Connected Learning Teaching Writing

Heart and Voice: A Digital Storytelling Journey


It’s like playing a movie of what goes on in your mind when you write.

Adrianne – 9th grade

It was one of those teaching experiences I never wanted to end. During the first weeks of school, my ninth and tenth grade students and I read John Gunther’s Death Be Not Proud and shorter pieces by Maya Angelou and Sandra Cisneros. We talked about personal experiences and how these become our best resources for writing. We also talked about how a writer can paint vivid pictures with beautiful, powerful, and unexpected words and phrases. Finally, using Gunther, Angelou and Cisneros’s works as models, we wrote our own memoirs.

The memoir assignment was open ended and left room for a wide range of interpretations. Rather than assigning specific prompts, I provided a list of phrases like “Circle of Friends,” “Flying Solo,” and “Favorite Photo.” I encouraged students to think of each topic as a window and not to feel limited by specific words.

The results were dramatic. For a few minutes each day, many, if not all, of my students dared to open their hearts and share their writing with their peers and me. They exposed fears and regrets. They described their greatest joys, their darkest thoughts, and their most embarrassing secrets. Jordan, a very cool and outgoing sophomore, wrote about his fear of roller coasters. I still laugh when I think about his opening lines:

“I’m the keeper of everyone else’s backpacks and water bottles. I’m the guy you walk past when you’re getting in line to ride Greased Lightning.”

Michael, also a sophomore, reluctantly shared a piece in which he admitted that he has a morbid fascination with car accidents and other unnatural disasters. Michael didn’t share this with us to impress or to elevate his he-man status. His writing was a confession, and in a subtle choice of words, he asked us for understanding and forgiveness. My students responded with nodding heads and silence. No one spoke, but Michael heard, “We know exactly what you mean.” As a group, we discovered the healing qualities of capturing our stories on paper.

Too Good to Let Go Of

When we finished several rounds of informal writing, I filed our work away. I normally return completed assignments to students, but this writing was exceptional. An inner voice told me these memoirs were too valuable, too insightful, and too rich with voice and imagery to become lost in a sea of history notes and math quizzes. I knew I had to find a way to complete this writing journey we had begun together. I made a mental note: Reintroduce the memoirs at the end of the year. It will be my way of saying goodbye, my way of reminding students that they were, are, and always will be…writers.

But what did I mean by “reintroduce the memoirs?” What were we going to do with these pieces? Fall turned to spring, and our stories still sat in my desk, urging me to return them to their owners. Ready or not, I decided to take a personal plunge. I knew only vaguely about the concept of digital storytelling and nothing about the skills involved, but I resolved to jump in anyway. My students would become digital storytellers.

Taking a Chance

I knew the stories could easily move from black-and-white print to color-filled multimedia productions because they were loaded with compelling images and powerful voice. More important, the majority of my students were emotionally invested in their earlier work, and I knew they would jump at the chance to transform their stories into videos. They might even be impressed that their English teacher would actually allow them to travel beyond the safe world of word processing.

The papers were returned, and after a few minutes of giggles and sighs and, “I can’t believe you kept these,” I made my pitch: “Each of us must choose a memoir and transform it into a digital story.” Because every student had written several pieces, I told each of them to choose a story that could become a mini-movie. To clear up the questions and confused looks, I showed my students a digital story I found on the web during my initial search.

To be honest, that’s all I had. I had time reserved in the computer lab, but I didn’t have a time line. I had basic computer knowledge, but I didn’t know how to create a digital story. I had enthusiasm, but I didn’t have the confidence required to pull off such a large project. What did I have? I had vision. And I had 65 tech-savvy students. And what I didn’t know, they would teach me.

Digital storytelling is defined as the art of transforming writing into video by combining images, music, and voice narration within a multimedia program. But for me, it became an emotional journey that began with the simple act of students putting words on paper. It was an experience that changed my life.

