As every parent or teacher knows, kids have little to no filter when it comes to saying exactly what they think. This remarkable freedom made them the perfect collaborators for Li’l Stories (currently on Kickstarter), a new educational tool that helps teach first through third graders to express themselves through visual, spoken and written storytelling. Li’l Robin and its founder Anke Stohlmann had the opportunity to work with children as part of the process of developing Li’l Stories. The kids were an integral part of the project, and aided us immeasurably in creating something that they and their teachers can use in the classroom or at home.
Structured as a classroom activity, Li’l Stories guides students through the collaborative process of creating and sharing a narrative. And it does this visually, utilizing kids’ love for drawing and curiosity about images. The framework takes the form of a storyboard that helps children define their story elements, or inputs, then create the story individually or in groups. It encourages 21st century skills like communication and collaboration, and supports different types of learners. The use of visual storyboarding also introduces thinking that easily translates to the digital world, and an accompanying app helps kids record and share their stories using digital tools. The project was developed as part of Stohlmann’s thesis project in the MFA Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts (SVA).
Of course, when we started the project, we had no idea what it would ultimately look like. To arrive at the project’s final format, we went through a rigorous process of prototyping and testing. Over the course of a year, we worked closely with several teachers and classes at P.S. 3, a public elementary school in New York City, and the Children’s Museum of Art to develop and refine Li’l Stories. The framework was effectively created in the classroom, with the active, enthusiastic and invaluable participation of the people who will actually be using it: young students and their teachers. (Stohlmann’s daughter Luna and her friends were also happy test subjects.)
LEARNING THROUGH STORIES
Li’l Stories first began as an investigation into ways to foster learning skills that today’s elementary students will need in the future: creativity, collaboration, written and oral communication, and critical thinking. Stohlmann had noticed that Luna loved hearing stories and couldn’t get enough of them. What if stories could be used to help students learn how to read and write? The act of creating and telling stories reinforces the core English Language Arts curriculum, teaching things like story structure and elements, speaking skills, vocabulary, and other communication basics.
As designers, the challenge of the project was translating something spontaneously creative like storytelling into an organized activity that any child could participate in, learn from, and enjoy. We tested various prototypes to determine how best to structure collaboration among young students, who are easily—and understandably—excited about being able to do something together.
USING STORYBOARDING TO CREATE VISUAL STORIES
Before we got too far along, we wanted to confirm a thesis for which we pretty much knew the answer: Do kids have fun creating stories? To investigate this, we integrated story creation activities into recess and classroom activities, as well as some playground visits with Luna. This showed us how children would join in to collaborate on stories without much cajoling.
With a teacher’s permission, we attended a recess with a 4th grade class at P.S. 3 in New York City. We brought a large piece of paper with 30 boxes and hung it up like a poster. Students immediately gathered around in a crowd to fill boxes that followed the initial text “Susie the dinosaur just started school…” Afterwards, one of the students approached Anke and said, “This was fun. Can you come every day?” It was encouraging to see that 4th graders would interrupt their playtime to tell a story and have fun doing so.
However, there was one student who chose not to join her friends in the activity: Luna. Perhaps she was embarrassed to hang out with her mom? No, she assured us. She was just frustrated that the story was a little too freeform—there were too many boxes, and with all the students participating it ended up being non-sequential, and ultimately didn’t make sense. So we later tried running the same test with less boxes for Luna and her friend Aliyah and saw how they collaborated on the story and even decided on the ending beforehand. This showed us that kids love a narrative arc.
TELLING THE STORY BECOMES PART OF THE ACTIVITY
We also noticed they were quite proud of their story at the end, and eager to share it. This helped us realize that sharing needed to be built in as part of the activity: Kids love collectively “finding out” what the story was and listening to it all at the end. After this, we wondered if the framework might function best as part of a classroom lesson. We worried that structuring the activity might hinder the students’ creativity, but we trusted that, through the prototyping process, we would be able to find the perfect balance.
CREATING AN EFFECTIVE CLASSROOM ACTIVITY
We started testing visual storyboarding with students in the first through third grades. For our first prototype test in a classroom, we reached out to Kelly, a first-grade teacher at P.S. 3 who was open to having us work with her students. We weren’t sure what form the kids’ stories would take; children in first grade are just starting to write, but they all know how to draw. Our overarching assumption was that storytelling around content covered in class would reinforce classroom learning. Thus we used two books they read in class as the basis of the first drawings, and gave them the beginning of the story. We divided the kids into five groups based on the tables they were sitting at. After working together, the students from each table were invited to hang their story and share it with the class. We then followed up with a survey to see how they liked the activity.
Remarkably, the kids were almost too excited and engaged. The test helped us realize several things: The size of the groups, which ranged from 4 to 6, was too large; 4 was better. Some kids were getting lost in coloring their images and had to be urged to finish their stories first. Originally planned for 25 minutes, the entire exercise took 45 minutes. Some kids were natural storytellers; others were more quiet and shy. But all of them loved the activity and what they created.
Subsequent workshops compared individual storytelling versus collaborative storytelling, how children interacted during the different versions of the activity, and identified the perfect number of boxes for a structured activity in different time lengths in the classroom. It takes a while for kids to draw, but things have to keep moving or children start to focus on making the drawing perfect. We supplied students with black markers, so the drawings couldn’t get too detailed and coloring wasn’t an issue anymore. To structure the collaboration we tried giving kids numbers that corresponded to various boxes, so they knew they were responsible for a specific space.
