Quick Tip Tuesday: The process behind writing digital stories

While digital stories rely heavily on technology, at their core they are still stories that have to be planned, researched, and written. In this week’s Quick Tip, Lisa Miller, author of Make Me a Story, outlines the writing process her students go through as they plan their digital stories.

Surprises pop up all the way through the process of creating digital stories. Students are surprised by what they write, by how their art and text work together, by how their voices sound reciting their own words.

Students love putting the stories together with images and music on the computer, but before they get there, they must do the writing. Writing is thinking, so through writing they find out what they want to say and how they want to say it in the scripts. Even though the visuals are an important part of digital stories, this thinking/writing is what digital stories are built on. You’ll want to take students through at least some parts of the writing process, the different steps writers go through to create stories. The process will help them see themselves as writers. It will help them get the writing done. And it will make the stories stronger than if students concentrated mostly on the images instead of on the writing.

There is no one process, no one way of talking about the steps writers follow. My friend and mentor Don Murray, who pioneered the writing process, revised his own models through eight editions of his book Write to Learn. In the seventh edition (2002), he listed the steps as these: focus, research, draft, revise, and edit; in the eighth edition (2005), he listed them this way: write before writing, research for writing, begin writing, keep writing, and finish writing. You can tailor the process to your students, whatever grade they’re in, to help them be successful.

Although the texts for digital stories are short, students can still follow the steps of the writing process to create good scripts. In fact, the brevity of the scripts can be helpful; students may find such texts easier to work with and revise than longer ones. As we grow as writers, we develop our own processes that work for us. But for young writers, a model such as Murray’s provides a coherent way to talk about how students can get from an idea to a finished draft, and a way for thinking about writing in general that can serve these students well all through school and beyond. The writing process models show students that great writing isn’t created by magic—that published writers’ pieces don’t suddenly appear perfect and whole on the page. Students learn there are steps they can follow, practice, and improve upon. If they run into roadblocks while writing, they can go back to one step and work on that step to solve the problems. The process also offers students ways to experiment and find out what writing techniques work best for them—and they can apply this experimentation to other writing projects they do. If they practice a process again and again, they’ll always be able to get the writing done. And they’ll make discoveries about what they have to say and about themselves as writers along the way. I’ve encountered students who, through the process, discovered what was most important to them about families or friendships or places they’d lived, or what most interested them about a subject they’d researched, like the child who wrote fiction about a polar bear but did factual research and then decided to focus on the polar bear’s search for food.

Here are the writing process steps and the associated tasks I’ll discuss in this chapter and the next:
Write before writing. Finding a subject; brainstorming, mapping, and other prewriting activities; asking questions about the subject.
Research for writing. Recollecting details about an experience; asking questions about a research subject; conducting research in the library and/or on the Internet; interviewing others; and collecting images.
Begin writing. Finding a focus; beginning a draft; considering point of view and audience; and planning the story, which includes thinking about images that might go with the story.
Keep writing. Developing a whole draft with a strong beginning and ending, transitions, concrete language, and interesting details; putting together the images; storyboarding to figure out what images will go with what text; and splitting the written script into pieces to go with the images.
Finish writing. Putting the story together in the computer, with images, transitions, voice-over narration, and music; revising as needed; and showing the stories to an audience.

This model implies that the process is linear, and of course it’s not. A writer may focus and research, then go back and refocus, then move to drafting, then decide more research is necessary, and so on; students will revise through the drafting of scripts and up until they finish the stories. The model is simply an effective way to talk about writing and sets out ways for students to work through writing projects. It also offers students ways to experiment and find out what writing techniques work best for them.

Much of this—the collecting, focusing, and drafting—can be done (or at least started) in the classroom without computers, unless you want students to conduct research or find images on the World Wide Web, use computer clip art, or type up their scripts on computers. Once they’ve completed a draft of their text, collected their images, and created a plan for matching images with text, they’ll be ready to work on the computers with a program such as Microsoft Photo Story 3 and begin putting all the elements together.

