Over the years, I've often written about the reasons teachers should incorporate digital storytelling in their classrooms. I've talked about how student film can empower young people, promote collaboration, provide an opportunity for authentic communication, and showcase learning. In my book and during several interviews, I've made sure to express just how much middle school voices need to be enfranchised through digital storytelling, and that they have no shortage of poignant messages to share.
But this year I have learned that there is an even deeper truth about the benefits of making movies in the classroom. I've learned that digital storytelling can be the perfect modality for students to process their emotions and make sense of their world.
This past November, one of my students, Marina, experienced a personal tragedy. She was visibly distraught in class for several days before she finally confided the reality of her family's situation. "You're the only adult I can talk to, Mrs. Pack," she said. "My family hurts so much right now, I need to be strong for them."
Marina's baby cousin passed away after drowning in her family's backyard pool.
We talked for an hour after school that day. Then she came to me several weeks later and said, "You know how my cousin died? I think I need to make a movie about it."
My first instinct was to be hesitant. Would this be emotionally safe for her? Should I allow a student to tackle such an intense topic so close to the moment of devastating loss? What if she broke down during the process? Would I know what to do?
Marina has been my student for the past three years; she has a talent for digital storytelling. During her sixth grade year, Marina wrote and directed an award-winning video called, Math Genius. During her seventh grade year, she starred in the award-winning Lost Ships as one of the principal characters; it was a project took over 5 months to produce. Is it any wonder that she would choose to grieve by sharing her cousin's story, the story of her family's grief, on camera?
"Okay," I said. "But first, let's talk about what is motivating you. What is the goal you hope to accomplish?"
"I want to make this movie as a memorial to Gio. And I want others to learn from his story."
How could I deny Marina her mission? How could I stop her voice in its tracks? I decided that if she was brave enough to write and film this story, I would be brave enough to support her.
After several on location shoots, many different interview takes, and lots of tears, Remembering Gio was finished.
Marina asked me to submit her work to several local and state film festivals. She said it doesn't matter if her video is screened, but she wanted to try to share Gio's story with as large an audience as possible. The day we rendered the final cut, she also made me promise to upload the video to YouTube as soon as possible.
In workshops and keynotes, I've often spoken about the power of saying YES to our students. This is yet another instance in which I am so very glad to have said YES to the process, to Marina's choice in subject matter, to sharing her grief and love of her cousin.
Most of all, I am so proud of her for laying her grief out there for the world to see, for turning a tragedy into an opportunity to educate others. Tracey Walker, a wonderful educator in my PLN, summed Marina's project up perfectly when she said:
Yo! Does your augmented reality need a reality check? Could your AR be more student-centered? At #CUE15, Eddie Rivera and I were super excited to present how teachers can better use AR with their students to engage, create, and share content.
Check out our slide deck:
How do you use AR like a "G"? Share your AR suggestions in the comments below. If you attended our session, please feel free to comment with your questions, too.
A student cried in my classroom yesterday.
This is not an entirely unusual experience, since we get teary eyed quite often while reading some of our favorite novels - like when Salva, a Lost Boy refugee in "A Long Walk to Water," goes back to war-torn South Sudan to build wells for his people. Or in "The Tiger Rising" when Rob, a troubled boy whose mother died, finally opens up to his father and lets all of his emotions pour out. Oh, and lots of kids also got a little misty while reading "Rules," wherein a boy with cerebral palsy makes his first-ever friend.
So, crying is sometimes just part of the larger context of our classroom, and I've been known to shed tears, too. No matter how many years I've read some of these books with my classes, it always feels special to connect not only with literature, but with one another, too.
Yesterday was different.
