It’s All About the Impossible

Check out ImpossibleHQ for a free download of a great educational eBook: 50 Quotes to Inspire You to Do the Impossible. A few choice ones:

To the timid and hesitating everything is impossible because it seems so — Sir Walter Scott

The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible — Arthur C. Clarke

It is either easy or impossible — Salvador Dali

This is not only a great resource for helping students to see past limitations, it is a useful model for the kind of project that should be well within the capability of today’s well-technology-equipped students.

Rather than just taking inspiration from reading a book like this, students can publish their own book with quotes they find particularly inspiring. (And note the careful attribution of all the images used — another good example set.)

We’re already mentioned BoomWriter as a great resource for collaborative writing projects. It would be a good choice for a book with more of a story or narrative focus. Glogster we have also mentioned a s good resource for creating posters — including those of the inspirational variety. For a full-on eBook, the best bet might be Google Office suite. There are also some fantastic iPad apps for creating this sort of thing, although those will all involve a certain amount of cost.





BoomWriter Review

Since I have mentioned BoomWriter in my last couple of posts, I thought this would be a good time to provide some more information on the platform. I am a little too close to BoomWriter to write a credible review myself, but have a look at what David Kapuler had to say about it over at

BoomWriter is a fantastic site that teachers and students alike will love using. Teachers will love it because it’s free, easy to use, and engages students to optimize their learning. Students will love the kid-friendly look and feel of BoomWriter, as well as using technology to create and share stories with classmates.

Check out the full review. David gives BoomWriter a more thorough treatment than we have been able to provide here, and provides excellent insight on why it is becoming a favorite for students and teachers alike.

Collaboration and Other Amazing Things

Yesterday’s piece provided a quick look at QuadBlogging, the 100 Word Challenge, and other collaborative writing projects that classes can undertake together. I made a couple of suggestions of my own, both leveraging the BoomWriter platform, which involved classes Quad-Authoring an entire book or taking turns writing and selecting the next chapter for each other.

Let’s look at some of these ideas a little more closely, beginning with the standard sequence for authoring a book using BoomWriter:


(Click the image to see a full-sized version.)

Here we see a fairly small class — just seven students. Each student writes a first chapter of the book, which picks up where the story start left off. The students then review each other’s work and vote to select a winning Chapter 1 to be the official continuation of the story. Building from the winning chapter, each student then writes a second chapter. The students then repeat the review and voting process, and the book continues until it reaches a conclusion.

The QuadBlogging (or QuadAuthoring) model would work exactly the same way, except you would now have three additional classes participating as reviewers and selectors of the winning chapters. Each class would have a turn at writing the book, so in the end you would have four books — each written by members of one class with chapter review and selection performed by the other three classes.


Next we have the back-and-forth model, which would allow classes to truly collaborate. Each time a class begins a new chapter they would use as their starting point the previous chapter authored by the other class.


In the end you would have two books–two versions of the same story–both collaboratively written between the two classes. Or you could combine this idea with QuadAuthoring and let another two or three classes select between the two finished books. But I think there’s something appealing about the idea of writing two books together. Both classes would be equally invested in both versions — having contributed as much to one as to the other.

Now let’s really have some fun.

Once we’ve established the idea of classes handing off chapters to each other and reviewing and selecting each other’s work, some interesting possibilities arise. Imagine a book that spans a larger number of chapters written collaboratively between the same number of classes. Here we see 12 classes working together to create a book with 12 chapters:


(And the participating units wouldn’t have to be classes — they could be whole schools.)

Now imagine a book that’s all about the hand-offs. We’ll give this one a working title: The Day 100 Amazing Things Happened. 

I’m not going to attempt a diagram of this one. Picture it. It would be a truly social collaborative effort. The book would be created by collaboration and invitation. One class would begin with a story start. Using the standard process they would write multiple versions of a first chapter. They would then reach out to a new class, asking them to

1. Review and select a winner from among the different versions of the chapter

2. Write a new chapter following the winning chapter they selected

3. Invite a new class to review their chapter, write the next one, and so on

The Day 100 Amazing Things Happened would need to consist of very short chapters, probably not more than 200-300 words. Imagine getting five  classes to start such a book at the same time, competing with each other to complete the book within a given time frame. The results could then be judged among the (ultimately) 500 classes participating by a number of criteria:

  • Completion — the book has to have 100 chapters
  • Timeliness — all chapters must be submitted by the deadline
  • Clarity and overall quality of the writing
  • Reach of the authorship — who got invited to join / how diverse was the collaborative group?
  • Amazingness of the things that happen (obviously)

The Day 100 Amazing Things Happened would probably need to be a high school project, but could easily be scaled down to a middle school project (with 25 amazing things happening) or even primary (with a dozen amazing things happening.) Once the handoffs started it would be truly fun and exciting for everyone involved to see see how things unfold.

