They listen to the playback of both versions to see if they had read it correctly.

To hear students use phonetic clues to sound out words, then see them gleam with elation to hear the fruits of their labor!

We celebrate together with high-fives as learners match the correct rhyme unit and prevent an animal from missing the trampoline in Circus game. (That’s an activity that uses the names of animals to teach students how to identify the initial sounds of a word.)

The teachers are also beaming with excitement, as they scan the room and see their students purposefully engaged. When the class is so productively occupied, they are able to focus on the small group of students in front of them with differentiated, targeted instruction. I have observed that teachers who have established a good classroom management plan arrive at this place sooner.

It is my goal to make this model environment I have described the standard in all the classes that I serve.

I embrace the challenge and anticipate the adventure with great expectation!!!

Tahra Tibbs

Google ‘evangelist’: Web revolution just beginning


“The Web is changing the way our students learn.”

That was Jaime Casap, Google’s Global Education Senior Evangelist (apparently his actual job title), speaking this week as the keynoter at the Florida Educational Technology Conference, in Orlando.

T.H.E. Journal‘s Chris Riedel reports:

Casap showed a picture of a young boy sitting on a couch, laptops flanking him on either side. “This is my 11-year-old,” he said, “who, on one machine, is playing Minecraft and, on the other machine, is watching videos on how to play Minecraft.”

This is how our students are learning. They are teaching each other and they are learning from the Web.

According to Casap, in a matter of a few weeks, his son went from learning how to play the game to playing the game to collaborating with friends on playing the game to recording videos in order to teach others how to play the game.

“Learning doesn’t happen Monday through Friday, from this time to that time,” he said. “This generation of kids are growing up consistently learning all the time.”

For Jaime Casap, this new environment only solidifies a teacher’s position as “the most important person in the classroom.”

K-12, he said, is on the cutting edge of what education models are going to look like, making it more important than ever that we “create and develop great teachers.” And these teachers, he continued, need to use the tools at their disposal to build digital leaders.

And this revolution, Casap said, is just at the beginning.

Read here for more on Casap’s remarks.

Tutors, kids benefit in Detroit


The Detroit News tells how a tutor, working at her desk at General Motors, is helping a second-grader learn to read.

The two are 20 miles apart, but connected by headphones and laptop computers.  Software from Innovations for Learning’s TutorMate program is making the session possible.

Seven-year-old Daniel Estrella-Rodriguez “meets” twice a week with Tracie Zettler, of GM. She’s one of 120 volunteers working with IFL in the Detroit

Former Detroit News logo

Former Detroit News logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The twice-weekly tutoring has improved the 7-year-old’s ability to read — from 14 to 35 words a minute. It also has benefited Zettler, who has donated her time to other causes such as Habitat for Humanity and the Special Olympics.

“I love to help people and I love to volunteer,” said Zettler, a logistics planner at GM. “I have butterflies when we talk. I feel like I want to hug him. And he tries so hard.”

Daniel, a quiet boy with brown hair and an easy smile, said, “Miss Tracie helps me sound out a word if I don’t know it” and she “tells me that I’m good and that I’m paying attention.”

At GM, the program is so popular there’s a waiting list for would-be tutors.

The second-grader’s teacher tells the News’ Jennifer Chambers that the 30-minute tutoring sessions, which began in October, have helped him beyond improving his ability to read.

“I’ve seen an increase in his self-esteem,” said teacher Cecelia Ly. “They get special time with someone who cares about them. It makes them feel special.”

Read the whole story here.

photo: The Detroit News  

The ‘brilliant’ bus: Has knowledge, will travel


She calls it Estella’s Brilliant Bus, and she uses it to bring computer-based learning to some of the most forgotten schoolchildren in America.

Estella Mims Pyform grew up in these backwaters, a daughter of the segregated South who started working in the fields at age 6 as a migrant worker, her family annually going up the road, as they called it, from the Okeechobee mudlands of Florida to the hills of New York State.

“Beans, potatoes, strawberries, corn, apples, tomatoes,” she recalls one quiet morning on board the technology-laden bus, her eyes still seeing those sweat-gained crops in the grip of her hands.

All the while, until she was 25 years old, she and her six siblings went to school.

“My father had a different concept from most people. His attitude about education was, we as parents need to do what we have to do to make sure you go to school. So if you have to work a little harder, fine. So even in New York when we traveled, if school was open, we went.”

She earned four college degrees and became a teacher, guidance counselor and high school drill-team coach back in her hometown of Belle Glade, an Everglades town so destitute that it was the subject of the famous 1960s Edward R. Murrow TV documentary, “Harvest of Shame,” that opened America’s eyes to home-grown poverty.

She notched 50 years with the Palm Beach County School District, interrupted by two years in which she attempted to retire, only to come back as an elementary-school guidance counselor because she still saw much to do.

“In working with the low-income families, I saw so much that was needed,” Pyfrom says. For some of them, “not even soap to bathe with. Or detergent to wash the clothes with.”

After a while, “you start asking yourself, what can I do to make a difference to this population of people?”

They were her people. She’d gone to school with them. She’d taught, coached and counseled their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She knows they’ll be lost if the education system passes them by.

Just as urgently, they need computer skills.

“It’s absolutely necessary,” says this 76-year-old who grew up without a radio, never mind a TV. “We’re in an age of technology and computers. Just to fill out a job application — you can’t do that on paper anymore.”

