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Expanding Literacy Through Digital Storytelling

Expanding Literacy Through Digital Storytelling

Storytelling is one of the most universal and longstanding forms of communication. Our world continues to be shaped by the stories we tell and consume. Storytelling is a staple in most lower grades, but once kids reach middle school, narrative has often been replaced with the standard essay.

Download a sample from Expanding Literacy 

This week on the podcast, we’re exploring ways that storytelling can re-enter the classroom to compliment the critical literacy students are already building on.


Below is a transcript of this episode. 

Jaclyn: Welcome, Brett. It's great to have you here. Great to see you. Even though the others won't see you, I get to see you. How's it going?

Brett: It's going very well. I'm excited to be here, and to be talking to you about the new book.

Jaclyn: We're excited too. I love thinking, and talking about digital storytelling, and all things digital literacy, so this is really going to be a good one. Really it's the best place to start is, just tell us what digital storytelling is, perhaps in the way that we see it, in our everyday lives, but especially where we might see it in, social media, the way youth are using it today.

Brett: Digital storytelling is, what I would say is, the writing side of digital literacy. There are two literacies out there. There's print, text based literacy, and then there is digital literacy. These two literacies are equal in value, in my view. And so the question becomes, are we teaching students to, quote unquote, "Write on the digital side of things" and so what that means to your question is, to be able to write using text, sound, music, and imagery, either still or moving. So on the print side you've just got words, but on the digital storytelling side, you have these four elements that you get to play with, and that's what makes it both incredibly complex, but wondrous as well. It allows students to marvel, and wallow, in all these possibilities for how to communicate effectively.

Jaclyn: I love that you use the word play, because that's what I think of when I think of all of these different layers that you can use, like you said, sound, and imagery, and all of these things. And I think what a great thing to bring into the classroom. Another way that we can be playful with content, and playful with our learning.

Brett: I totally agree. My background, originally, is working for Sesame Workshop, which used to be called Children's Television Workshop, the creators of Sesame Street. And one of the foundations of all the work that's done there is, engagement precedes learning. If the children's eyes are not on the screen, they're not going to learn anything. You can't be didactic, you can't be too heavy, you've got to... That's where the fun story, and the joy of Sesame Street is always in the lead, and then the literacy, or the numeracy, or whatever the specific goal is, is woven into the fun.

It's the same with digital storytelling. If you tell kids that they don't have to write a five page paper on something, but they get to actually create a two minute podcast, or radio drama, or newscast, they're in, they're right there. And the challenge for the teacher becomes to stop them from running out and shooting, because that's what they're going to want to do. There was a group that was, it was a battle, it was about historical battles, a digital storytelling challenge about battles. And the kids just ran out with those floaty, those floaty

Jaclyn: Like the pool noodles?

Brett: ... The pool noodles, thank you. And just started shooting each other with pool noodles in the woods. And it's like, "No, don't, stop, pull back." That is actually one of the biggest classroom challenges with integrating digital storytelling is, they're so eager to get involved in this type of communication, that it's up to the teacher to pull them back, and make sure that they really focus on the research side.

That is the first step in all of this. And it comes down to this idea that you cannot tell a good story, no matter what, whether you're around the fireplace, or with good friends, the dinner table, you cannot tell a good story about something you don't know about. You only tell stories about stuff that is deep in your gut. And so with digital storytelling, it's the same thing. You've got to know your content. If this is a story about the water cycle, this is a story about dystopias. If this is a story about battles from the Civil War, you got to know that stuff really deeply, and then you can take that step back, and create the characters, and create the dialogue, and write the script, and do your location scouting, and do all the fun... Not the fun stuff. I don't want to say research isn't fun. But do all those other pieces. Engagement precedes learning, and digital storytelling is indeed a form of play.

Jaclyn: And I think hearing describe all of the engagement piece. You said, you say they're going to do a podcast, or a news radio show, the kids are in, thinking about this engagement. I know that from being a classroom teacher, that the minute you... You can have a good idea, and you know the kids are going to be in, but in your own mind, you don't have that experience.

