A Creative Summer

Over the past few weeks, I have been fortunate enough to teach in MSU’s MA in Ed Tech program here in Rouen, France. With the inspiration of Leigh Graves Wolf and Punya Mishra, one of the major foci of the program is on creativity. As I think about how to be more creative in teaching my own pre-service methods courses and leading professional development, this summer has been very helpful for me, allowing me enough flexibility to explore new ideas while also teaching about broad themes in education, as well as educational technology. To that end, we have been inviting the teachers to do “quickfire” types of activities each day, and I wanted to share some of my thinking on some of the creative works that I have developed in the past few weeks alongside my colleagues — and how they can be connected to digital writing — beginning with one that Punya led yesterday.

Multiplicity Photo

Troy's Multiplicity Image
Troy's Multiplicity Image (7-20-11)

Yesterday, Punya led us in a conversation about “tensions” in education, and we had to represent our tension through a multiplicity photo. Using my iPhone (solo, so I had to actually record this as a video and take screen shots from the footage), Pixlr, this tutorial, and help from colleagues in class, I was able to produce and submit the photo above. Don’t ask me which tension I was trying to represent exactly, as I am not really sure myself; my composing process got too focsued on the the outcome and the tech, and I really forgot what it was I was supposed to “say.”

What I do know is that it took me a great deal of thinking to do this quickfire because A) I did it alone and we were supposed to have a partner to take the photos, B) I got a late start, and C) even though Punya said we could repurpose a tool like PPT to blend photos together, I knew that I wanted to do something with an image-editing tool (once Photoshop wouldn’t work for me, I switched to Pixlr).

More importantly, I was learning with my students. I normally talk about the fact that I am only one step ahead, and helping them figure things out. But, because I am one step ahead, I look like a tech genius. In this case, I was walking right next to my colleagues, or even a step behind. I had to raise my hand when Punya asked us who wanted a tutorial and, after figuring it out, immediately had to explain the concepts of the layering, erasing, and blending to another colleague, leading her through the process.

This put me in the role of the learner, and only a slightly more knowledgable other. It was good to feel uncomfortable with a technology and process. This reminds me that when I am talking about digital writing tools, no matter how common they are to me, they can still seem completely strange someone who has never used them. Moreover, describing what we did as a composing process is critical, because it helps me frame the task in terms of purpose and audience.

Ignite Presentation

[iframe_loader src=”http://present.me/embed/625/350/1253-maety2-authentic-use-presentation” height=”375″ width=”640″ click_words=”Go to Present.me to view” click_url=”http://present.me/embed/625/350/1253-maety2-authentic-use-presentation” ]

Inspired by the idea of an Ignite-style presentation, in particular this one by Chris Lehmann, Greg and I wanted students to summarize the major problems and possible solutions related to technology integration in education. We also wanted our students to be concise and collaborate. We wanted them to develop an “Authentic Use Policy” for themselves and their colleagues. Knowing that Present.me would be the final tool that we used to share our work and record the five-minute presentation, we knew we needed to have slides in a PPT compatible format. Also, people needed to collaborate. Fast.

So, we went with Google Docs. And, while it didn’t allow us all the flexibility in terms of design, it did work as a collaborative composing space. I recorded the entire 30 minutes or so of the slidedeck coming together using Camtasia, and here is a quick clip of the few minutes that I was working on my slides. Watching what I am doing (playing with fonts, finding a CC licensed image, organizing slides) and what is going on in the background with other partners’ sets of slides shows us a quick glimpse into the collaborative composing process. We had talked about slide design and looked at some resources from Robin Williams’ Non-Designers Design principles, and that helped some of us guide our work.

This collaborative, quick process is one that many of the teachers said could be adapted to their classroom. Moreover, the slides contain information that could be adapted for future PD that they might lead. While it was fast, it captured a semester’s worth of learning, and brought all our voices into the process, both in terms of design and implementation.

