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Persuasive Writing 21st Century Style, Part 2 — Xtranormal Moviemaking

By Alycia Zimmerman on February 15, 2012
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Last week I wrote about the first of our digital persuasive writing projects, our class blog. After my students were fired up from commenting on each other’s blog posts and engaging in a rollicking digital debate, I decided that they needed more practice seeing both sides of an argument. Staging class debates was helpful, but my students still only participated in one side of any given controversy — I wanted to challenge them to participate in both sides. I decided to have them individually write scripts for both sides of self-selected controversial topics and to bring their scripts to life with digital animation.

If you want to jump ahead to watch my students' fabulous persuasive movies, visit my class Web site. Get ready to be convinced!


Setting the Stage

Playing “devil’s advocate” was a new idea for my 3rd graders — they had become experts at arguing for their personal opinion, but incorporating counterarguments was still a challenge. I began this project by showing my class short clips of debates — presidential debates, scenes from The Great Debaters, and even clips of high school debate teams. We discussed how the participants on both sides of the debates had thoughtful reasons and examples to support their point of view, and I highlighted that not every debate had a clear-cut winner.


Puppet Practice

Homework opinion chartFor my next lesson, I used two sock puppets, one labeled “pro” and the other “con.” The two puppets, one on each of my hands, fiercely debated about a relatable topic for my class: should students have homework. After modeling a sock puppet debate, I told my class that they would practice arguing both sides of a topic in their own puppet debates. I had them brainstorm the pros and cons of having homework. I asked them to each act out their own sock puppet debates in small groups, and the audience members in the groups took turns providing feedback for the puppeteer on whether both sock puppets had made strong arguments.


Choosing Final Project Topics

Having practiced debating both sides of an argument, my students were ready to choose individual topics for their animated debate movies. To help them decide on topics, I created a bulletin board with debate articles we clipped from Scholastic News and Time for Kids. My students browsed selected USA Today editorials, which I like because many of the editorials are paired with opposing view editorials. I also copied and laminated many of the debate prompts from the Printables book 50 Debate Prompts for Kids, such as these sample prompt pages, and put them in a folder that they could sift through.

Persuasion Bulletin Board   

Intro to Xtranormal

Once my students had their topics, it was time for them to begin making their animated debate movies using the Web-based animation software Xtranormal. Using Xtranormal, students choose one or two characters for their movies, pick a setting, and then begin typing the script for their movies. Xtranormal turns the typed text into a conversation, and the moviemaker can choose facial expressions, gestures, camera angles, and more.

Intro to Xtranormal

It’s easy to set up a teacher account on the Xtranormal Web site — the account costs $10 a month for a teacher login, and an additional fifty cents for each student account. (I signed up for two months, and my principal gladly footed the bill to promote technology use in the classroom.) The account allows for unlimited moviemaking and publishing, unlike Xtranormal’s noneducation, pay-as-you-go model. I created accounts for each class member (no email addresses necessary), which took about fifteen minutes. Then I created a demo persuasive movie to teach them about Xtranormal’s capabilities, as well as to practice using the software myself. 


Lights, Camera, Action!

Using Xtranormal was a breeze for my students; most of them intuitively figured out how to use all of the moviemaking features with only a little guidance from me. I limited the choices of characters for them, and I set a scant 20-minute time limit for choosing characters, the set, and music. In less than a class period, my students had begun the meat of the project — typing the dialogue for their characters. 

Typing script to become dialogue in Xtranormal.

Students type their scripts, which become dialogue spoken by the animated "actors."

One of the great things about Xtranormal was that my students could constantly watch the results of their scripting. Many of them who typically omit words from their writing and make egregious spelling errors suddenly noticed these mistakes on their own when their characters didn’t say what my students wanted them to say. Previewing their movies provided a constant feedback loop that helped them independently improve their writing.


Collaborative Feedback From the “Directors’ Guild”

After a student felt that his movie was finished, we’d do a test screening to get feedback from the other students, our “Directors’ Guild.” I instructed my students to give specific positive feedback after the first viewing, and to provide constructive criticism after the second viewing. The movie director’s job was to take notes during the feedback session, and then to use his peers’ suggestions to further improve his movie.


Show Time!

At last, the students had all finished their persuasive movies, and it was time to share their efforts with the public. We held a movie premier for all of my students’ families. We set up our classroom like a movie theater, complete with bags of popcorn and a paper “red carpet” at the classroom entrance. Each director introduced his/her movie to the audience, sharing one moviemaking challenge, as well as some background information about the "debate" topic. Then we dimmed the lights and showed the students’ movies. You can watch my students’ almost-Oscar-worthy persuasive movies on my class Web site.


A student director introduces her movie.  

On the left, a student director introduces her movie to the audience. On the right, my moviemakers celebrate their success with some popcorn at the movie premier.


Moviemaking for All

Making movies with Xtranormal took about five class periods from start to finish for all of my students. Not only was my class highly engaged, but they finally really understood the value of counterarguments, and we had an impressive tech project to share with my students’ families. Xtranormal makes digital moviemaking simple, and it can be adapted for a wide range of content areas and project ideas. Give it a try in your classroom, and you’ll see just how easy it is!


Have you used Xtranormal with your students for a class project? Please share your stories! Do you have any questions about how to use Xtranormal to create animated movies with your students? Let me know . . . 

Comments (2)

Great idea! Other websites worth checking out might be Muvizu and GoAnimate, both of which have more extensive free options. These do also have paid educator options with the access you described, but it's somewhere to o if you are looking for limited free access. Voki is a free talking avatar service with the text-to-speech input; teacher access here tops out at $2.50/month, but can be even cheaper depending on subscription.

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