Symbaloo and Telling Stories (EdCamp Cobb 3.14.15)

On Pi Day, I attended my first EdCampCobb at Sky View Professional Center in Mableton, GA.

There were fewer people at edCamp Cobb than at edCampAtlanta, but the smaller size didn’t impact the variety or quality of the sessions.

After arriving and putting the finishing touches on my Google Forms presentation, I signed up for a 12 PM slot, and planned my morning.

  • Pop-up Museums with Deborah Aughey
  • Capstone Projects with 8th Graders @ Davis Academy
  • Symbaloo + Google = The Swiss Army Knife of Edtech with David Lockhart @bigguyinabowtie

 I was sorry to miss P.K. Graff’s 3D printed robotic army, but I wanted to focus on sessions I could share with my colleagues, and that seemed to apply more to an online environment.

Symbaloo’s on my mind right now, so I’ll start there. Then I’ll circle around back to Pop-up Museums for Part II, and end with my own thoughts on Google Forms in Part III.


First, I admit, I’ve escaped the hype and excitement around Symbaloo. Although the bookmarking system is sleek and flexible in design, a variety of web tools perform this function, and many people have already formed habits around their own method. Why change systems? Once you find a reliable tool, you should stick with it. After all, how you use the tool matters more than the thing itself. The hammer at Home Depot isn’t going to build me any birdhouses unless I get it and find some blueprints. Educators sometimes get distracted by new, shiny tech, and they shouldn’t.

That being said, I love a good challenge, and David suggested finding a way to tell a Choose Your Own Adventure story through a Symbaloo webmix.


I admit, I spent much of the session focusing on how to solve this problem. And I think I have it.

Symbaloo and Choose Your Own Adventure

Two layouts seem like the best fit. One uses the plot diagram, and the other is inspired by Chris Ware and Scott McCloud. If you’re not familiar with Building Stories by Ware, definitely consider it. You can start with his story of a penny “Heads or Tails” published in the New York Times.

Then pick up and read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. There’s one page in particular that provides a model for how to use Symbaloo to plot your own choose your own adventure story.

The Plot Diagram Layout

The first idea starts with a plot diagram. I recommend this one:


It’s color-coded, and you can use the different colors to organize the story elements.

Once you have your plot diagram, you’ll want to change the background and upload your own image. SymbalooEDU states that the optimal size for a background picture is 1600×1200 pixels, but if you do that, part of your diagram will be off the grid. I want it all on the grid, so I added a boarder and made the changed the width. With the border, 1564×1416 worked for me. Only later did I discover that Symbaloo doesn’t carry your selected background when you later embed or share the webmix. So, that was disappointing.

Once you have the background, you want to find a resource for your story elements. If students are writing their own work, you can use that. If students are reading a story, you could include passages from that. If, however, you’re starting from scratch, you’ll need to search the web for passages, images, or comics that show an action.

For passages, a basic search for “choose your own story” brings and many apps, which make you second guess whether Symbaloo is a good tool for a choose your own story activity. There are too many good products already available to justify trying to design a story from scratch without any particular focus or lens in mind. What I mean is, if you don’t have a story or a historic setting already in mind, this project probably isn’t worth it.

Rather, it might be best to start by giving the students a setting and a choice of major decisions. They choose from those decisions to build out the story themselves by writing passages in a Google Doc and then using each Doc page as a separate tile on their plot diagram.

Plot Diagram Example

Here’s my example of how one might construct a CYOA story using a plot diagram.

symbaloo with background and widget

I use a narrative prompt for my inciting moment. I recommend Visual Writing Prompts (on WordPress), Visual Writing Prompts (on Weebly), or Photo Prompts.

edcamp Then, I want the students to select a setting, so I bookmark a picture with many different settings, such as “Bay City Roboquake” and “Alley Hoops.” Since I didn’t have a particular focus in mind, I went for variety. However, if your class was studying a certain novel, historical time period, or culture, you’d probably want to make your setting more specific. Say, if students were studying South America, maybe find a photo of outgoing flights to South American cities.

Next, for rising action, I wanted to give students choice – and avoid doing much of the writing myself – but still give guidance, so I bookmarked some sentences that I’d want them to include within their story. I started by brainstorming words that connected directly to the prompt, then went to to give students a variety of sentences for each word.

Designing the climax is difficult if you’ve left the assignment as open as I have. You don’t want your climax to be set in stone for several reasons. groundhogFirst, it seems fatalistic: No matter what you do in the rising action, you’ll meet the same crisis moment (#Groundhog’s Day). Second, if you are too detailed in the climax, students might reverse-engineer their stories. Finally, it’s more work for you. Yet, I needed to provide something, so I went with sound effects. Sound effects can and humor, foreshadow events, or emphasis an action. They’re also easy to find and bookmark.

