Chasing the Course Arc: Storied Workshop for Kenyon College

After engaging with a group of high energy faculty/staff at Kenyon College last week, the answer for the Campbell Consortium may just be… “maybe”.

The question was set up as Seeking Answers: Can a Narrative Tie a Course Together? Whether there is such an organization as the Campbell Consortium is beside the point… or is the point… or is pointless.

Okay, I’ve done nothing in two paragraphs to initiate this story, I jumped right into the “ordeal” stage.

Late last year, Joe Murphy asked me about designing a summer workshop at Kenyon. They have had strong support under a Digital Storytelling Initiative. Joe relayed that they have done the personal video story approach, and the web 2.0 approach, and a few more that are in line of my spate of DS sessions- tools and creativity. I sense Joe was looking or something different- like the Courses as Stories podcast I had done with Bonnie Stachowiak.

Joe recruited a great group of faculty to sign up for this experience, from a cross section of subject areas- History, Biology, International student support, Library, Neuroscience, Education, Women’s and Gender Studies, Russian film & literature, and Dance.

This question, can the idea of finding something to drive a course beyond the schedule/syllabus, what I’ve used in DS106, the You Show, (2014-2015 at Thompson Rivers University) Networked Narratives (2017-2019 at Kean University), be spun into other subject areas? Mine were ones where a backstory was introduced, and my co-teachers and I played characters in it, tied by short weekly episodic, low budget production videos. You have to be nutty to do that much extra work.

Besides the subject matter, what can tie a course together?

Based on the comments of the earlier blog post as well as conversations with my nearby storytelling expert (my wife, Cori whose thesis was a deep study of storying real experiences alongside students) the idea of suggesting a class built around a fictional narrative looked narrow. And I like others may think of “narrative” as being fiction, when it is, as Gardner Campbell reminded me, was more broadly a word for arrangement.

So I built in spaces to talk about other ways to “tie” a course together, what was more important was framing in the storytelling concept of an ‘arc’ for the experience. This could be a large Big Question; a theme, a long term project.

It was a brilliant conversation with Cori on a scenic drive (that was to the Great Sand Hills, right?) where she suggested even making the workshop itself have a narrative. Hence the opening video sent to participants ahead of time, where I introduced the “Campbell Consortium”.

My idea for the workshop was not to come with answers, or magic tech, but questions. We would tease out the idea as well as do media making activities aimed at playing out metaphors and themes that could operate along side their thinking of possible arcs in their own courses.

Ah, there was one more wrinkle I put in there, and credit Joe and his colleague Ashley for being willing to do this… I was not there in person.


You see, with my move to Canada last year, my travel status was uncertain into late Spring, and even though I did get my permanent resident card, I am currently without a US Passport (I had to mail it away for renewal, hoping it returns here soon).

We gave thought to surprising them, but that seemed a bit of a blindside, so we let them the circumstances before the workshop, leaving an exit door if it bothered anyone. They all showed up.

So I was present via video screen, not all that different from the ways last year I taught Networked Narratives and a MA Thesis seminar at Kean. We had a two camera set up in the small conference room, one on the back where the room mic could pick up all audio, and portable “Alan on a Stick” camera, an ipad mounted on a tripod on wheels. This meant they could move it around so I could see who was talking.

Joe set me up with a domain to hang my materials, I had him give me a WordPress multisite, and I pulled out the usual bag of web tricks.

A main site… for general info, agendas at

Web site for workshop with title Can a theme or narrative art tie an entire course together?

I also set up a DS106 style activity bank for media creating tasks, a TRU Collector SPLOT for image sharing, and a TRU Writer SPLOT site for participants to write up their ideas as of the end of the workshop.

The days were set up as:

Day 1: Exploring the Narrative Thread – overview of storytelling, more detail on the shape of stories (you know that means the Kurt Vonnegut video). We had a play with the new Epic Heroes card game created by Keegan Long-Wheeler and the rest of the Monomyth Online crew.

They got very engaged in discussion here, and they all wanted to keep their cards (or get a set). They added pictures of their cards and their responses to the Collector site.

Two images of faculty sharing their cards and talking
My view of the room during the Epic Heroes card game

In the afternoon, they picked and choose Image activities from the Make Bank (many borrows from DS106 and NetNarr) — Joe suggested good chunks of hands on creative time (no need to convince me).

One piece I added was inviting participants to contribute to an open Google Doc for the sessions, as one place for shared note taking (see Doc 1 and Doc 2).

Day 2 was The Thematic Thread, an alternative for those who did not feel like a narrative/fictional approach was a good fit, this was looking at thematic/topical ways of course tying. We had a great conversation about non-disposable assignments (with some well deserved pushback on the way I had framed it). There seemed to be good resonance with the Wikieducator type projects and a desire to look more closely at how those work. We also had a nice set of demos/conversations with 4 other Kenyon faculty who shared their approaches of using storytelling, semester long projects, and media making.

For the media making on day two, I set them up with some audio making activities.

