Challenging the Base

“Challenge Based Learningis an engaging multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning that encourages students to leverage the technology they use in their daily lives to solve real-world problems.” This statement begins an outline of outcome-focused learning that Apple is promoting and supporting in an effort to revolutionize the way we do education.

From Orange Co Register

The concept of challenge-based learning really does challenge the basic assumptions of our current educational system. We have an idea of what these kids should know by the time they exit high school and, by-golly, we’re gonna make sure they learn what we think they should know. No wonder they’re not engaged in this process.

I asked my daughter, who is in her first year of high school if she thought that what she was currently studying in school was relevant to her life and future work. “Not really,” she said. “Well then, what would you study if you could choose?” “Art, humanities, social studies, science, math that is actually interesting and applicable.” “So how is that different from what you are doing now?” I asked. She responded, “The math is not applicable; we’re not doing humanities and not a lot of writing in English, just reading; and science class goes too fast and we’ve only done, like, one or two hands-on experiments.” Continue reading

Does a TPACK Lead to a Six-Pack?

Tackling the TPACK framework may, at first glance, seem daunting enough for someone who considers themselves on the stringy-to-wiry end of humanoid body types, but is it truly that daunting? Can struggling with TPACK lead to an impressive six-pack? (And by six-pack, I do mean of the muscular variety, although out of frustration with the TPACK model one might be led to reach for the liquid version.)

TPACK, of course, stands for “Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge,” (which you probably knew anyways, although I didn’t).  I’m not sure what the “A” stands for… I suppose it’s just there because pronouncing “TPCK” without spitting on your neighbor is just too difficult. Explaining TPACK to your neighbor may be even harder than controlling your phlegm, but I will try anyways.

When a teacher is surrounded and immersed in technology, she or he must be very careful to hold on to their best teaching practices while, at the same time, making sure that the content is taught clearly and vividly. The knowledge to do tech, pedagogy and content at the same time, without throwing your back out or spitting on the front row, is TPACK in action. TPACK inaction is when you are surrounded by the technology, but so confused by it all, that you have no drive  whatsoever (hard or soft) and are unable to make use of the wonderful tools being developed to assist and amplify your teaching.

Here’s what I said in official language:

Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPCK)

Technological pedagogical content knowledge refers to the knowledge and understanding of the interplay between CK, PK and TK when using technology for teaching and learning (Schmidt, Thompson, Koehler, Shin, & Mishra, 2009). It includes an understanding of the complexity of relationships between students, teachers, content, practices and technologies (Archambault & Crippen, 2009).

That’s from the wiki that has a “pedia” on the end.

When a teacher has done the tech-integration thing for a while, it becomes a second-nature-teacher-thing; as easy as eyes in the back of your head or recess duty. But when one is first starting out, like many of us, it’s best to start working on your TPACK beginning with the smaller weights… one class blog assignment a week or a class podcast at the end of a full unit of study. Once one skill is under your belt, you can add a few more, slowly working your way up to the multi-media, sound-and-lights extravaganzas to be submitted to the Cannes Film Festival review committee once they have been polished.

Building an impressive TPACK six-pack is just like most other challenges, best tackled one step at a time. But once a teacher has packed on the ability to handle the tech tools competently, then they can begin to try out the really creative approaches to education; ones that use the new technology in a completely new and original way. Jeff Utecht, in his popular “Thinking Stick” blog suggests that truly innovative tech-rich teaching creates new and different learning experiences for the students that would not be possible without the technology. To continue the “six-pack” analogy, only an athlete that has trained hard and developed muscles that can handle difficult challenges can attempt new, extreme sports that no one has attempted before. Only teachers who gain experience by daily using technology and slowly adding to their knowledge base can launch into creative and original uses of technology to teach curriculum in new and challenging ways.

Becoming a Polyglot; Adding Media-Speak and Tech-Speak

I recently went to see Martin Scorsese’s first film created for children called “Hugo,” based on the award-winning book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.”

