Working with iMovie: The Snowman

In a few weeks, I am going to be leading a workshop around digital storytelling at a school in our district, and they want to learn how to use their Macs and iMovie to create digital stories. I’m mostly a PC man, but I do have a Mac for my classroom and I have done some video editing with iMovie. But never a digital story, with still shots and narration and music. In the past, I have mostly used Photostory3, which works fine for the stories I have created. Yesterday, I worked through this short piece as a sample in iMovie and as a way to navigate the steps.

I do like iMovie, but I don’t like that you have to move photos into iPhoto first and move music into iTunes first (or am I missing something?). It seems to me that adds extra steps to the process, although there is something to be said for an integrated system of software.

Anyway, here is my digital story about a snowman that seemed to last forever in our back yard this winter.

Peace (in the stories),

Book Review: The Search for WondLa

I had never heard of this book — The Search for WondLa — and took a complete gamble on it based almost entirely on its cover (I know, that’s strange coming from someone who fancies writing so much). I bought it as a read-aloud for my six year old son and myself, and boy, we just completely fell in love with this book. It’s the first of a trilogy and now we have to wait it out … and keep an eye out.

In a nutshell, this book focuses on what used to be Earth and a young heroine, Eva 9, who must venture out of her protected underground sanctuary in search of other possible humans on the planet, now called Orbona. There’s action, good character development (including some tender exchanges between Eva and the robot who raised her) and lots of mystery as to why Eva is the only human here (which is not answered in this first book).

Many young readers probably know writer Tony DiTerlizzi from his Spiderwick Chronicles (although oddly enough, my son and I know him from the wonderful picture book, Jimmy Zangwow Out of this World Moonpie Adventure.) He has a fanciful imagination, and while there are one too many adjectives here in this book (even my six year old remarked on it), I found myself wondering where the adventure was heading and cheering on the remarkable girl main character.
Looking at WondLa Augmented Book

As an added bonus, the publishers have set up an Augmented Reality site as a companion to the book. It took me two computers to get it set up (my old PC seemed reluctant to be augmented) but once we had it going, the book works with the computer to open up series of a three-dimensional maps, which I found amusing and interesting. My son was fascinated by it.

Halfway through the book, I already knew which of my students I would be handing this to when I got back from vacation (I have a set of twin girls who read everything, all the time, and they will just love this book. I bet they read it in one night.).

In another strange twist, it turns out that an acquaintance/friend of mine — the graphic novelist Bryan Paul Johnson — helped with the coloring of the artwork here. Bryan has graciously worked with kids at my Webcomic Summer Camp and, we found out, lives in the lower level of the house where my band practices (yep, small worlds collide). It’s nice to see his name there in the acknowledgments in this fine book.

Peace (in the reality of the book),

More Thoughts on Nurturing a Community

iAnthology Wordle april10
After writing a post the other day about what DIDN’T work for an online writing space that I am part of for the Massachusetts New Literacies Initiative, I realized that I probably should come at the topic from the opposite direction: What DOES work for creating a strong online network?

Here are a few ideas that I have mulled over in my role as a participant and facilitator of various spaces. Some of the concepts here also stem from a book that my friend, Paul Oh, recommended many years back. The book — Design for Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Spaces, by Derek Powazek — was published in 2002 and the world has changed considerably since then (of course). Still, much of what Powazek wrote about lingers in the back of my mind.

My ideas for creating and supporting and extending an online writing community:

  • The most obvious idea is that users need to have some sort of shared connections. Disparate interests might bring folks together for the short term, but unless they find things to write about, to learn about and to share about, it seems unlikely that the community can last for the long haul. The thread that binds us together in online communities is the thread that leads us back there again and again. Sometimes, this might be groups within networks, or the entire network itself. We yearn to self-identify, don’t we? An online space can meet those needs that we have to be part of something meaningful.
  • One of the ideas that Powazek writes about is the idea of a gated entry, which is the concept that a user must go through some process (registration, answer questions, etc.) before becoming part of the networking space. While you might assume this is to keep spam bots out, Powazek contends that by having a person invest time in the process, they are investing themselves in the network. Once invested, a person is more likely to think of themselves as part of the network itself, and not just a fly-by-night passerby. At the time I read this, I th0ught it to be counter-intuitive. Don’t we want the walls to be low? But over time, I have come to believe that he is right. A little work goes a long way to envisioning the importance of membership. Otherwise, you have people dropping anchor and never really becoming part of the network. They just take up virtual space.
  • An obvious element of a strong network is the concept of the “welcome wagon,” which is someone who says “hello” to newcomers, offers some advice on where to begin and is available for questions. Steve Hargadon did this at Classroom 2.0 in its early years, and I thought it so important that in the networks that I manage, I always have that in place. This gives instant feedback to new folks, and lets them know there are people who care about them in the space. In larger networks, you’d have to deputize folks to help with the welcome wagon. But don’t push it aside. It gives a humanizing approach to a virtual community.
  • Design matters, and you want the design of a site to be friendly, reflective of the values of the connections, and (even with the initial membership obstacle discussed above) easy to use. Most people don’t have patience. It’s sort of like a first-impression. Make it difficult to add a post, or submit a comment, and you may have already lost the battle for folks already uncomfortable with technology. The trick here is that most of us (me) are not programmers, so we use sites that have built-in templates, with some wiggle room for changes. Even so, we can make choices that reflect our communities.
  • I find it useful to have some sort of notifications of new activity going out to users. The trick is to find the balance between useful information and blabber that will turn people off. But notifications are a good tool for drawing someone back to a site for participation and reminds them of why they joined in the first place. It’s beneficial to allow users to opt out of notification alerts, too.
  • Create paths for leadership by being open to members becoming leaders of the site you have created. This can be difficult if you have a vision for the site, and then suddenly, you realize that users have a much different vision. But their leadership and activity is what keeps the space alive, not you (not me). At some point, you need to slowly give up some of the reins if you want your site to be more than just a kingdom in which you are the undisputed ruler.
  • The corollary of that point is to be ready for change and accept it as a natural progression of a site. This has sort of happened at a writing site that I helped create, in that the places that I thought would be high interest are not always high interest, and an unexpected idea has suddenly flourished and thrived. It took me the longest time to realize, “this is what our site is about right now,” but that realization gave me satisfaction, too. The members spoke their minds with their actions.
  • Activities matter, particularly when a site is built around the writing of users. Having regular activities that folks can participate in provides them with an invitation to come back and contribute. Many people will respond to that kind of invitation. We can’t expect that folks will constantly live at the site (unless you are a Facebook community, I suppose).
  • While we are shifting into the age of multimedia, the fact is that writing is still the main form of communication for most networking sites. A good site allows for images and video and audio, but still provides an easy way to write and respond to writing. In a few years, this may no longer be the case that writing is the center of a network, but it is right now. Make sure a user can tap into the inner writer.
  • Remember that most sites have a lifespan, which means that your site (your idea) might die out naturally. You might go through the grieving process, and even get frustrated at your members. Don’t. I can list a few blogs and communities that I have been part of that were valuable for a time, but then, disappeared off my radar. They served a purpose for the time and then, didn’t. That happens. Be ready for it.

I hope this is a bit more positive than my last post, and it sure has helped me think through more things related to online communities. I value the ones I am in and look forward to the ones I may be in and fondly remembers the ones that I was part of. What more can you ask for.

And, of course, what have I missed? What works for you in your networks?

Peace (in the reflections),

New Song: Tangled in the Wires

I’m working on a new song that is somewhat inspired by listening to Steve Earle. This one probably is not right for my band, which is more of a rock and roll/dance venture, but I still like playing this. I began writing it with another “story” in my head — that of a relationship in which one person is getting more critical of the other (not inspired by real life!) — and I followed the words into another story altogether — that of a long-distance relationship slowly blooming with uncertainty (again, not inspired by real life! I am happily married.)

The phrase of “tangled in the wires” kept coming up in my head as this metaphor of the situation, and so I worked that into the chorus. But the line that I like best is “I’m the static — You’re the neon sign,” which goes to the heart of these two characters, and what might have drawn them together (their differences) and what may be slowly driving them apart (the same differences).

Tangled in the Wires
(Listen to the song)

I’m always prone to question
wayward thoughts and best intentions
If you could read my face, you’d read my mind

All this distance here between us
We do connect but have you seen us?
I’m the static — you’re a neon sign

They say it’s love — well, I don’t know about that
We’ve been lost, tangled in the wires
It may be enough — well, I don’t know about that
We’re hanging on, tangled in the wires

You say you want to “friend” me
as if you really comprehend me
You push my buttons, you make me want to smile

You way you write, you dance around
I feel your words, they tumble down
If you could read my face, you’d read my mind

They say it’s love – well, I don’t know about that
We’ve been lost, tangled in the wires
It may be enough — well, I don’t know about that
We’re hanging on, tangled in the wires
We’re hanging on, tangled in the wires
We’re hanging on, tangled in the wires

Peace (in the song),

The Newspaper Life: 25-Word Stories

I wrote yesterday about my positive reaction to the novel, The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. As I was reading the novel, I was inspired to try my hand at a few 25-word stories on Twitter about journalists and newspapers. I’m afraid a the balance here tips towards negative. But I admit that is my own bias to remembering a faded world as a writer. That said, I am very curious to know where journalism is going, and what will remain of the old world here. I worry that it won’t be quality writing, though. I worry about that quite a bit.

Here are a few:
Peace (in the stories),

Book Review: The Imperfectionists

I graduated from college with no idea about what I wanted to do with my life. Well, I knew I wanted to write, but what kind of prospects are there for an untested writer in this world? I had gravitated towards journalism, mostly out of desperation for work, but once into the world of newspapers, I was hooked.

I loved the newsrooms, even with the cranky editors and odd-ball personalities. I loved hearing the roar of the presses, rumbling in the bowels of the building. I loved the deadline pressure, of writing with clarity. I loved my role as an eye on the community I covered. I loved how the newspaper was a meaningful part of the world, and how I was part of the newspaper that shone a light on that world. (OK, so I hated some of the way things were run and how some reporters became favorites of some editors, and I hated how some of my stories would get butchered by copy editors. It wasn’t all love and roses.)

I immersed myself totally into the history of journalism, devouring books about great reporters as if some of their qualities might rub off on me, and I took an avid interest in trade magazines, such as Editor & Publisher. And it soon became clear to me in the early 1990s, as it should have been clear to newspaper publishers (but apparently, was not), that the Internet was going to wreak total havoc on the profitability of newspapers (which mostly had monopolies in many cities and towns and which were incredibly profitable for many years). When the model of income is based almost entirely on advertising, and when you have the only game in town, you get lazy. And when you are lazy, the world can shift suddenly and dramatically. The Internet did that to newspapers.

As many colleagues of my former newspaper tell me, I got out of journalism to become a teacher just at the right time. Lay-offs have followed, cut-backs have ensued and the old newspaper where I cut my teeth as a writer is little more than a shell of itself these days. I can barely stomach reading it, when I do read it. It’s like watching someone you know and once cared about die a slow, painful death.

Which is exactly what Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists nails perfectly, as this wonderful debut novel sets its sights on a newspaper in Europe, and then performs the magic of delving deep into the people around that newspaper’s orbit — from reporters, to editors, to readers, to publishers. In the characters here, I saw many people I knew, including myself. The slow decline of the newspaper industry is laid bare in the tales of the people whose lives are pinned to writing and publishing the news.

Look at this passage, which comes near the end, as the publishing group that owns the newspaper makes the decision to fold the operation.

Newspapers were spiraling downward. Competing entertainments abounded, from cellphones to video games, from social networking sites to online porn. Technology was not merely luring readers; it was changing them. (245)

Rachman, who was a foreign correspondent himself, has a perfect ear for the voice of his characters, in all of those strengths and foibles.  The chapters here are like short stories and each one could sit on its own. Woven together, however, the chapters are pitch-perfect.  Like many in the real world, I hoped that the book might find some way for the newspaper to survive, so that these characters might endure. They don’t. The newspaper closes and their lives are uprooted. Just like in real life.

Peace (on the front page),

Remembering the Collaborative ABC Project

Has it really been almost three years since Bonnie and I invited teachers and educators to join us on a collaborative digital storytelling project? I realized that last night when I was doing some work on another project and stumbled across the website of all of the videos we created for that project.

The Collaborative ABC Movie Project began because I wanted to learn how to dig into the concept of digital storytelling; Bonnie wanted to expand her knowledge of the work by tapping into the collaborative nature of the Web; and others came along with us for the ride.

The structure of the project was an ABC book. We randomly doled out letters to about 15 “friends” from various online networks (including the National Writing Project) who were game to give digital storytelling a try. Most of them, like me, had never created a digital story before but could see the potential for learning. We wanted to nurture ourselves as learners first, as we mulled over the possibilities for the classroom. Our friends were assigned letters and asked to construct a short digital story around that letter. How they did it, and what they did it ab0ut, was entirely up them. We only asked that they share the video on either Google Video or YouTube, and add it into a video site (no longer around because it got swallowed up by Yahoo) called Jumpcut. (Actually, Google Video doesn’t quite exist anymore either, but the videos are still there if you know where to look.)

We used Jumpcut because it allowed you to string videos together under various themes. So Bonnie and I took the 26 videos and made one large piece, and then smaller pieces that developed around themes that emerged from people’s work. It was fascinating to be part of that adventure and I learned as much from creating a digital story as I did about overseeing a collaborative project of folks I didn’t really know.

Bonnie captured our experiences nicely in a … digital story.

And during a presentation we created for the K12 Online Conference a few years ago, we created this voicethread for anyone to add their own letter-inspired story to the collaborative mix. The thread is still open and the invitation is still there for you. What story will you tell?

You can view all of the stories at the Collaborative ABC Movie Website.

Peace (in the adventures),

A Poem: Why Watson?

A few weeks ago, when I first read that IBM was pitting its supercomputer, Watson, against contestants on Jeopardy, my first thought was: Why did you name it Watson and not Holmes? This poem sprung up from that thought, and I forgot about it until this week when Watson crushed the humans in the game.

You can listen to the podcast I had done, too, of the poem.

Why Watson

Why, I wonder, is it Watson
and not Holmes
who is the spirit of the answer machine —

Wasn’t it Holmes who uncovered the truths
by means of the scantest of clues?
Wasn’t it Holmes who silently let his gears churn
to make the most of improbable connections?
Wasn’t it Holmes who asked questions that seemed irrelevant
only to later turn on the pin of relevance?
Wasn’t it Holmes?

And where was Watson?
Acting as the foil, watching and wondering
and waiting to beat Truth over the head
with his London umbrella
in hopes of forcing a confession.

Or is it always Watson, and never Holmes,
who solved the murders,
and therefore it was I, the reader,
who was left in the dark,
never understanding the mystery to begin with?

Like many, I thought it funny that Ken Jennings used a Simpson’s quote for his final answer, and I also found his essay on Slate about his thoughts on matching wits against the machine, and why he realized that the humans were “the away team” in this experiment.

Peace (in the clues),

Design, Usability, Size of Online Writing Spaces

The other day, I saw a notice that mentioned that the English Companion Ning space, started by Jim Burke, now had more than 20,000 members. My first thought is: that’s a whole lot of English teachers in one place. It reminds me of the first Ning I ever was part of — Classroom 2.0, created by Steve Hargadon — and the growth that took place there over fairly a short period of time. That site now has more than 53,000 members. Those are like small cities of teachers.

In both cases, the size of the community has come to dwarf my interest in the sites, and I mostly have dropped out of both of them. The very elements that I initially liked about the two communities — the ability to connect with other teachers, to follow threads and learn from examples, to share and gather resources — has become less and less like discovery there, and more like a navigational chore. I become overwhelmed by sheer numbers and feel like a little pebble dropping into the ocean when I go there, so I don’t anymore. Which is not to say that neither site has value — I still tell folks to head to both for their first forays into networking. They just don’t have value for me.

Here’s what I like: a smaller-scale community that experiences slow, but steady, growth. A Ning site that I facilitate with my friend Bonnie Kaplan for teachers in the National Writing Project still feels like a home for me as a writer and teacher. We have a little over 400 teachers, but we all have connections to the National Writing Project. We get a few new members each month, with more at the end of each summer, and many folks join us in weekly writing activities. I still know and write with many of the original members of the network.

It reminds me of a side conversation that I took part in at the National Writing Project Annual Meeting, where we were talking about the “ideal size” of a networking space, where it is small enough to have connections with others and large enough to have enough diverse thoughts to make it interesting. We settled on something around 500 people for a network. I still stand by that number.

Ning has gotten a lot of grief in the past year as it moved from a free model to a paid one, but they do keep adding more and more features that allow a manager of site to make it their own. You can do as much or as little as you want to make the Ning site welcoming and reflective of your community, which in turn supports the work of the members of the community. That’s how design works hand-in-hand with nurturing a networking site.

Which brings me to another online forum that I am now taking part in with the Massachusetts New Literacies Teacher Leadership Initiative. We’re moving some discussions into the online portal (MassOne) of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. I know all the reasons for using the MassOne site: it keeps discussions under the banner of the state, which has graciously funded the year-long initiative; it archives our discussion; it is  a place where every teachers in our state has an account.

But I personally find the site unfriendly, from a design and usability standpoint, and I truly wish we could have launched our own stand-alone space that is easier to use and more design-friendly.Here are some of the things that bother me:

  • First, if I make a thread or a discussion, I can’t edit or delete it once it is posted.  I made this mistake the other day, as one of the leaders of a forum, and had to email another teacher leader, who had to email a forum manager at the state education offices. That seems awfully inefficient to me. And I was so frustrated that I could not make any changes to my post. It was as if I had tossed a badly written letter into a bottle and tossed it into the ocean, only to remember I forgot to put my name on it. Too late. Your words are lost.
  • Second, the interface feels like it was designed in the mid-1990s and was never revamped to keep up with the times. There’s something to be said for a clean look with little flash but this is extreme. It’s like writing in a virtual version of the dentist’s office. At our Ning space, we try to keep things simple. A good, thoughtful design invites people to write. A friendly look extends a friendly invitation to folks to be part of the community, and giving them some tools to make the space their own provides a path towards ownership, which leads to more interaction within the community. This MassOne has none of that. Zip.
  • Third, there does not seem to be any way to change your email for notification updates. As one of the forum leaders, I want to know when folks in my teacher group are posting, so I can respond and nurture the discussion in a timely manner (another element of a good site — quick, thoughtful responses). For me, this means that I have to keep checking my school email as opposed to my personal email. (I suppose this is done to verify that we are all teachers in the Massachusetts system but still, I find it annoying). There is an RSS button in the forum space, and I thought: Perfect! But it didn’t work. Darn it. (And if it did work, the RSS seems to cover the entire MassOne system, not just my forums. How is that helpful? It’s just a stream of information that I would still have to wade through).
  • Fourth, there is no real way to personalize myself in the space. I can choose an avavatar icon, but only from the preset ones.  I can’t upload anything — no images or screenshots or anything — and the threads only show my author-name as a shortened version of my email. Talk about impersonal. A good, nurturing space gives users the options for staking out some ground. I don’t want to be one of the masses.
  • Finally, the fact that we are writing under the Department of Educational umbrella means that folks may be guarded, and might fear honesty. When you know high-level state folks might be wondering what we are up to and can quickly check in over your shoulder, you pull some punches (if you have them).

All that being said, I’m interested to see how this experiment goes. We held an online conference the other day and our teachers are now being reminded of their responsibilities of moving discussions online into the forum space. As of this morning, though, not one of the 20 or so teachers in the group I am facilitating had posted a single thing (of course, it is the start of vacation week).

Peace (in the networks),

Glogging about Books: The Collection

Yesterday was the deadline for my students to finish up their independent book projects, which included creating a poster about their book. This year, they had the choice of using or creating a traditional poster. About 85 percent chose Glogster, but I have to say, some of the traditional posters are spectacular, too. It’s a good reminder that content and creativity is what’s important, not the platform (virtual or otherwise).

As I’ve mentioned, I have had many conversations about “design” around the Glogs. Colors, animation, flow, fonts and busy-ness were common words the last few days as I met with students. It’s fascinating how many will “get it” when they step back and how many get so locked into their original vision of the posters that they have a hard time disentangling themselves from that vision.

I’m thinking that since there are so many good posters, I might spend the month of March sharing them out, one or two a day — a sort of Glog a Day project. Until then, here is our growing collection of books that might interest you and your students. There is a wide range of levels here, as I teach inclusion classes, and they chose books based on their own interest (with slight pushes and recommendations from me).

(Note: if you use an RSS reader, you might get a “flash error message” for this post in your reader. Just go directly to the presentation and you should be fine to view it.)

Go directly to the Independent Book Collection
You need Flash plugin
Peace (in the sharing),