Frequently Asked Questions

What is Topical Storm?

Topical Storm is a free online writing program that helps students overcome writer’s block and develop confidence in their ideas and abilities. It is a supplement to a writing curriculum allowing students to practice the writing concepts they have learned within a low-stress private session. Because every curriculum is different, Topical Storm lessons are often customized to a specific classroom assignment.

What is it for?

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 concentrate on those students who need the most assistance.

What does it do?

The program simulates a one-on-one session with the teacher by asking Socratic sequences of questions about the writing assignment to encourage critical thinking (“Why? Give an example. What else? Why do you trust or not trust this source?”). The questions adapt to each student’s expressed interests. As the student answers questions, the program organizes their answers to fit the chosen writing genre, thus modeling the process of building a well-structured essay. The teacher can give the student immediate feedback by adding notes into the essay and the student sees these notes in real time.

Where has it been used?

The program has been tested in twelve classrooms Grades 3-5 starting in Spring 2015. See the Testimonials page for a selection of feedback from those trials.

What genres does it teach?

To date, we have piloted lessons for Personal Narrative, Persuasive/Opinion, Short Story, Informational/Expository, and Reading Report. New lessons are being developed.

How is it typically used?

It’s typically used in a classroom during designated writing periods. The teacher says, for example, “Today we’ll begin work on a personal narrative”; the teacher does a quick demonstration and then the students are on their own. Usually teachers let the students know they can call up the program outside of class to continue work on their essays. Because students work independently, this model would adapt easily to use in a computer lab or at home.

What devices does it run on?

Topical Storm runs on Chromebooks and laptops with most standard browsers including Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. It is not effective on iPads because the keyboard takes up too much screen space.

How hard is it to set up?

Because the program is cloud-based, there is no installation. The teacher sends us a count of students and receives a login link for each student. The student’s link opens a private area in which to create and edit essays.

Can I change the questions?

We can send you a Google doc containing a lesson’s questions for you to edit. We also create custom lessons for any writing assignment based on your notes.

What about student privacy?

Topical Storm does not currently access Learning Management Systems (Google Classroom, Clever, etc.) because it does not need to use student data. Only the teacher knows the identity of a given student.

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 open a student’s essay and insert a teacher note that causes an icon to pop up on their screen within minutes. The program tracks how many sentences each student adds in each session and how many times a student edits an essay in response to a teacher note.

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 is used to graph the student’s improvement over time. These scores, plus measures of student effort and engagement throughout the year, are summarized on demand in a progress report for each student.

What extra supports does it provide for struggling students?

Teachers can assign a proficiency level to each student: Below Level (also called Modified), At Level, and Above Level. Some of the lessons vary the amount of scaffolding, giving more support to Below and At Level students. Extra scaffolding can include sentence starters, glossary definitions, and easier wording of questions. The program provides both dictation (speech to text) as an alternative to typing and text-to-speech on the computer’s questions and the student’s finished work.

What technical support do you provide?

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