Digital Storytelling: Greco-Roman Mythology

Posted: February 24th, 2012,

While the fall of the Roman Empire may have lead to Latin’s demise, this classical language, long a staple of our World Languages program, is far from dead.  From imaginative adolescents working to master the names of Harry Potter’s spells to college-bound students aspiring to increase their SAT scores, the “language of the scholars and educated” has made a resurgence across the country in recent years.   Even Facebook, which for many could be considered the antithesis of learned culture, is available in Latin for users who prefer to statum renovare their daily activities.

While most of us have never formally studied Latin, we’ve still felt its influence on modern language and popular culture. Scores of books and films, including Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, Disney’s animated Hercules, and the upcoming feature Wrath of the Titans are based on Greco-Roman mythology.  In retelling these tales, the legacy of the ancient world lives on.

In this spirit, our seventh grade Latin students recently completed a mini-unit on mythology for which they created short digital stories based on well known Roman and Greek myths.  Using NoodleTools, Photostory, books, and Internet sources, they crafted a script, collected images, and produced a final product that captured the essence of the myth and honored the culture from which it came.

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Manageable and Meaningful

To make the process manageable and meaningful, a simple project wiki was used to communicate background information, required elements, and deadlines. Having everything in one place improved the students’ organization and enabled the teacher to better monitor their progress over the course of this endeavor.  Equally as important, it also served as a central repository for the completed stories, allowing the students to view and learn from each other’s work.

Because myths are based on oral tradition, there is no one official version of any story.  Consequently, the first major task after selecting a topic was to locate at least two renditions of the myth.   Based on their findings, students used Google Docs to write a condensed, common storyline in their own words and shared their drafts via NoodleTools.  For those not familiar with this resource, NoodleTools helps students search intelligently, assess the quality of results, record information using online notecards, and properly format their bibliography.  We use a paid version of the service that integrates with Google Apps for Education, but they also offer a suite of free tools that are extremely useful.

Digital storytelling is an art form that requires careful attention to the selection and pairing of words and images.  And as any screenwriter knows, having a well written story is one thing; having a well written script is quite another.  To make the transformation, students used a storyboard to chunk their prose into narrations, then sketched representations of the main ideas in the story before looking for actual images from these sites:

To evaluate the projects, we developed a rubric that focused on three main areas: the research process, the storytelling process, and the final product itself.  By emphasizing the thinking processes, not just the tangible product, students received feedback that could shape as opposed to judge their learning.

Myths Rubric

If you have a favorite Greco-Roman myth and/or would like to use some of these resources with your students, feel free to visit the project page for more information.  Gratias visitando!

Stop Motion Animation: Las Mariposas Monarca

Posted: February 8th, 2012,

Each fall Monarch butterflies, not unlike many humans, migrate south and west to escape winter’s icy grasp.   Their two month journey, which for most leads to the mountains of central Mexico, allows the butterflies to hibernate, reproduce, and survive as a species.  The fantastic tale of their migration and metamorphosis is widely studied and well known to school children throughout North America.

This year, in an effort to incorporate more interdisciplinary, thematic experiences into the curriculum, our fifth grade team participated in and received training from the Monarch Teacher Network.  Their program, which began in 2001, has enabled more than 3600 educators to “teach essential skills in literacy, math, science, geography, technology, Spanish, the arts and social studies… through the captivating story of monarchs.”

Using science and Spanish as the anchor disciplines, students acquired caterpillars, observed them transform into chrysalises, and later released the adult butterflies into the wild.  In addition to studying the life cycle of this unique insect, they also learned about Mexican culture and acquired key vocabulary words and phrases in the target language.  As a capstone for the experience, they created stop motion animations, narrated in Spanish, of el ciclo de vida de la mariposa Monarca.

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 Stop Motion Animation

Stop motion animation, in which objects are moved in small increments between individually photographed frames, has been used since the earliest days of film.  While those of us who grew up in the 1970s may recall watching classic stop motion holiday specials such as Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer or Santa Clause is Coming to Town, the technique has made a comeback with today’s youth thanks to popular features like Wallace and Gromit and Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken series.  Although these technologically sophisticated animations are the result of large teams of creative professionals working in concert, simple yet powerful tools like SAM Animation make stop motion viable for even the youngest of learners.

Animation projects can be made with free tools like Windows Live Movie Maker, but the benefits of using an application dedicated to the task are well worth the nominal expense.  Live onion skinning, chroma keying, time lapse photography, and multiple audio tracks are just a few of the features that SAM and other animation programs offer.  As shown in the clip below, getting started is literally as easy as 1-2-3.

