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Profiles in Practice

Profiles in Practice

Written by Henry Cohn-Geltner
May 21, 2010

Profiles in Practice: Digital Storytelling with Teacher Consultants of the National Writing Project is a collection presented by the Pearson Foundation and the National Writing Project that presents the work of five teachers, who have all practiced doing digital storytelling in their classrooms in the hopes of delivering instruction of core skills like collaboration, creativity, presentation, problem-solving, and critical thinking.

“Profiles in Practice” represents the reflections of teachers who have practiced various methods of digital storytelling and are sharing their insights about best practices, relevant and effective resources that they make available for download, samples of student work, and recommendations for classroom activity in order to contribute to a complete project of understanding how to employ digital storytelling with students in the classroom.

Dave Boardman, Maine Writing Project

Everyone has a story, and when students are allowed to explore their own stories, the “work” of school takes on relevance; suddenly, the classroom walls become transparent and students find connections between learning and the world.

Dave Boardman, executive director of LiteracySparks, high school teacher at Messalonskee High School in Oakland, Maine, and a teacher consultant with the Maine Writing Project, writes about goal of connecting learning to the personal lives of his students through the use of filmmaking and multimedia production.  In his classes, he and his students learning about the storytelling process by focusing on issues or stories that are of personal interest or relevance.  He conveys to his students that the power of storytelling comes from communicating messages to audiences and when working on projects using digital tools, they are trying to communicate engaging, informative, and inspiring messages that are meaningful and personally relevant.  He hopes that every student will come to believe and have the confidence to be empowered to find the stories that are important to them to tell, be it from their own lives or in their communities.  In addition, projects using digital technology allows the students to make real world connections to the literature they read in classes.

While at times students can benefit from looking for images and music that they will use in their projects as the first step in their process, he advises that students should first begin by writing because this will help them focus on the story they are trying to tell and crafting the best language to help convey their message.  It is also helpful for students to write narratives that exceed the length of the script that will become their final piece of writing because through editing and revision, they will often write more concise, in-depth scripts that maintain the essence of their message.

Unlike writing traditional pen-and-paper essays, his students are writing scripts that will require voiceover and dialogue that needs to be digitally recorded, and so the drafting process forces the students to read their scripts aloud to one another, in order to find out what language does not work and what sections need alteration.  Once students begin to read their scripts they can begin to find the language that is most evocative and engaging to maintain the interests of their audience.  He also advises that it is not necessary to give students technical training in audio recording or video editing, but instead to give them access to the tools that can best teach them how to do this, such as web tutorials, discussion forums, and how-to guides.  He also encourages use of royalty free images and music, found on specific websites, and lets his students explore the catalogue of work available.  Their self-efficacy and confidence in their writing ability will increase because it will be matched with professional quality work.

The ability to create digital works in the classroom doesn’t mean that they necessarily have to relate to the units of study that they work in, but it is important to remember that these tools also exist in contexts outside of school settings.  Making connections to the students lived experiences and communities can help create authentic assignments that feel and seem to have real value and are not just schoolwork.  Modeling programs and projects that empower community members to tell their own stories is a great way to decode the techniques, methods, and ideas students can employ and think about for their own work.

Everyone has a story to tell and should understand that messages are expressed in a variety of ways, through writing, composition of images and music, and in oral communication, and the media has a great deal of power to control these messages because they appeal to many audiences.  The challenge to students is to tell their stories and express what they know, what they are expert at.  The opportunity to create digital stories should not be reserved as a reward for students performing well in other areas of study, but should be provided to all students, especially those struggling because it will challenge them to show what they know, if different ways.

Here you can see three samples of students’ work.

Pen Campbell, Third Coast Writing Project

“Many times, students and adults go into the process unsure of a lot – it’s a new experience. They may not like their voice and don’t want it to be heard. Sometimes the process is viewed as “hard” or “too complicated”; but the great thing is that while on one hand it is new for many, and pretty challenging for many, it’s also very engaging, and so they want to do it (though seniors in the last few weeks of school, sometimes, not so much – but even almost all of them get sucked in eventually). There’s often a real excitement in the end product and the satisfaction of having conquered the process that, I confess, isn’t as obvious as often with writing on the page. And perhaps that’s because, as a secondary teacher, I’m not seeing them when they first learn to write, when the joy of acquisition is still fresh.”

