The Cure for Writer’s Block
Writer’s block is an all-too common malady that afflicts early and experienced writers, but LEGO Education’s StoryStarter presents a great way to get ideas to flow from the writer’s brain onto a computer screen. By combining hardware and software, StoryStarter does the hard part by stimulating creative thinking, getting the juices flowing and turning ideas into completed class projects.
StoryStarter is a combination of an assortment of LEGO’s unique plastic building bricks and its StoryVisualizer program that can help kids model and carry-out a story. Aimed at grades two through five, StoryStarter makes learning seem like play. Basically, students build a model of part of the story to help think through its details and flow. They then write all about it in a familiar comic book format.
It can turn just about any kid into an instant writer. On the other hand, it really only works with fiction and creative writing projects rather than more formal critical or non-fiction essays.
The $235 Center Pack comes with five square bases to build onto along with more than 1,000 building pieces that range from animals, people, and trees to a good assortment of LEGO general purpose bricks. It’s just like one of the company’s play sets but without any preset notion as to what the child is expected to make. And, that’s the beauty of StoryStarter’s ability to let a child’s imagination run wild.
To emphasize action and a storyline, the kit includes witches hats, crossbows and plastic chains. Students can augment these with pieces they bring from home or all sorts of objects from pictures to small objects.
Each Center Pack should be good for four or five individual or small group story dioramas and LEGO sells them in 5-packs for $690 for the typical class. Each kit comes in a large plastic storage container so that when all is said, done and written, the kids can put the pieces back into bins so they’re ready for the next class. At least, that’s the idea. I suspect that many of the pieces will end up in pockets, the trash and mouths.
If this was all that StoryStarter did, it would be a fine classroom teaching tool. But, building a LEGO representation of the story’s idea is just the start. The kit’s StoryVisualizer software is for turning the surge of creativity into a written project before the details are forgotten. Happily, it comes with a site license for the entire school to use the software, making it a multi-purpose teaching tool.
After registering, you open the software in a Web browser. Because the software resides online, there’s no installation or upgrading the program and it can run on just about any computer that can handle Flash 11.4. This allows older systems to be recycled for this purpose and students to work on their projects at home.
Unfortunately, StoryVisualizer didn’t work with iPads (which doesn’t support Flash) or Android tablets (which doesn’t have an 11.4 version of Flash at this point). It, however, worked fine with a Chromebook.
You can set up a new writing project in portrait or landscape modes with a variety of preset designs that provide spaces for writing. If you like, create your own format from scratch. First, you drop in an appropriate background that fits your story and place the character in the scene. The characters can be imported images or even taken on the spot with a computer’s Web cam, but the program can’t paste images directly into the frame.
It’s a DIY effort because the program doesn’t include images of the LEGO bricks or characters the dioramas are made from. I took several close-up pictures of the most interesting plastic characters of a story and supplemented that with images dug up from the Internet.
While you can size and position the image and even change the color of the background scenes, the software doesn’t include even the most basic image editing abilities, like rotating or silhouetting. On the other hand, you can use Windows’ Paint or an easily downloaded program to do these image-prep tasks.
In addition to an ample amount of comic-book action words like “Pop” or “Beep,” the kit includes a way to enter freeform text. As is the case with comics, you can add thought clouds and dialogue balloons. Just put it in the frame and pull the edge to near the character’s face and you’re ready to type in their comments.
At any time you can add an extra page or change their order. The left side has a Pages area that shows all the pages that have been worked on. If you make a mistake, it’s all editable and the program can undo any action. It doesn’t, however, respond to the Control-Z key combination for going back.
In addition to the expected text justification choices, the program, offers 10 different type sizes. It doesn’t use the system’s fonts, but StoryVisualizer has eight suitably informal fonts that can be used in any of 12 colors. There are also text effects, like a drop shadow and a blurring effect that can convey movement.
A small group of kids created a 10-page book about a bored boy who goes on a rocket trip to Mars. It was all done in two 45-minute periods. It was amazing how a story almost wrote itself once we made the LEGO model and got it started. When done, you can print, save and export it as a .pdf file suitable for emailing to a parent or compiling into a classroom-wide project, but it prints the project in single sheets, not a fold-together booklet.
While I like the way it can make writer’s block disappear, there’s no way to turn the text from the program into a file as the start of a more formal writing project or turn the comic book format into a video sequence with the student recording a voice-over of the dialogue and description.
The package comes with 24-specific projects as well as a 110-page curriculum guide that aligns key concepts with common core standards and lots of real-world suggestions of how to make the most of the system. It can even be made into a classroom game with the help of a spinner to build story-telling skills.
An excellent way to get kids writing and produce imaginative stories, StoryStarter is aptly named because it has the power to make classroom writer’s block a thing of the past and make the words flow freely. It’s a creative and intriguing way to teach and master language.
+ Great for getting a writing project started
+ Online software
+ Good selection of Lego parts
+ Common Core aware
+ Includes curriculum guide
+ Software site license
- Easy to lose parts
- Not able to use iPad or Android tablet
- Lacks basic image editing