One of my fourth grade students displays genius tendencies when it comes to building and tinkering but struggles with engagement during literacy activities. He describes the problem as having too many ideas in his head and not being able to get them out. Pretty self aware for a nine-year-old!
So when I mentioned to him that I was going to be meeting with the President of Lego Education at SXSWedu, his eyes lit up. I could tell he was imagining this glowing, Wizard of Oz-style man sitting in a room somewhere building the Legos he dreams of all day in school.
Initially when Lego Education reached out, I told them I was not interested in hearing about Legos, but that I wanted a hands-on demo. Legos aren’t about talking, they’re about doing…or so I thought. Excited by the idea of building a robot puppy, I was sure I’d want the scoop on how to get a robotics club going at one of the schools I work in. It came as a surprise that the most innovative idea I experienced was actually not the endearing robo-pup but rather a simple Lego block kit designed to help students communicate through building.
Lego Education has a new product called StoryStarter, which is essentially a tool for teaching literacy and writing sequences. Think manipulatives for ELA! Stephan Turnipseed, President of Lego Education, walked me through the process that teachers are using in their classrooms with StoryStarter. Each set comes with 1,174 pieces and five plates, each of which are used to show the beginning, middle and end of a story. Students choose from a variety of pieces to develop settings, characters and plots for the stories they tell. They develop their context through building before putting their thoughts and creations into words. For students that struggle with topic generation, there are spinners that can help students get their creative juices flowing. (I would also recommend Scholastic Story Starter as a resource for topic generation. Kids love it!)
There is also a software program where students can upload photos of their creations and add text, but at first glance it didn’t seem like enough. I feared that teachers would use it as a crutch and leave out the necessary and gritty work around teaching writing.
But what I was most taken with was the idea of using a simple character set with five plates as a sequencing tool--and not with the software--which brings us to an important issue: distinguishing technology from innovation. The innovation here is in making literacy and storytelling concrete, and incorporating the element of choice for students. It’s really about the pedagogy. The technology can help of course, and I would imagine that the software program might heighten engagement for some students, but it is not at the core of what makes this tool powerful and the impact of the tool could be just as strong with or without the software.
Naturally, as soon as I got back into the classroom, I decided to try out StoryStarter to see it in action. I chose a first-grader who is a reluctant writer with an untamed imagination. His eyes widened when he heard that he would be working with Legos. He said he had read a book about Legos once but never actually used them.
Since it was his first experience with Legos, we began by sorting out the pieces. As we sorted, we thought about and discussed which pieces were characters and which pieces could be used to develop the setting of our story. Once the pieces were put into categories, and we had tied vocabulary to each piece, it was time to begin building. He chose his main character, a spider. We needed to plan out the story before building it on the plates because he had too many ideas competing for space in his mind. He was able to verbalize his ideas, though he struggled to keep them consistent. The repetitive nature of the plates helped him navigate his story with more clarity. We built the beginning, middle and end on three plates.
Beginning: First, the girl tries to hurt the spider with a stick but the spider hides in the grass.
Middle: Then a cat comes and chases the spider but can’t catch him.
End: In the end, a boy comes and sends the cat home and the spider is free again.
As expected, the transition from concrete to written story proved more challenging than building the story using Legos. It required intensive modeling, scaffolding and verbal reminders. Ultimately his written work was stronger and more structured than usual. I suspect that with practice and repetition, the written portion would become more natural.
I would recommend using StoryStarter with students in Grades 1-4. Some of the pieces are very small, making them nearly impossible for a student with fine motor weaknesses to manipulate. For students displaying major grasping difficulties, I might remove them.
There are clear uses with for reluctant writers, students with special needs, and ELL populations. Attaching vocabulary to each piece, and using repetitive language to tell a story from beginning to end can help ELL students make great strides. The tactile nature of the set allows students a risk-free way to share their ideas and get feedback before putting pen to paper. Students who are developing the language skills necessary to be able to tell their story can begin by showing their story, allowing the teacher to provide scaffolded support to match the students needs and abilities.
There is also a great opportunity here for social interaction and growth. In the world of Legos, there is something called “The Group Build” where individuals can contribute to a larger creation by building a smaller portion. This collaborative method of building has natural layers of differentiation ingrained in it. I could imagine having students work in groups of three to build a story or having a larger group put their plates together to create a longer piece of work, considering character development over time--perhaps during a unit on chapter books.
There was a lot of hype about edtech buzzwords at this year’s SXSWedu. Among the most banned words were “disrupt,” “big data” and “BYOD.” What I loved about StoryStarter is that it doesn’t quite fall under any of these labels, yet somehow it has the potential to play a critical role in student growth. Legos have always been touted as a tool for teaching imagination and creativity, but I never thought of them as a tool for teaching storytelling and writing. I’m hoping that next year’s buzzwords are more in line with: engagement, pedagogy, re-imagining, hands-on, balance, differentiation, scaffolding and social interaction.