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Project PenPal: Connecting classrooms through storytelling

4 min read


How do you get student scientists in Ohio and California talking to each other and sharing the cool science they are doing in fifth grade? Creating cartoons with storytelling app Toontastic is one way to make this happen. Storytelling is a great way for students to share experiences, and this is the story of our experiment.

Project PenPal

Mike Harms and I connected our classrooms from California to Ohio through a long distance storytelling project. Project PenPal was all about sharing science investigations through stories, using the iPad app Toontastic. In our two-month collaboration, students in Mike’s class in California shared cartoons they built explaining collages they were developing from images they captured with their microscopes. Students in my class in Ohio shared how they were following NASA instructions for building robotic hands. The fact that the classrooms were working on different content made the learning so much more powerful. As teachers, we were doubling up on content exposure through the project. As students, they were sharing and teaching each other through their cartoons.

The process

Students’ excitement about connecting was evident right from the start. When I outlined the project, the students had so many questions and ideas. The conversations that we had in the classroom began to carry into the hallway. I overheard students sharing ideas on how to present information and how exciting it was to connect with students in another state at recess, in the hallway and at lunch. Then, when they watched cartoons from their new science collaborators across the county, there was a whole new level of excitement. In the first round of toons, students introduced themselves and described their science work. Then, students conducted peer review to critically evaluate the clarity of the science information being shared. In the students’ feedback cartoon, they discussed what they enjoyed about the videos, what information needed clarification, and what questions they as viewers now had about the science content. I was really proud of how honest and careful my students were with their feedback. While they wanted to provide suggestions, they also talked a lot about how to do so in a kind manner. The reference to the other classroom as “our new science friends” was such a cool thing to hear. Based on the feedback, students created final cartoons making modifications and clarifying the science. For the culmination of the project, students were able to participate in a Google Hang-out and share notes, questions and ideas.

Here are some sample cartoons: Our Robotic Hand Project and Response to Yellow Group.

The outcome

The entire project offered students the opportunity to write and think deeply about science. Communicating clearly through the cartoons helped students learn about each others’ content. And, this collaboration became an engaging event for questioning. Information about content wasn’t simply being delivered to the students, and this variation in structure seemed to encourage the questioning of the science. A reflective process is what we always hope for in science education, and this activity promoted that atmosphere.

In our next project, my students used Mike’s lessons with microscopes to investigate moon rock samples from NASA. Talk about great carry over! During the entire process, I just kept thinking that the connections being made through this process could only help build students’ empathy and understanding for each other. Learning together, building through story and sharing their science understandings formed connections. Could this later lead to a culture of acceptance and collaboration? I certainly think so.

If you are thinking of collaborating yourself, Toontastic: School Edition is a medium for building and sharing science stories. The materials that were developed to help structure the science conversation, to encourage pre-writing, and conduct peer review were amazing. And, these materials are available for free online to use in the classroom. You can find them here: Happy connecting!

Leah LaCrosse is a fifth-grade science teacher in Huron, Ohio. She is an Apple Distinguished Educator, National Board Certified Teacher and a CASIS fellow. LaCrosse has been using iPads in the classroom for the past three years. Her students use many apps to explore science and have even published their first book on iTunes, called Adventures at Stone Lab. Leah can be found on twitter @llacrosse.