Quick Tip Tuesday: Why teach digital storytelling?

June 29th, 2010

In her new book Make Me a Story: Teaching Writing Through Digital Storytelling, Lisa Miller shows that digital stories are not just about the bells and whistles of technology. Lisa uses digital stories to move students through the writing process from planning, to revising, to editing. In this week’s Quick Tip, Lisa gives seven compelling reasons to teach digital storytelling in elementary school. Lisa’s book is now available for browsing online and will start shipping in mid-July.

Some of the students I’ve worked with had never created digital stories before I showed up at their schools. We went through parts of the process together. Through their personal narratives I learned about a hamster named Lucy who is an intrepid explorer, a dog named Moxie who catches frogs by a pond, and a bearded dragon named Leo. I learned how it feels to wear a first baseman’s glove, what it’s like to be coached by your dad in hockey, and what you see when you walk by a spooky deserted house. These student writers demonstrated why elementary schoolteachers should teach digital storytelling.
Digital storytelling engages and empowers reluctant readers and writers and different types of learners. It makes everyone want to write. Most students, if not all, were seriously invested in the writing of these stories. Students who ordinarily didn’t put a lot of effort into their work did so. They wrote and wrote and wrote. Students who were already strong writers got a chance to try new skills and stretch themselves, since they had to match their words with illustrations and music and write scripts meant to be read aloud. Visual learners had illustrations to help them in building their stories. Some students revised all the way through the process to when we were recording their narration. “I don’t like the way that sounds,” one would say, rewriting a line and then rerecording. Students wanted to be sure to get these stories right, and not necessarily in the way I thought of as right, with the audio recorded without any mistakes or “uhs.” They wanted their stories to sound like them, sometimes “uhs” and all, and to unfold the way they had envisioned. They were in charge of these stories.
Digital storytelling projects can change how students see themselves and their classmates and can build community in the classroom. Students who are not strong writers but are adept at working with computers gain confidence from this part of the process. Struggling readers find these stories manageable because the scripts are short, ranging from a couple of paragraphs or a few lines of a poem to a page and a half of prose. Working on these projects, some students see themselves as writers for the first time. Students become experts on the subjects of their stories and have the chance to read their own words in their own voices—a very powerful experience.
Thinking about audience is an important part of the process. Students I’ve worked with had a strong sense of audience right from the start of their digital storytelling projects and wanted to be sure the stories would be viewed once they were completed. “Can I get a CD of this so my mom can see it?” “Can I show it to my teacher?” After I finished recording the voice-over for one third grader’s story and we watched the completed story all the way through, he immediately jumped from his seat and asked if his story would be on YouTube. I explained that it wouldn’t but that we were going to make sure he had a copy on CD to show his family. Students don’t always have that sense of audience with a piece of writing, nor do students often excitedly cluster around one child’s desk to read his or her latest essay. But from the start these digital stories were put together to be seen by others. The authors loved watching their stories with a live and appreciative audience (appreciative in part because the audience members had also done the project and knew what it took). Personal narratives were particularly heartfelt; students were very brave in telling those stories.
Digital storytelling projects do not have to be complicated to be effective. Many students’ stories were three minutes long or shorter, including only four or five pieces of art. Nonetheless, students got a great deal out of creating the stories. As Ellie Papazoglou said of her group of third graders, “To me it seemed that this assignment opened so many doors to them for creating and composing a story. They could be creative; they told their own story; they had visuals to scaffold the development of their story. It was more than just writing, revising, and editing. This was a tool that provided some good support for composing a story, yet at the same time allowed for innovation and creativity” (2009).
Stories can be done across the curriculum. Many students write about personal experiences, but digital stories can be told about many subjects. (See Resource Box: Across the Curriculum for a Web site that offers ideas about possible digital storytelling subjects.) For example, elementary school students I’ve worked with or whose stories I’ve found on the Web have tackled subjects such as patriotism in the aftermath of September 11; heroes; three little fish outwitting a shark (a fairy tale); why students should have the opportunity to take art classes; onomatopoeia; biomes; and famous people in New Hampshire history.
The process is the point; digital storytelling projects teach writing and technology skills. Throughout the projects, students practice all sorts of important skills: using appropriate and interesting vocabulary; gathering and organizing information; showing and telling; analyzing the information (textual and visual) they’re working with; explaining their stories for an audience; creating and presenting something original; and applying what they know about computers, technology, and storytelling to a new project. They learn about and try out the writing process, getting especially involved in revising, something students don’t always want to do. They experiment with different storytelling structures. While working on digital stories, they think through how best to tell and show the stories, how the visuals work with the written text.
The process draws on what students already know about storytelling—and moviemaking. Students I worked with knew a lot about the conventions of telling a story both from books they’d encountered and from movies and TV. They had a sophisticated knowledge about visual elements that can make a story effective. They couldn’t necessarily explain to me that they were panning across a picture or slowing the pace of a part of the story with slow music. But they knew that’s what they were doing and why. These students didn’t choose words or pictures or music or effects randomly; they did them with intention. Almost every student wanted to tell me about some element of his or her story that had been carefully thought out. One youngster spent a long time deciding what anecdotes to share about the horses she cared for and how to match music to the horses’ personalities—one shy, one a show-off. Another student, writing about his baseball team, thought hard about the photographs he had to work with and whether to put himself or his best friend first in the story (he went with his best friend). Some students used foreshadowing and carefully chosen transitions in their narrations. They wrote beginnings meant to grab viewers’ attention and endings meant to satisfy viewers. They tried out different points of view and so were reminded that not everyone sees everything in the same way.

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