Tag Archives: storytelling

“That reminds me of a story…”


Don’t you always perk up when you hear that?

We are storytelling creatures.  Not only do we love telling stories, but we love to hear them too.  When I think of favorite storytelling moments in my life here’s what I remember…

Gary Brusca.  My favorite teacher in college. He was a terrific scientist and a wonderful educator but it was only much later in life that I realized those skills  of his were linked to his storytelling talents.  It was like he couldn’t help himself in lecture, he would fall into stories about the creatures and environments under study.  My notes, like his lectures, were spiced with anecdotes, sketches, and beginning, middle and end markers.

Bathtime. When our two boys were little, they took baths together and evening bath time became the perfect venue for storytelling. I would perch next to them on the closed toilet and launch into the latest exploits of two sisters – Nita and Rita.  Those two girls got into so much trouble – skinned knees, crazy adventures, intense arguments and wild exploits.  Funnily enough, Nita and Rita’s adventures ran on a parallel track to the adventures of the two bath boys. It became this wonderful way to go over their day, put it all in perspective, and tell each other it was alright.  How many nights the bath water grew cold while we sat there together.

Wind in the Willows

Wind in the Willows

Wind in the Willows. My Dad, reading Wind in Willows (by Kenneth Grahame) to me, long before I was probably old enough to really follow the meandering details of life on the river….Ratty, Mr. Toad, and Badger.  I loved them all and would beg him to keep reading.


Filed under Reflections

A Network Effect Case Study: #organellewars

Here’s a really good network effect story for you – out of Brad Graba‘s Illinois high school biology classroom.  Mr. Graba decided to modify an oft-used student project for his unit on the cell.  In the typical “organelle project”, students pick a cell organelle (the nucleus, the mitochondrian, etc) to promote and (working in teams or as individuals) they wage a campaign for their organelle to be elected President.  Their stump speeches contain the rationale for the organelle’s importance to the cell – what their “job” is, what happens to the cell if they are out of action, how they relate to the other organelles, etc. The project culminates in an “election” where the class votes to choose a “President Organelle”.  Teachers typically do this activity in the fall (around election time).

Example Storify from the Organelle Presidential campaign.

Mr. Graba decided to add a social media twist to the project and encouraged his students to use Twitter to get their organelle’s stump speeches out there.  Students signed up for Twitter accounts in the names of their organelles (e.g. MightyMito), with identifying photos (many used iconic micrographs) and started posting their messages.  Students composed some really interesting and funny messages, adding to their posts with images, drawings, and links. Within 12 hours the Twitter stream caught the attention of a couple of cell biology researchers, including Anne Osterrieder, from Oxford Brookes University in the UK.  She blogged about the student project here and suggested that the students use Storify (a site that facilitates storytelling through the curation of social media) to assemble their various tweets, images, and other resources for each organelle. Check out this one on the Revenge of the Nucleus (“May the Nuc be with you, young eukaryote”).

More scientists tuned in, adding to the tweets, giving students suggestions, articles to read, other sources of information, and actually weighed in on the vote.  John Runions (@JohnRunions), aka Dr. Molecule in the weekly BBC Radio show, caught wind of the project and suggested the hashtag #organellewars, to make it easier to find all the posts. The interest of the scientists and the BBC, of course, spurred the students on.  Bam.  Network effect.

What great work.  This teacher did it right.  He picked a meaningful assignment, selected the right tools for the job, made the expectations/goals clear, provided all the necessary scaffolding, and then turned it over to the students so that they were the producers – not passive consumers.  Once they caught fire and started producing good material, others noticed.  The students now have pride of ownership, a sense of what real, working scientists do, a deeper understanding of cell structure/function, and a compelling record of their work – and Mr. Graba has a few new tools in his tool box.



Filed under Teaching with Technology



Humans are storytelling creatures. Whenever someone says, “that reminds me of a story…”  we prick up our ears and settle in to listen. Two recent Scientific American articles, The Secrets of Storytelling and Fiction Hones Social Skills shed new light on the intricacies and importance of storytelling.  The first article, by Jeremy Hsu on the secrets of storytelling, hones in on why our human brains seem to be particularly well wired for both telling and hearing stories.

