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Saturday, December 26, 2020

Interview with Bill Kara, CEO and Founder of TeachMe and Addicting Games

Typing is so ubiquitous that it's easy to forget that it is a skill that must be learned. How can learning to type be engaging, effective, and even fun? TeachMe has developed typeracer, a game-based typing instruction program that helps students learn to type and also how to create documents and to interact. Welcome to an interview with Bill Kara, CEO and founder of TeachMe and Addicting Games.

1. What is your name and your background?

My name is Bill Kara and I’m the CEO/founder of TeachMe and Addicting Games.  I oversee the company’s operations, growth strategies and product development. A lifelong gamer and entrepreneur, I’ve been in the gaming industry for over 20 years and have a passion for blending gaming and learning. I previously co-founded gaming company Hallpass Media, which was acquired in a roll up to create Jam City in 2011. Prior to Hallpass Media I founded Addicting Games which was acquired by Atom Entertainment before being purchased by Viacom shortly afterwards in 2006.


2. How did you get interested in e-learning? 

With two young daughters at home, I wanted to create games aimed at making learning skills fun and rewarding with TeachMe; experiences that offer more than just superficial fun on the surface. I’d always been interested in making learning more accessible through games and when I saw existing content out there was full of messages you wouldn’t want your kids to see (not to mention the titles were just really low quality), created by people that weren’t really passionate about either education or gaming as a hobby, I decided to create TeachMe as a way to fill that void. I wanted to combine these worlds of learning and play in a powerful new way with a vision that could change the lives of millions of children around the world.


 3.  Why are typing skills important now? 

Typing remains a fundamental skill, and it is one of the most foundational, yet important life skills you can learn. Learning to type fast and accurately has so many real world applications in this day-and-age - it’s an essential skill for anyone working with a computer (which is just about any profession) in any capacity. Typing effectively helps you to work comfortably and more efficiently, it aids in timely communication with colleagues and customers, creating documents, and finding new information and much more.




4.  What is your philosophy about skill-building in an e-learning environment?

Teachers want a powerful tool to complement their expertise, their passion, their skill. Parents want the best education possible for their children. Children want to play online, to master a skill, to feel like they’re growing and learning. With that in mind, we realized that education was moving in one direction and entertainment was moving in another. As parents, we have very little insight into how our kids are learning, what areas they found challenging and the speed they were progressing. And after further research we found a lack of e-learning resources customized to empower the strongest students to continue to excel while addressing the learning gaps faced by those that may be struggling a bit. We hope that games like TypeRacer, alongside the other offerings on our TeachMe properties help fulfill both objectives that also prioritizes fun.


5.  What is your program and how does it work?

TeachMe’s games and apps bring new meaning to the phrase “customized learning”. We teach students to master a skill instead of simply answering a question. And the games change based on who’s playing: their mastery of that skill, as well as their experience levels. As the learner gets better, the game — the curriculum — changes to match the optimal level of difficulty. Players pay attention longer and they learn more, which helps ensure their time online is never wasted.


As part of the TeachMe family of products, TypeRacer, allows people to race each other by typing quotes from books, movies, and songs. It is the first multiplayer typing game on the web. Millions of people from all over the globe have completed hundreds of millions of races on TypeRacer, improving their typing speed by as much as 50 words-per-minute.


6.  Please provide an example of a success :) 

As parents and kids grapple with back to school season in this uncertain time, we want to ease their transition back into the learning environment in a way that’s fun and engaging. We’ve made sure that the TeachMe experience can be accessed in any setting, with any device, anytime. I believe our achievements this year are a testament to how much students, teachers, and parents value learning tools that authentically combine practice and play. This year we’ve seen over 31MM users on Math Games, also part of our TeachMe product offering. With the re-launch of TypeRacer we’re also expecting to see the number of users grow 


Monday, September 28, 2020

Interview with Leanne Sherred, Expressable, Online Speech Therapy. Innovators in E-Learning Series.

Speech therapy has long been associated with improved skills in reading and writing. Further, speech therapy helps students develop self-confidence and stop being bullied. However, speech therapy has often been difficult to obtain for a number of reasons. Now, speech therapy can be conducted online. Welcome to an interview with Leanne Sherred, co-founder of Expressable, an online speech therapy provider. 

1.  What is your name and your background?

Hi! I’m Leanne Sherred, M.S., CCC-SLP, and I’m a speech-language pathologist. I grew up with a knack for doing cartoon voices and accents as a way to entertain my family and, oddly enough, this silliness helped me develop an ear for the voices and speech of others. It only took one class in college on the fundamentals of speech and language to become hooked. I quickly realized that communication is one of the most innate and fundamental human characteristics, and soon afterwards I decided to become a speech therapist.

