Digital Storytelling — Let Your Students REALLY Tell Their Story, Part 1

By Kristy Mall on February 29, 2012
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Are you looking for a way to spice up your language arts lessons? This spring, why not let your students write their own stories and create digital versions of them? By creating digital stories, students practice their language arts skills and create video masterpieces — and memories — to treasure for years to come!

Teaching students to create digital stories may sound daunting at first. However, I have found that we teachers are much more intimidated by the assignment than the kids. They seem to have been born with the ability to use computers and gadgets. So, as you continue to hone those writing skills with your students, have them create a digital story. Read on for step-by-step instructions for selecting a topic, setting guidelines, writing the script, and creating the images.

 

Step One: Choose a Topic

When students first attempt digital storytelling, give them parameters. The task, otherwise, is just too exciting and overwhelming. I like to choose topics related to something that we have been working on in class. That way, they can spend more time on the process and less on coming up with the idea.

This year, for instance, we created stories for a state digital storytelling competition with the theme of “If I Were President . . . ” In past years, I have had students create their own fairy tales, act out a poem of their choice, and present digital versions of their own short stories. After the first digital story, they are usually hooked. I have students request to write plays and stories for projects in every subject, and several past students have created projects on their own and posted them on their YouTube channels in middle and high school!

 

Step Two: Establish Guidelines

Decide how long the story should be, determine your requirements, and create a rubric for grading. I suggest that these first stories be 1½ to 4 minutes long. I also communicate my expectations very clearly: I expect visuals (this can be pictures, slides, or a video), narration, background music, transitions, and titles. I let students choose if they want to work with partners or by themselves, but I have learned that when students work in groups, there will probably be discord and a lack of productivity.

I like to show students short stories that either I or my previous students created, discuss as a group what works and what doesn't, and brainstorm techniques that would be effective in their own stories.

 

Step Three: Write a Script

Through experience I have learned that students normally want to find pictures first and then write the script. However, they have to write an outline or a script before they start searching for their pictures or getting ready to record. Otherwise, they will waste a lot of time looking for images. They show me their written version so that I can see that they have a strong structure. Questions you should ask are: Does it have a strong introduction? Are there good transitions? Does it make sense? Do they stay on topic? Is it well organized? Is their information accurate? At this point they often choose to research information to support their story.

 

Step Four: Create the Visuals

Allow students to find a format that they are comfortable with. Their choices will vary depending on what program and equipment you are using. Some of my colleagues have used Windows Movie Maker with great success. However, my school has MacBooks, so my students typically use iMovie or GarageBand for their stories. GarageBand allows them to talk over a still picture, and iMovie allows them to use either pictures or video that they shoot. This is a great time to cover a few keys to success:

1. Take care in setting up and framing photographs. Use the rule of three. Imagine that your picture is divided into three sections across and three up, and then balance your picture in that grid. Make sure that you don’t cut off the top of a head (a very common mistake!) or a body part and cause the shot to look awkward. Also check your background to be sure that there is nothing distracting (an open door, people walking by, etc.).

I take example shots for them to illustrate how important these rules are. These photos get a laugh from the students, and they really drive the point home. Also, if they are taking pictures with their laptop, does it reverse the picture? If so, don’t write messages or wear T-shirts with writing on them!

2. Research permissions for images. If they are relying on the Internet for a photo, be sure that it is in the public domain or that they have permission to use it — especially if it is for a contest. Wikipedia pictures are typically public domain, and NASA will allow you to download pictures for school projects. I entered a digital storytelling competition recently and used newspaper photos that I had written permission to use. In my experience, most organizations will allow students to use images for free for school projects.

3. Make sure that the photos you use are good quality. Nothing interrupts the flow of a story like a blurry or pixelated photo.

4. If your students are creating a video, DON’T let them just read a script. Have them memorize it or ad lib using a rough draft, and encourage them to be critical of their own performances. For instance, some of my students wanted to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" as part of their video. However, they kept forgetting the words in one spot and hitting the wrong notes. They had to practice for several days to really get the song down! They became acutely aware of each mistake and really wanted to make sure that they did it well. 

While the first story is a little challenging, this is such a great way for them to apply those excellent language lessons you have been teaching, so it's worth the time and energy. Continue on to part 2 to learn about the rest of the process, from adding sound to editing the masterpieces.

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