Recommendations For Best Practice With All Learners

Authors such as Bernajean Porter (2005) and Jason Ohler (2008) have written extensively about a process for digital story creation. In addition to their protocols, I have found that the following recommendations have helped teachers implement digital storytelling in their classrooms.

Take a Learners' Stance

Start with the making of your own digital story on an idea similar to the assignment you hope to give to your students. As teachers of the language arts, we most often assign writing without taking the time to practice the craft ourselves. However, as one National Writing Project author writes: "Kids are awfully perceptive; they can see through phonies right away. Other years when I told them that writing was important, they knew I didn't really mean it. I never told them I didn't write, but they knew. This year it is different because I am writing and my students know it..." (Anne Ruggles Gere, National Writing Project Network Newsletter, February, 1980). It is the same with digital storytelling. What I tell other teachers who inquire about doing digital stories in their own classrooms is: begin with making one or two of your own. Experience for yourself the warts in the process, but more importantly, feel the magic that comes from the making of your own story and experience the intense engagement of attempting to perfect your story well past midnight.

Embrace New Literacies and New Technologies as Part of the Process

The teachers of today stand on the brink of a paradigm shift, and we do not yet know what waits for us on the other side. What we do know is that the next generation of writers and readers will discover new protocols and new processes that better fit new literacies. Even the researchers who are positing definitions of new literacy are using frameworks of knowledge that derive from traditional literacy standards. So, for example, Leu et al (2005) list three defining characteristics of new literacy: (1) that it is deictic (ever-changing); (2) that students need to master it to become full participants in their communities; (3) that new literacies involve multiple and often global perspectives. Clearly, each of these three defining characteristics could be applied to traditional literacies as well. We have not yet found the new eyes with which to understand what contrasts the new literacies from the old.

One of the most embraced elements of the language arts curriculum is the venerable "writing process." The process consists of the stages of pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. One of the major questions of those working in new media surrounds the relevancy of the writing process when working in multimedia. When we continue to use traditional literacy protocols such as the stages of the writing process within a new literacy context, we realize that the process at times becomes unwieldy and inadequate, but yet the frame still intuitively holds great value. The writing process also ignores two elements inherent in new media: the composing of images and the composing of the voiceover. Thus, it is up to the teachers who are working with digital media composing to re-vision each traditional process and to embrace new ways of doing things.

Another facet of using new digital story technology in the classroom reveals that it is rarely a self-contained system. Putting together a digital story entails digital photography and movies, audio file creation, the integration of multiple audio files, scanning of documents and objects, accessing image files from the Internet – in other words, the integration of multiple technologies synchronously. One of the greatest challenges I have had in my classroom and with other teachers is the most trivial, making the microphone work with a computer. One of the axioms of creating digital media is that the first time you use a new technology, expect the warts and expect to invest a lot of upfront time solving problems. Learn patience and perseverance. The second axiom is that our creative integration of multiple media and tools is the future of the field.

Finally, we, as teachers, need to find our footing in judging what is acceptable and what is not appropriate within student-made digital compositions. When we open the door to new literacies, we are also opening the wide door to adolescents' ways of knowing and expressing. I recently reviewed a digital story made by a young adult that contained edgy music, visuals that were hard and bold, and a voice that screamed a message of dissent. Unlike the butterflies and sunsets of many of his fellow classmates, this work contained authentic voice and angry emotion. How are we to value multiple perspectives of the world and how are we to accept authentic adolescent voices that may differ from our own? Yet, where do we draw the line with violence, explicit content, and anger bordering on disrespect?

Focus on Visual Literacy and Viewing: Create an Imagibox

If you access the standards for the language arts in your state, it is likely that you will see multiple references to the skill of viewing. The National Council for the Teaching of English states: "Standards for the English Language Arts presents a vision of literacy education that encompasses the use of print, oral, and visual language and addresses six interrelated English language arts: reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and visually representing." However, most teachers provide little or no instruction for students in how to read images, choose images, and relate images to layers of meaning.

Collecting and examining significant photos, images, items, icons, and objects begins the "opening up" process in the creation of the story. While many teachers see the images as following and supporting the writing and speaking in digital story creation, I see the "viewing" of images as parallel to brainstorming in the writing process.

Armed with a general topic and some subtopics on an index card, I send my students out for a week or two to collect from any source possible a collection of pictures, documents, objects, drawings, and other "things" that they feel are significant to the story without asking them to analyze the significance at this point. My students go hunting in family attics for old objects that surround the question, ask grandparents for pictures, search books for images to scan, go out into the community armed with a camera to take photos of abstract and real images, search in dressers for old documents (report cards, letters, handwritten stories, drawings), pore through library archives, and search online for images that they feel surround the story they wish to tell. I ask students to get a large crate or box to house their collections. They label the box "The Imagibox." On one class day, they bring their boxes into class and we begin the process of "viewing." I ask the students to spend about 20 minutes examining the diverse group of images that populate their Imagibox. I then ask them to tell a class partner about five to eight images that they consider most important; first by describing the image, then explaining the "why" of the choice. They also listen to the choices of their classmate. The students then individually journal about the contents of the Imagibox, writing to the prompt, "What is the connection among the objects that jumps out at you?"

By being asked to begin with the visual representation of the question and then to explain their visuals, the students are, in effect, paralleling the writing process stage of brainstorming or pre-writing, this time "Imaging" and "Pre-viewing." They begin to form the bridge between the real and the symbolic representations of the real. They start to notice details and to connect visual details with the language of detail that they will later use in their digital stories. They begin to formulate the main idea of the story and, most importantly, the "heart" of the story or the emotionally bound universal theme and mood that will connect the digital creator to his or her audience.

Plan in Detail but Be Flexible in Implementation

My last word of advice that I give to teachers new to technology is to plan in detail before beginning the digital story process. The addition of images, voice, and music as overlays to the traditional writing process creates an instructional complexity that can quickly overwhelm both teacher and student. Teacher friends who initially approached the digital story project informally found that the products they received from their students were "undercooked," as one teacher noted, or that a lot of wasted classroom time was spent in trying to organize instruction. A sample Unit Plan for a class of adolescent English language learners provides some sense of the complexity of planning for the instructional triad of content mastery, technology use, and language acquisition.

As experienced teachers know, in planning traditional instruction it is often difficult to calculate exactly how much time will be spent in any classroom activity. I have found that in planning technology projects in the classroom, chaos theory reigns. I have planned a 75-minute block to teach a software program that ESL students mastered in 25 minutes. Conversely, class has ground to a halt when half of the microphones needed to record the voiceover inexplicably produced error messages with the software. A word I give to others: always have a backup lesson plan.