Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Creating Comics Online

A teacher asked me to recommend a comic strip program that will allow the students to add a few sentences of text and have a number of panes. I hadn't looked at comic strip programs since last year, so I decided to see what I could find. Here is a summary of my research.

[NOTE: After experimenting with different ways to show the strips in this post, I decided to put them in my Flickr account and then upload them here full size even though the strip gets truncated. Any other way shrunk the strip so much you couldn't see enough of the detail to get a feel for the program. Clicking on any of the comic strips in this post will take you to the full strip in Flickr.]

I had a brief chance to use last year with students.



  • No registration required.
  • Strips can be 1-4 panes long.
  • 15 characters to choose from, each of which can be flipped to face the other way. Each has 4 expressions.
  • There are writing prompts that drop down from each pane to help the cartoonist flesh out their strip.
  • Very easy to flip, scale, move or delete objects.
  • Lack of background choices, props, and limited number of characters means students will get down to work more quickly.
  • Invitations to view the strips can be emailed to people.
  • No comments from viewers allowed, so no need to monitor them.
  • No gallery of comics that were created by other people, so no need to worry about objectionable content.
  • Many teacher resources on the site.


  • Talk balloons can only contain 7 lines of text.
  • Lack of background scenes and props may limit the types of cartoons created.
  • When I emailed myself the link, the linked cartoon had a rendering error. One of the characters appeared in a frame twice. The strip did not look like that when I sent the link.
  • Site URL is tricky because of the "s" after beliefs and the "x" in Comix. Students found it difficult to type correctly.


I found StripCreator via a Google search tonight.



  • Has different character sets and each character in a set has 2 positions.
  • Has different background sets such as urban, rural, fantasy.
  • Can handle large talk balloons.
  • Choice of 1-3 panes.
  • Good privacy controls. You decide if your email is visible. You decide if your comic strips are public or private. You decide whether or not to allow visitors to leave comments.


  • A bit tedious when setting up the same scene for each pane; no way to set it once and have it persist for all the panes.
  • No way to email your comics or embed them into blogs or wikis. Could not right-click-save the strip; I only got that element that I was clicking on.
  • There may be objectionable cartoons on the site. There is a gallery of strips created by other users.
  • Down at the very bottom of the home page is a link to the creator's Brad Sucks site which is where you buy creator's music CD. It is all innocuous, but having the word "sucks" on the page may make it objectionable to some teachers.
  • Had a rendering error that I couldn't fix- the broken park bench in the first frame.
  • Requires email address to register. It sends you the password which is not easy to remember. Fortunately, you can change your password after you log in.


  • I had heard of ToonDoo and was surprised to find I already have an account there. However, the feeble efforts in there tell me I didn't play with it for long. This is the most complex of the web apps I surveyed tonight. I was getting tired by this time, so the strip I created is a bit discombobulated.



  • This is the most full-featured of the programs I tried. It has many pallettes of characters, backgrounds, props, and talk bubbles.
  • Much flexibility, provides lots of options so can be used to create a wide-range of strips.
  • Looks professional; I think students would be pleased with how good their comic strip looked.
  • Can handle lots of text. You can click a button and the talk balloon to make it fit better.
  • Create strips from 1-3 panels.
  • Can create online comic books! You could tell entire stories! Check out this Learn A New Word ToonBook.
  • You can upload photos to integrate them into the comic strip.
  • You can alter the facial characteristics of the ready-made characters. I didn't try out this feature so I can't comment on how well it works.
  • Has buttons to allow you to embed, email, and tag comics you view or make.


  • The many palettes were slow to load. May have been my connection since my Starhub often slows to a crawl at night, but other pages are loading fine.
  • The large array of options may prove insurmountable; some children would spend all their time searching through the palettes and never finish their strip.
  • Text doesn't wrap; you need to hit returns to keep the text within the pane as you type.
  • There may be objectionable cartoons on the site. There is a gallery of strips created by other users.
  • Site requires an email address to register.

