Saturday, December 20, 2008

Tag Clouds For Learning

In a previous post (“Tools Schmools”) I touched on the fact that it isn’t about the tools, it’s about the learning in sort of a reactive rant. Now after some reflection, I thought I’d support that rant with some specific examples of HOW to actually use one of those tools to promote learning. You’ve seen those slick little tools that make a tag cloud out of any document (Tagcrowd and Wordle) Cool, yes, but what about learning? Here are a few ideas:

David Warlick gave me the idea of making a cloud out of presidential inaugural addresses. The agenda of a president-elect as well as the climate of a country can be revealed. A specific example of this is to compare Nixon’s first address to his second. Look closely and you will see a definite contrast. The word “responsibility” is, ironically very prominent in the second.

One of the struggles with teaching research is to get kids to generate search keywords. Have students generate a cloud on one of the first articles of the search. The big words can often spark further ideas for specific topics. An article on AIDS research reveals the following “BIG” words: “Innocentive” “Rockefeller” and “Vaccineworld.” These could serve as more specific search words that student might not have known.

Another application could reveal bias. Try “Wordling” two articles on the presidential election, war in Iraq, or any other politically-charged issue. Just make sure one is from CNN and one is from Fox. I think you can anticipate the results. But would our kids?

Students in a creative writing class would benefit greatly by running a poem or short story to see if any words predominate either intentionally or unintentionally.

I also know of an English teacher who Wordled and printed biographies of authors studied in class. Not only did they serve as thought-provoking pieces of art, they also focused biographical study of the writers.

The common element is that every application was about the learning, not the tool.

I would love to hear what ideas you have.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Advanced THINKING in DST: "Less is More"

When word processors first came on the scene, teachers were happy to get typed papers from students and were willing to overlook minor transgressions in technology and writing. However, word processing has become so efficient that expectations have significantly risen. The same phenomenon is occurring with the production of digital stories. Initially, the concept was so thrilling, that any product was viewed as a “masterpiece.” But now, teachers and students are becoming more savvy in the teaching and creation of digital stories.

(Image courtesy of Flickr contributor Cayusa )
Advanced Thinking DOES NOT mean more technology. The creation of superior digital stories lies more in metacognition than in manipulation. Most editing software comes equipped with a plethora of transitions, visual and audio effects, background music and text styles. When turned loose on all these choices, many students cram as many effects as humanly possible into their three-minute story. When asked why, students usually shrug their shoulders and respond “They look cool.” I have adopted two theories that have greatly enhanced the quality of stories. First, my students can use effects, as long as they understand and can justify why each effect is used. The second is simply “Less is more.” Developing awareness of each effect is the key.
Movement (panning and zooming) can add dynamic movement to still shots and can aid in developing plot, revealing character, or creating a dramatic effect. Since I only allow stills in DST projects, I encourage the use of movement judiciously. The first step is to teach the effect of each movement. Next, is to create an awareness of the interplay between movement and narration. Usually, most student-generated movement is far too fast. Subtle and slow is the way to go. Slow zoom out gives an object a sense of place or setting. It also gradually reveals information that can be intriguing to the viewer. Slow zoom in gently focuses the viewer and draws attention to a particular object or person. Carefully coordinating the zoom with narration is critical.

Occasionally, a quick zoom in can add a dramatic effect that abruptly jerks the audience to pay attention to something on the screen. Panning has a different effect than zooming. A pan creates an illusion of a storyboard, revealing information as it coincides with the narration. Again, slow is usually better. One note: most times, a left-to-right pan is preferred. Use right to left only to create an “uncomfortable” effect for the viewer. This phenomenon stems from the fact that our eyes have been trained to move left to right from years of reading. Right to left is unnatural to our eyes. Of course the variety of movement is endless. Always have students reflect on the purpose for each movement.

