Friday, September 21, 2012

App Review: StoryLines for Schools

The original vocab word was "shackle."
One spring when I was teaching ESL in a Texas district, we had what felt like a dozen tornado watches. Each time the sirens went off, I'd be responsible for keeping my students silent. We'd kneel on the floor and cover our heads with textbooks for long enough for my Vice Principal to check us off her list.

Unfortunately, the VP had a couple dozen other classes to check. Desperate to avoid the chaos that naturally follows bored kids, I tried a few practice activities.  No go; the students were indignant about doing schoolwork while on the floor. Finally, I tried the Telephone Game.

My students were from all over the world and had never heard of the game.We giggled as we whispered our sentence from ear to ear. I was proud knowing that they were getting feedback on their pronunciation and that we were under control...until everyone busted up laughing when the last person said what she had heard: "I am a student learning English" had become "I see eggs and nurse."

StoryLines for Schools is a combination of the Telephone Game and Pictionary. Like my classroom game, it is silly fun with some fun practice built in.  The silly way to play is easy, and I actually think this would be a fun activity for English Language Learners in particular (though we play it at home and we are pretty good at English).  Student A writes a sentence or chooses an idiom. The iPad is passed to the next student. Student B sees the idiom or sentence and draws a representation of it.  iPad is passed again and Student C writes what he thinks he sees.

Another way to play is to have the students write in their vocab words, or they can build general word skills by choosing from elementary, intermediate, or SAT vocab. This would be a really fun "station" game and a fun time killer after tests or when you're saying, ducking and covering.
  • Does it do what it says it'll do? Yep. Low expectations: "A game of telephone with pictures." check.
  • Does it solve a current problem in the classroom?  Ok, not really.
  • Does it create a new opportunity in the classroom?  Ok, not really, either. You could do the silly way with paper. But a kid could practice SAT words in a small group -- it's a fun idea to think of what "stations" could look like for older kids. I know my ESL kids liked them a lot.
  • Would Thomas Jefferson think it was cool?  Well, it does give students a higher-order-thinking way to practice vocabulary, and finding motivating ways to extend practice time on important things like words would've definitely floated TJ's boat.


  1. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for reviewing StoryLines. We love your input. We're glad that educators are providing us tons of feedback for our apps. It's critical to have dialogue so that together we can improve student learning and provide the best for all students. We wanted to add some thoughts to your review and points.

    "Does it solve a problem?"
    Memorization can be enhanced when we engage our senses. For example, I know that Albania borders on the Adriatic and it exports coal because of an episode of 'Cheers' I saw years ago where one of the characters made up a silly song for his geography lesson. ("Albania! Albania! You border on the Adriatic!!...")

    When used for vocabulary building, StoryLines provides just such an opportunity. If a student is trying to memorize "Abdicate: to renounce or relinquish a throne", the definition is much more likely to stick if they have had a fun, creative experience trying to draw the word, or laughing at a friend's attempts.

    "Does it create a new opportunity?"
    Generally, schools provide few opportunities to embrace failure. To fail, to get an F, to get it wrong, is generally a bad thing. But as a life skill, learning to fail gracefully is a very useful skill. Creativity, public speaking, leadership all require the confidence to fail big in a public way and keep going.

    StoryLines offers a very positive experience in failure. Students will at first balk and squirm at the challenge: I have no idea how to draw that. I'm a bad artist. This drawing makes no sense to me.

    But then they have the amazing experience of having their failure appreciated. As the StoryLine plays back and friends look on, the 'wrong' answers, the 'bad' drawings, are the ones that get a the most positive responses from their friends. The game provides a valuable life lesson: sometimes our mistakes can be great gifts.

    These are some of our thoughts. If your interested, please provide some thoughts on our goals for the app. If our app didn't achieve our own and your expectations, we will continue to refine and innovate. Your opinion and feedback counts heavily on what we are working on.



  2. You make some good points. I think the third grader at my house would love this for spelling practice - she's always trying to find new ways to make it more memorable and less boring. Thanks for your input, and for reading!

  3. we had an almost-quake at skool today > i was sprinting from my classroom to the printer cos the hydroponics lady was convo-ing my kiddos + the chick next door came rushing out of her door all white-faced (she's moved up here from christchurch (nz, has had major quakes over last 2 years).. i hadn't felt anything but when i dashed back inside, some of my kids had felt it.. they were all sitting in a circle > good time to review 'drop, cover, hold' > we practised that three weeks ago but it didn't come to mind first off.. let's hope we don't need your telephone game x