Becoming a Learner

I had my idea. How to accomplish it, however, remained a puzzle. To learn the basics, I researched websites guided by two burning questions: What is a digital story? and How do I create one? I didn’t find the definitive how-to list, but I stumbled across design rules for good digital stories at a site created by the Story Center, a nonprofit organization based in Berkeley, California. I printed the list of design elements and referred to them often as my students and I worked on our own digital stories. The guidelines helped me develop a critical eye and understand the subtle touches that make a digital story a work of art. According to Joe Lambert, founder of CDS, good digital stories have

  1. a point (of view)
  2. a dramatic question
  3. emotional content
  4. the gift of your voice
  5. the power of the soundtrack
  6. economy
  7. pacing.

Lambert explains each element in detail in his book Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Communities (2002).

While exploring the site, I also found examples of digital stories. These examples became our models. These tools were a start. The rest I would figure out on my own. I was ready to become a student in front of my students.

Strengthening Relationships

Before I had the chance to second-guess myself, we moved into the computer lab. As predicted, my attempts at learning how to use a movie-editing program were laughable. In frustration, I finally sat down by Richard Carlos, a very patient and polite freshman, and asked him to teach me the basics. Luckily for me, Richard Carlos was born into an Apple family, so he knew the iMovie video editing program well. He taught me how to capture images and audio and import them into the program. He also taught me editing tricks that make a good movie a great movie—transitions, video effects, and timing.

Along with the mini lessons, Richard Carlos did what all great teachers do. He gave me directions and encouragement, and then he sat back and watched. He let me make mistakes, and then he redirected my clumsy efforts. He never sighed and took the mouse from my hand. He made me discover and learn on my own. I must admit that I gave an Oscar-winning performance in the student role. I asked the same question at least ten times, I made the same mistakes over and over, and I threatened to walk away from unfinished work every other day.

When Richard Carlos grew weary of me, he handed me over to Jerelyn, a very tech-savvy teen who giggled at my fumblings without making me feel stupid or incompetent. Jerelyn taught me that digital stories can also be produced on PowerPoint, a good thing to know when you work in a PC lab or do not have access to a video editing program. It’s a slightly lower-tech approach, but equally effective. (Since then, I’ve discovered that digital stories can be created with Movie Maker and Photo Story, two free downloads from Microsoft.)

Throughout the project, the digital natives patiently taught me, a digital immigrant, a new language. Richard Carlos, Jerelyn, and I became colleagues who valued the other’s strengths and forgave the weaknesses. How many learning experiences accomplish this?

Letting Go

We all began the digital storytelling project with the same task—gather and save images from the Web. From the moment we watched the examples on the Center for Digital Storytelling website, each of us began to construct a movie in our mind. Collecting images was a natural place to start because the pictures were already in our heads; we just needed to find them in digital form. We had our best luck conducting Google image searches. Some students also used personal photos captured on digital cameras or cell phones. As students gathered their images, they saved them to project folders created specifically for the digital storytelling project in their user accounts.

Once the images were collected, we discussed the other steps in the digital storytelling process. To complete the project, each of us had to

  1. import and arrange the collected images into the video editing program’s timeline and apply timings, effects, and transitions.
  2. select and download copyright-free music and import into the audio track of the program.
  3. read and adjust the script (the writing) to correspond with the images.
  4. record and import a voiceover into the second audio track.
  5. complete a final edit of the whole project. (This is a very intense process! Each of us had to watch our movie over and over, tweaking timings, transitions, volume levels, and so forth).

We made our list, and then I made an unexpected announcement. I told my students they could work through the identified tasks in any order they desired. Yes, I set them free. No checklist. No completion deadlines. Because of my unfamiliarity with digital storytelling, I was unwilling to impose strict guidelines or a linear series of steps. I realize it was a rather bold (or stupid) move, but the students truly knew more about the technology than I did, and I couldn’t pretend to be in charge. Looking back, my decision to leave the order of the steps to each student’s discretion turned out to be a fortunate accident. Students engaged in technology-enhanced learning work best when they are given the freedom to reach their own understanding of a project, to identify the steps needed to complete the project, and finally, to create an order (or disorder) that they are most comfortable with.

Observing Artists

I wanted to spend a lot of time getting it just right because whenever you came by and watched me, you gave my ideas more value than I had given them, and that made me want to think more.

