Digital Storytelling Final Projects

I struggled with whether to write this post or not because digital stories are personal, or they can be personal, but I really believe my students have done good work that is worthy of the world, so I am plunging in.

As I have mentioned before, I went to a digital storytelling workshop last summer. It was life-changing. I decided I had to do a digital storytelling project with my students, but the concept of narrative needed to be woven through the year in order to make the project work. I asked my students to listen to podcast episodes of This American Life to learn more about storytelling in general. Students chose to examine the stories or the production values or related the stories to a story of  their own in a written reflection each month. Students really came to enjoy these assignments. Often after a due date, they came to class talking about the episode they chose to listen to and recommending it to others. I still recall one student writing in his reflection that he thought all his classmates should listen to the episode he chose, even if it was not for an assignment (that’s how I knew the kids were really getting the point). I also wove narrative writing into the curriculum, particularly in the second semester. We wrote narrative essays and discussed elements of storytelling. Next year, I want to do a better job with shorter narratives that will help my students learn to show more instead of tell.

When the time came to begin the project, I started with some good digital story models. We brainstormed ideas for topics and had a topics workshop that the students really liked. We shared ideas for stories and gave each other feedback on the ideas as well as thoughts about how to proceed with the stories. This stage of the process was absolutely critical, and the students agreed that it needed to remain a part of the project next year. I myself found this part of the process to be the most valuable when I went through the workshop.

Next, we wrote drafts of the digital story scripts. And we workshopped the drafts. And we wrote second drafts. And we workshopped second drafts. I limited students to 300 words, but I think I will raise the ceiling next year to 400-500 words. I am worried that in doing so that the videos will get too long, but I think students will find it easier to cut than add details. One important thing I learned in my own workshop is that five minutes is really a good upper limit. Longer, and the viewer loses interest. Three minutes seems to be a sweet spot.

After that, I gave students a tutorial in using iMovie and GarageBand to put together their movies and record voiceovers. One issue I noticed is that students recorded their voiceovers in one single chunk. Next year, I will give them more guidance on pacing and cutting up their voiceovers into segments so there is judicious use of silence when viewers can take in the images and music. One student commented that more of a tutorial would be helpful, but the best way to really learn how to use the software is to use it. I think we can show people how to use technology, but until they actually use it, it’s hard to learn. Another student suggested I could collect a playlist of helpful tutorial videos for iMovie and GarageBand, which was a helpful (and obvious) suggestion that I will will definitely implement next year.

Students felt they did have enough time to complete the project. Keeping in mind we did a process of revision and were also doing other things in class, such as reading literature, writing, etc., we spent about a month on the project from start to finish. That is not a month of working on it every day, but we did have class time to work on it, particularly with scripts and with iMovie drafts. I checked with students at various stages of project completion.

About a week and half ago, I was really worried about the projects. Right before a performance or a game, practices look terrible, and teachers and coaches often despair of students pulling out a performance at the concert, play, or game. Learning is messy, and it never looks messier than with a project that both the teacher and the students are trying for the first time. In the end, I think the students made some quality videos. I am proud of what they did. You can view their work here, and cycle through the videos using the fast-forward and reverse buttons if you want to skip around.

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Digital Storytelling Workshop

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Thanks to my school, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a digital storytelling workshop with the Center for Digital Storytelling in Denver at the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop.

I will admit that I went into the workshop with a fair amount of hubris. I thought to myself, I’ve been teaching English for sixteen years. I know a lot about these kinds of projects. I’m a technology integrator. I know iMovie pretty well. I’d go so far as to consider myself an expert in comparison with many teachers—though I’d not go so far as to say I know everything there is to know about it, I can do pretty much everything I might want to do for school purposes. I didn’t really expect to learn very much from this workshop, but I was glad I would have the opportunity to visit my grandparents, who live in the Denver area.

On the first day of the workshop, we engaged in probably the most powerful part of the entire experience (for me), which was a story circle. We were advised to come with a draft of a script, but I tried to sit down and write one, and I found I couldn’t figure out what to say. As it turned out, very few of the participants were prepared with a script. In story circle, we each had twelve minutes to talk about our story, answer questions, ask questions, and obtain feedback from the facilitators and other participants. I think the reason it was such a powerful experience is because it was such a bonding moment. Several of us cried as we reached the heart of what it was we wanted to say, and the facilitators were excellent at provoking us to really think about what story we wanted to tell.

