Homer to Spielberg

“Hey, you got your digital storytelling in my Humanities!”

“Hey, you got your Humanities in my digital storytelling!”

source: youtube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7oD_oX-Gio
source: youtube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7oD_oX-Gio

And a star was born. Honestly, is any subject MORE suited to digital storytelling than Humanities? The glorious combination of social studies and language arts is nothing BUT storytelling. The story of history, the story of characters, the story of how things work and come together, the story of humanity.

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
Muriel Rukeyser


I currently have student doing literature circles, and one option for their final project is going to be creating a digital story of their chosen novel. The group doing Catcher in the Rye is particularly excited. We have already started pulling up pictures of the places Holden goes in the novel, and we are looking at trying to add his memories to the story as well as the actual action as tour of his mind and his misadventures.

Since my class is currently exploring literary terms and archetypes, I also came up with the idea of having students create a digital version of the Hero’s Journey, or to write their own epic story using the archetypes. We could even incorporate a choose your own adventure element on Google Slides for the more advanced students. They would be responsible for generating the images, the story, and putting it together into one cohesive story that is engaging and immersive.

Ideally, this would be presented to other people in an exhibition (as well as posted on student blogs).

Going beyond the obvious angles of digital storytelling, how to incorporate this into the social impact work they are doing? We could use this to tell the story of some of the “hidden youth” and help humanize the situation to others. Or even tell the story of a plastic bottle from creation to bottling to selling to drinking to throwing away (or recycling or reusing), similar to the opening of Lord of War, to show how plastic ends up in our oceans and in animals or in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

YouTube Preview Image

If we can harness the power of storytelling for entertainment, we can harness it to improve our world as well. Why not combine them?

A Desperate Cry for Help

I enjoy bad presentations. Not the “so bad it’s good” kind of presentations (though that is my preferred type of movie – no judging, please), and not because I love sitting through boring or sleep-inducing presentations. No, I like bad presentations because they keep me on my toes. They remind me of the way things shouldn’t be done, and all too often I see some of myself in them. They’re a handy kick in the pants, but I would be just as happy to not experience that particular kick. However, considering my less-than-stellar visual presentation skills, that won’t be ending anytime soon.

Here is a very basic presentation I made  to explain the new round of literature circles to my students. Obviously, this was a cry for help from the design gods, and they gifted me the knowledge of Presentation Zen. To be fair, I use the silly childish clipart to get a reaction from my students, but still – yeesh.

The worst part is – this is what I tell my students not to do! Lots of text? Never! Boring images that barely fit the content! Oh horror! And yet there they are. Glaringly terrible.

So, adapting from Garr Reynolds, I need to design, compel, storytell, and connect.

Design – books aren’t boring, so why should a presentation about them be?
I’ll start with an image that conveys warmth, enjoyment, pleasure, and reading.

Follow it with an image to replace some of the unneeded text.

And replace more wordiness with relevant images that are more visually appealing. It’s information they know anyway, so why repeat it?

It’s still not perfect, but it’s a vast improvement.

The Power of Cropping

Since my class is getting ready to begin our unit on the European Age of Exploration, I went hunting for images related to that on Creative Commons, using the Google image search. A big part of the discussions we have about this era is how the Europeans treated the native inhabitants, and the contrast between the portrayal of them as heroes in many textbooks and narratives.

And so I present to you, direct from 1862, Dioscoro Teofilo Puebla Tolin’s The First Landing of Christopher Columbus in America :

Dióscoro Puebla [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I am actually planning to cut this image and crop it several times and have students look at the different versions in groups and do a quick analysis of their version. Then, in a whole group discussion, we can discuss the importance of every element and component of it. This jigsaw method is actually one I would like to incorporate more into visual literacy, as well other historical documents and pieces of writing. This would actually have been ideal when we did the Renaissance and looked at the art of that period and all the Greek and Roman references. Students can examine, describe, explain, and analyze the components in their part of the image, and then we piece it together as a class to get the most information without getting overwhelmed or losing sight of the details.