[iframe_loader src=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnOqF-pKpPA” height=”550″ width=”510″ click_words=”Go to YouTube to view” click_url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnOqF-pKpPA” ]

Stop Motion Video

[iframe_loader src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/5KjsG_467do” height=”550″ width=”510″ click_words=”Go to YouTube to view” click_url=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/5KjsG_467do” ]

Punya has been exploring stop motion with his own children for a number of years, and I have also been inspired by the work of Kevin Hodgson, and I wanted to find a genuine opportunity to try it out with my own. After watching a series of videos that our MAET students created in response to a prompt about creativity, my own children were quite inspired. Lexi, Beau, and I took my iPhone, and some bowling pins that they had been playing with outside, and began to craft a story. Using a lawn chair to steady my camera, we shot dozens of pictures while, at the same time, trying to think about a good story to tell along the way.

They quickly figured out that the one yellow pin should be excluded in some way, and had to figure out how to animate that. They worked together to hold the yellow pin off screen, having her “peek” back in as the bowling ball moved forward to knock down the other pins. At first, we ended the picture taking with the yellow pin standing in the middle, triumphant. But, they were not happy with that ending, as they didn’t feel like the story was really “over.” So, we brainstormed other options. One of them remembered that grandma had just thrown away a red twist tie, and we fashioned that into a smile to put on the yellow pin. After importing those shots, choosing a song, putting in the sound effect, and testing it out on an audience of siblings, we knew that we had created a good story.

While my kids did not “write” in the traditional sense, spending time putting words on paper (or screen), we were clearly engaged in a storytelling process. Also, the fact that they had to think about the story in such small, frame-by-frame increments led them to carefully consider what each pin would be doing. Finally, even though Lexi’s feet were accidentally included in one key shot (that we didn’t want to shoot again because we couldn’t get all the pins back in the exact place), they were able to creatively solve that dilemma by putting a note in the credits.

This has been a fun summer, both in terms of teaching and trying out new digital writing approaches with my kids.

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Visual Literacy Tool – PictLits

Recently, I was contacted by Carrie Lightner from PicLits.com. She said:

I came across your blog and I thought you might be interested in our new web site, www.PicLits.com. It is a fun and new site that can be a great online teaching tool for educators. It helps get students interested in writing and serves up a fresh image and custom list of words each day.

After checking it out, I agree. I think that the site has the potential to engage visual learners. In particular, I am interested in the idea that you can have students drag and drop words on top of images, and they
could develop haiku-like poems or statements with an image to supplement it. In a sense, it is like using layers in Photoshop to add text to a picture, yet much more user friendly and easily embeddable.

I wonder what kinds of assignments we could ask our students to do using a tool like this?

Two More SITE Sessions: Digital Photography and Social Networking

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: The Use of Digital Photography to Enhance Literacy Development in Young Children
Lauren Cummins, Regina Rees, and Kelly Bacroft, Youngstown State University

  • What do we know about literacy development?
    • Young children are natural storytellers, and they “write” stories through pictures
    • Children use pictures to help them remember about their story and be able to tell their story in more vivid language
    • Students write more when they are motivated
  • What do we know about digital imagery?
    • Images provide a motivating “hook” for students to get into writing
    • Photography lets children speak with pictures
    • Visual “think alouds” can helps students support the writing process
    • Learn content
  • Will the use of digital imagery to write a story increase a child’s amount of words produced and effective use of story elements?
    • Five day workshop, 1.5 hours per day
    • Urban elementary school
    • Thirteen third graders
  • Workshop outline
    • Day 1: Elements of an effective story
    • Day 2: Learning to use the cameras
    • Day 3: Choose images and storyboard
    • Day 4: Creating final story
    • Day 5: Story celebration
  • Results
    • Pre-writing sample from same prompt as compared to post showed increase in many students’ scores
      • For instance, 42 words in original story up to 107 in sample story shared here
      • Lowest increase was at least 67% and an average of 233%
    • Reflections:
      • Children tended to focus on telling about the pictures and needed more experience in storytelling with the pictures
      • Storyboards helped with the story elements
      • Most of the children took pictures of their families and this changed the story prompt for some
  • Implications
    • Children can improve their literacy skills through the use of digital imagery
    • This is especially true for urban children
    • Writing prompts need to be related to children’s read world experiences
    • Students are interested and motivated

Social Networking in PreK-6: What Are Webkinz, Club Penguin, and Other Online Communities All About?
Nancy Yost, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

