Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Storytelling with Playtime Theater

Playtime Theater (iPad only) promises to be an outstanding app for creative storytelling, and has been well-reviewed. With built-in production elements like sound effects and music, it seems as though it would beat Puppet Pals hands-down, especially as a volume purchase would bring the price even lower than Puppet Pals. Unfortunately, just as the current version of Puppet Pals has its flaws, so does version 1.0 of Playtime Theater.

The company does plan on releasing more sets and characters in the future, but for the moment I feel the castle set is limiting for school use. The most significant problem for me, though, is that Playtime Theater 1.0 does not allow you to save or export your stories. Without that option, I might want a copy for my kids to play with, but would not want to use it yet for classroom projects. Hopefully, later versions will include this option as otherwise it has some very cool features. I'm definitely going to keep an eye on this one!

Edited April 5, to add: David Katz and Seth Levine of Make Believe Worlds were kind enough to let me have an evaluation copy of Playtime Theater. They write that they are
"a small "2 dad" company...which means we still have "day jobs" so there are still some rough edges, but we are trying to get an update out very soon that will address a few of the known issues. [ . . .] we are basically just two guys from Van Nuys with day jobs in “the industry.” We both are Television editors with over 25 years experience between us. So, storytelling is something we have always enjoyed."
Having now actually had a chance to play with Playtime Theater, I think this would be very cool for younger kids to play with and I know my kids will love it. The app does some very cool things, with windows and doors opening to reveal characters, and characters being able to move around from one place to another in the castle in a way I haven't seen in other apps. It allows kids to create something that looks quite complex really quite easily. The inability to save your finished shows is a serious flaw though - crucial for school environments where projects often have to carry over from one day to the next due to scheduling constraints. Although the show you are currently working is saved when you leave the app to go and do something else on the iPad, I have not seen a way in Playtime Theater to save your show so that you can then work on a different one without losing the first.  I am still convinced that this is a product with great potential, both in the classroom and particularly out of it. I will be looking out eagerly for what shows up in the updates! Check out their You Tube channel for more videos that will give you a good sense of what it can currently do.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Storytelling with Puppet Pals

Years ago, I used a piece of software called Hollywood, from a company called Theatrix, with my middle school ESL students. The software provided sets and characters to choose from and the students wrote the dialogs and stage directions that made the cartoon characters move around on screen.  My students really enjoyed working with it. They worked on their language skills as they wrote the dialog and social and cultural skills came into play too with the topics I assigned. Although the computer did the talking for them, they got to work on their pronunciation when they listened to the way the computer pronounced their dialog - they occasionally had to deliberately misspell a word in order to make the computer pronounce it correctly!

I recently discovered an app for iPod and iPad that is similar to Hollywood. Puppet Pals also allows students to create 'plays' or 'movies' using provided characters and backgrounds. I downloaded it and within minutes my daughter and a friend were playing with it, creating a story. It is a little harder to use than Hollywood in some ways, in that Hollywood allowed you to create a script which controlled when the characters moved and how. With Puppet Pals, you drag the characters around the screen with your finger as you talk. The iPod/iPad records the audio as you move the characters around. I can see students needing to create a script and rehearse several times before they come up with a movie they are happy with. Hmm - just like a real play!

It does take a little getting used to how to move the characters around the screen - it is too easy to make them shrink or grow enormously tall without meaning to. You can pause the recording, but there is no way to go back and edit what you have already recorded.

The app comes with a limited collection of characters and backgrounds. You can get more with an 'in-app' purchase.  The Director's Pass is the best deal, with one fee entitling you to download all the currently available characters and backgrounds. You can then also 'cut out' characters from your own photos to use in your stories! Although you can not draw your own characters directly in Puppet Pals, if you plan ahead carefully you could draw your characters, digitize them, and add them to the photo album on the iPod/iPad. You would then be able to cut them out from there. I have a colleague who teaches pre-school and although this app may be too difficult for her students to use, I can see potential in teachers using it to create 'social stories' with familiar backgrounds.

My first attempts at using it were only moderately successful. The videos we made on the iPad saved OK and were viewable on the iPad, but turned out to be too big to email to myself so I could put them on my website. I bought the Director's Pass for my iPod, and found that videos did not save properly at all - all I got was one second of video! At this point (version 1.2.012), I can't recommend downloading it. It has some great potential, and I will be downloading updates as they become available, hoping that they are going to iron out the technical glitches. From what I've seen on their website, they do seem to be very responsive to customer comments, so I'm hopeful that this will soon become a more usable product.

Here's a video from the creators of Puppet Pals, Polished Play, on using the software. 

Puppet Pal for iPhone/iPod
Puppet Pal HD

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Digital storytelling with Sonic Pics

SonicPics is another app that lets you create digital stories with pictures, sound, and (with a little thought and another app) some text too. Here's a quick overview:

A more detailed tutorial:

4/7/11 ETA: SonicPics Lite, which is free, limits you to only 3 pictures in a video, but as Apple employee Jim Moulton pointed out at a conference today, this is not necessarily a problem. Three pictures (and 10 minutes of recording time) is enough for a story with a beginning, a middle and an end!