Using an ISTE guide to Visual Literacy, there will be guiding questions about what is framed in the image (both cropped and whole) and the difference it makes, the focus of the image (both cropped and whole), the composition, and the use of light (ESPECIALLY on the natives in the left corner).

I hoping that this can be used to generate a powerful discussion of both visual literacy AND the content and of historical legacies. We will also do a SOAPS (Speaker, Occassion, Audience, Purpose, and Significance) analysis of the whole image after the discussion, with an emphasis on the visual literacy terminology and how it communicates an idea. We can look at the depiction of the natives, the regalia of Columbus, why the priest and the crucifixation flag are included, how clean and nice they all look after months at sea nearly starving, and the use of a limited but bright color palette that sends a bold message.

Cropped versions of the original image to be used (without students knowing they are not seeing the whole picture):

Screen Shot 2017-02-27 at 2.11.24 PM Screen Shot 2017-02-27 at 2.11.39 PM Screen Shot 2017-02-27 at 2.11.49 PM Screen Shot 2017-02-27 at 2.11.58 PM


What Needs to Change?

Answer: a whole heck of a lot!

I have never been entirely happy with the appearance of my blog for COETAIL. Fortunately, my friend Amber, the one who encouraged me to pursue COETAIL, had told me about this unit, so I was looking forward to it. As I have been thinking about how to change my blog appearance, I also got started thinking about my class website for students. Both could use a serious overhaul, and that is exactly what I plan to do over this course.Screen Shot 2017-02-27 at 11.54.27 AM

Ideally, I would like for my blog and website to be easy to navigate, visually engaging, and a balance between visuals and content, engaging images but not distracting, and not overwhelming when first opened. I’ve been looking at a list of visually engaging websites created by a design company as inspiration. As I am most definitely NOT a designer or web creator, I have narrowed down a few points I would like to try and work in.

  1. Action shots – images or pictures of people or things doing something as the background to make a connection between what people see and what they will be reading.
    Screen Shot 2017-02-27 at 11.55.43 AM
    source: becausexm.com

  2. More graphics and charts to show connections instead of just explaining them.
    Screen Shot 2017-02-27 at 11.59.33 AM
    source: webcanopystudio.com

  3. More thought and purpose on how things are spaced and placed. What is most crucial? What stands out?
    Screen Shot 2017-02-27 at 12.01.08 PM
    source: mote.org

While looking at these and other examples, I also started remembering all the old rules of design I learned in photography classes over the years (rule of thirds, etc). However, I think that in my case, simplicity is best.

Looking at a list of rules for website design, what has become obvious is that simple is best. Doing too much is overwhelming to the eye (and for the creator!), and quickly becomes distracting. For me, I think I will try to streamline my blog and website and start trying to create images and charts that will be useful for myself and my students as visual guides. I’m planning to bring my students into this as well: solicit feedback, ideas, and use that as a launching board for a discussion about visual literacy in their own work.

Digital Detectives

Digital Archeaology is a thing now. I thought that was at least 5 years out, but obviously I was wrong. Along those line, last year my co-workers and I put together a video to show kids about being good digital citizens (please don’t judge me too harshly for my “acting” skills. We had fun, the kids thought it was funny, but it was a one-off.

I love simulations (I know that I have mentioned that before). When it comes teaching digital citizenship, of course that is where my mind naturally wandered to. Working the unbelievably understanding fabulous Sitwat, we combined a lesson she was already doing with her students based on Common Sense Media with my simulation idea. Since we both teach similar ages, we didn’t need to adjust the level for our students.

Sitwat came up with an amazing way to tie-in Breakout Edu with teaching kids these habits, which I plan to use early in the year (in the future) to get kids into good habits and start a discussion.

Later in the year, when students inevitably begin to make mistakes or forget or get sloppy, we can do a refresher course with digital detectives.