The impact of storytelling

The second article dispels the myth that avid readers are isolated bookworms, out of touch with their social world.  The article’s author argues that we humans use stories as a kind of social simulation to help better understand ourselves and human character in general. That entering these imagined worlds of fiction help us to develop empathy and rehearse social interactions so that we are better fixed to take on another person’s point of view.  The article’s author cited a 2006 experiment conducted by Raymond Mar (University of Toronto).  Mar and his colleagues assessed the reading habits of 94 adults and tested their sample on emotion perception and social cognition (by asking them to make judgments/decisions on emotional state/interactions through photographs or video clips).  What they found was a positive correlation between reading fiction and the ability to correctly assess emotional states and interpret social cues.  In other words, the more fiction someone read, the stronger their social aptitude. This is an opinion I’ve long-held (perhaps rationalizing my love of fiction) but it was so gratifying to see it described so well, and  backed by scientific evidence, in a peer-reviewed journal.

Like many others, I’ve been transfixed by National Public Radio’s Story Corps project.  Since 2003, the non-profit Story Corps has recorded over 35,000 stories of people’s lives. These digitally recorded oral histories are broadcast weekly on NPR and archived at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress. The heart of the Story Corps project is the interview. Typically, the storyteller is interviewed by a friend or loved one, urged on to recount a story familiar to both of them. In addition to the warm humanity that comes through in these stories, I’m always struck by the interplay between the interviewer and the storyteller – the nature of the questions, the good-natured coaxing, and the way that rapt listening works to loosen the storyteller’s tongue.

So what is it that makes a good story?  Ira Glass, from This American Life (another fabulous storytelling radio show from National Public Radio), in his video series on storytelling, outlines the building blocks of good storytelling. First, he explains, there is the anecdote – a sequence of actions, one thing following another.  The power of the anecdote is so great that, no matter how boring the facts, you still tune in because it is a sequence of events, like breadcrumbs, that you are eager to follow in order to get to the implied and hoped-for destination.  What’s going to happen? He goes on to say that good stories include bait. The bait typically comes in the form of a question that your story is shaped to answer. And then there’s the all-important point of the story – the moment of reflection, the insight, the ah-ha moment that brings your story together and makes it all worthwhile.  Similarly, Brian Sturm, UNC Chapel Hill, explains his view of storytelling, theory and practice in this video. He explains what a story is and how good stories weave together character, plot, and events as a unified whole and why they are so persuasive (he also tells some great stories in the bargain).

In thinking about storytelling, I found this visual resource helpful  – The Periodic Table of Storytelling. It provides a useful organizational framework  (familiar to any graduate of a general chemistry course) through the different tropes, genres and storytelling methods in a handy, navigable chart.

The periodic table of storytelling

“Digital storytelling” has become an educational buzz phrase as educators and administrators attempt to use participatory media tools so that students can tell their stories more effectively to a wider audience.  There are some amazing online resources to help any educator bring digital storytelling methods to their students.  If you haven’t already seen it the Center for Digital Storytelling (based in Berkeley, CA – natch) is an amazing online resource. Penguin books sponsors a wonderful called we tell stories.  Contests abound, like KQED’s Digital Storytelling Initiative. The University of Houston has a wonderful web site designed to support the educational uses of digital storytelling.  The National Storytelling network, a sort of guild for storytellers, has an interesting website chock-full of resources. And there is even an international conference on digital storytelling, slated for March 2012 in Valencia, Spain.  There’s a range of useful storytelling tools available online like VoiceThread, Pixton, Voki, Storify, and Tikatok – to name just a few.  The always amazing Alan Levine (aka CogDog)’s wiki site on “50 Ways to Tell a Story” is a terrific resource where he tells the same story using 50 different online tools so that you can figure out the unique affordances of each one.  With free and easy-to-use storytelling tools and video, we can all be published authors.

Then there is the notion of transmedia storytelling – the fine art of telling a story via a range of media types (print, audio, video, etc).  The idea is to craft your story in such a way so that it has built-in mobility, so that you harness the power of various media to augment, so that you tell parts in one way, embellish other parts in a different way.  Here is a PFSK series on The Future of Transmedia Storytelling that gives food for thought.

