Digital storytelling enhances K-12 classrooms

Digital storytelling uses various types of media to illustrate academic concepts in an engaging way for today’s students

digital-storytellingWith initiatives like the Common Core emphasizing creative thinking, many teachers are looking at unique ways to deliver information. Bernard Robin, Ph.D., saw that an age-old technique could be the perfect tool to combine human knowledge and experience.

“Everybody likes a good story, and it’s a very interesting and appealing way to transfer information from one person to another,” said Robin, associate professor of learning, design, and technology at the University of Houston. “It made sense to bring together all the tools we have access to in order to gain understanding and facilitate classroom discussions.”

Digital storytelling uses various types of media to tell stories or illustrate academic concepts in a way that is engaging and stimulating for today’s students. The concept has been around since the late 1980s, but several programs have recently started to use digital storytelling in the classroom to illustrate concepts and create cultural connections.

Robin’s website provides examples, information, and advice on using digital storytelling to teach all subject areas from music to math.

“My hope is that educators will see this website, look at the tutorials, follow the links, and do it themselves,” said Robin.

He said teachers shouldn’t worry if they don’t know everything about technology. Instead, they should empower students to be able to use media resources to demonstrate their knowledge.

“Young people today are very technologically and media savvy, and they respond well to things on the screen and to creating things to show understanding and knowledge,” said Robin.

(Next page: Digital storytelling in practice)

One school in Akron, Ohio, is using digital storytelling to encourage cross-cultural understanding among students. A family relationship with the Northern Cheyenne tribe in Montana provided an opportunity for Head of School Sam Chestnut and his seventh and eighth grade students at The Lippman School to be able to share stories with eighth grade students at the Northern Cheyenne reservation. In three years, students have visited each other in Ohio and Montana twice, and Northern Cheyenne students plan to visit Ohio again this October.

The project itself, “Storytelling Across Nations,” continues the relationship by sharing stories digitally when they are not able to visit each other physically. Students at Lippman and students at the reservation compile stories they gather from interviewing elder members of their communities. Some stories are already posted on the project’s website, so students and community members can see the similarities among the cultures.

“I don’t want to have an ‘our page’ and ‘their page,’” said Teacher Fellow John Bennett, who has been the website manager. “I really want to focus on the stories themselves.”

After a storytelling workshop, the students set out to interview elders at a retirement community adjacent to the Lippman School. Procuring stories was a two-step process: a preliminary interview with pen and paper, followed by a more in-depth and recorded interview.

Bennett said this setting provides learning opportunities that wouldn’t normally come in the classroom. For instance, one student interviewed a woman named Frieda and told Bennett that she prayed for all people, even people who had hurt her.

“She was abused all her life, but she was at peace,” said Bennett. “He was just amazed.”

Because the Lippman School is founded on Jewish values, Bennett said that connecting the hurt Frieda felt to what some Holocaust victims might have felt really resonated with the student.

“This type of digital storytelling is about humanity,” said Bennett. “It is at a much deeper level.”

The two schools plan to continue the storytelling project this year and publish more stories on the project’s website. Though funding is limited, they hope to be able to purchase more equipment as well.

For educators who want to integrate digital storytelling into their classroom, Robin recommends they learn how to use the tools and pass this knowledge along to students, so students are equipped to tell their own stories. Robin and his graduate students will lead a free MOOC about digital storytelling beginning Sept. 8 and will continue to provide similar courses for the next three years. Teachers in Texas can receive continuing education credit for these courses.

The most important aspect of digital storytelling, Robin says, is to make it for the students’ benefit.

“I think digital storytelling has the capacity to help facilitate creativity,” he says. “It gives students a voice and a way to share their feelings.”

For a step-by-step resource on digital storytelling in the classroom, visit:

This PBS video covers the basics of digital storytelling in education:

Lisa Driscoll is an editorial intern at eSchool News.

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