About twenty minutes into her GATE English 8 activity, storyboarding the plot elements of Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Sara Nelson asks her working students, “Is this better than drawing?” A resounding “YES!” meets her in response. She smiles.
Sara is helping her Timberstone students master the concepts of narrative plot. Even if you’re not an English teacher, you probably remember the triangular plot diagram beginning at exposition, cresting at climax, and culminating in resolution. These GATE students have torn apart the Poe story through analysis, and that analysis has left them with a clear plot structure for each of the stages. Each student sits at a desk with a packet featuring a carefully highlight-annotated story in the front and a densely written plot analysis in the back. The analysis complements the plot diagram on Sara’s bulletin board.
But that’s work that has already happened. Today, Sara extends the concept into a short project merging visually literacy with narrative analysis. In the past, she has asked students to draw storyboards of events from literature, but, as always happens with a project like this, some students are dissatisfied with the results because of their challenges with drawing. This year, Sara is using Storyboard That, a web-based storyboard creator that allows the user to select from a vast library of cartoonish images, modify the images, and place them in pre-designed scenes ranging from ancient Rome to basketball courts. The results looks a bit like a comic strip.
Sara opened her class in Google Classroom, where students found complete instructions on logging into Storyboard That and joining her class. She then demonstrated the basic functions of the app as students played. Finally, she provided a brief model example of the finished product and set the students loose for work time, but not before cautioning them about the next day’s due date. “I have a feeling you’re going to get into this visually and lose a lot of your time that way, so don’t forget when this is due.” The rest of the period found Sara floating the class, observing and answering questions.
Students played momentarily, but quickly drew to task. One gleefully announced, “There’s a noose! There’s a noose!” while perusing the images. Another table drifted into arguments about which story moment was the climax. Within five minutes, titles were typed and images were building. That’s when Sara confirmed that the students were enjoying themselves.
And besides that automatic “YES!” regarding drawing, the engagement of the students was clear, but it was also clear that the engagement did not simply come from the app. The students were ready for the intellectual task of literary analysis through plenty of paper-based annotation and analysis. Sara had introduced and reinforced the concepts, both in this class period and others. That solid teaching legwork gave each student and opportunity to branch into visual literacy with confidence, knowing the foundational concepts necessary for the storyboard design.
The activity demonstrated how an engaging app, in the hands of a capable teacher, is not an alien intrusion, but a logical and rewarding complement to traditional instruction. And while the art teachers and enthusiasts may lament the students’ refusal to pick up their pencils, the class was grateful for the digital assist in bringing their visions to life.
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