Transitions can be a real trap. Remember those Powerpoints with a different transition for each slide? The truth is, most transitions are distracting. The key is teaching the purpose of the “Big Three” and show students how to choose. I tell students to think of transitions as punctuation marks. A cut (or no transition) is like no punctuation, or at most, a comma. A dissolve (or a cross fade) is like a period. A fade to black is closest to an “enter” or a new paragraph, suggesting a change in thought or time passing--the longer the black, the longer the ellipsis. One the rare occasion, a more complex transition can be effective. I saw one story, where a student used vertical bars coming down to transition to someone ending up in a jail cell. The key is, he had a reason for doing it, and, incidentally, it was the only other complex transition he used; he was aware of the meaning the transition conveyed.

Decisions about sound range from voice over considerations to soundtrack and yes even sound effects. One of the first areas I focus on with regards to voice over is the avoidance of redundancy. I have students spend time editing stories to make sure that they eliminate words that convey meaning that is already conveyed with an image. There is no need to describe the color of the ocean if the picture is there. The other consideration is pacing. First students need to slow down to allow viewers time to process images. Second, nothing adds more to meaning than to start the voice over at least one full second after the image appears. Again this allows the viewer time to process the information. I tell students, “You know your story, but your audience does not.” Soundtrack first rule: instrumentals only. Lyrics tend to distract away from the narration—the heart of the story. One thing to keep in mind: it is not essential to have music throughout the story. A break in music can add drama to a piece, especially at the turning point in the story. Students also want to know if it is beneficial to use several different songs in a story. Once again, I go back to asking them why and to emphasize the “less is more” philosophy.

Other factors such as titles, text, split screens, and image augmentation (sepias, negatives, etc) are other considerations. Keep in mind, that true digital storytelling is a writing experience bolstered by images and sound. If we focus more on good writing and the essence of sharing the story, then the technology becomes a tool and not the focus.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tools, Schmools

Last week, I stumbled upon an on-line discussion about classroom Digital Storytellling. For me, it couldn’t get any better! I mean here were teachers who were going to be sharing strategies for writing, developing character, ways to mine for stories, using figurative language, discussing shot duration, panning, transitions, soundtrack, voice inflection…the nuts and bolts for developing Point, Dramatic Question, and Emotional content. Instead, here’s what I found:

What Digital Storytelling program do you use?

What followed was a software discussion, comparing the benefits of iMovie, PhotoStory, Pinnacle Studio, and Adobe Premier. There was even a plug for Animoto (yikes) Needless to say, my heart sank. As I thought more, I realized that this situation happens over and over among ed tech people; the discussion of tools often outweighs that of learning.

It happens elsewhere too. Mac and PC users argue about platforms, and everyone wants to use the newest Web 2.0 tools out there. We can show students that blogs, wikis, RSS feeds exist, and how to use them, but unless these tools support some fundamental literacy, it’s all just a hi-tech smokescreen. Joe Lambert refers to high-tech flashiness to compensate for a lack of substance as “Digital Spectacle” (See Animoto). Unfortunately, we do get caught up with the seduction of the tools.

After a presentation last month, a teacher approached me asked me, “Jon, which works better for kids to create, blogs, wikis, or web pages?” I didn’t know how to answer her. So I thought, and asked her back, “What do you want your students to do?” The point is this: a plumber doesn’t prefer her pipe wrench over her power-rodder. She uses each of these tools when she needs them. Blogs and wikis each are great tools if used to extend the learning of a fundamental literacy, and are rooted in sound educational pedagogy.

We do have some great examples of technology used for learning in our school (and probably yours too!) Several teachers use individual student blogs as a means to enable constant feedback on papers from the teacher and peers, promoting extensive revision. Another teacher uses wikis as a place for students to prepare and share collaborative research findings, and, in turn, devise student-generated assessments that their peers use as final tests. Our library has created a “Reader’s Advisory” wiki to enable students to share opinions on books they’ve read. Junior English teachers use custom RSS feeds for students to have time-sensitive articles delivered to their front door to enhance research on their advocacy projects. And of course, we have the myriad applications of student-generated movies ranging from pure Digital Story to documentary, to public service announcements. The difference with all of these applications is that the technology supports the goal, not vice versa.

