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

Quick Tip Tuesday: A broader view of literacy

What does it mean to be “literate” in the 21st Century? Johanna Riddle tries to answer that question in the introduction to her book Engaging the Eye Generation: Visual Literacy Strategies for the K-5 Classroom. We offer you her broader view of literacy in this week’s Quick Tip.

As our culture and communication continue to expand, the world grows ever more connected, and technology increasingly integrates our daily lives, the criteria for becoming a literate person in the twenty-first century also extends beyond traditional boundaries. Consider that the search engine Google produces more than 338,000 responses when prompted for “definition of literacy.”

Although the debate persists about whether it is reasonable to address so many characteristics in our literacy framework, most educators would agree that a literate person today must be able to do more than accurately read and write text.

The North Central Regional Education Laboratory, building on the work of the International ICT Literacy Panel, identified eight essential categories of literacy in today’s knowledge-based society:
• Basic Literacy: The language and mathematics skills needed to function successfully on the job
• Scientific Literacy: The ability to understand scientific concepts and processes to make good personal and social decisions
• Economic Literacy: The ability to identify and analyze the advantages and disadvantages of public policies and economic conditions
• Technological Literacy: The ability to understand and use the tools of technology to reach identified objectives
• Visual Literacy: The ability to “interpret, use, and create visual media in ways that advance thinking, decision making, communication, and learning”
• Information Literacy: The knowledge and skills necessary to find, analyze, and synthesize information using technology
• Multicultural Literacy: The ability to understand and respect differences among cultures
• Global Awareness: The ability to understand the world’s interconnections

New learning standards reflect these broader views, incorporating technology, visual, and communication skills into benchmarks for traditional introduction subject disciplines. An amalgam definition of twenty-first-century literacy might read like this:

reading and writing,
listening and speaking, and
analyzing and communicating
through a range of socially contextual symbols, including
texts and images,
in any combination
relevant to the individual or culture

Rather than merely “new,” today’s literacy is multidimensional, incorporating many different ways of receiving and expressing information and often involving creative collaboration. Visual literacy is central to such communication.

Writer John Debes coined the phrase visual literacy in 1969, but the idea of communicating and interpreting messages through visible actions and representations has been around much longer. Cave dwellers, drawing their images of great hunts, were documenting and archiving stories for future generations. Today’s Mandarin characters are elegant refinements of ancient Chinese pictographs. Byzantine and early Renaissance artists made generous use of symbols and icons to communicate meaning to a largely nonreading public. For example, they usually dressed central figures in particular colors and included a reed or scroll to indicate that the subject was a writer, a scribe, or an educated person. Other symbols were more subtle but still suggestive, and people of the era understood the visual messages portrayed in these “art stories.” When the advent of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century made books accessible to a wider range of the population, the definition of traditional literacy—the ability to read and write at a particular level of competency—took shape and became the generally embraced mission of educators everywhere. As innovation changes the way we understand the world, our definition of literacy transforms to include new ways of interpreting information.

The Age of Information, a term signifying the shift from the primary production of physical goods to more knowledge-based industries, has introduction included many challenges, but it also has unleashed an exciting universe of ideas, opinions, and perspectives. I first accessed the Internet in 1994 while taking a graduate course in educational media. I saw something unfolding that would revolutionize the way we learn and communicate. As an educator, I was fascinated by the richness and potential of this medium. As an art teacher and administrator, I have always been interested in the communicative aspects of visual imagery. Modern media and technology applications have refocused visual literacy. No longer an elective course of fine arts studies, visual imagery, fueled by technology and connectivity, has raced to the front and center of communication.

I also see a pressing need in education to recognize and respond to the world as our children know it. Technological innovations that once seemed exotic extravagances—the Motorola 2900 series cell phone, circa 1988, available at the hefty price of $2,000, comes to mind—now form the landscape of our everyday communications network. Today’s cell phones enable 85 percent of Americans to communicate verbally, textually, and visually on a whim; to connect to the Internet; to download music, videos, or up-to-the- second stock quotes; and to take photographs, organize daily schedules, or access directions to the nearest restaurant. More than 60 percent of America’s teens own their own cell phones, and more than 90 percent have regular access to one (Entner 2008).

“To succeed in the academic world, students must be proficient in both reading and writing,” Mary Burns, Senior Technology Specialist at the Center for Online Professional Education in Newton, Massachusetts, reminds us. “But to navigate in the real world, they must also be visually literate—able to decode, comprehend, and analyze the elements, messages, and values communicated by image” (2006).

Such accessible tools make collaboration and information sharing a way of life. Our students were born into this world, and they explore it fearlessly. Why isn’t this enthusiasm for discovery through technology a part of their daily educational landscape? It was a question that gave me, a teacher with practically zero technology skills, great pause. How could I possibly hope to empower children when I didn’t even understand their world?

Blend that soul searching with a belief in the potential and power of education for all, place it within a solid framework of core disciplines, and you have an unparalleled opportunity to grow a generation of creative, multiply skilled, lifelong learners. How could a teacher possibly pass up that chance?

Add comment November 9th, 2010

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