Reflections on a VoiceThread Project

This past week I had the opportunity to work with 5th grade students at W.S. Ryan Elementary School in Denton, Texas on a VoiceThread project. The project involved a collaboration between Nancy Walkup, the art teacher at Ryan, her students, and myself. It was as much a learning experience for me as it was for Nancy and her students as this was the first time I worked with a group of young students using VoiceThread in the classroom.

Students began the project weeks before my arrival by viewing and discussing the work of Carmen Lomas Garza, a Texas artist known for creating paintings of her childhood memories, and then creating their own childhood memory drawings. After completing their drawings, students wrote rough and final drafts of descriptions of their pictures. Cindy Hasio, a student teacher in Nancy’s classroom, scanned the students’ artwork so it would be ready to post online. Compared with all this preliminary work, my role in the project was fairly easy.

I arrived at the school early each morning to set up the recording equipment prior to first period. Over the course of three days we were able to record twenty-six stories to accompany students’ pictures.

Rather than attempt to record students’ voices in the art classroom, we decided to turn a small reference room in the school’s media center/library into a recording studio. This was beneficial for several reasons: (1) A number of students expressed concern about having to record their stories in front of the whole class; (2) The small space of the reference room allowed us to better control ambient noise during recordings; (3) The recording space was in close proximity to the art room; and (4) most importantly, the room we used had a Ethernet connection allowing access to the Web.

The recordings were done in small groups of 2-4 students who sat around a table taking turns working the computer and recording their stories. After showing each group how the VoiceThread site worked and creating identities for each student (something the site allows you to easily do), I let the students do the recordings on their own while I stood back and observed. I felt that putting the students in charge, so to speak, relieved possible anxiety of recording their stories with me, a stranger at the school, and would also increase their sense of ownership of the project. Furthermore, it helped some students to know that if they “messed up” while recording their stories, they could simply cancel the recording and try again. Only a few students required more than one attempt.

All in all, the project went smoothly. But, I must admit that getting through the number of students we did in three days would not have been possible without the cooperation of classroom teachers who permitted some of their students to come to the recording studio outside of art time and others who excused students for returning to their classrooms late because they were working with me.

Memory Drawings from Ryan Elementary Students (link)

A Few Observations & Tips:

  • Students were excited by the opportunity to share their work and stories online.
  • VoiceThread is easy for young students (and adults) to use.
  • VoiceThread can be a great tool for combining image, text and voice in various types of interdisciplinary projects.
  • Art teachers should look at VoiceThread for ways to combine conventional art media and new technology in planning classroom projects for their students.
  • It’s best to allow the students to work in small groups to help each other record their stories.
  • I collected around 40 or so avatars from the Web prior to my visit to the school to allow students to pick from when setting up their identities in VoiceThread. Students enjoyed choosing their own avatars from this collection, which helped to raise their interest level in the project.
  • I used a Blue Snowflake Microphone to record students’ stories. I chose this microphone in part because it easily fit in my suitcase. In use, it worked pretty well and was typically held by students a few inches from their mouths while recording. Where transportability is not a concern, I would consider using the Blue Snowball Microphone instead.

Lastly, one of the unexpected surprises that occurred during this project was an interview by a local newspaper reporter. Subsequently, our VoiceThread project ended up on the front page of the Denton Record-Chronicle.

My trip to Texas was made possible through a grant from the Fine Arts Scholarship Enhancement Fund from the University of Florida’s College of Fine Arts.