I studied Speech and Hearing Sciences at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and gained my Master's in Speech-language pathology from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Throughout my career, I practiced speech therapy in a variety of settings, including pediatric outpatient clinics, schools, early intervention, and home health.

However, overtime I became frustrated by the traditional speech therapy model of care. I thought there had to be a better way. So me, my husband, our goofy dog Kylo, and a few colleagues set out to create Expressable, an online speech therapy provider. 

 Leanne Sherred, M.S., CCC-SLP

2.  How did you become interested in e-learning / e-knowledge transfer?

I became interested in e-learning and teletherapy because of its potential to make instruction and opportunity more accessible. I say this with a big caveat, of course; there are still too many families in this country without reliable internet access or a modern, internet-connected device. While we still have a lot of work to do, I think online learning ultimately has the potential to be a great equalizer by removing many financial barriers and geographic limitations.

Take speech therapy, for example. As an online provider, we don’t have to pay many of the costs typically associated with running a traditional practice (i.e., expensive rent, overhead, administrative costs, etc). This allows us to pass these cost savings down to families, so they can receive the same quality of care at a fraction of the price.. 

3. What are your core beliefs and philosophies with respect to assistive technology?

I strongly advocate for using any type of tool that can help children and students with learning differences develop academically, socially, or emotionally. Ultimately these tools help children capitalize on their strengths in order to navigate or work around their challenges. Yet, I do think assistive technologies should be just that - assistive - and not necessarily used as a replacement for parents, teachers, mentors, and administrators. 

This is particularly relevant in speech therapy. Interactive tools and apps have their role in improving speech and language skills. However, it’s ultimately the day-to-day reinforcement of speech therapy cues, strategies, and best practices that will make the biggest difference in a child’s life. 

4.  What do you see as the relationship between true learning / skills transfer and different types of assistive technologies?

Skills transfer is our ultimate goal. Whether we do speech therapy in a clinic, hospital, house, or over a video session, there is always a difference between performance and learning. Our job isn’t truly complete until a client is able to generalize their skills to other settings outside of the “speech therapy session.”

Assistive technologies for a speech therapist can refer to different modalities of communicating. For instance, an individual with a motor disorder or autism spectrum disorder might utilize a speech-generating device to communicate their thoughts. Others might use a simpler picture-based system.

At Expressable, we leverage technology to achieve an access point to services that more people can reasonably achieve. The video session itself is held to the same principle that sessions in a clinic would be - the skill isn’t mastered until the client has generalized across all environments. 

5.  What is Expressable?  What was the inspiration behind it?

Expressable is an online speech therapy provider. We started Expressable with a mission to make speech therapy more affordable, convenient, and accessible for everyone. 

There were so many reasons that inspired me to start Expressable. While I absolutely love helping children and families reach their communication goals, working in traditional speech therapy settings for much of my career was disheartening. There were so many obstacles that detracted me from providing quality services. 

For one, many families I was serving were being issued denials by their insurance companies for speech therapy. What’s worse, paying the exorbitant out-of-pocket costs of private therapy is unattainable for many families, and watching them make personal and financial sacrifices was particularly heartbreaking. 

Second, while well-funded schools may offer quality speech therapy on site, many lack the staff and resources to provide adequate services tailored to the needs of each child. Additionally, while children make more progress towards their goals when parents are actively involved, speech therapy delivered in a clinic or school-based setting can limit quality face-to-face time with parents. 

And lastly was geographic access. Families benefit when they work with a speech therapist that’s specialized to their needs. However, selection of speech therapists in rural or remote areas can either be limited, non-existent, or require long commute times (which is frustrating for just about everyone!).

By providing online speech therapy, we’re able to reach more people, lower the point of access, and break down geographic barriers. Best of all, teletherapy makes it easy for parents to attend sessions alongside their child, at a time most convenient for their family, so they can stay in sync with their therapist and promote communication-building skills at home throughout their child’s daily life. 

6.  Please discuss how Expressable works.

It’s really simple! It starts by signing up for a free consultation on our website with a licensed speech therapist. During this call, we work to better understand your needs, communication goals, and answer any questions about Expressable.

If you decide that Expressable is a good fit, we’ll match you with a speech therapist based on your needs, availability, location, and preferences. After that, you simply schedule recurring sessions on a day and time that works best for your family (evenings and weekends included). 

All sessions are delivered online using our HIPAA-compliant video platform (think Zoom or FaceTime, but on the other end is a speech therapist). If you ever have any questions, your therapist is available anytime via secure texting. And finally, our therapists focus on “teaching” children just as much as “coaching” parents, arming them with knowledge and exercises so they can incorporate lessons learned during the sessions at home. 

