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Soon to be Digital Storytelling Reflection 3

Written by Katherine Suyeyasu
June 11, 2010

A Case Study of Digital Storytelling and the study of English Language Arts and History in a Middle School Classroom

September 2009


I learn history through stories. It’s the stories that stick with me, and through the stories, the historical context.

In the summer of 2006 I made my first movie. At a reading workshop I was introduced
to digital storytelling through a talk by Glynda Hull (UC Berkeley). The week after the workshop, the Bay Area Writing Project (BAWP) sent an email out to its teacher consultants informing them that a couple of spaces had opened up in the digital storytelling workshop that had been announced previously. I must have missed that email, as I often ignored messages about digital anything. The workshop, sponsored by the Pearson Foundation, would be starting the next week and would be taught by two BAWP teacher consultants, Clifford Lee and Yumi Matsui. I got the last spot.

Having decided to create a family history piece about the Japanese Internment, I spent the weekend before the workshop jotting down notes from the few stories that my grandfather had let slip over the years and tracking down old family photos that I might be able to use in my project. My search for photos brought me to the basement of my cousin’s house in Alameda where my grandfather used to live, and to my aunt’s basement in San Francisco where my grandmother had lived before she passed away.

The photos from my grandfather’s old basement had only one photo from the Japanese internment camp – a photo of my mom as a toddler standing with my grandmother. In the photo, the young versions of my mom and grandma are in a garden beside one of the barracks. Both are smiling and both look beautiful. The rest of the photos are from before the war – the car repair shop that my grandpa used to own and photos of my grandparents as a young, vibrant couple, and after the war – first in Wisconsin where my aunt was born, and later back in Alameda with three children in front of a new sign for Tak’s Car Repair.

In my aunt’s basement, I found a small handful of family photographs taken in camp – a photo of the grandfather that I never met, posed with other men who had also been separated from their families, a photo of my dad as a little boy standing in front of one of the barrack schools, and my aunt as a young teen with her hair done.I would later learn that this small handful of photos was a treasure trove considering that cameras were strictly prohibited in camp. After sorting through the photos, I taped an interview with my aunt who as a teen, not only lived life in camp, but remembered much of it.

After one week and over sixty hours of work, I had made a three minute film. By making this film, I learned the history of the internment of Japanese Americans from the Bay Area during World War 2. The bits and pieces of family stories around the Japanese internment that I had heard throughout my life finally came together into a more complete picture.Composing this piece helped me make sense of the history and how it had affected my family. This film ultimately inspired my first digital storytelling project with students and would serve as a model for what I wanted my students to create. (POSSIBLY INSERT INTERNMENT FAMILY HISTORY FILM HERE)


By the fall of 2006 I had been teaching at ASCEND K-8 for three years. Located in Oakland, California, ASCEND is part of a large urban district. A relatively young school, just now starting its ninth year, ASCEND was one of the first schools started as part of Oakland Unified’s New Small Autonomous Schools reform effort. The design of the school centers on supporting student learning through strong relationships between parents, teachers, staff, students, and the community, and rigorous and engaging curriculum that integrates the arts and emphasizes reflection. ASCEND serves a predominantly low-income population with 89% of students participating in the free or reduced price meal program. The student population is approximately 60% Latino, 20% Southeast Asian, and 20% African-American. 43% of students are designated English Language Learners.

Throughout my teaching career, I have been drawn to schools serving students in communities that are strongly affected by poverty. ASCEND fits this interest and has provided a flexible and supportive environment for me to make curricular decisions that match my assessment of student needs and my beliefs about teaching and learning. When I started my career as a teacher in 1994, a core belief that I brought to my classroom was that education should be about learning to learn and that first and foremost, my job was to instill in my students a love of learning and the confidence and skills to pursue that love.Over the past fifteen years, the educational climate has
changed. Although my pre-service training did not focus on standards and standardized testing, this institutional change in focus has necessitated a rethinking of my beliefs and practices.While I hold onto the belief that education should be about learning to learn and instilling a love of learning and the skills to do so, I have come to see standards and testing as issues of social justice. My students will be compared with others for whom standards and standardized testing have been emphasized.I will be perpetuating the inequity I seek to overturn if I do not acknowledge the standards and prepare students for testing.