The bottom line is this: it isn’t about the tools, it’s about skill building and learning. Purchasing the finest set of power tools would not compensate for my gross ineptitude at carpentry. The same holds true for the thousands, yes thousands, of free, inexpensive, and, even costly tools available for educators (and students). Unless these tools are utilized appropriately to extend learning, they are worthless.

Don’t get me wrong, in the hands of a master, web 2.0 tools and other applications can bring about superior results. I can catch many more walleyes using a sensitive (and expensive) graphite rod than I can with a bargain-basement fiberglass one. Then again, I am much better at walleye fishing than I am at carpentry. The same holds true for the master educator who embraces and uses the tools appropriately.

Friday, December 5, 2008

What I Have Learned as a Tech Coordinator: So Far...

I have been at this job officially now 3 months and 18 days. People ask me how I like I miss the classroom...definitely yes to both of them. I think I have been here long enough to reflect on what I have learned. Here goes:

You can't get to everyone When I finally realized that I can't get to EVERY teacher about EVERY now innovation, my life became better. Teachers are very busy people, and not everyone wants everything...NOW. Instead, I am relying on my connectors. the ones who want to find out how to do an RSS feed, the ones who want their kids to do a collaborative paper...and I let them spread the word.

Never do anything too fast Last week I inadvertently deleted literally hundreds of blog entries on a teacher's Blackboard page...thinking I had copied them. I was in such a rush to get it done...well, you can figure out what happened.

Move them up the matter what rung they are on. Every other week I have a "Tech Tuesday" where teachers come in on their free periods. I have one older teacher who (and she says this) is very technophobic. but she comes to EVERY Tech Tuesday to learn. 1st period I was woking with only her. My agenda was to talk about slick tricks and tools in Word. What we did instead was talk about saving a file on the H-drive at school and how to make folders; she had never done either. She left with a smile and a sense of accomplishment.

Am I a Leader or support person? YES! Going to conferences and bringing back ideas materials and resources is one of my favorite parts of this job. Last week I was planning this sophisticated idea for revamping the research project for our junior English classes...really cool stuff. The phone rang. A math teacher had viewed her weekly eligibility report, and her grades were not calculating correctly. Here I was involved in planning this paradigm shift for research...and she needs me to fix her grade book? Of course. And that is precisely what I did. As excited as I was about the research did not diminish the importance for that teacher to have her grade book function correctly. So I went and fixed the grade book...happily.

Listen, Listen, Listen The idea of cornering teachers with tech ideas to infuse in the class can guarantee you one thing: sitting alone at lunch. Talk to teachers about what they are doing. Have you ever known a teacher who doesn't like to beam, or vent about classes? Then you listen. Listen to the goals, listen to what the teacher wants to do. Then, that's when the research, the saving-to-delicious, the reading, the conferences, and the twittering pay off. Apply what you know to what they need. Give them ideas and tools for what they want to do. That way you become the solution, not the problem.

Always Keep Learning This may be the easiest part. I mean, it seems like the more iIfind out about this gig, the more I expand my PLN, the more humbled I become, and the more I realize, "Man, I have got a lot to learn!"

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Changing research

This morning I met with a PLC team at my school, as an observer, while they discussed a research project our juniors do: It is an advocacy project, where thay take a current event, view both sides, and "advocate" for one side. Their method of research is to view articles from library data bases and synthesize the information. The idea is to gather info throughout the semester and have the project culminate in a major research paper.

Needless to say, I have other ideas for them.

Everyone today is talking about "21st Century Skills." I still am not sure what those are, nor how they really differ. I would hope that we have been trying to Create, Collaborate, and Connect for some time now. If anyone comes closeto explaining, it's the good people at The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. However, there is no denying that the big change is in "21st Century tools," which can help create much more meaningful, authentic outcomes. Here is what I suggested to the teachers. All students should:

Get a Delicious account. Social bookbmarking has incredible advantages. Not only can kids save, access, and organize their web pages, they can also include each other on their networks, especially those who are researching similar topics. Diigo, another social bookmarking tool, is more robust, allowing you to hi-lite text and place virtual "sticky notes" on articles; however, it can also be a bit cumbersome for new users. Now, when students search the web, they can save their resources and access them wherever you go (Hint: have your IT person install the Delicious shortcut buttons on your computers).