7.  Please share a few success stories.

Speech therapists are constantly tracking data to meet incremental goals - so every goal met is a success! If we see a client all the way through to the point of dismissal, that’s amazing because it means they’ve met age-appropriate level, functional level, or their own personal goals.

Some goals are more hard-fought. Building communication skills can take time and dedication. Those victories can be some of the sweetest! A few of my favorite clients have been families that get to be the main driver of a child’s first words. Whether it happens during the session or during the week with the parents reporting back - the excitement and joy is always palpable, and we share all of it with them! 

A child on the autism spectrum who engages for a minute more than they previously had, a 10 year-old who now speaks in class without apprehension of being teased for her R sound, an adult who gives a presentation at work without stuttering - I’m lucky enough to say I’ve had many, many success stories! The motivation of our clients and families is always what impresses me the most.

8.  What are two books that you would like to recommend to our readers.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Indeterminacy, Freedom, and Female Authorship in Emily Dickinson’s “All overgrown by cunning moss"

 It is illuminating to assess the impact of one writer’s imagination on that of another, who may be working in isolation, even in another continent. For Emily Dickinson, the work of Charlotte Bronte, publishing under the pseudonym, Currer Bell, was of particular interest, perhaps because of Charlotte’s desire to disguise the fact she was a female, and also that the use of a pseudonym emboldened her to write about transgressive topics, and essentially liberate herself from society’s numerous and sundry cages for women, especially at the time that Dickinson lived, in the middle of the nineteenth century. 

“All overgrown by cunning moss,” is a poem written by Emily Dickinson around the year 1859. It is one of the earlier poems and does not reflect the impact of the Civil War.  The manuscript is in the Houghton Library, and a facsimile can be accessed online.

The poem is quite brief. It consists of three stanzas of four lines each. The rhyme scheme is ABCD and the lines have no consistent metric feet, except to say that they alternate between relatively longer and shorter lines. 

Emily Dickinson wrote and bundled her poems in fascicles. The manuscripts are now in the Houghton Library, Harvard University. 

Emily Dickinson’s poem often deal with death, graves, and mortality, and this poem is no different. The “little cage” of “Currer Bell” is the grave, “all overgrown by cunning moss.” It lies in Haworth, which is the last town that Currer Bell, the pseudonym for Charlotte Bronte, lived. The repetitions of certain words give rise to certain meanings. First, there is “This Bird” (stanza 2), which is capitalized, as is the “Nightingale.”  The grave is overgrown with weeds; it’s the resting place (the final cage) of the name of the nom-de-plume, “Currer Bell.” However, the actual author referred to as the Nightingale, or, Charlotte Bronte, has long escaped, and is in neither nest nor cage. In the poem, Charlotte Bronte is in the eternal green of the Yorkshire hills, and in “other latitudes” which could signify the world of the intellect. Among Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, the “Nightingale,” refers to the creative spirit, and a voice of nature. 

What Emily Dickinson probably did not know was that Haworth was not a charming, verdant town or village when the Brontes lived there.  Instead, it was a grimy mill town with polluted air and water, due to the toxins produced by the textile industry, which had transitioned from a cottage industry (everyone had a loom in their front room), to own of dirty, crowded factories and no sewer systems. The life expectancy was just 25 years of age when the Brontes lived at Haworth (Cahill, 2018). 

Nevertheless, death permeates the poem, and the statement that “the Yorkshire hills are green – “ (Dickinson, 1999) juxtaposes the green of life with final “cage” that keeps “Currer Bell.” It's a deceptively simple poem, and the term “cunning moss” is probably key to it all. The “cunning moss” – the intelligent growing plant life that sprouts up to cover and disguise, is keeping her secret safe, while “cage” (the grave) which is “interspersed with weed” contrasts with the “other latitudes” and the Yorkshire hills.  

Like so many of Dickinson’s poems, “All overgrown by cunning moss” becomes a fascinating exploration of indeterminacy. The grave and what it has inside it are ultimately impossible to capture, define, or identify. The name of the person is only the pseudonym, and the captor, “This Bird” have long gone, not found in any nest, or in any state of being, for that matter. The “frosts too sharp” precipitated translocation; the sense that a bird (entity) willed itself to “other latitudes” which seem safer, albeit impermanent.  

In this poem, indeterminacy is a kind of freedom, even as it means erasure and the impossibility of recognition in the mortal coil wherein the pseudonym existed, at least in sufficient capacity to escape and to thus defy a socially constructed form of being.  


Cahill, J. (Aug 11, 2018). “The ultimate guide to Bronte country: Haworth, Yorkshire.” Beyond the Lamp Post. 11 Aug 2018.  Accessed Sept 16, 2020.

Dickinson, E. (n.d.) “All overgrown by cunning moss, J148, Fr146.” Emily Dickinson Archive. Houghton Library, Harvard University. Accessed 11 August 2020.