This time, one of my students stayed after school to work on a digital storytelling project that she is undertaking. One of my language arts students and also an after school AV Club devotee, I've been encouraging this wonderful young lady all year. Ever since she proudly told me that she is a folklorico dancer on the evenings and weekends, I've enthusiastically urged her to share her story. I know that as teachers we're not supposed to earmark favorites, because they are all our kids, but I am so touched by this girl and her family. With immigrant parents and a house on the other side of the freeway, her family makes time to drive her to school every morning. Super studious, constantly in motion, and quite a chatterbox, she always has stories to share - like the morning after President Obama's executive order regarding immigration. She came right up to me, smiled brightly, and proclaimed, "Did you hear? The president forgives us and says we can stay. My mom cried last night, because she is so happy."
This student has worked for a week on writing a script about folklorico. As her guide, my job at this phase of the production process is to offer suggestions on storytelling. I began with the positive aspects of her topic, complimented her storyboard ideas, and affirmed that I thought she had a wonderful story to share. Then, I tried to explain the difference between "showing" and "telling" when writing a script. She nodded vigorously, but still seemed confused. So, I referenced an entry from Julie Barda's class in last year's DigiCom Film Festival and pulled it up to use as an anchor video:
I think we only watched about 45 seconds before she started crying. I immediately paused the video, worried. Worried that I had somehow offended her, worried that she was discouraged, worried that I wasn't being gentle enough in my critique. For the first time ever, I didn't know what to do or say when confronted with tears. I decided to wait her out, offer Kleenex, and listen.
It was a good strategy.
"This is a good story," she told me. "It makes me think of my mom and my experience in kindergarten. It makes me think of my culture and how proud I am of what my family has done."
"Good," I responded. "You should absolutely feel proud to be who you are."
"And, I get it now," she said. "I understand what you mean about my script. But I don't know how to fix it."
After a few beats, I asked her why she dances. I asked her to think about what she feels when she dances and what keeps her showing up at practice every week. I asked her why the long hours, the elaborate costumes, and the music are so appealing when other kids her age tend to focus more on Instagram and Snapchat. More tears welled up in her eyes as she considered her answer.
"Because. I forget everything else in my life, all my trouble and all my worry. I don't think about anything but the music and the steps and I feel joy."
And that perfect revelation was the heart of her story. Sometimes, as a script writer, there are quiet moments when everything comes together and the story works out just right. The key to digital storytelling is to write from the heart, and some of the most compelling stories that can be told are the ones about ourselves.
This morning, I arrived at work a few minutes later than usual. On my desk, in a zip lock bag, there was an SD card with a sticky note:
There are a million reasons why I think gamification is an important tool for teachers to implement. I've read plenty of articles, set up a Tweet Deck column for #gamification, attended a phenomenal Minecraft session at #CUE14, and participated in a #caedchat to learn more. But, at the end of the day, there are a million reasons why I never really got the gamification ball rolling. Here are a few:
So, with all of these questions and a complete lack of experience, I felt stuck in a kind of ideological purgatory where my professional goal of gamification didn't really seem all that attainable. For a while, it was just easier to put this on the back burner and get on with app smashing, digital storytelling, and 20% projects.
Then, I had the chance to learn about Class Craft from Ricardo Higuera at EdCampPS - and I finally found my entry point into classroom gamification.
Mages, Warriors, and Healers: Oh, My!
My husband grew up playing D&D and all kinds of other role playing games, but I grew up in farm country and we just sort of...went outside. So, coming from the standpoint of having zero experience with role playing games, I was amazed to find that Class Craft is easy to understand. It also has a user-friendly interface, and is versatile enough that it can be implemented in any classroom.
Essentially, students operate both individually and in teams. They take on the roles of three different character classes: mages, warriors, and healers. Each team decides how to balance the roles within their group and generates their own "recipe" for success. Students earn "powers" specific to their character class, and throughout the day the teacher acts as the Game Master. The Game Master has a lot more than just a rockin' job title - they award points and control different aspects of the game. For example, students work to earn XP (experience points) which help level up their characters. Leveling up is good because it unlocks more powers. The Game Master can also dock HP (health points) for negative behaviors and players use up AP (action points) as they utilize their powers throughout the period. The thing I love most about Class Craft is that everything is 100% customizable.
