Digital storytelling gives students a powerful platform for their voices--here's how to do it.

5 reasons to integrate digital storytelling into your teaching

Digital storytelling gives students a powerful platform for expression--here are some compelling reasons to incorporate it into your classroom

Our students are mostly digital learners. We, as teachers, are not. How do we best bridge this divide and bring education into the digital learning space where students reside? How do we take what we as teachers know in one literacy and allow students to demonstrate mastery in another, without losing control of the classroom? One answer: digital storytelling around curricular content.

Related content: 5 ways we’ve integrated STEAM into storytelling

From the creation of a new dystopia to an investigative report about water corruption; from a rap about immigration to a police drama that is resolved through trigonometry; digital storytelling is the process of addressing curricular content through short video and audio narratives that can be in the form of a straight documentary, a news report, a game show or a comic parody. The formats are, in fact, endless.

But the bottom line is that digital storytelling is a critical bridge from an educators’ curricular knowledge-base to the digital learning sphere of the students.

Here are the 5 reasons to integrate digital storytelling into your classroom, as informed by our experiences from opposite sides of the country: California and Maine.

1. 21st-century skills development

Matt: A key objective in middle school (and high school, for that matter) is creating inquiry-based curriculum that allows students to perform open-ended research, and then have that research drive or dictate the student response. In our digital storytelling projects, supplied by the nonprofit Meridian Stories, the students did extensive research on their topics (far more than they ever did on other projects) because they wanted their video to be the best. Through collaboration, they discussed various ways to answer the driving question, and collectively chose a central story arc based on their research.

In addition to inquiry-based research, there are a number of 21st-century skills that are fostered, including collaboration, expository writing, project management, time management, and digital literacy.

2. The iterative process

Heather: I would take Matt’s point one step further. The single skill that I think is most important is one that doesn’t have a consistent name and it’s the idea that you are going back to do it again and again and again until it’s what you want it to be. Some people call it grit, some call it determination, and some call it the iterative process. As a science and engineering teacher, it’s easy to link it to the engineering process and the iterative nature of engineering.

But outside of an engineering class, it’s very rare for students to have an opportunity to do something, tinker with it, go back and do it again, then tinker with it, add to it, tweak it, take something out, move something around and be able to sort of live in that nebulous world of ‘I don’t like it,’ ‘how am I going to fix it?’ ‘what am I going to do differently?’ and ‘what pieces are missing?’ We rarely give kids the chance to linger in that realm of uncertainty for a little while and then figure out how to achieve a finished product. Digital storytelling allows this.

3. Student engagement

Matt: My 7th grade students get excited about digital storytelling projects for 3 reasons. First, they get to work in small groups. The 7th grade age group is all about social dynamics, and the digital storytelling projects enable students to socialize in productive ways. Second, students love making movies. Their generation consumes media every day, and across a variety of platforms (social media, television, YouTube, etc.), so they relish an opportunity to create digital stories. Third, we set this up as a competition, and nothing gets students more engaged than turning learning into a game.

4. Storytelling

Heather: Agreed, agreed and agreed. But let me add one more element that increases student engagement: storytelling. If you go into any elementary classroom, you will see story time and storytelling and you’ll see read aloud and creative writing projects. And you will see those pieces embedded in the classroom as an inherent part of the curriculum. Somewhere around middle school, we shift to all content all the time and we lose that creativity.

Kids are storytellers. Humans are storytellers. We have beaten it out of all of us by the time we reach adulthood. Kids want to tell stories. If you listen in the hallways on a Monday morning, it’s what did you do, and who did you see and where were you and OMG, what do you think about that?

Giving students an opportunity to tell stories about what they are learning is incredibly powerful. Usually we are able to tell other people’s stories, which is at least the beginning of storytelling, but to truly tell an original story about what is happening to this tree, what is happening to this ocean, or what is happening with that person’s attempt to do use this technology allows you to explore ethics, cultural significance, and the ramifications of your topic. This is what digital storytelling opens up for the students–and it is powerful.

5. Ease of implementation

Matt: The biggest challenge in implementing digital storytelling is carving out a set number of days on the curriculum map. I use 2 days at the start of the project to get the assigned groups organized and settled into their project of choice. After that, we set aside 1 day per week to work on these projects in class over the course of two months, with very set markers along the way. And here’s the biggest catch: I may not know how to edit in iMovie or work the latest animation app, but I don’t need to. I just need to know history, which is what I teach. The kids figure out the rest.

Heather: Figuring out the digital technology is part of students’ learning and they are eager to do it. Knowing how to ask the good questions and then encouraging my students to find the resources is the way we go. Then a lot of it becomes trial and error, and that becomes a valuable part of the process. The final beauty is this: they teach me about the digital technology. It’s an empowering side of digital storytelling for teacher and student. My supposed ‘weakness’ becomes a super power: the students are empowered to teach me.

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