Dickinson, E. (1999). “All overgrown by cunning moss, (146).” Poetry Foundation. Accessed 16 Sept 2020.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Language and Ironic Imagery in Zora Neale Hurston's "Sweat"

I’ve been re-reading some of the short stories by Zora Neale Hurston. I like “Sweat” – it’s basically a “twist of fate” kind of “poetic justice” story that takes place in the 1920s in a historically all-Black town in Florida, probably modeled after Eatonville, Hurston’s hometown, which was founded by 27 individuals on August 15, 1887 (Florida History Network, n.d.). 

Delia, a hard-working black woman has worn herself out running a laundry business to support her husband, Sykes (who is often called "Syke" in conversation). He, in the meantime, grows increasingly indifferent to her as she has lost her looks due to all her hard work over the years.  He uses her appearance as an excuse to take up with Bertha, a woman who is new to town.  Bertha is heavy, and just what Sykes likes: “Ah sho’ ‘bominates uh skinny ‘oman. Lawdy, you sho’ is got one portly shape on you! You kin git anything you wants,” (Hurston, 2013, Unappreciated, and openly humiliated, Delia still tries to make amends with Sykes, but to no avail.  

Hurston was a Columbia University-trained anthropologist, who documented the language, lives, and customs of individuals and communities. She studied the people in the all-Black communities of Florida, interviewed a former slave who was on the last voyage of a slave ship to the U.S., and studied Voodoo (Voudoun) in Haiti.  Consequently, her short stories display a genius for language and characteristic cultural customs.

As for literary devices, in “Sweat,” Hurston creates visual echoes that have the potential to generate a multiplicity of interpretations.  For example, the bullwhip that Syke uses, and which startles Delia has a snake-like appearance.  Later, Sykes encounters a rattlesnake roughly the same size as the bullwhip. He decides to keep it, despite Delia’s pleas to kill it because it is dangerous and it terrifies her.  Sykes even has the temerity to tell her that he  likes the rattlesnake more than he likes her. 

“Naw, now Syke, don’t keep dat thing ‘roun’ heah tuh skeer me tuh death. You knows Ah’m even feared uh earth worms. Thass de biggest snake Ah evah did see. Kill ‘im Syke, please.”

“Doan ast me tuh do nothin’ fuh yuh. Goin’ roun’ trying’ tuh be so damn asterperious. Naw, Ah aint gonna kill it. Ah think uh damn sight mo’ uh him dan you! Dat’s a nice snake an’ anybody doan lak ‘im kin jes’ hit de grit. (Hurston, 2013,"


From a Freudian literary critical perspective, Hurston's use of the bullwhip and the snake are fairly obvious symbols of a male phallus and are used to represent male oppression of women. Specifically, they represent Sykes's domination of Delia, and a situation in which Delia willingly subjugates herself, since she will not leave Syke, even when she has to defend herself with a skillet.

In her analysis of "Sweat," literary critic Catherine Carter points out the way that snake is used as a symbol connecting the drama of Delia and Sykes to Biblical narratives, particularly those in the book of Genesis and the Garden of Eden (Carter, 2014).

Shortly after making the statement, the rattlesnake escapes the laundry basket and bites Sykes in the neck, killing him. In the end, the instrument of his own cruelty kills him.  Hurston makes that ironic parallel very clear.

What may not be quite as apparent is the connection that Hurston is making to slavery and the internalization of the relatively recent experiences of slavery and the consequent enslaved mindset.  The bullwhip is an image that evokes the idea of a slave owner’s or an overseer’s bullwhip. The slave owner, who was legally allowed to whip the men and women trapped in slavery, was also legally allowed to consort with any female who caught his fancy, and to openly mock and deprecate other women, including the mother of his children.

It is useful to keep in mind that Delia first mistook the bullwhip for a snake. Later, the rattlesnake, roughly the size of the snake, kills Sykes. However, given the visual analogue, one could also suggest that a poetic justice would also be served if the slave owners and overseers where killed by the instruments of their own torture.

Most writers who analyze "Sweat" focus on gender roles, the oppression of women, and women finally talking back. Those themes are certainly in "Sweat." However, Zora Neale Hurston's "Sweat" is also an anthropological look at echoes of slavery's implements of torture, and the internalization of slavery's various mindsets, which range from submission, sadism, and liberation. 

Works Cited

Carter, Catherine. “The God in the Snake, the Devil in the Phallus: Biblical Revision and Radical Conservatism in Hurston’s ‘Sweat.’” Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures, vol. 67, no. 4, 2014, pp. 605–620. EBSCOhost,

Hurston, Zora Neale.  “Sweat” Biblioklept. 2013.

