How to Use Digital Storytelling in Your Classroom

Empower student creativity with affordable and accessible technology.

Empower student creativity with affordable and accessible technology.

This how-to article accompanies the feature "Film School: Making Movies From Storyboard to Screen."

Storytelling is a vital skill with seemingly unlimited applications. Done well, it can have a magical effect -- moving, enlightening, or entertaining audiences of any size. We tell stories to woo lovers, calm children, or reassure ourselves. Lawyers rely on the power of storytelling to vividly re-create crimes to juries, archaeologists conjure former civilizations, and teachers make abstract concepts real to their students.

In today's digitized world, visual storytelling is a favorite classroom tool, and the affordability and accessibility of technology such as iMovie provides opportunities not imagined a decade ago. Joe Fatheree and Craig Lindvahl, two teachers who have made seven films between them and who teach filmmaking workshops to educators, say that even when teachers are comfortable with the technology, they don't often feel confident about teaching the art of storytelling. But they probably know more than they think, say Fatheree and Lindvahl, who offer the following advice to help teachers:

1. Learn from what you watch.

Think of movies you adore, movies you could watch again and again. What makes them so effective? Is it the dialogue, the character development, the way shots are framed? Likewise, consider movies so bad they make you squirm. Just why are they so excruciating? Work with your students to dissect several well-known films; you'll soon find yourselves with several categories that fall under the rubric of storytelling techniques. You will be amazed at how much you already know.

2. See technology as a storytelling tool, not as a teaching goal.

Though students need some knowledge of how to use equipment, teaching about technology should never be the focus of the curriculum. Simple editing programs such as iMovie are intuitive and easy to learn. If you have a camera and a computer with FireWire, you're ready to go; your creative aspirations will drive your technology learning curve. Once you think of an element you want to include that requires more advanced software or gear, you'll be compelled to learn how to use it.

3. Allow your students to push you (and lead you).

Don't be intimidated if your students learn faster than you do. Many of them are accustomed to quickly absorbing technology. Use their aptitude to your advantage by letting students teach each other; you'll find that they show their strengths fairly quickly. Within a class, you'll have great writers, editors, camera operators, and technicians. They can improve their weaker points while using their strengths to help others (including you).

4. Learn by trial and error.

Accept the fact that you will spend a portion of your time scratching your head, wondering, "Why won't that work?" Seek out resources where you can post questions and get answers quickly. (Creative Cow is an excellent online destination; it has sections for virtually every kind of production and postproduction software and hardware.) Every glitch will build your technology savvy until you get to the point where you can anticipate the kinds of problems students will have. Take heart in remembering that most great filmmakers come from a creative background, not a technical one; they depend on others to make technology work on their behalf.

5. Give your students freedom, but hold them accountable.

Kids are not used to the kind of freedom they'll need to do great creative work. Some will thrive in that environment, others will require close supervision to make sure they complete their projects. One good way to do this is to have students pitch a one-paragraph description of their project and provide a production schedule. In essence, it's a work contract.

6. Consider yourself the executive producer.

Work with your students as a partner learning about technology and storytelling, but don't forget that you call the shots. You have to be the arbiter of good taste and the studio boss who decides whether an idea is production worthy. Serving in this role as a teacher is actually much easier than it is for a real-live executive producer, because students naturally look to you for leadership.

7. Don't forget to celebrate your students' work.

Whether you show completed projects to the class alone or to the entire school or even the whole community, present the stories your students tell. There's a good chance their work will be much more professional than you expect, and light-years beyond what your community might anticipate. A great side benefit of public showings is that your students will take their work very seriously. The knowledge that others are going to see it (and you can't hide C-quality work on a big screen) has been the source of tremendous inspiration for filmmakers for a hundred years.

Jennifer New is a writer and educator in Iowa City, Iowa. Her latest book is Drawing from Life: The Journal as Art.

This article originally published on 12/2/2005

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Comments (8)

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Having been a filmmaker and

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Having been a filmmaker and now a teacher, I have been integrating movie making in my classroom for the past 12 years. The power of visuals and narrative stories were made for teaching! (Notice I didn't say digital storytelling) According to the true definition it is an individual's personal story. This is great in art or language arts for a personal outlet, but for educators in other subject matter the point of making a movie is to use 21st century learning skills of collaboration and communication (story through the eyes of a camerman, story of writer, story of director or in other words storytelling and working together). But the most important factor missing in this article and many articles on this subject is CURRICULUM. In science, math, and social studies the power of narrative is a tool used to tie students thoughts surrounding subject matter. But if it doesn't teach the curriculum it plainly should not be used.

ELL teacher for grades 7-12 at Norfolk, NE.

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Thank you for this timely article. I'm going to tackle digital storytelling with my ELL students yet this semester. I'm hoping we make all our errors now, so that next spring things run smoother.

I'd be open to anyone's advice too.

Maths and Science teacher from Victoria, Australia

Kids teaching kids

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Peer teaching in the classroom (and out of it!) is one of the most powerful ways students learn.

Very well-written and well

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Very well-written and well updated article. Really very fascinating to read! Digital storytelling gives the narrator the opportunity to tell their story in their own voice, and allow them to share their experience and perception in an extraordinary way. A digital story is approximately a short 3 to 5 minute audio narrative. online electronics

From Film Makers to Authors

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Film making opens new doors for students as authors. My students are creating "how-to" videos from process essays. before this project they were having a hard time visualizing how to include all the details necessary to teach someone how to do something. When they created their shot lists and started filming, they finally noticed details that were missing in their writing. My kids are highly motivated and I can't wait to see their final stories. We will be holding a premier to share our videos and our writing. Thanks for highlighting this awesome teaching strategy.

Bob Gillen (not verified)

Media Production classes

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I have taught media production to high school seniors for the last 11 years in the L.A. area. I agree with everything you say. In fact, I applaud your attitude. Yes, you need to act as an executive producer and guide them in what will be acceptable. But yes, you MUST give them the freedom to create, and to fail if necessary.
They are creating art. Not everyone will see art with the same eyes. An artist is vulnerable. He puts his work out there - to acceptance as well as rejection. It's part of the life of an artist and storyteller.
The students will always challenge you, always be a few steps ahead of you, always ask something you did not anticipate. That's the fun of it! You never relax. Yet you provide a learning environment that students will cherish for all of their lives. Keep up the good work!

Kyle Kane (not verified)

ASU PDS Student

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I found this article very helpful and contained some good advice. Technology is the future of our classrooms and we should embrace it to encourage students' creativity!

David Phillips (not verified)

Digital storytelling

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One suggestion:
Do consider digital storytelling a teaching tool--for your students! One of the great aspects of this technology is that, if the teacher does a good job of creating an assignment so that the curriculum is truly represented in the final product, then students can use their projects to teach content to the rest of the class, or to an entirely different group. For instance, a high school science class creates a digital story about their field trip to a local pond for samples. They can then use the story to teach elementary kids about the things they learned on the field trip. Turning students into teachers is always a great idea.

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