Category Archives: Reading Responses

Transmedia Storytelling in History

Transmedia storytelling makes the audience piece together a narrative spread across many mediums. Image: some rights reserved by INTVGene.
The first I heard of transmedia storytelling – using diverse media including TV, Web, games, and print – to tell a story was The Matrix. The creators started off with a movie, but also released animated short films, a comic, and video games. Each of these contained unique clues and backstory to the Matrix universe, so to get the whole story you needed to process several mediums and use several skills (for example, to read the comic or beat the video game).

The discipline of history and social studies emphasizes using a variety of sources to get students to understand a theme. Transmedia storytelling is a perfect match for this. From a teacher’s perspective, we might use the textbook as our text resources, add video interviews or newspapers as primary sources, and use photographs of artifacts or paintings as visual resources. For example, a unit on World War II examining the causes, processes and effects of war might include:

  • newspaper editorials from British newspapers (causes and processes)
  • Roosevelt’s Declaration of War speech (available on YouTube) (causes)
  • playing a level from a World War II video game, like Call of Duty (processes)
  • radio broadcasts from the end of the war (effects)
  • images from The Atlantic’s World War II archive (effects)

Or, you could have students organize a transmedia campaign about a specific event. For example, my students just studied the French Revolution. I could have had them tell the story of the French revolution by:

  • Finding paintings of pre-revolutionary life to illustrated the causes of the revolution
  • Mashing up documentaries from Youtube and popular movies to tell the story of one stage, such as the terror.
  • Finding primary sources to talk about the ideas of the revolution – the writing of Enligtenment philosophes, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, etc.
  • Creating a comic book to tell the story of another stage
  • Telling the story of yet another stage from the perspective of the participants, but through a series of Twitter posts

Come to think of it, maybe this is something I should consider for History Circles 2.0!

Transmedia Storytelling and the Multi-Dimensional Brand
Transmedia Storytelling 101

Infographics & Gapminder

It’s easy to speak of success in broad strokes: “America has a strong economy,” “America is powerful.” But how can we define success more clearly? This is an essential question of my World History courses, and to help students both define success and visualize what that looks like over time I use at the beginning of the year to introduce the question to them. Gapminder takes statistical data from the past 200 years and charts it two-dimensionally. It follows visual hierarchy rules by distinguishing countries by size and color, and can animate its charts to show how statistics change over time. Here’s a great demo:

In this exercise, students analyze visual sources and construct their own definitions about success. First, I demonstrate how to use the Gapminder website, then give students a worksheet so they can engage in independent but guided investigation. Once students have had a chance to look at various indicators, I ask them to define success – do we want a country with high literacy rates? Long life expectancy? A high GDP per capita, or a high overall GDP? A low corruption index? This is where having an IWB works well – students can pull up Gapminder at the front of the room and single out countries for the class to illustrate their point.

Here’s another example of an infographic useful in studies of modern American immigration:

Reason magazine

I’d give students the profiles of four or five people, and ask them to calculate based on the infographic how long it would take them to become American citizens. Then, I’d ask them to reflect on whether they think American immigration policy is effective, and what they would change, if anything.

Digital Historytelling

Some rights reserved by evalottchen

History is, of course, the story of human civilization. The core skill of explaining change over time – which brings in elements of context, causality, and chronology, whether you’re in AP World, DP History, or regular ole history – requires that you paint a story in broad strokes. The problem that I run into is that we cover so much history in a short time that we can rarely stop and smell the flowers. There are so many powerful stories in history that we don’t need to learn in order to understand the big picture. Digital storytelling could bring these to students’ attention, increase their engagement while harnessing their creative talent, appealing to their individual learning styles, and developing valuable technology and communication skills (The Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling).


Topic Selection

How would this work? First would be the selection of compelling stories that fit with the content. I’d leave it to the teacher to provide a short menu to the students, with a short (140 character?) teaser for each. For example:

  • Emperor Romanos IV’s crushing defeat at Manzikert
  • Genghis Khan’s terrifying response to the insults of the Khwarizmid empire
  • Emperor Constantine’s stunning revelation at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge
  • The Fall of Constantinople
  • The Storming of the Bastille
Collaboration and Sharing

Students could work alone or in pairs (our readings emphasize how digital storytelling can be a very personal affair) to create a digital story about their chosen event, and then present it to the class. We could take this a step further and have students post their projects online, then have other students give feedback and reactions. At my school we use Moodle for our courseware, so I would have students upload their videos to Youtube, embed them in a Moodle forum thread, and have the feedback be given in replies inside that thread. The advantage over using Youtube’s comments is that only registered students in the course would be able to give feedback, and students wouldn’t have to sign up for a Gmail/Youtube account to give feedback.