Perhaps, excitement of learning and creating with digital media is exciting because many students are now, for the first time, using it in schools and it is new and fresh.  Pen Campbell has been able to give this joy to students and teachers as a high school teacher at St. Joseph High School in St. Joseph, Michigan and as the co-director of the Third Coast Writing Project, in a variety of workshops and activities promoting the use of digital technology to understand media literacy, technical literacy, genre writing, and composition.

An environment is created in which the teacher can model how to problem-solve as a skill necessary for success in life rather than someone who has all the answers for the students to turn to anytime there is an issue.  This also means that that teacher can turn to the students when there are difficulties and give them the opportunity to demonstrate their expertise.  Since, the teacher is not always the one with the answers, students must challenge themselves to become independent and many of the projects that are done involve work that takes place outside of the classroom.  Much of the writing and thinking about visual storytelling take place outside of the class setting, further facilitated by her students access to computers and Internet at home, as well as some “ancillary toys”, such as video and digital cameras, sound recording equipment, iPods and data storage devices, and scanners.

The technology and use of digital tools is not what is focused on, though, as much as the writing process.  There is a great emphasis on employing standard writing practices with students when they produce digital stories.  Before gathering of images and video, students will write, usually on 3×5 index cards, both front and back, in order to concretize their ideas and the meanings that they wish to convey because their final voiceover scripts will be about one or two pages.  This is supported by a number of pre-writing exercises, such as quickwriting, thinking about place and time, and having conversations with partners, which help the students think about the theme of the narrative they wish to tell, place their story in a historical context, and make personal connections to their lives and the other content they are learning.

Throughout the process, the students are thinking about the composition of images and audio, with a critical eye ready to make adjustments to their script or find images that better represent what they are trying to say because it is very important for the students to think beyond illustrative language and find representations that employ visual metaphor.  This helps convey that the images they choose possess as much meaning as the words being spoken and the more figurative they can become in their composition, the more powerful their story will be for the audience.  This revision process happens once images and audio are placed together in sequence, but also through reading scripts while writing.  It is acceptable to start and stop reading your own writing, and students and teachers should read to each other in order to fix troubled language.

The final product should be clear and concise, considering the needs of the audience.  Part of being able to create a digital story is knowing what information they will need to keep the story going and when that information needs to be delivered.  This is further enhanced because information is given in a number of ways, using the digital form, via text, audio, and visual texts.  Therefore, selecting projects that are manageable for students will allow them to complete strong projects and take a high stake in their writing.

Kevin Hodgson, Western Massachusetts Writing Project

The new tools for communication, community-building, and creative production, available in the “new” World Wide Web, otherwise known as Web 2.0, significantly open the possibilities for teachers and students to collaborate and express themselves in exciting ways that engage them in the writing process.  Teachers of writing have the opportunity to work on their craft and share their work with other practitioners and build networks that can help build their practice.  Students are given a means to develop new means of self-expression, since technology can serve as a tool to aid the writing process.

There is a strong focus on writing for the claymation movies, produced by Mr. Hodgson and his students, from the beginning,  when they start planning their story using worksheets and storyboards, which allow the students to visualize each scene of the film before they create a stop-motion movie or multimedia project.  In groups, the students think about and discuss setting, characters, plot design, and dialogue, ensuring that each character is given the appropriate amount of lines, writing everything on a computer, revising the script throughout the filmmaking process if one aspect does not feel well developed enough.

The revision process occurs by assigning students to read different roles in rehearsals of the script, which are color coded, further allowing the students to see if characters are underrepresented.  This allows the students to tap into a creative desires and engage differently because they are creating the story from many different aspects.  They are writing the script, but also giving voice to the characters and literally building them from clay, allowing them to get to know their characters intimately.  They can take chances and be more inventive, taking ownership of their projects.  Students love to create and share, and explore new technology in ways in which they can express themselves, resulting in a sense of accomplishment when they finish and receive feedback.  Knowledge that they will be sharing their work with other classes, family members, and friends will motivate them to do their best work.  Therefore, the Web 2.0 tools that students and teachers can use will significantly improve the writing that students produce and the work teachers can do to help their students.

Clifford Lee, Bay Area Writing Project

Clifford Lee, eleventh grade humanities and history teacher at Life Academy High School in Oakland, CA and Bay Area Writing Project teacher consultant, uses digital storytelling and technology to engage his students in the process of thinking critically about immigration and history, allowing his students to access their multiple intelligences and aid in the learning of reading, writing, speaking and listening for his students, many of whom are English language learners. Therefore, he makes an emphasis to teach the importance of word choice, so that his students will learn how to be concise in their writing and further develop their skills in the English language arts.

