Lifelong Learning, teaching writing & storytelling

Why is telling a story important?

Originally written in June of 2012

A response to Have, Pahl, and Roswell and the importance of digital storytelling for our students …

I found every word of Haven’s chapter to be important and applicable to my work as an English teacher. Many of the references to research and the ideas expressed simply reaffirmed my own experiences and learning over the last eleven and a half years of teaching. I felt validated in reading much of this article; however, my teaching context is going to be changing dramatically next school year. From January 2001 through this school year, I taught high school English in a very large, traditional public high school. Next year, I will be teaching seventh and eighth grade language arts electives, creative writing (7th) and dramatic writing (8th), in a private, college preparatory school.  Not only is the general atmosphere completely different, but the study body will be markedly different as well. Of all the ideas, Haven’s comments about the broad educational value of writing stories stand out the most. “[L]earning to effectively write stories is a valuable precursor to learning to write other expository forms since stories developed tens-of-thousands of years before expository forms” (p. 117).

First, this statement reinforces the value and importance of my role as a creative writing teacher. This course, although an elective, clearly has the potential to play an essential role in assisting students’ progress as learners across the content areas. By starting with explicit instruction in story structure, Haven suggests that I help students improve their ability to comprehend all forms of text. Furthermore, this explicit instruction may have “a large impact on their [students’] enthusiasm for and willingness to spend school and home time writing” (p. 116). Clearly, as a writing teacher, any activity that can improve student enthusiasm and motivation is a valuable activity to include in my teaching.

Second, in my opinion, the scope of the eighth grade course, dramatic writing, is vague and not clearly tied to any specific educational objective. Prior to reading this chapter, my plan was to propose changing this course to “creating digital presentations” (or something to that effect). Now that I have read this chapter, I plan on proposing the course change to “digital storytelling” with the following educational objective (still a work in progress): Students will learn to apply story telling techniques using new digital media to express a variety of cross-curricular content. I believe I can use much of the research provided in Haven’s text to support this change as a relevant change in focus that will assist students in all of their classes towards meaning making and effective communication of ideas.

Pahl & Rowsell

In my experience as an educator, I have found that “reading” is not an activity performed in isolation. For years, experts in reading have suggested that one of the best ways to increase student comprehension is helping students to access prior knowledge, a concept confirmed in Haven’s chapter. Pahl and Rowsell comment that “Street therefore challenged us not to see literacy as a neutral skill, but as a socially situated practice” (p. 14). Street’s challenge to see literacy as a socially situated practice seems to me an extension of the idea of accessing prior knowledge in reading. As individuals, we call upon different literacy skills depending on the context. If I am reading a text for graduate school, I use the literacy skills I have developed as a student and an educator to engage with the text. From accessing my prior knowledge of educational theories to personal experiences as a student and educator, my situation is unique and, therefore, informs my comprehension of the text and the literacy skills that I use to comprehend it. If I am engaging in a group text message conversation with my friends, I utilize an entirely different set of literacy skills based upon this context. My friends and I have our own set of shared understandings and I can draw upon the prior knowledge that I have of those understandings to make references to our favorite media or memories. Likewise, our students have many different skill sets that can be enhanced depending on the situation; therefore, it seems essential to recognize the various social situations in which students engage in literacy practices and help students identify strategies they use in different domains and guide students toward “tweaking” existing literacy skills towards usability in new domains. In other words, if a student already understands how to explain the importance of a character in a movie based on the socially situated practice of discussing and analyzing a favorite movie, it becomes the teacher’s responsibility to point out how that literacy skill can be applied in the new domain of discussing and analyzing the importance of a literary character in a print text.



Haven, K. F. (2007). Story proof: The science behind the startling power of story. Westport, Conn: Libraries Unlimited.

Pahl, K. & Rowsell, J. (2005). Literacy and education: Understanding the new literacy studies in the classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Lifelong Learning, teaching writing & storytelling

Story Core: Analysis & Application for Education

At the heart of all storytelling and writing is a story core, but how can the concept of a story core improve the quality of education? 


Ohler (2008) introduces the concept of a story core as a “vastly simplified version of the hero’s journey” (p. 72). He identifies the three major components of a story’s core, which can be briefly summarized as the central challenge, the character’s transformation, and the response and resolution (p 72).