Create a Google account and go to Google Reader. OK any RSS aggregetor will do, but I found Google reader to be very intuitive, and, let's face it, there is a certain familiarity with Google... especially for kids. At this point, students need to create an RSS feed from the blogs etc., to the aggregator. The great thing about RSS feeds is that they continually send you updates on recent posts to the blog. Checking all your sources together is much quicker.

Do a "custom RSS" search. In Google, type in a keyword for your current event or controversy. When you get your returns (probably a bazillion hits) click the "news" icon on the top. This will reduce your hits significantly and limit your hits to news articles. Then, click "date." This will organize your articles to show the most recently published hits first. Finally, locate the "RSS" link on the left. Clicking this will give you a new URL. Copy this URL and follow directions below for "Linking your RSS feeds to your Google Reader."

Do a Technorati search Many folks are not aware that blogging is more than just personal journaling. Many experts in most fields blog as a means of both publication and connection. Technorati is in essence, a search engine for blogs. For this project, students would be wise to select a blogger from each side of the issue, read their posts, and eventually comment directly to the experts. What a bonus to be a student, and to pose pointed questions to those experts. (We from the "Reader's Guide Generation" anre in awe of this concept.) Technorati offers an "authority" rating to determine the reliability and credibility of the author. In my field, someone like David Warlick, or Will Richardson, as a much higher rating than, well...I do. And rightly so! Decide on two bloggers with divergent (even polar) perspectives.

Link your RSS feeds to your Google reader Linking your feeds consists of going to your desired blog, clicking the orange semicircle icon to get a "feed" URL. (Sometimes, there will even be an icon that says "add to Google reader." Click that, and you're done) Then, copy the new URL and go to Google reader. Follow directions for "adding a new subscription." Now you will have automatic updates from that source.

Do an "Invisible Web" search. Many valuablepages on the web are not accessible through ordinary search engines. Complete Planet is one such tool that searches the Invisible Web. Make sure to include an "Invisible" web search in your research. When you find good sources, add them to your Delicious account.

Now you are ready to, over time, gather information, organize ideas, tag valuable sources, and even contact those people you are following to ask more questions.

Next: What do I do with the research.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The "STORY" of Digital Storytelling

I learned a great deal from Joe Lambert about the art of storytelling. I took what I learned and applied it to what already knew about narrative writing. After teaching DST to students and colleagues, I have formulated three building blocks for superior story writing.

Precise verbs drive story. First off, action verbs create much richer meaning and appeal to senses better than linking verbs do. Instead of “The cat was relaxed,” a better choice is “The cat lounged on the couch.” (That example was inspired by Sunny, who right now, is “lounging” next to me.) However, just using action verbs is not enough. Verbs with “narrow” meaning always surpass words with “wide” meaning. “Walk” should be replaced with “saunter,” “stroll,” “stagger,” “stomp,” or “strut” (like the alliteration?) Finally, never rely on adverbs to carry the load. “Dart” is always preferable to “run quickly.”

Effective writers must observe carefully. From those observations, readers infer meaning. One of the ways we cheat our audience is to make inferences for them. “He was mad,” tells the audience. When I read that, my thought is, “I don’t believe you, show me he’s mad.” Instead I would rather read, “His nostrils flared, his teeth clenched, and his eyes bulged like Ralph Kramden’s.” (If you don’t get that last allusion, ask someone over 45). The key here is to rely on sensory observation and let the audience create the picture in their minds.

Many writers feel the need to dilute stories with background. This phenomenon stems from politeness. “So I don’t confuse my audience, I need to set up the entire scene with background information,” is the thought of many a storyteller. However, a carefully written first sentence can take us right into the story, and we will figure out what is happening based on what we bring with our own experience. I had one student who wrote about an incident at dance camp she attended. The first paragraph explained the location, how she got there, when she went… and so on. After some revision (and reassurance) she opened this way:

“My legs tensed as I waited for my cue; after all the sweat at camp, it was Showtime.”

