The postpandemic classroom is a patchwork of needs. Helping students find a sense of belonging in a more equitable, inclusive environment has become a large part of teachers’ shared mission.
One way to do so is to prioritize and center students’ individual identities by weaving threads of culturally relevant instruction throughout the curriculum. Hallmarks of culturally relevant instruction include knowing and honoring students’ cultures, backgrounds, and interests. This allows teachers and students to build the type of genuine relationships that must precede successful content instruction.
Storytelling is a worthwhile culturally relevant instructional strategy that, from a brain science perspective, is also a powerful learning tool. Stories ignite our emotions and stimulate the production of certain neurochemicals that are useful in generating “sticky” learning experiences. Since storytelling has deep cultural ties for everyone, everywhere, stories can help us connect with one another on a human level.
The prevalence of digital tools and more equitable access to technology now compared with the prepandemic landscape means that digital storytelling presents a mighty opportunity in schools. In particular, moviemaking provides a dynamic, engaging modality for students to share their stories—connecting with one another, their communities, and curricula.
Storytelling to Build a Shared Cultural Community
Educators are not able to truly teach effectively until they know and understand students’ cultures. In her book Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework, Gholdy Muhummad says that teachers must seek to understand both the ways in which students see themselves now and how they see themselves in the future. To that end, student-created movies offer the perfect jumping-off point for insightful conversations and connections.
For example, when my student created a cultural “I Am” movie project at the beginning of the year, it provided a window into his life outside of school. From the sensory details of his neighborhood to his future-forward thoughts about returning to his home country, Mylo became more than just another student. His peers and I were able to develop a more holistic view of who Mylo was as a person.
As a teacher, focusing on who students want to become has been a much more powerful lens for relationship-building than focusing on who students have been according to their past grades and achievements.
fostering Empathy and Connections
We often hear that literature can provide a window into someone else’s life, a mirror to reflect the self, or a sliding glass door to help the reader experience empathy for another person’s journey. So, too, can movies. When combined with students’ cultures, moviemaking can serve as a compelling vehicle for learning.
While teaching adjectives and word choice in my sixth-grade English language arts class, for example, I challenged students to put their skills to work by writing about their families and cultures. We used the poem “Where I’m From,” by George Ella Lyon, as a mentor text. Students highlighted and annotated the author’s word choice, then emulated the author’s structure to create their own pieces of writing that they turned into movies.
Students discovered commonalities and asked questions about differences, and those who shared more serious subject matter inspired empathy in others. Learning about a peer’s tumultuous family life or challenges faced outside of school forged strong connections between students who might not normally interact on such a deep level. Celebrating the many cultures and stories in the room had a remarkable effect, knitting our classroom community together in a new way.
Lifting Student Voices
Moviemaking can also provide perspective, understanding, and dialogue about students’ lived experiences. For this type of depth, my favorite storytelling prompt is “Tell us something we don’t know about you. Tell us a personal story.”
Over the years, I have had many students share poignant stories about their lives. Because storytelling is a pillar of my instruction, the repeated opportunity to tell personal stories means that students are constantly growing trust with one another.
One of my favorite stories came from a girl named Nikki who wrote about her family’s experience as immigrants. Her willingness to be a voice for those who feel silenced was moving, particularly since we live in a predominantly Latinx community.
Connecting Movie-Based Storytelling to Curricula
Storytelling always begins with a script, because scripts are pathways to an efficient, effective creative process. The script also becomes the voice-over as students record themselves reading it.
Visually, the story comes together when students match images or video clips to each line of what they have written. Students can easily use browser-based editing tools or apps of their choice, which older students often already use for content creation on social media. The moviemaking process is speediest when students utilize existing media from copyright-free sources, as opposed to filming their own original footage.
In terms of planning, you, as teacher, can design an instructional arc that features movie-based storytelling as the capstone project or summative assessment. Students can use movies to showcase understanding, which means that there is room for moviemaking in any curriculum. For example, students can write an “I Am” poem from the perspective of a historical figure or personify a key concept or object.
Over the years, I have had students and teachers write about chemical elements, ratios, and ancient Chinese porcelain. The storytelling inherent in the structure of the “I Am” poem, in addition to other storytelling formats and techniques, has many potential classroom applications.
And when students are given the chance to share their backgrounds, cultures, and interests within a content-based task, engagement skyrockets and positive classroom climates follow.