The idea of a bus seemed a natural way to spread the knowledge to these Everglade towns, located miles from everywhere else. “I couldn’t think of a better way to get it out to them.”

DSC_0016She had the vehicle built to her specifications, from the wheels and chassis on up, designing it so that she could be driver, if need be. She spent about $900,000 of her own money, a hefty chunk of her retirement savings after a lifetime of work, which included night work in addition to her day jobs. She sold insurance and taught evening classes, all while raising four children of her own (two with Ph.Ds) and three kids of her youngest sister.

She started in 2009, but had to take a few months off to nurse her husband of 60 years, Willie Pyfrom, the retired director of the celebrated Glades Central High School marching band, from a dire illness. The bus, and its modern tools of knowledge, finally got rolling about two years ago.

Instead of passenger seats, the interior is lined along each side with formica counters, swivel seats and 17 computer terminals, interconnected and wired by satellite, WiFi and hot spot for the Internet. There’s a steady hum of a generator, keeping it all running.

From its base in a locked storage center in West Palm Beach, Fla., she rolls the bus on Mondays to an elementary school in rural Pahokee, where 3rd, 4th and 5th graders study science and math to prepare them for statewide standardized tests. On other days, she takes the vehicle to community centers in Lake Worth and Riviera Beach, where children as young as 3 and 4 climb aboard to learn basic skills of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.

Source: NBC Nightly News

Source: NBC Nightly News

The kids will board the bus in shifts of 30 or 45 minutes, about 80 kids in all in the course of a day.

When she teaches preschools, Pyfrom insists a parent sit alongside. Together, a mom and a child will look at the same computerized lessons on adjoining screens: cheery exercises in primary colors that ask the kids to identify letters of the alphabet with sounds they hear over a pair of headphones.

Many of the children are brand new to computers. Some don’t know how to use a mouse. In those cases, the kids will point to the answer on the screen; the moms will click the mouse for them.

The parental involvement is a big part of it, Pyfrom believes. She gives parents the children’s pass codes, so they can continue the lessons at home if they have the Internet. Many don’t. In those cases, she hands out applications for a Comcast program providing low-income households with Internet service for $10 a month and notebook computers for $149 — affordable bridges across the digital divide.

“It allows them to spend quality time with the kids,” she says, “and this whole process is helping the kids with their readiness skills. Because if you put a kid in school and they’re ready to learn, they’re going to move.”

Robbie Everett, a media specialist at Pahokee Elementary School, is very glad that Pyfrom’s been bringing her bus up State Road 80 and parking it in the school parking lot each Monday. The school has a computer lab, but with only enough space for students to attend once a week. With the bus, many children double their access to computers to twice a week.

“It really helps our kids,” said Everett, who had Pyfrom as her 4th-grade teacher and then knew her as a school-district colleague. “The children love it. They really love it.” One thing they love is the chance to play games. But the lessons are slyly rigged; to play a game, you have to get an answer right the first time. On Estella’s Brilliant Bus, you can bet those kids are concentrating on the questions.

All the while, the computers are generating detailed readouts showing children’s progress through the specific skills required in Florida standards: root words, content clues, synonyms, and the like. Children need a 90 percent score to move to the next level, or else repeat the lesson. According to Pyfrom, the readouts are recording an accumulating account of student progress.

How long will she keep this up? “I’m going to do it for as long as I can afford to do it,” she says. At $400 just to fill up the tank with diesel, her money won’t last forever — maybe two years. By then, she hopes, she’ll get enough help from grants or individual donations to continue. Her health, at least, is not an issue. “I’m blessed. I get up every morning, I feel good. I don’t have aches and pains.”

DSC_0008She gets incalculable help from Patrick Morris, a drug-rehab counselor who works at night so he can spend his days volunteering to keep her computers running, her motor purring and do the driving.

Why so dedicated? Morris answers with a self-effacing shrug. “It’s a need,” he says, “and I’m in a position to help.”

Pyfrom and her bus are attracting recognition (thanks in part to free publicity and social-media services provided by the Small Business Development Center at Palm Beach State College).

Last week, she was the subject of a terrific segment on the NBC Nightly News. (See it here. It’s not to be missed.)

She has used the experiences of her life to forge a philosophy: “You make your breaks and you determine your own destiny. You work hard and make things happen for yourself — and don’t use what you don’t have as an excuse.”

She expresses that philosophy in a converted coach with slogans painted on its sides: “Have Knowledge Will Travel.” “We Bring Learning To You.”

“We’re going to keep rolling,” Estella Pyfrom says.

– Story and photos by Howard Goodman

Want to help Estella’s Brilliant Bus? Click here.

Visions of change

Sometimes it takes more than words to describe the rapid-fire changes going on in education — or that are possible in education — right now.

Here are a few inspiring videos that show how the new technologies that are becoming familiar to almost everyone can excite and expand the learning process.

The one above is from It shows how students are leaping ahead of the education system in their use of cell phones and computers. That’s quickly changing their ideas of what they expect from school.

This one, from Norway, makes a strong case that educational institutions must play catch-up to prepare students for life in the 21st Century:

In this one, 18 classroom teachers from Mahoning County, Ohio, the area around Youngstown, describe how technology can integrate into all subject areas:

Let us know if you like these videos — we’ll look for more to share with you.

(Thanks to for bringing these videos to our attention.)

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