2/6/12 ETA - SonicPics Lite is no longer available.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tony Vincent, project based learning, and storytelling

I mentioned Tony Vincent's website Learning in Hand in my first post on this blog. If you haven't visited it, you're really missing out. I've been working on blogposts about digital storytelling, and then what do I find but this video from Tony:

It's a presentation he put together for the k12 Online Conference 2010. I've already written posts about using StoryKit and StoryRobe. I was going to go on to post about how you can make further tweaks to the images you use in your stories by using apps like Comic Touch. Tony's video looks at how you can use a similar storytelling app - SonicPics - AND includes info on how you can use Comic Touch and other apps to edit the images you include in your stories. He also goes far beyond mere recommendations of software to use, putting it in a solid pedagogical context. He's also realistic, commenting that "because it's annoying to switch between apps, many [students] will want to write their notes on paper."

Note that not all the apps he recommends are free and some of the applications he recommends are only available for the iPad.   Here's the second half of the video on project based learning or, for those of you like me who'd rather read, here's the article he wrote that covers the same ground. (At the end of the article on project based learning he mentions that, at the time he wrote the article, the total cost of the apps he listed was US$375! I was stunned at that, given that so many apps for the iPod cost no more than a few dollars! Tony pointed out in the comments to this post that the widget he used miscalculated and the cost was more like $15.)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Digital storytelling with StoryRobe

StoryRobe is another way for kids to create digital stories using photos or digital copies of their own artwork. Once they've selected the images they want to use and put them in the right order, they can record the text to go with the images. They can talk for a total of up to 3 minutes, and synchronize the images with what they are saying by tapping the screen as they talk to advance to the next picture. StoryRobe creates a single video file that can then be shared.

Unlike StoryKit, there is no option to add text to the finished product, as  the model is more video-like than book-like. There are ways to add it it to the pictures however. Students could handwrite text on their original artwork before it is digitized, or use an app like Comic Touch ($2.99) or Comic Touch Lite (free, reduced feature set & watermark on output) to add captions or speech bubbles to the images and then save them to their photo album before adding them to the StoryRobe project.

I initially thought that one drawback to working with StoryRobe is that once you start the process of adding pictures to your story, you really have to complete the story (including adding audio) in one sitting. There did not seem to be a way to save works in progress. I later found that Storyrobe does sometimes save works in progress.

I have not always been successful in creating StoryRobe stories - the process seems to fail at the point of creating the finished video. Because I have managed to get short projects to work, I think this may be because I have included too many photos, even though the audio recording was within the 3 minutes allowed. Because of this, I have not yet had students try to use it. For my purposes - working on writing and speaking - I already have a workable product in StoryKit. Once I figure out what makes StoryRobe fail I will be more likely to use it with students, but I'm not going to have them work on a project knowing that it may well never reach completion!

Here is a very short video I threw together using StoryRobe and Comic Touch Lite while sitting in the car one afternoon waiting to pick my kids up. (The Comic Touch Lite logo does not show up on the first image because of the way I cropped it.)
I'd given up trying to get longer videos to save properly! I thought this one hadn't either , but when I checked my photo album later it was in there!

The following video gives a good overview of how StoryRobe works. There are also directions on the StoryRobe website that you could print out if needed.**  The video creator mentions that Story Robe costs $0.99 - it is in fact free at the time of this posting. StoryRobe does not yet come in an HD version for iPad, but will work on one.

**Addendum: Less than 2 days after I originally wrote this post, the Storyrobe website disappeared for several days . . . It did reappear again, but given that and the tendency of the app to crash (Wes Fryer also commented on this), I think Sonic Pics will be less frustrating to use in school.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Digital storytelling with StoryKit

StoryKit is a free app for both the iPod and iPad that allows the reader to create digital stories. When I first downloaded it, I didn't get the point right away and thought it was just another, not very good, ereader because it comes with three books included on its bookshelf. Once I figured out that it is intended to create books as much as to read them, it suddenly became a LOT more interesting!

The first time I used it with students was with a group of 1st graders. They created a book for me on paper first and only once that was finished did we start the process of transferring the book to the iPods. For their books (about animals) the students had drawn pictures. As I already had a large collection of animal photos on my computer, I loaded the relevant ones onto the iPods for the kids to use in their StoryKit books. For the next project I did with StoryKit, my second graders were writing personal narratives and in this case I scanned their hand-drawn images and loaded them onto the iPods. Students can also draw pictures directly in StoryKit, though the quality (certainly on an iPod as opposed to an iPad) tends to be not as good as images kids draw on paper.

All the students VERY quickly got the hang of navigating their way through StoryKit. It was good to see them being critical of their audio recordings, and choosing to re-record and re-record (without any prompting from me) until they were happy with what they heard. Without exception, as soon as they had finished, they wanted to share their stories. They went back to their regular classroom teacher and wanted the whole class to see their story, and they went home and showed their parents the story from my website. In all my years of teaching, I have rarely seen such enthusiasm from students for sharing their writing!

