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Digital Storytelling: Helping Students Find Their Voice

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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While accepting his 2008 Academy Award for best director, Joel Coen took a minute to reminisce about his earliest days as a filmmaker, and it wasn't hard to picture him back in the late 1960s, lugging around a home-movie camera. Nor was it difficult to imagine his kid brother, Ethan, dressed up in a suit and carrying a briefcase in their early collaborations. As the elder Coen admitted, "Honestly, what we do now doesn't feel that much different from what we were doing then."

In some respects, today's aspiring filmmakers have it easier. Digital cameras and more accessible editing software have lowered some of the technical barriers to making movies. And for better or worse, getting a film into circulation has become as easy as uploading a file to YouTube or another video-sharing site.

But making a digital story worth watching still isn't easy. Doing it well takes not only practice and skill but sometimes also courage, BBC filmmaker and digital-storytelling proponent Daniel Meadows suggests on his Web site, Photobus.

Teachers who bring digital storytelling into the classroom are discovering what makes this vehicle for expression worth the effort. They watch students gain proficiency in writing and research, visual literacy, critical thinking, and collaboration. They see students take part in a range of learning styles. Of course, they also see students make authentic use of technology. Sometimes, they even hear students discover the power of their own voice.

Are you thinking about introducing digital storytelling into a K-12 setting or perhaps into an after-school or community-based program? Mabry Middle School, in Marietta, Georgia, demonstrates how this approach can be a springboard to engage not only students but also the wider community. The award-winning school hosts its own annual black-tie event to showcase the work of young filmmakers. (Take a look at the 2007 winners.)

Inspired yet? Here are some resources to help you get started:

Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling offers a range of resources and tutorials for educators, including a discussion about research and evaluation.

The Center for Digital Storytelling has been providing training on and sharing information about this art form for more than a decade, both in the United States and internationally.

Stories for Change is building a network of people who are involved in community-based digital-storytelling workshops.

Bridges to Understanding, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization, works internationally with K-12 schools to promote cultural understanding through collaborative storytelling. The site includes a library of digital short stories made by students from around the world.

In an interview, teacher Marco Torres describes the benefits of multimedia projects for high school students growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood near Los Angeles.

How are you using digital storytelling with your students? Tell us about the projects that have captured their imagination.

Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

S. Hurley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our grade seven program this year is based on the theme, "Stories of Home" and, as a third term project, students are engaging in creating a digital story of home they came to call our community home. I'm hoping that they will connect with their own family story in a new way; I know that some have already started to connect with their family members in a new way!

We're using iMovie, scanning technology and some basic Photoshop software to complete this task.

In May, parents of our students will be invited to come and watch their stories in an evening of video, song and a little bit of food. This is a first for us, and I will report back on our progress if you'd like!

stephen hurley
brampton, ON

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Stephen,
This sounds wonderful--and please do report back. What I love about this project idea is that students are focusing the lens outside the classroom, and strengthening family and community connections in the process. You're smart to celebrate their finished products with a community event, too. Your family film night will help show that active, student-driven learning is part of the culture of your school.
Good luck!

ldtchr's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work with students with learning disabilities and I am amazed at how much they need to practice using their "voices" and what they can really do when given the opportunity. One small group that I have wanted to enter a contest to be in Carol Marsh's new mystery. I thought the could use Movie Maker to tell their story and they sure did! They ended up telling about having learning disabilities by writing their own lyrics to a song. They even won a Most Original Award out of 56 applicants from around the nation - that is not an opportunity they would likely have received if they had to rely on traditional story-telling formats.

We have used Movie Maker to publish some book talks too - it is wonderful how powerful it is for them to see their product look "like someone else's" -translation: not dependent on their handwriting, spelling and/or editing skills...... it surely evens the playing field for them and supports their self esteem!

Dave Melone's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find it odd this hit the web without any mention of Alan Levine's 50 web 2.0 ways to tell a story project. This is definitely worth checking out if only for the excellent variety and examples.

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for sharing! Wonderful to hear your students using their voice to help others understand them better. Sounds like they're in a good place for learning.

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