A Child's Christmas in Wales

This Christmas, as a family, we gathered together on Christmas Eve, as we do every year, to read aloud to each other Dylan Thomas’s Child’s Christmas in Wales.

“All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.”

As it always does, that story wraps us in the warm glow of Christmas’s remembered bringing the snows, the guttering gas flames, the swelling uncles, and tipsy aunts to life – even though they were written about an age ago, in a place far far away.  Over dinner the next day, I urged my parents to tell stories from their youth to my listening sons. I could feel the story of my mother’s high school Latin teacher and my father’s first job as the operator of copier for architectural plans sinking into the fiber of my two sons’ young souls. Lodging there, expanding their perspective, and adding to the texture of what they will become.


Filed under Reflections, Teaching with Technology

Learning in Action: Planning the Project with Ruth Gleicher

Ruth Gleicher and I are working together to reinvigorate her AP Biology “Dunes” project by turning her students into producers, authors, and film makers.  Ruth’s plan is to assign her class the task of creating a digital story to explain ecological succession, after a field trip to the Indiana Dunes.  Here is a PDF of her original assignment: 0821_001

In this previous post, I’ve explained the challenge before us.  Now, onto my recommendations for Ruth on the digital tools. Here is an email that I sent to Ruth this week:

Hi Ruth,

So, what  we want to do is to reinvigorate the “brochure project” that you used to assign by using new media tools so that your students will be able to create and share digital stories. But, as we discussed, you want to think through the instructional plan before we jump to discussion of tools.

You mentioned that you were interested in formative assessment for your students, so regardless of what method you (or they) choose to create their succession project, I would suggest requiring them to storyboard their story first.  Storyboards are paper plans for the eventual project – a roadmap of the story they plan to tell.  The great thing about storyboards is that it forces the producer (your student) to grapple deeply with the concepts before they get caught up in the fun and zeal of the technology.  They make sure (and you can see) that they understand the biology behind the story and they have a firm grip on their plan, before they invest in the creation.

Here’s a great site that explains what a storyboard is and why it’s important to do. Here’s a site that will send you a free pack of storyboard templates. And here’s a web-based set of printable storyboards.  And here’s another.

The other thing to keep in mind with these participatory media tools is the “participation” part.  By posting their stories online, it’s a tremendous opportunity to share, do peer review, and get others to comment on the students’ work.  That is what you sometimes here referred to as “the network effect”. Get people talking – get them to share, reference each other, build on each other’s stories.  If they feel that they have an audience, that there are other people listening/watching, the quality of the work, the amount of time they invest (and, of course, what they get out of it!), will increase.

So, onto the tools…

Video:  Home-made videos can be very powerful.  And with video cameras being so cheap these days, it’s relatively easy for students to produce their own videos.  You can buy a Flip video camera for ~ $90. Armed with their camera, your students could go out and shoot some footage at the Dunes then, using some simple editing software, create a movie to tell the succession story.

VoiceThread:  This is a free web tool that allows students to create a narrated “slideshow”.  So, it’s their voice, talking through the images (which are jpgs they upload).  In addition to creating a nice, visually-based story, others can go into the created VoiceThread, after its posted, and add their own comments, so that the story continues…

Podcasting:  I’m a big fan of podcasting (reminiscent of radio…). What I like about it is that it’s relatively simple and low tech.  You just use an ipod or any of a number of cheap digital audio recorders. Record an interview with an expert or a student talking through story, timeline, or a series of images.  You can leave it there, with just the recording (up on a web site or on iTunes, for anyone to listen or download), or you can play with the audio recording to enhance it. To do that, you import the podcast into an editing tool (Garageband on the mac, Audacity on the PC) and then add images or video clips to the audio.

Present.me Another free web tool.  With this one you can create fully recorded sessions, with slides (PPTs).  One stop shopping here – you get the video of the presenter, their voice, and the images.

Blogging: Blogs are great tools for reflection and growing community.   You could set up a class blog or individual student blogs. Or you could do a combination of both, where the individual student blogs all roll up (and feed into) a class or “mother blog”. Students write about their experiences, the photos the data – they tell the succession story in installments. The key is to get them to read and comment on each other’s posts. You could also line up some outside content experts (or other teachers, NABT friends) to comment on the students’ posts.  That’ll really fire them up!