Now it's your turn. What online comic creation apps have I missed? Do you have experience using any of these programs with students? Any words of wisdom to share?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Need Your Suggestions for Photo Sharing Sites

One of my colleagues sent me the following request ...
Would you be willing to throw out a request for input from your Twitter/blog/facebook/whatever community and ask them if they could recommend the best photo sharing service out there? I’m looking for something to suggest to groups of people who have large amounts of photos or other files that they wish to share – cross platform etc. For example, for my house building trip, people want to pool their photos and have access to the originals. But this is also a huge need for Interim trips, and other school groups. I would even be willing to pay for a corporate account to something. Any feedback from your web mavens and gurus would be greatly appreciated.


Any suggestions for him? I'd love to show him the power of personal learning networks by presenting him with a bunch of helpful suggestions from all of you. Thank you in advance for any advice you can give him.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

What Was the Gateway Drug to your PLN?

I was sitting in on Kim Cofino's amazing session at the Teach IT 2007 conference here in Singapore. Her topic was Developing the Global Student: Practical Ways to Infuse 21st Century Literacy Skills in Your Classroom. I could blog for a month on all the compelling ideas she presented, but for now I'll just tease apart one idea that she sent skittering across my brain.

Part of her presentation had her showing teachers how to choose the best Web 2.0 tool for the job. As she discussed social networking, she dropped a comment about her personal learning network (PLN) only being 1.5 years old. My jaw dropped as I realized she was right. How could something that had only been part of my life for less than two years feel like such an essential part of me?

That brought to mind Alan Levine's post titled Twitter The Gateway Drug. I laughed out loud when I read the title, and I DO think time away from Twitter brings on drug-like withdrawals. Just this week I felt myself twitching a bit as conference prep kept me away.

Thinking about what Kim and Alan were saying I realized a few things. First, my personal learning network has been around much longer than Twitter or Ning. I think it actually started in the mid- 1990's when I scored my first Internet account as part of a grant that had me teaching science and math teachers about radical new tools like email and Mozilla and Netscape. It was around that time I joined the TAWL listserv for teachers applying whole language. I gained valuable knowledge and a sense of community from belonging to that group. Within a few years of that, I joined the EdTech listserv and I still make use of that group today when wresting with tech problems or questions.

That was probably the extent of my online learning network until fall 2003 0r 2004 when Kent installed NetNewsWire Lite on my computer. It had a directory of blogs and although I didn't know what a blog was, I started poking around in the education and technology sections and found one by a passionate writer who was blogging about educational blogging. I'd never heard of him before but his passion for the topic, for the educational potential of blogs hooked me. Soon I was reading Will Richardson's Weblogg-ed blog a few times a week and started to expand my blog roll, started to comment on other people's posts. By spring of 2005 Will's blog had convinced me I needed to be doing this with students, and this blog was born.

Much to my amazement Will himself promoted my blog and soon other educational bloggers like Bud Hunt and Clarence Fisher started leaving comments on my blog. You should have seen the happy dance I did in my living room in KL when I was listening to one of Bud Hunt's podcasts that spring and he mentioned my blog online. I admit it-- I reversed the podcast and listened to it again (and again), amazed that someone in Colorado was reading and podcasting about what I had to say.

For the next few years, blogs were really the center of my PLN. They still are the biggest chunk of it, the part that most informs my practice. Podcasts are also a huge part of my PLN. As my job has left me less leisure time, podcasts entertain and inform me as I wash dishes, work out, and ride the train.

Chat and VOIP are peripheral parts of my PLN. I am not exaggerating when I say that I had Skype on my computer years before I had anyone to Skype with -- the down side of being an early adopter, or just a geek with few social skills? Now, I find that I mostly use Skype in my PLN when we are in Twitter or even Gchat and we start having a real discussion and need a smoother tool in which to have it. I also use Skype a lot when testing out other web apps with friends. We chat in Skype while trying to get the tool working.

In the past year, my PLN has expanded to include Ning and Twitter. Ning is still only peripheral. I think it has tremendous potential but at first it was too slow to access here in Singapore. Even now that it has RSS and is faster to use, I still have to make myself go there and check my networks, interact with them. Something about it isn't a good fit with my own learning process or flow. I also find its navigation cumbersome but I keep going back because I know at some point it is going to click for me.