For my Oakland middle school students, the combination of state and local standards is daunting at best. If the vast number of standards is accepted, coverage becomes a priority, emphasizing breadth over depth. One of the main challenges I grapple with as a teacher is finding a balance between a focus on standards and a focus on engaging students in a love of learning. If my students leave my classroom having been exposed to the expected content, but not engaged as learners, then I will have done them a disservice. On the other hand, if my students leave having meaningfully engaged in learning, but without the content knowledge and skills that will be expected of them in the future, I will have also done them a disservice. It is not so clear cut as one or the other, but finding the balance continues to be an ongoing struggle.


Looking back at the first year that I experimented with digital storytelling as learning tool, I recognize that the project emphasized engagement over content coverage. My experience of having made my own family history film during the summer had been personally meaningful and deeply engaging. I wanted the same personal meaning and engagement for my students.While the script writing for the project easily aligned with state writing standards, the focus on family history was not directly related to US History content standards, and only peripherally related to the Historical and Social Science Analysis standards.


The project was collaboratively planned with my colleague Kristen Caputo. We both teach 7th and 8th grade Humanities in a two-year loop. Our planning centered around a year-end culminating project, a digital story focused on students’ personal family histories. Our Humanities classrooms where we were expected to teach English Language Arts and US History standards seemed like the ideal place for such a project. Through this project we planned to integrate standards of reading, writing, research, listening and speaking, and historical thinking and content.Our theme that year was, “The Power of Words,” and our study of US History would be framed by the guiding questions: Throughout US History how has the power of words been offered to some, but denied to others? Whose voices get heard and why?Who speaks for you and tells your story? What is the power of literacy?

We believed that digital storytelling could be a powerful medium given the right content. Having seen a variety of examples, we had limited models of what we wanted our students to create, but we knew what we didn’t want our students to create. We wanted to avoid projects that were only about the technology – an opportunity to combine favorite pieces of music with online images that captured our students sense of
cool, using an extensive menu of transition options that would maraud the viewers senses – a skidding halt in a speeding car, spinning somersaults through the air, and exploding cascades of stars – just to name a few, all in the same piece.

In our planning, we considered digital storytelling as four major strands – the written script, the spoken voiceover, the images, and the background music – combined in a single short composition. Entering the project, we believed our students had meaningful and engaging stories to tell and could compose strong written scripts given support and guidance. We also believed they would be able to find powerful images that matched their family stories either at home in personal photos or online.We were concerned about the music choices they would make given free reign and the quality of our students’ public speaking voices. Many of our students spoke quietly, had issues with enunciation, and lacked expression in their voices. From the very start of the project we were committed to providing our students the time, instruction, and models that would allow them to create high quality, meaningful compositions.


My summer participation in the Bay Area Writing Project/Pearson Foundation workshop entitled my students and me to a digital storytelling residency during the school year.The Pearson Foundation would provide the technical staff and the hardware for a weeklong production workshop. I was responsible for preparing my students with the content they would need to create their movie.

While our daily focus on digital storytelling did not begin until the end of March, our focus on developing students’ public voices began midway through the first quarter of the school year. On a biweekly basis, we collaborated with our music integration teacher to lead students in voice-focused theater games and poetry read-alouds. At the start of the third quarter, we turned our focus to analyzing music and its influence when combined with spoken word. Having built a foundation in the strands of the spoken voiceover and the background music, we began the digital storytelling project in full by analyzing the model that I had composed the previous summer and segments of model documentaries created by Ken Burns.We finalized the project with a week of production facilitated by the Pearson foundation, and showcased our movies at the start of June.

Observations & Reflections

Our original goals for the project were to engage students, to support them in creating a high quality piece of work that was personally meaningful, and to integrate English Language Arts, US History, and technology.In the end, we were successful in meeting some, but not all of our goals.

From the time we kicked off the project by showing models, our students were eager to make their own movies.The writing and image searching proved challenging to our students, but they kept at, making multiple revisions to their script, and spending time at lunch and after school to continue their search for images. When it was time to
practice voiceovers before recording, there was a sense of urgency in our students’ work. They wanted to get it just right for their movie. The work was not without its’ conflicts – one student feeling that they were putting more time in than another student, or disagreement about which images or music would be used – but the source of conflicts seemed based in engagement, students caring about the final product they were creating. The digital storytelling project was the most highly engaging project we did that year for the greatest number of students.

