From Music to EdTech: Grit and Growth

The Strange Familiar
Frank Freeman (right) and The Strange Familiar.

Before entering the field of educational technology and co-founding Propagate, I had spent half a decade pursuing a career as an electric bass player. Playing in numerous bands, such as Templeton’s Zeal and The Strange Familiar, I experienced first-hand the miracle of starting with nothing but a vision, and creating something that reaches hundreds of thousands of people. This line of work taught me that it’s grit and resilience that make all of the difference in a do-it-yourself world in which you create something from nothing, trusting that you have a vision of making a difference in the world.

My Entrepreneurial Roots in Music

In college and the years that followed, I was a member of various bands, such as Templeton’s Zeal and The Strange Familiar, projects that I helped start from scratch. No songs, no cash, and no plan — but we had a vision. By writing songs, creating an image, and defining a brand, we created something that didn’t previously exist. This required becoming accustomed to working tirelessly without getting paid, something my close friends and family struggled to understand at the time, for obvious reasons. It was natural for band mates to have our “day jobs,” while completing degree programs, and investing every free moment into what we were creating. From building a web site to selling merchandise on tour, we learned to do it all ourselves, because no one else was going to do it for us.

The Strange Familiar


In March of 2008, I moved from my hometown of Akron, Ohio to Los Angeles, California, where I began writing, recording, and performing with The Strange Familiar. At the time of the move, I had one thousand dollars, backed only by a million dollar vision. My first month there, I paid $250 to sleep on the floor of a friend of a friend. I drove my father’s hand-me-down Subaru Outback, in which I kept all of my clothes and music equipment. I worked as a brand ambassador, designed web sites, and began working as a tutor to pay the bills and get my own apartment, not knowing that my years of sacrifice was about to pay off in a big way.

In May of that year, the band’s song, Courage Is…, was selected as a promo track for the soon-to-be-released, The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Within a week’s time, the exposure skyrocketed the song to #9 in the Rock category of iTunes. Over the next several years, we would go on to get signed to an indie record label, release numerous singles and albums, license our music to shows such as The Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, and The Biggest Loser, and perform at South by Southwest and in the Top 48 on America’s Got Talent.


Propagate Banner

Just as I moved to LA in 2008 with the dream of playing on the big stage, I went to Harvard in 2012 to gain the necessary skills and credentials to carve out my niche in ed tech. Several years later, we have released a beta version of Propagate, an initial product offering that will lay the groundwork for our company to grow into a learning analytics engine that will power individualized learning for generations to come.

For the second time in my life, I am once again deferring the promises of a steady job and predictable lifestyle in favor of the high risk, high reward pathway that I prefer. Once again, my fingernails are black with grit from the daily sacrifices I make to be able to say that I don’t work for anyone but myself and those who believe in me.

Join Us!

We are currently offering our beta for free to teachers and students throughout the country. Please sign up on our site to join a growing number of educators and learners who are seeking a more effective way to expand vocabulary knowledge through technology.

Using Propagate to Auto-Generate Vocabulary Quizzes

At Propagate, we aim to be a teacher’s best friend for vocabulary instruction. We’ve spoken with hundreds of educators and know that you’re already pressed for time in the classroom. And that creating and grading vocabulary quizzes is pretty much the last thing on your to-do list. We want to help!

At Propagate, we’ve created an easy-to-use feature that will allow you to auto-generate vocabulary quizzes based on the content and readings that you’re actually assigning in class! No more need for isolated contexts from workbooks – Propagate bridges the gap between the content you’re assigning and the keywords you’re teaching!

Check it out. You tell us what digital readings you’re assigning for class, and while you’re students are reading with the Propagate Chrome extension installed, we’ll collect information on the most challenging sentences and contexts in which the words on your wordlists are appearing.

With the click of a button, you can assign a quiz at the end of the week that is contextually relevant and personalized to your curriculum!

Propagate Auto-Generated Vocabulary Quiz

We’ll even auto grade the quizzes for you and provide you with a class report that quickly allows you to determine the top words with which your class is still struggling.

Propagate Vocabulary Quiz Class Report

We’re working around the clock to roll out new quiz features over the next 2 months that include open-ended questions, among others. My personal favorite is a feature I’m working on that will allow teachers to assign a uniquely different quiz to each student in his/her class based on the unique words that the student is struggling with. Pretty cool, right?

