Muddling through the blogosphere

Teaching Collaborative Digital Writing – a la Glen Bledsoe


I’ve known Glen Bledsoe for about eight years, through our mutual association with the National Writing Project. Whenever I have the opportunity to participate in one of his workshops, poster sessions, or panel discussions, I am blown away by both the brilliance of his observations on teaching and learning and the innovative ways he molds and weaves technology into the elementary classroom.  So I was thrilled when my copy of Teaching the New Writing arrived this week, knowing that it included  Glen’s chapter on Collaborative Digital Writing:  The Art of Writing Together Using Technology!

A visit to some of the multimedia projects developed by Glen’s students will give you a window  into  the many ways he infuses technology into his language arts program, eliminating barriers of poverty, language, or past disengagement with writing:

  • The Library Ghost (due to download time, I’m giving you the URL, rather than embed it –
  • Donny and the Ghost

I used to hesitate sharing Glen’s projects with teachers new to technology and digital storytelling because their reaction was likely to be “how about you show us something better suited to beginners.”  But if you take a sample such as the Library Ghost, which basically involved an entire class of 4th graders, Glen does a beautiful job of explaining the steps that moved an idea from concept to product.  His chapter is loaded with common sense suggestions and easy to follow tips. Glen initiates projects like Library Ghost by connecting the laptop to the projector and beginning the storytelling process, starting with:

  • Describing the Characters: As a class, they develop the list of characters for the story, making sure not to use classmates’ names. Through a shared discussion, each character is given characteristics (i.e., for a female character – “she’s into fashion, but she doesn’t really know what’s fashionable and what’s not” or “she has many friends, but she doesn’t tell them about all her feelings.”)
  • Writing the Script: Glen takes about 30 minutes each day with the lights dimmed and the computer projecting onto the screen at the front of the class.  Beginning with an impromptu cast rereading of what’s been written so far, as a group they edit what doesn’t make sense and move on to adding the next lines.  This process is repeated daily until the script has been completed to everyone’s satisfaction – although revisions are still likely to take place throughout the recording sessions.
  • Recording the Script: In this phase, students work together in small groups. With a USB microphone connected to Glen’s computer, students record their lines one at a time. “It’s unrealistic to expect students to read their lines like live radio and not make serious errors.  Allowing them to read their lines over and over and picking the best version works well.  The lines of the script are numbered, and as we record the lines, we number the sound files to match.  This is a simple step but extremely important.”But how do you keep a class quiet while individuals are recording their parts (a question I am frequently asked)? In a loud voice, Glen does a Three, Two, One countdown, signalling to the rest of the class that they must be completely still until the speaker has completed his/her lines. Then students can return to their “normal rustlings.” When the class has maxed out on being able to hold still, he waits till library time, for instance, and asks small groups to stay back in the class to record.
  • Adding Photos: Photos are taken after the lines have been digitally recorded. A student called Scriptboy or Scriptgirl and the director (Glen) “coach the principal actors for a given scene.  The Scriptboy then reads aloud what line is being said for a particular photo.  The actor then holds herself in such a way as to mime the line. Body language, facial expressions, and camera angles are all very important in conveying meaning.  Don’t underestimate the power of these three elements in supporting the text of the story.  The script always comes first.  You can’t create a very compelling digital story with a weak script, but with a strong script adding the above characteristics will add a level of polish. ” Once the photo session is completed, upload shots to your computer (in same folder as the voice recordings!)
  • Assembling the Script: Now that lines, voice recordings, and photos have been uploaded, assembling the story is the easy part.  But I’ll repeat Glen’s tip to “Spend most of your time on the writing.  I can’t emphasize that enough. “
  • The Ultimate Purpose: Who’s the intended audience and for what purpose?  If it a film competition, for instance, you’re likely to be dealing with a 3-5 minute time limit.  So the original piece may need some trimming down, which could eliminate some students from the story.  Glen’s policy is to assure those students that they will get lines in upcoming digital productions.

Because I am mindful that many teachers must justify digital storytelling as a part of their English/Language Arts program, one of the many lines I’ve highlighted from Glen’s chapter addresses standards:

It’s not difficult to take a collaborative digital media project and match it against either a given state’s technology or language arts standards…While the exercise is not difficult to do, I don’t set the standards first and then design the projects around them.  I look at the project from an artistic perspective and then find standards that match.  That just the way my mind works.  The inspiration comes first. If the idea is powerful enough to move me and my students, then it will have enough substance to engage the standards.  Grabbing an idea and following through with it is a real-world task. I believe the purpose of standards is to reflect real-world needs and apply them to student work.  If students are creating projects that reflect real-world tasks, then it follows that they will be adhering to the standards.”

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in the foothills, so I’m heading out to my deck to start reading the next chapter, Kevin Hodgson’s Digital Picture Books – From Flatland to Multimedia. If you’re not already subscribing to Kevin’s blog, you’re missing great tips and examples of what digital storytelling looks like with 6th graders!


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