The basic premise is to review lessons on digital citizenship and what it is, what it looks like, and all the issues related to it. Then, later, assign a few students to be detectives and investigate a claim of “being a bad digital citizenship.” They will look through the blogs or any other online activity or presence (pre-chosen by the teacher) for evidence to this effect. Then the culprit (pre-selected and coached ideally) will be “arrested” and placed on trial.

Students will be assigned roles as the judge, prosecution, defense lawyers, and the jury. Each person will need to use the information from before and any other research they can find as evidence and how they are making their decisions. After the verdict is read out, students can go onto their blogs or other online presences to make any changes and have a discussion about why this matters and the potential consequences, and how easy it is to forget.

I am hopeful that by adding a new element to the digital discussion, kids will be more engaged and it will be more meaningful than lessons like this I have done in the past. And the fact i plan to have the students wear actual Sherlock Holmes’ hats and other props for my amusement and possibly theirs? Merely a coincidence.

A Tale of Snapchat and Service Learning

I am not a fan social media (for personal life). I think I last updated Facebook 6 months ago, but I have been toying with the idea of posting that I just paid off my student loans (shameless brag). I didn’t have Twitter until 2 years ago, and I didn’t start posting until I went to ISTE in June this year. And yet I just signed up for Snapchat. I know, I’m surprised too!

There’s two reasons for this, and the first is that it should have happened a year ago, but I’m lazy.

I did a Service Learning project with my students last year, and part of it was that they had to do an awareness campaign for the various issues. There was the usual roundup of videos and skits and posters, but one stood out and was really popular with the students – Snapchat. They created a Snapchat account and everyday of their awareness week would post different stories, pictures, videos, and links to the organization we were working with. By the end, almost every student in our middle school was following them and checking it multiple times a day as it updated. Regrettably they deleted it, but it was such an innovative idea and tailored to their age group that it should have made me sign up then. Bonus – my students for this year remember it!

This year I used it as an example of how social media can be used for positive ideas, and how a small change/action can lead to big change. I gave the students very few boundaries on their projects last year, and this is what grew out of it. If they can have that impact in our school in 1 week, what could they do if they had more time? Now that they really know I mean it when I say “be as unique and creative as you can,” are they willing to rise to that challenge? Here’s hoping!

I also believe there is room for a discussion with the recent US election and the spread of vitriol and fake news on social media, and how powerful it would be if we could reverse that and replace the negative messages with kind and inspiring and accepting ones. If the internet can use used for hate, surely it can be used for love as well.

Fair warning, the second reason is not quite as directly connected to the main topic of this post and gets a little weird. 

Sigh, so this happened recently.  Posed by students.
Sigh, so this happened recently. Posed by students, picture pulled from Snapchat.

I also did so because I was becoming a Snapchat star amongst my students and I never got to see it. I have a tendency to get a little weird in class, and I figured instead of trying to stop the kids from doing what they are going to do anyway, I may as well make it an open environment. Rules are they can include me but no other students (without permission), I get copies of any pictures or videos from class, and no hidden recording (meaning if they are filming, I can see it happening). It’s actually been pretty liberating, and I have some…let’s call them interesting…pictures of my teaching in action. When I got Snapchat, kids were literally running to show me how to use it

It only looks like I'm winning. I lost. Bad. Twice.
It only looks like I’m winning. I lost. Bad. Twice.

(I’ll spare you the stories of their agony as I pressed the wrong thing and acted like my mom did when she was trying to type), and immediately following me and asking me to follow them. I try to post at least 1 thing everyday of something that happened in class – usually the weirder moments, but the other sections always want to know “why were you arm wrestling Jack?!” the next day, so at least it’s a talking point.

There has been an unexpected side effect – I see EVERYTHING they put on Snapchat. Pictures from my class? Yup. Pictures of them at home being silly? Oh dear Lord, yes. Pictures from their night at the music award show? WAY more than I ever needed to see.

