We’ve been working on a short story project for the past few days, and I have been so amazed at the quiet focus of my sixth graders on this project. You can hear a pin drop for 45 minutes at a time as they work on their stories. Then, yesterday, in one of my classes, all you could hear was this one kid’s pencil in the back of the room. It was incredibly noisy. It might have been his grip, or his intensity, or the table surface … who knows.
But as they wrote, I composed this poem:
The Loudest Pencil in the World
I just heard
the loudest pencil in the world;
Some kid in the back of the room
with a Kung Fu grip
and words tumbling out of him like an avalanche –
He’s racing to keep up,
pushing lead to stay ahead of his ideas,
else all might be lost …
And, boy, I know that feeling – all too well –
yet I write quiet,
so as to not cause a riot in my foolish head
as every sliver of sound has the potential
to get me lost
on some byway of my own way of thinking.
It’s the loudest pencil in the world.
He’s scratching out a symphony in the back of the room
and the sounds have us all wondering –
I can see the heads of other students popping up
like prairie dogs now and then –
what is he writing,
and will his writing stay in tune
And I wrote it to be read and listened to, paying attention to internal rhymes. So, here is the podcast:
My students are working on their Dream Scene projects (done in a webcomic space) and I am enjoying getting to know them a little better through their aspirations (Note: I am sharing two versions here — the flash version and then the image version.)
My students are working on a start-of-the-year project known as a Dream Scene. They are envisioning some point in the future and thinking about a goal that they have to get there. In the past few years, we have created digital stories for dream scenes, but some technical issues (mostly, moving from PC to Mac and me not being ready for this project) have us instead working in our Bitstrips for Schools webcomic space.
Or as a flash file:
I shared out my own Dream Scene with them yesterday as they began their rough draft work. Today, they will head into the site and use an activity template to create their own. I love this project because it gives me a chance to know more about who they are as a person and where they see themselves going. Some of them really spend a lot of time mulling this one over!
(Note: This is a Slice of Life post. You can join in with your own slice, too. Head over to Two Writing Teachers to get more information about the writing activity that takes place online every Tuesday.)
We’ve just started school but we had the pleasure yesterday of connecting our classroom in Western Massachusetts with a class out in Arizona to talk about a book that both classes have read: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. This book was our entire school’s summer read but the students in Arizona are using it as a read-aloud. They’ve done a whole lot more work that we have and they shared out a lot of great ideas about the book, asked questions and considered a few different angles of the rich storyline of a character who heads off on an adventure in China to bring good luck to her village and family.
This is the first time my students have connected with another classroom, and they were pretty focused and jazzed up about it, even though we had some trouble hearing and they had some trouble hearing us. I realize I need to have a better system of students being closer to the computer for sharing — a little chair or something — and because we are at the start of the year, I didn’t feel quite as prepared as I would have liked for my own students sharing.
But my teaching friends in Arizona — Michael Buist (whom I met during our Making Learning Connected MOOC) and Jennifer Nusbaum — were great to work with, and I love extending the classroom beyond our walls, reaching out to make my students feel connected to something larger than themselves. It was a great first step at the start of the year.
This is one of my opening day traditions with my homeroom class and it is a lot of fun. I have my students on the first day of school get up into our Bitstrips for Schools webcomic site to create avatars of themselves (first, we have a discussion about avatars and identity — a topic we will return to later on). Not only do I get this great webcomic version of my classroom, but I get to move around the room, talk one-on-one with students, watch who is a collaborator and who might need a little help, and who are my technology assistants.
I also have them work on the first activity in our Bitstrips, which is creating a “pro card” of themselves. This is an easy entry into making comics, since it is a template activity. I purposely did not give them specific instructions. I wanted to see what they would do with it. Most just used the template. But a few others (my future hackers?) began to modify the template a bit, making changes to the font and where their character was on the card, and more.
I took it the other day during our Stuffed Animal Day in writing class, after my sixth graders had gone off to Library. I love how they left their animals in their seats. We have a Stuffed Animal Day as part of a prompt around descriptive writing — they have to use good descriptive details to describe one of the animals in the room, and we have to guess which one it is. (Gets tricky when there are 20 or 30 animals lined up along the shelf).