The work itself proved high quality.The voices of our students as a whole were stronger, clearer, and more expressive than they had been all year. The writing was strong, and it was clear from the final products that they had been thoughtful about the overall composition. The Pearson Foundation noted that our student work was among the highest quality they had seen and initiated a partnership with us that would capitalize upon their technological know-how and resources, and our pedagogical structures.

In their reflections, students expressed pride in both their final movies and in the work they had done to complete them. They also expressed appreciation for the opportunity to use technology to create a project about themselves and their families. At the final screening, the audience, made up mostly of students and their families, was highly engaged and in many cases emotionally impacted. The personal family stories of struggle and perseverance through poverty, racism, immigration, war, and loss were incredibly moving. The celebration of family, traditions, culture, and overcoming were inspiring. The strongest films framed a dramatic family story in the context of rich historical content. The weakest films were less dramatic, but no less meaningful because of their personal nature. The making and screening of such personal digital stories brought our community of learners and their families together in an even more powerful way than I had anticipated. (INSERT STRONGER AND WEAKER FAMILY HISTORY FILMS HERE)

Through digital storytelling we successfully integrated English Language Arts Standards and technology.Students developed reading, writing, listening, and speaking
skills while learning to conduct online research and create a multimedia presentation.We were less successful in integrating History standards.Although our projects were focused on family history, we only touched upon the California Historical and Social Science Analysis Standards for sixth through eighth grade (POSSIBLE LINK TO STANDARDS), and, none of our work, including the original pieces we used as models, touched on the eighth grade US History standards spanning early exploration to the Industrial Revolution.

Digital storytelling provided for rich learning opportunities, but it was not without its dilemmas – the most significant being the inordinate amount of time that it took for us to complete the project. The first year of doing digital storytelling, we spent eleven to twelve weeks completely focused on our projects, not including the preliminary work we did from the beginning of the year until the project began focused on developing students’ public speaking voices. During the twelve weeks, we conducted research, wrote and revised scripts, and collected the needed visual and audio assets. The issue with the time was not how we spent it, for we believed it had been a quality learning experience, but rather how we did not spend the time. In other words, what did we give up for digital storytelling?

The glaring issue was what we had not covered in US History. In our attempt to bring
our students stories into the larger narrative of US History, we had shortchanged the standards of what students are expected to cover in eighth grade.We never made it to the Civil War.The eighth grade standards are vast, too vast to cover all of them in a meaningful way. However, there would be little disagreement that a foundational understanding of our country’s history requires, in the very least, a basic examination of the causes and outcomes of the Civil War. It is a topic that is only covered once during a students K-12 experience. Considered from a social justice perspective, our students left eighth grade with a significant hole in their historical understanding, one that their future classmates did not likely suffer.



The goals we set the second year were a direct response to what we saw as the successes and shortcomings of the previous year.The technology of digital storytelling
was engaging to our students and we wanted to capitalize on that. We were pleased with the quality of the projects from the previous year and would maintain our focus on developing our students’ skills in the strands of script writing, speaking, researching and selecting images, and selecting music – all as part of a larger
composition. We would tighten our timeline and complete the project in ten weeks, basing our content in both the eighth grade US History and English Language Arts standards. Our projects that year focused on abolition, a standards-based topic that we believed would engage and inspire our students.


Our implementation in year two was similar to that of year one. Digital storytelling was a culminating project started at the end of the third quarter and finalized before the end of the fourth quarter. Developing students’ public speaking voices was a focus in the first half of the year and led into an analysis of music and the combination of spoken voice and music in the second half of the year. The main differences in year two were that 1) students were not presented with any models, as we did not have one, and 2) student research focused on US History content standards on abolition as opposed to focusing on personal content of family history.

Observations & Reflections

In year two, I believe we were again successful in supporting students to create high quality, meaningful projects.We also managed to successfully integrate English Language Arts standards, technology, AND US History content standards. As a result of our integration, we were more successful in our overall coverage of US History
content. However, while we had reached the goals that we set out, there was something that was missing – the personal element that had been so powerful in the year one projects.