Inter-Class Authoring

At Edudemic, Holly Clark presents 5 Amazing Ways To Collaborate With Another Class. The list includes excellent ideas such as Mystery Skyping and using Youtube as a means of communication between two classes situated in very different time zones. One that particularly got my attention is the 100 Word Blog Challenge:

It is a weekly creative writing challenge for children under 16 years of age. Each week a prompt is given, which can be a picture or a series of individual words and the children can use up to 100 words to write a creative piece. This should be posted on a class blog and then linked to the 100 Word Challenge blog. The link is usually open from midnight on Wednesdays until midnight the following Tuesdays.

The Blog Challenge lets groups of students work from the same starting place, with each participant producing a unique piece inspired by the start. The Blog Challenge folks suggest pursuing it in conjunctuion with another item from Holly Clark’s list, Quadblogging:

As the name implies, a QuadBlog involves four classes blogging together with one class blogging while the other three comment – all classes take turns being the main contributor. This is empowering because you know the kids will have an authentic audience for their blog.

I would love to see QuadBlogging used with a tool like BoomWriter, which allows classes to collaboratively author a book. In the normal sequence of events, students submit and vote on chapters to decide how the story would develop. The students vote to select one submission as the official chapter, then begin writing the next chapter to build on the one that was selected.   This normally takes place within a single classroom.  An interesting alternative would be to have one class do the writing while another class (or three others if we’re following the QuadBlogging model)  does the reviewing and chapter selecting.

Or what if two classes were working on the same book at the same time? It would be interesting to see how differently the story unfolds with a different class doing the writing. One way to capitalize on these differences would be to have the classes select next chapters for each other. In other words, each time a class selects a chapter, it becomes the official next chapter for the other class they are participating with.  So both classes begin writing from the same story start. Class A and Class B each write and select an official chapter 2. Now class A has to write chapter 3 using class B’s chapter 2 as a point of departure — and vice versa.

This would represent true collaboration between classes.


Not Your Parents’ Summer Camp

Time was that “summer camp” meant packing kids off to a remote location for a few days (or weeks) of fresh air, exercise, making new friends, and (usually) arts & crafts. Of course that model still exists — and still has a lot to offer — but a new kind of summer camp experience has emerged recently, one that occurs online and that gives kids the chance to explore interesting new possibilities without ever leaving home.

One such camp of particular interest to us here is Make: magazine’s Maker Camp, described as a “free virtual summer camp for teens.” While short on canoeing and campfire songs, this program has a lot to offer for kids who want to explore the maker movement from the inside by learning how to build their own toys, games, and gadgets. Video tutorials accompany a series of Google+ Hangouts to bring the camping experience to life.

Another good example is BoomWriter’s Storytellers Camp,  wherein campers get to collaborate on a creative writing project with Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney.

Both of these summer programs make use of social technology to enable a creative shared space for learning. As we have noted recently, while social technology can provide a tremendous boost to learning in general, it seems to be especially effective when it comes to providing an environment where students can improve their creative skills. These summer “camps” provide a glimpse of the future of the classroom. This is not to suggest that in the future all (or a majority of) classwork will be done remotely — although that is a possibility — but rather to observe that an environment that both invites the students in and provides fresh challenges to them in an engaging way is too good a model not to be adopted.

Who knows? Before long, it might be summer all year long.

It’s NOT the 1000-Monkey Scenario

At Transparency Revolution, I just published a piece responding to an observation by Charlie Stross on the ubiquity of photography:

Right now we’re living through the Photography Singularity; 10% of all photos ever taken were taken in the past 12 months, and the exponential up-slope is continuing.

The “photography singularity”* is an instance of an overall information explosion which is occurring here in the age of the the Internet and the Smartphone. It is not alone. A similar explosion is taking place in the realm of book publishing, where the growing popularity of self-published eBooks is producing some truly startling results. A while back, blogger Pat Bertram explained it in these terms:

300,000 books were published in the U.S. 2003.

