Weblogs, Chatrooms, and Movies

This module engages students in an innovative creative writing process that harnesses technologies already familiar to many of them. The following lesson is open-ended in theme and can be applied to almost any area of the curriculum. In it, students develop a theme of the teacher's choice, using online technology as the primary writing medium. A bonus to this approach is that it allows students to tutor their peers-and often the teacher-in the best ways to use interactive Web sites.

This storytelling lesson taps into the technology of weblogs and chatrooms. Weblogs are Web sites with graphical user interfaces designed for any user to log on and build their personal Web sites. Weblogs began as independently created and hosted Web sites on critical ideas, recommended links, and personal insights. Individuals who create these sites pride themselves on initiating an online movement free from government censorship and corporate control. The mushrooming of these sites has spurred the development of Web facilities hosting hundreds of thousands of online journals. Chatrooms are virtual conference rooms where a group of users can log on and create their own "social zones" on the Web. The choices of weblog and chatroom sites are vast and most teachers will do best by taking their students' advice on the most popular and user-friendly online facilities.

Step 1. Invite: Let's Chat!

Choose a virtual chat room in any of the most popular portals/search engines, eg., Yahoo, AOL, IRC, or MSN. As soon as you log on, you'll find chat room links. Click on the link and follow instructions provided by the host. You'll have to download the engine onto your computer-a simple process. Divide your class into groups of five. Assign the most tech-savvy students to be group leaders. Instruct the leaders to create each group's chat rooms.

Step 2. Play: Start With A Phrase!

Begin the writing process by asking students to think of their own, unique pen names for the chat rooms. Briefly discuss the "why" of using pseudonyms online and also the historical convention of writers and pen names. Review the following rules of the writing game with your students:

  • The teacher (or class, or student) chooses an overall theme, such as The Environment of the City
  • The teacher initiates the game with a related "starting phrase"-preferably something fun and playful such as, "I saw Willy the chipmunk in the drug store."
  • Students react to and/or expand on the phrase by adding to it or offering an additional sentence.
  • A scribe in each group records students' comments on a word processor as they go around the circle.
  • Groups share their findings with the class.

When the teacher says "start," students have 15 minutes to express and record their input. It's best if the kids continue and build from the sentences of their groupmates, one by one. In this way, they write their narratives in logical sequences. At the end of this time period, each group prints out their material and a volunteer reads it to the class.

Reflection. Briefly ask the class what they thought of the activity. Post questions that stimulate reflective thinking. Your questions may focus on both the collaborative writing format and the theme or phrase. You might ask, "What did you discover about writing as you wrote your responses to your classmates' sentences?" Write down key responses on the board. They might include such observations as "adding on a line means moving the story forward," "Being in tune with what the previous people have said so far, helps the story makes sense." Try to keep this interaction going at a good clip, while building on the theme with any additional information you might have.

Step 3. Explore: Brainstorm on the Theme

The next activity involves focused environmental topics for each group. The idea is for kids to drill down into more specifics on the theme of The Environment of the City. Individual group representatives pick a starting phrase from an envelope, which the teacher prepares beforehand. Topics might include Wildlife in City Parks, or How Birds Nest in the City. Instruct the class to brainstorm and have a scribe or group leader type into the word processing document all the ideas related to the starting phrase they picked.

After 5-10 minutes, instruct group leaders to print the thematic brainstorming that transpired in their groups. Each member gets a copy of the printout.

Step 4. Integrate: Merge Elements and Build Stories

Review the elements of a powerful narrative. Ask students what they think these elements are. What keeps one reading a story? Write down their responses on the board. Make sure key elements are discussed. These include: (1) believable characters that evoke emotional and intelligent responses from readers, including one main character and one antagonist who have opposing goals (discuss this concept); (2) an action-oriented plot that keeps readers enthralled in the mystery of the story and evokes memories of significant human experiences; and (3) detailed and concrete descriptions of people, places, and events.

Then ask, "How can cooperative writing effectively develop stories?" Write down critical responses on the board. Underscore the importance of the following: (1) every sentence added must push the action forward, building to a climax; and (2) groups should begin by agreeing on a main character and an antagonist, as well as their opposing goals reflective of the environmental topic.

Armed with a list of ideas about their topic and a refresher on what makes a good story, groups return to their respective chat rooms to write a story in a cooperative and interactive process called a "cooperative narrative." Remind the groups the narratives, which will emerge from their chatroom interactions, should tell a story that provides readers with insights about their topic, without stating the topic outright.

Instruct the class to log on to their respective chat rooms and give them 20 minutes to explore the theme and create their cooperative narratives.

When done, the leader or scribe prints outs the recorded interaction that transpired in the groups. Invite individual volunteers to read their group's work to the class.