Comic Books:  A fun way to tell a story that seems to appeal to kids. There are a number of programs to do this that are very easy to use and allow for a tremendous amount of creativity.  For instance, Comic Life (a Mac program) is one I use frequently. It’s all drag and drop – dead easy – and your output can be jpgs or PDFs, so easy to share what you’ve created. Here’s a web-based comic creation site, Pixton, that I’ve used before with good results.

Issuu: This one allows you to create and publish a “storybook” online.  This would be great for anyone who had in mind creating a digital children’s book, to tell their story. You can upload images, documents, whatever and then build it into a magazine-like narrative.  In the final product, the reader flips the pages online as they work their way through.  Very nice output and its easy to use this one, they could structure it so that their drawing was on the left-facing page and the photo of the same thing was on the right and then explain how the two are related.

Animoto:  allows you to create a sort of “music video”. Photos (that you upload) that dissolve and spin, using special effects, played to music that you choose.  You can insert a sort of narrative into it by adding images with short lines of text.  I’ve seen some really high impactanimotos, like this one on the light reactions.

Include Drawings:  You mentioned that you’d like to their hand-rendered drawings in the final product.  If you have access to a scanner, they could scan them in and include those drawings as jpg.  Easy.  So, basically, with any of these programs, the idea is to make sure that all of their assets are jpgs (whether they are photos or scans) and just upload those into the application of choice.  You can use Skitch (for Mac) or SnagIt (for PC, but that one’s not free) to add illustrations, doodles, and annotations to your uploaded images or screen captures.

Google Maps and Google Earth:  Images and/or footage from these tools could be nicely incorporated into the student projects. Done simply, they could use Google maps or Google Earth images (screen shots, uploaded as jpgs). At a more complex level, they could create a Google Earth movie (a screencast) that zooms in on the dunes location, giving relational information or they could create a kmz file (an overlay) that zooms the viewer from place to place in a predetermined way.  There are a number of tools that allow you to do screen casts of the action on your screen – my favorite is Screencast-o-matic.  And speaking of screencasts, students could use a tool like Eyejot to record a short, talking head video using the web cam on your computer.

What do you think of these?



Filed under Reflections on Teaching, Teaching with Technology

Do it Like a Nabati Poem

There’s a new craze about an old tradition in the United Arab Emirates – Nabati poetry.  This is a very old Arabic form of poetry with roots in ancient Bedouin culture.  A form of oral history, Nabati poems recount battles, rehearse humiliations, pass along advice, describe nature, and recount the details of daily life.  It’s apparently meant to be quite loose, sing-songy, simple, direct and spontaneous.  It’s the poetry of the people, expressing common concerns, and every-man themes.  In order to write a Nabati poem properly, you have to have experienced your subject.  Lived it, breathed it, been stepped on by it.  It’s the very gritty realism of the art form that is its whole point.

Apparently, Sheikh Mohammed, the Vice President of the UAE, is a prolific Nabati poet himself.  He even has a website where he posts his poems (and their English translations).

There’s a television show in Abu Dahbi called Million’s Poet, now in its fourth sesaon, which sounds like the UAE-equivalent of American Idol.  On the show, people recite their own Nabati verse, and the winners (voted on by millions via cell phones) earn big cash prizes.  It’s created quite a buzz. People are talking about it, internet chat rooms are loaded with debates about the poems, and millions of people are participating.  Interestingly, for the first time the winner’s circle of Million’s Poet included a woman this year.  Ayda al Jahani, 39, a mother of six and history teacher from the Saudi city of Medina, came in fourth place.

In this interesting blend of east-meets-west, I am particularly intrigued by the spur behind these Nabati poems – the idea of beautiful and arresting poetry coming out of the details of everyday life.  The notion that you have to experience the subject of your poem in order to write it – that an earthy rendition of the lessons of the past can offer us a clearer understanding of the present.


Filed under Reflections

An Early Christmas Gift – Charles Dickens Online

Charles Dickens

The New York Times and the Morgan Library have just given us all an early Christmas present.  The manuscript of Charles Dickens’ classic holiday ghost story, A Christmas Carol, is securely housed at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City.  After Charles Dickens wrote the book, he bound his manuscript in red morocco as a gift for Thomas Mitton, his solicitor.  The red book passed through several owners before Pierpont Morgan acquired it in the 1890’s, and its been in the Morgan collection ever since.