411,422 books were published in the U.S. in 2007.

1,052,803 books were published in the U.S. 2009.

Approximately 3,000,000 books were published in the U.S. in 2011.

And . . . drum roll, please . . . in an online interview, Seth Godin suggests that 15,000, 000 books will be published in 2012.

15,000,000. Yikes.

Bertram is quoting Bowkers, the company that issues ISBN numbers, before he gets to Seth Godin’s prediction. I haven’t seen any official numbers for 2012 yet, but if the total was even half of what Godin predicted, that’s an astounding number.

But how significant is it, really? At Forbes, Nick Morgan offers the following analysis of the situation (relying on very different numbers from Bertram’s:

Here’s the problem with self-publishing: no one cares about your book. That’s it in a nutshell. There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe. Many of those – perhaps as many as half or even more – are self-published. On average, they sell less than 250 copies each. Your book won’t stand out. Hilary Clinton’s will. Yours won’t.

Morgan’s assertion that any given reader’s book won’t stand out is refuted by a few exceptional cases — call them the Justin Biebers of the book publishing world — whose numbers appear to be growing.

In any case, not everyone is looking for Hilary-level success. Like the smartphones that are turning us all into photographers, digital publishing enables many more individual writers to be published authors than ever would have before. Just being a published author is a big deal for many; selling 250 copies would be icing on the cake. The traditional publishing industry is driven by harsh economics;  there is a set threshold of sales that must be reached in order to declare a book a success. But with the digital option you can publish a book that has a potential audience of only 10 readers and achieve something that the traditional book publishers have never come close to: 100% market saturation.

I mentioned recently how one of our recommended solutions, Boomwriter, provides a shared space for collaboration. Students write alternative versions of chapters of a book and then vote to decide which becomes the next official chapter. The finished product is published as an actual book, which usually has a fairly small readership — members of the class, their friends, their families. But the number of copies distributed doesn’t diminish the sense of accomplishment experienced by each of the authors.

Plus, with thousands of kids in hundreds of classrooms churning out book after book, there’s a very real real possibility that some of the finished works will have much broader appeal. This isn’t about having  1000 monkeys pounding on typewriters until they produce one of Shakespeare’s plays. As noted in my piece last week, having an audience seems to be a real factor in helping writers improve the quality of their work. And self-publishing helps works that otherwise would not have had the chance to find an audience. How long before a bestseller emerges from some 4th grade classroom in Iowa? How long before Hollywood is negotiating a three-picture deal with some middle-schoolers from Baltimore?

* The word “singularity” in Stross’s quote and as used by me here is a reference to the technological singularity, the hypothesis that we will soon see the emergence of a greater than human intelligence, changing the world in ways that are unpredictable and unimaginable. In common usage (disapproved of by some singularity purists) there are any number of smaller singularities occurring as we approach this big one — radical changes to society brought about by the sudden adoption of new technology. The “book singularity” is one such.

Improving Creative Skills Via Social Technology

Keeping with the theme from our last couple of posts, here is an item about  the positive impact of social technology in the classroom:

Social Media Makes for Better Student Writing, Not Worse, Teachers Say

“As an English teacher who is trying to improve student writing, one thing I see is that people are seeing greater ownership of their writing when they know it will be seen beyond the class and the teacher,” Woollven, 40, said.

This is the value of operating within a shared social space or, to put it in simpler terms,  the value of having an audience. Students care a lot more about the quality of what they’re doing if it isn’t just the teacher looking at their work. This is to some extent counterintuitive — the teacher is the only one that “matters” from a grade standpoint, but students don’t see it that way. Knowing that classmates (and others) will be reading their work motivates them to produce a better piece of writing.

By extension, we can assume that producing other kinds of creative product enjoys the same boost in quality from occurring within a shared space. We have been looking at Glogster in several of our previous posts; it’s interesting to note that a Glog shared with the rest of the class (or the rest of the school, or even a larger audience) will probably be of higher quality than one created solely  for the student’s viewing, or intended just to be shared with the teacher.

In the linked article, the teachers talk about using blogs as a means of allowing students to share their writing with a larger audience. In my previous post I mentioned BoomWriter, which  adds a competitive element to the idea of writing within a shared space. Only one student’s version of each chapter of the book is chosen for inclusion in the final. It would be interesting to know how much impact this added factor has on the quality of the student’s writing.