The tone, Point, and Dramatic Question are clearly established with this single sentence (OK, it’s a compound sentence): she is a dancer, at a camp, and has prepared for this moment intensely. Now she can tell her story.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Digital Storytelling: My Passion

Those of you who know me probably associate me with DST...and I will talk to anyone about it who will be polite enough to sit still. I thought I would "catch up" here by posting a series of items I have written on DST. More of my resources can be found at

Here's the first installment:

Down and Dirty With DST
There was a time, not too long ago, that very few educators had ever heard the term “Digital Storytelling.” Last month I attended a conference that featured over a dozen presentations on the topic. While many educators are now aware of the theory and concepts, a number of people are apprehensive about taking the plunge into DST because they are not sure about the specific “nuts and bolts” of coordinating a project for students. Through trial and error, I have found a set of strategies that streamline the process and permit students to achieve the best results.
“Classic” DST focuses on seven elements for creation: Point (of view), Dramatic Question, Voice, Pacing, Soundtrack, Economy, and Emotional Content (Lambert). While most teachers easily recognize these elements, the true challenge emerges: how to get students to display them in their own stories. The first step a teacher must take is to develop a sequential set of steps, and promote specific expectations for each step.
Developing Story topics: “You do have something to say. Most young (and old!) people feel that they have nothing extraordinary to tell. Showing students several examples, and having them participate in cooperative sharing activities allow them to gain confidence in sharing their own experience. Certain prompts can elicit ideas: A time you had to grow up, making a friend, losing a loved one, a “bike” story, the story of your name, a tribute to a family member—these all can inspire students to begin thinking about their own experiences. Often times, a popular topic is a sports story. A word of caution: If the story merely consists of “winning the big one,” another idea should be considered. Sports stories usually work only if two conditions are met: one, if the person gains or learns something from the experience; and two, if the story focuses on a specific moment or person. Students should be discouraged to explain the whole season, or else all we have is a highlight film.
Writing the story: “show, don’t tell!” Economy is one of the most important elements of DST. One of the best way to write economically, and at the same time vividly, is to master the skill of showing, as opposed to telling. Simply put, encourage students to write using “observations” instead of “inferences.” We experience the world through our senses, and effective storytelling is achieved through creating vivid pictures with words. Instead of telling the audience, “I was scared” an effective narrator shows fear with observations such as “sweaty palms,” “shaking knees,” and “trembling arms.” Once again, peer revision is critical at this stage.
Images: “quality, not quantity” When students begin collecting pictures to accompany their story, emotion often overtakes them, and they come to class with dozens, and dozens, and dozens of pictures that all have sentimental value. If all the pictures are used, the result is a digital scrapbook, not a story. For a three-minute story, limit students to a maximum of fifteen images. This achieves two goals: first, it forces students to make value decisions on the photos, and results in only the “best of the best.” Second, it focuses the attention back to the story. Students must rely on the story driving the images, instead of the images driving the story. A word about video…
Digitizing: “Size does matter” To supplement their own pictures, students can search for images on line. Several of the standby search tools work, such as Google or Altavista. However, I recommend for vivid artistic images. No matter where images are harvested, make sure the size exceeds 640x480 pixels. Any smaller, and the images look like a scene from Cops. This is especially true is pans or zooms are utilized. Also, if the story is to be published, make sure to emphasize ethical use of artistic property, and always adhere to copyright laws.
Storyboarding: “the visual outline” Storyboarding allows students to “structure” their story and “sync” images to words. One advantage, is that it enhances revision of the story once students see how the words work with the images. At times, it is wise trim, or even omit narration altogether if the image creates enough of an impact. Several methods of storyboarding are effective. Powerpoint can render a quick and easy version, or a template from Word using text and image boxes can also suffice. All students need to do is insert images in order, and copy and paste the corresponding narration. Storyboarding “software” is also available. However, I have found these to have a few too many options, thus complicating the process. The most important advantage of storyboarding is that it creates an efficient blueprint for the movie once students finally get to the lab; and if your school is like mine, days in the studio lab are precious.
Digital editing: “more power?…not necessarily” There is a balancing act when selecting video editing software. On one hand, students need the freedom to utilize a variety of effects; however, they also can’t spend an entire quarter learning software. Adobe Premier is one of the benchmarks of professional editing software. The price tag and complexity make it a poor choice for students. On the other end, Windows XP comes loaded with Moviemaker. It’s free and easy, but only allows for one audio track (bye bye soundtrack). Two of the better mid-priced programs are iMovie for Mac users, and Pinnacle Studio 9 for PC. Both offer a good combination of flexibility and ease of use. New on the front: Microsoft Photostory 3. Get a load of this: pan and zoom, transitions, two soundtracks, “packaged” background music, visual effects, all presented with a step by step wizard to render stories very efficiently. Oh, and it’s a free download from your friends at Microsoft (Thanks to Guy Ballard, et. Al from Niles for the hot tip!)
Recording voice over: “Sloooow Dooooown” We all get nervous when we speak for an audience. When we get nervous, heart rate and blood pressure rise. Imagine what this does to a student’s rate of speech. To get students to slow their rate of speaking, I will record an excerpt from a documentary containing narration. Next, I transcribe the narration and ask students to read it aloud while a partner watches the clock. Then we play the actual excerpts. Students are amazed to hear the voice over take at least twice the time to read. Explain to students that their audience needs time to process images, and that a slower pace (most of the time) is much more effective. Also, blocks of time with no narration can be even more poignant at certain. times. At first, students will resist the slow, deliberate, articulate pace of narration.. However, with practice, they will improve
Choosing a soundtrack “Instrumental vs. lyrical” A carefully chosen soundtrack can have a dramatic impact on the entire story. Pacing, emotion, point, and dramatic question are all enhanced with appropriate music. Imagine Jaws with out its signature “du-dum.” Conversely, a poorly chosen soundtrack can be distracting and confusing. The question remains, “What makes a powerful soundtrack?” The first rule, is that lyrics during narration is usually ill-advised. However appropriate lyrics with no narration can be very powerful. Many editing software titles contain “packaged” music that can be easily dropped into the story. Often, however, students want to bring in their own favorite music, which is fine, as long as the tone is appropriate. Movie soundtracks are excellent places to look. A word of caution: encourage students to select only one piece of music. Abrupt, frequent changes do little more than confuse the audience.