Scholars are occassionally given access to the manuscript but the visiting public can only view it, once a year, during the Christmas season, under a glass case in the museum.  Museum curators thoughtfully display a different page each year, but, that still just comes down to one page a year – and only if you can get yourself to NYC.

But this year (and here’s the Christmas gift), the Morgan Library allowed the New York Times to photograph and display the entire handwritten manuscript online. From the comfort of your counting house, you can view the entire manuscript. Since Dickens’ penmanship left a bit to be desired, they’ve set it up so that you can toggle between the actual, hand-written manuscript, and a typed version of it. Not only that, you can zoom in, you can use their search tool to find something specific and you can read permalinks, embedded in the online versions that offer interesting asides and observations from Dickens’ scholars.

What a revealing thing it is to see the original manuscript of a classic like this. The first thing that struck me, when I flipped through the online pages, is what a mess it was!  Words scratched out, whole sections deleted, others inserted, ink blots…the messiness certainly supports the story of its creation – that Dickens, apparently, wrote the whole thing in a hurried six weeks, just in time for Christmas of 1843.

A Christmas Carol ManuscriptThere are other intriguing observations that come to light from examining the manuscript.  For instance, on page 48, Dickens changes some wording around the ghost of Christmas Present – he goes from “using his own words against him” to “turning on him for the last time with his own words.”  This change makes it clear that Dickens was setting up a more confrontational scene, making it more obvious that the ghost  has lost his temper. Another example is that the name “Bob Cratchit” doesn’t appear until the middle of the story.  What else can you find in there? And how might you use a resource like this with your students?

My brother-in-law, Todd Heyden, who is a Professor of English, teaching composition and literature at Pace University in NYC, suggested some very insightful teaching ideas around this material.  He explained to me that one of the hardest things to get across to his students is that writing is a recursive process (the old adage “writing is re-writing”) – what better way to prove the point than to show the Dickens “drafts” as an example?  Even Charles Dickens crossed things out, reconsidered, and revised.

He also reminded me that writing is social – it’s collaborative. As he put it, the reality of writing is far from the romatic notion of the artist, toiling away, in an isolated garret.  Although I don’t know who Dickens collaborated with, someone must have given him suggestions that guided his revisions.  Students mistakenly assume that they are on their own when they write.  They don’t always take seriously the idea that they can get help from their teachers, their peers, the writing center and, in the process, obtain a much better result.  As Todd puts it, “when students do take seriously this idea of writing as a collaborative process, good things happen.”

He also reminded me that Dickens’ fame grew as a result of reading his work aloud to audiences.  Telling students about this, suggesting that some of Dickens’ revisions undoubtedly came from his consideration of how his work sounds to a listening audience (maybe have them read some of the story aloud in class ?) will help attune them to this notion.  The best test of a sentence is to read it aloud – how does it sound? Todd regularly structures an in-class activity where he pairs students, asking them to read their papers aloud to eaach other (with the listener making no suggestions).  Just by hearing themselves read their work aloud, he tells me, they are compelled to consider their audience — and to revise.

Here’s another thought – the New York Times started a contest, to go along with the online manuscript, for readers to catch some of the 2000 edits that Dickens made on the manuscript and write in (on the associated blog), with their observations.  Maybe invite your students to participate?

Absolutely enchanting.  Thank you New York Times!

Leave a comment

Filed under Project ideas, Teaching with Technology

To the Moon







Apollo 11 liftoff from launch tower camera




Where were you on July 20, 1969?  I put that question to my friends and family last week and I got a wonderful collection of answers. A common element in all their stories was a small, scratchy (typically borrowed) black & white TV set, with a large group of people, crowded around to watch the flickering images of the first walk on the moon. Breathlessly.