The movie followed the book’s plot-line fairly closely and was a perfect vehicle for the partially fictional story which centered on one of film’s early pioneers, Georges Méliès. Scorsese claims that he decided to make the film after one of his children complained that they were not allowed to see any of his films, which often carry an “R” rating. When I discovered that Scorsese had started a visual literacy program for middle school students, everything seemed to fit together.

The program was created when Scorsese realized that kids needed to tools to interpret the  visual imagery that they are immersed in every day. “So much of today’s society is done visually, and even subliminally, for young people, that it could be dangerous. One has to know that it is a very, very powerful tool.” The director should know. He was not willing to let his own young children watch his powerful movies; the images and ideas that they presented were not appropriate to their stage of development. The awareness of other images that they were being confronted with on a daily basis, no doubt occurred to him at the same time.

Continue reading

Mono, Bi or Multi-Media

A book can now be two-dimensional (just words on a screen), or three-dimensional (visually and in terms of extended content), or even multi-dimensional (and this is where things get really complicated). Multi-dimensional, multi-media books can have extended story lines in movies, television, graphic novels, interactive multi-player game platforms, toys and merchandizing. And the digital books themselves can be animated or enhanced with sound or video, with a wealth of embedded links to make the story richer and more complex.

Now that I am aware of all that could be done with the construction of original written content, I have to intentionally decide what should be done. In the creation of content and in the teaching of creative content, I need to be intentional with the tools that I select for each intended purpose.

Obviously, in teaching students how to create a digital story of their own, I should choose tools that are simple enough to be grasped quickly so that the actual writing and editing process remains at the forefront. Google Docs seems to lend itself well to this process, allowing the teacher to keep track of the students’ progress and to edit directly. If iPads are available in the classroom, then iBooks Author is another easy and intuitive tool for students to create their own polished-looking books that can be shared with other iPad users.

Here is an example of a story created using iBooks Author and presented in a PDF format for ease of viewing:

Continue reading

The Encyclopedic Impulse

No, it is not the uncontrollable urge to grab an encyclopedia for whatever purpose. It is the desire to dig deeper into content, something that is much easier now with embedded links and the internet at our fingertips. You don’t have to hunt and peck for information. You don’t have to comb through feathery haystacks for the proverbial pin; no chickening out at the prospect of trying to find exactly what you are looking for… your every encyclopedic impulse can now be satisfied. (Yes, I am egging you on.)

The term, “encyclopedic impulse” in Henry Jenkins’ blog post, “Transmedia Storytelling 101” struck me as being very evocative. I can imagine a student reading a text and telescoping individual words and phrases out of that flat page into the three-dimensional world of deeper understanding. This is, after all, what each of us does when we read. We usually have some background knowledge which we apply to help us make sense of what we read. We add bits of personal information which helps to deepen our understanding of the text and connect it to our lives. We collect a few assumptions about parts that we are not sure about and wade through the rest of the reading hoping to solve the mysteries with which the text might be complicating our final understanding of the content.

Now, with digital texts, we can literally embed into the reading a veritable encyclopedia of information: definitions, pertinent links, deeper explanations, pictures, maps, related stories, etc. Whatever we don’t know or fail to understand at first glance, can be dug up to increase our understanding.

This works wonderfully with non-fiction readings. We can indulge our encyclopedic impulses until we are sated with information. But the possibilities of adventure and depth of meaning are also waiting to be plumbed in the world of fiction as well. Students  at our school are beginning to have a renewed interest in “Choose Your Own Adventure” books where, depending upon the choice you make at the end of a section, you are directed to one page or another to continue the adventure, or possibly to meet an early demise. The book is a bit like a precursor to the now-ubiquitous adventure games (like “Adventure Quest“) where one’s avatar roams through a fantasy world on a quest.

How would we apply the modern capacity for creating an encyclopedic story with a web of storyline possibilities or a depth of background information? This type of project seems perfectly suited for collaborative storytelling where a whole class works together to build a rich literary experience.