Here is a YouTube video on using StoryKit on an iPad. The creator comments at the end that when she uploads her finished stories to the StoryKit website the sound does not work. I have not found that to be the case.

Here is a sample photo story educator and technology advocate Wes Fryer put together using StoryKit about visiting China. Wes embedded it into his blog page. Here it is on the StoryKit website.

Here is a podcast (over an hour long) that you can download that details a University of Maryland research project using Story Kit to enable families to create digital stories. It includes some good ideas on ways you can use the software.

Things to be aware of about using StoryKit:
  • there are definitely some logistics involved in getting images onto the iPods for the students. If you have newer iPods with built-in cameras, (I don't), I suppose you could take photos of the students' hand-drawn images. I run them through the photocopier/scanner which then emails them to me. (As fast as a making a regular photocopy, and much faster than using a 'regular' scanner!) 
  • Depending on your tolerance for background noise in the finished product, it may be difficult to find a quiet enough area in school for the audio recording.
  • You can add more than one audio clip to each page.
  • When students are recording their stories, it is definitely helpful if they have a written version that is not on the iPod to read from because the recording window hides the page where a student may have entered text.
  • Typing is still a new skill for most younger kids and can go very slowly. I will admit that, given the luxury of very small groups of students, I have had students type one or two pages in their story and I have helped them finish up.
  • The text box can be moved up and down the page, and you can 'pinch' or 'stretch' the text box to resize it somewhat. 
  • The spelling/auto-correct feature on the iPods can be helpful, but can also be incredibly frustrating when it repeatedly 'miscorrects' a word.
  • If you use the paint tools, make sure not to paint where your text will be. Even if you enter the text first, you will not be able to see it while you are painting. 
  • The shared projects are hosted on the website.  There is no way to directly upload a finished story to another website (though of course you can link to the project at There is no way to download or save the finished projects to share in any way other than through the website or on the iPod. Compare this to an iMovie which can not only be uploaded to a website but also saved as a DVD. Should the website ever shut down, all the projects published online will vanish :-( On the other hand, free access to the site means that if students create stories on an iPod at home, they have a way to share it without having to have their own website.
  • The iPod you create the story on has to be set up to send email so that the story can be shared. 
Finally, if you use StoryKit, you can let the developers know what you think of it right here.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Math with coins

Obviously, if you are teaching kids to count money and make change you can use real money or the plastic coins that are readily available. Just like so many other activities that can be done on the computer, there are 'real-world' equivalents that are just as good or better.  However, having a digital version can provide a convenient way of motivating kids to do extra practice. For parents, some of these activities can provide a convenient way of practicing working with coins or practicing math skills while waiting at the doctor's or for an older sibling to get done at sports practice.

Crazy Coins (free)
For each of the 28 levels (0 - 27), you have 60 seconds to try to answer as many questions as you can. For each question, you are given an amount in cents and you're to figure out how many of each coin you need to form that amount. The principle is good - but a huge disadvantage to this piece of software is that it does not show the coins. It is not as intuitive as Coins Genius (listed below). It is a free download, but the other software listed in this post are far more useful.

Sticker Shop (Free)
Kids choose a sticker to 'buy' and then have to flick/drag the appropriate coins to the counter to 'pay' for it. The coin pictures are clear and appropriately proportioned, but only show the heads of the coins. If a student checks out without paying the correct amount, they have to start all over again with a new sticker rather than simply correcting the amount of money they've put on the counter. Not bad for free software.

Coins Genius ($0.99)
This is a 60 second game in which randomly chosen coin combinations (5, 6, or 7 coins) are displayed. The child must add up the pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters quickly and accurately and select the correct amount. Points are given for each correct answer and penalties are given for incorrect answers. The Top 5 highest scores go on a Leader Board to help track progress and motivate.

Coin Math  ($1.99) is designed for both iPhone and iPad. It covers the following skills

- Learn what a penny, nickel, dime, quarter, half dollar and dollar coins looks like, front and back.
- Learn about U.S. State Quarters.
- Learn how to match coins.
- Learn how to add coins.
- Learn how to add different coins.
- Learn how to pay for items.
- Learn how to make change.
The counting, shopping, and making change activities can be completed at two different levels.  Some activities require the user to be able to read, others do not. Occasionally the activities are not realistic - in the simple make change activity for example, the student might be asked to make change for a $1 item assuming the customer paid $2.

Jungle Coins (iPad only, $2.99)
Sadly, as well as being the most expensive app listed in this post, this app is available for the iPad only. It offers a variety of activities and levels of play, and even allows the user to choose which of several different country's coins they would like to use. 
  • Identify and compare coins.
  • Count coin value
  • Reinforce coin skills by calculating correct change.
  • Track progress with your score.
  • Multiple levels of difficulty. Start as a beginner with Level 1 - it only presents low denominations for easier coin math. Work your way up to an expert level with all coin denominations.
  • Learn gives you an interactive tutorial on understanding each coin. It explains who is on each coin, and lets you flip coins to see both sides.
  • Jungle Coins makes it easy to switch to other coin sets instantly and challenge you with unfamiliar coins.