Writing About Citelighter's Latest $2M Round...Using Citelighter

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From left: Joe Piazza, Shanita Starks, Lee Jokl, Saad Alam, Emily Levitt, Jeff Filson

As I stare at this empty Google Doc, contemplating how to start this article, I am stricken with terror, much like that felt by Odysseus, Tom Hanks and other castaways lost at sea.

That fear and helplessness is common among writers, especially those in school. “Sometimes, a blank white screen is super intimidating for students,” says Emily Levitt, Director of Curriculum at Citelighter.

Formerly a research and citation tool, Citelighter is currently a platform that guides teachers and students through the entire writing process, from creating essay prompts to grading. It’s designed to help teachers break down assignments into manageable chunks and scaffolds--“the building blocks of writing,” in the words of the company’s co-founder and CEO, Saad Alam.

Founded in 2011, the Baltimore, MD-based company says teachers and students in more than 3,800 schools across 50 countries are writing on Citelighter.

Investors are writing, too--checks, that is. Citelighter closed an oversubscribed, $2 million “Seed-2” round, led by Propel Baltimore Fund, in early January. Other contributors include Maryland Venture Fund, Gulf Ventures, New York Angels, Baltimore Angels, Blue Ventures, and individuals George Roche (former CEO of T. Rowe Price Group), Ed Hajim (President at Diker Management LLC) and Frank Bonsal Jr.

The company has come a long way since selling iPad straps to survive. “It took us two years and some tears to raise our first $850K. The second round took 90 days, and this one was wrapped up in 30,” Alam boasts. In total, Citelighter has raised $4.5 million.

Citelighter quietly released its writing platform in September 2014, when Alam found that the original citation tool was used for assignments beyond research papers. After his team spent time observing how writing is taught in schools, they wanted to streamline the “broken” workflow of helping teachers create writing assignments and guiding students through them.

“Writing is a visualization of a student’s critical thinking,” says Alam, “and it’s an essential component for students to be ready for the 21st century.”

A very rough outline for this article

Upon creating a writing assignment, teachers can outline the questions and topics that the paper should address. Or, teachers can choose from over a thousand pre-loaded writing templates, such as the standard five-paragraph argumentative writing structure, or prompts specific to Smarter Balanced and PARCC writing assessments that ask students to compare readings or cite from text.

Assignments can be tagged in the system according to Common Core standards, which also provide a rubric for how teachers grade the paper.

Once a writing exercise is assigned, teachers access a dashboard that tracks students’ progress in terms of word count, sources cited and time spent writing. Students can work in Citelighter or use Google Docs, and teachers can also dive into each draft and leave comments.

There’s also a “Cognitive Print” dashboard that captures the sequence in which a student captured sources, commented on them, organized their thoughts and get to the task of writing.

Usually it's a good idea to do research before you write

No two people write alike, and these prints can help teachers understand how each individual student approaches an assignment. Levitt says “these patterns may tell teachers about things they don’t know. If you see that the students wrote for three hours before doing research, it tells you that the student may not have a problem with actual writing but with strategy.”

These analytics tools are available to schools and districts with a premium subscription, which Alam says varies from $10 to $15 per student per year, depending on the number of student users. The original Citelighter research and citation tool remains free. Alams mum on how many premium accounts the company has sold.

“As the year progresses, teachers should be taking some of the scaffolding away to nudge the student toward independent writing,” explains Levitt.

One early success story for Citelighter is Lincoln Street Alternative High School, located outside Detroit. The company says 50 students who used the product every other day for 3 months improved their writing score by 2 points on a 5-point rubric. It was so impressive, Alam says, that he decided to send a film crew over. The local NBC affiliate in Baltimore did the same for a story about Citelighter used in Norwood Elementary, where over half of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Citelighter currently counts 42 employees on the team; a year ago, there were 10. Alam says the company is looking to expand to 60, with a focus on simplifying the teacher dashboard and improving metrics tools.

Yes, I graded myself
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