How will your students pay tribute to you?

With a new school year just beginning, I thought I should ask teachers this question.

“At the end of this school year, how will your students pay tribute to their experiences in your classroom?”

I recently had an opportunity to be creative and at the same time pay tribute to one of my former teachers. This engaging learning activity caused me to question what motivated me to spend several hours creating a video that only a limited number of individuals could fully appreciate.

Teacher & students-400x267As many of my readers know, in the Spring of 2012, I was fortunate to enroll in a free, online Digital Storytelling DS106 course offered through Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The teachers of this online course had a profound impact on my learning and my participation within a community of learners.

Three and a half years later, my video tribute creation all started with the following innocent-looking tweet:

Jim Groom -TweetMy first introduction to “The Daily Create” (TDC) occurred when I signed up for this amazing open, online Digital Storytelling course, affectionately known as DS106. Jim Groom and Alan Levine teamed up as instructors to engage students, who wanted credit, at the University of Mary Washington. However, people like me signed up because it was authentic learning that was provided free of charge – all I needed was a  computer, Internet connection, and a blog where I could reflect and document my learning. The Daily Creates were regular creative challenges in the areas of photography, drawing, audio, video and writing that were not supposed to take more than 15 – 20 minutes to complete.

Earlier this month, a (new) Daily Create, was established where anyone can receive these challenges by email and/or Twitter feed. Although I am not officially enrolled in the DS106 course, I still view each Daily Create and, from time to time, follow through and complete a challenge that I find intriguing. I then share my creation with the DS106 community of learners by tagging it as DS106 in a blog post or using Twitter hashtags #ds106,  #dailycreate, #tdc, and/or #ds106dc.

Obviously the above tweet struck a chord. Although the hashtags (#) reduced the available message space, I did assume it was “Jim” Groom who was leaving on a trip. I clicked on the the abbreviated link ( at the bottom of the tweet. I was transferred to the 1349th Daily Create which displayed a 15 minute, YouTube video in which Jim Henson described how to make a muppet and I was challenged as follows:

Jim Groom is moving to Italy! It would not be DS106 if there weren’t a twist to this prompt. Wish Jim Groom bon voyage with a home made puppet. Make a short video. Jim Henson teaches you how to make your puppet in the video above – the rest is up to you and your creativity. Bon voyage Jim Groom!

I must admit that I was so eager to get started creating a video tribute for Jim Groom that I only watched the Jim Henson YouTube resource for the first three minutes. Rather than learn how to make a variety of puppets, I started concentrating on the song lyrics that I might use to convey the excitement and authentic learning that took place when I enrolled in Jim’s DS106 online course.

First, I had to find a tune that I knew. Although most of my DS106 colleagues were much younger than me, and had probably never heard of the Everly Brothers, I thought that “Bye Bye Love”, released in 1958, might be a good base on which to build.

Whenever I compose poems or song lyrics, I begin by brain-storming and writing down words that are relevant. Next I match up these words with others that rhyme, by using a favourite web tool called RhymeZone. Using this process, I slowly created the lyrics to fit into the melody.

I then searched for an old sock, a tennis ball, some “jiggle eyes”, glue, and began creating the very first puppet that Jim Henson described in his YouTube video.  I then found a blanket I could use for a back drop, printed some background DS106 images, and set up my smartphone on a tripod to capture the following video tribute to Jim Groom:

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Although this activity was promoted as a Daily Create, my endeavour took closer to 15 hours rather than the suggested 15 minutes. Do I regret this investment of time? Not at all because I learned a great deal.

Reflection: What did I learn as a student?