As a seventh grader, I did not have the experience of digital storytelling. It wasn't something that was a part of my day. I wonder a lot about that hesitation, so definitely want to talk about that. The hesitation from the teacher's side, because it feels like a good idea. It sounds like a good idea. The learning is going to be there, the kids are on board. But then the other piece of it is, I wonder sometimes if it's just, there's a pull for a lot of teachers that pull of, "Well, what about writing a five page? What about that skill of being able to write a five page essay, and learning that the rigor lies in all of those types of expression?" And so not saying, "Well, because we're focusing on sound, or imagery here, that that's somehow easier, than written word, that all of these kinds of literacies hold value."

Brett: This is not a competition. This is not digital literacy, versus print-based literacy. I would make the argument that print-based literacy, text literacy, that does teach us to organize our thinking, it teaches us how to think.

Digital storytelling does not force you to organize ideas in such a closely confined, often linear way, that print does. There's extraordinary value, obviously, in text driven communication, but there's also extraordinary value in digital storytelling. And I think it gets a lot of short shrift, partially because it can be playful, it can be fun, it can be engaging, as if that's the wrong thing to happen in the classroom. It's obviously not. And think about it, just think about the challenge of trying to tell a story with 10 pictures, no words. Think about one's relationship to an image, to a picture. We're talking about a photo essay. The power in that relationship is now with the viewer, and what they bring to those pictures. So your story can be so completely different than if you were to write that story, where you, the author, are in pretty much control of exactly what the experience is going to be, for the reader. So learning to communicate through imagery, learning to communicate just with sound, or with, or without music. These are.

Or with or without music. These are vital forms of communication, more vital than they've ever been given the social media platforms in which these students exist. So it's not one or the other. My argument, and I think, and what the book, Expanding Literacy, exists for is to try to balance out the assignments of writing assignments and digital storytelling assignments as equal partners throughout the school year.

Jaclyn: I want to come back later to thinking about how teachers who haven't had this experience can open themselves up to it. But I'm going to set that on a shelf for a minute, because I think this is a really good time to think about where does this fit in the classroom? And I don't want to say, where can we put it in the classroom? I almost feel like where should we? For all of the reasons that you've described. And so, can you talk about some of the ways? What does this look like in the classroom for students? What kinds of things are students making? And even thinking about how students' experiences have been so impacted by the events of the last two and a half years, thinking about remote schooling during Covid. All of these things are opportunities for sharing our story. So can you share some of the classroom application that you've seen?

Brett: Yeah, yeah. I mean, in terms of the Covid piece of it, a very, perhaps too simplistic a response, is that digital storytelling, as we just mentioned, is story. It is story based. Stories have to come, stories always have a personal voice to them. Stories are often about empathy, it's kind of an organic quality to storytelling. So to be able to take that genre and think about it, this is what kills me, is that, in elementary school you're doing stories, stories, stories, okay? That's what you do. You're telling stories and you're learning stories. And then as you go into middle and high school, the story as a format of communication goes out the window. You're doing essays, you're doing all sorts of other forms of communication, which are more formal and analytical, but how to tell a good story is rarely a curricular objective unto itself. And yet it is the most universal form of communication has been since humanity began and continues to be.

And if you know how to tell a good story, then you are going to be an incredibly effective communicator post-secondary education. And that capacity will always have elements of social, emotional and empathy intertwined into the process itself. Within the classroom, where can it go? It can go anywhere. You can do a radio drama about a chemical calamity and just turn it into, Oh my God, there is something blew up in the other room. What happened? And then you kind of get into the chemistry of it, you get into the physics of it. You can do a photo essay based on historical paintings about a battle.

Or another idea is to... Everybody loves escape rooms, right? So let's say that you are the Pony Express Museum and you're like, "Nobody is coming to the Pony Express Museum, so let's do a pony express escape room." And so the students now need to create a pitch video to the board of the Pony Express Museum about what does a pony express escape room look like? Which means there needs to be clues about the Pony Express, the room itself needs to reflect the architectural time period of the Pony Express. It's a pitch video, it's a persuasive video. Another interesting form of writing. So there you've got your history class. We don't do storytelling, but you do. Okay. Well, obviously history's a whole stories, isn't it? So I retract that statement, but I think digital storytelling as a phrase, often thinks, Oh, this is just a language arts thing, but it's not, it can cover any and all content, traditional hard curricular content.

