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May 192020

Hi! My name is Tricia (PJ) Hoover and I’m one of the writers here at StarrMatica. Growing up, I never wanted to be a writer. I actually wanted to be a Jedi. After all, who wouldn’t want to be able to travel in space, use telekinesis, and do cool mind tricks? But seeing as how that wasn’t going to happen, I instead spent my summers reading science fiction and fantasy books (some of my favorites were J. R. R. Tolkien, Roger Zelazny and Isaac Asimov) and teaching myself to program in BASIC on my Commodore 64. I also fell in love with mythology in sixth grade thanks to the book Mythology by Edith Hamilton. In high school, I spent many nights staying up late watching reruns of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone.

When it was time for college, I headed off to Virginia Tech where I got a degree in Computer Engineering. At the end of four years, I decided I wanted to be an archaeologist, so I stuck around and got a History degree. But then I thought about it and figured engineering might provide for a better future, so I continued on to get my master’s degree in Electrical Engineering.

After a fifteen year bout as an electrical engineer designing computer chips in Austin, TX (working at Motorola and Intel), I went through a turning point in my life. I wanted more. I wanted something different. But I wasn’t sure what. First, I learned to solve the Rubik’s Cube. Then I memorized Kublai Khan by Samuel Coleridge. Finally, I decided to take my own stab at creating worlds and started writing science fiction and fantasy books for kids and teens.

People tend to think engineering and writing are different, but I don’t agree. Getting through engineering school requires discipline and organization. Writing a book requires discipline and organization. Designing computer chips takes quite a bit of creativity. And yes, writing a book takes creativity, too. Computer code is a lot like a book. You write. You test. You revise. You test some more and you keep on revising until you get it right. Sure, you might find bugs, but no computer chip is perfect. And neither is any book.

When I am not writing, I spend time practicing kung fu, solving Rubik’s cubes (including 2×2, 3×3, 4×4, and 5×5), playing Wizard101 and watching Star Trek. I have two crazy puppies and two Sulcata tortoises, King Tort and Nefertorti, who will live to be 180 years old.

A few fun facts:

1) I collect Smurfs, Bicentennial quarters, Star Trek Christmas ornaments and antique bricks. If you find an old brick with words on it, please let me know!

2) I have a 4th degree black belt in Kung Fu.

3) I can solve a Rubik’s Cube in under 2 minutes (including with my eyes closed!).

4) I plan to hike on the Great Wall of China someday. And I’d love to go on an archaeological dig!

5) Jobs I’ve had include Donut Seller, Car Assessor, Dorm Security Monitor, and of course, Chip Designer.

For more information about P. J. (Tricia) Hoover, please visit her website www.pjhoover.com.

Elizabeth Baldwin

 Posted by on April 20, 2020  Behind the Scenes of StarrMatica  Comments Off on Elizabeth Baldwin
Apr 202020

Hello!  My name is Elizabeth Baldwin and I am a life-long learner!  I love to read and research things that happened in the past, things happening right now and things that might happen in the future!  Whether it is in the field of history, science, fiction or nonfiction, I find our world very engaging.  At this moment, I have 5 books stacked on my night-stand next to my bed!  One is a fictional story set in the early 1800’s, one is a memoir, one is a biography, one is inspirational, one is to practice Spanish and I usually have a science fiction book lying around somewhere!

I have been married for 25 years and have two wonderful children, who are both in college.  I studied music and elementary education in college and have been a teacher for most of my adult life.  I love to sing and I play a few instruments. I am in the process of writing my first children’s novel.  When I first started writing for StarrMatica, I was studying reading in graduate school.  I wrote fiction and non-fiction reading texts for multiple grade levels.  One of my favorite texts was about truffles and why they are expensive.  At this moment, I am writing texts for social studies.  While I was researching plastic, I discovered how I could change my behavior to make a difference in the world.

We can learn so much from our world!  We can learn from animals and nature.  We can learn from history and try to be better for it.  The creativity of people is amazing!  What if we did this?  What if we tried that?  Those are some of the questions that keep me wanting to learn.  I hope with my writing, I can inspire kids to learn and ask questions for themselves.

