The World Wide Wakayama Chronicles; Part II; Days Seven through Eleven

12-18-13; Wednesday

4:00 am, the alarm rings. We leap from bed to shower to taxi to train to another train to monorail to plane. We land at Shirahama Airport at 8:55 am and then pile into the vans again. It is raining and will rain all day, so that means we have a free day.


We drive to a large indoor market that sells fresh ocean produce of every shape and size. At the entrance sits an enormous panda stuffed animal. Panda related products are everywhere. As one souvenir T-shirt declares, “Shirahama is infested with pandas!” I haven’t seen any actual pandas yet but I have seen a true infestation of panda cookies, cakes, toys, key chains, dusters, hats, blankets and giant pillows.


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While the photo crew settles into a booth at Toretore Ichiba ( to chat and smoke, I run around the market using my new Nikon D3200, (my first real camera ever!) to practice by photography skills by taking photos of fish: dried fish, pickled fish, fresh fish, pressed fish and even stretched fish. There are large tanks of swimming fish, tubs of squishy sea cucumbers and pools of lobsters and clams piled up on top of each other.

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When the sushi bar at one end of the market opens, we all put in our orders and tuck into our tucker. The salmon and salmon egg donburi are very fresh and absolutely delicious! We have to wait for an hour after our meal for our hotel rooms to become available so I write and Elsa plays a video game called, “Papers Please,” and pretends that she is an immigration official trying to support a revolution while staying alive.



“Hotel Seamore” is our destination and it is indeed perched on the shore of the sea. The hotel is a bit old, but our corner room is spacious and lovely with an amazing view of the ocean from the large plate glass windows that wrap around the room. Room 615 is set up like a suite with a separate genkan and hallway leading to the bath, toilet and main room.


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The beds are very comfortable and I crawl under the covers to sleep away most of the day as I have come down with a sore throat that drops my voice an octave or two. My daughter says that I now sound like a heavy smoker. ( Land of Counterpane )


The project writer who came up with the creative text on the JR posters is pictured above!


Translation: “More than walking, it was like being led by God.”


I wake up in time to join the crew at a yaki-niku restaurant where we grill tender slices of beef and vegetables over the fire in the middle of the table. We eat our fill and then head back to the hotel to catch up on email using the free Wi-Fi in the lobby.

Finally, we head downstairs to enjoy the wonderful hotel onsen. The outdoor tubs are especially lovely and we prop our elbows on the fresh smooth cedar and listen to the waves splashing on the rocks directly below.




Down below on the shore, you can see the ancient rotenburo where the photos for the JR ad were taken.


Tomorrow, we are off to “Kushi-Moto;” perhaps we will see the source of the dango on a stick!

12-19-13; Thursday

Makeup and hair call is not so early; Elsa goes first to get her hair trimmed. After our usual stop at the conbini for breakfast we have a long drive along the picturesque Highway 42 that winds along the coast. We stop at Hashikui (Bridge Pillar) near Kushimoto to take photos near the famous pillar rocks that jut up out of the sea; these volcanic batholiths which have emerged as the softer rock all around has been worn away over eons by the action of the waves.

Along the shore, we find some lovely shells and a diminutive black crab speckled with little white spots who scurries across our hands as we admire its perfect little claws.

The tide is coming in as we walk back and forth during the photo shoot. My shabby boots somehow hold together and my feet stay dry, while a wave sneaks into Elsa’s boots and soaks her socks. The play of wave against rock is spectacular and we try to capture the effect with the new camera.

We have some time to shop for snacks and after finding some delicious dango or pounded riceballs on a stick, we wonder if Kushimoto might be the true source of the dango on a stick. (“Kushi” means stick and “moto” means source. Puns are fun and annoying in Japanese too.) Back into the vans as we climb and we drive back towards the hotel where we hope to shoot photos at the hot spring by the ocean… but it is starting to rain. We may have to delay the rotenburo (outdoor hot spring) shoot until tomorrow. Nope… looks like we’re going in. We are kindly given skin-colored shorts and body socks so even though in the pictures, we will look like naked bathers, we are actually well-covered. Very polite of them, but it does feel strange to be soaking in a rotenburo with clinging wet clothing.

Sakino-Yu Hot Springs is an ancient pool carved out of the solid rock by the waves. As you step into the pool, you notice cool spots but the water is comfortably warm. If you are brave enough, you could crawl out over the low rocks at the end of the bath and plop directly into the chilly waves. We did not try this. A chill rain is falling so after exiting the water, we quickly wrap ourselves in towels, yukata and coats. We hurry back up the hill to Hotel Seamore and ease into the hot baths there. The steam room helps my throat feel better. At 4:53 pm, we are back in our room watching as the sun drops below the horizon glowing cherry red. Wow.