Brittany – 9th grade

In spite of my ignorance, the work had officially begun. When I was not working on my own project, I walked around the computer lab, looking over shoulders and asking questions. “Why did you choose that image?” “Why the long silence between this image and the next?” “Why does the music fade at the beginning?” My questions were not intended to second-guess the students’ artistic visions. They were my way of understanding the decisions behind their stories. I wanted to see the processes going on in their heads.

It was through the questioning that I made an unexpected discovery. Students were far more willing to talk to me about their digital stories than anything I had experienced in a writing conference. I think this is because we talked about what mattered most in the adolescent world—music, images, sound, and message. Our conversations were lively and passionate, and for the first time, each student led the discussion, a big improvement from a nodding head and mumbled words.

As I gained confidence, I began to take on more of a director’s role. I questioned the quality and purpose of images, the timing, and the message, and the students responded like temperamental artists. They were at the peak of creativity. They were deeply and emotionally invested. I realized that I had stumbled into new territory—their territory—and that I must reevaluate my role. I had entered the digital natives’ territory, and in spite of my best efforts, I was an adult who did not understand their language.

I cautiously took a few steps back and decided to do what I know best—maintain a safe environment and facilitate inquiry-based learning. Picture me as the outsider looking in. I felt a little left out, but I had to let my students celebrate a freedom that technology offers. I knew I could trust the natives to collaborate and to create the digital stories they envisioned.

In spite of its territorial nature, digital storytelling demands collaboration. Students protected their projects, but sought advice and critiques from their peers. If there were suggestions for revisions, they engaged in deep discussions. They negotiated the subtle tweaks and debated the bigger changes. I shifted from manager to spectator to the occasional referee. “Peer revision” in the traditional sense conjures images of a quick exchange of ideas, a constructive critique; but changes to their visions required much deeper reasoning and negotiation.

Revising the Writing

From a technical angle, I loved the impact of the digital storytelling experience. But working with a new medium, adding light and life to words, made it easy to lose focus on the real purpose of the project. From an English teacher’s angle, I had to keep my eye on the writing, and I was not disappointed. Our memoirs became scripts, and the scripts became integral parts of the writing experience.

Just as in the video editing phase, students made extensive revisions to their original writing. The original memoir writing activity had produced lengthy pieces filled with dialogue and details. As we worked deeper into the digital storytelling process, we realized that our original writing would have to be shortened. Digital stories need to be compact. As each student recorded his or her voiceover, memoirs that were originally three pages long had to be cut down to one and a half pages, not an easy task for an adolescent used to asking “How long does this have to be?”

Digital storytelling is all about a minimum of words for a maximum effect. It’s also about precise timing as a powerful image fades onto the screen. When the digital storyteller describes the flood that destroyed his home, he wants you to see a picture of the destruction. He wants to make an emotional connection with his audience, and the image is his most powerful tool.

My students quickly learned to manipulate word order and to delete unnecessary words to achieve the greatest emotional impact possible. They worked with the timing and flow of their words to create the right blend of voice and image. Many writers adjusted the order and length of sentences to create tension and drama to underscore their message, or, even better, to give the viewer a chance to make personal connections.

Because of digital storytelling’s compactness, the words that survive the revision process must be the most vivid, precise words possible. I was worried that the words would become afterthoughts in an adolescent celebration of images and music, but the artists were not about to compromise their work, and the words became central to the final exquisite piece.

Listening to a Lost Voice

Not every student shared the same enthusiasm I had about the digital storytelling project. In fact, a few students completely ignored the goals of our work and created their own interpretations of digital stories. Totally expected. So expected, in fact, that I could have made a list of who would rebel against my plans before the project began. I knew the students who would use time in the lab to secretly check their email, change their screen saver a dozen times, and dare to download offensive songs. There was one student, however, who proved me completely wrong.

I first met Tadd when he was a seventh-grader. He was an incredibly intelligent student, but he was also the most reluctant participant I had ever encountered. We exchanged only a few required sentences at the beginning of the year, and for reasons that I still can’t explain, I knew to leave him alone. His silence seemed to be a wall between himself and the adult world.

We struck a silent deal; he would turn in acceptable work, and I would never insist that he contribute to class discussions or read aloud or participate in any kind of public speaking activity. We literally let nine months go by without speaking to each other. At the end of the year, I said goodbye to my seventh-graders, and I really thought that was the end of my story with Tadd.