Twitter eluded me for a long time. I think it was some time last year that I joined, or maybe I just looked at it and didn't join until this year. The reason I question if it is a gateway drug, is that Twitter seems to work best when you already have a PLN. You add those people to your Twitterverse, and then see who they follow to expand your own list.

When I first started using Twitter, I had very few people on my follow list, and most of them were in North America so they were Twittering when I was asleep. Now I have Twitterific so my tweets appear every few minutes on my desktop without me needing to refresh a web page, and I follow more people who are in Asia, Australia and New Zealand, so I am able to be part of real-time twittering rather than reading old tweets after the fact. I also follow more North Americans who seem to never sleep because they are twittering when I am online (I'm talking about you Jennifer Wagner, Chris Craft, John Pederson, Dean Shareski, and D'Arcy Norman!) That has brought Twitter to life and let me leverage its potential.

Now I am constantly amazed at how much I learn from Twitter. From the Alan Duke webcast to a ridiculous amount of just-in-time learning, it channels me to resources that inform my practice. Faster than any other tool in my PLN, it helps me know the people in my PLN on a different level, somehow a more superficial and more personal level as their tech journeys are interspersed with tweets about a daughter's engagement or a relative's illness.

I enjoy Twitter so much that I was confused to find something about it niggled me. I couldn't quite figure out what that was until I read Kathy Sierra's post Is Twitter TOO Good?...

Twitter scares me. For all its popularity, I see at least three issues: 1) it's a near-perfect example of the psychological principle of intermittent variable reward, the key addictive element of slot machines. 2) The strong "feeling of connectedness" Twitterers get can trick the brain into thinking its having a meaningful social interaction, while another (ancient) part of the brain "knows" something crucial to human survival is missing. 3) Twitter is yet another--potentially more dramatic--contribution to the problems of always-on multi-tasking... you can't be Twittering (or emailing or chatting, of course) and simultaneously be in deep thought and/or a flow state.
I'm trying to sort out if this niggle is a legacy brain sort of thing or from some other cause. I'll leave you to chew on that.

So now it is your turn...
What was the gateway drug to your PLN?

Excellent Webcast on New Literacies by Allan Luke

This morning, I was fortunate enough to be online when Jo McLeay Twittered about finding a webcast by Allan Luke focusing on New Literacies. I had never heard of Allan Luke before, but now I'll be seeking out more information. The web cast really made me think-- and that is not an easy thing to do on Sunday mornings. Not ready to write about it, need to keep chewing on it in my head.

Every Wonder How Google Works?

Here is a quick visual explanation of what happens when you start a query using Google. It won't tell you the secrets behinds its search algorithm, but I found the process interesting and this site makes it visually appealing.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Game and an Easy Click to Fight Hunger

In case you haven't heard, there is a new, free, fun online game that just might increase your students' (or your) vocabulary and fight world hunger at the same time.

Free Rice provides 10 grains of rice for each word you correctly define. The grains appear in the rice bowl on the screen. The rice is paid for by the advertisers at the bottom of the screen.

As I write this, my partner Kent has probably fed an entire village one meal because he has a huge vocabulary and likes to play computer games. Of course, because he is so good at it, the words are getting more difficult to define. The game has artificial intelligence to adjust the difficulty level. Get three right at one level and it goes up to the next level. Get some wrong and it drops back down.

This is the kind of game to leave open on a computer in your classroom. See how full the bowl can be by the end of each day. No need to belabor the point that your students are also helping themselves while they help others.

Another easy way to fight hunger is to visit Click the button on the page and the advertisers pay for one+ cups of food for people in places struck by famine. No registration, no spam, just click each day and make a difference.

And while you are there, why not click the tabs across the page to visit the other click sites. One fights breast cancer by providing mammograms to women who can't afford them. Another provides basic health care for needy children. One supports literacy by providing books to children. One purchases rainforest land to preserve the rainforests of the world. The final one allows you to provide a bowl of food for an animal at a shelter.