12-20-13; Friday

A sore throat kept me up until about 1:00 am, but I finally got some sleep with hot packs wrapped around my neck and a wet face mask across my nose and mouth. We have to be down at the front desk by 7:30 am, so we hurry to pack and meet the crew in time. I dash down to the outdoor cedar tubs to take photos before we leave and then we are off to “Adventure Land” to see the pandas. 

When we arrive, it is quite chilly and we wait for the pandas to be released into the outdoor pen for their morning bamboo breakfast. We stop to admire and coo over a beautiful female panda who is enjoying a morning stretch at the indoor viewing pen. She is so perfectly adorable that she hardly seems real.

Back out into the cold we go to set up for the panda shots. The two older male pandas are released into the outdoor enclosure and they happily begin to munch the pile of fresh bamboo that has been left for them. I am amazed at how they can nonchalantly chomp through tough stalks of bamboo. They strike an artistic pose, sitting on their wide, carpet-like tails as they chew their bamboo stalks looking for all the world like two furry tuxedo-clad flautists playing a duet.

Towards the end of the photo session, the weather continues to confound us by dropping light sheets of hail which shows up bright and white against the black, dense panda fur. We pack up and make our exit as the skies clear and the crowds begin to pour into the park.

On our way to the next shooting location, we stop for a hot lunch of delicious ramen and while we are eating, it begins to snow. The weather continues its strange pattern as we drive and the snow begins to accumulate on the trees alongside the road. The photos that we are taking today are supposed to be set in October, so our clothing reflects much warmer weather than we are actually experiencing here in the middle of December. I wear three kairo (chemical warming) patches on my back in order to stay warm during the photo sessions as we try to pretend that the weather is warm.

Next on the schedule is Kawayu Onsen, a very hot rotenburo situated in the middle of a river. While we wait for the “extras” to arrive, we sip hot tea in the lovely “Pension Ashitanomori” that looks as though it has been transplanted from Switzerland with its begonia-bedecked balconies.

As soon as the cast is assembled, we trot across the street and get into position for the next scene. The “extras” assemble in the hot water in varying states of attire, from single towel to yukata wrap and proceed to thoroughly enjoy themselves as they cluster towards the warmest part of the rotenburo near a cleft in the rock at the side of the river.

Elsa and I peel mikan while we dip our feet in the hot water. It does seem a bit strange to us that we are barely in the water while the rest of the hot spring visitors are almost fully immersed. The mikan are quickly snatched away for different shots and we never do get to eat them. As soon as we finish the photo shoot and pack away the gear, as if on cue, the sun comes out. We assemble in the quaint pension and sip hot tea and sample cakes while we enjoy the sun streaming in through the windows. I learn that this section of Japan is call the Kii Hantou which roughly translates as “That Historical Account Peninsula,” which is a name that certainly does not do justice to this beautiful area.

Tonight we are back in the hotel “Shingu Ui” ( (where we stayed in October) and it is within a short drive of Koyamasan. The rooms are clean and comfortable and, as always, it feels luxurious for me to be sleeping in a bed instead of on a tatami mat floor at home. The cold wind whistles outside as I burrow under a soft down comforter. The rest of the crew have gone out to eat at ”ポポット” (23-0417) which is a small  and homey restaurant that serves lovely little pizzas and wonderfully tender beef. I am content to stay put in my cozy bed and get over my sore throat.

12-21-13; Saturday

Saturday begins with a 6:30 hair and makeup call. It has been snowing outside in the early morning, but now the weather clears. A strong wind blows all the clouds away and we have the sunniest day so far. And because of the strong wind, my hair is sticky and hard with hair gel to keep it in place for the photos. Elsa and I get to the lobby early this time, only to scurry back to our rooms to finish packing when we suddenly learn that we are not staying in this same hotel another night.

Our first stop in Hayatama Taisha which is a famous shrine on top of a steep hill. The stone steps leading up are steep but the route up is not very long. We soon reach the top and enjoy the view looking out over the city of Shingu to the ocean beyond. The brightly painted shrine is perched on the tippy-top of the hill next to an impressively large round boulder. The rock has been wrapped all the way around with a thick rice straw rope which will be replaced every year in February during the festival of Setsubun.

After the photo shots by this hilltop temple, we trundle back down the hill. I run ahead to get photos of the hard-working crew coming down the steep steps. I still have only learned a small portion of my camera’s capabilities but I am learning as I go.

