Saturday, May 14, 2011

No-Name Papers? Never Again

You're cruising through your students' assignments, and then you hit the dreaded no-name paper. One of the biggest pet-peeves I have. You really want to wad it up and throw it in the recycle bin, but that wouldn't help you or the student...even though it would feel really good to do so.

If this has ever happened to you, I have a tip that will make sure you never have a no-name paper again. Well, never say never...

It goes like this:

You hand out an assignment. You say, "Please put your name on the paper as soon as you get it." When everyone has the assignment, you add, "Now find an elbow partner (someone nearby) and check to make sure they have written their name on their assignment."

If it's an assignment done at home, ask the students to check their elbow partner's paper to make sure there is a name before they turn in the assignment.

It takes five seconds. Since I've been using this idea, I have never had a no-name paper come across my desk (knock on wood).

I hope this idea helps you keep your sanity.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Creative Writing Tool: Scholastic Story Generator

Maybe you've been here before. It's writing time in your classroom. You spot a student exhibiting these behaviors:

First sign: The deer in the headlights stare.
Second sign: The pencil doesn't move.
Third, fourth, and fifth signs: The sudden urgency to get a drink, use the bathroom, and then snap the lead of the pencil for the sole purpose of getting to leave the seat again to sharpen it. Then, the inevitable phrase...

Student: I don't know what to write.
You: You don't say?
Student: I don't have any good ideas.
You: You have nothing to fear. I've got just the tool you've been searching for. I couldn't help but notice you were looking in all the wrong places: the bathroom, the drinking fountain, and the pencil sharpener. You didn't find it there did you? No. Let me show you what you've been looking for, and where you can find it. It's called Scholastic Story Starters, it's right here on the computer, and it's been waiting for you.

I have a card stock flip book in my classroom that gives students writing ideas by providing a character, a situation, and an action. My students love to use it when they have full on "writer's block". It got me thinking that there had to be an online version of a story generator like the one we have in the room. Sure enough, there is, and it's called Scholastic Story Starters, and it's so much more than a story generator.

Story Starter is pretty straight-forward. You type in your name. You choose your grade level (which correspond to writing standards and offers suitable options for different age groups). The next step is where the fun begins, the story starter machine appears on the screen. There are four buttons that correspond with sections that are randomly generated by the machine. Here is a small list of the 4-6 grade options:
1. Writing Format: list of characteristics, T.V. commercial, a newspaper ad, myth, birthday card, etc.
2. Descriptor/Adjective: greedy, handsome, awkward, horrible, chivalrous, stubborn, etc.
3. Character: screenwriter, monkey, cantaloupe, Venus flytrap, rock star, etc.
4. Situation: talks in rhyme, discovers a secret city, wins the lottery, discovers a talking frog, etc.

You have some freedom at this point. You can pull the big SPIN handle to randomly select all four sections at once, or you can choose to change as many or as few options you wish by clicking each button separately. The first time I used it, Story Starter created a zany and wonderful writing idea. This is what I got: Write a list of characteristics about an awkward rock star who only talks in rhyme.

Scholastic Story Starter Machine
It didn't take long for me to begin a list in my notebook. When I was done, I had an amazingly interesting character who alone conjured up several story ideas.

Now, you can stop using Story Starter at this point and return to your writing journal, or you can move on to the next step, and choose a format like, newspaper article, letter, postcard, or notebook. Upon making your choice, you arrive at another page where you can type your story directly onto the page, draw a picture (optional), and then print it.

Oh, by the way, if you have an interactive whiteboard, Story Starter is compatible!

Scholastic has a great teacher's guide article about using Scholastic Story Starters in the classroom. It has wonderful ideas and some handy resources. I urge you to give it a look.

I hope you can use this tool in your classroom soon! I know you'll love it, and more importantly, so will your students!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Tale of Two Stories: Storyline Online and Storybird

This is the post I wrote as a guest on Free Technology for Teachers.

I'd like to share with you two free technology tools that I use, in tandem, to get my students working creatively and collaboratively, and liking it!

1. Listen to a story, get inspired
2. Brainstorm ideas
3. Create your story
4. Share your story with us

Those are the four directives I give my students before they embark on a writing activity I call the "Picture Book Challenge". The Picture Book Challenge culminates in students working together to make a well written digital picture book. When the challenge is over we embed the books on our class wiki. That way peers and family members can enjoy the fruits of their labors. I use two tools to help my students accomplish their goals. One tool is called Storyline Online, and the other is called Storybird.

Storyline Online is a free website where members of the Screen Actor's Guild read popular children's picture books. There are plenty of well loved selections: Stellaluna, A Bad Case of Stripes, Thank You, Mr. Falker, Enemy Pie, and To Be a Drum are just a few. For the purposes of the Picture Book Challenge I use Storyline Online as a way to inspire my students to come up with ideas for their own work. You could also use Storyline as a listening center to improve reading fluency. Also worth mentioning is the captioning function which can help struggling readers and students who are English Language Learners.

The second technology tool is an interactive and collaborative writing webtool called Storybird. Richard has blogged about Storybird before; which is how I first heard about this amazing tool. The user interface is simple by design so students can concentrate on the creative process (see the video below). Adding text couldn't be easier. You simply type the text and move it to where you want it go on the page. Images are added in much the same way, they are easily dragged and dropped on the page. The artwork available to students will not only inspire creative prose, but they are highly interesting and diverse enough to suit different tastes. Your students will be creating digital books in no time and enjoying themselves while they're at it.

Much to my students' chagrin, Storybird is lacking a print feature. They love their projects so much they want to actually hold on to it. Currently, the only way students can share digital picture books is by HTML code for embedding, or via a web link. Storybird developers are working on making printing available in the future, but it appears there will be a cost associated with printing books.

I love using Storyline Online and Storybird together. Storyline inspires my students to think about how to write their own wonderful pieces. While Storybird allows students to write, and create beautiful pieces with very few barriers. My students' reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. The best thing about these tools is that even my most reluctant writers are excited to write.

It could be for that reason alone to make these educational technology tools a part of your teaching toolbox.

Jason Kornoely is a fourth grade teacher at Forest Hills Public Schools located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has his Master's degree in Educational Technology.  Jason's blog: InterGrade: Instant Teaching Ideas focuses on providing tips, tricks, and strategies that educators can use right away in their classrooms. You can also follow Jason on Twitter.

Storybird Quick Tour from Storybird on Vimeo.