In the Williams and Cantina story, both men face the challenge of adapting to life with each other. For Williams, this challenge presents itself as facing the unknown: “’I didn’t know what kind of food you were going to eat’” is the first in a list of “unknowns” that Williams lists in the beginning of the story. For Cantina, this challenge presents as an adjustment from living as a single person to living as someone who must share his life and space with another person. Both men are transformed by the experience when Williams discovers that he will become a father. To Williams, the transformation is clear: he transitions into parenthood – ready or not. For Cantina, on the other hand, the transformation is subtle: he describes a realization that Williams is a responsible, committed young parent. He says, “’I think the thing that impressed me the most was your comment that my son is going to know who his father is.’” In the end, each man expresses gratitude to the other. Thus, the initial challenge of adapting to life with each other is resolved: Williams has found comfort, guidance, and support from Cantina, claiming that all the good in him has been “put there” by Cantina; meanwhile, Cantina claims the feelings of a proud parent when he thinks of Williams and all he has achieved.

In “Harry the Dirty Dog,” a dog is challenged at the beginning of the story because he will have to take a bath. He runs away and has a fantastic time becoming as dirty as can be, only to find that he misses his family and wants to return home. He so much desires to return to his family that his revulsion to bath is transformed: he must beg for a bath in order to be recognized. In the end, Harry’s problem is resolved because he takes a bath and is immediately recognized by his family as their beloved pet. Furthermore, he lives “happily ever after” with the bathing brush stored neatly under his bed.

My favorite of the three pieces is the animated short “Kiwi!”. In the video, a kiwi bird wants to fly, which is a challenge for this small, flightless bird. In order to overcome his physical detriments, kiwi transforms not himself but his world so that he can experience a simulation of flight. Kiwi’s response is taking a leap off a cliff, and, through this “flight,” he learns what it is to fly, but his flight ends in certain doom as he crashes to the ground.

Any analysis would not be complete without addressing the challenges of the different mediums. I found the audio story to be the most difficult to analyze, and I am unsure as to whether my difficulty results from the lack of visual components or my own discomfort with personal narratives. I never thought of myself as a visual person; however, I felt as though this story was lacking something that I needed in order to understand the characters. On the other hand, the challenge could be that literary analysis is part of my professional context, and I am more comfortable with traditional “stories” like “Harry the Dirty Dog,” which I found to be the easiest to analyze as it adhered to a traditional story structure.

The medium of delivery for “Kiwi!” created an opportunity for audience transformation. When clicking play on this video, a viewer naturally expects a funny, light-hearted cartoon about a silly bird doing something silly. After all, what kind of “bird” has useless wings and cannot fly? And, this particular kiwi is nailing trees to the side of a cliff. How odd. Then, when the kiwi places the flight goggles on its head, we realize what is happening – we are shocked at the unexpected turn of events. The story is not silly or funny. This story is sweet and sad, and speaks to us about achieving a dream and reaching beyond our limitations — something one might expect to be presented in a different medium, such as a fable with colorful hand-drawn illustrations or a personal narrative with evocative photographs, but not a wordless cartoon. There are over 32.5 million views of this video with the most recent comments written in Thai (at 8 a.m. June 25, 2012), translated the viewer states: “The dream is to fly in my life.” I must logically conclude that the transformative nature of the viewing experience is derived from the contrast of presentation with that which we expect, and that viewers across the globe are sharing this video because the story speaks to anyone because it does not speak at all. Only one word is included in this video: “Kiwi!”, introducing the bird and lamenting the bird after it has “landed”. Thus, the lack of language broadens the audience allowing for increased access to the creator’s story.


Ohler (2008) recommends studying story core as a component of media literacy education because “story core is often employed as a way to structure many forms of media” (p. 75). In my opinion, media literacy can no longer be a topic that we teach incidentally. As Ohler (2006) points out, “students need critical media skills in a world overwhelmed by story-based media “ and that we want students “to learn and think critically about media” (p. 47). By explicitly teaching story core to students, we give them the tools to “see more clearly the persuasive nature” of the various elements of a story. In other words, when students become digital creators, perhaps trying to persuade their own audiences, they will understand when they are being persuaded by another creator’s choices in digital stories. Understanding how producers use story to express information is a key characteristic of being a literate consumer of media.