The Florida History Network. "August 15, 1887: Eatonville, Florida becomes one of the first all-black towns in U.S."  The Florida History Network.  n.d.


Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.


Thursday, August 27, 2020

Interview with Jude Schroeder, Twinkl Standards-Aligned Digital Resources for Teachers

With more students turning to online learning, either in their schools, their home, or learning pods, it is important to make sure they will be able to perform well in the requisite standardized assessments.  Welcome to an interview with Jude Schroeder, Twinkl, an amazing company with a wide range of web-based highly engaging activities for young students. What makes Twinkl unique is that they align with State and national standards.  

1. What is your name and your background? 

My name is Jude Schroeder, and I am the Country Manager for Twinkl in the United States. I started my career as a 5th-grade teacher and spent 13 years teaching at elementary level before moving into a publishing role. 

2. What is Twinkl? Please give a few examples as well as a general overview of Twinkl's materials. 

Twinkl is an award-winning educational publisher. We provide instantly downloadable digital and printable teaching resources for educators across the United States and in over 200 countries and regions around the world. This includes materials for planning, independent and group activities and assessment. 

3. What is the philosophy behind Twinkl?

Twinkl helps those who teach! Whoever you teach, wherever you teach, whatever you teach - we've got what you need.

4. I love the fact that your materials align with State Standards. What kinds of materials do you have that align with Standards? 

How can they be used? 

We create thousands of resources every year that align with Common Core State Standards, Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, and Next Generation Science Standards. 

From informational presentations with interactive discussion prompts to levelled reading comprehension passages, hands-on STEAM projects to digital assessment packs, editable grading rubrics to vibrant anchor chart packs - we create what our customers need in their schools, classrooms, and homes. 

With one-click, you can also save our resources to Google Drive. You can also choose whether you want to print your chosen materials or assign them digitally for completion on a tablet or laptop - the choice is yours! 

5. Who writes the materials for Twinkl?

Twinkl's award-winning resources are all created and checked by current or former teachers and are brought to life by our talented in-house team of editors, graphic designers, and illustrators. 

6. Please describe two or three examples of Twinkl resources in action. 

Over the past year, there have been over 240 million resource downloads from the Twinkl website! Our resources have never been more "in action" than they are today! 

Across the United States and around the world, children have been engaged in fun dramatic play with our stick puppets, developing mathematical skills using our math mystery projects, and writing journal entries to put in their Twinkl time capsule. Even during a global pandemic the world keeps learning and we have been in awe of all the amazing things teachers, parents and carers have done to support young people. 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Interview with Daniel Nalesnik, Founder of Hack Chinese, Rapid Vocabulary-builder App

Many people would like to be able to gain a deeper appreciation of China and Chinese culture. Learning Mandarin is a highly effective way to do so, and a gateway to a world of experiences and new perceptions. However, most people feel a bit intimidated by what appears to be an extremely steep learning curve.  Now, however, there is a completely new approach to learning Mandarin, offered in the app, Hack Chinese.

Welcome to an interview with Daniel Nalesnik, founder of Hack Chinese. 

 1.  What is your name and your background? 

My name is Daniel Nalesnik. I have a Bachelor's degree in computer science and two Masters degrees in finance and business administration.

Daniel Nalesnik - Hack Chinese

When I was 25 I started learning Mandarin Chinese. At that time, I was by no means “talented” with languages; I had taken 7 years of French through high school and college, and even to this day can only remember a few words.

My first ever Mandarin class shook my world: this language felt twice as hard as French (and as I would find out later, is actually many times more difficult), and yet precisely for that reason I was deeply driven to get better at it.

Within a year I had quit my job and moved to China for a year of language lessons in Beijing and Shanghai.

In 2010 I returned to the US for grad school, eventually taking a corporate job in Boston, Massachusetts. In 2014 I moved to China with the same firm, and then quit in 2017 to create Hack Chinese.

I still reside in Hong Kong, the most amazing city I’ve ever lived in.

2.  Describe a few of the extreme experiences that you had in your formative years that made you passionate about Mandarin. 

I’m not sure this is an “extreme experience”, but there is one thing that constantly stokes the fires of my passion for Mandarin.

When I realize that spoken Mandarin (whether it be a passage from a textbook, a dialogue on a television show, or just friends chatting), which was once completely incomprehensible to you, is “all of a sudden” effortlessly and completely understood, as if it were spoken in English.

“All of a sudden” is how it feels, but of course it’s the fruit of consistent work over a long time: learning words, practicing listening, studying grammar, etc.

Comprehension, when it is as instant and effortless as with English, is nothing short of beautiful; which is why I often tell students to taste these experiences as early -- and often -- as possible, as they will provide more motivation than anything else you (or a gamified app) could do.