The 4th graders at our school are beginning a unit on story writing and will produce a digital story with illustrations, using the simple presentation tools embedded in Google Docs. Initially, the student and teacher will be the only collaborators, but once the students master the tools and hone their storytelling skills, there is the possibility of creating a story authored by the whole class since Google Docs works well collaboratively. The story could be tied to a curriculum unit, such as the “Arctic Regions” where each student would be responsible for creating depth and detail for certain animals or environments that enter into the story. Along with the storyline, information, photos, maps and even videos could be worked into the project. It would be interesting to see what a class could produce using this encyclopedic writing type of approach.

Graphic, Novel Information

Our world seems to be bursting at the seams with information. There is too much to take in at once. And even when we do bite off a chunk of information that we think we can handle, the information is often too complicated or convoluted to be digested, let alone masticated in the first place. A well-organized and visually-appealing graphic which presents the pertinent information can make an attractive gourmet meal out of a jumble of ingredients.

Presenting real information and even fictional stories has become increasingly visual. While the comic book market is decreasing (at least in the U.S.) the graphic novel market is exploding. At the same time, consumers of information want to see the data presented in a visually-compelling way.

In Richard Byrne’s blog, “Free Technology for Teachers,” seven tools for constructing data visualizations are detailed. The first tool, Better WorldFlux, with its pre-entered data is an amazing example of how visually-intelligent graphics can quickly elucidate complex sets of data. I went to their site and experimented with the graphics by choosing just a few countries and data parameters. I could immediately see how Japan lagged behind most civilized countries in its inclusion of women in the legislative process and government, and how far ahead Norway was in comparison at the data starting point of 1987. Then, by scrubbing through the years to the most recent data set, I could see how far Japan had caught up in this area, so that it is almost in the average range now, and how Norway has remained in the lead among world countries in this aspect. Here is a snapshot of the percentage of women in parliament with data included showing ratio of girls’ to boys’ education in 1990:

One can see at a glance how far Japan lags behind the world average in this aspect and how progressive Norway is. If we scrub ahead using the year-indicator bar to 2010, we see that Japan has made considerable progress and is approaching the world average, while Norway still has a large proportion of women serving in the government.

For my own purposes, I use Google Web Analytics to keep track of trends in web traffic flowing to my website of free children’s sermon resources at I can compare the amount of web traffic for the current week with the traffic from two years ago, for example. I can see when the peak access times occur, and this can inform me as to when I should be posting the new children’s sermon for the following week.

The challenge for me is to find the correct tool and type of display for the information that one wants to clearly communicate. One of the best examples of visually displayed information that I have seen is the progression of economic and physical health of world countries over the years. While I have only begun to learn to use this tool, some are already masters of visual display. In one of the best demonstrations that I have seen, Hans Rosling shows how the general trend is toward richer and healthier countries worldwide. This is the type of visual information that can transform the world:

The World from 1810 to 2010





Communication Evolution or the Rise of Digital Storytelling

“What we do now with words, we’ll soon do with images,” says Kevin Kelly, (a “Wired” geek), in an ancient article published way back in 2008. And what he describes in his NY Times article, “Becoming Screen Literate,” has already come true. Kevin describes how technology shifts bend the culture and the ways in which we communicate and pass on our essential truths. Storytelling has gone from oral to print to photographic to video in the space of a very short span of our history.

The print advertisement was developed at M&C Saatchi, Melbourne, by creative director Steve Crawford, head of art Murray Bransgrove, art director Rebecca Hannah and copywriter Doogie Chapman, with photographer Christopher Tovo and retoucher Ed Croll.

And while we may consider the modern mash-ups and remixes a completely new type of storytelling medium, it is just another way in which storytelling reworks available material to create old stories in new ways. All art recombines and storytelling is no exception.