I’ve known first and second graders who, with some one-on-one help, have gone through part of the writing process and put their stories together on a computer, using Photo Story 3. I know that some of the youngest students won’t be ready to go through all of these steps in depth or answer all of the questions I’m going to pose to help students through the writing process. You can pare down the model to the basics: find a subject, get the information and images you need, write the script, figure out what images go with what text, and put the text together with images using a computer. You can add any of the exercises, strategies, or questions I suggest if you think they will help your students through the process.

With first- and second-grade students you may want to concentrate mostly on finding a subject and on making the pictures and words go together. In fact, the first time you have students do digital stories, whatever the grade level, you may want to concentrate on focus—what main thing each student wants or needs to say—and making the pictures work with the words. When students do additional digital stories, you can have them consider other concerns, such as writing great beginnings and endings, or showing and telling.

You may decide to have students work together in pairs or groups on digital stories rather than having them do individual stories. For an online story about holidays (Digital Storytelling in the Scott County Schools Web site), first and second graders were split into teams. Each team dealt with one aspect of the story: images, music, scanning, cropping, or story. The digital story featured a different narrator for each holiday. Other examples of collaborative stories on the Web include one about the life cycle of the Granny Smith apple by a third-grade class (Granny Smith, Digitales Web site) and one about the battle of Antietam written and illustrated by three young authors (A Young Man’s First Battle, Digitales Web site).

Sometimes teachers work with a class to create a group story: Students paint or draw one picture each, write a short poem or a paragraph to go with the picture, then turn it over to the teacher, who uses the material to create one digital story.

A couple of teachers I worked with did this with their students’ poems and drawings about nature. They still recorded each student reading his or her poem so that all of the students’ voices were heard. Even if students are doing individual stories, you might want them to work in pairs so they can help and support each other as they go through the writing process and work on the computers. The important thing is to make the projects workable for you and your students.

Before you have students create digital stories, you may want to do one of your own so you’re comfortable with how the story and images go together. Teachers in digital storytelling classes I’ve taught have done personal narratives, introductions to books their students are going to read, and introductory lessons on subjects including clouds (to introduce students to the different kinds) and the making of a peanut butter and banana sandwich (to introduce students to the writing of how-to pieces).

1 comment May 17th, 2011

Podcast: Lisa Miller on digital storytelling

Lisa Miller’s new book, Make Me a Story: Teaching Writing Through Digital Storytelling, shows teachers how to integrate technology into their writing instruction. In this podcast Lisa talks about how easy and simple it is for teachers to create a digital story with their students.

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Add comment September 1st, 2010

Review and podcast: Make Me a Story

Melanie Holtsman, technology integration coach at Chets Creek Elementary School in Jacksonville, Florida, took time out of her summer vacation to do some professional reading. She was so excited to read Lisa Miller’s new book Make Me a Story, that she decided to interview Lisa and record a podcast. Read her review of the book and listen to their conversation:

Add comment August 2nd, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Why teach digital storytelling?

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.

Add comment June 29th, 2010

Now Online: Make Me a Story

The writing process and digital storytelling go together naturally. Just as writing can be a process of discovery, so can digital storytelling, where images, words, and music all work together to create meaning.

In her new book, Make Me a Story, Lisa Miller describes the power of digital storytelling as a tool for teaching writing and engaging elementary students. She walks teachers step-by-step through the elements of a digital story project, from prewriting and research through putting the story together in the computer using photos, drawings, paintings, video, narration, and music. Readers will also find answers to nuts-and-bolts questions such as how much computer work students should do and how to record voice-overs.

The accompanying CD offers over two dozen examples of student stories discussed in the book. Concise and accessible, Make Me a Story emphasizes that the writing process should not get lost in the bells and whistles of technology. If writers of digital stories don’t take the time to draft and revise their scripts, they won’t get to the deep thinking that’s essential to telling the best stories. Make Me a Story will start shipping in late July. We’ve just posted the entire text and two of the student samples from the CD for you to preview online.

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1 comment June 21st, 2010

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