I started my spiel with the idea that I wasn’t going to cry at all. I told everyone I was visiting my grandparents. My grandfather is a WWII vet, and I decided I would make a digital story about his experiences in WWII. He has some really interesting stories about being inducted into the Navy, joining the Seabees, breaking his glasses and running afoul of postal censors when he wrote home asking for his parents to send him two pairs to replace the broken ones, coming up with a secret code so he could communicate with his mother, and contracting meningitis and causing the Army’s 7th Division to fall under quarantine and have their Christmas leave canceled. A couple of years ago, he was able to travel to Washington, DC on an Honor Flight to see the nation’s capital, specifically the World War II Memorial. He enjoyed the trip a great deal. So, I said to the story circle, that’s what I want to tell a story about.

The facilitator looked at me, a pointed expression on her face, and she asked me, “Dana, how is this story about you?” I was startled by the question, but I thought for a minute, and then, naturally, I burst into tears. It was about me because of everything my grandparents had done for me. It was about me because they are elderly, and I don’t know how much time I have left. It was about me because I will be devastated when they are gone.

With this much-needed clarity, I began to write my script. I was having trouble paring it down to the 300-word suggested limit. I thought I might be able to do 500 words, but 300 was too little to say everything I thought I needed to say. I decided I would just rebel and make a longer video, and I set to work with that script. The facilitator helped me record my voiceover. I interviewed my grandfather, who spoke for an hour about his experiences, and I selected the parts I would use in the story. I scanned lots of pictures my grandparents had around the house.

When I began stitching together the different pieces, I accidentally deleted a whole segment in which my grandfather goes into some detail about having meningitis during the war. After I listened to the video, though, I realized I didn’t exactly need the clip, so I let it go, and I actually managed to get the video at the upper time limit. I never thought I’d do that. It has taken me a couple of weeks’ worth of soul-searching and wrestling to decide whether or not to share the story I created.

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The experience of making the video convinced me to pull digital storytelling into my own curriculum. One natural place I could see it falling is in my American Studies in Literature course. I had already decided to incorporate This American Life into my American literature curriculum, as I see media like podcasts and videos as the new “wave” of writing/storytelling. Well, maybe not so new anymore, but you know how it is in education. Near the end of the year, I plan to explore the theme of the journey. I did not select a large number of works because I knew I wanted to do a culminating project of some kind. The journey, can, of course, be a physical journey. It can also be an inward journey, a self-discovery. Like my video was, after a fashion. Here is another example from the Denver director of the Center for Digital Storytelling:

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It really impacted me when I watched it. Obviously, I would not ask students to tell stories that they are not ready to tell, but I think this could be one of the most powerful experiences for my students:

  • We all have stories, and think about how important it is for us to tell them. Think about how interesting your average episode of This American Life and The Moth is. Think about how entertaining it is to read, say, David Sedaris.
  • We often ask students to read the stories of others, but we don’t ask them to tell their own. We ask them to analyze the stories of others.
  • Digital storytelling is a new way of sharing narrative. In the past, we listened to storytellers. Then we read. I think this might be the next thing. Not that we stopped listing to people tell stories or that will will stop reading. But this adds a new dimension to storytelling.
  • The “writing” aspect of this project is some of the hardest writing I have ever done. I can see people challenging the idea that this is writing, but drafting the whole story was an extremely challenging and rewarding process.

Here is more of Daniel Weinshenker on storytelling:

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One aspect of the process that I will definitely borrow is the story circle. It fits hand-in-glove with the kind of writing workshop I have been doing in my classes.

In the end, I even learned some useful technical tricks that made my video better (and here I thought I was an expert!).

Years ago, I was in Coleman Barks’s last poetry class at the University of Georgia. The final project we did in his class was to bring our own poetry to class and share it. Dr. Barks anthologized it. He told us explicitly that after we studied the great 20th century American poets, we were now among them, the next generation if you will. And I believed it. I want to give that gift to my own students.

If you have a chance to take one of the Center for Digital Storytelling workshops, don’t hesitate. They do excellent work. Next to Folger Teaching Shakespeare PD, it’s the best PD I’ve ever had in my life.

Photo by Jill Clardy

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