Quick Tip Tuesday: Defining digital storytelling

August 25th, 2009

According to Sara Kajder, author of Bringing the Outside In: Visual Ways to Engage Reluctant Readers, the reading that teachers value in school is becoming further and further distanced from the literacy students experience in their outside lives. In her book she demonstrates ways to bring these two ways of reading and learning closer together. In this week’s tip, she defines what digital storytelling means. Read her book to find out how she implements these digital strategies in her classroom.

In an early class discussion exploring the compelling qualities and nature of storytelling, Rochelle shared that “stories capture our voices telling our own stories.” This is just what a digital story is—the melding of human voice and personal narrative, using technologies only as tools that bring these elements together into one text. Digital storytelling grew out of the work of Dana Atchley, Joe Lambert, and the Center for Digital Storytelling at University of California at Berkeley in 1993. Joe often explains in the workshops held at the center that “the digital story is more like fi lm for the rest of us.” Good stories require honesty and simplicity, not the skills of a great auteur or a techie. My students saw our work as the work of the storyteller, with the computer working only as a tool for eventual publication and sharing. Or, as Elliot explained in his journal, “we aren’t learning a technology; we’re using a technology to learn.”
Lambert identifies seven elements of effective digital stories, which helped to fuel much of our work: Point of View, Dramatic Question, Emotional Content, Voice, Soundtrack, Pacing and Economy (Lambert 2002). I like to group these elements, focusing on their use and importance “during writing” and “during construction” elements.

Point (of View)
Students’ digital stories need to be built from their own experience and understanding, using “I” as opposed to a more distant third person point of view. However, I place “of view” in parentheses in an attempt to signal the importance of the “point” of the story. Good stories take us somewhere. Every part of the story works toward a “point” which evokes some response from the audience. This focus is useful for student writers, especially those in my
classroom who often wrote for pages without knowing where they were going.

Dramatic Question and Emotional Content
Effective stories do more than work toward a point. Narratives that lead the reader to become invested typically pursue a compelling question that evokes interest and commitment, and sets the reader up for the eventual “payoff” at the close of the story. This was extremely challenging for my student writers who would either bury the question too deeply in the story or whose story structure fished around for a question. Only through revision and story circle activities (discussed later in this chapter) did students begin to shape their stories into a text that rewarded and surprised their readers and viewers.

This class of thirty-seven had several “unheard” and “unseen” students. They might enter the classroom, submit work, and leave at the sound of the bell without participating in discussion, group assignments, or any task that asked for their voices. The process of digital storytelling required that students exercise their voices as writers and as readers, sharing their drafts in a story circle that aimed at eliciting helpful, reflective peer responses to the text when read aloud. Further, students must absolutely record themselves narrating their scripts—a process that paralyzed even my most vocal students. They are the storytellers, reading (not reciting) their own words, their own ideas, and their own stories. Although it’s the largest obstacle at the start of the process, it’s often the most empowering element of the experience. As Ron explained in a reflective exit ticket after we viewed his class’s stories, “Reading stories made me hear things in my voice. Seeing stories let me hear people in this class in a whole other way.”

We address soundtrack late in the construction process, emphasizing to students that there is a power to placing instrumental music under their voices and images as the story unfolds. I’m continually surprised by students’ skills when it comes to selecting and cuing music that allows them to take their intended meaning to a different, more powerful level. Where a colleague of mine argues that this makes the story a music video, students find that sound adds complexity and depth to the narrative. This also provides students with a lesson in music copyright that in an era of file sharing and Kazaa.com seems more and more pressing.

I remember many childhood hours sitting up with my father, whose stories would unfold with a rhythm and energy that led me to cling to each word he spoke. That’s the art of the storyteller, made even more essential as students work within a digital space to compile and communicate their stories. In my notes from a digital storytelling workshop led by the team at the Center for Digital Storytelling, I have written in all caps and underlined the phrase “GOOD STORIES BREATHE.” Pacing is all about letting that happen. For student writers, this means pulling back or racing forward when the story calls for it, as opposed to when the time limit approaches.

I think that this is one of the most essential elements when students are working with digital multimedia. Too often, we’re led to add effects and bells and whistles because the tool is capable of it or because it helps us to replicate the visual onslaught that we see on MTV or even CNN. I argue to students that the effective digital story uses only a few images, a few words, and even fewer special effects to clearly and powerfully communicate intended meaning. Here, students need to work to include only what’s necessary as opposed to what’s possible.

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