Collaborative Story Writing in the Classroom with Storybird

  • The Giraffe Who Made His Way Home
  • The Giraffe Who Made His Way Home
  • The Giraffe Who Made His Way Home
  • The Giraffe Who Made His Way Home
  • The Giraffe Who Made His Way Home
  • The Giraffe Who Made His Way Home

I had one of my classes yesterday work collaboratively on creating a picture book story with Storybird (I am using it this morning with younger students in a school I am visiting). My sixth graders sure had a lot of fun with their story: The Giraffe Who Made His Way Home. I had the site up on our Interactive Board, and they were using the pen to choose images and then we “talked” through each element of the story. I had to guide them a bit around a “plot” because they would clearly have gone off in a lot of directions (note to self: remember that for today).

What I like about Storybird is that the story is inspired by the art, and not the other way around. This is a different kind of writing to be doing, particularly for students. Most of the time, they will come up with a story, and then be asked to illustrate it after the story is written. Storybird turns that idea on its head. This can be tricky at times (if there are not enough good images to use) and also inspiring when you see the artwork collections.

Here’s what I noticed:

  • The collaborative storywriting forces cooperation, and ideas need to get fleshed out by the group. Some students deal with this better than others. In the end, I guided discussions on each page of the story as best as I could and then helped them reach consensus and then we moved on.
  • I kept talking through (modeling) how I envisioned their story might be going. “What will happen next?” I asked a number of times, and when I knew time was running out on us, it was “how will Bucky get home?” What I was really saying is, it’s time to tie up the loose ends and  finish the story.
  • The students had a lot of choices for art and there were no disagreements when one chose a piece of art. Instead, the chosen piece immediately sparked ideas. “What about if …” is a phrase I heard a lot. There was also a lot of laughing and giggling at the artwork. That’s a good sound to have.
  • I could see using this collaborative activity as a guide for reinforcing story development, and then having students work in teams or by themselves to develop their own story. I’d have to think more about how the pre-writing activity might happen, since the story is dictated by the art. Maybe a writer chooses the art, puts it in sequence and then does pre-writing from there.
  • And although our collaboration was in physical space, I see an option in Storybird for collaborating on a book project with someone else on the site. That might open up the doors for some other kinds of writing partnerships.

I did check out the “teacher information” at Storybird and it seems like they have a pretty decent model for setting up a classroom account, and giving accounts to students. There is a free version, which has some limits, and a paid version.

Peace (in the story),


Digital Storytelling: The Virtual Art Museum

I was gathering some resources for an upcoming presentation around digital storytelling and came back upon this project — The Virtual Art Museum — from three years ago. It is a collaboration between myself, the art teacher and our librarian. They secured a grant to gain access to the artwork and then helped students compose reactions to the art. I worked on the technical side of things, with the podcasts and then with the digital stories. My colleagues than arranged a day when computers were set up for visitors to listen to the digital stories and learn more about art. I love how the voices of students get into the mix, and the collaborative nature of the project that touches on different curriculum.


Peace (in the art),


Inventing New Words with The Crazy Collaborative Dictionary

We’re almost at the end of our unit around Word Origins, and the final activity is for my sixth graders to invent a handful of new words (think: Frindle) and then put their very best one into our online wiki Crazy Collaborative Dictionary. This growing home to invented words has been underway in my classroom since 2005 and each year, my students add to it. It’s a fun assignment that involves creativity, writing, wikis and podcasting.

Here is a collection of words from the past that I will be sharing with our students today before giving them the assignment (which is basically to invent three new words with definitions, and then use those three words in a one-paragraph story.)


And here is the link to our Crazy Collaborative Dictionary.

Peace (in the words),
PS — Check out the origins of the novel, Frindle. Funny.


When Computers Write The Stories

There’s been a lot of discussion recently in the educational communities that I am part of around computer-based assessments of student writing, and what that means for the teacher (less work?) and students (inauthentic audience!) and companies (profit!) when writing is put into a computer program for assessment. You can probably tell by my snarky comment inserts that I am not all that supportive of the idea, although I understand the reasons why some districts might consider moving into that direction for some writing assessments (college entry exams have long used these kinds of automated grading systems).

See Audrey Watters great post about this issue on Hack Education

In the most recent edition of Wired magazine, Steven Levy profiles the flip side of that coin: computer software programs that are now beginning to write news stories for publication by tapping into data streams. Sports and financial news are the first steps to this kind of “writing” but Levy brings up a lot of intriguing issues, such as: would a computer ever win a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism? Well, I’d like to say, no, but can we really discount that sometime in the future, a program might be able to analyze some obscure data and create an article that would shake the world? It can happen. The folks at companies like Narrative Science (great name, btw) suggest that it may very well happen in as little as five years from now.

For now, the system built by Narrative Science is writing and publishing news articles on things like Little League and sports games and other areas of the news world that newspapers and media companies are ignoring. They are finding an audience niche, for sure, and actually, after reading the sample that Levy provided (and even this one from Forbes Magazine), the computer didn’t do so bad with the writing (as a former reporter, I’ve seen worse copy by fellow journalists). Of course, the computer-based writing misses the nuances of speech and other elements of style, but the developers claim they can tweak the program any way they want, and suggest that they could have the software cover the financial news in the style of Damon Runyan (I, for one, want to read that. See? Maybe there is an audience).

But, as someone who views himself as a writer, what does this all mean? If a machine writes, is it really writing as we know it? What does this do to the implicit compositional agreement that readers have with the writers, and what does this all do to that compact that if you read what I write, then we share a special connection? Does this idea even matter in these days when those bonds are very loose, and getting looser every day? I find it fascinating to think about. Could a machine write a poem? And what would that poem read like?

In my view, there is still something sacred about the process of putting ideas down on paper or a screen, and there is something very human about that experience. While I am intrigued by the direction that software might take writing, it scares me more than a little to know that someday, it will be difficult to judge whether a writer is a human or a machine. (And, why does it matter? Does it matter?) It brings me back to my complaints about automated assessments — the writer is composing ideas for some big black hole of nothingness, only a score. The act of writing has to be more than that.

Writing is about connecting with others, about making sense of the world around us.

Can a software program do that?

Peace (in the machine),


The Mystery of the Poetry Book I Can’t Find

Post a Poem

This is so odd. I have written a few posts this month about this neat little book of poems that I bought from Scholastic Books from their catalog a month or two ago. It’s called Post This Poem. Essentially, it is a collection of 100 famous poems (or excerpts) on colorful sticky notes that you can hand out. It’s a great way to share out poetry and I used it last week with my students, who loved it.

Well, a number of teachers asked me where to find the book. You’d think it would be easy enough.

I went to Google and typed in the book title. Nothing. I went to the Scholastic book site and used its own search engine. Nothing. Amazon? Nothing. I grabbed the ISBN number, thinking: this will surely do the trick. No such luck. I got more of my nothing in Google and then an extra dose of nothing in a ISBN search engine. (This is the ISBN number: 978-0-545-46976-0 if you think you can help me out)

What is going on here?

I’m starting to think that the book is a poetic mirage of some sort, and I feel bad that I wrote about it with such glowing praise and now can’t send readers to find it. I suppose my next step is to call Scholastic directly and ask about it. But it is as if the book had vanished completely out of every system, or never existed.

Given that this is April and poetry month, this whole things deserves a poem of its own.

This book never existed –
the poems, never written –
you’re nothing but an imaginary reader
engulfed in an imaginary page
of poems you’ve stuck to your mind
as if that would help you remember
the space between the lines ….

Peace (in the mystery of the undiscovered book),

PS — seriously, though, if you have some ideas on how to find the book, can you let me know? I need to hire the Poetry Book Detective Agency.

Connecting Digital Storytelling with Learning Standards

Later this week, I am going to be spending the day with another elementary school in the region, working with students in some classrooms while teachers observe and then presenting to the whole staff later in the day. My presentation is about digital storytelling, which is a great theme for an entire school to adopt, and about how digital storytelling builds on much of the learning already underway and connects to our new state curriculum standards (ie, Common Core).

Here is a version of my presentation.


Do you notice any glaring holes? Any suggestions? Input?

Peace (in the sharing),


Book Review: Chase Against Time


I’m a sucker for a teacher who writes a novel for middle school age students and if that novel revolves around the theme of music, well … you had me at music. Steve Reifman, a classroom teacher and now education consultant, wrote Chase Against Time, which follows the nearly minute-by-minute account of a fifth grader named Chase Manning as he seeks to uncover who stole the prized cello that is to be auctioned off in order to save the school’s vaunted music program. The mystery unfolds over the course of a single school day, just before vacation break.

Here, Reifman has created an environment in the school where music is seen as important as sports and other academic areas (… if only that were the case in every school). Chase, and his friends, are readying themselves for stressful auditions to make next year’s award-winning sixth grade orchestra, which is highly coveted. But the arts program is in budget trouble (reality check!), the orchestra is about to be shut down, and the auction of a valuable cello at the night’s auction event is the only thing that can save the program. So, when the cello gets stolen from the display case in the school hallway, the principal turns to Chase to follow clues as to its whereabouts before the day ends. Chase is seeking to find the cello, save the orchestra, and get through a middle school day. He’s up for the task, though.

There’s a lot to like here. The pacing is quick. Chase is an intriguing character. A missing cello, and all of the various red herrings, make for an interesting mystery story. I didn’t quite buy into all of the teacher and adult characters, though. I thought a few of them were too flat, and the resolution of the mystery itself was a little predictable.  And the grand reward that awaits Chase at the end was not quite believable, even in a fiction story. (Sorry, Steve.)

But those quibbles of my adult reader eyes doesn’t mean this book won’t be enjoyed by a few of my sixth graders, particularly those in our music program. I’m definitely passing this one on to some select students.

Reifman has done a nice job crafting a mystery story in Chase Against Time, and the use of the chapters based on class periods and minutes of the day, was effective in keeping the narrative moving along at a steady clip. It does feel a bit like the television show “24,” but without the terrorists, and it replaces danger with more of the humor and pointed politics of a school. The subtitle for the book is Chase Manning Mystery #1, so I am assuming Reifman has some other stories up his sleeve. I hope he is sharing his writing and publishing process with the teachers he works with, so he can inspire more of them to become writers, too.

Peace (in the chase),



DML Talks: Chad Sansing and Peter Kittle

I love these presentations from the DML Conference from my NWP friends Peter Kittle and Chad Sansing.

First, Chad talks about gaming (check out his sketches that complement his talk).

Second, Peter talks about memes (and how ideas now get mobile quickly in this networked world).

Peace (in the shift),


Revisiting Storybird for Interactive Storytelling

I’m going to be showing how to use Storybird to create picture book stories with some first and second grade teachers (and a classroom of students) next week, so I figured, I better get back over to the site and remember how it works. It works like a charm, of course, and is so easy — which is why I think it will be a good interactive use of technology for the lower grades.

I also rediscovered some stories that I created on Storybird, particularly during a Picture Book Challenge a few years ago. This one —Writing is An Adventure — got a lot of reads and nice comments.
Writing is An Adventure by dogtrax on Storybird


Peace (in the story and the bird),