The most surprising educational application of story core Ohler suggests is using story core structure as a method for designing instructional units. Although my personal education context is creative writing and relies heavily on story planning, this approach for structuring educational units is interesting. He suggests positioning the students as heroes beginning a quest characterized as the learning objective. The students-heroes are thus transformed through their research, analysis, and other learning activities. The result is their discovery – the new knowledge or understanding they have acquired.

Prior to reading about “story-form” unit planning in Ohler’s text, I had never thought of constructing an educational unit in this format; however, I have instinctively done this in the past. For instance, I regularly form project assignments as “missions” such as “your mission is to write a …”.  This form of inquiry-based instruction is similar to the webquest, which even imitates Campbell’s hero’s journey with its vocabulary (quest, task) and its structure (an initial task that begins the journey of knowledge-construction/acquisition that will lead to a clear transformation in the students completing the task, drawing conclusions, and having final evaluations) (Dodge, 2007).

Both the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (2003, p. 57) and the Common Core State Standards Initiative (2012) include explicit standards for teaching students to compare, contrast, analyze, and evaluate the impact of medium on a narrative. A teacher can guide students through this process by teaching them to use the story core as the tool for analyzing the stories. When students are able to recognize the story elements in various forms of media they will be able to meet various standards and learning objectives. For example, the “Kiwi!” video illustrates the impact of visual components on a story and how a word (kiwi) can carry significant meaning depending on the story context. Students armed with the story core as a tool would be able to analyze this video and discuss the impact of the medium on the story rather than simply summarizing the events.

In my own instructional context, I will certainly be using the story core as a method for helping my creative writing students evaluate the strength of their stories. Ohler (2008) suggests that having students create a story core prior to beginning digital production is “truly important” because “[o]nce the media production process is rolling, it’s difficult to significantly change directions” (p. 76). Ohler (2006) expresses concerns that as the students’  “technology becomes more powerful, their stories become weaker” (p. 45). He asserts that the use of the story core ensures that students are focusing on their story first so that the technology does not overpower the story and does not distract students from creating a good story first (p. 73). He even suggests that teachers can use the story core as a way to assess the quality of stories (p. 77).

In conclusion, I am surprised that I have not encountered Ohler’s simple, yet powerful, concept prior to reading his text. Certainly, I am familiar with Campbell and have applied his hero’s journey countless times in lecture and assignments in my classroom, but Ohler’s story core simplifies this concept and easily leads into the more in-depth hero’s journey that is prevalent, and necessary, for literary discussion and analysis in any English teacher’s classroom. Story core will become a regular part of my teaching practice.

UPDATE: As a writing teacher, I adapted these ideas into a lesson for teaching story structure in seventh grade. Both “Harry the Dirty Dog” and “Kiwi!” featured heavily in this lesson. Resources are available here.

Works Cited 

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2012). English language arts standards >> Anchor standards >> College and career readiness anchor standards for reading. Common Core State Standards Initiative. Retrieved on June 25, 2012 from

Dodge, B. (2007). Creating webquests. Retrieved on June 25, 2012 from

Ohler, J. (2005). The World of Digital Storytelling. Educational Leadership, 63(4), 44-47.

Ohler, J. (2008). Digital storytelling in the classroom: New media pathways to literacy, learning, creativity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Lyle, S. (2000). Narrative understanding: developing a theoretical context for understanding how children make meaning in classroom settings. Journal Of Curriculum Studies, 32(1), 45.

Madyeti47. (2006, June 27).  Kiwi! [Video file]. Video posted to

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. (2003). Adolescent and Young Adulthood English Language Arts Standards, (2nd ed). Arlington, VA: National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Retrieved from

StorylineOnline. (2012, May 21). Harry the dirty dog [Video file]. Video posted to

Williams, C. & Catania, R. (Speakers). (n.d.). I didn’t have any idea as to what to expect … [Audio podcast]. StoryCorps: Every voice matters. Retrieved June 25, 2012 from






ed tech in practice

Labels are Irritating

Anderson (2004) points out that there are proponents and opponents of studying theories in education, and I have to say that this week’s readings have me on the “opponents” side. But, I have to acknowledge the value of viewing my teaching practice through specific lenses in order to understand, evaluate, reflect, and ultimately improve my skills (p. 33). I think it’s the labels and trying to fit things into categories that bothers me the most.