3.  What is your app, Hack Chinese? 

Hack Chinese is a spaced-repetition based tool that helps students grow their Chinese vocabulary.

People are often quick to compare Hack Chinese with something like Duolingo or Rosetta Stone, which is like comparing apples to oranges.

Apps like Duolingo teach (usually beginner) students everything about the language: vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, speaking, listening, and even culture. 

Apps like that are a fantastic way to “test the waters” with a language to see if you like it enough to stick with it for the long run. (After all, learning a language to a point of real proficiency is a multi-year task at minimum.) 

But once you finish their curriculum, you’re an advanced beginner (at best) with a very long way to go.

Hack Chinese is for students who have decided to take the plunge: they want to reach the upper echelons of Chinese proficiency, and while they are willing to put in the enormous required time and effort, they want to be as efficient as possible. 

For serious students, Hack Chinese is just one tool in their toolkit, but an important one.

What Hack Chinese does specifically is it tries to solve one particularly gnarly problem: learning Chinese vocabulary. Chinese vocabulary is harder to learn than words in other languages (with characters, pinyin, and tones), and there is a LOT of it.

While learning a few hundred words is a task that almost any learning method can handle, more thought is needed when the volume of words known grows much bigger. For example, a physical flashcard system will become unwieldy when you approach even 1,000 words.

Hack Chinese is designed for students who want to learn 5,000, or 10,000 words.

We make this possible by ironing out all the inefficiencies, removing as many hurdles to getting started, and relentlessly reducing the “maintenance cost” of keeping your vocabulary strong and your learning system intact.

4.  There are usually two approaches to learning a language:  conversational, and grammatical.  Hack Chinese seems to be completely different.  To begin, it seems to start with three random words, with no explanation about either grammar or conversation.  I've just finished the first lesson, but from what I'm gathering, I'm gathering Cognitive Legos that I'll put together later.  Right now, though, my pieces do not fit together very well.  Why should I stick with it? What will happen as I progress?

I’ve heard of many approaches to learning a language, and learning vocabulary is a part of all of them. 

Hack Chinese doesn’t try to teach you everything. Instead, it tries to be the best possible solution to one very important problem: growing your vocabulary. Provided you have a foundation in the language (and understand Pinyin and tones), and are dedicated to practicing what you learn (by reading, watching TV, etc.), sticking with Hack Chinese will give you a humongous vocabulary. 

A large vocabulary provides innumerable benefits: reading your textbook is easier. Learning grammar is simpler. Watching television is more enjoyable. More conversations are comprehensible. Etc. 

No matter what, you’ll never regret knowing more words in the foreign language you’re trying to learn!

5.  What made you develop your radical new approach?  Do you have any success stories?  How old are they? Can this old dog (well, this old Corgi) learn Mandarin? 

Language learners are very familiar with spaced repetition due to its efficacy. In fact, the market is flooded with spaced repetition tools, so the main approach is not radical at all.

What sets Hack Chinese apart is that we realized spaced repetition just gets you in the door; it’s not a differentiator. Yes, we do spaced repetition (really well), but what we also do is add layer after layer of polish (more often than not by removing extraneous features!)

Instead of offering you 100 customizable options, we bake in the best practices, and give you a few meaningful options to play with when you need them.

My favorite success story so far comes from a woman who graduated with a linguistics degree last year, then moved to China. In January of this year she was at HSK 1 (150 words). Today, about 8 months later, she’s approaching knowledge of 9,000 words!

Keep in mind, she hasn’t just “been exposed” to 9,000 words; those memories are strong and recallable for her. We know this because we test her every single day 

To be sure, she has spent a lot of time, about 40 minutes per day, to achieve this outcome. But for students who are willing to spend the time, Hack Chinese provides a framework that enables all that hard work to matter.

One of our most dedicated students is in her 60s, and has a more relaxed approach: she studies 10 minutes a day, and has seen slow and steady vocabulary growth for over a year.

6.  Who is using Hack Chinese right now?

We have users from all over the globe, especially in China and the United States (particularly California!)

Are they planning to be in an immersive situation any time soon? 

Many of our students live in China already. We have one particular feature that these users love: as they encounter a new, unknown word “in the wild” (on a menu, in a conversation, on TV), they can add it to their study plan using our integrated dictionary. If you look something up once, it’s likely you’ll need it again in your life, so adding it to your long-term study plan right away makes sense

When I was in Tianjin last year, I found myself using Google Translate for phrases such as, "I am sorry that my credit card was declined. I need to verify that I made the purchase. It will be okay."  The app on my phone spewed out: 
Then I pressed "play" and a pleasant female voice spoke the words. I have to admit that having such a convenient app was a huge disincentive for learning the language.  

Make no mistake: as technology advances, the necessity for learning a foreign language for the sole purpose of communication will eventually decrease to zero.