In the end, we found that less boxes helped make for a more cohesive story in a limited timeframe. More structure also made the activity feel less chaotic, and in surveys following the exercises, the students responded that the added organization helped them have more fun creating with their friends.
MVOING TOWARDS A GAME-LIKE ACTIVITY
In addition to our classroom testing, we participated in a TeacherQuest workshop presented by the Institute of Play that helped show us how kids can learn through play, and how game experiences foster creativity, critical thinking and communication skills.
Inspired by the workshop, we made the activity more game-like. We tested a storyboard format that resembles a game board or comic strip, things most children are familiar with. In addition, we used dice to determine whether a student could draw 1 or 2 story boxes and added cards showing characters and settings that served as starting points of a group’s story. Structuring storytelling in a way that encourages a child’s natural sense of play was very effective—but game elements like the dice made the activity too disruptive.
USING STORY ELEMENTS AS INPUTS
The cards also proved quite effective: Elements of story character, setting and plot are “disruptive” elements that can be introduced to affect the direction of the story. Students seem to especially enjoy the unpredictability of the disruptions, and liked coming up with these themselves; during one exercise in which the kids created their own Jack and Annie stories (from the “Magic Tree House” series), a group moved their story in the world of Minecraft. This proved that stories reinforce classroom learning, and teachers can use material covered in class to inspire characters, settings and plots of stories created by students.
EXPERIMENTING WITH MATERIALS
Prototyping also gave us an opportunity to explore using different materials for the storyboards. To make the framework as accessible as possible, we wanted to utilize materials that every teacher would already have in the classroom, like paper, Post-its, dry-erase markers, printers, copiers and laminators. We found Post-its are a perfect way for kids to edit their stories and move the “story boxes” around. We also wanted a format that could be easily projected on smart boards and shared with class. (If our Kickstarter is successful, we’ll be able to produce printed storyboard pads that educators can use in the classroom.)
DETERMINING USE CASES
Prototyping also helped us find new uses for the framework. Charly, a second- and third-grade teacher at P.S. 3, loved the project and saw it as way to support learning. She recognized the storyboards as a system for the organization and focus of students’ writing pieces, and used it to help further the personal narrative projects her students were working on. The kids had already written a first draft, but students at that age struggle with structuring, organizing and focusing their stories. Visual panels are an easy way to move around, edit and restructure their narratives. This showed us that Li’l Stories could potentially be a very helpful tool as part of the writing process.
Click image for Arpi and Izzy’s Fish Are Swimming story
Introducing the framework into the classroom also demonstrated its flexibility and how it can be used as the basis for a multitude of activities. Magnus Sweger, another second- and third-grade teacher at P.S. 3, integrated it into a unit teaching American Indian “pourquoi” tales, which his students subsequently used for “Readers Theater,” an oral storytelling exercise. Eventually the class had a publishing party where each student or group told their story accompanied by their storyboard in front of the class. They used the Li’l Stories storyboarding method for the initial story creation, then wrote the dialogue for the Readers Theater and finally told the story to an audience.
The framework is also useful for older students. At the Children’s Museum of Art, Emily Collins, the teacher of “Girl Stories”—a free program for teenage girls 12-15 who are interested in telling stories through filmmaking, animation and comics—used the boards to help students plan their scenes and brainstorm their animations.
CONNECTING THE PHYSICAL AND THE DIGITAL
While we believe creating stories at that age can be perfectly done in the physical space, introducing young students to the digital at an early age is also important. The oral storytelling part of the Li’l Stories activity lends itself to sharing beyond the classroom and showing students how we live in a digitally connected world. How often have we created something and then taken a photo of our creation and shared it on Instagram or Facebook? Li’l Stories is an accessible and safe way to start introducing these concepts to kids.
To this end, our most recent prototyping workshops have focused on developing a child-intuitive interface so kids can capture their story creation with a phone. We learned that children need instructions right before doing something (Luna summed it up perfectly: “Oh yeah, I read that, but instantly forgot about it.”) and the process needs to be clear and simple. Expanding on the collaborative nature of the framework, we built in a capturing activity that has students take an image of their storyboard and then record themselves telling the story. This can be done with the Li’l Stories app, which helps students record and share their stories with teachers and parents. The app is currently in Beta and teachers who are participating in our Li’l Stories pilot can download it and use it in their classrooms.
LI’L STORIES, AN EDUCATION TOOL FOR THE CLASSROOM
Throughout the process, the Li’l Stories visual storyboarding techniques were proven very effective in helping children express themselves through visual, spoken and written storytelling and in developing skills in English, Grammar and Language Arts. Once the format was refined, the teachers found Li’l Stories to be extremely useful, and the students loved it, too. (We’re assembling a set of best-use guidelines for teachers that will be posted with other resources on the Li’l Stories site.)
We’re so happy we had the opportunity to work with all the teachers and students who helped develop Li’l Stories. The project opened our eyes to how kids create and collaborate, and we look forward to introducing new elements of the project in the months to come. If you’d like to help, please support our Kickstarter.