Saturday, June 6, 2015

Animating Poetry Using Scratch

I knew I wanted to end the year with a digital storytelling project, and had a vision in my mind of students making short animations to accompany their poetry. I struggled to find the right tool for this idea, but Erik Nauman, my truly amazing colleague in our EdTech department, realized that Scratch would be ideal for what I had in mind. He quickly created a model animation to show my students, and after a few short conversations about lesson planning, we were ready to begin!

Erik led the students through a short tutorial on using Scratch, focused mainly adding backdrops, sprites, and simple animation. While Scratch has been a challenge for me to wrap my mind around (I'm getting better, but s l o w l y), my 5th Graders were fearless as they explored, experimented, and problem solved using the programming language.

They came up with endlessly clever ways to visually represent their poetry, and used what Erik had shown them build more complex blocks of code. We spent about 2.5 class periods on this project, and in that short time they discovered how to draw their own sprites, import images from the web, and not only make their sprites appear and hide, but glide as well.

The final results are incredibly sweet and simple short animations (between 10-15 seconds long) of original student poetry.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Color Poems on Twitter (#clrpoem)

In previous years I have introduced my students to social media via a classroom Twitter account, but did not expect to use the platform this year. However, in early April a prized member of my PLN, fellow Google Certified Teacher Linda Yollis, invited me and my class to participate in a Twitter Color Poem project. Linda and I have collaborated digitally before, and I was excited to connect our classes once again.

I decided to give it a go by introducing Twitter through the #clrpoem project. We would start with red and see if my students showed enough interest to make it through the rainbow.

While interest in Twitter and the project varied from one student to the next, I did have one class section who immediately latched onto the idea. They were eager to participate, each week asking me if we could start class with Twitter poems. By the time we made it to blue and purple, these students were emailing me scads of potential images to use for our poems. Though we completed purple last week, they want to continue with rainbow, black, white, and brown poems before we wrap up our school year. Given how much they're enjoying Twitter, and how they've started to learn work with hashtags and write well within the confines of a character limit, it seems that the project is not over for us just yet! 

In addition to being a great extension of our April/May poetry study, the Twitter #clrpoem project turned out to be a small but effective way to incorporate some digital citizenship lessons into my classroom, as my students learned about how to represent themselves online, how to use Twitter, and even had the chance to interact via the platform with Linda's class. Thank you, Linda, for the invitation and inspiration. For a broader wrap-up of the Twitter #clrpoem project, visit Linda's blog


Monday, May 18, 2015

Writing in the Zones

This week I used a new Writing to Learn practice with my students: Writing in the Zones. I first encountered the practice at Bard Institute for Writing and Thinking, and with a bit of guidance from Carley Moore I was able to adapt it into a 5th Grade friendly writing activity. In it's original form Writing in the Zones is already quite accessible to writers of all ages, as it involves dividing a large sheet of paper into several sections, each of which is filled with the response to a specific prompt about a single text. The practice is fast-paced, relies on writing and drawing, and involves peer feedback, which makes it an ideal activity for students.

I used Writing in the Zones as a way for my students to reflect back on the novel we had just completed in class. However, it is a writing practice that can be used with texts of any length, so long as they are complex and meaty enough for students to sink their teeth into. As we're at the end of our school year and running out of time for larger assignments, Writing in the Zones was a perfect final 'project', but it can also serve as a pre-writing assignment that leads to essays, papers, or even poems.

After we completed our 'zones,' I asked my students why this was a valuable experience. A sampling of their responses:

"It made me think about the book in a different way. I paid closer attention to specific words or poems when I was writing about them." 

"It felt like we were taking notes on the book, like we were preparing for an essay."

"I liked getting to express my feelings about the book and getting to read other points of view."

"All of my annotations in the book made Writing in the Zones much easier. I liked being able to look back and find my notes to use for my writing."

"This was like a bunch of different mini writing assignments all at once." 

"I liked that each zone was different. Some were harder than others." 

"This assignment was a chance to ask questions to the book, express my curiosity and explore how I felt about it." 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Digital Storytelling - The Results!

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about a new digital storytelling project I was working on in 5th Grade English. My students wrapped up their comics last week, and I wanted to share some of the results here. First, a few screenshots of their final projects, made using Comic Life. I was really impressed with how my students used a combination of hand drawn and printed backgrounds to achieve dimensionality and depth, and how some of them took advantage of Comic Life's thought bubbles to add complexity to their storytelling:

A few days after they published their comics, I asked my students to do a little reflective writing about the process of telling a story digitally. Below, some of their insights into how digital storytelling compares to more traditional forms of writing. I loved seeing them make connections between the two forms:

"The process of writing my comic was similar to a more traditional writing assignment because it still told a story. When I have written all of my other assignments they have all had to tell a story. It was different using Comic Life because I didn't have to include what the characters were doing and who was talking. The pictures did that for me."

"I liked how I still told a story with dialogue and characters, but I also got to use pictures to give a better idea about who was saying what to who and what the characters looked like. But, traditional writing gives me more imaginative freedom." 