Get to Know the StarrMatica Team: Sarah Wassner Flynn

 Posted by on February 26, 2020  Behind the Scenes of StarrMatica  Comments Off on Get to Know the StarrMatica Team: Sarah Wassner Flynn
Feb 262020

Hi! I’m Sarah and I am a writer for StarrMatica. Writing for kids is a passion of mine I developed at my first job out of college with National Geographic KIDS magazine. Prior to that point, I had visions of working for a fashion magazine. But I soon realized writing for a younger audience and sharing stories about the world with them is really fulfilling. I soon forgot my fashion dreams.

After National Geographic, I did a stint at a couple of magazines in NYC, including CosmoGirl!, a spin-off of the (much more) grown up Cosmopolitan magazine. Transitioning from writing for kids to writing for teens was a natural progression, and I realized my future would likely be in writing for younger audiences.

Fast-forward a few years and I decided to venture into the world of freelance. I was expecting my first child and wanted a more flexible position which allowed me to write for a variety of audiences. That’s when I came into writing not only for National Geographic Kids Magazine but for National Geographic books as well. Writing books soon proved to be even more rewarding than writing magazine articles, because I am able to dig my heels into some very fun topics, whether it’s trash (like for This Book Stinks!), Greek Mythology (Weird But True Know It All: Ancient Egypt) or the science and culture of all things “cute” (This Book Is Cute). I’ve done several fact-based books, where I can really flex my research muscles and find super fun (and weird!) facts for books like Weird But True and 5,000 Awesome Facts. All told, I have contributed to or authored some 20 books and recently won a few awards for my work. It’s a fun, fulfilling career I am very lucky to have!

Though I am not strictly a science writer, I am interested in exploring the world around us and enjoy breaking down more complex topics into information kids can easily understand–which is what brought me to StarrMatica. I really enjoy the process of writing science content for kids from kindergartners to fifth graders, including finding the topics and coming up with fun, fresh approaches to explaining various concepts. I hope my work not only helps students but their teachers as well!

When I am not writing, I am busy running around with my four children, ages 11, 9, 7 and a newborn. The older three are at a perfect age to enjoy (and critique!) my work, so I often run whatever I write by them for their honest opinions–of which they have many!

It’s funny to look back at 22-year-old me who thought she’d wind up as a famous editor of a fashion magazine. While my life may be a bit less glamorous, it’s probably a lot more fun the way it all played out.

Get to Know the StarrMatica Team: Shannon Mc Elroy

 Posted by on January 24, 2020  Behind the Scenes of StarrMatica  Comments Off on Get to Know the StarrMatica Team: Shannon Mc Elroy
Jan 242020

Since StarrMatica is a teacher-owned company, we would like to introduce one of our team members whose commitment to educational texts helps to make us who we are today. Shannon McElroy is one of our writers who creates comprehension supports and Common Core aligned questions for StarrMatica Texts:  Science Your Way and for StarrMatica Texts: Social Studies Your Way.

Shannon has a history of writing stories, informational texts, assessment items and learning support materials for kindergarten through college-level students. She loves it all. Creating content for a wide age range keeps her engaged year after year, as well as toggling between Language Arts and Science topics. Her content can be found in standardized assessments, education-based websites, at-home learning products and customized classroom content.

Shannon loves the freedom of researching unusual topics and pursuing an idea further than she had time for as a classroom teacher, “I loved the interaction of being with students in the classroom, but I found myself going home and researching our class material even further on my own. That’s why writing on a topic for a variety of grade levels is so exciting to me. I love the challenge of taking a complicated topic and making it appealing to a younger audience and then on the flip side, diving deep into a simple topic for older students.”

As educational technology has evolved, Shannon has kept pace through developing assessment items for the first-generation computer adaptive testing systems and creating content for cutting-edge interactive computer modules catering to individual learning styles. On the ever-increasing sophistication of technology-based education products, Shannon states, “The technology may change, but the importance of engaging students with exciting content and showing them how to stretch their knowledge and stay curious about the world around them will never change.”