Happily, nothing I’ve seen has been too inappropriate or disturbing. I like joking with them about the things they post and they get red as a tomato when I point it out – but they don’t block me. It actually works really well to start small discussions with them about posting online without having to do it in a formal lesson where they know all the things to say that we want to hear as teachers. I also get to work their pictures/videos into conversations that they may prefer I not. Example? Since you asked so nicely, ok!

Me: What are you struggling with on this writing project?

Student: I dunno – no ideas. My brain is a desolate wasteland of creative inspiration with a distinct dearth of imagination.

Me: LIAR! I have seen you tell a 5-minute story to your sister about why you got in trouble with your parents. Instead of the truth, your version involved evil fairies, unicorns, and a lightsaber!


Me: Snapchat. I got weird(er) looks on the subway because you made me laugh out loud (literally, not the usual snort through the nose that LOL means). It was really funny and creative! Why not start with that story as your basis and we can go from there?

Student: WOW! I never thought of that! You are the best teacher in the whole wide world!

I took a few liberties with the phrasing (but so subtle I doubt you even noticed it). The story is real though, and has happened a lot. Maybe it doesn’t relate to class, but I have said “if you have time to do the Single Ladies dance at 2am, you have time to read for 20 minutes at home.” The point is, many of them have realized that their digital life and school life are way more interconnected than they think. Also, that they can be exposed at any moment for what they have put online. Hopefully it will make them think twice about what they post or what they say. Maybe, just maybe, it will make them a little more honest and thoughtful and kind. *fingers crossed.* I like to think maybe having more accountability will make them more aware and responsible.

Thoughts on Snapchat in the classroom or positivity instead of hate on the internet?

Dancing with the Dinosaurs

Creative Commons copyright by Randal Droher
Creative Commons copyright by Randal Droher

I attended cotillion as a young teenager. Supposedly I was going to learn to dance, have proper table manners, and be a nice young lady. I only agreed to it because it was in the Natural History Museum and meant I could dance under the dinosaurs. However, other than than that Thursday night every other week, I would forget pretty much everything I had learned. Why? Because doing it occasionally wasn’t enough to teach me and engrain in me the skills and manners I was supposed to learn. But hey, 18 years later and I know which fork to use at all those fancy dinner parties I don’t go to!

Digital citizenship is like that. If kids are only taught it

once in a while, or in one particular class, how likely are they to remember it? Or make a habit of being a good digital citizen? If my students forget that they need to use capital letters for proper nouns the instant they walk out of my classroom because they are no longer in English class, how likely are they to remember to properly cite photos and sources when posting online? About as likely as a snowball’s chance in the tropical heat of Barbados, I would say.

Forgetting Curve Copyright commons.wikimedia.org under Creative Commons
Forgetting Curve
Copyright commons.wikimedia.org under Creative Commons

I am very guilty of not always being the digital citizen role model I should be. Part of my reasons for joining COETAIL were to try and fix this behavior – and it’s working so far! But my kids are not me. They are (much, much) younger. They have grown up with the internet and very little idea of digital citizenship. Now it is being taught more and more in the younger grades, but my current grade 8 students had very little exposure to that term or the ideas before middle school – all part of the evolving life of living in such a digital world.

Digital citizenship should be taught everyday in every class. It doesn’t need to be a big lesson or even a lesson. We are supposed to be modeling good beahvior, so teaching digital citizenship begins with us. Everything we do digitally that the students will see is teaching them. Everytime we enforce the idea of citing your sources, of giving credit for images and videos, of reminding them how to post online, of who their digital is, and everytime we go online we are teaching digital citizenship. This is not just the purview of the computer science teacher anymore – it is responsibilty of all educators to make sure that every class, every day reinforces digital citizenship.

The obvious answer seems to be that every school/division should have a clear policy for digital citizenship, a specified class or advisory where the main lessons are taught, and then the guidelines/citizenship should be enforced and made clear in all other classes. I know many districts and schools are moving to this model, but like many other well-intentioned things, it sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. I would like to see my school create a coherent, school-wide digital citizenship program with school-wide standards and expectations of digital citizenship. Has anyone helped create one? Any suggestions?

