19th February
written by Tom Banaszewski
Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

29th January
written by admin

I think what makes electronic games so appealing to kids (and some adults) is the simple, yet engaging, act of being allowed to make choices. In techno-speak, this is what’s referred to as a sense of agency. Good games have it. This is also what makes the Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) story, now enjoying a recent return to the spot-light thanks to the iPad, still a favorite among kids today and the adults who remember them from thirty years ago.

The basic idea hasn’t changed. You, as the reader, are the main character in the story and make choices that steer the story along a particular path. If your choice leads you to a dead end, you start over and play the story again. I really enjoyed these stories as a teenager and wondered how my current middle school students would respond to them. Could reading and creating their own CYOA stories help them learn that many effective stories jump right to the action and develop tension in a story quickly? After just one project, I don’t have the hard data to answer that question yet, but it was clear the students had a lot of fun “playing” each others’ stories.

Each student in our school has a MacBook, which provides them with two very easy tools for creating their own CYOA story. Keynote and iWeb both allow you to easily link slides or web pages to create the hyper-linked story. Students worked with both of these programs earlier in the school year to publish a website about their family heritage. A small amount of class time was needed to review how to link slides in Keynote and how to link blank pages in iWeb. Students were able to publish their iWeb CYOA stories to our school server.

Student Produced CYOA Stories Created Using iWeb

Before opening Keynote or iWeb, students developed their story using their mind-mapping tool of choice (Inspiration 8.0) while others used the good old fashioned index cards to chart the choices they would provide to the reader. We read/played the CYOA story I created as a sample, along with a few stories in print and online, to get a feel for how much to write for each choice. This part of the project probably needed more direct teaching. Too many students wrote only a sentence or two for each story choice, which resulted in stories that felt more like Mad Libs.

We had been reading The Giver by Lois Lowry, a story about a community that has removed choice among other things. Students were encouraged to create CYOA stories using the characters and plot from the Newbery Award winning novel, writing an alternate storyline that gave the characters unique choices. This might have worked better if the students had more prior experience with creating CYOA stories. Instead, many stories featured attacks by bears, eating dead birds and other unrealistic story choices. We’ll see how the second round of stories turns out when I allow them to create any type of storyline. I assessed the stories looking for characters that attempted to accomplish a clear goal and how engaging were the types of choices provided to the reader.

The future of the CYOA story is one to watch closely. One reason the iPad and all hand-held touch devices are such a success is because they capitalize on our desire to make choices and to be actively engaged in something. Reading and writing do not always seem like interactive experiences, but as these are re-defined during the 21st century, I think we will see the CYOA format become the dominant model of how we consume digital media.

Kate Pullinger and the Bradford Company have created the captivating serial inanimatealice that illustrates a wonderful example of the CYOA model in effect. Students at the Pascoe Vale Elementary School have re-mixed the story using Powerpoint. I hope somebody can soon lower the Flash learning curve to allow students to create interactive elements like those in inanimatealice.

Student Produced CYOA Stories in Keynote and Powerpoint

More Choose Your Own Adventure style games online and available for your iTouch devices….

30th November
written by admin

Once Upon a Time Card Game

I ran across this card game years ago in the US. You can imagine my surprise to find it on the busy streets of Shanghai, complete with Chinese translations for the English words on the cards. I’ve tried a variety of storytelling and improv games to spark student interest in storytelling. This one has been the most successful.

It’s a simple idea. A set of cards representing five basic story elements: Character, Place, Event, Aspect, Item. You hold five to ten cards in your hand depending on how many players are in the game. The goal is to be the first person to complete your story goal, which is a card drawn at the beginning of the game that says something like “The spell was broken and the king returned to rule the kingdom.” You play your cards one at a time as you tell your story. Other players can interrupt you with one of their cards if it fits in the story. When the students were just figuring the game out, I suggested they leave the special interrupt cards out of the game that allow a player to interrupt at anytime.

When a player won the game by completing their story goal using the cards in their hand, the students enjoyed continuing the story with an alternate ending. This allowed everyone to play their hand. The game makes a great warm-up to class, but groups larger than five break down quickly. I was surprised by how well students could create a fairy tale, particularly for many of my non-native English speakers. Even the quietest of my students were telling stories with the aid of these cards.

We just finished the novel The Giver. I’m wondering if we create a set of cards that match the Characters, Places, Events, Items and Aspects of the story will it help students discuss the story more effectively. We’ll see. I noticed on that they’re now selling a blank set of cards for you to create your own story cards. While the fairy tales are fun, I’d like to see a more modern set of characters, places and events that would help students flesh out an idea for a short story.

Story Spine App

I’m sure it won’t be long before the Once Upon a Time card game becomes an iPad app. I’ll buy it when once it hits the store. If you’re looking for a quick story template tool. Story Spine is one of many tools students can use to either retell a book they’ve recently read or to create a story of their own.

You don’t really need an iPhone/iPad version of this. I print this out on A4 paper and laminate it to use in the classroom.

12th November
written by admin

Is it worth it? When teaching students how to create an effective digital story, the emphasis is often on making sure they have some sort of essential question that is answered by the end of the story. When this is missing, we often just have an anecdote or narrated slideshow.

I just completed a digital story project with my 8th graders. Something still bugs me. Is it worth all of the time and effort required to create an effective digital story. One thing is for certain. I believe that the author and audience remember the digital story more than they remember the traditional written essay. You be the judge. Here are links to two student digital stories from our first term study of family heritage.


Caught Between Two Worlds










Where do I belong?

1st September
written by admin

“What we ought to be developing in our schools is not simply an array of literacy skills…but a spectrum of literacies that will enable students to participate in, enjoy, and find meaning in the major forms through which meaning has been constituted. We need a vision…of what our schools should seek to achieve,” – Elliot W. Eisner, Professor of Education and Art at Stanford University

New Media Literacies. Multiliteracies. 21st Century Literacies. I prefer to use the term digital literacy when discussing a vision for schools. The more I work with students around developing stories, either digital or not, the more I see a need to strengthen their story, visual and media literacies. Now, the discussion has expanded to include the social ramifications of what and how we read and write a variety of texts.

Literacy skills changing as a result of swift advances in technology may not be news to you. For the last decade, the Center for Media Literacy has championed their five questions to the deaf ears of a large number of teachers and administrators around the world. I’ve been teaching for nearly twenty years and unfortunately many people still see technical skill or tool literacy as the priority in developing students technologically for the future. The tools for creating/writing our own media have become so easy for students to access that it’s prompted the need to educate students on how to critically analyze the media they consume, but now also the media they produce. This is the “new” part of media literacy.

What are we talking about when we say New Media Literacies?

Henry Jenkins on New Media Literacies

Yes, but what is it really? This video does a great job of spelling out the specific literacies. Spend sometime checking out the resources for teachers on this site, in particular the Strategy Guides. Their Ning site is also one of the most current places on the web for NML info.

Henry Jenkins and his research group from the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT have published the paper Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (Jenkins et al., 2006) which “identifies the three core challenges: the participation gap, the transparency problem and the ethics challenge, and shares a provisionary list of skills needed for full engagement in today’s participatory culture” (

What I like most about the work of Jenkins and company is how specifically it relates to the everyday practice of teachers. The buzz on 21st Century Skills may have lost some its din, but its still the go-to phrase when discussing educational change.

Jenkins proposes a set of new media skills:

PLAYthe capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving
PERFORMANCEthe ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery
SIMULATIONthe ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes
APPROPRIATIONthe ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
MULTITASKINGthe ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details
DISTRIBUTED COGNITIONthe ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities
COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal
JUDGMENTthe ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources
TRANSMEDIA NAVIGATIONthe ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities
the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
NEGOTIATIONthe ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms
VISUALIZATION the ability to interpret and create data representations for the purposes of expressing ideas, finding patterns, and identifying trend

Convergence and the Crossroads of the Book, Movie and Electronic Game

Transmedia storytelling is a recent addition to new media discussion that shifts the emphasis to the social implications of creating and consuming media. This year, I resumed teaching middle school language arts. I’m excited about delving into the convergence of the book, movie and electronic game. As a digital storyteller/teacher, I think there’s much to be gained by helping students identify narrative elements across these and other media. I’m glad to see transmedia navigation on Jenkins’ list.


“Transmedia storytelling” is telling a story across multiple media and preferably, although it doesn’t always happen, with a degree of audience participation, interaction or collaboration.

In transmedia storytelling, engagement with each successive media heightens the audience’ understanding, enjoyment and affection for the story. To do this successfully, the embodiment of the story in each media needs to be satisfying in its own right while enjoyment from all the media should be greater than the sum of the parts.”

Inanimate Alice


“Inanimate Alice’ is easily assimilated into learning environments; its use of multimodality (images, sounds, text, interaction) enables students to see storytelling in a new, multi-sensory light. ‘Inanimate Alice’ is a new media fiction that allows students to develop multiple literacies (literary, cinematic, artistic, etc.) in combination with the highly collaborative and participatory nature of the online environment.”

While the episodes of this series do not extend beyond the Flash-based media it’s presented in, I still feel it is one of the best exemplars of the need for transmedia navigation.

Be sure to take a look at the work of Pascoe Vale Elementary School and their students’ use of Inanimate Alice.

31st May
written by Tom Banaszewski

The graphic novel may only take a third of the usual time to read compared to a traditional novel, but that doesn’t mean students get one third of the message of a story. Some stories are just easier to comprehend in a condensed graphic format. The graphic novel Palestine is a perfect example. While not all parts of Joe Sacco’s tale of the Middle East conflict are suitable for the classroom, this graphic novel provided me with excellent excerpts that illustrated key points of tension and disconnect still present in the region.

Classical Comics’ version of MacBeth is a great example of an additional path to understanding Shakespeare. Graphic novel versions of classic stories are not substitutes for reading the original text. I think of them as bridges. If a graphic novel can open the door to Sherlock Holmes, Shakespeare, Greek mythology and much more then it will always have a place in my classroom.

Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

Even though the Cartoon History series isn’t really a graphic novel, I’ve used several sections of these when I taught middle school History and found they were a challenging read for students. When we talk about a need to teach students to read information provided in a variety of formats, graphic novels are an excellent vehicle for practicing this.

Bill Boyd’s blog The Literacy Adivser has a valuable set of reviewed graphic novels/comics/picture books along with a list of glossary terms for graphic novels.

8th May
written by Tom Banaszewski
With the rise of electronic entertainment, we are seeing games reach a very prominent status in everyday life. Modern culture is increasingly dominated by electronics, and the new games that electronics have made possible are compelling creations that suck away huge amounts of time. At such a time of adjustment, it’s a good idea to go back to the roots of games, and think about why they exist in every human culture, why children of all ages play them, and what important role they play in the development of our brains. – From Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun

I’ve been to a lot of conferences. And most of them are often disappointing because the presenters are not effective public speakers or the workshop sessions do not really match the description in the conference program. This conference was different. I left inspired to teach with games and with a long list of valuable resources. More importantly, I left with important ideas to share with colleagues and not just a laundry list of links to add to my delicious account. The research around the role of electronic games in learning continues to expand. MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech (GO JACKETS!) Indiana and Wisconsin Universities all recognize that computer games can add to our explorations of determining what works in our classrooms. What’s often misunderstood by many parents and teachers is that there’s a HUGE difference between the games Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and games such as Civilization, Animal Crossing, Little Big Planet and MYST.

The WOW STUFF: Carnegie Mellon Professor Jesse Schell’s talk. Create situations for students that demand SHARING of ideas, talents, skill-sets. Replace grading system with an Experience Point system. Similar to how video games are structured, students earn points and level-up by completing assignments and tasks. No gray area for how you’re doing in the class.

Gaming Literacy. Ewen McIntosh’s talk. Gaming is its own literacy, part of the New Media literacies. There is a growing chasm between schools that continue the entrenched model of teaching to the test and those that recognize a need to spend more time clarifying what does it mean to be literate in the Digital Age.

Games that support writing development. As an English teacher and digital storytelling facilitator, I’m interested in the grammar of not only quality literature, but also that cross-section between literature, movies and now games. What literacies do we develop by interacting with a game version of a classic novel? By deconstructing a movie, graphic novel or game version of the Odyssey? By creating our own version or a choose your own adventure game version? Tim Rylands has been touring the UK schools showing teachers and students how to use the classic game MYST to spark creative writing as well many other a few other games-based writing projects. There’s a lot potential in the using the Choose Your Own Adventure story model for engaging reluctant writers. I plan to test out a few ideas where students create interactive fiction/CYOA stories using either iWeb, Wikispaces or an online tool that allows you to then make your story available via the iTunes store to be played/read on the iTouch/Phone/Pad.

Scotland’s Consolarium. Maybe because it’s much smaller compared to the UK and US that this country is able to convince so many of their schools that games-based learning is effective practice. The Consolarium site documents clearly the work they’ve accomplished and makes it accessible to all teachers via their national intranet. Spend a few minutes checking out their Sharing Practice section and you’ll get a sense of what “games-based learning” means in a classroom context. Ollie Bray and Derek Robertson were excellent representatives and speakers on the work of the Consolarium. Be sure to invite them to your next edu-tech conference!

Games and Simulations. We’ve come a long way since Oregon Trail, Math Blasters and Carmen San Diego. Or have we? Tom Snyder Productions was the pioneer in the US in this field. The Decisions, Decisions series is still one of the most effective pieces of educational technology software I’ve used in my nearly twenty years of teaching. But they are no longer in business. In their place are companies like that allow free access to their web-based simulations or “serious games” in hopes you’ll hire them to develop a simulation for your company, school or learning need.

TOOLS for making your own games. It keeps getting easier, but that doesn’t mean students are making better games. The same principle applies to Powerpoint presentations, digital stories, podcasts, short films – kids need plenty of practice to proficiently produce anything that makes sense. In addition to programming /game-making tools like Scratch and Alice, you can now use the game engines Unity or Platinum Sandbox. The XBox even has an easy tool for making games – Kodu. Looking forward to testing that out. 2DIY is another set of game-making tools. The Nintendo DS now has a Do It Yourself game-maker called WarioWare.

There’s much more to review here, but for me it was the ideas that I took away that are most important to share. Two of them resonated with me: James Huggins of Made in Me reminded us that too often the emphasis is on the relationship of the child to the software instead of encouraging the child’s relationship with the natural world. His Land of Me game provided an engaging story development tool that then provides items the child can print out that encourages play based on what was created in the game.

The second idea, more an observation of schools’ resistance to adopting practices that clearly work for children, was related to Dorothy Heathcote’s drama in education legacy. For close to fifty years, her work has engaged children in nearly all environments. She’s proven that drama is a powerful tool for helping students achieve meaningful learning, yet drama in education is still only included in 25% of our schools – maybe less. In twenty-five years, will this be the same attitude of games-based learning?

And now the games.

  • Farmville – Facebook game that raised over $1 million for Haiti earth quake repairs (yes, there is some controversy too).
  • Little Big Planet – PS3 game that has over 2 million user-generated levels from people all over the world
  • UK Channel 4 History Games – Trafalgar Origins, Bow Street Runner and 1066 are web-based
  • Routes to Better Science – Great set of games and even better mystery to unravel using your science clues
  • Nintendo DS Games being used in schools – Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training, Professor Layton

A few other reviews of the conference from other attendees: Dawn Hallybone , Ben Betts

Check Teach Me This for more games-based learning resources.

14th April
written by Tom Banaszewski
The iPad. Will it change the way we read or will it be just another clumsy approach to the “interactive book” idea? Take a look at how Alice in Wonderland will be read on the iPad.

What do you think? Add your thoughts in the comments.

22nd February
written by Tom Banaszewski

GarageBand makes creating a soundtrack for a movie very easy. Try this quick exercise to get familiar with GarageBand.

1. Download this video clip .

2. Open GarageBand and Create a New Project, select Loops.

3. Drag the video clip into the GarageBand project (if you get an error message, just ignore it).

4. Use GarageBand’s many sound loops and effects to create the soundtrack for the video clip.