With powerful new tools at their fingertips, educators today are breaking through school walls to connect classrooms to the real world and offer students perspective and context beyond their textbooks. Thanks to tools like the iPad and Google Hangouts, word problems and field trips are giving way to live video chats with NASA astronauts and collaborative online productions of Shakespeare that reinforce learning goals and have the potential to improve both transfer and student engagement. Inspired by the ingenuity of “connected classroom” teachers around the world, we set out this fall to explore how students might also benefit from connecting with other kids through shared storytelling and peer review. Today, we’re excited to share a short video about “Project PenPal”, a few takeaways we gathered from our exploration, and some tips for creating your own connected classrooms project.
At Launchpad Toys, we build creativity tools like Toontastic: School Edition that empower students of all ages to create and share content with kids around the world. Since releasing Toontastic three years ago, we’ve been amazed by the millions of creative stories students have drawn, animated, and narrated on our online network. The greatest surprise, however, has been the remarkable creativity of teachers bridging digital storytelling with math and science for students to create everything from geological reports to tutorials on fractions.
Moved by our “Toontastic Teachers”, we reached out this fall to a pair of schools (one in Ohio, the other in California) to explore an idea: what if we connected two science classrooms for students to create and peer-review animated lab reports? Might students learn from the insights, feedback, and stories of their peers just as they would a NASA astronaut? We know that it can be hard to teach concepts like “hypothesis” and “experimental design” – could we adapt Toontastic’s Story Arc (setup, conflict, climax and resolution) to scaffold students’ understanding of the scientific method and help them tell their own scientific stories (hypothesis, experiment, results and conclusion)?
Project PenPal was a success on many fronts. Students on both sides of the country took quickly to the project and became avid creators. Upon receiving feedback from their peers in Ohio, the California students took it upon themselves to create new reports from the ground up. After viewing the California students’ magnification projects, the Ohio students (who had been building robotic arms for space exploration) insisted (successfully) that their teacher extend the unit to include microscopic study of moon rocks. Their teacher, Leah LaCrosse, reported, “I cannot think of a better tool to get kids to write about science…” then added with a grin, “It takes a little bit longer, but the time that you spend pays off later.”
Whether the project truly pays off later through improved transfer will require more study, but we were happy to see students creating prolifically and clearly engaging with and responding to peer feedback. We credit two factors here – first, that the app provides a very personal and playful connection between students (voice recording, photos, drawings, etc.) and second, that it enables students of all ages to create, share, and iterate on their work quickly with minimal effort and lots of fun. Be it a poster, a comic, a movie, or a cartoon, apps like Toontastic enable today’s students to create engaging accounts of their work in a single class period, share it online, get feedback from other students 2000 miles away, and post a new iteration the next day. Content creation tools like PowerPoint have been in classrooms for decades, but few if any have offered the playful personalization or rapid iteration necessary to bridge the gap from a presentation tool to a social learning platform.
Our second question going into Project PenPal was whether Toontastic’s built-in Story Arc might help scaffold students’ understanding of the scientific method through “scientific storytelling”. Our teachers asked students to create cartoons outlining their hypothesis, experimental design, results, and conclusion – creating one scene for each section. The result was a series of videos that weren’t quite “stories”, but instead very compelling lab reports. We were encouraged by the thoroughness of the students’ presentations, but admittedly longed for a bit more of the backstory behind their investigations. For future projects we’ll explore hybrids of the two scaffolds.
The success of Project PenPal has inspired our team to push further on tools and frameworks for peer learning – not just in the classroom, but within our apps as well. With the help of our teachers in Ohio and California, we’ve created a toolkit for educators to connect their own classrooms and, thanks to our engineers-in-training in Ohio, we recently kicked off phase two of our exploration: prototyping constructive feedback tools for our four million playful storytellers on ToonTube to hone their creative writing skills and learn about the world around us through the stories of their peers.
If you have any questions about Project PenPal or using Toontastic in the classroom, please email us at email@example.com.
Special thanks to Joel Knopf, Hannah Clemmons, Leah LaCrosse, and Mike Harms for steering this project and for inspiring playful (scientific) storytellers around the world.