Two other pieces to your question, what does this look like in the classroom? The answer is a certain form of chaos. There's no doubt about it. When... I'm going to get meta, can I get meta on you just for a second here? When basically the world went from top down communication, all books went through editors, all stories went through editors, Swirl TV editors, everything was through broadcast television and through publishing houses and through newspapers.

But when that changed and everybody had their own voice on the internet, on Instagram, on Facebook initially, et cetera, et cetera, and everybody could have their own platform and the voice of students and those kind of from below as it were, could now find a place to be heard. When that shift happened and it became clear that not all information or communication was coming from the top down, but in fact was also coming from the bottom up, then that change needs to be reflected in the classroom as well. So digital storytelling is not a top down kind of communication. It's allowing the kids and the students to find their own voice, find their own stories, and bring them to a place where they can effectively and meaningfully communicate those stories. That involves in the classroom a bit of chaos. That involves the teacher taking a step back and being the guide.

They just need to know the content. They need to know Edgar Allen Poe, it's about Edgar Allen Poe. Or they need to know it's about the Bill of Rights, or it's about solar flares, whatever it is they're teaching, and they need to know story. That's all they're doing, is guiding the students as they're working in teams. And digital storytelling works best as a collaborative effort because there's so many different tasks to be done. We'll get to that in a second.

So they're working in teams throughout a three to four week period. So there's a little bit of chaos, a fair amount of risk on the part of the teacher to let go and let them find their communicative voices from the bottom up to the point where they can amplify the voice. And I know that's a bit of a cliche these days, but it's...

Jaclyn: It's true though.

Brett: It's kind of a driving force. Yeah, it is.

Jaclyn: Right. And I think everything I hear you saying about all of these possibilities, it really it isn't just for a language arts teachers. This isn't just for, I mean, we're talking about a literacy that it cross curricular for sure. It sounds like there's no limit to what you can do, like you're saying, as long as you know the content. And I think that really is freeing in some ways, just knowing that you have this one thing that really you could collaborate with other teachers in your school who don't teach your same content area. You could collaborate with different people on how to bring some of these things to life. I love that idea. I'm pretty excited about this. So I'm thinking a lot about it.

Brett: But there's another piece I want to bring up in terms of, again, the educational value and the respect that I believe digital storytelling or multimodal literacies need. And that is, I think the challenge to the teacher can be like, Okay, we're going to do the water cycle. I'm going to come up with a real basic example. Why would I spend four weeks on a water cycle project when I can cover the water cycle in a 45 minute class? Why would I do that? And the answer to that is that the process of digital storytelling is where all the educational value is.

Yes, there's the content of learning the water cycle or whatever the topic is. But, to create a digital story, you have to work through all of those, what are commonly called 21st Century skills, I would call them human skills, life skills, whatever you want to label them. But what we have identified is those are the skills kids need to succeed in a world of omnipresent change. They don't know what is out there. Nobody knows what's out there in terms of the workforce. It continues to change and shift. So how do we prepare our students for that? The process of digital storytelling is a goldmine of collaboration, creativity, problem solving, leadership, presentational skills. You're going to have to present this at the end in front of your peers. You got to get up there and do that piece of it.

Iterative thinking. Think about that classic paper. If your English teacher makes you rewrite it, that's like the worst possible thing that has ever happened in your life. Do not make me rewrite this. But, when you're doing a digital story, you've got your storyboard, and you've got your rough cut, and then you're like, Oh my God, I'm missing some shots." Or, "Wouldn't it be great to add music here?" You just keep iterating the story until it gets to the perfect place, which is not something that, a process that you necessarily go through within classical text-driven communication.

Jaclyn: Right. And you have the benefit of all the varying perspectives of the group that's collaborating. And, you also have the practice of negotiating the various perspective, which is a really, really challenging thing. It's a really tough skill. And so I see so much opportunity there for this.

Brett: And the other piece that happens, and we've had a lot of experience with this because I've spent... My background in this area is that I've been running the non-profit Meridian Stories, which offers 15 creative digital storytelling challenges a year in this kind of annual competition for middle school and high school. And, what teachers find is that when you've got three or four kids working, some of those really quiet kids in the back of the classroom all year round, they find their groove. Because they're secretly an editor, or they're secretly a camera guy, or a sound guy, or a visual artist, or they're the producer. They're the ones that are like, "Yeah, no, I'm going to organize this and we're going shoot in your basement and then we're going to meet Saturday afternoon and we need to be in the woods and you're going to bring the props. Do we have a prop list?" They find a place inside of this literacy, which doesn't always happen in class, in print-based literacies.

