Appealing Apps for Educators: How SonicPics amplifies a student’s voice

by Carolyn Skibba

Since 1999, Carolyn Skibba has served as the technology coordinator at Burley School, a public elementary school in Chicago’s Lakeview community. At Burley, she has taught technology classes for grades K-8, developed technology curricula and integration strategies, led professional development for the school and district, and implemented a 1:1 laptop program. She currently supports the school’s iPad initiative in grades 1-6 and presents frequently on iPad curricular integration and program implementation. Before joining Burley, she was a third grade teacher, an Upward Bound instructor, and received her master’s degree in Technology in Education from Harvard University. She is an Apple Distinguished Educator and a recipient of the 2012 Chicago Public Schools “Ones to Watch” award. Learn more about Carolyn and Burley’s iPad program at ipadsatburley.blogspot.com, or by following Carolyn on Twitter, @skibtech.


Educators often describe the iPad as transformative – a claim I believe to be true. But in order to realize that claim, we need to look for ways to use apps to make new and powerful things possible in the classroom. Now in our third year of an elementary school iPad implementation, my colleagues and I have found that the best apps are those that are versatile, creative, easy to use, and promote sharing. It is those apps that have the capacity to transform instruction and assessment and meaningfully amplify the student voice.

SonicPics is a perfect example of such an app, and it’s one that should be in every elementary iPad classroom. The power of SonicPics is in its simplicity: essentially, it is an app where you can narrate a collection of photos. However, within that simple concept lie multiple transformative strategies for student content creation, assessment of student learning, and differentiation. SonicPics is one of those apps that just works, and once you use it with your students, it will become an app that you turn to again and again.

What it does

SonicPics enables users to generate simple narrated slideshows of photos, screenshots, or other images. In SonicPics, you select photos from your camera roll and then flip through them in sequence while explaining, describing, or otherwise narrating. That’s it. The finished product is a video file. Because the transitions are generated through an intuitive swiping motion, there is no tricky timing to manage for students, and no additional effort is required to synchronize the voice with the images. When a student is ready to talk about the next image, he or she flips to it. This is a process that can be managed independently by students in Kindergarten or even younger. What SonicPics does is beautifully simple and effective, and it unlocks a world of possibilities in the elementary classroom.

Classroom use

SonicPics is one of our go-to apps any time we need to hear from our students about their thinking and learning. This has been especially transformative in three key areas: 1) creating and sharing student work, 2) assessing student skill, knowledge, and understanding, and 3) differentiation.

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1) Creating and sharing student work

SonicPics is one of the simplest multimedia creation tools available, which makes it infinitely usable for content creation by students of all ages and abilities. Students are able to talk and swipe as they move through a set of photographs, drawings, screenshots of text, original artwork, maps, or graphs – any of the infinite collection of visuals that can appear on the iPad screen or be captured with the camera. The completed video file can easily be exported and shared, giving students a creative and authentic way to publish their thinking for others.

Here are just a small sample of the many ways in which students can use SonicPics to share their knowledge and ideas. As you read these examples, add the words “to teach others” or “for a global audience” to each one, and you will begin to sense how this app could make a real difference in the type of work students can create.

  • Create book reviews or book trailers using a combination of photos of the book itself and student drawings of characters, settings or scenes
  • Create “wonder videos” with drawings and verbal questioning about topics of curiosity inspired by non-fiction reading
  • Publish audiobooks of original student writing with illustrations
  • Record and share student poetry, with original student artwork and recitation
  • Create illustrated audio-visual vocabulary guides
  • Draw and record math challenges for other classmates to solve
  • Use images and narration to explain and describe mathematical concepts
  • Create mini-documentaries about science or social studies topics
  • Create how-to videos or multimedia “expert books” to share student knowledge
  • Generate narrated photo-essays about community issues to share as public service announcements
  • Design narrated virtual tours of locations around the community or the world
  • Create a classroom news podcast to document and share learning from the day or week

2) Assessing student skill, knowledge, and understanding

Traditional assessments tend to be product-based and can’t fully capture the thinking, wondering, discovery, and analysis that goes on within a student’s mind. When you can hear a student talk about his or her learning, you gain a much richer picture of individual progress, knowledge, and instructional needs. While one on one conversations and conferences are a critical practice, it’s not possible to speak to each student individually about each learning experience. With SonicPics, each student can record his or her thinking process and share it with the teacher, creating an invaluable record of student thinking and reflection over time and documenting student growth in a meaningful way.

Here are some examples of assessment practices with SonicPics:

  • Capture beginning, middle, and end photos from a picture book and retell the story
  • Capture fluency snapshots of self-selected text, where students photograph a passage and then record their reading in SonicPics
  • Flip through images of new vocabulary, explaining and utilizing words correctly
  • Take photos of other work or projects, explaining and describing choices made during the creation process
  • Draw and speak about visualizing, connections, or questioning during reading
  • Draw and speak about new facts and information obtained during a non-fiction read-aloud, independent reading, or research
  • Select comparable or contrasting images and narrate an explanation
  • Sequence and narrate photos from a book, an historical time period, a scientific process, etc.
  • Narrate photos of a science experiment to retell the process and highlight key questions or discoveries
  • Take photos of a mathematical problem solving process and narrate each step, thereby revealing strategies used and any misconceptions held
  • Analyze and explain relationships between images connected to themes in science and social studies

3) Differentiation

Not all students express themselves best in writing. While this is most obvious in the early childhood or special education classroom, we know that students of all ages benefit from varied, multimodal opportunities to express their knowledge and ideas. Because of the built-in camera, anything that can be seen, created, or experienced can be saved as images. Once you pull up those images in SonicPics, whatever a student can express, explain, or ask about those images can be saved and shared. This is a transformative opportunity for any teacher who wants their students to have choice and variety in how they express themselves – or for any teacher who wants peek “under the hood” and really understand the complexity of student thought.

Tech tips

SonicPics provides you with various options for collecting and sharing finished student videos. There is direct upload to YouTube, which may be an option for some teachers. A more controlled option is Send to Computer, in which SonicPics displays an IP address (a sequence of numbers) that you can type into the address bar of any browser, essentially giving you a direct, temporary wifi link between the iPad and a computer for quick access to SonicPics videos. SonicPics will also allow you to email videos, but that option is best for short projects. Finally, Save to Library will put the finished video into the iPad Photo Library for additional editing or embellishment in iMovie, use in other apps, or upload to other sharing sites.

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