  • Glue-on “jiggle eyes” and noses do not stick well to a sock-covered tennis ball
    Perhaps you noticed that the puppet’s right eye came off at about the 2:10 mark of the video. I thought that I could rationalize this “wardrobe malfunction” by explaining that the puppet was so choked up by Jim’s leaving, that the flowing tears washed away the “jiggle eye”. However, I decided not to record another take but rather to use this “eye drop” incident as an important “teachable moment”. Sometimes the experiments that don’t work as planned, teach more that the successful ones.
  • “Mute” puppets do not engage the audience as well as “mouth moving” ones
    My puppet design lacked a movable mouth so its’ movements were limited to hand-clapping and swaying to the music. I believe that an important attribute of Jim Henson’s Muppets was that they all seemed to have big mouths that could be manipulated to match the words or lyrics.
  • Learn from other students
    As I was writing my song and assembling my puppet, there were other DS106 participants that took up this challenge. Whenever they finished their videos, they would tweet their accomplishments using The Daily Create hashtag #tdc1349. I learned so much from the amazing “So Long Jim Groom tdc1349” video created by Rochelle Lockridge. First of all, I thought her choice of Carol Burnett’s “I’m so glad we had this time together” was the perfect song to pay tribute to Jim Groom’s influence on the DS106 course and its participants. Not only did Rochelle compile a series of animated GIFs, featuring Jim Groom, she blended these into a video with a song-singing puppet that stole the show. After being mesmerized by Rochelle’s puppet, I knew that my next puppet creation had to have a big mouth that I could manipulate.
  • Read all the resource material before beginning an activity
    Envious of Rochelle’s dynamic puppet, who seemed to be able to lip-sync Carol Burnett’s song so well, I decided to watch the remaining portion of the all-important video resource provided at the start of this challenge. True, I had watched the first three minutes of the YouTube video “Jim Henson on Making Muppets” and created the first puppet that he demonstrated that used a tennis ball for its head. Imagine my surprise that if I had watched the video to about the 11:52 mark, I would have learned how to make Rochelle’s amazing “talking” puppet from an envelope. Furthermore, the video would have demonstrated a number of different puppets that tended to be more life-like than my somewhat-static puppet.

Reflection: What did I learn as a teacher?

However, as an educator, I was still intrigued with what was so special about the DS106 experience, that a number of Jim Groom’s former students would invest time to create a unique video tribute. I trust some of the following ideas may be fostered within your classroom this year:

  • Challenge students prior to the start of the class
    During my 40 years as a teacher and Educational Technology Consultant, I have been involved numerous times in taking and giving workshops. DS106 was the first learning environment in which I was actively engaged in creative challenges, more than one month in advance of the official start of the 15 week course. Jim Groom and Alan Levine challenged each student “to make art”. Furthermore, we were immersed in creating animated GIFs and were given much latitude in choosing our initial target image. Rather than follow the somewhat traditional classroom approach, where all students start with the same image and work through the same step-by-step procedure, our “choose your own adventure” approach provided different intriguing creations and fostered extensive sharing and learning from classmates.
    All parents know that near the end of summer holidays, kids become bored and look for things to do. Imagine if teachers, near the middle of August, published on school web sites, engaging subject-specific activities to challenge potential students.
    I’m sure all teachers could think of engaging tasks, related to their grade or subject matter, that might spark the interest and curiosity of new students starting in the Fall. For example, primary children might explore new coding literacy with ScratchJr. Middle years students might be challenged to create their own interactive non-linear stories using Twine. With the recent emphasis on BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) to school, perhaps one might challenge senior years’ students to provide an overview of what they like about their particular device and one tip on how they use it in the classroom. Invite such students to share their knowledge with their classmates once school starts. These individuals can become the local experts to help relieve the stress on teachers, who feel that they must master the intricacies of different technological devices to support learning in their class.
    Certainly not all students entering your class in the Fall will necessarily complete such an activity, but it might be interesting to see what percentage of your class attempts the challenge.
  • Support without spoon-feeding fosters authentic learning
    When I first enrolled in DS106, I was expecting to receive handouts on things like: “How to Create an Animated GIF”, “How to Swap Faces in Photoshop 7”, “Learn to Use GIMP in One Hour”, “Creating Your First  Video with Premiere Elements 9” or “How to Create Your Own Radio Show”. I was sadly disappointed when none were provided. When I emailed Jim Groom asking how I could download “my perceived” DS106 support material, he advised me that it didn’t exist. Jim told me that it would be impossible for their staff to continually upgrade resources every time Photoshop, or other software applications, upgraded from one version to the next. He suggested that I just “Google” for the specific tutorial that I required or request help from others DS106 classmates. For one who had, for years, created and shared detailed, step-by-step handouts for all my computer-related workshops, this “tough love” approach was a true eye-opener for me. However, my spoon-feeding expectations gave way to authentic learning as I searched for tutorials and resources in a “just-in-time” format. I encourage teachers to spend less time preparing hand-outs and challenge your students to find the information they need online or collaborate with classmates. Not only will you save yourself a great deal of time and effort, you will be truly helping your students engage in authentic, practical learning as needed in the 21st century.
  • Set your expectations high
    Students who attended DS106 classes with Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington all stated that one had to do an inordinate amount of work to be successful in this course. However, they all admitted at the end of the course, that it was the best course in which they had ever participated. As an educator, if you set your sights too low, the best you can expect is mediocrity. When you expect more from your students, they will often surprise you with their creativity and effort.
  • Be willing to say “I don’t know” and ask for help
    From his home in Virginia, Jim Groom admitted online that he had no idea about how to set up an online radio station. Within days, a solution came in from a person in British Columbia. If today’s teachers admit to their students when they don’t know the answer or how to solve a problem, it will reduce the stress on such teachers and, more importantly, will empower their students to help.
  • Provide opportunities for constructive feedback
    Traditionally the vast majority of student feedback comes exclusively from the teacher. Although we all received feedback from our instructors, Jim Groom and Alan Levine, we also gained valuable constructive criticism from our DS106 classmates. If teachers encouraged feedback from classmates and/or online viewers, they might be surprised to observe that a wider authentic audience can be more motivating to students than the more traditional teacher-student review.
  • Authentic feedback is the key
    As one who received regular blog comments from both Jim Groom and Alan Levine, I can attest that such communication was special and almost addictive. Many educators know of stories where a particular student was engaged in writing a blog about his or her passion. Whether the student wrote about a rock star or a professional athlete, her/his writing style improved dramatically when the celebrity wrote back. Teachers today might encourage adults to provide online feedback to students’ work to motivate them to improve.
  • Encourage students to work in teams
    In my latter years as a Technology Education Consultant, I was asked to step out of my comfort zone and team up with a Language Arts Consultant to organize and conduct workshops on digital storytelling and movie making. I admit that I was somewhat anxious to work closely with another educator but I learned so much in the process. I may have been knowledgeable about the technology and software. However, my colleague was an expert on telling remarkable stories and our partnership provided an extremely engaging learning opportunity for both the students and teachers who were part of our endeavour. In DS106, Jim Groom and Alan Levine recommended that teams of students work together to assemble all the necessary components of a radio show.
    Likewise teachers today should create learning opportunities where students must work in a team environment. Our students will be living and working in an electronic world where technology is shrinking the globe.
  • Foster a supportive learning community
    Everyone in DS106 shared their creations in reflective blog posts. All DS106 students were encouraged to visit other classmates’ blogs and constructively comment on their recent endeavours. My favourite DS106 manta was “Remember your ABCs – Always Be Creating and Always Be Commenting”. Jim Groom and Alan Levine, as our instructors, regularly shared their creations. More importantly, they commented faithfully on all DS106 students’ blog posts, regardless of whether you were enrolled as a paying student at the University of Mary Washington or an on-line “free-loader” like me. These online comments, from either the instructors or our classmates, encouraged one to do better and also to “pay forward” such feedback by commenting on the work of other students. In summary, each DS106 student embraced the concept that “It’s not about me – it’s all about us”.

Shedding light on my “Farewell to DS106’s Jim Groom” movie tribute

The light-bulb has been used for years to symbolize a new idea. It seems fitting that I used Animated Light Bulbsuch a device near the end of my previous tribute video to demonstrate that DS106 “turned me on” to new ideas and learning opportunities. Several people have asked me how I created this effect with my puppet.

I took my battery-operated rear light off my bicycle. Normally the rubber band stretches around the seat post to hold the light securely in place. Although the end of my index finger controlled my puppet’s tennis ball head, I simply secured the bicycle light’s rubber band around the lower portion of my index finger nearest my palm.  I then used my thumb to activate this flashing warning light at the appropriate time in the video. I trust you are now somewhat more “enlightened”.

Take care & keep smiling 🙂

– Flickr – Creative Commons image “students-in-class-with-teacher-reading”

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