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ENG 1020, Lesson Plans, New Media, Pedagogical Theory, Teaching Tech, Tips for Teaching, Uncategorized

Digital Storytelling in First-Year Composition

Image used under Creative Commons License.

Image used under Creative Commons License.

I can vividly recall stumbling across “The World of Digital Storytelling” by Jason Ohler in late 2008. I was on winter break and I was looking for an innovative way to teach a personal narrative assignment to my soon-to-be first-year composition students. To be sure, I taught personal narrative assignments many different ways during many different semesters; however, I still could not bypass the sigh of slight dread or the “I don’t have any interesting experiences to write about” comments that some students forwarded. Thus, I spent countless hours on two specific days Google-ing “fun ways to teach personal narratives,” “creative personal narratives,” and other forms of “how to” for personal narrative teaching and learning. Then it happened. “The World of Digital Storytelling” showed up in my search results. I decided to click on the link and to my amaze, the article was just what I needed! In “The World of Digital Storytelling,” Jason Ohler tells the digital storytelling experience of Kim-a 6th grade student in a language arts classroom. According to Ohler, Kim created an electronic personal narrative (i.e., digital story) that was “evocative and crafted with care” (44). Kim, took “most of the photographs and scanned in older ones, created artwork, mapped and storyboarded the story, wrote the script, narrated the story, and created titles and credits. She even produced the soundtrack, using music composition software geared toward nonmusicians” (44). The composing process that Kim engaged in made her an active creator instead of a passive consumer of a personal narrative (Ohler 44).

The Art of Teaching Digital Storytelling

I was looking forward to introducing this digital storytelling assignment to my first-year composition students in early 2009. As I was preparing for this task, I kept reminding myself of Ohler’s words, “teach students how to be storytellers”-traditionally (orally and textually) and digitally (45). So, I proceeded by making step-by-step plans for teaching this assignment-highlighting the importance of focusing on the story first and the digital media second (Ohler 45). It took me a few days to develop these plans, as I was attempting to help students understand how to engage with digital storytelling from beginning to end. I even developed my own digital story, so I could show students what this process could potentially look like.

In many ways, teaching digital storytelling is like artwork; teachers have to be willing to have a blueprint, a vision, and a design. In no means am I saying that a teacher’s “willingness” will make things perfect (in fact, when I taught digital storytelling for the first time in early 2009, I had quite a few trials and tribulations-especially in regards to getting my digital immigrant students to consider this task), but it will certainly make things a lot easier (and easier indeed things became the following semesters I taught digital storytelling-I even learned how to overcome most of the trials and tribulations; especially in regard to my digital immigrant students).

On Digital Storytelling and Student Engagement

As stated above, the first time I taught digital storytelling was slightly rocky. Some students felt overwhelmed in the beginning, but as this project moved along, overwhelmed-ness shifted to excitement. Instantly, students wanted to hear more about the process I went through to create my digital story, became actively involved in creating their own story map (paying diligent attention to how they structured their diagram), and became actively involved in creating their own storyboard (continuously ensuring that their story was in logical order). Some of the students even became active experts–always willing to share digital storytelling tips and tricks with the class.

On Digital Storytelling and Critical Inquiry

I also noticed students taking an active role in the critical inquiry process. They considered questions like:

  • What is my story and why is this story important to me?
  • How and where will I engage with narrative tension?
  • What type of music would be most appropriate for my digital story? Should the music remain consistent throughout, or should it change when shifts occur in my story?
  • What type of photos should I use? When and how should I use these photos?
  • By doing so, students became active participants of inquiry-discovery and partakers in media literacy.

In Closing

Today, narrative-based assignments are still a staple in first-year composition. Some teachers teach a written version of this assignment, some teachers teach a multimedia version of this assignment, and some teachers teach both-allowing students to choose which format they want to engage with. Overall, I believe digital storytelling offers numerous teaching and learning benefits. (Some of the benefits I highlighted here. For a more extensive overview, see Jason Ohler, 2005; Glynda A. Hull and Mira-Lisa Katz, 2006; Joe Lambert, 2013).

Works Cited

Ohler, Jason. “The World of Digital Storytelling.” Learning in the Digital Age 63.4 (2005): 44-47. Print.

Shenika Hankerson is a Composition Lecturer in WSU’s English Department, and a doctoral candidate (ABD) at Michigan State University. Her research focuses on the theoretical and pedagogical dimensions of a more humanizing education for African American students who use features of African American Language (AAL) to communicate. She uses a transdisciplinary lens to examine how educators – specificallu, rhetoric, composition, and literacy educators – can affirm and build upon these students’ linguistic lives.


About Chris Susak

For info about me, my research, and my teaching, please visit: www.christophersusak.com


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