I am impressed with our van drivers who show great skill, navigating our wide vans through some of the narrowest streets I’ve seen without so much as a scratch. During the evening meals, they never drink alcohol and are very conscious of safety issues. Every morning when we get into the vans, they are spotlessly clean with the seat belts neatly rolled up in place on the seats.

Next, we drive along the Kumanogawa, a beautiful wide river with gravel banks that flows from the slopes of Daifugen-dake to the Pacific Ocean at Shingu. Here is a link showing the location of the river’s source: ( Kumano has the kanji for “bear” in it, so it roughly translates as “Bear River.” The bears are all hiding now, though, perhaps waiting for more fish to return to the river. In places, the river is a brilliant aqua color and in other areas, sediment muddies the river to a light brown. The views along the Kumanogawa are breathtaking with an occasional sheer cliff or waterfall surprising us as we drive along. Route 168 follows the river for much of its route.

After a blustery shoot in a very strong wind along the gravel banks of the Kumagawa, we head back into town along Highway 168 to take pictures at Hongu Taisha, another World Heritage Site in Shingu. This shrine is close to the road with easier access. Here, painted pictures of various animals have been set up in preparation for New Year’s Day. We take photos in a location that does not show the pictures as the shots are supposed to be set in October or November, not the end of December.

Taisha means “main shrine” and indicates that Hongu Taisha is a major Shinto shrine. Here, as in other shrines, paper fortunes are offered for sale. Visitors will often purchase a fortune and then fold the paper lengthwise and tightly tie it to a branch of one of the temple trees. In many of the Taisha there are often bells placed in gateways leading to the temple. A pilgrim will bow respectfully, step up to the bell, give it a shake and then clap twice to get the attention of the shrine god before making a wish.

This shrine uses the sacred three-legged crow motif in various locations. There is a striking example perched on top of the shrine’s mailbox. Here we wait for the sun and set up some shots in front of a couple of giant bells with their thick rice straw bell pulls. The sun breaks through the clouds and we scurry to get the needed photos. The director is pleased with the results and often takes time to show us his work. As we pack up to leave, the crowds arrive. Boxed lunches (obento) are waiting for us and we eat as we begin the two-hour drive to the next location, one more attempt to get some good photos at Hashikui, the rock pillars jutting out of the ocean. 

We wind along the coastal road and on the way we see a shipwrecked tugboat leaning into a pile of sharp rocks. This time, when we reach Hashikui, the tide is low, and we can walk out towards the rocks without getting doused by the waves. The blue sky is spotted with fluffy white clouds providing a perfect backdrop to the dark, looming rocks. Arai-san, the hair stylist, finds a couple of impossibly tiny crabs about the size of ladybugs. Elsa and I walk back and forth as they shoot photos from the edge of the highway above while another crew member holds back a large clump of sea grass to clear the view. And then we are done for the day. Elsa finds some of the best fried potatoes ever and shares them around as we drive back towards Shirahama where we stay at the Hotel Ginsui which means “Silver Waters.” As we drive, the sun sets in a glorious display of back-lit clouds over the ocean. I am desperate to get a photo of the stunning scene, but I have to shoot through the glass of the van window as we cannot stop for photos. The vibration reduction feature on this Nikon camera succeeds in giving me a few usable shots.

Tonight is the last night out together and we are treated to a wonderful meal of sashimi and various seafood at Marucho restaurant in Shirahama, which has private tatami rooms. I am puzzled by a tall machine with a screen perched in the corner until I realize that it is a portable karaoke machines. Thankfully, we don’t make use of it. The front lobby of the restaurant is a little “store” area set up just for children where they can fill a bag with an assortment of treats and prizes. We stop to try on the panda and the squid hats. I mean who could resist a squid hat?

Elsa is not feeling well, so she stays in her hotel room and sleeps. We bring her back some miso and a but of supper, but she just wants to sleep. I hope she feels better in the morning.

12-22-13; Sunday

The day dawns bright and pearly with poofy clouds scudding across the sky; a perfect day for taking more panda pictures. This will be our last photo session. We arrive at Adventure Land well before it opens and the parking attendants with the fuzzy panda hats perched on their head let us in the back gate. We wipe our feet off on the disinfecting pads and enter the park. The cameras are set up and the scene is set but we have to wait for the sun. As soon as the cloud bank moves aside, the door to the panda enclosure opens and the pandas saunter leisurely over to the strategically placed pile of fresh bamboo.

The two male pandas settle down on their comfy carpet-tails and proceed to munch contentedly on bunches of bamboo leaves. They are unbelievably adorable with their thick fur and handsome black ears. It’s hard to believe that such creatures exist, they are so perfect.

