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Why Students Must Be Storytellers — And Four Tips to Make It Happen

By Chelsea Waite — February 20, 2015 4 min read
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Sometimes it is not possible to take students outside of the classroom. How then do you help them to understand and appreciate diverse perspectives? Chelsea Waite, initiatives manager of Digital Promise Global, shares some ways to use digital media and technology to tell multi-faceted stories and connect students to international audiences.

Too often, when we think about education in different places around the world, a single story comes to mind. A single story about Middle Eastern countries is that governments are repressive of women’s education. A single story about China is that all kids are math whizzes. While there may be truth to some of the single stories out there, they are simplistic, based on one narrative which in reality is much more diverse and complex. They convince us that we know enough and there’s no need to dig deeper.

Stories are powerful: they grab our attention, they put a face to a concept, and they can move us to action. However, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in a 2009 TED Talk, the danger of the single story is that it dominates. It’s too loud, and more nuanced stories struggle to match its volume.

We need students and teachers to break free of the single story. But how?

Making our voices loud
Technology and digital media enable learners, more than ever, to create new stories, make them loud, and spread them wide. Perhaps all the single stories out there would find themselves with more diverse company if classrooms around the world document, reflect on, and publish their stories for wide audiences. Considering the two single stories I mentioned above, if there is a group of girls in a Jordanian classroom out there who are trading student art and poems with a Chinese classroom, the world needs to hear about it.

Make it happen
Here are four tips for storytelling in a connected, digital world to help make change a reality:

1) Build storytelling into the workflow. It’s hard to sit down at the end of a project and tell its whole story. Moreover, it’s hard to find time for such a daunting task. Instead, rather than thinking of communicating work as a capstone, think of it as a necessary part of the ongoing reflection process. For example, when students are forming a project team, a good practice for effective teamwork is drafting a team agreement including roles like facilitator or recorder. Try adding a documentary director role, where that student is responsible for documenting the story of the team’s work for an outside audience. Check out this micro-credential with resources for building team agreements.

2) Make it multimedia. With all the digital tools out there today, creating multimedia stories is much easier than it used to be, even for those of us who don’t consider ourselves tech-savvy. How could your story be complemented by or told through a video, a photo diary, or a map with placemarks or paths? Michael Hernandez’s students work on projects that always have an audience beyond their school. This authentic audience inspires them to tell their stories in creative ways, making use of video, photography, social media, and other multimedia to make them more compelling. Still not sure what tools are out there and how they can be used? Ask your students!

3) Tell the process, not just the end product. Learning has never been only a product, but we often talk about it that way by referring to “this” test score or “that” project presentation. Too often, stories of success in education don’t communicate the process: how we decided on our project, what steps we took along the way, and where we got inspired or confused. After all, everyone loves the “making of” videos that complement a final film. Bring us behind the scenes in your classroom. As an example, one of the central goals of the Digital Promise Schools project is not only to create innovative learning environments in middle schools, but to document the process so that others can learn from it. The Digital Promise Schools team is framing this storytelling by showing victories, lessons learned, and needs and concerns of teachers and classrooms along the way. Try this framework with your students or check out these Challenge Based Learning prompts that help learners reflect on each element of the process.

4) Develop a call to action. What change are you trying to affect in the world? The Internet allows us to connect in ever more inventive ways, and presents the opportunity to bring in diverse perspectives and spur action beyond the school, university, or library. Tell your story everywhere—on social media, blogs, video sites—and call others to join you or do the same. Consider Karen Stadler’s South Africa classroom, which called the world to take action to save endangered rhinos by involving other classrooms in a travelling rhino project. The class created small stuffed rhinos and sent them around the world to encourage other students to learn and make a difference. The project’s wiki, social media pages, and participation in the Global Classroom Project have earned it recognition and spread its message wide.

We want all learners not only to change the world through action, but to make that change last by telling its story. Helping students to be storytellers not only aids in reflecting on project work, but gives them an identity as an agent of change in challenging the single story.

Follow Chelsea, Digital Promise Global, and Asia Society on Twitter.

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