In this excellent TED Talk, Baratunde Thurston masterfully uses sentence structure to discuss racism using headlines many of us are familiar with. I am definitely planning to use it in my English classes. Thurston strikes a balance between humor and seriousness. He masterfully draws the line between lynching to calling the police on Black people simply trying to live their lives.
I have a friend who is a police officer. She is Worcester Police Department’s LGBTQ Liaison Officer. Her story is not mine to tell (though it’s pretty amazing),Â but as this article indicates, she is involved in the LGBTQ community.Â She visited my Social Justice class in January to talk about her experiences. My students loved her and later said her visit was one of their favorite lessons of the year. One of my students asked her a great question. He asked her what she did if she had to enforce laws she didn’t agree with. Sharon talked about discretion. As a police officer, if she is doing traffic detail, she has discretion over whether or not to issue a ticket or a warning. If she stops someone for speeding, for example, she takes into account the situation, the relative danger of the person’s speed, the location (school zone or not), and many other factors. And she also has the discretion not to pull someone over at all for something trivial. So she doesn’t.
My big takeaway from both Thurston’s TED Talk and from my friend Sharon is discretion. Thurston says we have the choice of “minding [our] own damn business.” We can use our discretion for good or for ill, but the actions we choose have consequences, and those consequences are not the same for all people. This is because of structural, system inequities due to deep-seated racism.
If we saw each other simply as fellow human beings just trying to live our lives, what could change? When we dehumanize others, it’s easier to discard their lives. We do it a lot in this country. It needs to stop. We can contribute if we use our discretion and maybe listen to each other’s stories. I’m grateful to Baratunde Thurston for sharing his in this TED Talk.
This year is my first time attending the annual New England Association of Teachers of English (NEATE) Conference. I have been wanting to get more involved with NEATE since moving here, as I was involved with the Georgia Council of Teachers of English (GCTE) before I moved.
If you’d like to check out my presentation, my slide deck is below. There are links to resources and other information I used. If you came to the presentation, thank you!
My colleague, Lisa Iaccarino, also presented, and once she makes her materials available online, I’ll share them here as well because she rocked it!
After we viewed the digital stories my students had created this year, I asked students to evaluate themselves using the rubric I had given them. Next year, I will definitely make time to create the rubric with the students in advance. The rubric I have is good, but the students could make it better. On the back of the rubric, I asked students to give me feedback about the project. I wanted to collect some of their feedback here for those who might be thinking about this project and are feeling on the fence. This feedback represents what the students actually said (warts and all).
Don’t change this from being the final exam because it’s an absolutely great way to end the year and it’s really fun. I don’t think anything needs to be tweaked, the timing is perfect, the spacing for due dates is good and the help given is great.
I loved the project and how we could all pick whatever we wanted and got to watch everyones. Don’t have to change anything, it was great.
In all honesty, I think this project is a lot of fun to put together and all the criteria make sense, even when you don’t think you have a story to tell. It fits for everyone, especially with all you can choose from.
I think the idea of this project is awesome. I had a lot of fun with it and finally learned how to use iMovie. I didn’t find anything wrong with the project.
I liked this project. It was very fun and I enjoyed watching the videos at the end. I liked being able to pick your own idea instead of being told what to do. I wouldn’t take anything out. I liked where you checked our script too. It really helped me at least with knowing it was ok.
The project is great! I enjoyed every part and was excited to do it every step of the way. The one part I had difficulties with was the sound aspect. The sites are great [sites I provided for finding public domain and Creative Commons media] with so many options, but I’m not good at picking things like that. Thank you for helping me find the “perfect” one (better than I could have done).
I don’t know how you could improve it. I thought it was well explained and fun. I would keep everything the same.
I don’t think there should be many changes to the project at all. It’s a really good and fun project. I enjoyed making my video and going back to find everything.
You should keep this project next year. I really enjoy doing the digital story.
The project was very clear and I really like how our final was a project. The project helped me become more creative and engaging. Personally, I really like it and nothing should be changed. Also, I learned a lot in this class, and thank you for a great year, Mrs. Huff!
This project was very fun. I enjoyed our own choice of theme. It was even fun looking back at old pictures and reliving my little league life. One thing that did frustrate me was learning to use different applications on my computer. If I was taught throughout the year to use these different sources this project would have been much more enjoyable. Overall a great project.
I have to point out that last feedback came from a student who struggled with the technology to the point of wanting to give up and take a zero. He persevered, and he did a fabulous job in the end. He was very proud of his work. His feedback about using the software earlier and more often is legitimate. Many students tell me this project is the first time they have opened the iMovie and GarageBand applications on their school-issued computers.
I had a lot of fun doing the project, I enjoyed showing where I’m from and I hope my video would inspire someone to visit one day.