Here's a quick screencast to show you how I have customized the game for my students:
The Net Effect (Or, Why Class Craft is EduAwesome)
I implemented Class Craft immediately after EdCampPS because I just couldn't wait! The first day, I used this Google Presentation to explain game protocols:
There was an immediate, observable difference in student motivation. Classroom management has never been a significant issue for my classes, because I've always used a token economy that worked well to control behavior. However, there are usually a few students for whom it can be difficult to find the right carrot - not to mention that I tend to focus much more on intrinsic motivation as opposed to extrinsic.
Gamification matters because it motivates. By introducing Class Craft, there was a new layer of energy in the room, a new excitement for completing daily tasks and working together. Now, I fully understand that in order to be completely valid, strategies need to stand the test of time. But, so far, it's so good! Students who haven't attended tutoring in a month or so were in my classroom every day after school this week. More than half of each class spent at least 2 or more days in lunch tutoring, too. Group leaders are taking their role very seriously, helping to monitor and motivate students who struggle to stay focused. Best of all, there is a hum of excitement and anticipation as we gear up for the Daily Event, spin the Wheel of Destiny, and dread the Book of Laments.
Class Craft is everything I wanted gamification to look like in my classroom, and the benefits of gamification are everything I wanted them to be. I'm looking forward to reporting back after a few weeks. Hopefully, I'll have even more positive things to say and an even bigger impact to share.
For the last few years, I have been honored to be a part of the DigiCom Learning Institute, offering courses to teachers to help them bring digital storytelling into their classrooms. Whether teaching the ABC's of student film making using iPads or how to improve video quality, interacting with other teachers and helping them discover the joy of student film is always a highlight. This January, I was very excited to have the opportunity to train the PSUSD after school program leaders during our third week of winter break. Our four day workshop covered how to manage students during the movie making process, how to front-load technology skills, and how to conduct hands-on film challenges.
Working with a group of non-certificated staff was a unique experience for me, because their creativity was super charged and unbound by the reservations that certificated staff members usually have about standards and pacing. They were wholly enthusiastic and eager to begin to find their own voices as authors. We worked on several different hands-on projects, including a modified Door Challenge (from Frank Guttler's AFI curriculum), the Suspense Challenge (from my own film challenge curriculum), and blackout poetry.
I have written blackout poems with students for several years, because it's a fun way for students to begin exploring the poetic writing process. Often, students have fears about writing poems. Here are a few common apprehensions I've heard over the years:
It always amazes me how much poetry can intimidate even the most confident student. Because blackout poems emerge from text that has already been written, there is a lot less pressure to think up words. Instead, writing a blackout poem is an exercise is creativity and problem solving, as students rise to the challenge of re-imagining existing text as something new. Last year, one of my students submitted a blackout poem for the DigiCom Film Festival. The festival producers asked me to record an introduction to the poem to help contextualize the project:
Blackout poems can be written from any text. Often, they are also called "Found Poems" because authors find their words in the work of others. I have had students write blackout poems with articles from newspapers, pages of a textbook, and pages ripped from a novel. There is enough versatility in blackout poetry that it can be used in any subject area, which leaves room for digital storytelling to be integrated as well. To me, a lot of the Common Core transition involves taking learning one or two steps farther than before. Rather than simply writing a poem, challenge students to bring it to life. Execute the planning process using storyboards, record using whatever you can get your hands on.
At this particular workshop, participants had a variety of movie making tools at their disposal. Some chose to record video using smart phones, some used iPads, and others lugged around Macbooks and used the iSight camera to film. To get footage from one device to a Macbook for editing, participants used Dropbox and Google Drive to accomplish the task. In the end, some really great products emerged from the experience:
I am so happy I had the opportunity to work with a such a fantastic group of enthusiastic staff members! Already, I am looking forward to my next DigiCom Institute engagement in June, when I will facilitate a five day workshop on effectively integrating digital storytelling into the classroom.
