Published Online: January 13, 2010

Interview

Telling a New Kind of Story

In a recent book published by International Society for Technology in Education, Digital Storytelling: Guide for Educators, author and education technology consultant Midge Frazel shines a light on the process of mixing the age-old tradition of storytelling with novel Web 2.0 tools. By incorporating cutting-edge technology into classroom curriculum, teachers can give students a leg up both academically and professionally, suggests Frazel. The book attempts to demystify digital technology while offering user-friendly instructional tips for expanding curriculum that meets the needs of 21st century learners.

The author of 10 books, Frazel has taught workshops for teachers, administrators, and librarians on the subject of employing digital elements in the classroom.

Author and technology specialist Midge Frazel.

We recently spoke with her by e-mail about digital storytelling—its place in the classroom, and its role in helping shape students for their futures.

1) What is digital storytelling?

Digital storytelling takes the timeless craft of spoken and written stories and adds new emotion and excitement to grab the attention of this new generation. The world today is an endless stream of photographs, videos, music, and voice recordings that can be carefully wound around a well-crafted story and viewed by a global audience. Most digital stories are presented by creating a video and there are easy to use, free, and low-cost applications you can use to make them.

From our earliest years, stories are told and read to us in the laps of our families, creating the foundation for us to understand how stories can entertain, inspire, and teach us about the world. Our students are ready not to just tell stories, but to create them using the tools of technology, as evidenced by the number of student-produced videos on TeacherTube and YouTube (even if they did produce them outside of the classroom).

There isn’t just one way to describe digital storytelling because of the many ways in which media can be used. Simple or complex, digital storytelling projects can find their way into students’ lives through curriculum projects, family history, and beyond the classroom walls into the community.

As an example, high school or middle school students researching topics on local history can interview men and women in the community who have served our country, take photos of local war memorials, visit some veteran’s graves, and create a digital story about their experience.

2) How does digital storytelling fit in the classroom?

Families have been creating and sharing photographs, recipes, and family history using digital storytelling over the Web for a while. It is hoped that in the near future, education will catch up by being savvier and more comfortable with the online global audience in every part of learning, including telling stories.

Never before have students had to examine, critically evaluate, and construct new meaning from demanding curriculum topics in the classroom. From high-stakes standardized tests to understanding project-based learning, educators need to find new ways for all learners to understand and transform learning into a medium that demonstrates understanding. Digital storytelling can help students take information and create a product worth the work and the time it takes to create a story.

While we may not be able to anticipate the job field that today’s students will be working in, we can emphasize teaching students ethics, responsibility, organizational techniques, and the role of technology for the future.

To begin working with digital storytelling, educators of all subjects and disciplines must first closely examine their curriculum goals. All work in the classroom must be purposefully connected to what needs to be taught and learned. After that, the educator’s job is to give clear directions for the project, making sure that students understand how the project meets curriculum standards. Once assignments have been given, students should organize their work, keep track of the gathered media in a word processed document or spreadsheet, and know the proper use of citation.

Guided by the teacher, students create the story and the media to form a digital story, resulting in a video or a digital scrapbook. Peer review and critical evaluation are part of the process, guided by a predesigned educator-created rubric. Students then show their stories either in the classroom or to a global audience, by posting the video to the Internet.

I have observed middle and high school students creating digital stories that are multidisciplinary and multicultural in content. For example, a student could craft a multicultural digital story about the holiday food prepared by his or her family, or about a local restaurant that serves food that his or her classmates are not accustomed to eating in order to bring culture into the classroom in a new (and delicious) way.

Every subject teacher has a role in the creation, including the media specialist who can help students with the manipulation of the text, photographs, scanned drawings, and music, video and audio clips. Working in a computer laboratory or library setting, larger groups of students can meet curriculum goals and produce individual, small group, and whole class projects faster and in a shorter amount of time because with multiple computers students have time to prepare their production.

An important piece of digital storytelling is how students present their work. Students need to learn to give and accept responsible criticism for their future in the workplace. When students present their stories online, this extends the learning process. New ideas will be presented, and students learn that they must produce quality work and continue editing and refining their projects.

A cautionary word: Every educator wishing to work with digital storytelling must read and understand their school’s acceptable-use policy before starting the project. Some schools allow student work to be shown and shared, while others do not. As younger educators begin to move up into administration, rules will change and schools will make good use of the global audience. There’s a lot to be learned from the world outside the classroom walls by both the student and the educator.

3) What advice would you offer teachers who feel like they are technologically challenged?

Technology moves so quickly that every teacher may feel challenged at some point. Mastery of technology is never the goal. Teachers who are feeling technologically shaky should learn from their students, if necessary. They should start with short digital storytelling projects that are simple and meet one or two curriculum goals.

There are also resources for digital storytelling that are low-cost and don’t require steep learning curves—examples can be found in my book. Two programs that are easy to learn and affordable for classroom use are Apple’s iMovie and Windows Movie Maker.

Teachers can work together to learn new technologies from each other, but time must be made by their administration to do so. Offering professional development, in hands-on small groups, or PD that is grade level or subject specific can be helpful depending on district resources.

4) How could a teacher incorporate digital storytelling into the curriculum if some students don’t have computers at home?

Students don’t need to work on home computers to produce digital storytelling projects. Because it’s a school-based project, schools need to realize that students need to be given time during the school day for project-based learning and research that is guided by a teacher or media specialist. Computers available in libraries can also be effective in the research and writing stages of digital storytelling projects. Students might also arrange to stay after hours to work on the computers at school.

Teachers who know their students’ needs can adjust their projects accordingly. It should not be assumed that students have access to a computer for schoolwork. Students can organize their projects with low-tech solutions like pencil and paper, if necessary, especially when they’re working outside of the classroom.

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