I like the project and we have enough time to do it.
A few trends emerge for me from this feedback:
Students seem to love this project, and even those who struggled said it was a great project and should be kept in the curriculum.
Students seemed to feel they had enough time to complete it. I was worried about that because I gave them more time last year.
Students appreciated the agency they had as they created the project: picking the topic and telling the story they wanted to tell was an important reason why they enjoyed the project.
Student felt proud of their work. They didn’t exactly say so in so many words of feedback to me, but it shone through in the feedback they gave themselves. Here are some snippets:
I am very happy with my music choice and the amount of pictures I chose.
I had a lot of good pictures.
I liked how I had the music start after I said the title.
I liked the pictures.
I thought I had the perfect music and well placed pictures.
I did not have many pictures, but I was able to think of ways to get around lacking pictures.
I paid lots of effort on it and I really enjoy this project.
I did well with the pictures as well as the story.
This project was very challenging for me from the start. After figuring it out things began to come together. Once my voiceover came in I started to enjoy the project.
I think my video has pretty good background music and photos that go along with the voice.
All these comments tell me that the students feel good about what they were able to do. They offered fair criticisms as well. Most of them didn’t feel 100% confident their voiceovers were as good as they could be, but that could also be they are not used to hearing their voices and worry about how they sound (most of us feel that way when we hear ourselves on a recording).
This project makes for a great culminating narrative. They worked on narrative writing, and putting their personal narratives together with image and music to tell a story using video was a great way to see what they had learned about telling a story. And as it turns out, they learned a lot. I’m really proud of them.
Last year, I shared my students’ digital stories. While I did have some good work, I knew the end results could be improved. I did some reflecting and retooling, and I made a few changes to the project for this year. First, I introduced more checkpoints that counted for a grade. For example, bringing an idea (or several) to writing workshop, which was part of the project last year, became a small quiz grade. Just like last year, I asked students to write a draft of their script, and I conferred with each student about the draft.
I added in checkpoints as well. Students needed to show me a collection of images so that I could help them if it looked like they might not have enough material to work with. Collecting images was a problem last year, but I didn’t realize until too late that many of my students were struggling with this issue, and they didn’t realize it was a problem until they tried to assemble their movies and didn’t feel they had enough images. I also wanted to see the draft of the movie, which was graded, so I could give them feedback on potential issues such as a runaway Ken Burns effect (common if you are using iMovie and don’t know how to correct it) or music overpowering the voiceover audio.
Another change I made that actually worried me: I gave students less time to do the project than I did last year. It was an accident. I looked at the calendar, and I realized we hadn’t started the project yet. I freaked out a little, and then I sat down with a calendar to figure it out. It would be tight, I thought, but we could still do it. I gave a copy of the calendar to the students so they would know exactly what was due and when.
I think that reducing the amount of time I gave my students actually resulted in better work from them. I am not sure why this is unless the pressure of completing it in a shorter period of time meant students actually attended to it in a more timely fashion than they would have if they had more time and were tempted to put it off until the last minute. I think procrastination may have been a much larger issue last year because students felt like they had more time. I suppose it is true that we use all of the time we have to complete a project, and if the deadline is tighter, perhaps we put our shoulders to the wheel.
I am really happy with the results this year. Students were thoughtful and reflective. Their stories sound like them and reflect who they are. What a great group of writers!
As always, there were some hiccups. Students do not know how to use this software. The biggest mistake educators make is assuming kids are digital natives and can figure this stuff out. No, you need to teach them how to use it, and you need to be prepared to be a guide on the side for the entire movie project if you are asking students to make films. If there is one thing I could ask educators to stop doing, it is assigning technology-based projects without helping guide the students through the use of the tools. I hear it over and over again from educators that students just know how to use the software.
Another issue: students at my school have MacBooks, but they don’t keep them updated. Several had to get the latest version of iMovie because older versions didn’t work well on their computers. I asked them to check on updates before the project, but of course, not all of them did. We had a few setbacks as students struggled with lack of RAM (they really need to stop opening every program on their computer at once). One student’s computer apparently imploded right after he uploaded his video to his Google Drive account. I am so relieved it waited until after the project (so was he!). Students really ran into problems as a result of the way in which they use the computers: not updating, keeping too many programs open, not restarting regularly.
Because I gave the students a calendar, absences were not a problem (for the most part). Students definitely need support for this project. I think the results are worthwhile, however, and with this excellent crop of digital stories this year, I can’t wait to see what next year’s students create.