If you have more suggestions on features you’d like to see for vocabulary assessments, or anything else, please email me personally at I’d love to hear from you and know how I can help you in the classroom.

Emily Schu
Co-founder, Director of Product

Propagate Celebrates National Poetry Month

In honor of National Poetry Month, Propagate is celebrating by honoring some of our favorite poets and poems. We will be tweeting poems every day during the month of April. Make sure to follow us on Twitter!

Take a look below and see if you recognize any of these famous poems.

But before you do, what would a blog from Propagate be without context to the word “Poem”? A poem as a piece of writing using beautiful or unusual language arranged in fixed lines that have a particular beat and often rhyme.

National Poetry Month! Here are some lines from our favorite poets and poems. What are yours- #npm15

What are your favorite poems? Let us know in the comment section below!

Assure vs. Insure vs. Ensure: Knowing the Difference

When is it appropriate to use assure vs. ensure vs. insure? Although these words sound the same and share the general meaning “to make sure,” we can assure you that their usage is highly dependent on context.

We’ve created this handy cheat sheet to help you recognize when and where to use the appropriate word!

Assure vs. Insure vs. Ensure

Here’s a quick summary:

  • Assure: To assure is to tell someone something positively to dispel any doubts they may have. For instance, not sure if those shoes match the outfit you’re wearing? Seek assurance from a friend with a good sense of style. Alternatively,  if you don’t have any other footwear options, ask a friend with no sense of style, because let’s be honest: you know the shoes don’t match and are just looking to be assured that they don’t look hideous.
  • Insure: To insure is to arrange for compensation for the loss or damage of property or for the injury or death of someone. Just bought a house on the coast of Florida? Make sure to insure it against flood damage given that flooding is one of Florida’s most frequent natural disasters.
  • Ensure: To ensure is to make sure something will (or won’t) happen. For example, in many scientific journals, research articles are peer-reviewed primarily to ensure scientific accuracy and to ensure that the data collected supports the conclusions of the author.

Have other words or phrases you often confuse? Let us know in the comments section below!

6 Steps for Teaching New Vocabulary

Flashcards? Boring!

Hooked on Phonics? Come on. There has to be a better way!

We think there are better, more effective ways for teaching vocabulary in the classroom. Here are 6 Steps for Teaching New Vocabulary:6 New Steps for Teaching VocabularyDo you know any more effective methods for teaching vocabulary? If so, let us know in the comments section below.

The Ultimate Primer to SXSWedu

Can you believe it’s already March? In less than a few days we’ll be attending the SXSWedu Conference & Festival in Austin, TX. We’ve been doing a lot of work to research & plan for the event, and we would love to share everything with you. We’ve compiled several Top 5 Lists for you to check out in what we’re calling “The Ultimate Primer to SXSWedu”. Hope to see you at the event! Enjoy.


Top 5 Things to Do Before you Get to Austin

  1. Pack a light jacket and an umbrella. The forecast shows cooler temperatures and possible rain early in the week. The back half of the week looks sunny and warm!
  2. Download the SXSWedu mobile app. You’ll be able to browse the programming and event lineup, build your schedule, view event maps, and stay connected to the social world.
  3. Build your schedule and figure out which sessions or workshops make the most sense for you to attend. Don’t know which sessions to attend? No worries, you’ll find some valuable suggestions right here! Cheat Code: you can sync your online schedule to your mobile app!
  4. Check out eduSocial. It’s a social tool sponsored by SXSWedu which allows you to create a profile and connect with all of your friends and colleagues – perhaps you’ll even make new friends!
  5. Make sure you pack comfortable shoes! If you’ve never attended this event before, you should check your FitBit by the end of it – we’re certain you’ll log plenty of steps and miles. Take care of your feet!walkingshoes

Top 5 Speaker Series to Attend

  1. How the Crowd Will Change Education” presented by Charles Best, Founder of This is the opening keynote and one of the objectives is for the audience to understand how plans to reach its goal of having 1 million people give $100 million to 100% of America’s high need schools, all in 1 year.
  2. Building the EdTech Bridge” presented by Katya Hott and Steve Isaacs. How do teachers and entrepreneurs need to disrupt their own processes in order to collaborate? That question and much more will be answered during this session.
  3. EdTech for Educational Inclusion” presented by a host of individuals who will be discussing ways to stimulate conversations around new learning technologies and educational inclusion, as well as ways to identify disruptive strategies to prepare today’s students for the demands of our 21st century economy.
  4. mjmSocializing Credential Innovation” led by EdSurge Associate Editor, Mary Jo Madda, a panel of participants will discuss how, or if, the social Internet can accelerate the future of credentials.
  5. Goldie Hawn Book Signing! That’s not a joke – really – check out the link. Goldie Hawn will be in attendance to sign her book.