As a teenager, I wasn't interested in school. School was a big, scary place full of people - which may not seem like much of a challenge at first. Unless you're an introvert. Then, it's sort of tortuous.
In fact, I did pretty much everything I could to avoid homework (especially science), anything related to math (especially algebra), and tended to hangout in the library (where there were books, not people). There were only two things I wanted to do: read and code.
I taught myself basic html when I was fourteen or fifteen, because I wanted to build a website. This was back when Geocities and Angelfire were the most accessible website builders available. You could use the template they provided, or toggle the html view to customize. I've always been a creative person, and despite my work avoidance in the school setting, I enjoyed a challenge. So, I looked up some html guides and started teaching myself how to code. For me, coding offered the same sort of refuge that a good book provides. And it's a skill that has stuck with me to this day.
Because coding impacted my life, I wanted to give my students the opportunity to participate in the Hour of Code. Instead of limiting coding to just an hour, however, I decided to create a three week coding unit. Students watched TED Talks from outstanding kids (including Thomas Suarez, a 12 year old app developer), experimented with coding activities on www.code.org, engaged in close reading of articles, performed collaborative close viewing of video resources, and answered text dependent questions. Though some teachers may be reluctant to use core instructional minutes for something outside the norm, I found that students were energized and excited by their coding experience. They were eager not only to code, but also to research, plan, write, and share.
Here are some of the resources we utilized during the course of the unit:
Bringing an expert into the classroom to talk about coding as a career was an important aspect of our instructional plan. Fortunately, a good family friend is a computer programmer and was willing to conduct two Google Hangouts on Air so that both of our blocks of students could ask questions about coding. These Hangouts also provided a fantastic source for expert quotes, as our students conducted research to write an argument about coding and whether or not it should be taught in schools. In sixth grade, the Common Core State Standards make a huge leap from writing opinion pieces to writing more formal arguments with a thesis and evidence to support a claim. To help students learn argumentative structure, I created aGoogle Doc template to support the process of research, constructing a claim, and drafting.
Digital storytelling is an important pillar of my classroom. To that end, I regularly give students the opportunity to create some sort of video-based synthesis as a capstone to their learning. This time, students create Public Service Announcements aimed at a specific audience to promote coding in schools. (Overwhelmingly, all of the student arguments were pro-coding, so a pro-coding PSA made sense.) Kids worked together to storyboard their concepts, pull evidence from their research, and record video clips to help tell the story of coding in the classroom.
Here are two of their best efforts:
After focusing on coding for three weeks, I expected students to be a bit burned out to the idea. However, I've been pleasantly surprised to find that students are still asking for time to code in class, and they are still sharing things they have made using code at home. As teachers, that's what we want most - transferable skills that students continue to develop even after class has dismissed.
The funny thing about aging is that you don't realize it's happening until it's already happened. I have been blessed to teach in the same classroom for the last decade. I've taught mostly 6th grade Language Arts and Social Studies, but I've also taught 7th grade Language Arts and Social Studies, Video Production, and Associated Student Body government.
This is the first year that I have felt like a veteran teacher.
Maybe it's because we've had an influx of first and second year teachers, or maybe it's that I am no longer quite as peppy as I used to be if I don't get a full seven hours of sleep at night. Probably, it's the fact that my school is celebrating it's 20th anniversary this year. I guess it's hard not to feel at least a little older when you realize you've been around for half the life of an established school.
My leadership class wanted to do something special to recognize our school's 20th year, so we decided to create a living history wall. The original idea was to collect photos from staff and past yearbooks, then create a bulletin board in the hallway to display them. Another group of my leadership students decided to work on a documentary film about our school's history and interview staff members who opened the school. When they started looking at footage of the interviews, one of my students said, "Wow. I wish we could share some of these clips with the school. Our movie is going to take a while to finish, but it would be cool to just show people the best of what we have."