Storytelling has always been a visual art. The storyteller relied on her actions and expressions or on his masks and props. Storytelling has used puppets, music and actors since ancient times. Now we have so many visual choices to choose from that the prospect of telling a story can seem overwhelming. The story itself, is the most important component, of course, but now it has become obvious that the supporting visuals of storytelling can make or break the story itself.

Most would agree that “Star Wars” is a compelling story, but the truth is that George Lucas could not “sell” his story concept to any movie studio until he had engaged the services of a technically skilled and inspired artist named Ralph McQuarrie, (who has just recently passed away). Ralph drew some compelling illustrations to accompany George’s movie pitch, creating from his fertile imagination, the imposing menace of Darth Vader and the appealing innocence of C3PO. Accompanied by these compelling images, when Lucas pitched his movie to 20th Century Fox, it was immediately financed.

Teaching our students to visualize stories as they write them and then giving them tools to illustrate their stories in a rich variety of ways will equip them to communicate the story lines that the future longs to hear and, in some cases, needs to hear. Exercises in crafting original stories based on old, traditional themes can be as easy as interpreting a fairytale.

During a weekend workshop, we were challenged to create a lesson plan that resulted in the writing of an original digital story. In just a few hours, our team of three was ready. With the intention of encouraging students to write a modern version of an old fairytale, we hammered out a rubric and produced an example story. One told the story, while another quickly illustrated the action in storyboard squares, while the third wrote the lesson plan out in detail. The result was a book created in iBook Author that can be viewed on an iPad or exported as a PDF viewable on any laptop device. Here is our original fairytale sample:

Gretel and the StringFactory

Original fairytale

Another quick and easy way that students can create and share their stories is through Google Docs. The tools provided allow students to create simple drawings, import photos and artwork and even embed videos to accompany their text. Using Google Docs is also a great way to encourage collaboration between students on a story. Because the teacher can be included as an editor on the document as well, students can get immediate comment and feedback on their stories as they write. Here is an example, unfinished but quickly created for a short workshop on digital books that I offered last Friday during a teacher Pro-D work day at our school. The last few pages were added by various teachers as they experimented with the functions of Google Docs. Take a look at the result:


The PDF version does lack the functionality of the Google Docs version. It does not play the embedded video or show the WordArt “Water” disappearing, etc., it does show a basic sample of what can be produced in a very short time with a minimum of instruction and prep.

We are now ready to set our 4th graders loose to unleash their creativity within the generous and expanding boundaries of a wide range of storytelling tools. It will be exciting to see what they come up with.




A Powerful Point

An image-enhanced presentation can be a great way to grab the attention of your audience, or it can be a great annoyance. Presentational speakers using Keynote or PowerPoint can make a powerful point or they can frustrate their listeners with an onslaught of busy charts and diagrams or worse, slides that merely display the words as the presenter speaks them like a grating digital echo.

There are plenty of great examples of bad presentations and this gives comedians plenty of rich material to draw from. The reactions of the audience in this humorous demonstration gives us an indication that they have all had to suffer through many irksome PowerPoint presentations:

What not to do

Because I am needing to create a presentation on Storytelling next week during an in-house staff professional development day, the content of this week’s readings was especially compelling to me. Storytelling is a big part of my life and my teaching experience. A good story can often teach a lesson better than any well-documented explanation ever could. Students gain their deepest learning through stories and experiences that include a strong emotional connection.

So how do I convey this very important information while including instructions to future storytelling teachers? I could tell them some true stories that have shaped my story-centered philosophy of teaching. I could enhance those stories with visual aids that would make the stories about storytelling even more memorable. I could add music and stage directions. Apart from turning my presentation into a full-blown Broadway musical, I need to focus on how to get my message across with clarity and style. How do I make a powerful point and not merely a run-of-the-mill PowerPoint?

Daniel Pink makes a very good point in his book “A Whole New Mind” when he says that the current era belongs to those who can “think different,” (never mind the ungrammatical nature of that statement… its form also represents a deviation from the norm.) Because anyone can now “look it up,” the business world no longer values a mind that can recall facts and figures instantly. The need now is much greater for a mind that can take all of the available data and come up with a creative solution that has never been tried before.