Top 5 Fun Events at SXSWedu

  1. wordn3rd-fbookAttend the Wordnerd Happy Hour, presented by Propagate, Inc (that’s us!). There will be food, libations, and a Chromebook giveaway!
  2. Kick off the Conference at the SXSWedu Opening Reception. The gala will feature drinks, small bites and local entertainment.
  3. Walk around the Austin Convention Center Exhibit Hall and take in the SXSWedu Education Expo. Free and open to the public, this portion of the conference is always generating conversation!
  4. Take in the film, “The Hip Hop Fellow” which follows Grammy Award winning producer, 9th Wonder’s tenure at Harvard University, as he teaches ‘The Standards of Hip-Hop’ course, conducts research for his thesis, lectures at Duke University and explores hip-hop’s history, culture and role in an academic setting.
  5. Have a drink at the Boston in Austin party and learn about the Boston EdTech Ecosystem. And no, there is no such thing as Austin, Massachusetts:

Top 5 Things to Do in Austin (if you get some free time)

  1. If you’re staying until Thursday, it’s sure to warm up by then. Make sure to pack your bartonsprings1bathing suit so that you can cool off in the Barton Springs Pool. Barton Springs Pool is one of Austin’s famous landmarks and easily the most popular swimming hole in the city. Spring fed and over 900 feet long, the pool was formed when Barton Creek was dammed up, so it has a natural rock and gravel bottom.
  2. Take in some live country music at Austin City Limits. Austin City Limits still remains as the main focal point of Austin live music scene.
  3. Visit the Austin State Capitol building and enjoy the 22 acres of grounds, historical buildings, 17 monuments, and beautifully landscaped lawns in addition to the Capitol building itself.austin_bats
  4. Be brave and witness over 1 million Mexican free-tailed bats fly out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge for a little supper around dusk.
  5. Don’t forget to bring your camera when you visit Mount Bonnell, the highest point in the Austin City Limits. It requires a climb up many steps, but once you get to the top, the view over Lake Austin is stunning.

We hope this Primer helps sort through all of the wonderful things to do while visiting Austin for the SXSWedu Conference & Festival. If you have other suggestions or ideas for things to do, please add your comments in the comment section below. We can’t wait to see you in Austin! Yee-Haw!

EdTech 101: 7 EdTech Buzzwords You Should Know

Edtech 101

New to the EdTech field? Or maybe just lost in all the buzzwords floating around? We don’t blame you.

Attend any EdTech event or conference for the first time and you’ll be inundated with the industry’s various terms and phrases if you haven’t sufficiently familiarized yourself with popular EdTech jargon in advance. What you’ll discover though, like any specialization, is that there’s basically a whole lot of ways to say the same thing.

We’ve closely monitored the words and phrases that we use or hear being used on an almost daily basis here at Propagate and created this cheat sheet for you.

1. Adaptive Learning: A fancy way of describing an educational technology or software that learns what you know and what you don’t know, and subsequently “adapts” or tailors the instructional content and/or curriculum being delivered. Adaptive technology also holds the promise of anticipating when and where a learner will need support in his or her own learning process and be able to provide customized content and resources at these points. A little bit like personalized robot tutors.

2. Blended Learning: No, blended learning is not something you throw blended-learning1into a Cuisinart Blender. The term actually refers to the “blending” of traditional face-to-face, brick-and-mortar instruction with online instructional delivery. For instance, a “blended course” refers to a course in which a portion of the traditional face-to-face instruction is replaced by web-based online learning. A popular trend in blended learning (the “Flipped Classroom” model) is to deliver lecture-based content via the web and optimize precious, in-person time with more collaborative and conversational activities that deepen student learning.