Day 3 was aimed more at asking them to develop their evolving idea into some kind of “pitch” to make for some visitors, plus some video/animation type media activities. For the close of the workshop I had invited colleagues to come in via Hangout (thanks Gardner, Ed, Mia) as reps of the Campbell Consortium to give feedback to ideas pitched by participants (these were added to a “Pitch” site).

Yes I could not resist calling this session… Arc Tank (yes, I ripped off my own ripped off idea of Thesis Tank)

Words ARC TANK superimposed on a shape of Kurt Vonneguts shape of story curve, all atop a shimmering underwater view of a place sharks might swim
Pitching to the Arc Tank

For all the atypical workshopness I threw at them, they did not bend or fold. Many stayed in the room working through lunch, and I’m pleased to see the collection of ideas they wrote up. Any feedback you might have would be most welcome:

I did not see a significant taking up of the narrative arc approach. It’s a bit zany to do, is it? My tentative conclusion is that it’s pretty far out there, and likely best suited for the storytelling/media making courses that I have done before. But I’m not giving up on others taking that route.

Mainly I hope the idea of an arc can at least work as a means of thinking of a course more of an experience, a happening, than 16 weeks of assignments leading to an exam and roll the credits.

I sure appreciate Joe being willing to go along with this crazy workshop idea.

We are still waiting to hear back from the Campbell Consortium…

Featured Image:

At the Arts Gala: Making Stories with Sound

(Wow, is there ever a backlog of overdue blog posts. I’m giving myself demerits for tardiness).

Maybe my favorite media thing to teach is audio editing, because it’s typically fat from most people’s experiences. With an offer from Cori to do a session at the Arts Gala event for the Prairies South School Division, I had the chance to bring this as a workshop to high school students who gathered recently at the school in Gravelbourg.

I came with a back of random objects and way too many things to cover; we ended up doing about 30% of what I had prepped… and it was wonderful at that.

Part of the challenge was not being completely sure of the technology available, but that played out well as the classroom I used had a cabinet of laptops. Because no software could be installed, I had tried out a few different web based HTML5 recording and editing apps– nothing gives all the features of Audacity, but they served us well.

I prepped all the materials in a Google Slide show available at

What was in there includes:

  • An opening question of what is sound, like physically. I used the metaphor of a rock tossed in a pond (which worked well as the students sat in a semi circle), asking what is the difference between a big rock tossed in, and how water waves travel.
  • I ask them next to take a minute of silence to notice every possible sound, from most to least obvious. The idea is to have them consider how sound is layered, that we never have an absence of sound, and how it subtly gives a suggestion of the setting.
  • What does digitized sound look like? (introduction to waveform), to show them that like words in a document, sound can be edited by the same commands of copy, cut, paste, that we apply formatting to it (by effects). I had them do some recording in TwistedWave Online, a fine simple audio recorder with a few effects. They ended up spending a good chunk of time in this, starting with very simple sounds and applying crazy effects (one of them used my voice, others made seed sounds with finger snaps, and tapping in front of the mic). Here is a montage of the sounds created in both sessions:
Sounds created by high school students, for nearly all, the first time they had done anything like this.
  • I then introduced them to the world of Foley artists with a short overview video. I always love this as most people have no idea that nearly all sounds in movies are added in post production, and while digitally edited, the sounds are all generated by recordings of real objects. I ask the students to do a short version of this by watching the first minute of a Charlie Chaplin silent film clip (from Into the Lion Cage), first asking them to identigy what sounds might be needed, and asking them each to choose to make the sounds (from the box of stuff I brought in, metal things, wood blocks, cloth, etc). We then do a run through to practice, and on the second time I record the audio. I was so impressed with how much the kids got into the creative part of making the sounds and then getting the timing down. I managed to miss the recording of the first session (sorry! operator error) so this re-edit has the foley sounds created by the second group.

And that was pretty much the end of time. They were so into the editing in the first part I did not want to stop them just in the name of an agenda. Quite a few of them managed to import tracks from YouTube and elsewhere without me even explaining how or got inventive by recording from the playback from their smartphones/

What did not get done was the activity I like doing, the old DS106 throwback of the five sound effect story where the challenge is to create a story by editing together five sounds (either downloaded or generated), but no spoken voice. I typically like using this to teach Audacity skills of layering multiple tracks. That would not have been easy in web based editors, but the Bear Audio Editor was good enough for sequencing sounds together- and it had nice features for importing audio from YouTube.

And we did not even get close to playing with a few web-based musical instruments– I imagined hearing a crazy round of sounds from these ones:

This was a ton of fun for me, and it seemed like the kids in the room had a good play at being creative in ways that were new to them.

You can hardly go wrong asking anyone to generate sounds, especially with license to go zany.

Thanks Cori for setting this up for me and thanks to the Arts Gala participants who showed up for a session likely not knowing what they were getting into.

Featured Image by rony michaud from Pixabay

Digital + _______ Talk at University of Regina

With the exception of online events, my conference presenting days are behind, me. So it was rewarding to get an invitation to do a session at the University of Regina for ECS 100 (Education Core Studies- “Knowledge, Schooling and Society”).