But there is another reason, too, and it is one of those things that I forgot about until the day arrived. You should have seen how excited these sixth graders (soon to be seventh graders) were when they arrived with their stuffed animals. Some were very protective of them; others tossed their animals around.
It reminded me of how we really need to continue to value the connections to their childhoods. This often gets lost in the need for pushing through our curriculum, driving them to do their best on standardized testing, and working hard at learning all year long. This connection to the innocence of their age gets lost in all that, and yet a simple activity like Stuffed Animal Day …. it brings it all right back into the classroom.
We’re winding up our unit around paragraph writing, and the final assignment (related to persuasive) was to write a review of a game. It did not have to be a video game, but many chose to go that route. Initially, we were going to do podcasts with Garageband, but the computers were needed by another teacher (and I did not want to be a complete laptop hog), so we went to Plan B and used Voicethread. Participation in the podcasting was optional, but even so, it showcases a range of games (although Minecraft continues to have a leg up on other games, particularly with the boys)
I have a group of students just finishing up Kate Klise’s Regarding the Fountain, which is a small novel with a story told entirely through artifacts. My kids are always intrigued when we pull this out because it is so different from the kinds of books they are used to reading (straight narratives). Part of the story involves students in the fictional town of Dry Creek researching and writing about the history of their town. They then provide a pretty nifty visual history of what they discovered.
I had my students do some research on their town (culled from some historical artifacts from the town archives) and I had them create their own visual history of Southampton, Massachusetts. I love this connection to the book because it allows for wonderful discussions about where they live and how their town came to be, and various events that took place (Ted Kennedy’s plane crashed in the town; the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was filmed here; and the town’s water was designated the tastiest in the country in 2008). All these connections to history are important.
Yesterday, a visitor asked a bit about how I teach the Memory Objects/Narrative Writing/Digital Story assignment, and I am happy to walk through what we do.
First, this writing is part of our unit around paragraph structure and paragraph writing. The emphasis for this particularly piece of writing is “narrative” and telling a story. I begin by reading the picture book Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox as a way to talk about memories. This delightful picture book tells the story of a young boy who helps his elderly friend recover her memories through a series of gifts. It’s a perfect segue into our discussions around not just memories, but the artifacts and objects that we collect to remind us of events and people and experiences.
Second, they begin their writing. Since this is a lesson around paragraph structure, we emphasize through graphic organizers some of the main ideas, and how to develop the body. This paragraph later becomes the script for their digital stories. I share my own examples with them, and show them a few digital stories from prior years. For some, the hardest part is figuring out what to write about. So, I give them a few days to mull it over.
Third, we jump into iMovie. Since most have not used iMovie before, I give a tutorial and then they had a good part of two days to play around with the program in ways not related to the digital story. I showed them how to add titles, use transitions, embed music, drag in photos, etc. This is not wasted time. This play time gives them a chance to explore, try out techniques, fail and try again, and more. I have found they need a good grasp on the possibilities before the real project begins.
Finally, they either bring in their objects or they bring in f lash drive with images of the objects. If they have brought them in, they use PhotoBooth to take photographs (hint: use the “reverse image” feature if the object has writing, since PhotoBooth takes mirror shots). What is nice is that iMovie integrates PhotoBooth and other applications seamlessly into the program. We talk about using Garageband to create a soundtrack and Free Play Music as a source for music (which leads to a longer discussion about “mood and tone” of music working in conjunction with the mood and tone of the writing.)
When they are done, they have the option to upload to our class YouTube site, or just export to the desktop.
The whole project takes about a week (of about 30 minutes a day), although I continue to have some stragglers. That’s always the case.
This is one of the projects that I do not grade. Surprisingly, of my 80 students, only two have asked me that question (will this be graded?). Instead, I see this as a way to value writing, introduce a useful bit of technology, and offer up an authentic publishing venue for them to tell a story. The level of engagement is very high across the board. It reminds me that if the activity is enriching as an experience, the need to grade every little thing seems a little less important. At least, it does for this particular kind of writing/technology adventure.
I hope that helps you think about how to bring digital storytelling into your classroom.