"The process of writing the comic was quite similar to traditional writing. I still had to edit, proofread, create a draft, and change the comic significantly from the beginning to the final draft." 

"For both assignments I needed to tell a story. A traditional writing assignment is a story in paragraphs, and a comic is still the same story but broken down into small bits of dialogue. There still has to be a beginning, middle, and end. I still have to be creative. Some people might think a writing assignment is harder than a comic, that a comic is just random words put together to make a dialogue. But you need to dig deep and put yourself in the characters' shoes to have an actual comic."  

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Digital Storytelling: Comic Life

Last summer I blogged about my experiences exploring digital storytelling at a Bard IWT workshop. Many months later, I've finally had the opportunity to use some of the ideas generated from that workshop in my 5th Grade English classroom. Using ComicLife, my students are creating comics that feature the protagonists of some of the novels we've read so far this school year, and I feel absolutely giddy with excitement over the progress they've made in just a few class periods.

The first step of this project was to write scripts of conversations between 2-3 fictional characters (Esperanza from Esperanza Rising, Parvana from The Breadwinner, and Serafina from Serafina's Promise). As a class, we brainstormed various topics of conversation these characters might have (i.e. what are their shared experiences, where might they cross paths as young adults or even grown ups, what would their interests be) and then I gave my students time to plan out their settings, plots, and conversations. 

Once first draft writing was complete, I asked students to pick two settings or backgrounds for their scripts, which they then drew on paper. In order to appeal to a variety of artistic sensibilities, I invited them to draw by hand, print images from the internet, or combine both mediums to create a collaged background. The results were stellar, and I've spent the past week walking around my classroom completely full of awe and excitement over this project. 

As students finished their backgrounds, their next step was to create characters to place in the scenes. We settled on referring to these characters as paper dolls, as they were static figures but could be enhanced with various accessories and expressions. The paper dolls could be as simple or elaborate as each student desired, and we had great fun exploring how easy it is to turn a basic stick figure into a character full of personality and attitude. 

With scripts, settings, and characters ready to go, students then began using Comic Life, an absolutely incredible app available across multiple platforms. We worked on iPads, but I know from experience that Comic Life is just as user friendly on tablets as it is on the web interface. After I showed one of my sections a brief (extremely brief!) tutorial on how to use Comic Life, I decided that for the remaining sections I'd let them take a problem solving approach to the app. I demonstrated only how to create, name, and save a new file, then let my 5th Graders figure out how to change graphics and color schemes, resize frames and images, and play with photo filters. It was, of course, no surprise that they quickly became Comic Life experts, occasionally coming to me for more nuanced problems but primarily helping one another solve problems. 

As they moved their characters through scenes and added speech bubbles to incorporate dialogue, students recognized that they were relying on some of the knowledge they gained during a previous stop-motion animation project to help plan out scenes and move their stories forward. I wondered if the connections between digital and traditional storytelling would also be apparent to my students, who frequently came to ask me if it was OK to change something from their original script in order to fit the parameters of this new medium. This proved to be an excellent opportunity for me to remind them that they make changes to their written work all the time, and we call that drafting, editing, or revising. Thought they're currently working in a digital format, they're still relying on the traditional writing process of collecting ideas, drafting a story, revising and editing that story, and ultimately publishing a final product. 

Final comics should be completed next week, and I'll post some of them here then! 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Independent Reading Projects

Most English teachers spend a fair amount of time thinking of ways to encourage students to read independently. I am fortunate in that the vast majority of my students are eager readers, so it takes little convincing to get them engaged with a new novel. I start all of my English classes with 10 minutes of D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything and Read), and this year introduced Independent Reading Projects as part of my curriculum.

To develop the assignment linked above, I first consulted with colleagues and poked around the internet looking for a variety of book projects my students could complete without too much adult assistance. I then focused on narrowing down the choices so that I had something that would appeal to everyone. I included traditional writing projects like imagining the sequel or crafting a poetry chapbook, visual and digital projects such as book trailers and comic strips, and a character monologue, which taps into both writing and performance skills.

My students were wary at first ("We're doing this all by ourselves? At home?") and we had many, many discussions about how they would manage their time. But soon, the initial anxiety gave way to excitement about working on a book project that they chose themselves. The final results were fantastic - clever, entertaining, and truly representative of my students' and their personal styles.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Setting a Default Font in Google Drive

Last week, in an effort to figure out a way to set a default font in Google Drive, I started pinging my PLN on Twitter. As a fan of serif fonts (I'm partial to Cambria), I found it frustrating to have to change every new document from the preset Ariel, and knew there had to be a better way. Cue Jonathan Rochelle and Alice Keeler, who immediately replied to my tweet with helpful advice. Indeed, there is a way to set a default font in Google Drive, and I direct you to Alice's excellent post for a tutorial on doing just that. At the risk of being dramatic, I find this new knowledge life changing!