Frequently Asked Questions

Who are we?

We're a group of four elementary school teachers in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Indiana, an Assistive Technology Specialist, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley Teaching and Learning Lab, and a software developer. We are not a corporation and do not earn money from this project. We enjoy helping students develop their love of writing. 


What's our mission?

Writing is a major cause of anxiety for many students. Our mission is to relieve the pressure on every child who is overwhelmed by fear of being judged, or feels inadequate when asked to think of ideas, or could benefit from extra supports. We are committed to developing new technology that gently welcomes students into the writing process and makes it safe and fun. One way to describe this approach is: "Topical Storm is like writing with a friend."

The pandemic has made us all more aware of how important it is to address students' emotional needs before trying to teach them academics. Therefore we have spent the past year developing SEL-based journaling lessons and surveys that help students express and understand their emotions. Data from their journaling is turned into reports that show you what your class is thinking and feeling. 


How can I use the program?

To continue our goal of supporting student independence in writing, we offer free access to classroom teachers who would like to participate. Simply email our developer with the number of links you would like for yourself, your co-teachers, and your students. Topical Storm was created in partnership with teachers and will continue to be a collaborative effort.


What about student privacy?

Our software does not access any student or teacher data. Logins are anonymous; only the teacher knows the identity of a given student. We protect student essays and rubric scores on a secure server and abide by all FERPA laws regarding student work and other identifiable information. We belong to the Education Cooperative's Massachusetts Student Data Privacy Alliance (SDPA) and sign individual privacy agreements with school districts. You can view our Privacy Policy here.

How does it help students and teachers?

For students, it provides a brainstorming and organizing aid that relieves the pressure of the blank page and reinforces critical thinking. For teachers, it lets the entire class write independently at once, freeing the teacher to focus on those students who need the most assistance.

How is it different from other writing software?

The difference is its interactive nature. The software simulates a one-on-one session with each student by asking a sequence of questions about the writing assignment: “Why? Give an example. What else? Why do you trust or not trust this source?”. The questions adapt to the student's individual answers, focus on their interests, and encourage them to think more deeply about their ideas. The software then organizes those ideas to fit the chosen writing genre. It models the process of building a well-structured essay.

Where has it been used?

It's been tested in over twenty classrooms Grades 3-6 in Boston area schools.

What genres does it teach?

Lessons include Personal Narrative, Persuasive / Opinion, Short Story, Informational / Expository, Reading Report, and an assortment of specific topics requested by teachers.

How is it typically used?

It’s typically used in a classroom during a designated writing period. Today's assignment, for example, might be a personal narrative. Students can watch the 3 minute intro video found at the top of this website's home page. You can do a quick demo with the class by beginning an essay yourself, and then students are ready to go on their own. They can also work on their essays outside of class any time they want to.

What devices does it run on?

Topical Storm runs on Chromebooks and laptops using the Chrome browser. It has not been developed for iPads.

How hard is it to set up?

Because it's cloud-based, there is no installation. Using a count of students and teachers in the class, we will provide a login link for each person. A student link opens a private area for students to create and edit essays. A teacher link gives you a dashboard to view all student work, contact students via teacher notes, use rubrics, check in on your students' efforts and their progress over time. We are working on integrating with Google Classroom and other school systems.

How does the teacher observe student work?

The teacher dashboard shows how actively each student is working, so you know when a student is “stuck” at a question. You can then look at their essay and insert a teacher note that causes an icon to pop up on their screen. The teacher notes let you offer individuals help without calling attention to them in class.

What assessment features does it have?

You can use your own rubrics to score student drafts and to let students assess their own work. Each assessment creates a snapshot that graphs the student’s improvement over time. Students can peer review each other's essays using guided questions that promote positive feedback.

What extra supports does it provide for struggling students?

You can assign each student a challenge level from one to three, that varies the amount of scaffolding and the difficulty of the questions. Additional help includes sentence starters, glossary definitions, and follow-up questions. Dictation and text to speech turn writing into a conversation for those who find text challenging, and let students hear their work read aloud.

How good is the technical support?

As a trial site, you will receive a high level of support and customization. Most issues can be resolved immediately by sending a text.

Can I change the questions?

If you wish to customize an existing lesson, we can give you a Google doc to edit. Or you can send us notes about a new writing assignment that you want to automate.

We want you and your students to enjoy using this assistive writing software. We collaborate with teachers, incorporate feedback from students, and are continually improving the product to meet your needs. We'd love to hear from you! 

Copyright (c) 2022 by Steve Herbst. All rights reserved.