The clouds cooperate this time, moving aside to provide light-saturated shots of admiring visitors and blissful pandas. As soon as the cameras are put away, the pandas, as if they know their work here is done, get up and waddle off.

The vans are packed up and we head back to ToreTore Ichiba for a celebratory toast with pink champagne in plastic cups. We assemble in front of the big fishy sign for a few “kinen shashin” or group pictures. Back into the vans and off towards Kyoto we go to catch the Shinkansen back to Tokyo. We should arrive home about 4 or 5 in the evening.

It has been a wonderful paid, paid vacation. Elsa and I are still surprised that we are getting paid to see such a beautiful part of Japan. We kept half-expecting them to just send us home as soon as they realized how little work we were doing. All that was required of us was to get up early, get dressed in borrowed clothing, and then stand around in front of beautiful locations and smile. “How is this work?” we wondered. We appreciated the hard-working crew keeping us around for so long, in any case, and we are heading back to Tokyo with a camera full of photos and a heart full of memories. Domo arigatou gozaimasu!

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. 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).



Honing the History iBook Project

Sigh. Thinking about my final project and wondering how the heck it’s going to get done…

I need to bring myself from a valley of dull dread to pinnacle of sharp enthusiasm. Blogging my thoughts can serve as a whetstone for both attitude and ideas.

Writing a book in six weeks that encompasses the history of books and libraries sounds like an impossible task, right? My final CoETaIL project will be to produce an iBooks Author version of said book and I’d better get cracking or it will never be done in time. Oh, I won’t be doing it by myself. No, that would be inconceivable. How could one person manage such a far-reaching project? I will succeed with the help of a classroom of 4th graders! Ta-da! Isn’t that a brilliant strategy?

No, they have never used iBooks Author before, but that is a skill that, once mastered, will allow them to publish their own stories to the world. Our ES tech support person, Grace Y., will be assisting with this task. (What would I do without amazing Grace?)

We are spreading the monumental task around by assigning one part of the history to one student. Their task is to create one page for our book. To scaffold their task (and to move things along) I will provide lists of books, magazine articles and websites from which they can glean essential information. They will mock up their page in the “Pages” application, remembering to find, insert and attribute appropriate visuals. Because iBooks Author accepts input directly from Pages, this will simplify the construction of the digital book.

Challenges Thus Far:

1.  4th graders only have library time for half an hour per week.

2.  Library time for 4th graders was canceled this week for Pro-D days and is canceled next week because of a field trip.

3.  Some sections of the planned book have few resources in our library.

4.  iBooks Author needs to be installed on the student laptops.

Solutions or Plans:

1.  Add time available to the project by partnering with classroom teacher to incorporate iBook project into classroom writing time.

2. (See #1 solution.) Also use all of the library time to work on iBook and have students check out books during one of their recess times, before or after school.

3.  Allow use of web resources as long as the source is valid.

4.  Done. Our tech guy, Dusty Mack, (yes, he works with our Mac computers which are used so often they never do get dusty) has already installed iBooks Author on the laptops.

More honing to be done, I am sure, but at least I am ready to start.

Student-Created iBook About Books

COETAIL Course 4 Final Project:

After checking with the 3rd grade teacher, I am cleared for revamping the 3rd grade library unit, “The History of Books and Libraries” for the 2012 – 2013 school year. I have designed tech-friendly unit that will create an end product which will be helpful as a teaching resource for not only our own school, but other schools as well.

The unit will incorporate several tools which we have explored in Course 4 of our CoETaIL cohort and will put into practice some of the things which we have learned so far in our pursuit towards a Certificate of Educational Technology and Information Literacy. The end product will be a student-produced iBooks Author textbook that will be offered for free through our website or given away through the iTunes bookstore.

ISTE NETS for Students:

In designing this unit for our 3rd graders, here are the standards that I hope to address:

Creativity and Innovation
 1 Students demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology. Students:
a.apply existing knowledge to generate new ideas, products, or processes.b.create original works as a means of personal or group expression.
Communication and Collaboration
 2 Students use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others. Students:
a.interact, collaborate, and publish with peers, experts, or others employing a variety of digital environments and media.b.communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences using a variety of media and formats.


contribute to project teams to produce original works or solve problems.

Research and Information Fluency
3 Students apply digital tools to gather, evaluate, and use information. Students:
a.plan strategies to guide inquiry.b.locate, organize, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and ethically use information from a variety of sources and media.


evaluate and select information sources and digital tools based on the appropriateness to specific tasks.


process data and report results.

