Archive for October, 2007
I spent the last two weeks working with middle school students on two projects that rely heavily on careful selection of images to support what they’re trying to say. Even after ten years of helping students with multimedia projects that require them to select an image to convey an idea or support a part of a voice over, I’m stunned at how some students have no idea of where to begin when it comes to finding an image to go along with statements like "My mom is very nice" or "I use to live in Mexico." I don’t think it’s a simple case of right-brain vs. left-brain. For all the time I’ve spent researching how to help students write an engaging script for a digital story, I could write just as much about the challenges students face in thinking visually.
I first heard the term "visual grammar" from Joe Brennan during an interview with him on his approaches to digital storytelling. His job title of Visual Literacy Instructor was new to me. I was more than a bit jealous when he told me he spent most of this time helping students acquire the essential media literacy skills that so many school curricula omit. We expect students to use tools like Powerpoint, PhotoStory and iMovie but often overlook the pre-requisites to effectively using these programs. By effective, I don’t mean they know how to add transitions, crop or import images. Students need to learn how to do what Bernajean Porter (read Beyond Words) refers to "dancing text, images and audio together" so that the elements convey an intended point. Few students pick this skill up without explicit instruction.
While it’s not hard for students to locate images with the help of Google, Flickr, and Yahoo, they tend to select vague and literal interpretations of what they’re trying to say. It would be a fantastic plug-in for Google Images and other image databases if you were prompted with questions that helped narrow your search to better match your intended image need. Now, we wouldn’t need this if students understood and practiced Boolean search methods. But even they did use "quotes" and + or – in their keyword searches, they still wouldn’t be thinking of what would be the best image for their script. A student was looking for an image to match a part of his script where he said "My grandfather was in the Army in World War II." He typed in "army" and got dozens of current military images. I asked him a few questions about his grandfather. Fascinating story: born in Hong Kong, sold to an American, brought to the US, joined the US Army during WWII. I suggested he use one of the images that featured WWII era soldiers. I was eager to hop on a computer and tackle the challenge of finding an image of a Chinese American soldier from WWII. Later, when I entered "Chinese American soldier WWII" into Google Images I found several images.
Next time I help students with any project that relies on images to get across a particular point, I think I’ll go thru a few image search exercises like the scenarios described earlier.
Google just added the Image Labeler tool that might be good practice for students. It looks like they’re essentially getting the public to help tag all of their images.
Remember, integrating multimedia projects with your students requires you to think about what’s developmentally appropriate to expect of your students. Most elementary and middle schools haven’t even had much experience putting together a narrated slideshow. They’ve all been assigned Powerpoint projects, but haven’t received specific instruction in how to make them successful. Try to give them frequent opportunities to interpret images from magazines, posters, websites and news papers. There’s a fun drama game that kids love. Use a set of postcards with unique scenes, people, settings, and actions on them. Tell students to select an image and give it a caption, then they could take on the personality of one of the characters in the scene.
I see stories unfolding around me all the time. I’m intrigued most by the stories from those people whose voices are never encouraged or validated. How can a community really grow if it doesn’t try to increase the volume and representation of its members? This is what I think must be one of our main priorities as educators working in school environments. Over the past the week at school, there were several big events that generated perhaps hundreds of stories. Unfortunately, these stories will probably never reach more than a few sets of eyes and ears. The photos from the International Fair, Habitat for Humanity trips and China Alive trips will sit on a few dozen computers, maybe they’ll be uploaded to Flickr or someone’s Kodak photo-sharing site, a few will end up in the yearbook. How could a school capitalize on the media that’s generated by its members? How could you use the photos, video and audio that’s recorded to craft stories about the event to share with the larger school community?
Even before you try to pull stories out of people, there’s a lot that can be done to facilitate crafting a story. Getting people to upload their photos to one site, such as Flickr or Picassa (to take advantage of the geo-tagging feature) and tagging them with a common tag like "2007 China Alive" would go far to document the collective experience of a big trip. Further along the scaffolding process, you could use the site tabblo and have people upload their photos to a 2007 China Alive group. The commenting feature in tabblo starts the conversations that could lead to a story. The jump from anecdote to story isn’t that big of a leap, but answering the question "how did the experience change you?" is what makes a story more appealing than just rambling on about disconnected details. Stories do not all have to contain a profound revelation. As long as they add your voice to the mix in a meaningful way then you’ve enriched the community.
Master storyteller Jay O’Callahan calls them sparks. He asks people in his workshops to tell a two minute story about shoes or an accomplishment you’re proud of or something very basic that nearly everyone has experienced. Sadly, we don’t make room for these story sparks in most school programs. I think schools need "story bait" spread around their campuses. I worked on a project a few years ago where we put up neon orange Xs around our school’s campus and downtown Atlanta that asked "You Are Here. Why?" The signs had a phone number and instructions to call and leave a story about why the person was at that particular place at that time. All of the stories were automatically accessible online and via their cell phones. I’d like to do something much more low tech for my school here. I’d take a few of the photos from the trips, enlarge them to poster size, post them in the halls and cafeteria with some "story bait" underneath the photos. Maybe a leading statement like "I learned something new about myself." The poster could tell them to call a web-based phone number that records 1 minute of audio. There could also be a website that allows them to enter their stories in text, audio or digital story.
I’ll flesh this out this week. In traditional digital storytelling, you start with a story circle where the f2f contact with a group plays an important role in starting down the story path. This approach is different, but in this instance the context of the trip is set and that grounds the story. If I want to try other story bait ideas, overcoming the issue of context is central. The good thing about a school environment is that the school itself provides the basis for so many stories.