Thank you for all the hard work, Shannon!

StarrMatica Texts: Science Your Way

 Posted by on January 15, 2020  Behind the Scenes of StarrMatica, Science Resources  Comments Off on StarrMatica Texts: Science Your Way
Jan 152020

My favorite movie of all time is “The Wizard of Oz.”  As a little girl, I used to dress up like Dorothy and watch a VHS tape of the movie my parents recorded when it aired on television.  If you’ve seen the movie, you know that near the end, Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal the Great and Powerful Oz is simply one man with a lot of ingenuity. 

Since StarrMatica is a teacher-owned company nowhere near the size of a large publishing house, you might suspect a wizard behind the curtain scenario.  So, I am writing this post to share with you the amount of time and expertise that goes into creating StarrMatica Texts:  Science Your Way and to tell you about the team behind our curtain. (The differences that makes us truly unique are bolded below.)

Each Science Your Way text starts with a Next Generation Science Standard.  Our collection of texts is written specifically to address the NGSS and is not a collection retro-fitted to align to the standards.  You’ll realize this difference quickly as you start to read one of the texts.   Each text starts with a phenomenon photo and related question to mirror the beginning of a high quality NGSS lesson.  All our texts are written by children’s authors who each have a Master’s Degree in Children’s Literature or Nonfiction Writing.  Our talented authors have won awards for their writing and have written for major publications such as National Geographic Kids.  Several have even taught in the classroom themselves!

Once a text is written it goes through an editing and revision process which includes an executive editor, professional proofreader and a scientific expert.  University professors read each text to ensure alignment to the standard, to check for scientific accuracy and suggest edits to help students avoid common misconceptions about the topic now and in the future. 

Each text is written in two different text structures (cause/effect, problem/solution, descriptive, etc.) Once both texts are in their final forms our author coordinates with our executive editor to create six different reading levels for each text (One above grade level, three at grade level and two below grade level).  That’s twelve different versions of the same text!  These texts are then sent MetaMetrics for official Lexile scoring.  This is one of the features that sets this solution apart.  All students can read the same text at their level. 

Two professional graphic designers assist with the graphics and layout of each text.  Because the texts are informational, we use photographs whenever possible.  Each text has one or two graphics created by our talented designers that are unique to that text such as diagrams, timelines and text boxes.  You might know Common Core standards at several grade levels speak to the importance of illustrations.  In our text customization process, teachers can choose which graphic aids to include in a text, so graphics are an important part of our process.

The final texts are sent to another writer to create our Common Core-aligned comprehension questions and comprehension supports.  This writer has years of ELA assessment writing experience and has worked with major publishers.  She is also another set of proofreading eyes.

Once the questions and comprehension supports are edited and proofread, they are added to a recording script with the texts.  As teachers, we believe there is a lot for students to learn from the way a text is read from pacing to inflection.  This is why we take the extra time and great expense to record audio supports for all of the text a student sees on the screen rather than using an inexpensive auto-reader.  We also think listening to a text should be enjoyable for students.  Afterall, who likes listening to a robot for an extended period of time?

The audio supports are recorded at a studio with a sound engineer and a voice talent with decades of experience.  Two editors are also in each session to listen for accuracy, pacing, pronunciation and inflection.  The finished sound files are each listened to and compared with the script.

Next, the whole set of texts, graphics, questions, supports and audio files are sent to our programmer to work his coding magic.  Finally, each text is tested by our editors, as well as by students and teachers in classrooms.

Whew!  That is just a brief description, so you can have confidence that when you use StarrMatica Texts:  Science Your Way with your students, you are using a high-quality product designed to integrate with your curriculum. For more information about the research-basis for the texts, check out last month’s post.  And feel free to contact us if you would like more information about StarrMatica Texts:  Science Your Way or any of the steps above that go into creating each text.

Why is Informational Text Reading Comprehension Important?

