Why Use Tech: Composition Considerations

In a few weeksl, I am heading to Nashville for the National Writing Project Annual Meeting and I am taking part in a workshop about writing in the digital age. (Here is my slide presentation using SlideShare — a new favorite) I will discuss a Digital Math Picture Book Project that I did with my sixth graders last year that used Powerpoint as the platform.

But the question is: Why use the computers to compose a picture book? Why not just stick to paper and pen?

Here are my thoughts:

One guiding question that I went into this math picture book project with was, how will the composing process change for my sixth graders as they create picture books using technology (Powerpoint) as opposed to previous years when it was all paper and pen? They had to write a story that taught a math theme to an audience of younger students.

First of all, the planning did not change much at all. We still did all of the brainstorming work and storyboarding on paper before the computers were even turned on. But early in the process, some students began to think about the various aspects of PP (images that can move in and off the screen and transitions and the integration of audio) as possible ideas for complementing their writing. (They had been introduced to PP earlier in the year). They also had to integrate their own art into the picture books — they could scan in images they drew or they could use Paint and then import. (Most of them used Paint, although that was a struggle for some).

The result was an interesting combination of old and new for my students.

Some composed “shows” that allowed the reader to listen for clues to math problems embedded within the story. Once the reader has some ideas of an answer to the question, they could use the mouse click to “remove” a picture and reveal the answer. Sometimes, the audio file was merely a word of encouragement and sometimes the audio was a narration of the story. We invited younger grades (mostly k-3) to our classrooms and set up computer stations. My students then not only shared their work but they also explained to the younger ones how they made their books on the computer and how the tricks were accomplished (such as moving images). Some made changes to the books after getting a reaction from one round of readers. Unlike paper, they could make changes immediately and in a few minutes time.

We did not go into hyperlinking to other pages in the book or outside of the books but that is something that might provide an even more powerful platform for extending their knowledge base (and the reader’s base of understanding) from the local (their book) to the global (the world).

The final step was publication. We actually printed out two paper copies of every book (one for the student and one for the school) and then I converted the books to PDF and posted to our Weblog site for families to view. (There were too many and they were just too large to post as PP shows but that would be have been ideal). What happened, of course, is that I had to flatten everything out to two-dimensional space, which meant that the audio files were deleted and any hidden answers had to be revealed or else they would be missing from the printed page, which led to an interesting discussion about the differences between composition on paper and composition on powerpoint. Many of the writers were disappointed but I encouraged them to bring in a blank disc or flashdrive to save their shows as originals, and some did just that.


  1. Hey there Kevin,
    I met you briefly at the Seed Sites conference in Atlanta a few weeks ago, and have been watching your blog ever since. Nice work! I just wanted to take a minute here to provide a possible resource for some background research on composition considerations when using hypermedia. Years ago, my professors at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor were researching how HyperStudio (a precursor to Powerpoint) and other hypermedia changed or enhanced the way kids in science classrooms organized their thinking. I have taken these same principles to my work with children in writing, in much the same way you have here. I have found that the key difference between putting pen to paper and putting index finger to mouse is that once we ask kids to compose in digital media, especially in hypermedia, the way they organize thougths fundamentally changes. The difference then is essentially that the technology, if used in the classroom in dynamic ways, and not as a fancy substitute for pen and paper, forces a different kind of thinking altogether. Of course, there is much more to say here, but I thought I’d also send the name of the researchers who originally asked these kinds of questions, though done in science classrooms. The impact is the same, I think. You might want to check out Dr. Joe Kracjik at the University of Michigan School of Education and the work he and the Ed. Tech. team are doing on this. Have fun. His stuff is really interesting. Although, since it’s been about 10 years since I was ensconsed in that work, he might be off and doing other things. There is certainly a nice collection of papers out there somewhere that I’m sure you can find. Elliot Soloway might be an added author to Joe. They work quite often together and have published a lot on this stuff.

    Good luck in Nashville! I’ve been enjoying reading about what you’re trying and doing. And also, congratulations on your recent award!

    Third Coast Writing Project
    Western Michigan University
    Kalamazoo, Michigan

  2. Hi Patti
    Thanks for your thoughts and it was nice to connect you back to Kennesaw trip. I will look into the research you mentioned — I believe you are right, in that the technology can force a new way of thinking. But students need to be encouraged in this direction, otherwise the transfer from flat paper to interative template doesn’t translate into any new learning. … I think.


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