I was 11 years old and a camper in the Feather River Canyon in California, attending a two-week summer camp. Apollo 11 landed at 4:18 pm EDT, so that would have been 1:18, California time, just after lunch.  I remember crowding into a room behind the camp’s dining hall with a hoard of other people, straining to see the small black and white TV screen.  The only broadcast they could receive in that remote location happened to be in Italian (go figure) and so, between the scratchy image and the fact that no one present understood Italian, we had to piece together and narrate what we were seeing.  I can remember the distinct feeling that this was history in the making.  This was something special. And this was something that I would always remember.  

At 10:56 EDT, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, and the world watched.  Buzz Aldrin, emerged soon after. Over 2 ½ hours, the two astronauts collected 47 pounds (!) of lunar surface material and re-entered the lunar module.

We Choose the Moon site

We Choose the Moon site

Just as the folks at the John F. Kennedy library hoped, their re-creation web site, We Choose The Moon, is tuning Americans into their memories of the historic mission. This is a wonderful site, well worth the visit.  It’s a real-time mission reenactment, tracking the actual mission events (with historic images and footage), just as they happened 40 years ago. You can follow newsroom feeds, monitor the flight path, get updates from mission control (via twitter or from the Mission tracker widget on your web page or social media site).  It’s a very good example of the kind of teaching that can be done with new technology.  My only gripe about it is that they missed the opportunity to make it a 2.0 site by failing to invite people to share their memories and embellish the site with their perspective.  Too bad.

Aldrin's boot.

Aldrin's boot.

After you’ve taken a look at that site, take a look at some of the other, amazing online treasures in NASA’s vaults and others – it’s just incredible, what’s available online. NASA has just released newly restored Apollo 11 footage – excerpts really – from the take off, to the landing, and the lift-off back to earth.  You can find it in this New York Times article, along with a hilarious “hoax” video (scroll down to find that one) – and, yes, apparently some people still think that the whole thing was a hoax.  And, in case you wanted to compare, here’s the actual landing footage (pre-restoration).

Here’s a QT movie of the mission, put together by NASA.  And the official NASA site on the history of the mission. NASA has also posted the private taped conversations between Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins, recorded aboard the command module, Columbia, and the lunar module, Eagle, along with an audio database of other recordings.

You can find all kinds of downloadable images, videos and pdfs (from NASA) and here is the Apollo 11 image gallery (some great stuff to be found!).

The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s Apollo 11 site has lots of information on the mission, the crew, the spacecraft, the landing site and some amazing images. 

To get a better sense of the lunar landscape, here’s a QTVR image scape of the moon taken by Apollo 17 and first published on anniversary #35 of Apollo 11.  Use your mouse have a look around and around and around.

Unfortunately, as we learned from NPR this week, NASA isn’t the best steward of history. Check out this 7.16.09 story explaining how the original tapes of the Apollo 11 moonwalk probably destroyed during a period when NASA was re-using old magnetic tapes to reuse them for satellite data.   The newly restored video that I mentioned earlier was actually pieced together from a variety of sources, the best of the various broadcast clips.

Discovery Channel has an impressive archive of videos of the various NASA missions – lots of fun to explore there.  Just for fun, you can pick up a Lunar Module service manual or a space suit replica (for $9,500) on eBay. 



The Apollo 11 mission fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s inspirational goal of reaching the moon by the end of the 1960’s.  But it did so much more for all of us.  It gave us the first images of the Earth, taken from the moon. Images that undeniably changed our perspective on our fragile planet and the need for stewardship. The mission showed us men, closely encased in technology, operating dials, levers and computers to sustain their lives in an inhospitable environment. The mission gave us courage to strive for things that might seem unattainable.  It made us explorers again.

When I asked my good friend, Louise, what she was doing on July 20th, 1969, she described the same scratchy black and white television that everyone else seems to remember and then went on to relate how she walked outside and looked up at the moon, marveling, and feeling a little, well, bereft.  She reminded me of the Shelley poem…

And, like a dying lady lean and pale,

Who totters forth, wrapp’d in a gauzy veil,

Out of her chamber, led by the insane

And feeble wanderings of her fading brain,

The moon arose up in the murky east

A white and shapeless mass.


Art thou pale for weariness

Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,

Wandering companionless

Among the stars that have a different birth,

And ever changing, like a joyless eye

That finds no object worth its constancy?


…And I felt the sway and tug of it, right along with her.

Leave a comment

Filed under web resources