During my second year teaching, when I was still very impressionable, a veteran teacher told me that teaching was easy: “All you have to do is organize information and present it well.” It took me quite a while to realize that he was wrong. I believe that great teaching comes from being able to make the best educational choices based on the content, the students, and the context. This ability comes from a combination of practice, intuition, continuing education, and willingness to take calculated risks – to be “different” from the status quo.

This discussion post is a challenge unto itself. How does one reflect upon a decade of teaching experience – regardless of the blended learning lens? I struggle to differentiate learning theories as they apply online with those that do not. I wonder at the value of such an activity, anyway, as one of the most important qualities of effective teaching, in my opinion, is cognizance of context and students. I agree with Eliot Masie who said: “the ‘e’ in e-learning is disappearing and it is all just learning” (as cited in Picciano, 2009, p. 8). Until this class, I was unaware how “blended” an environment I had created in my classroom. In an ideal world, I easily could have cancelled 2 of 5 weekly face-to-face classes and conducted them online. In a way, I did. Students often spent entire class periods engaging with content using their assigned laptops.

In my own practice, I see myself using a combination of behaviorist, cognitive, and constructivist approaches dependent upon the content. I had never thought of organizing the methodologies in this manner, but Ally’s explanation sums up my general practice: “Behaviorist strategies can be used to teach the facts (what); cognitivist strategies to teach the principles and processes (how); and constructivist strategies to teach the real-life and personal applications and contextual learning” (2004, p. 24). In addition, since my first graduate school course, I have been revisiting John Keller’s ARCS theory for motivational instructional design. I find that I am consistently incorporating these concepts into my designs and daily instruction because motivation is key, especially in my low-level ninth grade English classes. Garrison and Vaughan explain my thoughts on the importance of clear objectives and explicit enunciation of relevancy to learners: “it is going to be very difficulty to facilitate and direct the learning process without a clear purpose, structure, or plan of activities” (p. 47). In fact, this further illustrates my above point – the ideas behind the basic “best practices” are the same; we just must be thoughtful in how we adapt to different contexts and learners.

As thoughts of the blended learning project percolate, I find that my energy is best used in considering areas of my potential weakness. I love the idea of a community of inquiry, and, I attempt to foster such an atmosphere in my classroom, most notably during my warm-up SAT exercises and class discussions of literature. I feel confident in my ability to “ensure that the discourse, verbal or written, evolves in educationally appropriate directions” (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008, p. 44). However, discussion boards and related activities have always been very limited in my classes (mainly due to administrative policies), so I am less confident in my ability to provide the appropriate level of direction so as not to be too strong a presence as Garrison and Vaughn warn against (p. 45).

I also strive to create a community of learners during long-term writing assignments. Peer reviewing is an essential aspect to writing practice and instruction, and I look forward to the potential that blended learning environments may provide in real practice. Implementation in the online environment will be challenge because the process will be new and I will need to lay the groundwork so that students can create an appropriately open and purposeful virtual community for meaningful discourse about their writing.

When considering the cognitive approach to education, I realized that another weakness I have is properly chunking the information so as not to overload my students. This concept of breaking the content online in smaller, more digestible pieces has come up in other classes, as well, and I have found that I must be diligent in evaluating the amount of information I put into one module, for instance (Ally, pg. 12).

Finally, assessments are always difficult, and to be truly reflective of one’s practice, I imagine that assessments would always appear on a list of “things to work on”. As Anderson points out, a “danger of assessment-centered learning systems is the potential increase in the workload demanded of busy online learning teachers,” but I would like to add that for a teacher of writing, assessment vis-à-vis workload is a never-ending tug-of-war (2004, p. 38). Next year, I will be teaching creative writing and this other course called dramatic writing (which I hope I am given the latitude to change to digital storytelling and presenting). Either way, workload and assessment are a constant concern; finding a balance is an art that I have yet to master.

In a final note, I have to say that this is the first time in reading any of the educational resources and articles that the diagrams and figures have been so helpful (I sometimes get the feeling that the diagrams are perfunctory afterthoughts). I am especially attached to Figure 3 from “Blending with Purpose: The Multimodal Model” by A. Picciano. I am printing a copy of it for my teacher binder. I’m just not sure where some of these ideas will best fit into my new teaching context.


Works Cited

Ally, M. (2004). Foundations of educational theory for online learning. Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Athabasca University Press: CA.

Anderson, T. (2004) Toward a theory of online learning. Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Athabasca University Press: CA.

Garrison, D. R. & Vaughan, N. D. (2008). Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles, and guidelines. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

Picciano, A. (2009). Blending with purpose: The multimodal model. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 13(1), 7-18.

Lifelong Learning

Blended Learning: a case study

Can blended learning improve learning outcomes in undergraduate research courses? Lessons learned from comparing a traditional research methodology course to a blended learning model at San Jose State University.

This case study is available on the Prezi I created here.

ed tech in practice

Blended Learning: What is it?

How would you define blended learning?

I’d like to take a few “key phrases” from some of our readings and my own thoughts to define blended learning. Please note: I do not think it is necessary to constantly mention the “technology” in the definition because I believe we are at the point where the technology should be ubiquitous such that a mention of technology is superfluous (<– one of my favorite words).

  • – traditional + cutting edge = relevant, meaningful, 21st century, embedded learning
  • – “the convergence of online and face-to-face education”
  • – integration, integration, integration
  • – shifting instructional strategy from the teacher-centered, teacher-delivery model to the student-centered approach
  • – interaction, interaction, interaction (student-student, student-teacher, student-content, student-“other stuff”)
  • – more student autonomy and ownership
  • – flexible and fluid
  • – highly-changeable depending on the school and situation
  • – the possibility for more personalized instruction
  • – rapidly changing and evolving
  • – “effective pedagogical practices” (Bonk & Graham, 2005, p. 8)
  • – blurring lines and boundaries between disciplines
  • – “‘best of both worlds’ approach” (Allen, Seaman & Garret, 2007, p. 2)
  • – diversity

What are some benefits and challenges that one can anticipate when teaching in a blended learning?


As the NACOL article explains, “information and technology skills are so critical,  and so much collaboration, resource sharing, content development and learning are done digitally, asynchronously, and at a distance;” therefore, the benefits of blending learning are relevancy and currency for the students (p. 4). Bottom line: education must be meaningful and immediately applicable to real life in order to be authentic. I know that we should hesitate before jumping on bandwagons, but I see blended learning as a necessity, not something that needs to have its “pros and cons” weighed. This is not to say that there aren’t significant challenges … there are. I’ve listed just a tiny sliver of those challenges below.


In the NACOL article, the authors discuss the challenges presented by the Chicago Virtual Charter School: “[t]his blended model requires teachers and administrators to think about time and instructional practices anew” (p. 9). I think change is scary no matter how comfortable one is with risk-taking. Plus, change is hard work, and, if we are being candid, many people are not apt to approach a scary, arduous task with enthusiasm.

Often, the faculty and administration are not the only fearful parties involved. Parents, whose educational experiences are becoming more disparate from that of their children as each year passes, are skeptical of change for many legitimate reasons: is this a passing trend? how will this prepare my students for college? how can I help my child when I do not understand myself? Certainly, many of these fears are probably shared among parents, teachers, and administration alike. In fact, if we take into consideration the percentages of consumers who have experience with blended or online learning, we see that nearly half have never had any experience with online education (Allen, Seaman, Garrett, 2007, p. 16), yet many of our students have grown up with cell phone in hand.

How do we manage blended learning logistically? There is the learning management software and organizational aspect to consider. Then, there is the professional development — extensive professional development. Another challenge is the daunting specter of the digital divide, which, I feel, should be addressed at the earliest ages possible. All of this blending is wonderful is so many ways, but the digital divide and lack of meaningful technology experience creates a learning deficit akin to the often discussed gap between the child from the print-rich home and the child who first learns the alphabet in kindergarten.

This post was originally written in May, 2012 in response to a graduate course on Blended Learning.

Works Cited

Allen, I.E., Seaman, J. & Garrett, R. (2007). Blending In. The extent and promise of blended education in the United States. Sloan-C: Needham, MA.

Bonk, C. & Graham, C. (2005). Handbook of blended learning: Global perspectives, local designs. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer Publishing. Part 1, Introduction. 1-21.

Watson, J. (n.d.) Promising practices in online learning: Blended learning: The convergence of online and face-to-face education. NACOL. Retrieved from