And just like when Marty McFly realizes that time travel really is possible thanks to Doc Brown's DeLorean, my students were super excited when I suggested the concept of augmented reality. If you're unfamiliar with augmented reality, the concept is similar to using QR codes. In both methods, additional content is activated by scanning an image of some kind. In QR, the trigger image is the square code itself. In augmented reality, the trigger image can be anything from a math problem on a page, to a building on your school campus, or a poster hanging on the wall.
Not Yo' Mama's Yearbook Photo Experience
Students began to create their living history wall by requesting yearbooks and photos from staff and administration. They had a blast digging through the images, marking their favorites with sticky notes. Eventually, students narrowed the many photos down to a little over twenty based on the following criteria:
Next, students previewed a ton of documentary footage to match various video clips to images. In some cases, students found perfect clips from the staff interviews they had already shot for the documentary. However, students felt that some of the pictures needed a specialized script, so they wrote and recorded some of their own video commentary, too. While the videos were being filmed and edited, another group of students worked on laying out and stapling up the wall itself.
Since augmented reality is a new idea on campus, students also posted directions next to the wall to help users access all of the content.
The "20 Years of Workman" wall debuted during Parent Conferences. In preparation, ASB students filmed several video tutorials that aired on our weekly school news episodes. Several students even took turns acting as docents with a few classroom iPads in order to demonstrate the wall to parents and allow families without smartphones to participate.
Of course, the best part about this entire process was watching the pride students took in their finished product. In the weeks following conferences, I continue to see students interacting with the content of the wall before and after school.
Want to give augmented reality a try? Check out the resources from the 2014 CUE Conference session delivered by John Stevens and myself:
Back in August, Jo-Ann Fox and I co-moderated a #caedchat discussion about classroom redesign. At the time, I had just finished redesigning my classroom, and fully intended to blog about the experience. So imagine my chagrin when I realized that it's been almost two months since that Twitter chat and I have yet to blog it out! Yikes.
In the interest of "better late than never," here's how my redesign turned out. Oh! And there's a "how to" video to boot...
Inviting Suggestions for Change
Since I wanted to make a change in the design of my classroom in order to better suit student needs, I decided to poll my kids at the end of last year about what aspects of the classroom they enjoyed and what they disliked or would want to change. We opened a Today's Meet room and they submitted their thoughts. One trend that I noticed is that the kids requested "bigger, better whiteboards" (I had personal size whiteboards for student use) or "whiteboard walls." They also asked for "more cushy seating" and wanted me to "bring back the twinkle lights from Christmas time." One kid even commented on the floor, saying, "It smells good in here and there is a couch like at my house which I like. But the carpet is kind of gross to sit on." (Which is true. The carpet in my classroom hasn't been cleaned in forever. I think they stopped doing that when the California budget started suffering.)
Interestingly, a lot of their ideas for what needed to change coincided with some of the thoughts that had been rattling around in my head. So, I decided to make it official, sit down, and come up with a game plan...
Clearly, several things needed to change: seating, lighting, and creative space. But, where to start?
A Little Elbow Grease and Jedi Shopping
Since collaboration plays such a huge role in the dynamic of my classroom, the 42 desks had to be the first to go. The only thing stopping me was a lack of anything to replace them with. I'd always loved Alice and Barton Keeler's classroom renovation video, but never had enough cash to plug into a ton of brand new furniture for such a huge project. Luckily, a school in my district closed for renovation and its old furniture went up for grabs. I snagged five 4x7' tables, which were kind of beat up but totally perfect. Whiteboard paint, I decided, would be an awesome way to refinish the table tops while giving my kids plenty of space to brainstorm, design, plot, and plan.