These are all easy steps that any child or adult can take to make a difference. You could easily add them to your class website during specific units. For example, my fourth grade classes are studying rainforest and we need to be careful to not overwhelm the students will all the bad news about deforestation, extinction of species. Having them click each day on the rainforest site can give them an immediate way to feel like they are part of the solution.

My third grade classes study basic human needs and usually gather funds for the Heifer Project. This year, I'll suggest that they add clicking on TheHungerSite as part of their efforts.

Note: I think the site tracks IP address, so having your entire class take turns clicking from your computer may only count as one click. Might be better to do this in the lab or as homework-- and you can also click once a day from your classroom computer.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

HTML + IWB = True Love

Last year, I was pleased with the success of the web design unit I did with my fourth and fifth graders, but I wanted to find a way to bridge the gap between me teaching them a tag, and them successfully using it, especially early on in the unit before they "got" it.

One thing I tried was to insist that they split their screen. On one half was their Notepad document where they were coding their page, and on the other side was WebMonkey so they could be looking at the lesson, referring to the codes. For some there came an "Aha!" moment and then they took off, looking at codes, trying them out, tweaking them. They had learned to learn and I was thrilled to have launched them down that road.

For others, I felt like I was just outside of the Zone of Proximal Development. There would be momentary glimmers, but not enough spark for it to catch. The HTML was too abstract for them.

This year, I have a Promethean interactive whiteboard in my lab. I felt I was under-utilizing it until this unit began. Now it has become essential. Right from the first day, I used it to help the kids start being aware of file extensions, since this is the first time some of them had to type them in.

I created a simple matching exercise with the extensions on one side, and the file type on the other. When they paired the file type with its extension, the white hidden text appeared "magically" in the black box where the extensions were. The kids named this "the X-ray thing!" and keep asking for more such activities.

As important as their enthusiasm for this type of activity is its effectiveness. I taught the same concept last year, but it didn't stick. This year, after that one brief activity, when I say. "File extension, remember, the file's last name?" I get instant nods and looks of recognition, and if someone is adding a photo to their web page and it isn't working, I can say, "Did you remember to add the extension to the file name?" and instead of a blank stare, they'll glance at the screen and say, "Oh! That's the problem."

Next, I introduced the concept of tags and taught them the four key tags that must be on every web page. Then they practiced putting these tags in place by dragging them around on the IWB. I don't know if it is the large muscle movement helping to make the abstract concept more concrete, or the fact that since so many kids want a turn at the board, that we spend more time in guided practice before they try it on their own. Whatever the reason, it is working. When the kids leave the group area and head to their computers, I'd say 2/3 of them now seem to know what to do, compared with 1/3 after the first lesson last year.

I am only referring to fourth graders who haven't done any coding; my returning fifth graders have amazed me with what they retained. I do think many of them didn't get it last year, but as so often happens between fourth and fifth grade, things that seemed beyond them as fourth graders, be it editing their work, reflecting on their learning, or writing HTML code, they suddenly seem to understand it when they return as fifth graders. That was one of the many reasons I love teaching a combined fourth/fifth grade classroom for so many years back in the US. If I'd only taught fourth, I have never know that the lessons did finally take root, they just had a long gestation period.

As we move into more complex tags, the IWB has continued to be a powerful tool. As I mentioned in the previous post, the tag we use to insert graphics into web pages, is long and confusing. Kids often leave off a bit of it or put the bits in the wrong order. As I pondered how to make them more successful, I created a number of flip chart pages around this tag. The first page introduced the tag. Then in a large font size, it showed the tag as it would need to be typed. I colored coded it so I could point out what they were likely to forget, which parts were easy to accidentally flip, etc.

The next page was a matching activity so they could match the parts of the code with each part's purpose. To keep everyone engaged, I had the student who were sitting in the audience be ready to give each try a thumbs up or thumbs down to indicate whether or not they agreed.

The final page had all the tags we had already learned in their proper places, and then all the pieces of the image source tag waiting to be inserted. That was a real challenge; sometimes it took the entire class working together to correctly assemble that line of code, but every class eventually succeeded. And in the work time after that, students had good success, and were very willing to help each other until everyone had an image on their web page.