 Posted by on December 23, 2019  Behind the Scenes of StarrMatica, Content Recommendations, Reading Resources, Uncategorized  Comments Off on Why is Informational Text Reading Comprehension Important?
Dec 232019

It sounds like a silly question if you are a teacher.  We know students need to understand what they read, but maybe you haven’t stopped to really think about the question in awhile.  It may seem counterintuitive, but just because your students read fluently doesn’t mean they understand what they read.  This is a dangerous pitfall, because if we hear a student reading fluently, we often assume they are a good reader.

Assessing reading comprehension is further complicated when students who are able to comprehend fiction passages, may not be comprehend informational texts. Literary passages simply do not require the same set of comprehension skills as informational texts.

This issue of comprehending informational texts was identified in 1993 when researchers found “nearly 44 million American adults cannot extract even a single piece of information from a written text if any inference or background knowledge is required” (Levy, 1993). Not much since 1993 has happened to address the issue. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. fourth graders can only read at or below a basic level according to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) (The Nation’s Report Card, 2015).  Researchers have even identified a “fourth grade slump” they attribute to issues with comprehending informational text (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006; Chall & Jacobs, 2003; Sanacore & Palumbo, 2009).

It is no surprise success in school, career and society depends on a student’s ability to comprehend informational text (Duke 2004).  But did you know, increasing a child’s ability to comprehend informational text also increases overall reading achievement (Duke, 2004)?  Did you know, reading informational texts increases a child’s background knowledge and background knowledge accounts for as much as 33 percent of the variance in student achievement (Marzano, 2000)?  And did you know, a major predictor of overall student achievement is the ability to use comprehension strategies during content area reading (Duke, 2003b; Hall & Sabey, 2007; Vacca et al., 2009)?  These are some of the reasons why the writers of the Common Core recommend increasing the instructional time spent with informational text during elementary school from 10% to 50% (Coleman, 2011).  Is 50% of your reading instructional time spent with informational texts?  Probably not.  I know as a fourth grade teacher, I didn’t meet this goal for a variety of reasons including not enough access to informational texts and the inability of students to independently read the texts I did have in my classroom.

So, what can you do to help your students with informational text comprehension?  Not only does comprehending informational text require a different set of strategies for students than when reading fiction, it also requires a different set of strategies for teachers:

  • Students need to be proactively taught to identify and understand informational text features first and foremost (Bamford & Kristo, 1998).
  • Students benefit from learning multiple comprehension strategies while they are reading (McKeown et al., 2009).
  • The more informational texts a student reads, the better their ability to comprehend text (Brenner & Hiebert, 2010). 
  • Informational texts should be carefully integrated into the curriculum (Strauss, 2010).
  • Informational texts should be matched to the student’s reading level (Lennon, C. & Burdick, H., 2004).

Frustrated with the lack of informational text resources, we decided to come up with a new solution based on research to help teachers with informational text instruction.  StarrMatica Texts: Science Your Way is a library of customizable informational texts written specifically to address the Next Generation Science Standards. StarrMatica Texts: Science Your Way helps teachers access and integrate informational texts into their curriculum during ELA or science instructional time. Unique to our resource, texts can be adjusted to a student’s individual reading level, so all students can read the same text. Corresponding comprehension instructions are taught throughout the text and Common Core-aligned quiz questions are provided as well.

We are excited about StarrMatica Texts: Science Your Way and will keep you updated on our progress through upcoming blogs. Please visit our website or contact us directly to learn more.

Meet Emily Starr

 Posted by on November 26, 2019  Behind the Scenes of StarrMatica  Comments Off on Meet Emily Starr
Nov 262019

There is never enough time!  As a fourth-grade teacher, I felt the time squeeze every day in my classroom; not enough time to prepare meaningful lessons, not enough time to teach and not enough time to address individual student needs.  Five years into teaching, I was at the point of thinking, “Enough is enough!”  If you are a teacher, I’m sure you’ve had this feeling at some point.  

Emily Starr

My particular tipping point came one day in 2004.  I was handed a projector and asked to use it in my classroom.  My excitement to use technology quickly turned to dismay as I realized I had been given the equivalent of a DVD player without any DVDs.  I spent hours combing the web for resources and sifting through outdated software to find digital content related to my curriculum.  Finding content for the projector became one more thing on my already impossible to complete “to-do” list. Frustrated with the lack of resources, I began talking to fellow teachers and found they were experiencing the same problem. What I really needed was a library of digital content.  It simply didn’t exist.  And that’s how the idea for StarrMatica was born.