Forever ago, I read a blog post by the Nerdy Teacher about how he refinished the desks in his classroom with IdeaPaint. I have instant gratification issues, so I visited two different local Home Depot stores and bought every last whiteboard paint kit they had in stock, plus a plethora of painting supplies. (Mostly because I just didn't want to wait the amount of time it would take for IdeaPaint process and ship my order.)
Here's how I refinished the tables:
A few tips not included in the video:
After painting, the big question was what to do with all of the floor space freed up by having tables. Since buying additional couches wasn't in my budget, I decided to track down some bean bags on sale. (I pretty much refuse to buy most things unless they're on clearance or heavy discount...my husband and I refer to that as "Jedi-Shopping.") Since Back to School season is also Back to College season, I lucked out at Big Lots. Lamps, strings of lantern lights, and rugs also made it into my shopping cart.
Over the next year, I would like to add two new couches, donate the old couch to another classroom, and add some low tables for kids to use with the bean bags. I also found out that my classroom is slated to pilot Chromecast and have a couple of flat screen TVs mounted on the wall in order for students to use to collaborate and present. So far this year, students have made only positive comments about the room and seem to enjoy the flexible seating option and homey atmosphere the alternative lighting provides.
The Finished Product: Room 208
Visiting Japan to represent California education has been an absolute honor. The Japanese people have been incredibly welcoming and gracious as a whole, but most especially the teachers, students, and faculty at the schools we visited in Tokyo. We were lucky to observe and interact at a variety of schools, both public and private. After several very full days, I found that there is a wide range of educational environments students can experience. Each school seemed to have a distinct philosophy, climate, and instructional approach, just as in the United States. We were even fortunate to meet two female principals, which our guide indicated is less common in Japan.
Another almost universal theme in Japanese schools seemed to be educating the whole child, with a "mind, body, culture" approach. While our experience included visiting a wide range of classrooms, some of which were teacher-centered and some more student-centered, all of the schools had very rich elective and club activities for students to enjoy. Most students stay at school until 7:00 or 8:00 at night, participating in clubs, sports, or studying. At Tokyo Metropolitan Itabashi-Yutoku High School, we were served formal Japanese tea ceremony from by students and a "Master of Tea," who taught us the ritual in partaking. We also observed the calligraphy program, which was absolutely incredible to watch as students created works of art. At Sakuragaoka Junior and High School, we observed a very rigorous soccer club practice and a joyful home economics classroom where students were elated to share their sewing projects. Our visit to Nerima Municipal Nakamura Nishi Elementary was a particularly joyous experience, as students ran out into the hallways to greet us and happily shouted "Hello!" To commemorate the spirit of each visit, I made an iMovie trailer in the van after we left every school. (Since I posting this from the mobile app and can't embed video, check out my YouTube Channel.)
One of the teachers from Sakuragaoka graciously allowed me to stay in her home while we were in Tokyo. Her name was Tokoyo and she has been an English teacher for ten years. We exchanged many ideas, because this was her first year being selected as an 1:1 iPad classroom teacher and that is my ed tech wheelhouse! She loved the iMovie trailers and asked me to teach her how to create them - so we did! What a fun, international tech geek moment!
As I sit here writing this blog post, we are on the Shinkansen bullet train, heading to Kyoto for several days, then traveling to Hiroshima. As a side note, my students are following my journey on Instagram, which has been really fun! Connecting with my kids from another continent feels AWESOME.
More to come...
Author: Jessica Pack
A California Teacher of the Year and CUE 2015 Outstanding Teacher, I teach 6th grade ELA, #flipclass SS, Video Production and student leadership (ASB) in Palm Springs Unified School District. I am passionate about digital story-telling, fostering student voices, and providing a collaborative, student-centered 1:1 learning environment.
My iTunes U Courses:
I've piloted 1:1 Macbooks, and 2:1 iPads programs. I've supplemented the later with student-centered BYOD focusing on iOS devices.