In-ear, real-time, heads-up display, real-time augmented reality contact lenses (can I stuff any more buzzwords in here?)… all of that stuff advances in one direction only.

But if communication is the only reason someone is learning Chinese, you aren’t the type of student Hack Chinese was built for anyway. (In fact, learning Chinese is so hard, it would be wiser to hire a translator to be with you every time you need them, instead of investing thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars in lessons, apps, textbooks, etc.)

There will always be students who want to learn a foreign language for the cognitive benefits, the deeper cultural understanding, the sense of achievement, etc. These are the students who Hack Chinese was built for.

7. Can Hack Chinese help me overcome my urge to gnaw on a rawhide bone and watch the neighbor's cat instead of spending that 15 minutes morning and evening with the Hack Chinese app? 

Probably not, rawhide bones are pretty irresistible to most Corgis! :) But this is what we do:

Many apps are ‘gamified’ to make you addicted to earning badges or experience points. But experience points aren’t intrinsically valuable. (If someone asked you how your Chinese was, telling them how many Duolingo badges you had earned would be a pretty odd way to reply.)

What is intrinsically valuable is knowing 1,000 more words. We focus our gamification on simply making transparent your progress with intrinsically valuable skills.

For the right type of Corgi, this is more attractive than even the most succulent beef flavored chew toy.

8.  What are your plans for the future?

Hack Chinese has been a passion project of mine for a long time. It took me several years to decide to give up my corporate career and start something on my own. 2020 has been great for Hack Chinese, and I hope to be able to continue to make it better for years to come.

I currently live in Hong Kong, but I’ve been in Asia for almost a decade and my parents in the US keep reminding me that a) they aren’t getting younger and b) all of their friends have children. I’m not sure what it all means! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

9.  Please recommend a few books that a curious Corgi would enjoy. 

I’ll give you three books!

My favorite book of all time (read in 2015): Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I read all books with a highlighter close at hand, just in case any section is so life-altering that it makes me stop reading and close my eyes while I contemplate. With Sapiens, almost the entire book was highlighted. This book is truly on another level for me. Nothing else even comes close.

My favorite book last year: Atomic Habits by James Clear. Instead of encouragement (which often goes in the ear and out the other), James’s book is purely pragmatic: what techniques actually work to help you develop and keep good habits, while kicking destructive ones away? I can not recommend this book more highly. It recently hit #1 on the NYT bestseller list!

Favorite book this year (so far! ← my humblebrag slyly indicating I read a lot): Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. Turns out, being awake is like brain damage that only sleep can repair. The ways in which your body heals and repairs itself during all stages of sleep are so profound that I’ve started drinking alcohol in the afternoon. (Huh? What did I just stay? You heard me right, I guess you’ll have to read the book to find out why!)

Friday, July 31, 2020

Learning Pods: Types, Design, Teaching and Assessment Strategies, Standards, Motivation

“Learning pods” are springing up around the country in response to the perceived inadequacies of distance learning during the pandemic.  Parents, subject matter experts, learning content providers, and assessment specialists are joining forces in order to assure the best and safest possible educational solutions that align with their individual State standards. 

There are different types of “learning pods” or “micro schools.”

Interview with Susan Nash, Ph.D. regarding Learning Pods and opportunities to contribute in a meaningful way.

Outdoor school with one rotating parent

At least five families get together with their children and they meet outdoors. in backyards or in parks  They try to team with students in the same school and the same grade.  So, there may be five families, with children ranging from 2nd to 6th grade.  The parents take turns, and each parent commits to one day per week.  It reminds me of Cub Scouts or Blue Birds.  The great advantages are the low cost (each parent volunteers), the fact it’s outdoors (which works in California, but perhaps not in Vermont). The downsides are the lack of subject matter expertise on the part of the parent, and the fact that everything will have to be done with books. I do not see where the parents will be able to deliver the actual lessons or course content in an engaging way.  If each student has a telephone or tablet with earbuds, that could work, assuming there is connectivity and a good data plan for streaming.


Here’s an example of a group in San Diego that is planning the outdoor pod approach:


Neighborhood homeschooling pods

It’s not quite clear if the parents rotate or if they  arrange for one or two parents to make sure that the homeschool-based micro school is working. The difference between this and the outdoor school is that the course content and materials could be from a homeschool group, which means that they are not tied to the local school district. Parents are opting for neighborhood homeschooling in the case of feeling nervous about sending the child back to school for face-to-face instruction.


Some districts are giving students an option, which means that teachers are going to be either teaching face to face or online, either of which could lead to a bit of teacher burnout.