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Getting Started

Like any project, stop motion animation requires careful planning and preparation.  To make the endeavor manageable for teachers and successful for students, here are a few points to consider:

  • Because animation is multifaceted, cooperative learning groups of 2-3 students are ideal.  Creating and moving models,  capturing and arranging images, and recording audio are all tasks that can be shared and/or rotated.
  • Provide students with a storyboard so they can organize their thoughts prior to starting the project.  Having rough sketches and snippets of dialog in place before building or filming can save hours of time.
  • Modeling clay (even Model Magic) can be expensive and difficult for students to manipulate; not everyone is a sculptor.   Legos, plastic figurines, even drawings made with colored pencils can be effective alternatives.
  • External web cams are a must.  Integrated cameras, though seemingly convenient, face the user and thus can’t be consistently positioned to capture images on the wall or floor.  The cameras we used cost less than $20 each and proved extremely capable.
  • Don’t just judge the product, evaluate the process.  The thinking and learning that occurs during a project of this nature does not always come through in the final video.

To learn more about how stop motion animation can enhance your teaching, visit the SAM Animation homepage and download a free trial version of the software.  The possibilities, made one frame at a time, are truly endless.




Digital Literacy 2011: Diigo for Education

Posted: October 7th, 2011,

Note: This post is part of an occasional series of entries devoted to my 7th Grade Digital Literacy Course.

Social bookmarking is nothing new; started the concept of shared bookmarks way back in 1996.  Of the myriad tools developed since that time (remember Backflip, Simpy, and Furl?), a handful have withstood the fickle nature of the Web 2.0 world, including Digg, Delicious (recently acquired by AVOS), and Diigo.  While each has its strengths, we are in the process of migrating students from Delicious to Diigo because it offers free education accounts that teachers can manage and monitor.  For those unfamiliar with Diigo, this short clip provides a nice overview of its many features and benefits:

Diigo for Education

As noted on the Diigo for Education website, educator accounts are special accounts provided specifically to K-12 and  higher-ed faculty. Once your Diigo Educator application is approved, your account will be upgraded to have these additional features:

  • You can create student accounts for an entire class with just a few clicks (and student email addresses are optional for account creation)
  • Students of the same class are automatically set up as a Diigo group so they can start using all the benefits that a Diigo group provides, such as group bookmarks and annotations, and group forums.
  • Privacy settings of student accounts are pre-set so that only teachers and classmates can communicate with them.

Student accounts have the following special settings to protect their privacy and safety:

  • Classmates in the same class are automatically added as friends with one another to facilitate communication, but students cannot add anyone else as friends except through email.
  • Students can only communicate with their friends and teachers.  No one except their friends can send message, group invite, or write on their profile wall.
  • Student profiles will not be indexed for People Search, nor made available to public search engines.

Accounts can be created quickly and without the need for student email addresses by uploading a simple CSV file.  Once the data has been imported into Diigo, groups and users can be managed via the Teacher Console.

Diigolet or Diigo Toolbar

After accounts are created, students will still need to add either the Diigo Toolbar or Diigolet to their browser before they can annotate and save websites.  The Diigo Toolbar includes a wide suite of tools, is available for Firefox, IE, and Flock, and is recommended for experienced users:

Although Diigolet is not as feature-rich, it can be set up with a simple drag-and-drop, works for all major browsers, and is well suited to middle school:


Saving bookmarks in Diigo is simple but to be effective requires an understanding of how tags work.  Students, and especially younger children, have been conditioned to organize their physical and digital materials into folders.  This time-honored system, while appealing to many adults, is severely limiting; content must be pigeonholed into a specific container.  With tags, a site can be saved and retreived in numerous ways using whatever tags (keywords) that best describe it.  The Social Bookmarking in Plain English video from CommonCraft, though focused on Delicious, can also be applied to Diigo and used as an introduction to the concepts of tagging and folksonomy.

In addition to choosing tags, users can also opt to share a bookmark to a group.  By default, our students are organized into groups by graduation year (e.g. Class of 2017).   With one click, teachers can share a website to the entire grade or set up groups for their specific courses.  Similarly, students can create Diigo groups for tasks such as research projects and easily share materials with other classmates.

The Social Side of Diigo

At the risk of restating the obvious, Diigo is a social tool; students can create groups, develop networks, send messages, and establish an online profile within the confines of their school account.  Although these features may not be as appealing as those found in Facebook or Twitter, they do provide a safe, secure environment for introducing concepts related to social networking and netiquette.  Whether you choose to address the issue or not, students will find and use these social connectors; I would encourage you to embrace the opportunity and make the most of the learning experience.

For more information, please visit the Getting Started Guide and FAQ area of the Diigo for Education site.