Digital Citizenship
5 Students understand human, cultural, and societal issues related to technology and practice legal and ethical behavior. Students:
a.advocate and practice safe, legal, and responsible use of information and technology.b.exhibit a positive attitude toward using technology that supports collaboration, learning, and productivity.
Technology Operations and Concepts
6 Students demonstrate a sound understanding of technology concepts, systems, and operations. Students:
a.understand and use technology and use applications effectively and productively.

The unit will begin with the use of the “Flipped Classroom” model…

Flipped Classroom:

Students will work in pairs to study in depth one section of the “History of Books and Libraries” unit. As homework, all students will be required to watch an overview video and will answer questions related to the content while they watch. Students will be able to replay the video or pause it long enough to record their answers. This will be especially helpful to the ELL students who sometimes have trouble understanding all of the content the first time through.

Possible Videos:

As I looked for resources before teaching the books unit this year, I found that there really wasn’t a lot out there geared to the elementary age level. What I really needed was an interactive textbook that a 3rd grade student could understand. The resource did not yet exist, so it would have to be created. The need for resources is part of the impetus behind this project.

 Technology Integration:

As technology should be integrated when and where it is most applicable and relevant, creating a digital book about the evolution of books themselves seems an appropriate application. The iBooks Author tool is designed to be easy to use and intuitive. In researching this option, I have experimented with creating some books of my own, but I was very impressed by one example of a student-produced book on the flora and fauna of Florida that I recently came across. I downloaded the book and will use it with my class to show what can be done with this book-authoring tool. Creatures, Plants and More! by Andrea Santilli and her 7th grade students is available for free download at the iTunes store. Their project was recently highlighted in an article for MacLife.

As you can see, this is a chance for reaching the Transformation level of the SAMR model as the task of creating an eBook allows the students to do something previously inconceivable.

I can’t wait to see what the students create and hear about all that they learn through the process of creation.

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.

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.




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.








A Look at Linking or Hypercard Revisited


Inanimate Alice represents a paradigm shift in how we approach reading and writing instruction,” states an article posted on the National Writing Project website. I’m reading this piece that reviews and promotes a book it touts as “the leading example of this transmedia phenomenon is the born-digital story.” Really? Haven’t they ever heard of hypercard? Wow; maybe I’m just too old to be reading this article. Twenty-some years ago, I remember purchasing and playing with quite a few interactive stories with my three-year old son. He loved them. He could make different things happen in the stories by clicking on various choices. There were several options on many of the pages and the story had a variety of endings.

The stories used a very neat piece of software called “Hypercard” which was pretty simple but worked quickly and worked well. Amanda’s Stories was one of the early examples. The stories were simple, creative and interactive. Manhole was a more sophisticated later example. The brothers who designed Manhole went on to create Myst, a virtual, explorable world with countless adventure permutations. These are just a few early examples of transmedia storytelling which invite (and actually require) reader participation. Hypercard was simple enough for my four year old computer-loving son to make an interactive story of his own with some help from techie-hubby.

Here is one area where computers are encouraging more brain activity instead of passive consumption. This is encouraging. In the school library where I work, many students come after school to use the computers to access games. They tend to gravitate towards the less mentally-demanding games that involve shooting some sort of missile, balls or birds or what-have-you, at a moving target. Although I have explained to them again and again that the only games they are allowed to play in the library are educational ones, they still try to justify their choice by explaining that they have to aim correctly to shoot the object. “And is your brain working hard? Are you having to think to figure things out and solve problems?” I ask. “Not really,” they usually admit, and then they find a more challenging game that involves logic or physics puzzles like Civiballs, or teaches typing skills like Super Hyper Spider Typer, or encourages them to practice math problems like IXL Math.

I have started to set up links that they can easily access through the CAJ library site that takes them directly to games which exercise their brains. The typing links are up, but I have more to do in this area. It would be fun to set up some interactive computer stories accessible through the library website as well. In the past, students have requested “Choose Your Own Adventure” type stories, but we only have a few of these in the library. In paper form, they are a bit cumbersome and awkward to read, but the digital platform is perfect for this sort of thing. I expect to see more of these books with embedded, applicable links becoming available in the future, and would hope that many new offerings would become available that challenge readers to exercise many different skills and areas of learning: physics, biology, math, literature, history, etc. In order to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion, for example, the reader would have to solve problems or figure out the optimal storyline choice. Interactive stories and texts that exercise the brain and teach curriculum would be a welcome addition to our school library and textbook resources.


Here are a few resources that I was guided to after posting this article … (thank you Lorraine Hopping Eagan) :

Interactive MathStory-Game:

Blog about Transmedia:

Robot Heart Stories project:

Laura Fleming’s Blog: