Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Fine 'Tooning

with Toontastic

One of my favorite things about the iPads and the apps that have been developed for them is the opportunity for students to show what they know in new and creative ways. A great example of this is the app Toontastic.

Toontastic is a story-telling app. Its stand-out feature from other story-telling apps or software is that it provides the skeleton for the basic elements of a story – setting, conflict, resolution and conclusion. What happens is that when you open the app, you are invited to make a new cartoon. As you do so, the app displays a visual of this story arc. This encourages the author or cartooner to consider more than just how the story will start, but how the story will build and then be resolved. I love this aspect since we’ve all seen too many digital stories where the visuals are wonderful but the story-telling is lacking.

Another great aspect of Toontastic is that it is scaffolded in a way that a very young child could use it with very limited support (ask my 5-year-old about this). However, it is also sophisticated enough that a high school student can tailor the app to fit his or her creative ambitions (ask the ninth and tenth graders I worked with last week). The scaffolding happens this way: there are already scenes drawn for you and animated characters created that you can choose. For instance, you can select a pirate boat, desert island, and ocean scene with pirates, sharks and crabs. This is great for simple story telling, again, ask my son who has made endless stories about these pirates. Or, you can draw your own scene, tailor the animated characters or create your own characters. This is what the high schoolers I worked with did to describe the four agents of erosion. They amazed me with the sophisticated drawings they made or the creative decisions they made about designing their own characters that they could animate.

From an educator’s perspective, Toontastic gets five stars for student engagement. When I first introduced Toontastic, I made my own sample story. I had a good time creating it and laughing at myself as I showed it to the kids. They were amused, but what got them to the edge of their seats was when I showed them how I made the little movie. I could see their posture change as they realized they were going to be able to create their own movie using this app. Students would so much rather have the chance to make something original and imaginative than complete a worksheet or watch a dated movie clip.

In addition to the cartooning piece of Toontastic, students can also record their voice and add (pre-set) music to their films. This is one of my favorite aspects of Toontastic but one of the hardest sells for high school students. Some students did a great job with this, writing out what they were going to say, practicing and perfecting it until they were satisfied. Others shied away or avoided this aspect in any way they could manage. As I do more with Toontastic and high-schoolers I think I will do more to get them ready for recording their voices. I hope that in the future, we can create instructional cartoons that we would show to a younger grade level to teach a concept. I work with a number of bilingual students and it would be so great if they would make ‘Toons in their home language that could be used in classes with native speakers.

One other take-away from my first go ‘round with Toontastic had to do with saving work. Toontastic saves the settings each student creates and even the story they are working on, which is great. What is tough with iPads though is that when the next class sits down to use them, they can see all the previous classes’ work. Actually, seeing it I don’t mind at all, deleting it, I mind a lot. On our first day we had two different students delete other students work. I was devastated when I realized what had happen. Those first kids had worked so hard, only to have it gone by the end of the day. This helped me learn a few things:

  1. Be sure to know which student is using which iPad – whether this is through a sign-out sheet, permanent assignment of iPads or another system, accountability breads responsibility
  2. As soon as a student feels their ‘Toon is done, upload it to the Toontastic website. Toontastic has a website associated with their app where all the ‘Toons can be viewed. Once the ‘Toons are up there, only the teacher can delete them.
  3. Be clear about expectations with the iPads. I feel we had done a good job talking about handling the equipment safely and staying on task, but I had not been specific about respecting other students’ work. I am now. *smile*

The other lesson learned is the same lesson I learn over and over again.

Be clear about expectations for the assignment

Our first try with Toontastic yielded really uneven results. I think that is definitely because there wasn’t a clear assignment sheet explaining what we were expecting. While the classes I was working with were small and we frequently reminded students of what they needed to do, a hard-copy assignment sheet laying out expectations, maybe as a checklist would have made a big difference. I swear, I will always require this of teachers I work with in the future.

I am less certain about the requirement to do a story board or rough draft before jumping into an app. These apps generate so much innovation, I’m wonder if a rough draft would limit the resourcefulness of the students. Students often thought of ways to show the content (agents of erosion, the rock cycle) that they probably wouldn’t have consider until they started using the app. Similarly, they might have had an idea in their storyboard that they couldn’t recreate in the app. I am still debating about this part of digital stories. I feel like more planning would make for better projects, but I’m not sure at what point this should happen. I’m wondering if you let the kids create for 20-30 minutes and then have a check-in point where partner’s review each other’s work and give suggestions. This has the added benefit of students getting ideas from each other and students practicing giving productive feedback.

So, as you can see, I’m still Fine ‘Tooning my work with Toontastic. I would love to hear from you what projects you’ve tried with this app! Or what suggestions you have about how to use it effectively in classrooms. Or, if you teach Kindergarten to Grade 5 and would like to collaborate, with my students teaching your students new concepts through Toontastic!

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