Jaclyn: So let's rewind to thinking about the beautiful chaos that ensued when you dig into this. So, I'm a teacher, I'm onboard, and I don't have this experience myself. I have to pull on maybe any social media that I've played with, so there's one experience. I have to rely, I have to trust the students knowing that a lot of them really have mastered so many different kinds of digital tools, but maybe don't have the language to describe what it is they're trying to do in terms of the learning or the story that they're trying to show. But, what do I do as a teacher? I want to get this started. What's the first thing I do?

Brett: It's the process... First of all, and this is really important. As a teacher, you do not need to know anything about media production. You just don't. Don't be scared by iMovie, or Adobe, or any of the softwares that are out there making it easier for you to edit, and sound edit, and fly in and animate, and shoot in a green screen, and all those kinds of things. You don't need to know any of that.

Jaclyn: It's very freeing.

Brett: It is. Because I think that's the wall. That's often the wall here. If you understand one, there are two literacies. Two, there's huge educational value in the process of creating a digital story, as well as while you're also still digging deeply into the traditional curriculum content that you are teaching. So you believe those two points, but the third point is like, "Well, I just can't do it. I've never created a 60-second video myself, so how could I possibly ask them to do it?" The answer is, "You can." And any time a student comes up to you and says, "I don't know how to make those letters fly. I want to make them fly and dissolve into a starburst or something," and your answer is, "I don't know either, so go figure it out. I'm sure you can find out, you can figure it out." And then they will come back to you, the teacher, once they do, and I would hope you as a teacher would be open to learning what they've learned.

So, what's funny about this or another way of looking at it is, in traditional print-based literacy, there's grammar. And that's a very formalized, challenging, complex structure within which we need to arrange the words in order to communicate effectively. In digital storytelling or the writing side of digital literacy, there is no grammar. The grammar are all those tools. Those are all the pieces that you're playing with. And, that is up to the student to discover. They get to make it up, and use as many of those tools as they want in any order that they want, as long as it comes out. The only real grammar here is the structure of a story. And that's also, I think, very freeing for the student. They don't have to conform to a preexisting structure, and they're the ones that get to discover the tools, and then play with those tools, and then come back and educate their peers and the teacher about what tools are working.

Jaclyn: And that's innovation. And that's what we want in the classroom, we want that to be happening. And I know that for a lot of teachers, being vulnerable and learning alongside your students, for some teachers, it comes naturally and it feels good. Like, "Yes, let's figure this out together," and being innovative together. And for other teachers that really can feel completely out of their personality, and can make them feel like they're losing control. And so, just trying something. Trying one thing to just dive in. I think that's what you have to do. You have to just dive in and try.

Brett: If you're willing to do that, you're right. That's actually a bigger hurdle than, "Oh, I can't do iMovie." It's the risk of opening up the classroom and let the students take control. What you want to do, back to your, "Well, how does this happen?" There's a four-part process. It's research, creativity, development, and production. Those are our four phases. So you do all the research that you can about whatever the content area may be. And then the next phase is a creative phase. How are you going to tell this story? Now hopefully, there is guidance in terms of, "This is going to be a newscast. This is going to be a vlog. This is going to be a radio drama. This is going to be a PSA. This is going to be a documentary. This is going to be a game show." Hopefully there's some guidance on this creation side in terms of, "Is this going to be a game show? Is this going to be a PSA? Is it a radio drama? Is it a vlog? Is it a newscast? What type of story are we going to tell?"

And I strongly recommend keeping these stories down to no more than four minutes. You give kids 10 minutes, they will fill up 10 minutes and honestly bore you to tears. Four minutes, tops. And that form of discipline actually is very useful in terms of their storytelling skill sets. Once you have your creative, your characters, the approach you're taking, then you need to move into the development phase, which is both a writing phase and scouting location, looking at costumes, looking at props, coming up with your production schedule. And then the final phase is producing.