3. Differentiated Instruction: A Propa-favorite! Differentiated instruction doesn’t necessarily require technology, but it’s a hot term right now in the education space. The term refers to a model of teaching in which educators can deliver unique experiences and learning tasks to each student based on their immediate Zone of Proximal Development and personal interests. Rather than simply delivering a “one-size-fits-all” approach, teachers using differentiated instruction deliver tasks, activities, and assessments based on each unique student’s abilities and interests.

4. GamificatioGamification Badgen: Gamification in education incorporates game mechanics and design (think “achievement badges”, “virtual currencies”, or plain old user-to-user competition) to motivate and incentivize learners in achieving specific learning outcomes.  Gamification in education is no new concept. Were you a child or parent in the 1980s and remember playing Carmen Sandiego or Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing? Both are early gamification examples in the children’s educational software  industry.

5. Learning Analytics: Learning Analytics is a relatively nascent field, and the definition will likely vary based on who you ask.  To play it safe, I’m going to quote the Learning Analytics Community Exchange organization (LACE) which defines learning analytics as “the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners and their contexts, for purposes of understanding and optimizing learning and the environments in which it occurs.” This is definitively one of those terms and fields to follow as the vision and applications for learning analytics continues to evolve and crystallize in the coming years. 

6. LMS (Learning Management System): Blackboard. Moodle. Canvas. These are some of the big players in the LMS space. An LMS is a way for institutions to digitally deliver their courses or learning programs for ease of management, administration, tracking, and reporting. Think of an LMS as the digital space where, as a student, you can go to “download your course PDFs and readings,” and post a required comment on a discussion thread each week – and as a teacher, you can easily track and manage these types of student behaviors.  Most LMSs that I’ve worked with as a former instructional designer have led me to conclude that educational pedagogy and user experience have typically been comprised to scale and manage “learning” rather than to design effective digital learning environments themselves. It should be interesting to see how LMSs adapt and redefine themselves over the next 5 years with the rise of smaller yet more optimal learning systems.

Personalized Learning7. Personalized Learning: Here’s another term that’s not yet clearly defined by the educator community. Like “Adaptive Learning” and “Differentiated Instruction“, personalized learning is student-centered. According to Susan D. Patrick, the executive director of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, “personalized learning in today’s schools essentially amounts to the “differentiation” of lessons for students of different skill levels, or efforts to help students move at their own pace.”

Have more edtech buzzwords you’d like to see defined? Leave a comment in the comment section and we’ll compile a list for the next “EdTech 101” post.

Teachers, Help Us Help You!

Propagate at Edsurge Baltimore
Propagate Booth at Edsurge Baltimore

Help us help you here by taking this survey!

We recently participated in the Edsurge Tech for Schools Summit in Baltimore and met with some of the coolest, most innovative teachers in K-12. Consider this a huge shout out to everyone Frank and I had the opportunity of chatting with – we are seriously impressed and grateful for your continued commitment to education!

The outstanding news is that 96% of the 70 teachers we spoke to indicated that they would use Propagate for their classrooms!

At the summit, we were also able to capture invaluable teacher feedback on our beta product. In the spirit of transparency and innovation, we’d like to share how we measured up so that you can help us raise our numbers to 5/5 across the board by the end of the year.

  1. SET UP = 3.8/5.0 (This product would be really easy for me to set up)

  2. VISUAL APPEAL3.9/5.0 (This product is visually appealing.)

  3. DATA = 4.1/5.0 (This product gives me great, actionable data.)

  4. TIME 3.8/5.0 (This product saves me tons of time.)

  5. Overall impression of the product= 4.1/5.0

Based on your feedback, there are areas for improvement that we can be making here at Propagate. However, we can only to continue to improve Propagate if you let us know what we can specifically be doing to help you!

Birthday CatsThat being said, please take 5 minutes to fill in this Google Survey to help us continue to innovate and build on what we’ve created thus far. Hey, we even threw in some cats with birthday hats to thank you!

Your feedback is invaluable and critical to us at this stage as we continue to strive to create a vocabulary instruction tool that you would happily refer to your colleagues.