As fate would have it, I received a flyer in the mail from the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) about a class called “Boot Camp for Entrepreneurs:  Everything You Need to Know to Start Your Own Business.”  I took the class and thought, “I can do this.”  So, I began working with Ann Hutchinson from the SBDC on a business plan and within a year, I quit teaching and was working on StarrMatica full-time. 

Fast forward to today.  StarrMatica Learning Systems is a digital content development company specializing in K-5 customizable curriculum solutions. Even though I’m now joined by a team of experienced authors, educators and subject matter experts, I will always be a teacher at heart.  Every StarrMatica product is rooted in a desire to help teachers solve a classroom challenge with less time and effort.  Whether it is an issue with finding time to differentiate instruction, an issue with locating informational text resources for different reading levels or a problem with re-writing old lesson plans to meet the NGSS, I am tireless in search for solutions to help as many teachers as possible with their specific issues.  My focus has always and will always be on how to help teachers do their jobs more easily and effectively.  It is my belief that if you can help teachers teach at their highest levels, you’ll be helping their students learn at their highest levels.

Some of you may be familiar with StarrMatica from my library of digital content.  Others may be hearing about my company for the first time.  Either way, thank you for stopping by the blog and reading part of my story.  Please leave a comment below and let me know a little bit about your story.

You can check out the current projects I’m working on at www.starrmatica.com and stay tuned for next month’s blog where I take a dive into why informational text comprehension is so important.

StarrMatica Awarded USDA SBIR Phase I Grant

 Posted by on September 7, 2017  Behind the Scenes of StarrMatica  Comments Off on StarrMatica Awarded USDA SBIR Phase I Grant
Sep 072017

science girlStarrMatica has been awarded a USDA SBIR Phase I Grant to develop and research a software platform that houses customizable K-5 digital science informational texts.

One of the cornerstones of a quality education is the ability to read and comprehend informational texts.  School and career success depends on our ability to comprehend informational texts.  Yet, nearly 44 million American adults cannot extract a single piece of information when they read an informational text if background knowledge is required.  The results of the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that nearly 2/3 of American fourth-graders can only read at or below a proficient level, and when examined further, researchers found that on the 2009 NAEP test, fourth-grade students scored worse on informational texts than on literary passages—with students eligible for free lunch scoring the worst on informational texts.  Because beginning readers are exposed to primarily literary texts, when students enter fourth grade and begin to read more content area informational texts, they have difficulty with comprehension. Comprehending informational texts requires a different set of strategies and skills than they have previously developed.

Knowing this research, the writers of the Common Core have asked teachers to spend 50% of their ELA instructional time with informational texts; however, teachers often don’t have enough informational text resources in their classrooms to meet this requirement.  Being former teachers, we saw this problem and wanted to help.

StarrMatica’s grant will fund the creation of a platform that houses K-5 science informational texts to meet thbook-2022464_640e Next Generation Science Standards.  Teachers will have the ability to customize each text to teach specific text structures, print features, graphic aids, comprehension skills, and Common Core ELA standards at multiple Lexile reading levels.  These customization options will allow teachers to differentiate comprehension instruction to meet the needs of all students and to support a variety of instructional objectives.  The System will be designed to both teach and assess comprehension skills and will be tied to a classroom-management system that records student data.

StarrMatica’s Customizable Informational Text System is expected to 1) allow K-5 teachers to more easily integrate informational texts into their science instruction, 2) make it easier to customize those texts and the accompanying reading comprehension instruction for students with different learning needs, and 3) integrate Common Core-aligned ELA instruction with NGSS-aligned science instruction.

The prototype will be ready for testing in early January and the full product is expected to be ready in 2019.  If you would like more information about this project or to be included as one of the prototype test classrooms, please contact us!