I am reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It’s been on my to-read list for a very long time, and I picked it up on a whim last night. These passages out of “Spin” caught my attention this afternoon:
You take your material where you can find it, which is your life, at the intersection of past and present. The memory-traffic feeds into a rotary up on your head, where it goes in circles for a while, then pretty soon imagination flows in and the traffic merges and shoots off down a thousand different streets. As a writer, all you can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down as they come at you. That’s the real obsession. All those stories. 34-35
Later in the same chapter/story, O’Brien writes:
Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story. (38)
These passages really resonated with me because I consider myself a bit of an ambassador for storytelling. I am the family historian. I captured some of the stories of my grandparents and their own grandparents as told to them. I’ve tried to capture a few of my own stories, too. I don’t have anything like serving in the Vietnam War in my background, like Tim O’Brien does, but I do have stories. All of us do, and even though O’Brien is writing stories about the war, I have the sense he’d agree with me.
I find accepting the idea that all of us have stories is one of the biggest hurdles to writing. Many studentsâ€”and for that matter, many adultsâ€”think they don’t have anything interesting worth sharing.Â I think we have a skewed idea of what constitutes interesting. In many cases, if we’ve lived it, we can’t see the potential it might have to intrigue someone else. And then we might be daunted by what we perceive as our inability to tell the story.
Tell it anyway. That is what revision is for. The important thing is to get it down, record it, get it out there. And then share it. The important thing is just to tell your stories. There are lots of ways to do it. If you are more of a writer, write them down. If you’re more of an oral storyteller, record yourself. Video editing software, podcasting software, and services like StoryCorps with their storytelling apps make it easy to capture your stories or those of others. Lest anyone ever in a million years think they don’t have a story, they should listen to the beautiful and wonderful story of Danny and Annie, one of the most popular stories of all time on StoryCorps:
Since I’m thinking of Tim O’Brien, now seems like a good time to share this video I created when I interviewed my grandfather about his war experiences.
Go tell your stories.
Slice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.
I have always had a special connection to St. Patrick’s Day. It’s my half-birthday, which may seem like a silly thing for a woman my age to pay attention to, but you remember when you were a kid, and the distinction “and a half” was important? Even though that distinction is no longer important to me, and about 87% of the time I can’t even remember how old I am, never mind the half, I still feel like St. Patrick’s Day is a special day. Not just because I’m about half Irish, really, because the importance of the holiday in Ireland is somewhat lost given how long ago it was that most of my ancestors immigrated to America and also given its diluted nature in the States. We might lift a pint of Guinness and wear green. We might even go to a parade, depending on the concentration of Irish descent in our neck of the woods. But it’s really not a holiday in America the way it is in Ireland. My Irish ancestry is so far removed at this point that I actually don’t feel all that Irish.
Except… In some ways I do. When I took Celtic Literature in college, I really responded to the Irish and Welsh myths that we studied in ways I didn’t, necessarily, to Greek and Roman myths. I also respond in a visceral way to Celtic musicâ€”fiddles, whistles, Uillean pipes, and bodhrÃ¡ns speak to some part of me that goes deeper than my general love for music. Same with bluegrass or Appalachian music. I don’t always count it my favorite kinds of music to listen to, but if I hear it, it stirs something deeper inside me than even some of my favorite music does. It’s one of the reasons why Sharyn McCrumb’s novel Songcatcher was so moving to me. I responded to the idea of music traveling through DNA.
But there are no recipes that have been passed down, at least not traditionally Irish ones. There are no stories about family in the “old country.” I’ve tried to trace my family to Ireland using a paper trail, but it’s nearly impossible. Or I should say it has been up until now. I was actually surprised that a DNA test confirmed I had such a high percentage of Irish ethnicity. I expected to be quite English, and I was a tiny, tiny bit English, and that was all.
Tomorrow I’ll be putting a different DNA test from a different company in the mail. This company allows you to do a bit more with your results than the other test I had. It also has a larger user base, so I can potentially find more relatives as well as learn more about my genetic history than the first test I took will tell me. I wish you could just port your test results over from one place to another, but I guess it doesn’t work like that. I will be interested to see how the results from each test compare, since they focus on different aspects. I’ve been watching a lot of back episodes of Henry Louis Gates’s show, Finding Your Roots. Gates has Irish ancestry, just like I do. I learned watching an episode last night that about 1 in 10 Americans do. Gates tests the DNA of all of the guests on his show and compares them. Bill Maher and Bill O’Reilly were shocked (and I think mortified) to discover they’re related. One thing you learn about watching shows like this, however, is that we all are related and woven into this great tapestry of humanity. And we all have stories. If more people realized what connected us rather than focused on what separated us, it might be more beautiful world.
On this day when everyone’s Irish, may the luck of the (half) Irish smile on you.
Slice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.
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 ofÂ 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.
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 teachersâ€”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.
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:
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:
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.