Many thanks for your continued feedback and support,
Emily Schu
Co-Founder, Director of Product

The Top 250 Most Difficult SAT Words [via Sparknotes]

From abjure to zephyr and everything in between, Sparknotes has compiled a listing of the Top 250 Most Difficult SAT Words. For many high school students (and probably most adults) these words can make you feel like you’re in a constant conundrum [(n.) puzzle, problem].   Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 1.44.44 PM

Simply reading words and pairing them with a definition is a very antiquated and spurious [(adj.) false but designed to seem plausible] way of mastering vocabulary. While many students attempt the traditional route, we’ve developed a much more effulgent [(adj.) radiant, splendorous] method for mastering and improving vocabulary skills.

Leveraging Propagate’s Google Crome browser extension students can highlight target words, which provides in-the-moment support, and gather data on challenging words and sentences. Then, our system creates customized review games and activities to solidify students’ word knowledge. Think of it as a way to turn digital text into customized word learning experiences powered by the brain’s secret word learning weapon: context.

Take the word “quagmire” for instance. It’s a fun word to say but would you know the definition Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 1.50.31 PMif it wasn’t called out on this post? You might not. If quagmire was on your list of vocabulary words to memorize and comprehend, wouldn’t it be great if this word was highlighted and referenced within any context on the web?

For students, the repeatable practice of vocabulary words is important but it’s definitely not as extolled [(v.) to praise, revere] as they might hope. By providing the functionality of word learning and comprehension through the means of context, students can accelerate their learning curve and grasp words and their meaning much quicker. And besides, who doesn’t like Glenn Quagmire from Family Guy?

What are some of the best practices and tips that you recommend? Let us know in the comments section below.

In the meantime, here are our top 10 favorite vocabulary words from Sparknotes’ Top 250:

  1. acumen(n.) keen insight (Because of his mathematical acumen, Larry was able to figure out in minutes problems that took other students hours.)
  2. assiduous(adj.) hard-working, diligent (The construction workers erected the skyscraper during two years of assiduous labor.)
  3. cogent(adj.) intellectually convincing (Irene’s arguments in favor of abstinence were so cogent that I could not resist them.)
  4. conundrum(n.) puzzle, problem (Interpreting Jane’s behavior was a constant conundrum.)
  5. fallacious(adj.) incorrect, misleading (Emily offered me cigarettes on the fallacious assumption that I smoked.)
  6. grandiloquence(n.) lofty, pompous language (The student thought her grandiloquence would make her sound smart, but neither the class nor the teacher bought it.)
  7. jubilant(adj.) extremely joyful, happy (The crowd was jubilant when the firefighter carried the woman from the flaming building.)
  8. neophyte(n.) someone who is young or inexperienced (As a neophyte in the literary world, Malik had trouble finding a publisher for his first novel.)
  9. paragon(n.) a model of excellence or perfection (The mythical Helen of Troy was Glenn_Quagmire_by_CartmanPTconsidered a paragon of female beauty.)
  10. quagmire(n.) a difficult situation (We’d all like to avoid the kind of military quagmire characterized by the Vietnam War.)

Propagate Vocabulary: Beta Version Released

We are thrilled to announce that we are opening up our beta product, Propagate Vocabulary, to teachers.
One of our newest features in this release intextallows teachers to create reading assignments using the content of any web page. Teachers can simply copy and paste the URL of any web site they’d like their class to read. They can even tell our system any vocabulary words they’d like their students to see highlighted as they’re reading. 
Students can access the definition of any word directly in the text, and our system will remember which words they look up in the dictionary and show this list to the teacher. After reviewing the class’s reading data, the teacher can create class-wide or differentiated assessments that use actual content from the web page to assess vocabulary knowledge and comprehension.
We are currently building a rich learning analytics platform that will allow teachers techsyncto view which words their students are struggling with — either in a particular reading, or over time. This time-saving feature will allow teachers to weave more vocabulary learning into class instruction, or guided individual practice.
To register for our beta, please complete the following form. During this beta phase, we work very closely with teachers and listen carefully to feedback so we can respond with features updates every couple of weeks. As such, we are limited in the number of schools we can enroll each week, but will continue adding teachers on a first-come, first-served basis. After registering, you will receive an email with an early access code, which will allow you and your students to begin using Propagate.
We thank you for your interest and support.
Frank Freeman
Co-Founder / CEO