Why a LIBRARY of content? (StarrMatica’s Secret Sauce)

 Posted by on February 7, 2017  Behind the Scenes of StarrMatica  Comments Off on Why a LIBRARY of content? (StarrMatica’s Secret Sauce)
Feb 072017

question markEducators often try to compare StarrMatica to other software programs, but once they begin the comparison, they quickly discover it is difficult to compare apples to oranges.

StarrMatica’s library of online digital interactive content is the only resource of its kind.

Being the only online library of digital interactive content makes us unique.  Being a company founded and managed by educators makes us unique.  Having content designed by classroom educators makes us unique.  But what makes us truly original is the assistance only StarrMatica can provide for our fellow educators.

StarrMatica leaves teachers in control of content decisions.

While at first glance it may seem easier to have a computer program choose activities for students, research has shown that technology, specifically instructional software, has been proven most effective when integrated into classroom instruction by a teacher.  Students who experienced teacher-led standards-based instruction with technology showed higher overall gains than students who experienced the same curricula and technology in an isolated lab setting.  This is because teachers have the ability to match computer instruction with a child’s development, the curriculum sequence, and the needs of particular groups of students.  Teachers must be involved, “orchestrators” of technology, rather than quiet observers of students in learning isolation.

StarrMatica provides teachers with a wide variety of content to address every student need.

When students use individualized software programs, the program assigns activities. These activities are typically limited in number, can be skill and drill based, use the same strategies over and over, and offer little learner choice.  If computer selected interventions are not effective, then teachers are once again searching for alternate resources.

With StarrMatica, teachers are presented with up to fifty digital content resources for a concept, so instead of relying on a singularly focused activity, teachers can try several interventions until a student succeeds. In addition, choosing interventions from multiple activities with multiple strategies allows teachers to match interventions to a student’s learning style, interests, strengths, and weaknesses.  And StarrMatica isn’t just  multiple choice practice activities.  Our library incorporates manipulatives for concept exploration; problem solving activities for addressing higher order thinking skills; and instructional animations for introduction, review, or self-paced learning. StarrMatica addresses multiple needs with one easy-to-use library.

As a company founded by educators, we know that it is imperative that every investment you make be of great value.   Instead of being a singularly focused software program that is only used by individual students on computers, or only offers multiple choice test preparation, or only shows animated videos, StarrMatica’s content variety provides exponential value through its flexibility.

Your school has probably invested a lot of money in technology hardware.  StarrMatica was designed to help teachers make the most of every piece of technology in their classrooms including interactive whiteboards, projectors, interactive pads, response systems, computers, and tablets.  88% of teachers say that simply having access to more digital content would allow them to use technology more often.  StarrMatica’s library of content meets that need, so teachers can make the most of your technology investments.

Our library of content also allows teachers to choose resources that are tailored to every learning setting including whole-class, small group, centers, and individual students both at school and at home.

StarrMatica helps further with:

  • a built-in individualized basic facts program that automatically adjusts practice based on a student’s performance.  Reporting features allow teachers and parents to monitor progress towards fact mastery, and teachers can even view data at the class level to diagnose the most missed facts.
  • individual student progress accounts.  These accounts allow teachers and parents to monitor student progress so they can make immediate adjustments to intervention or enrichment plans.
  • the ability to create and share collections of content.  This makes it easy for teachers to share individualized content with specific students and to save collections of favorites from year to year.

StarrMatica helps teachers integrate technology effectively with a personalized approach.

Research has shown that students whose teachers use technology effectively in the classroom have higher test scores than students whose teachers do not.

Simply providing teachers with a library of digital content doesn’t mean they will know how to use it effectively.  As teachers ourselves, we take the extra step to make sure that teachers are able to quickly locate content to meet individual student needs and are comfortable with integrating that content effectively into classroom instruction.

To accomplish this, we combine our library of content with a series of personalized professional development sessions, informational emails, and online support to assist every individual teacher.

Our assistance is tailored to the needs of each school by evaluating access to technology, teacher technology proficiency, and teacher and administration goals, so we can best help you move from where you are today to where you would like to be in the future.

So now you know the differences that make up StarrMatica’s secret sauce.  (I guess it’s not a secret anymore!)