Adding the IWB to this unit has been a positive experience all the way around. The students seem to be learning the content more easily and are clearly engaged. I'm learning to use the IWB. Life is Good.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Return of the WebMonkey

Last year, my web design unit with my fourth and fifth graders went on forever. I started it in Front Page, which is how it had been done for a few years at my school. I was new to Front Page. After working with it with my students for a few weeks I decided that...

  1. It had too much propriety Microsoft stuff in it.

  2. It was too temperamental.

  3. The kids weren't learning much of value.

For me, #3 was the kicker. I felt they weren't learning much because they were already comfortable users of Microsoft Word, and much of Front Page feels very Word-ish. And the parts that don't feel Word-ish are their own strange Front Page thing that won't help the kids anywhere else in life.

And so, I decided to teach them to code. Never mind that I was far from adept at coding, I just dove in.

Fortunately, I used a site called Web Monkey as my starting place with the children. It steps through the basics of web design with irreverence and a blue monkey with a hammer-- Who could ask for more?

We are using that site again this year, but more as a reference than a read and follow it step-by-step type of thing. Older or more experienced students could do that, but most of my 9-11-year-olds find that too daunting at first.

Thus far, this has been our sequence...

Lesson 1: Intro to HTML
We start with quick look at the idea of HTML, including the concept of tags. They then open Notepad and add the html and body opening and closing tags, add a few words to the body, and then learn where and how to save it. At this point, a miracle happens (at least in their minds.) Their simple text document now has an Internet Explorer icon and when they double-click it, they can see their web page. Life is Good.

Lesson 2: Body Tags
The next week, after learning how to right-click, and the "Open with Notepad" their index.html file, they learn how to expand the body tag so that they can change their pages background color and text color. When I show them the handy chart of the 216 web-safe colors with their hexadecimal codes, you'd have thought I was showing them photos of Eden given the reverent "Oohs!" that are heard around the room, soon followed by genuine happy dances of joy as their pages change color.

In addition to the bgcolor and text tags, I teach them the font color tag. They oblige by joyfully creating truly garish text color combinations on their pages-- we'll deal with tasteful design after this pure joy has worn off.

Next I challenge them to figure out how to change the font tag to change the size of certain words. They leave feeling very clever and talk web design all the way back to their homeroom.

Lesson 3: Adding Images

The img src tag is a real challenge for lots of reasons, including...
  • it's length
  • the tricky words (is it img src or img scr? Most kids choose the latter for some reason.)
  • the need for quotation marks (which are easily forgotten)
  • the need for us to use ../ because we are on a network
  • the need to put the images inside their web folder
  • the need to know the file extension on the image.
A typical image tag ends up looking like this:
img src="../susans/images/cardinal.gif"

They thought back ground tags were bad, so this is a bit daunting. However, I have carefully prepared a folder of animated GIF images for them to copy and use. The anticipation of having a flapping butterfly, a barking dog or a flaming, flying dragon on their web page pushes even the most reluctant to persevere.

I use my "first dones" as experts and soon everyone has an image on their page. As they leave class, I usually hear a few scheming to go online and find images of something they are passionate about, such as Runescape characters.-- Means I need to have the "Can't use copyrighted images on something we are posting online" talk soon, but not today.

For a few classes who were ready for it, I gave them the optional homework of going to Flaming Text to create a banner for their page. They need to put the image into their Digital Dropbox in Blackboard to get it to school, thus reinforcing a skill I've been helping them learn.

Lesson 4: Messing With Text
In which we emphasis text using b and i or em tags. Then we learn to move text and other elements around the page using the p and p align tags. Finally we explore headlines and agree that it is vexing that with the font size tag, larger numbers create bigger text, but with the headline tags, H1 makes a larger headline than H6.

We'll go on from there, but I'll stop writing this for now. It is such a delight to teach my students something that they find so meaningful and engaging. The rest of us may argue that "real" webmasters don't code by hand. However, my students see this as an important way to spend their time. A number of them have gone home and on their own created a simple page. I wasn't offering extra credit; they did this for their own delight. If only everything was this fun to learn...