Show and Tell
Students are using cutting-edge visual technologies to bring the age-old art ofstorytelling from the spoken and written tradition into the digital age.
BRIAN CROSBY'S 27 students at Agnes Risley ElementarySchool in Sparks, NV, announce themselves withthis banner at the top of their blog: "We are a fifth-gradeclass that is piloting a 1-to-1 laptop program using iBookcomputers. We blog, Skype, make wiki pages, [and] producedigital videos, podcasts, and vidcasts."
That's a lot to take on, and not what you might expect of a class in which four out of five students do not speak English at home and 90 percent receive federally funded free or reduced-price lunches-a group that can be easily categorized as at-risk kids. But Crosby, their innovative teacher, believes his students are more than just a demographic sample: They demonstrate the powerful educational utility of digital storytelling.
As piloters of the school's 1-to-1 program, Crosby's students each have an Apple iBook, which Crosby was able to equip them with after the school purchased a fresh supply of computers. With the laptops, Crosby has turned his kids into active bloggers. "We concentrate on language because most of them are not fluent in their native language or in English," Crosby says. "In order to blog, you have to stop and think about what you're going to say before you say it."
Blogging has brought Crosby's class in touch with students in such wide-ranging locations as Thailand, Canada, and Florida, and this year the technology was used for a collaborative storytelling project with a fifth-grade class in Long Island, NY. Pairs of Crosby's students joined with pairs of kids in the Long Island class to write a story based on one of the 14 drawings in the picture book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. The students used Google Docs to expand on and edit each other's work in real time, and VoIP provider Skype to work together by videoconference, brainstorming face-to-face about setting, character, plot, word choice-all the components of a story. (The completed works are posted here.)
Crosby encourages his students to employ technologies at their disposal to tell stories in meaningful ways. He started with this same group last year as fourth-graders, and he will stay with them again next year in grade 6. His role has been as a facilitator, helping with the creative process. "As they become sixth-graders," he says, "I will be stepping back to let them continue to develop storytelling strategies for themselves."
An Introduction to Moviemaking
AT INTERNATIONAL POLYTECHNIC HIGHSCHOOL in Pomona, CA, Sean Daly, a 10thgradeworld history teacher, is using the AmericanFilm Institute's (AFI) federally funded ScreenEducation program to help students tell stories through the magicof moviemaking, in a joint project with the school's other 10thgradeteachers intended to engage studentsin learning about the Industrial Revolution.The students are tasked with examining theethical considerations of invention andtechnology as reflected in Mary Shelley'sclassic 19th-century novel, Frankenstein.They spend a semester working in teams offour or five, creating a three-minute moviedepiction of a scene in the novel.
"It's really easy to tell whether the kids have read the book,"Daly says. "They have to be able to get deep into it to be able toadapt it, translating their vision to film and understanding suchfilmmaking concepts as foreshadowing and flashbacks."
The project is introduced at the beginning of the semester,with Daly taking several hours of classroom time to explain theconcepts of filmmaking. "We use the AFI program to introduceall the film terminology, roles, and practices to the students sothey can create their films. Almost all of our students come intoour class with only an appreciation of film, not knowledge ofhow it is created. Students take the roles of directors, producers,editors, production assistants, wardrobe, makeup, visualeffects, etc., to complete their films. We also have a viewing atthe end much like a Hollywood premiere."
On the last day of school, the students come together toshare their work.
"This approach is an easy way to motivate students, becausethere's a role for everyone," says Daly, explaining that artisticstudents can storyboard and the techies can handle the editing,for example. "Instead of my standing up and lecturing to them,the students are learning on their own."
Digital storytelling is a modern take on an oral and written tradition that traces back to early human history as a way of passing down institutional knowledge and beliefs from generation to generation. Proponents of the methodology, such as Marla Davenport, director of learning and technology at TIES (Technology Information Education Services), an education technology collaborative of 38 Minnesota school districts, believe that merging technology and curriculum in this way allows learners to retain information on multiple levels, which makes retrieval easier.
"On a given topic, kids can create their own stories, using the internet to bring in their own videos and graphics," Davenport says. "When that story is communicated to someone else, the child has a much more meaningful experience."
TIES has created a three-day digital storytelling academy that it offers for 15 to 20 teachers twice per school year. The classes address writing, editing, and storyboarding, with much hands-on learning aided by the use of tools such as Adobe Photoshop; Apple's iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand; and Audacity for editing audio.
THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE debutedScreenNation this spring. The program will provide ahigh-quality forum for students in grades 7to 12 to post and share their films. TheScreenNation site will offer studentfilmmaking challenges that match up withteacher lesson plans, professional tips,and feedback.
TIES teaches the storytelling processes and concepts developed by Bernajean Porter, author of DigiTales: The Art of Telling Digital Stories. Porter's website was an outgrowth of the book and is a guide for educators on how to make the best use of digital storytelling in classroom instruction. She says that learning to use digital technology to tell stories can be transforming for students who would otherwise tune out education: "It is really hard to share the engagement, nourishing of inner spirits, and energy that emerges with kids who have detached from school."
Penny Pease, technology integration coordinator for Minnesota's Orono Public School District 278, was among a quartet of educators from her district who attended the TIES academy during the 2006-2007 school year and learned about Porter's digital storytelling concepts. Last spring, Pease worked with a fifth-grade teacher in the district to add a digital storytelling component to a writing assignment that the teacher gave to her advanced language arts class after the students returned from a four-day environmental camp. The "turning-point moment" writing activity had each student write about a meaningful moment or activity from his or her camp experience.
"Once the story was perfected-it involved several drafts to get it just right-we moved to telling the story digitally," Pease says.
For a look at the prize-winning student film Suspended,go here.
The students' first step was to prepare a storyboard. They were then recorded telling their stories. The project next moved to the computer lab, where the students used digital still photos taken during the camp to put together their stories, and finally, Microsoft Windows Movie Maker to produce their short films. One of the student movies, Suspension, was named the winner of the TIES Student Digital Storytelling contest for grades 3 to 5.
"Students see a lot of presentations with data, but not a lot of stories are presented electronically," Pease says. "It was nice to get them to think about taking a story from beginning to end, to get the reader or viewer to anticipate what happens next."
On her website, Porter identifies the practical benefits of digital storytelling, charting the many 21st-century skills it touches on, such as higher-order thinking, visual literacy, and collaboration. But there is a broader factor at work that has the most impact on students. "The opportunity for them to get real about topics that matter-not just having toy time with technology," she says, "comes as a benefit that supersedes even the multitude of skills that digital storytelling develops."
Matt Bolch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.
This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.