The writing process takes form in the construction of narratives for the collaborative American Immigration Digital Storytelling Project, in which student groups write and record voiceovers that will be paired with images to create multimedia projects. Ultimately these projects will be shared and distributed at an end-of-the-year review for peers, parents, and educators, so the students are always thinking about their potential audience because they understand that the work they produce will reflect the work that they have put in on their project, and will give them purpose to keep writing.

The writing process begins with each student interviewing an immigrant in their community twice, transcribing the interview on computer, and writing a two-page autobiography of their character in the style in which they speak. They then work in pairs to write voiceover scripts, revising and thinking about tone, inflection, pace, clarity, and volume. The writing process also involves filling out a four column storyboard. Each of the standard three columns, audio, image, time, are there, accompanied by a fourth column, purpose, which forces the students to justify the choices they are making in pairing images and audio. Mr. Lee, colleagues, and mentors help students revise and prepare their scripts by modeling strong storytelling techniques, so that students have a foundation from which to work and for teachers to help scaffold each part of the process.

Once the students have finished revising and writing, the teachers allow students to record their own voiceovers, a process that is extremely important to further the development of speaking and listening skills. Partners undergo a recursive editing process, relying on each other to catch mistakes that might occur and correcting sections that could be improved, by focusing on diction, flow, tone, grammar, syntax, and word choice. Given this freedom and flexibility, as well as knowing the importance of their projects, students attempt to master the voiceover rather than just complete it for the assignment. These projects help the students find a voice and know that technology can be used as a tool for learning as much as for recreation.

Judith Rance-Roney, Hudson Valley Writing Project

In over twenty-five years as a teacher of English language learners, Judith Rance-Roney, teacher educator the State University of New York at New Paltz and a teacher consultant with the Hudson Valley Writing Project, has sought to improve the field of ELL instruction using new literacies, associated with digital media technology.  Very early on, she discovered that digital storytelling allowed recent immigrants that were learning english “unpack their suitcases” and acculturate with the communities they were living in by developing the emotional capital to cope with large transitions.  She also had the opportunity to work with international students looking to reflect on troubling experiences with Americans and culture.  Both of these examples demonstrate her belief that individuals can better understand their identity and how they present themselves through the composition of stories using digital media.

The use of digital media technology is so important in the instruction of english language learning because students acquire language skills more rapidly and deeply when they pair words with visuals.  Often times, visual communication can aid more in comprehension of meaning and ideas with new english language learners than written communication, and this has tremendous power for students to develop the confidence and ability to express themselves and what they know.  Once they understand what the teacher is trying to communicate, they can begin to work on developing their voice and their writing.  In one activity, Ms. Rance-Roney has students gather images related to a topic or theme and describe the images to their peers.  This allows them to make connections between real concepts, ideas, and meaning, and the symbolic representations of these real things.  If teachers think of images as being “read”, or “viewed” by students, then students will have a much easier transition to the next stages in the composition process.

Voicecasts and accompanying handouts are an excellent way to scaffold comprehension through listening and speaking.  Ms. Rance-Roney would create an audio CD that contains the vocabulary and example sentences that students might hear during the process of creating digital narrative projects, which are also written on the handouts.  These CDs and handouts are distributed to the students to listen to several times out-of-class, allowing the teacher to communicate remotely, and students are able to understand meaning of words, hear the context for how they are used, and hear how they are pronounced.

When students get to hear their own voice speaking English, they become invested users of English instead of learners.  Students record their own voicecasts to serve as drafts of the scripting process, which they share with one another for constructive feedback on intonation, pronunciation, and grammatical accuracy.  These drafts will serve them in writing the final script for their voiceover and allows them to gain the confidence to develop a powerful voice in their final product.  In addition to gaining technical skills, the students work in “story circles”, in which they conduct read-alouds of their scripts, which help them to find the central idea they are trying to communicate and find the “heart of the story”.  The idea of the “heart of the story”, or the essential theme and mood, are very important because it allows the students to express who they are, celebrate what makes them unique and expose audiences to ways of communicating and representing ideas that may be unfamiliar, and allows them to take ownership of their projects by being able to control elements of the project.

All of these benefits can only occur if teachers are willing to work with students to understand and value the knowledge and background they bring to the classroom, and think about digital media as a way to present new literacy skills in conjunction with teaching the traditional writing process.  One way to really understand the power of this kind of practice is to produce digital stories and Ms. Rance-Roney encourages her teacher-students to create themselves, in order to better help their students and reconnect to the reasons why they want to become teachers.

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