When watching the student films, it was clear that students had gained significant content on the topic of abolition in general, and on one abolitionist specifically.All of the projects were based on a solidly written narrative, rich in content and
strengthened by craft.The stronger projects left me inspired by the life and works of the abolitionist. Upon reflection, I believe that this inspiration was likely brought about by the power of the students’ voices and their ability to manipulate the technology in a way that resulted in a more dramatic composition. The weaker projects were less inspiring and seemed as though the students had been unable to get beyond a retelling of an abolitionist’s life events.Taking a closer look, however, both strong and weak projects reflected a limited depth of student connection and construction of meaning – a tall order given the time limitations imposed by the implementation of the digital storytelling genre in a classroom setting. (INSERT STRONGER AND WEAKER ABOLITIONIST FILMS HERE)

As students worked on their digital stories, their engagement in the content of their films also seemed lower with a topic that offered less personal connection.This
should come as no surprise. While the history of slavery and abolition is just more than a century passed, a century is a long time for young people who are just beyond their first decade.Middle school students are more easily engaged when the focus reflects themselves. However, the diminishment of personal meaning in this project caused and continues to cause a degree of dissatisfaction for me.

At the end of the second year project, we chose to showcase student work to our larger community audience on a single film basis, as opposed to a multi-film screening.
Student work was shown at the spring EXPO, a whole school exposition of students’ learning processes and products. Visitors to our Humanities classroom were invited to sit with an individual student who would talk the visitor through their process and
show their short film.This alternative way of showcasing student work allowed the audience to only watch one film as opposed to the previous year’s showcase when a dozen or so films had all been shown to a large audience on one night. Although we had not anticipated the overall difference in feel between the two types of films when we planned our showcase, the individual screenings turned out to be a good fit for a collection of films, that although they were about different abolitionists, felt relatively homogeneous in their content and composition. I believe it would have been a hardship on our audience to have to watch a dozen of these films in a row. In the individual format, the audience had a choice of how many films they watched, and they generally just watched one.


I have no doubt that digital storytelling in the classroom engages students. And engagement cannot be undervalued. After all, if our students are not engaged in their learning, how successful will they be?I also have no doubt that the process of making a digital story has the capacity for developing student skills in writing and composition. The question these experiences raise for me about digital storytelling,
however, is not about engagement, nor is it about the prospect of digital storytelling as a tool to improve writing. The question I am left with is: How well does digital storytelling, as a genre for our students to explore and present information, match the academic content we are supporting them to make sense of? How effectively does digital storytelling fit with the content laid out in the content standards?

So far, the genre of digital storytelling seems to be most successful with personally meaningful content. In my experience it is less powerful when used as a tool for deepening understanding of academic content. Is it possible that personal content is the element that makes this genre powerful? And if it is, does that mean that digital storytelling is not a fit with academic content? I don’t feel ready to
answer these questions. If anything, they only seem to raise more questions. How can a genre characterized by its’ short length fit with the deep exploration required to make sense of academically rigorous content. Can we justify using a significant amount of our teaching and learning time on content that is wholly personal? Can we justify using a significant amount of our teaching and learning time creating a product in a
genre that may not entirely fit the content? What is the capacity of the digital storytelling genre to make deep and authentic personal meaning out of academic content?

To begin answering these questions will require another try with digital storytelling and reflection that includes student perspectives on the questions.In a world without time constraints, I would like to do two digital stories with my students next year – one at the beginning of the year focusing on personal histories and one at the end of the year focused on deepening student understanding of a US
History standards-based topic. Doing two digital storytelling projects in one year would provide students the opportunity for the kind of revision that can only happen when the same genre is visited more than once. Starting the year with a personal project would lay the groundwork for developing a strong learning community and would support students in developing skills that they will use again at the end of the year. Ending the year with a US History project would allow the opportunity for further experimentation with the digital storytelling genre and academic content. Time constraints, however, are the reality and with the school year starting in five weeks, the question of whether we will start the year with a digital storytelling project will need to be answered soon.