One approach to assessing this would be to use a rubric based on the Seven Elements of Storytelling. UH gives an even more complex rubric. Seven dimensions seems unnecessarily complex: good for planning, but poor for assessment purposes. I’d assess on fewer components:

  • Content: the relevance, significance, and accuracy of the information
  • Professionalism: the quality of the editing and presentation
  • Creativity: the appropriateness of the music and visuals

This would be more appropriate for my 9th and 10th grade students, who need instructions and expectations broken down into smaller steps when tackling big projects.

Prezi Zen for Open House Harmony

Some rights reserved by fiddle oak

The only thing I love more than Japanese food and standup comedy is a good presentation, so you can imagine my delight at Course 3’s videos on Presentation Zen and Death by Powerpoint. Actually, I may have just now overstated my preference for the aforementioned foods and performances. Nonetheless, I’ve always been a Harvard Outline Notes kind of guy. They’re neat, sequential, and got me through six years of undergrad and graduate school at Northwestern. As a teacher, I constructed my Powerpoints from Harvard Outline Notes, pasting a few bullets (only two or three, honest!) onto a slide. My only homage to design was a plain black background and single image per slide, both inspired by Steve Jobs’ product announcement Keynotes. Thanks to Matt Helmke and Garr Reynolds, though, I’m now a Powerpoint ex-con – someone no longer dealing death by Powerpoint.

I took several of Reynold’s Presentation Zen principles to make a Prezi for last week’s Open House, in an effort that has set the tone for all of my future lectures and workshops.

  1. Planning unplugged: I work out a lot – powerlifting, swimming, and rowing – and I used that time to organize my thoughts and come up with a layout.
  2. Focusing on relevance: I came up with topics that I felt were important to teachers, like the behaviors and skills that students need to succeed in my class and the specific, everyday indicators that would demonstrate that success.
  3. Sticky ideas: my ideas were very concrete, especially my examples of how we would know that students were being successful in history class.
  4. Noise reduction: I didn’t include number, figures, or specific evidence that parents could find in the syllabus. Instead, I expanded on those cold prescriptions and made a relatable document.
  5. Simplification: I’m a kludgy, inelegant writer, so it’s a minor miracle my ratio of images to text

Take a look at the Prezis – embedded after the break.
Continue reading Prezi Zen for Open House Harmony

The Hook

The Воины Апокалипсиса (Four Horsemen of Apocalypse) by Viktor Vasnetsov (1887)
Here’s a delightful image I use to introduce my lesson on the Black Death and 100 Years’ War in my Ancient World History class. I display it, without explanatory text, at the beginning of the class as a bellwork activity. The students try to guess what the painting depicts and who the figures are. With my predominantly Arab student population, most of them aren’t familiar with the idea of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but the kids display insight and creativity in coming up with responses. Through class discussion, the students are eventually able to identify the spectres of war, death, famine, and plague as issues that medieval Europe faced.

This is just one example of how my bellwork activities hook kids and introduce my lessons. Using an image or video is oftentimes more useful than a text: reading a text takes longer and appeals to a narrower segment. The barriers to entry of visual analysis are much lower, so even lower-level students are engaged. Furthermore, the kids do a surprisingly thorough job of teasing out the details and making inferences, although I sometimes have to guide them.

Some other examples of visuals as a hook for a lesson:

Thich Quang Duc for a lesson on the French Revolution

North Korean army parade for a lesson on Spartan militarism

Think Before You Link

There’s a clip from the Pixar movie “Up” that really describes modern reading habits.

When applied to reading, this clip represents how hard it is for today’s students to get through dense texts, or even light texts, without being diverted. They don’t know how. Perseverance is part of the issue; another is resourcefulness – they won’t spend time thinking about unknown vocabulary in context, they don’t know where to look it up (I tell them it’s okay to use their smartphones, and my permissiveness excites, shocks, and/or stupefies them).