Part of me being there last night may have been my close relationship with one of the seminar leaders.

ECS 100 is a first class students take in the Faculty of Education, a large part of which is a field experience in a local school. I was invited to give a talk on Educational Technology and specifically including Digital Citizenship. This was my take:

What are implications of, and what do we mean by, using “digital” as an adjective for learning, creativity, storytelling, citizenship? What do we worry about and hope for with technology in 2019? I aim to provide likely more questions than answers drawing from my own experiences in the field since 1992, and suggest that the way forward hinges on our ability to network, share, and support.

I opened with a bit of a “not included in this presentation” that said no PowerPoint (which garnered some enthusiastic applause from the front row). Yes, I exposed them to SPLOTpoint:

Digital + _______ A Talk for ECS100 presentation web site

I also could not resist starting with an activity; I wanted to do show pechaflickr because (a) it’s fun and generates energy; but more (b) as I wanted to show how it reflects my take on [what used to be called, but now it’s got a bad rep] educational technology, so let’s say “web tech”. This mainly is that the idea was more of a mashup, as are the pieces it is made of, and that teachers have come up with ideas for using it that I never would have forecast (some of them circling back as features); and also, the idea is one that can be done w/o my tool.

Anyhow, I asked the students in the room for suggestions for tags to use to generate the random images from flickr. The one that got the most claps as “aglet” (look it up), but in the moment it did not produce enough images, so we quickly punted and went with “penguin”. I also (and had not told them this) asked the four seminar leaders to step up and play the improv game (without realizing what the ask was). Stacie, Corey, Riley, and Cori were great sports.

I like to start the improv to set a theme, so on the fly I said we were here to talk about the pedagogy of penguins.

The rest of the stuff is at

I did not feel a need to overly explain Digital Citizenship as that was in their reading materials, and the excellent guide that the Education Ministry of Saskatchewan offers was written by local UR profs Alec Couros and Katia Hildebrandt. No need for me to explain them in the room.

I did try something that might have flopped, but seemed to have gone well. I wanted them in groups to just brainstorm ideas, associations with the nine elements of Digital Citizenship that the guide is built around, by first thinking about them in the general idea of citizenship (before talking digital). I did groups by rows (somehow thinking there were nine rows, but only 8, alas) and asked them to work in pairs/trios and brainstorm them in a single shared Google doc.

It actually worked well, and the doc filled up nicely (the closing of my talk I asked them to return and put ideas on the digital side, and can see that’s happening).

I decided instead (well, I had my live in coach suggest this) to try and offer a few insights to just a few of them, that maybe they won’t get from the links you get in a search. That these were not simple things to come up with answers, that the more you looked and inquired, the more you found (hence the peeling onion metaphor).

  • For Digital Etiquette I tossed the idea of “managing” devices in class, all rather timely since that morning the Ontario government decided to ban mobile phones in schools. Banning devices does not seem in line with the Saskatchewan Outcomes for Digital Fluency. But I cannot tell them a single answer is right here, it’s something that they have to wrestle with, and align with their school, district policies. I forgot a part I wanted to say that it’s a bit antiquated to put this under “etiquette” since it’s the assumption that taking out devices is rude- norms change and are changing, I also tossed into the mix, some examples of where that for all that’s bad, there are unexpected acts of digital generosity.
  • For Digital Access I introduced them to the concepts I learned from Chris Gilliard about digital redlining, because I bet its something they have not come across before.
  • Under Digital Law I discussed copyright (well briefly), but more so what happens when students get the idea they can use any content for school work because it wont get seen. I think we have to be much better at modeling behavior of using open-licensed “stuff” but also (my hobby horse) we ought to attributing everything, not just stuff we have to because of a license.
  • And in Digital Literacy I gave them a quick overview of The Four Moves and a Habit from the Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers– with the caveat that with ideas, opinions students may be coming to school with, and acting upon, are likely shaped by this new, perilous world of questionable sources of news.

My close was an urge to start shaping their Professional Learning Network. They had been told in the start of class to make accounts / use twitter, but it did not seem to have been integrated much. So naturally, when I asked the room a question about twitter… well the potential did not seem there.

I did try and make a case showing the Twitter TAGs visualization of their #ecs100 tweets.

And later I did fix pechaflickr so that first student chosen tag works- see if you can guess it.

All in all, it was a great time for me… for them, that remains to be seen.

For my talks, I don’t write things out. I really want them to be talks. I do have some note sketches, but it all pretty much lives in my head.

Presentation notes page 1
Presentation notes page 2

And they were nice enough to give me a thank you card, signed by students. I’ve never gotten something like that!

ECS100 Thank you note (student names deliberately blurred)

Featured Image: Modified by overlaying the text “Modifier” on Wikimedia Commons image Clatronic KHF 461 – sender, JRC 2035D on printed circuit board-2323  © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons) and as such, this derivative is shared under the same license.