Reflection. Briefly ask what the class thought of the activity. Post questions that stimulate reflective thinking. Focus your questions on how the stories used significant "elements of powerful narratives" For example: (1) How is a theme/topic transformed into a story/narrative? (2) How did the main character and antagonist keep the action moving forward? And (3) What were the messages of the narratives? Why were these clear/not clear? Write down key responses on the board. Identify and define the concepts of beginning, middle, and end of stories.

Step 5. Invent: Create Your Own

This activity involves writing individual narratives about the theme on individual weblogs. The students use past group brainstorming and narratives as springboards for creating their own imaginative angles. The stories should include elements and characters from the group narrative that they develop further. Since these are first drafts, they shouldn't worry yet about grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. The primary task is to write a powerful and moving story about the theme. Stories must be as original as can be and targeted to an audience of their peers.

How To. To accomplish the activity, students may go to any search engine and type in "weblogs." These engines may include google.com, yahoo.com, aol.com, excite.com, msn.com, etc. Students can also choose from any of these popular sites: xanga.com, weblog.com, diaryland.com, livejournal.com, etc. As soon as they get to the site, they must log on and click on the simplest option to create their weblogs. If they want to create an elaborate site, they can do so later, on their own. Group leaders should assist their members in creating individual weblogs.

Once they have their individual weblogs, each student is given 30 minutes to write their narratives. If unable to finish, they can continue working during break or after school.

Step 6. Assess: Peer Editing

Ask each student to choose three weblogs to read from among their classmates, preferably not from their group. After they read each one, they must click on the Comments link and give feedback based on answering the following: (1) What did you like/not like in the story? (2) What did you learn from the story? (3) How can the writer improve on the story?

Step 7. Master: Second Draft

Each student should edit their stories in a word processing document, integrating the best suggestions from their peers. Instruct the class to also highlight, copy and paste their weblog text into a word processing document using spelling, grammar, and language tools. And have students further revise their texts as needed. After they're done, each one should copy and paste their drafts back into their individual weblogs.

Step 8. Visualize: Video Integration

Students will create 12 video tableaus of their narratives using play dough. Students may do this activity in pairs. The kids choose 12 key parts of their narratives, including the beginning and concluding scenes. They will each use play dough to mold their characters into different action positions and postures as they might appear in different scenes of their stories. Be sure the tableaus are bright and the backgrounds match the scene. Each tableau will be shot at three different angles and in three different ways. For example, panning (moving the camera from one horizontal end to the other), zoom (magnify inwards or outwards), and steady still shot of the tableau.

To begin shooting, turn the camera on, switch to Record/Camera, take off the lens cap, position oneself in a preferred angle and press the Record button. After all images have been shot, you're ready to edit.

Assuming you're using a digital camcorder, connect your camera to your computer through the FireWire jack via a FireWire Cable. The 6-pin jack connects to your computer while the 4-pin jack connects to your camera. Turn your camera to VTR mode and rewind the tape to the first shot.

Note: I'm using Apple iMovie for this tutorial example, but you can use any NLE program you like. The keystrokes may vary, but the results will be the same. Click on the iMovie icon on the dock. A dialog box will pop out. Switch the small camera icon on lower left of the screen to Camera mode. You should see the words "Camera Connected" onscreen. Hit the import button below the blue screen to bring the footage you shot into your computer. When you want to stop, click the Stop key. You'll see your footage show up as thumbnails in the bin on the right side of the screen.

View all your clips and decide which ones you want to use. You will capture three kinds of shots for each tableau. Double-click on the clips you choose to use. Write down the beginning and ending timecode of your chosen clip.

Point your cursor at the beginning frame of every shot and drag this clip to the end of the previous clip on the timeline. Then drag the clips to the Shelf according to the flow of your narrative. To split movie clips, click on the clip from the Shelf and then with the Triangle, click on the first frame to the end frame>Edit>Split Clip At Playhead, or press command-T.

In between clips insert the related sentences from your narrative. Take note of the power of rhythm in cutting and pasting text in between moving images. Use the different tools such as transition, timing, and effects. Create your opening and closing clips and stitch these accordingly. If you need help in the process, click on Help and iMovie provides a step-by-step tutorial.

Step 9. Distill: Theorize

Review the writing process and watch the visual narratives in class. Ending the module in this way develops increased appreciation among students for the writing process, elements of powerful narratives, online story writing technologies, and making silent movies from play dough.

Gigi Carlson is an international expert on interactive teen learning. She has been a program director of theater arts in Southeast Asia, an executive producer of digital children's games, and a drama teacher at the Ateneo de Manila University. She currently teaches Digital Media and Entrepreneurship at Monte Del Sol School, Santa Fe, NM, is a youth marketing consultant for Ulead Systems, and teaches Digital Media for the Classroom at the Digital Media Academy.

Read other articles from the November Issue