And once a brilliant idea has been pulled out of the seething swamp of creative musings and has taken on a recognizable shape, how do you share it with the world?  Well, you could use the six fundamental aptitudes proposed by Mr. Pink to give your idea the attention it deserves: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play and Meaning. When all six of these elements are woven into a presentation, you have an idea worth listening to.

For me, the most difficult of these six is the first: Design. I know how to tell a story, but it is difficult for me to lay out a poster, drawing or a blueprint. Learning about some of the basic design basics, such as the “Rule of Three” has helped me, but it is still a struggle. I know what looks good to my eye, but I don’t necessarily know how to build it from scratch.

But I have to try. By next week, I will need to be able to explain the importance and structure of storytelling in a memorable and compelling way. For now, I can begin with templates provided by Keynote, but I hope to be able to go beyond that and use the visual as a launchpad of sorts for a more interactive audience experience so that we can “do” storytelling at the same time as we are learning the basics.

March 1, 2012:

Drum Roll…. Finished the Keynote presentation just in time. I will present a 40 minute workshop tomorrow on Storytelling; Traditional and Digital. I tried to keep the text simple and the images compelling. Of course, it is hard to get the complete content just by looking at the Keynote. It is meant to support what I am saying and showing to my audience. Here is a Quicktime of the Keynote to give you a brief idea of the workshop:

(Click the down arrow to advance to the next slide once the presentation loads.)

Storytelling; Traditional and Digital

The outline of the presentation runs something like this:

  • Oral and Digital Storytelling Workshop at CAJ; Friday, March 2    1:05 – 1:45
  • Storytelling and Education
  1. Why is storytelling crucial to education? Storytelling has been at the heart of education for thousands of years. Never meant to be a dry subject. Rich and memorable experience that weaves stories into all subject areas.
  2. Motivation; lighting the fire of learning desire
  3. “True story”; any time that students heard this phrase, they would truly listen
  4. Deep Learning; stories go deep, stay with us longer
  5.  Story about courage; Story of terrified MS girl with claustrophobia who was determined to enter the dark tunnel and cave at Yosemite.
  6.  Students construct personal meanings w story; engage emotional response for deeper retention and fire up the imagination
  7. Learning on the Highest level; creative construction of content
  8. Opportunities to create stories and projects that stretch the students limits
  • The Storytelling Teacher:   
If you can relate, they can relate; students listen and connect to true stories.
  • Find a story that applies to the concept that you are trying to teach.
    Example; Defining courage; Story of terrified MS girl with claustrophobia who was determined to enter the dark tunnel and cave at Yosemite.
    Model good storytelling techniques:
    a. Diction and volume
    b. Character and emotion
    c. Body language
    d. Visuals or music
The Storytelling Student
:  Synthesize a concept and create a story
  1. Example; students can practice storytelling and then watch and critique their own performance; results in 5th grade posted in link on library site
  2. Students can create original book using one of the tools listed at the end
  • Bloom’s Taxonomy
Presentation Empowerment
Learning how to use the tools effectively
  • Story-making Tools:
  1. Keynote
  2. PDF to FlipSnack;
  3. iBooks;
  4. Google Docs


  1. Keynote; Lady Ramona, Beloved of Beasts (original story formatted for the iPad)
  2. FlipSnack;
  3. Google Docs books




Image Frustration

Girl Reading; 1888; CC Attribution 2.0 Generic

The fifth graders have just begun a “Read-Aloud” unit in the library. They are required to choose a picture book of an appropriate length (around 5 min.) and read it out loud to the rest of the class with correct speed, clarity and expression. They must remember to show the pictures, especially when they are an integral and complimentary part of the story. It would be nice to remind the students visually of the reading requirements, so I set about looking for a Creative Commons image that would underline the importance of an excellent read-aloud.