There are concerns about education equity, as this new article points out:


Tutor-led homeschooling

Higher income families are arranging for learning pods that are taught by private tutors who are generally teachers who have taught for private schools. They use standard materials that align with State standards, but supplement with subject matter experts. There is a focus on higher-level tech skills and the parents are investing not only in the instructors, but also in computers, equipment, and enrichment activities.  New companies are springing up and tutoring services are modifying their offerings in order to meet these new needs.


Tutoring for at-risk students paid for by the school districts or grants

Some school districts have a budget for tutors to help at-risk students.  The students could be in hybrid learning settings, or in a situation where they could come to an outdoor area in the school for a few hours to supplement their distance education.


Content Aligned to Standards

It is critical to make sure that the instructional materials and the instructional strategy will make sure the students advance and meet learning goals and competencies.


Each state has standards and learning objectives, along with a test that students must pass.


Here’s an example of Oklahoma’s Academic Standards:


The instructional content that the learning pod uses should align with the standards. The sources of the instructional material could be the school district itself, a homeschooling program, or content developed specifically for the purpose.  It is always a good idea to supplement the content with real-world applications and practice in order to help the students engage in active learning.

There are several ways to obtain access to high-quality content that align to grade levels and State academic standards.  During times of COVID-19, the schools that ordinarily offer special instruction and materials for students with special needs, are often not able to offer them.  Here is another place where Learning Pods can come to the rescue by using materials that have been prepared to accommodate students with cognitive difficulties, attention deficit issues, mobility issues, sight and hearing challenges, autism, and more. 

One of the best locations to find a wide away of standards-aligned materials and resources for students with special needs is Twinkl

Twinkl's materials include a wide array of instructional materials, assessments, activities, and even books that can be either downloaded or even delivered as a printed book. In addition to resources for young learners that align with standard curricula, there are also interesting and engaging materials for arts and crafts, religious studies, and learning English. 

Preparing to Teach in a Learning Pod

Parents and enthusiastic subject matter experts may find themselves ill-equipped to provide positive learning experiences for their students. They have the best intentions, but find themselves feeling frustrated when the students do not make the kind of progress they expect.  There is also the looming specter of high-stakes testing at the end of the term. If the learning pod leader has not taken into account the need for a good instructional strategy which includes effective scaffolding, the consequences for the student could be nothing short of catastrophic.


1.  Identify the subject matter you will teach. For example, it might be Science.

2.  Download the State Standards and study them.

3.  Assemble your course materials and make sure they align with the State Standards

4.  Start a spreadsheet that aligns each State Standard with the instructional material that you have.

5.   Identify gaps, and create course content.

6.  Make sure that the sequence is in ascending order.

7.  Review the assessments and make sure that there are the following:

    a. practice exercises that provide the right answer
    b.  good alignment with the State Standards
    c.  “chunked” in knowledge blocks that are sufficiently granular to be easily mastered
    d.  appropriate sequence so that the lessons build on each other and tie to the end
    e.  a Final Exam that aligns with the course objectives and the instructional content (including the practice reviews, quizzes, and activities)


Common errors of the well-meaning Learning Pod teacher

There are a number of errors that occur in instruction. In some cases, it does not matter because the real-world consequences of not learning how to knit well, teach a dog to sit, or paint a sunset are not too serious.  However, the failure to read, write, do math, and think critically and creatively, will seriously harm a child’s future.


1.  Failure to cover the material in a way that is comprehended by the students.

2.  Lack of student engagement

3.  Lack of collaborative learning

4.  Focus on the “fun” content to the exclusion of the fundamentals

5.  Lack of application for the real world – putting the knowledge to work

6.  Lack of practice with the quizzes and exams

7.  Failure to understand how children and adults learn


Learning Pods as a Massive Pandemic Experiment

It is possible that learning pods will emerge as a highly effective method for engaging students and revitalizing education by having more parents, learning pod instructors, and stakeholders who feel a renewed passion for education.  In theory, learning pods are adaptive and adaptable for specific needs, and in that way, could be effective in the way that other forms are not. 


Learning pods could supplement our existing teaching strategies in bold, new ways, and create a generation of learners who directly connect learning to exciting futures. The key to success is to make sure that the poor and at-risk are included in learning pods, and that they are anchored to high achievement goals. Learning pods, if done well, could even help bring about education equity and avoid what Jonathan Kozol described in the now classic Savage Inequalities. Published in 1991, Kozol’s analysis of an educational system with structural inequality rings truer than ever, 30 years later. Learning pods could be part of a solution.

More information and Resources? Contact E-Learning Corgi!

E-Learning Corgi has a repository of materials that you can use in your Learning Pod. Do you need a bit of help getting started, or do you need a STEM subject matter expert as a tutor, either via distance or face to face? 

Contact E-Learning Corgi via email - susan at beyondutopia dot com. 





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