The possibilities for digital storytelling (DST) are numerous and ultimately limited only by the imagination of educators and students. Most digital stories focus on a specific topic (with a particular point of view) and develop through a mixture of computer-based images, text, recorded audio narration, video clips, and music. Digital stories can vary in length, but most productions for classroom use last between two and ten minutes. Here are just a few examples of how DST can enhance historical presentations:
Perhaps the first idea a student might consider when developing ideas for a digital story, a biographical presentation can nonetheless prove effective when producers wisely use diverse media elements. The key to an effective biography follows the same rule as any digital video production: technology serves a good story. Writing, therefore, is an essential element to DST projects. Communications specialist Jason Ohler reminds us that "committing a bad story to digital media is like giving a bad guitar player a bigger amplifier." As educators, it is our role to guide students in learning how to ask pointed historical questions, sift through resources, and judge which media elements augment the narrative and historical analysis.
Martin Luther King: A Biography demonstrates the use of a green screen to embed students into the historical narrative of the slain civil rights leader. Here, students become active storytellers and learn to become amateur historians through their selection of images, as well as their examination of primary sources. Biographies can also take on fictional forms, based on historical research, or in the form of a diary. The Fallen French Traitor is an example of how a fictional diary of a French soldier in the American Revolution can inform both the videoproducer and the audience. This video was a product of a 5th-grade student, but the applications are easy to see for students of all ages. Standing Up for Democracy in Burma is a more straight-forward biography that details the life of Aung San Suu Kyi: the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winning activist. For the youngest students, digital tools like ZooBurst and Little Bird Tales make DST projects possible. A Story About Ben Franklin, a digital tale created by students in Kindergarten and second grade, is a short narrative on why Ben Franklin is important. Using Little Bird Tales, these students wrote and typed their script, recorded their own narration, and uploaded both original artwork and still images. More importantly, they were able to control most of the creation process from beginning to end (only requiring help with scanning images and saving images to a folder).
A Personal Story
More than a biography, personalizing stories provides audiences with a narrative "hook" that says as much about the producer (and audience) as it does about its subject. In Fort Devens, viewers learn about the history of this retired military base and its place in Massachusetts history. Yet, the story presented here is also about the Fort's impact on the local community and on the lives of nearby citizens (including the video's producer.) Number the Stars, on the other hand, creates a history-based but fictionalized personal account of a Jewish child living during the Nazi repression of her people. In Survival, one educator shares her own experience teaching in a foreign country (Zambia.)
A Thematic or "Unit of Instruction" Story
Much like historical biographies, using DST to enhance the teaching and learning of thematic units of study is quite common. In fact, many professional digital stories typically center on large themes. Southern Belle, a production by ITVS and Nashville Public Broadcasting, deals with various themes and topics: Southern culture and identity, historical re-enactments, the Civil War, hands-on teaching and learning, and questions of revisionism or historical selection. Race to the Moon is a good example of how the marriage of images, video, text, and audio can provide an audience a compelling narrative on the space race of the 1950s and 1960s. Christy Keeler, a history teacher from Nevada, explain how a Teaching American History (TAH) grant allowed her to experiment with digital storytelling as tool to enhance the teaching of the Civil War. She concludes that the benefits of DST extend much farther than seeing a final product; instead, the process itself is valuable and the benefits of seeing how students are empowered by the medium make the investment in DST worthwhile. [Note:Civil War and Storytelling is a good site to explore how DST projects have benefited from the TAH grant for Nevada teachers.]
Historical analysis can often take the form of a newscast, investigative report, or even a "process" presentation (how the movie was made, making a DST movie for a grant or special project, reflections for student portfolios, or lessons learned.) I Heard Your Voices is a story about how technology provides students and teachers valuable resources for people with disabilities. In this story, various types of digital tools empower students with speech impediments. Botticelli's Primavera looks at popular interpretations of Botticelli's famous painting by art historians. It also examines the subject of expertise ("what makes someone a subject matter expert?") The format of this digital story is a fictional court case/mystery story. Digital Storytelling in the Classroom is a video that provides a behind-the-scenes look at how one teacher learned how to use DST in the classroom. It chronicles the growing pains and rewards that DST provides educators willing to experiment with this approach. Lynne Zelasak shares why she believes digital stories enhance the learning experience.
Stories of Culture, Place, or Events
Once again echoing Jason Ohler, a DST project is only as good as its story. Fortunately, a seemingly limitless array of compelling historical narratives facilitates storytelling in the digital age. Because technology has greatly increased our access to primary sources, DST producers can use the medium to provide a visually arresting analysis of historical events. An analysis of places and cultures also benefits from the layers of sensory information provided by the mix of video, images, and audio. When approaching my first digital story, I found the decades-long plight of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo a fascinating juxtaposition to the 1978 World Cup held in Argentina. Silent Voices introduces audiences to "El Proceso", an initiative by the ruling military junta to weed out subversive elements in Argentine society. Nearly 30,000 people, mostly academic youth and intellectuals, died in one of the most traumatic events of the 1970s. During this same time, soccer-mad Argentina hosted and won its first ever World Cup. The ecstasy and pain that gripped Argentina in 1978 seemed like a perfect subject for a DST project.
For a graduate course in Latin American History that I taught to middle and high school teachers, I encouraged them to use simple DST tools like Animoto to create brief 2-4 minute movies using images, sound, and text. The Great Exchange highlights the significance of initial European contact with the original peoples of the Americas. The creator wanted to experiment with a new medium and tool by creating a model project she could display with her own students. Another Animoto video, Effects of the Caste System, asks students to see for themselves how race, ethnicity, and power have developed in Latin America since European colonization. One more approach is to examine the history of a product, like chocolate. In Xocolatl, viewers see the significance of American products, namely cocoa and chocolate, for cultures on both sides of the Atlantic.
The five categories presented on this page are only a few suggestions on how DST can be used in a history classroom. A creator's imagination is the only real limit to producing original digital narratives. The role educators can play is to guide students in sound historical thinking and promoting higher levels of analysis in the process of transforming an initial draft into a finalized movie.