I pictured a Keynote presentation where the proper and improper portrayals of read-alouds and public speaking would be visually illustrated, but I was stymied by the lack of free-use photos on the internet. I used various methods of searching, but finding good photos of bored kids or storytelling scenarios was frustrating. Even when I searched within the parameters of Creative Commons, the usable photos were always labeled, “All Rights Reserved.”

So I had to change my approach. I would get the students to create the images themselves and they would be responsible for producing a short video demonstration or a instructional poster for the library.

The rubric grades students on reading speed, clarity, expression and visibilty (which applies to the showing of pictures in a book.) The students could stage photos or videos to illustrate each and add their own graphics and lettering to further elucidate the point.

As they create this instructional material, the content will be further embedded in their minds to help them do better in the final evaluation. Creatively teaching a concept or skill is, after all, the deepest and most effective way to truly learn something.

I will post images and short clips to demonstrate the students’ progress as they complete the steps of the project. Stay tuned….

Eye-Brain Coordination

Reading articles on the web can be very stressful. Pop-up ads, blinking advertisements, related and unrelated articles, sidebar widgets all vie for the coveted focus of my eye and brain. Although I make a conscious effort to ignore the extraneous rubble, I find myself pulling at the corner of the screen to make the viewing area smaller and hopefully block out the circus performing around the periphery. The “Reader” function on a Mac sometimes works, allowing you to just see the article, but not always. I find that getting information off of the internet is an exercise in eye and brain control as I try to force my eyes to stay on the topic. Here is an example:

Article Distractions – Cellular

In the article “Lazy Eyes” by Michael Agger, even as I read about how one should make online information easier for the reader to consume by presenting information in bulleted lists and small blocks of text, smack dab in the middle of his article is a distracting ad wanting me to click on it. Can you stick to the article content below? See how it spills outside the neat little reading rectangle… that’s even more distracting.

And surrounding this article are oodles of other distractions. It’s no wonder that online reading is “25% slower than reading on paper.” Our eyes are constantly dragged away from the text.

I can see what Michael Agger means by “Moby Dick” being a modern spa. Pure print on white paper. No extraneous distractions. Just give me a book and leave me in peace, and don’t you ever interrupt me while I’m reading a book, as Julian Smith so deftly admonishes his distractors.

From my own eye-tracking experiments, I have found that my eyes do go first to the main title but then, if there is an image or a moving gif on the page, that is the next stop for my attention. If those images have nothing to do with the information that I am seeking, then I am distracted by a feeling of annoyance that my time has been wasted and I attempt to find a way to eliminate the distraction so that I can get back on track.

I understand that advertisers and designers of commercial websites are very intentional in how they create these distractions, hoping that it will eventually end in us being distracted out of our money. If they know what our habits are, then we should know what their habits are and we should be teaching our students to be savvy internet viewers. More than that, our students should be savvy creators of content.

I think that George Lucas got it right when he said that students need to learn how to tell a story. They must acquire visual literacy. (Life on the Screen; Visual Literacy in Education) They can look up any kind of information that they want, but they now need to know how to interpret it and use it in a way that advances civilization and knowledge. “The human race survives on its educational system,” says Lucas. “The society that has a great educational system becomes the prominent society because that’s the way the human race survives.” Evolve and adapt or perish.

One of the greatest skills that we can teach our students, along with visual literacy, is the ability to quickly learn new ways of interacting with technology and making use of the new applications and ways of communicating that are continually evolving.

I recently rented “PressPausePlay” and watched this documentary which explores the democratization of content creation as anyone can now create and publish. The question is raised, “Does this water down and drown true talent or does the cream rise to the top?” One message that consistently comes through is that artists are constantly being presented with new technologies and ways to communicate, and the ones that learn quickly and play with those technologies are the ones who produce relevant, cutting edge creative content.

In order to survive and thrive in the modern world, our students need to learn how to creatively adapt and use technologies for their own purposes. While their eyes may be drawn to the flashiest new uses of digital tech, their brains must always be creating new and useful applications for these technologies.