When I think of falling action, I think of resolving the main conflict, which led me to think of conflict resolution. I offer three links to inspire students. The first is a link to quotes that connect with conflict, and students can use the whole quotation in their story or let it guide the action. The second bookmark is an embedded poster showing correct ways of interacting with a pet, which I thought might be analogous to how one might interact with a chalk monster. Finally, the third link is for the visual learner: an embedded image of chalk art covered with a transparent tarp to protect it from the rain. All three bookmarks suggest solutions to the potential problem.

Finally, the resolution. If you can’t be too detailed in the climax, you definitely can’t be too detailed in the resolution. I, perhaps, cheated by asking students to “Choose a new writing prompt that describes what happens next.” If the assignment works well, they can post their narratives on a class blog, on Edmodo, or another platform, and students can choose another student’s story to continue writing. Extending the narrative in this manner is a good exercise, once popularized by Agatha Christie’s et. al.’s The Floating Admiral   and the young adult series 39 Clues.

Picture/Video Method

You could also tell stories through images. Personally, I think this use is a better fit for the tool considering the Symbaloo’s visual design. But it’s no easy task, and Symbaloo, as of now, doesn’t make this process easier for reasons I’ll later explore. However, if you’re still with me despite the disclaimer, here are some approaches.

 Using Colors to Organize the Flow

image with color

You or students would populate the grid with images that reflect feelings or actions. Then color code these backgrounds based on the plot diagram. To play, students would choose color-coded elements to tell their story.

Use Arrows to Organize the Flow

Turn Symbaloo into a flow chart and use arrows to show possible paths students’ stories might take. Planning the story’s possible paths would be the hardest, and I’ve tried two different approaches with little success.

  1. Start with a beginning and just see what you can come up with. This is by far the worst possible idea because you’re having to both create and organize creative content.
  2. mazeStart with a flow-chart and plan events that would fit into that model. I tried using an online maze generator to create the same flow and here is as far as I got:

With either method, you have to choose whether to show or hide pictures, show or hide labels, and to display icons to further organize the story’s paths. I can see advantages and disadvantages of revealing information about the story. In my example, I have a picture of flames after a few gray squares. Students might choose that path to find out what happens. I also showed images of the sky to let them know that they’d still be in the air whichever path they chose.

image with arrows

Why it’s hard

While this seems like a simple process, there is no easy or straight forward way to do it. First, finding images that help tell a story is a laborious process, and then you have to get the url for each picture, and create a new bookmark for each image. For my example, I wanted to build a narrative from videos on Vine. Finding variety and/or an image that matches what is in your head takes a lot of time. Just finding content might be an assignment in and of itself.

For a teacher to facilitate this project effectively, it might be best to come on the heels of another research assignment where one of the steps was to gather at least a hundred images or videos that connect with the topic. Then, students could organize these images into possible paths in a story. Such a task, if there’s class time available, is certainly worth the effort. Student would connect previously learned content, use search tools and other digital media, organize content, analyze and categorize content, and finally synthesize the content to create a new product: a CYOA.

The second problem is using Symbaloo to publish and share the story because, in a way, Symbaloo works against you. bookmarksThe website, after all, is a bookmarking site, so it effectively houses links to other sites that lead the user to other sources of information; i.e. Wikipedia,, and CNN. This project, however, is all about narrowing down options. The author of any CYOA wants links that guide the player to particular endings, not go running off into the World Wide Web. That means, the author (you or the student) needs to provide the specific url for each image and each video.

I’ve tried to cheat with this. Often, CYOA stories overlap, so authors can reuse events and choices. If you want to do that with Symbaloo, you have to create a whole new bookmark. You can’t just copy and paste a pre-existing image. While this might seem like a small issue, this problem also prevents you from copying and pasting arrows. keep goingEven giving a visual clue is a multi-step process of linking the url of the arrow. You might note in my example, I have only use one type of three different arrows. And actually, these are icons I uploaded after reusing this like for all arrows:

In the end, using Symbaloo to create a Choose Your Own Adventure story is a neat idea, but many aspects of the website make a simple process much more difficult. If the goal is to use Symbaloo in your classroom, you may want to start with another project. If the goal is to create a Choose Your Own Adventure story, you may try using PowerPoint or Google Slides using buttons to guide the story. If, however, you are already swimming in topic-specific links, websites, images, and videos that somehow suggest different outcomes or effects of other related links, websites, images, and videos, then this project might be a good fit. Just be aware that the actual building takes a long time. It would be a perfect time to watch all three extended editions of The Lord of the Rings movies.

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5 Responses to Symbaloo and Telling Stories (EdCamp Cobb 3.14.15)

  1. Pingback: The Pop Up Museum (#EdCampCobb 3.14.15) | Kinetic ED

  2. Pingback: Symbaloo & Telling Stories – #edcampinspired

  3. Pingback: Participate 1.1.2 – Social Bookmarking: You don’t need it #eteachertool | Kinetic ED

  4. fsurget says:

    Reblogged this on breedingpirates and commented:
    Found the long-sought Symba-loot ! Great ideas to dig and adapt…


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