Why is this? According to journalist Nicholas Carr, the problem is the Internet. Continue reading Think Before You Link

It’s because we’re a bunch of degenerates

In sixth grade, I was the victim of bullying. Looking back, I can kind of see why: I was unassuming, not terribly self-aware, I wore chunky black wraparound glasses that reflected my parents’ values of function over form. Not that this excuses the bullying. Thank god, though, that at that time the “internet” was accessed on a 14.4k modem that you used to login to a unix terminal and check email using pine. You couldn’t get into Facebook wars or anything of the sort. The bullying stopped when I came home.

Some rights reserved by Amy Fleming

That’s not the case these days. The Internet and cellphones mean that teenagers are always connected – to their friends, and to their bullies, and we don’t know what to do about it – call parent meetings? File lawsuits? Danah Boyd tells us: “No amount of legislation requiring education is going to do squat until we actually find intervention mechanisms that work.” Ah, intervention. In other words, trying to solve a problem after it happens. But as Boyd herself acknowledges later in her article,

The issues here are systemic. And it’s great that the Internet is forcing us to think about them, but the Internet is not the problem here. It’s just one tool in an ongoing battle for attention, validation, and status. And unless we find effective ways of getting to the root of the problem, the Internet will just continue to be used to reinforce what is pervasive.

“Getting to the root of the problem.” In other words, we should find the cause and prevent the problem before it happens. So how do we do that?

Continue reading It’s because we’re a bunch of degenerates

Copyright, Mashups, Plagiarism, and Information Management

Here’s a perspective on the role of copyright and the new digital skills that we should be teaching to our students:

Memorizing is a necessary skill. Accessing our memory is indeed quicker than accessing the net. Whether that information is accurate is another story. The problem is that in this Information Age too many educators are only teaching and testing memory skills, wallowing in that lower end of Bloom’s. If they’re not teaching students to discover, curate, and manage information, though, they’re missing the realism in GenZ’s future. This is also necessary before they move to the upper end of Bloom’s. Information management is the memory’s next door neighbor.

(Read more at Getting Smart: Generation Z: The Biggest Cheaters Since Homer.)

Renfro goes on to aver that “Teaching about copyright and proper content sharing should be an essential standard. Students should respect the work of others just as they will want to protect their own work that they upload to the net.” This begs Week 3’s assessment question: How do we teach copyright in Asia, in countries where international copyright law is not followed to begin with? What is our obligation as educators?

I think the issue should be separated as Renfro unintentionally does. In other words, we should consider 1) copyright law, and 2) proper content sharing with the understanding that 1) Copyright law should NOT be universally taught, and 2) Proper content sharing SHOULD be a constant, though not necessarily central, part of our curriculums.

Continue reading Copyright, Mashups, Plagiarism, and Information Management

But I’m Not Even That Interesting…

Privacy is perhaps THE hot-button issue of today’s online world. The spectrum of opinions spreads as wide as the ocean, from conspiracy-minded militants against any sort of sharing to the hard-core data liberationists such as Mark Zuckerberg who believe that all your information should be public by default. I myself have become more secretive over the years, even though I might advocate for an actively managed digital footprint.So what is all the hoopla over privacy?

The issue, I think, is NOT that the online medium itself demands a new mode of privacy or publicity. It is, rather, than society has thus far failed to adequately adapt existing models thereof to said medium.

Continue reading But I’m Not Even That Interesting…

Digital Footprints: Inevitable but Manageable

I suppose things were more anonymous when I was in high school. Then again, gaining global notoriety was harder. After all, if I wanted to send a naked photo of myself to someone, I’d have to actually go to a photo shop and have one developed from 35mm film. THAT would be embarassing. If I wanted to chat with strangers, I’d have to, well, actually go out to a public place and start talking to a stranger – FACE TO FACE – and I’d be able to see if that person was actually another teenager or a 40-year-old man in a basement. If I wanted to promote myself as an individual – well, that, too was harder. I’d scheme to get myself featured in a yearbook photo shot. (Who remembers the days of poring through the yearbook index to see how many times you were mentioned, and then comparing them to other people?) If I wanted to get a job, I would print up resumes and mail them – using REAL PAPER – to potential employers. But today, we have sexting, chatting, social networking, and personal websites – any number of ways to leave our digital footprint.

Continue reading Digital Footprints: Inevitable but Manageable