Effects: “Less is more” With students, I use the metaphor of salting food. A little bit improves taste, too much just makes food salty and raises blood pressure; similarly, too many effects raises my blood pressure! The rule of thumb, is that if an effect is used, there must be a reason for it. Transitions between images help tell the story. Students need to know what different transitions imply. I use a punctuation metaphor to teach transitions. A“cut” or no transition is like a comma or no punctuation mark, and serves to quickly move between two closely related ideas. A “dissolve” resembles a period, and suggests a change to a related idea. A “fade” is like a new paragraph and suggests a change of topics or passage of time. A particularly effective technique is the use of a black screen for several seconds: with or without sound. Beyond these, most transitions are superfluous and distracting and should be discouraged. Pans and zooms can add movement to static images, focus the audience, or give a sense of place for an object. In most cases, slow movement is best so as not to distract the audience. Text as art:
An effective method for focusing the audience on a particular line is to actually use text on the screen. Select lines that are particularly important and use a plain font. Text can be used in lieu of narration or in addition. Printed words can also be used to emphasize song lyrics. Remember that each of these techniques creates a different effect. There are of course thousands of other effects such as manipulating color, contrast, lighting, use of split screens, overlays, green screen animation. However, less is more. The common denominator is that effects should enhance the story instead of dominate it
Production and presentation: “ show time!” For a story to be a story, it must be shared. At minimum, classmates should view all stories created. I tend to make quite a “production” of the whole experience. Students spend a moment introducing the story, and after the film and a hearty round of applause classmates give positive feedback to the storyteller. DST is also a great medium for presentations to literary clubs or even at an all-school assembly. The people at Niles District 219 have created as a venue for viewing and posting digital stories. This allows students to post their stories to the world. Give it a look; it’s quite impressive.
For educators new to DST, the task can appear daunting. Following a few strategies will help students get started. Once they get the idea, there’s no stopping them.