Within the book, there are many activities and examples that will guide the teacher in how to do this in the classroom, take them through the entire process. So that gives them a real strong base for the application or the manifestation of digital storytelling in general, and then they apply it to whatever content it is that they're teaching.
The digital support piece of this, Meridian Stories, is a vast space on the internet that also offers a huge amount of support and creative prompts for a wide variety of digital storytelling opportunities in the classroom.

Jaclyn: Yeah, I like that there's a process and that you name the process, and I feel like if I were going to start with this, digging into the book and reading about the process and just really starting to just internalize what that would look like in my own context. And then when I think about the different ways that we might turn the content into the story, brainstorming the different ways this can be done with students would be a blast. They probably have so many examples in the ways that they have seen content be shared in a story that isn't just regurgitating the facts, which is a lot of what I see now.
My daughter's nine, so I get a lot of that. Very factual: "I did a report; here are all of the things," and the more you see these examples of possibility, kids will just jump at the fact to try some of them, I'm sure.

This actually leads me to the next piece that I'm excited about, is that you are giving a full-day workshop in December, and so I think about the kind of learner I am. So for something like this, I would read the book, and I would get all of this in my head, but I would want a day to dig in and say, "Okay, I need a day to dig in, to try some things, to get some feedback and some expertise." So can you talk a little bit about your workshop, what that might be like?

Brett: Yes, so what we're going to do is we're going to explore a variety of different story types. So we're going to look at, I think, the game show and the vlog and the newscast and the radio drama. And if you just look at the newscast, for example ... And I do have to admit: I have a slight anti-documentary bias, because that's the default of many educators. Like, "Oh, let's do a documentary about sunflowers." No kids watch documentaries, really, and it's also a very dry format. There's not a whole lot of fun that goes on in documentaries. I'm broadly generalizing. So the book is very much focused on a wider variety of storytelling formats.

So take the newscast, for example. In a newscast, you've got the anchor, you've got the field reporter, and I'm going to turn this into sportscasting, a little bit, and you've got a color commentator. So now you've got these three characters who all have different purposes in communicating about an event or communicating about a moment or communicating about a person. And then you've got whoever it is that they're interviewing, whatever the action is.

So right there, the richness of the newscast, as a vehicle to explore content, with the color commentator, the anchor, the base foundational stuff, and then the field reporter out there, just trying to understand what the heck is going on in the moment. It's very journalistic, in a way, those three different perspectives into a single piece of content. Therein lies the richness of the newscast.

The vlog, which can seem like an incredibly self-indulgent form of storytelling. Why would anyone watch a vlog? In fact, a good vlog is a personal journey that is character-led, that's personality-led, the student themselves, usually into a fairly personal space of that person.
So you have these other elements now, a whole different form of storytelling. And it can still be about the sunflowers or whatever the topic is, but now, the vlog allows the lead person to take you on a journey about the relationship to said content, to expose themselves a little bit. Again, a very different form of storytelling, but equally as compelling. And each different format opens up new possibilities for how to explore the content.

And so that day is going to be just playing around with a variety of different story formats, and everybody's going to create very short: 60 seconds, no edits. I don't want to freak anybody out. 60-second, no-edits stories, as well as storyboards, that allows everybody to see the richness of the variety of narrative forms that can excavate content.

Jaclyn: And what a good way to get your feet wet, because these are some of the things I think that a lot of teachers ... Or I don't know; maybe it was just me. You have in the back of your mind, "Yes, I'm going to do this. Yes, I'm going to do this," and then April comes, and you're like, "Ugh, I never did it." So now is your chance, in December, to get that first experience under your belt and take it forward.

Well, Brett, I could talk to you for at least another hour about this, so we might have to do this again, but thank you so much for telling us all about digital storytelling today.

Brett: Thank you so much for having me. It is an absolute privilege to be a part of this podcast.

brettpierce-1Brett Pierce is an educator, program developer, writer, and producer who has spent over 30 years working in media that engages and entertains around a defined curriculum. He is the founder of Meridian Stories, a digital storytelling nonprofit for teachers and their students in middle and high school. Brett has worked extensively in educational and social impact projects for Sesame Workshop and PeaceTech Lab, supervising media projects about literacy, math, science, gender equity, civic participation, and life skills for children and youth. 

You can connect with Brett on his website or on Twitter @MeridianStory

Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Literacy, Expanding Literacy, Brett Pierce

Date Published: 10/13/22

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