A Guide to Producing Student Digital Storytellers

A Guide to Producing Student Digital Storytellers

Michael Hernandez

Everyone tells stories: journalists, politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs. Conveying information in a coherent and compelling way is vital to success in the real world, and it’s our job as educators to prepare our students to share their ideas in effective ways.

We used to do this with papers, posters and dioramas, but digital tools at our disposal now allow students to create authentic stories that allow for audience interaction and a wider impact on the world. Here are some tips for transforming storytelling assignments in your classroom, no matter what subject or grade level you teach.

What is Digital Storytelling?

Digital storytelling uses video, audio, social media, blogging and other tools to convey ideas and information effectively. The emphasis is on empowering students to create authentic products that they can share with others beyond the classroom walls, and to allow for audience interaction and feedback. And so, why should we inspire students to be digital storytellers? Here are five key reasons:

  • Requires critical thinking: Creating an interdisciplinary product from scratch requires high level thinking skills like evaluating evidence, editing and curation, and production timelines. Digital stories often use multiple skills like writing, public speaking, photography, design and collaboration in a single project which makes them ideal for practicing skills learned other units or classes.
  • Authentic projects have impact: Creating real-world, impactful products that students share with an audience beyond the classroom is one of the best ways to enhance motivation and increase quality. Parents, colleagues and administrators can also see the great work being done in your classroom.
  • Places focus on writing: A picture is worth a thousand words, and video is 30 photos a second. It has its own grammar and style, but concepts of content, structure, tone and audience impact are just as important in multimedia as they are for an essay. Scripts, voiceovers and interview questions emphasize traditional writing skills and are the backbone of all multimedia projects.
  • Develops digital citizens: What to post online, when and how are all important questions for our students to learn to answer. Require them to comment on others’ work and develop etiquette for online posts and feedback. Rather than being afraid of the internet, embrace it to teach digital citizenship.
  • Students can add to digital portfolios: All student work can be compiled into a digital portfolio that they can use to promote themselves for jobs/internships, for a self-evaluation tool or for teachers to track student progress.

How to Educate Digital Storytellers

1. Focus on content, not the tools

It’s always about the ideas, not the technology. Apps and hardware change rapidly, so its important to not fixate on gear that might be obsolete in 12 months. It’s true that the medium affects the message (video is much different than Twitter, for example), but begin with what students want to convey, then choose the appropriate platform(s) to do that. That being said, some of my favorite apps for digital storytelling include: iMovie for iOS ($4.99, free with new iOS device), Storehouse (free), Creative Book Builder ($3.99), and StoryCorps (free).

2. Take it to the next “SAMR level”

There are many ways teachers use technology, and some are more transformational than others. The SAMR model is a way to gauge how deeply and effectively you use technology, and in this case, how tech can transform how we tell stories.

Take advantage of the unique aspects of digital storytelling and multimedia tools to transform learning, rather than just replace old analogue models. These include collaboration, audience feedback, interactivity, and video and audio. Consider a blog with links, and share posts via social media, or publishing a collaborative ebook that collects student projects around a theme. Require students to leave comments and feedback on online posts.

3. Develop expectations and outcomes

What do you want to accomplish? And what volume/frequency/quality of work do you expect from your students? Push students to their limits by requiring them to utilize multiple media in each project.

For a high school media project that explored Surrealism, I had students create short videos over a period of several weeks, then compile them into a cohesive “story” that added other elements like text, photos and additional video. Rather than focus on technical aspects (which I covered in earlier projects), this one was all about story, interpretation, and demonstrating an understanding of Surrealism. (See PDF of the project here.)

4. Start small

It can take time for students to master a particular skill or for teachers to develop effective storytelling projects, so don’t take on too much with your first assignments. Increase the difficulty of the project by slowly adding complicated media like video or audio to assignments. Like any assignment, scaffold skills and techniques over time so that they build on one another to increase complexity.

5. Evaluate early on and often

Share your rubrics and expectations early in the process, and be realistic about student outcomes for both content and technical achievement. Have separate evaluations for content and technique, and reward originality and audience interaction. It’s a good idea to have multiple forms of evaluations, including self-evaluations, class critiques, and teacher oral and written feedback.

Subject-Specific Ideas for Digital Storytelling

English Language Arts: Create a video poem or photo montage as a visual interpretation of an existing poem being studied by the class. Rather than a literal interpretation, consider visual metaphors and interpret what colors, sounds or locations might associate with a particular phrase. Post the work on a public platform (blog, social media site, etc) and encourage students to leave comments.

  • Next level: Use Storehouse to create an interactive gallery for their work.

Science: Document scientific phenomena in the field and present the data and findings in a coherent and compelling way. This could be published in a class iBook or blog.

  • Next level: Collaborate with students at another school in a different city, state or country to compare/contrast findings from their respective locations.

Social Studies: A visual anthropology project where students create a visual documentation of changes in your community. Students use photography, video or sound to record older family members’ reactions to changes in specific elements of local history.

  • Next level: Collect all content and publish it as an interactive iBook.

Digital storytelling is a great way for students to share their ideas and demonstrate their knowledge. Rather than a test or an essay that no one really cares about, students now have the ability to creatively engage the world through authentic projects--and that makes everyone more excited to teach and learn.

This post is part of the EdSurge Fifty States Project (representing the state of California). The project is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the individual contributors alone and do not reflect the views of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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