PS, I know I could have made many regrettable puns about dancing with dinosaurs and how old I am in my kids’ eyes, but wanted to keep you reading until the end, and then it feels unfair to punish you.


Melania, Richard, Vanilla, and Kylie, oh my

Photo credit: ArtsyBee via Flickr and CreativeCommons
Photo credit: ArtsyBee via Flickr and CreativeCommons

I am a big fan of simulations in my own classroom, and my first thought on teaching copyright was how I could do a simulation that would be meaningful to grade 8 students? While I was ISTE this past summer, the inspiring Ben Smith, a physics/engineering teacher, did a great presentation on student entrepreneurship in the classroom. One of the most intriguing methods he used in his HS engineering class was having students patent their work/methods/steps. Should other  student wish to use the patented work, it would cost them a few points off their work, and those points would be awarded to the team/student holding the patent.

I am still trying to figure out how to work this in, but I have thought about secretly recruiting a couple of “black hat” students to help me by copying the work of other students to create outrage and then lead to a discussion. This might actually be helped with the fact that almost every week I hear students talking about downloading and torrenting files. While technically illegal here in Hong Kong, it is an accepted fact that you will not get caught and it is basically treated as legal unless a specific complaint is lodged against you.

I, and all of the educators I know, believe that our jobs extends far beyond our content areas. We have an obligation to help guide students, and that means guiding them so that they always make the right decision. Ok, most of the time. I’ll settle for half of the time. But I digress. The point is of course we have to teach students about copyright and respecting it – even if no one else around them is. No one ever thinks they are going to get caught, so the consequences often do not seem real. So how do we get students to this realization when it is something that even adults struggle with?

Photo Credit: Disney | ABC Television Group Flickr via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Disney | ABC Television Group Flickr via Compfight cc

A few resources came to mind – Melania Trump and Richard Prince. Think you won’t get caught for being sloppy with your sourcing and trying to pass off someone’s work as your own? Think again (though hopefully less public). Think making tiny changes makes something yours and nobody will notice or comment on it? Think again (and yes, the voice yelling at me that Richard Prince’s “work” is art and beginning a philosophical discussion of what art is is my brother. Hi Jake!). Heck, let’s go ahead and throw Kylie Jenner into the mix so I can pretend I am relevant and up-to-date on pop culture. And of course there is the ever popular Vanilla Ice/Queen bass line case.

YouTube Preview Image

I like to tell me students to work smarter and not harder and to let others do the work for them. I usually mean this in collaborations and pooling resources and avoiding repeating work, but maybe it is time I address it in more detail and have an open discussion with students about how we can use other people’s work to build on and to enhance our own while giving due credit and protecting the intellectual property of others.


Whoops…I’m not perfect

I think it is increasingly obvious that “online privacy” may be a bit of an oxymoron. While I embrace the possibilities of the internet and technology and a more networked and globalized world, there is always the specter of my loss of privacy and some embarrassing comment or picture surfacing when my student cyber-stalk me. And then there is the government stalking us, our pictures becoming fodder for scammers to use on dating sites, and even our health records being compromised.

Photo Credit: Visual Content Flickr via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Visual Content Flickr via Compfight cc

The US presidential election has made headlines (again), and it has made me think about a number of things. No politics here, but I did think of Donald Trump’s digital footprint. I’m currently working some of them into a future lesson with my kiddos about digital footprints, or contrails as so aptly worded by Steve Weatherell. Many news sites and political satirists have already done this for me by throwing up old tweet contradicting his stance on climate change as an exampl. I see this as a chance to have a conversation with students though – putting aside the fact he is a divisive politician, we all have posted things that we would prefer not see the light of day. Can’t we use that as a reflective tool? Show how far we have come? Explain the reasons that we initially thought/said/posted that and the reasons why we have changed our opinion on it? Is this not along the lines of a growth mindset?

