Distractions or Enhancements? The Interactive Question

What is a book? The concept of “book” is changing so fast, it’s hard to keep up with it all. There are so many options available now when designing a book, that it is almost mind-boggling. I would even go so far as to say that the options may begin to distract one from the original purpose in creating a book. This is a problem for the author as well as for the reader.

guardian.co.uk Photograph from Rex Features

An article published by the UK’s “Guardian” suggests that interactive digital books tend to distract children from the content and storyline of the book and make it harder for them to remember crucial details from the story. The headline of the article declares: “Enhanced eBooks Are Bad for Children.” The article then goes on to detail the results of a study done in the USA where parents, with their children, read a story together. Half of the group settled in with a print book and the other half with an interactive digital version of the story. The print book kids could recall more details and discuss the story much more readily than the digital book kids. The researchers concluded that while “print books were more advantageous for literacy building co-reading”, ebooks, and particularly enhanced ebooks, were better “for engaging children and prompting physical interaction”.

So an author has to consider the goal of any particular book before beginning to design it. Is the book created to promote physical interaction and initial interest or is it created to build literacy and present an engaging story? This is what I have been asking myself as I consider the digital options of my first illustrated children’s book. I began the project with an illustration that simply begged for a story. It was chosen as a “Deviation of the Day” and was simply titled…


When I first saw the illustration on the Deviant Art website, the picture was so compelling that the story began to write itself in my head. And then it wouldn’t let me sleep until I had written it down.

So when designing the book, I knew that the detailed illustrations were a key factor of this story and they would be displayed beautifully on a retina-display iPad where the viewer could zoom in on the picture to see all of the creative, little details which the artist has tucked into every page. For example, there is a dragon hidden on almost every page of the book if you take the time to look carefully. And there are critters hiding in trees, in the grass and in wee hidey-holes, just waiting to be discovered. Because this particular artist, Therese Larsson, is very skilled at portraying light in her digital art, the back-lit iPad is an ideal platform for showing it off.

The story should always be the reason for a storybook. You write a book to tell a compelling story. Too many digital books that I have seen lately, seem to have been produced to distract a child or to provide a platform for playing games; they often lack an original story. So when thinking about how to design my digital book, I decided that I did not want to include animation or distracting games. I wanted to add things that would enhance the story. The read-aloud function will be included as the story uses a higher level vocabulary than is customary for a picture book. Some words may present an pronunciation challenge for younger readers and the read-aloud function can help with this. I certainly did not want to “dumb down” the text, especially not after the discussion I had with the 5th grade students at my international school when they realized that many modern authors are doing just that as they attempt to make their books more consumable to young readers who may not want a challenge. (The 5th graders were offended and went and checked out challenging books just to spite those authors.)

“Wily” and “plundering” may not be commonly used words, but they are delicious and poetic and deserve some airing out, and so they are staying in the book. But it does help to have a function that will read the words out loud so that “wily” does not become “willy,” (heaven forbid). I work with many students who are struggling to learn English as a second or even third language, and they are helped out a lot by being able to check out from our school library audio books and books with read-aloud CDs included in the back cover. Some of our EAL students check out the audio version of a novel when they check out the print novel so that they can hear the native pronunciation of the words while they are reading the text. I see read-aloud digital books as being very useful in the international school context where students may not have native language speakers at home.

In deciding what digital enhancements to include or not include in a book, the author has to think carefully about the purpose of the book. Will the book’s purpose be amplified or diluted by the choice of digital enhancements. This type of consideration applies to using technology in the classroom as well. A tool should help achieve one’s goal instead of becoming a distraction unto itself…. (one reason why I just cannot appreciate the design of certain pencils).




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.

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; http://www.flipsnack.com/
  3. iBooks; http://www.apple.com/ca/apps/ibooks/?cid=jm
  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….

Storyteller Scrutiny or Self-Evaluation

Last week, with the storytime link in place on the school library site (http://tinyurl.com/4x74fyx) the 5th grade students at my school were able to watch themselves tell their collaborative folktale with their partners.

For some, it was their first time to really scrutinize their oral presentation style. They were given a task to perform while watching; to write down one positive thing and several areas where they could improve in their storytelling techniques. Some had trouble finding a positive. “Did you look at the audience? Did you speak up clearly? Did you know your story well? Did you and your partner collaborate well during the telling of the story?” I asked as I circulated among them. Finally, most found at least one positive. And all of them had a list of suggestions of ways they could improve. “Don’t play with your clothes. Too many, ‘ums’ and hesitations. Don’t look at your partner. Speak up. Add some expression. Don’t look so bored.” I didn’t have to tell them anything. They told themselves. A video was worth a thousand words.

Now for the second phase…. the students will have the chance to remake their folktale as an iMovie, adding all of the expression and movement that they may have missed at the first go. There are a lot of steps to this one. They already know their stories and most have learned to collaborate very well with a partner that they probably would not have chosen for themselves (all boy-girl assigned partners, poor kids), and they know how to improve. Now they just have to:

1. Learn how to use a video camera. (We have several new Kodak PlayTouch cameras; http://tinyurl.com/3amsvlj)

2. Make a storyboard of their folktale. (Jason Ohler has templates and instructions on his site: http://tinyurl.com/24tjrv2)

3. Shoot the folktale footage with the focus remaining on the student storytellers.

4. Download the footage and begin to work on the final product in iMovie. (Apple’s tutorials are helpful: http://www.apple.com/findouthow/movies/)

5. Post new and improved folktales alongside the original ones on the library “Storytime” website.

Of course, first, I might have to learn to use iMovie. My students will probably end up teaching me. I look forward to the process.