Not so. Another year went by, I was reassigned to 9th grade, and Tadd walked back into my life. Within a few days, we fell into the agreement struck two years earlier. Tadd would not speak; I would not push. The first half of our year without words was successful. He completed every assignment as per silent agreement, including the memoir writing activity. Tadd’s memoirs were adequate, simply the bare-bones writing of an uninterested teenager. They did not have the personal depth I hoped for, but I accepted his work and moved on.

Now we were finishing up the second half of the year with digital stories, stories that required words and voice. While the other students and I tried to cut back our overabundance of words, I worried that Tadd would have no words. As the rest of us shared ideas and debated artistic details, Tadd quietly sat at his computer. I was too afraid to look and too afraid to ask. I did not want to be disappointed, and I could not betray our code of silence.

As students completed their stories, we took time out of the usual schedule to watch and applaud each storyteller’s contribution. We had made huge commitments to our work, both emotionally and mentally, and it was important that we share our stories. A few reluctant students declined a public viewing, and Tadd, of course, was one of them.

Tadd’s Story

I watched the remaining stories during my conference period, and I saved Tadd’s story for last. To be honest, I wasn’t sure there would be anything to watch. I knew he had gathered images, and I knew he had worked with the editing program. What I didn’t know was if he had added his words. I sat in front of the computer, took a deep breath, and opened his file.

The screen instantly fills with an image of a teenage boy on a skateboard. He is suspended in mid-air, arms spread at his side. A few seconds later, an electric guitar begins to play, and then, for the first time in two years, Tadd talks to me. He tells me about skateboarding and how much it means to him. He tells me it’s the best. As images of skateboarders fade in and out of the screen, Tadd tells me how he and his friends spend every day riding around, being cool. I can’t help but smile when his deep voice says,

“If somebody sees me, I can’t do anything right.

But if I’m wearing cool pants and nobody’s looking, I’m pretty good at it.

Actually, no I’m not.”

The words, the music, and the images go on for a few minutes more, and Tadd ends his story with,

“Too bad nobody knows I’m really cool, ’cause I am.”

The final image fades to black, and the music grows, and in a moment of editing precision, Tadd closes his story with few lines from Jimmy Eat World’s “23.”

“No one else will know these lonely dreams.

No one else will know that part of me.”

And that’s where the story ends. Black screen and silence.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I sat in front of that blank screen and cried. Two years of silence broken by words thoughtfully written, recorded, and added to a digital story. I cannot think of a better definition of voice.

I never saw Tadd after that day. I tried to find him that summer to tell him how much his story meant to me, but a long-absent father had reappeared and taken Tadd and his sister away from the only family they knew. I still think about Tadd. I have a copy of his digital story, and I watch it when I need to be reminded of my role as an educator.

Making Connections

Here’s a little chunk of my life, and now I understand it better.

Leigh – grade 10

I took a chance, and I was richly rewarded. Digital storytelling brought together two academically opposite worlds—technology and writing—and gave me the courage to see myself as a traditional English teacher charging into the technological unknown. Through technology, the words on paper became voices, and the voices told me so much more than I had ever imagined. I saw how students envision their stories. I heard the pauses and the breaths they take when they talk about something that really matters. I heard the music that drifts through their lives.

Because of digital storytelling, I saw the perfect world Adrianne envisions. I saw Leslie break free from her quiet existence and zoom down the highway in a red convertible. I saw Caleb’s yearning to live in the world of Halo 2. I saw the hearts of teenagers who know they have something important to say. They’ve grown up in an age where life is intertwined with images and sounds and music, and digital storytelling became their tool to combine the ancient art of writing and the modern miracle of technology. For me, the greater miracle is that I am now an English teacher who sees a powerful connection between technology and the writing experience. Through digital storytelling, my students became passionate, constructive participants in peer response sessions. More importantly, they made the crucial transition from student writers to student editors. I experienced a powerful transformation, too. I embraced my technological ignorance and became a learner, a learner who celebrates and relies on the expertise of her tech-savvy students. My practices, my philosophy, and my job will never be the same.