  • Social networks
    • Profiles
    • Network
    • Photos
    • Videos
    • Personal Journals
    • Connecting with families and friends
  • 8.2 million 3-17 year olds were expected to visit virtual worlds in a month (eMarketer research group)
    • Where are young children going?
    • Why should we be interested? For instance, 10 million Peguin Club members.
    • They give kids a context for using social networking and instant messaging
    • Maybe we need to look at how these sites are used and figure out what’s there and how, perhaps, they can support ISTE standards and classroom connections
  • Content Analysis for Social Networking
    • Access
    • Parental Controal
    • Safety information
    • Ages for which the site is designed
    • Types of interactions allowed
    • ISTE standards addressed
    • Content standards adressed
    • User friendly?
  • Webkinz
    • Purchase a stuffed animal and get access code (then you get a one-year subscription to the website) and get to look at all the merchandise you can get virtually and for your stuffed figure
    • Parental controls to keep informed, page on safety information
    • Club house that has structured chat and they tried to have an open chat, but they closed it
    • Academic/content games in the Webkinz world
  • ISTE Standards
    • 1: Creativity and Innovation
    • 4: Critical Thinking, Problem-Solving, and Decision Making
    • 5: Digital Citizenship
  • What’s next
    • Overview of all sites, with recommendations for educational uses
    • What opportunities might we be missing by not using social networking sites in our classrooms?

Of Photography and Five Paragraph Essays

For the past two Mondays, I have been attending a photography class. This was a Christmas present from my wife, and a much-needed break from the regular weekly routine in this cold, cold mid-winter stretch. The award-winning photographer teaching the class, Ron St. Germain, shares a number of tips and tricks while also teaching us the basics about how to operate these fancy (or what we thought were fancy until we realize all the things they can’t do) digital cameras that we’ve owned and never really known how to use.

In the first two sessions, he has basically told us to stop doing everything that we are doing with our cameras. Or, should I say, what they are doing for us. Point and shoot with auto focus? Turn it off and use your shutter and aperture settings. Automatic flash? Turn it off, too, and use a detachable, multi-directional flash. Saving in JPEG? Stop it, and switch over to TIFF or RAW formats because the JPEG may be space-saving, but is also taking out details in your pictures that you may want later. In short, take control of your camera so you can take better pictures. Otherwise, you will continue to get the same type of pictures that you have taken for years on auto pilot and that have never turned out.
As I was processing all these tips on the drive home tonight, I began to recall a conversation that I had with a group of high school teachers during a professional development session a few weeks ago. The topic of the session was “writing with purpose,” and we discussed a variety of reasons and genres for writing. Towards the end of the session we began a discussion about the five-paragraph essay (5PE). While I thought that showing them a video from the Annenberg Foundation and discussing reading a Jim Burke book would open up a conversation about essay writing that would critique the 5PE, what I found was exactly the opposite. Teachers in the session offered all the usual thoughts on why and how the 5PE works for them:

  • The kids don’t understand what an essay is at all and this gives them a model
  • You have to know the rules of essay writing before you can break them
  • When kids are in a testing situation, they need a model that they can rely upon

While I would like to believe that all of these are palpable reasons for teaching the 5PE, I simply can not buy it. As an amateur photographer, my instructor is basically telling me to throw out all the automatic settings on my camera and learn how to shoot manually. As a teacher of writing, I think that I should invite my students to throw out the automatic settings, too.

Instead of talking about a particular form, the 5PE, — just like relying on the settings that come installed on my camera — we need to talk clearly and carefully about audience, purpose, and situation of a writing task. Just as I no longer point my camera at a subject and let it do all the work, I don’t think that a writer should put a mold into place and then try to fill it.

This will only become more important as students compose multimedia texts. Beyond the many connections to composing that I could make with this digital camera example, I want to keep thinking here about the ways in which I should control the camera (or the form of the essay), and not how it should automatically do things for me.

Perhaps I am extending the comparison between my camera and the form of the 5PE essay a little far. Yet, I do believe that writing teachers need to consider the ways in which they frame the writing tasks in their classrooms. I want to make sure, especially with digital writing — which is by its very nature non-linear and multimodal — that we do not offer templates or pre-set notions of what a digital story, blog, wiki, or other composition should be (having X many links or images, for instance). Like the automatic settings on my camera limit me as a photographer, these preconceived notions of what a composition can be limit what a writer can attempt in his or her essay.