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Bringing Digital Books to Life

Bringing Digital Books to Life

Written by Kevin Hodgson
July 31, 2010

The connection between image and words can be a powerful experience for a reader, and for a writer. Since my first year of teaching sixth graders, I have worked to bring in picture books as examples of texts, as sources for writing prompts, and as examples of rich storytelling. From that first year, I also worked to have my students create their own original picture book stories.

It was in my third year of teaching that I realized that our traditional approach of paper, staples and colored pencils for creation and publication, while fine, might be replaced by technology. I turned to Powerpoint for a publishing platform for a couple of reasons. First, most of my students had either used Powerpoint or at least had seen it. Second, it was free and loaded onto our school laptops. Three, we could integrate original artwork from Microsoft Paint easily into the slides. And fourth, most important, students could learn about such elements as design, use of animation, integration of video and sound, and more.

And so began our Digital Picture Books, which have often been deeply connected to other curricular areas as I work in collaboration with my science and math colleagues, our librarian/media specialist, and our school’s art teacher. My students also share their work with others, either by a round-table approach for visiting students from other grades in our school or through online publishing at a website we create.

My inquiry stance has always revolved around putting the tools of composition into the hands of my young writers and creators, and while we use technology for this project, what my science teacher or math teacher colleagues and I are looking for is understanding of complex material told under the umbrella of a digital picture book. The technology engages them, for sure; but it is the crafting of story, the creation of artwork, and the strategies that go into publishing a digital book that forms the kernal of learning here. In some ways, it is a success when the technology becomes less visible, and the voice of the young writers and artists are what emerge from the work.

The assessment of work in this project, which can take about four to six weeks to complete, is ongoing, with formative assessments, such as reflective writing and periodic survey check-ins, as well as a summative assessment that uses a rubric designed to guide the work from start to finish. Peer review of the emerging books takes place on a regular basis, and technology skills that are learned by one student are made visible and shared with others. I should note, too, that most of the elements of the project—from the planning right to the publication—are connected to our state curriculum frameworks. I’m hitting the expectations of our state and school district, with a digital flavor.

As the teacher, I am often “making the rounds” of the room, doing more mini-lessons than lectures, and acting as a sort of guide to the technology even as I help them with the traditional elements of story writing. The project is one way to integrate the concept of “student as composer” with digital tools while still remaining anchored in some of the teaching that goes on in many classrooms.

Digital Science Picture Books: A Presentation

This resource (download it as a pdf below) is from a presentation about Digital Science Picture Books that I gave to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and at the Digital Is… Convening in 2009.

Open Digital Picture Book Presentation.pdf

Student Sample: Cell Mitosis Digital Book/Movie

Here, we turned my student’s book into a video, complete with student narration.

When the Audience Interacts

This podcast is taken from my chapter in our book Teaching the New Writing: Teaching, Change and Assessment in the 21st Century Classroom. This section deals with an interesting element that I noticed when younger students arrived to listen/read the digital books, and it demonstrates some of the flexibility that writers with digital tools might have when the audience is part of the conversation.
Open Digital Picture Books — A View in the Room.mp3

Assessment Tools

Image originally uploaded on 2010-07-31 03:53

The assessment of digital media remains an area of concern for many teachers. With the digital picture book project, I try to balance the informal, ongoing assessments with the more formalized rubric that allows me to “grade” the project when the books are published.

Some of the assessment tools I use include:

  • Daily writing reflections. With these, students self-assess where they are with their project, where they are going next, and what help they may need. This writing then guides our conversations when I meet with them as they are working on their project. These are short pieces of writing that are not graded.
  • Informal surveys (often done online). These allow me to gather overall information about perceptions and problems that may be arising across the classroom(s). Questions on these surveys might include reflections about writing elements and technology use.
  • Summative assessment rubric. This is handed out at the very start of the project and referred to on a regular basis. The rubric guides students in their work and provides focal points, particularly as the crunch time of deadlines looms.
  • A peer review sheet. This is filled out during part of our revision process.
  • A checklist. This provides yet another framework for keeping students on-track. Most students keep this checklist by their side during the final weeks of the project.
  • End-of-project reflective writing. In this, students reflect on the entire project, talking about what they are proud of and what they would have done differently next time, and then I ask them to offer me advice for making the project better for the next year’s class.

I’ve attached resources that might come in handy for you.
Open Mitosis — book project rubric.pdf
Open Mitosis — digital book checklist.pdf
Open Mitosis Digital Book Project – overview.pdf

Student Perceptions/Reflections

At the end of the unit, I often have my students take an online survey that allows me to get a sense of what they have learned about writing and publishing a picture book with technology tools. Here, I present some of overall findings from my students from a math picture book project.

Connections to State and National Curriculum Frameworks

It’s important that we show how composing with digital tools also meets the curriculum standards of our local schools, our states and, now more than ever, our national organizations.

Here is a look at how the Digital Picture Book project touches on a wide array of standards with the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks:

English Language Arts:

  • GENERAL STANDARD 20: Consideration of Audience and Purpose—Students will write for different audiences and purpose.
  • GENERAL STANDARD 22: Standard English Conventions—Students will use knowledge of standard English conventions in their writing, revising, and editing.
  • GENERAL STANDARD 25: Evaluating Writing and Presentations* (Continued)—Students will develop and use appropriate rhetorical, logical, and stylistic criteria for assessing final versions of their compositions or research projects before presenting them to varied audiences.
  • GENERAL STANDARD 27: Media Production*—Students will design and create coherent media productions (audio, video, television, multimedia, Internet, emerging technologies) with a clear controlling idea, adequate detail, and appropriate consideration of audience, purpose, and medium.


  • STANDARD 2: Elements and Principles of Design—Students will demonstrate knowledge of the elements and principles of design.
  • STANDARD 9: Inventions, Technologies, and the Arts—Students will describe and analyze how performing and visual artists use and have used materials, inventions, and technologies in their works.
  • STANDARD 10: Interdisciplinary Connections—Students will use knowledge of the arts and cultural resources in the study of the arts, English language arts, foreign languages, health, history and social science, mathematics, and science and technology/engineering.

The cross-curricular connections with math and science (depending on the focus of the books) are also aligned with the state curriculum standards, including areas such as geometry and computation in math and cellular understanding in science.

I also use the tenets of national standards put forth by the International Society for Technology in Education. (ISTE/NETS). The organization points to such areas as:

Creativity and Innovation

Students demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology.


  • apply existing knowledge to generate new ideas, products, or processes
  • create original works as a means of personal or group expression.

Communication and Collaboration

Students use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others.


  • interact, collaborate, and publish with peers, experts or others employing a variety of digital environments and media
  • communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences using a variety of media and formats
  • contribute to project teams to produce original works or solve problems.