It’s about story… and connection

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(A colleague of mine says I need to put a disclaimer on this post — affirming this is a true story, because when I told her about it, she didn’t believe me.)

Yesterday afternoon I presented for the first time as a mainstream BLC presenter. For me, this was nothing short of a VERY BIG DEAL. My session was about data visualization. In short, how new technologies and transparent access to real-world data make it possible to “democratize” visualization. We focused on a site called Many Eyes, the best known application of which is Wordle.

I decided to frame my presentation around myself as a learner, because I’m not the stereotypical person (e.g. statistician, economist) you might expect to geek out over “charts and graphs.” My themes, as such, were “curiosity” and “story,” because that’s what drives me as a learner and meaning-maker. I was hoping for (trusting!) my participants to connect my “presentation story” to their own contexts and lives.

One of my examples of data “telling a story” involved survival on the Titanic. A particular visualization showed that all the children who perished were in Third Class, and we considered the possible meanings and reasons for that. But the comments included a note about a little girl in first class who died, suggesting the data was wrong. However, it gave no source or details. So this became an exercise in information literacy — finding the truth.

I searched for the manifest online and found a family with a little girl. Sure enough, a two-year-old girl from First Class, Helen Loraine Allison (called Loraine), died along with her parents aboard the Titanic. The nanny had taken her baby brother and boarded a lifeboat without telling the family. Mrs. Allison was put in a lifeboat with Loraine, but refused to leave the ship without her son, so she stepped out. I showed participants a photograph of Loraine and her baby brother, reinforcing the theme: “Data tells a story.”  In this case, a very human one. From a “matrix chart” to the fate of an individual child. (And, scene!)

I then asked my participants to explore the Many Eyes site, to “test drive the possibilities.” While they were working, a woman named Cindy approached me and said “Now I need to tell you the rest of the Titanic story.” She then shared that the Allisons were her family, that Loraine was named for her grandmother, and that she had the original photograph that I had displayed. The Allisons nearly missed boarding the Titanic because Mrs. Allison had forgotten her passport. She also told me that some years after the tragedy, some people brought a child to her family, claiming (fraudulently) it was Loraine, and that she had been raised by nuns!

My follow-up slide to everyone’s exploration of Many Eyes contained the question “What did you discover?” I practically Snoopy-danced waiting to share Cindy’s story with the group. I couldn’t have planned for such a gift! And now my third graders, who study Titanic, may be able to interview Cindy on [insert tool here — whatever works!] and authentically experience the “story in the data.” It really is a web of connections.

I have been part of many conversations about the fear of technology dividing us from each other.  But my gut feeling (and personal experience) has been that it can (and does) powerfully connect us. In his compelling, moving keynote this morning, I think Michael Wesch had it right — leveraging these new tools for “dark or light” is really up to us. What will we create and share? How will we connect? What stories will we tell?


  1. I was there . . . It was real and quite amazing! And so was Shelley’s presentation.

  2. Having read your comment about your presentation I am so sorry I missed it! With such a lot of good presentations on offer it is hard being in several presentation rooms at the same time.

    Firstly, I come from the land of Titanic and live only a stone’s throw from Harland and Wolff ship yard in East Belfast where she was built. (We did build many other great ships including her sister ships which didn’t sink!) There are other amazing survival stories related to this tragedy which have been and continue to be recounted in exhibitions and through artefacts at home. I will give you some pointers if you’re interested!

    Secondly I can equate entirely with your feelings
    about presenting at the BLC conference for the first time. This is not only my first ever trip to the USA but also my first time as a hitherto unknown presenter at the BLC conference. So … it has been a very big deal for me too! (Thank you, Mr November, for taking a chance on a largely unknown quantity!) I presented today on what we believe to be quite an innovative teacher e-portfolio project in the UK which aims to track a teacher’s professional development from initial training through to Induction, CPD, Masters level and beyond. With such an emphasis on curriculum and school improvement, we shouldn’t forget about the close correlation between good classroom practice, quality reflection and effective professional development.

    Thanks again for the opportunity to gain very valuable first hand insights into American classrooms – there are some differences but we share many similarities!


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