Obviously it would be better if we never posted anything we were ashamed of

Photo Credit: Reiterlied Flickr via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Reiterlied Flickr via Compfight cc

and if everyone in the world respected our privacy, but in the world where that

happens, I am frequently late to work because the lego-unicorn I ride to work gets stuck in traffic caused by a puppy stampede due to the sun glinting off of a triple rainbow. AKA, that is just not realistic. 

Since I am currently teaching 8th grade, I give a little pep talk before parent-teacher conferences every trimester. Kids are always worried about what their parents will say. So I pitch it like this: 8th grade is the best time to fail. Colleges don’t see your grades from this year. You don’t have your ideal grade? Great! Let’s learn how we can recover from this, move on, and do better. Then you will always know that even if you slide down, it is always possible to climb back up. 

Of course, we all know it would be better not to have slid down in the first place. But when it comes to digital privacy, my kids have already been on devices and social media for years. They have already shared pictures and information that maybe should be kept private. That doesn’t mean they can’t do better and try to undo what they have done. Keeping the growth mindset in place, we can start to be more careful about what we post online. Where we post it. Who we share it with.  How we think about privacy. Hopefully we can prevent any future mis-sharings and strive to always be more vigilant and aware.

Poor Ken Bone

Of all the memorable things that happened in the US presidential debates this year, one man stood out. Not Donald Trump, but Ken Bone of the second debate. He became an adorable internet sensation overnight and, almost inevitably, a quick fall from grace. His downfall was his history of comments and contributions to reddit on some less-than-adorable topics. He could not have had any idea

Photo Credit: Download Youtube Videos Online Flickr via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Download Youtube Videos Online Flickr via Compfight cc

One thing we should stress to our students, is that no matter how hard we try, you cannot completely separate your personal and professional selves. It is terrifyingly easy for people to find you online. Case in point, many of my former students call my McCoolpants. *Hangs head in shame.* I changed my name on some social media sites to use that so students wouldn’t be able to find me. Even with all the privacy settings on max, they did it by playing leapfrog from one friend to another, to eventually teachers, and found my name that way (though happily nothing else). Maybe we are more vulnerable as teachers, considering the natural tendency of students to question and seemingly want to stalk, but I do not think there is any foolproof way to keep everything completely separate.

One of the ways we build a PLN is having a digital presence, isn’t it? One of my goals this year is to build more of a digital presence. Partly to build my PLN, partly to communicate more with students and families, and partly to help when I leave my current school and am looking for a new position. I have had multiple administrators tell me that they prioritize applicants who have a digital portfolio or blog. This seems to be common sense to me – a digital portfolio (or any presence online) allows the school/hiring body to get a more accurate picture of you as a person and an educator. You can only express so much of yourself in a short resume, and lets be honest, many resumes look very similar. While I have trying to build my professional presence online, I noticed that I have toning down (although honestly there wasn’t much to tone down) my personal online presence. I realized that since I am trying to connect more with students online, they may be able to find things about me online that I would rather they not know.

Many years ago I saw a webcomic where someone made a sticker to put on a phone. The sticker read “consider everything on here public property.” There is a very good possibility I will make some of those myself and print them for students when we focus on digital privacy. I know so many people my age who all agree that we are darn lucky there was no Facebook when we were teenagers. Myspace was barely getting started when I left high school, and thank goodness for that. Our students absolutely need to understand that wHatever they put


online can spread far beyond where they intended. This is such an abstract idea for them though, since they are not having to consider professional ramifications for almost a decade (with my kiddos anyway), and they are so used to their little bubble of social media contacts that it is difficult to think of the larger picture. I am thinking of using Ken Bone and his example to them of how things can come back to haunt you. I also think we need to emphasize the powerful things that can be done online and through social media, using the example of Alaa Basatneh (of the incredible documentary #ChicagoGirl) to inspire students and show the positive impact they can have on the world through sometimes minor things (and use that to think about the power they can have if they choose not to be positive as well).

If anyone has any ideas on how to incorporate these into the classroom and engage students, I’d love to hear it!