5 Ways to Use Digital Storytelling with Your Students

By Kyleen Gray

If slews of Google Document essays and hours of Zoom oral presentations are feeling less and less bearable–you are not alone! As many North Americans approach the one-year mark of pandemic-induced school closures, remote learning fatigue is very real. Whether you’re teaching online, in a hybrid classroom, or in-person but behind masks, the time has never been better to introduce a fun and digital-friendly presentation format into your classroom.

Digital stories are short films (under 5 minutes) that present a central topic, idea, or conflict through images, narration, and sound. With simple and accessible video creation programs like imovie and Wevideo, this format has become an increasingly popular genre of communication. Even celebrities like the late Kobe Bryant have chosen to express themselves through this creative outlet. Prior to his untimely death, Bryant won an Oscar for his digital story Dear Basketball.

There are many digital movie making programs available. If you and/or your students are Apple users, iMovie is a no-brainer. The “trailer feature” of iMovie also works well as a layout for students to start with. When my students do not have access to Apple devices, my next choice is WeVideo. It’s a free application that is Google compatible (so students can sign up with their Google accounts). WeVideo is also user friendly and offers educator and school accounts that are reasonable in price. 

To introduce students to digital storytelling, start by checking out a website like StoryCenter, where students can find plenty of examples of digital storytelling. I also like to share some of my favorites: Dear Basketball, My Grandfather: The Mystery,  and Progression. You can then walk through the process of creating a digital story as a class, and can even assign a “practice” digital story so that your students have a chance to play around with the tools available to them before using this format for more significant assignments.

The digital storytelling creative process should look something like this: brainstorm; create a storyboard; write a script; record the narration; and add images and sound/special effects. When the project’s due date comes around, host a “Film Festival” in which students can share their digital stories with the class! I even invite special guests and give out awards for best soundtrack, best film, best special effects, etc.

If you’d like to save yourself the time of creating the handouts required to bring this idea to life in your classroom, check out my unit on Digital Storytelling on Teachers Pay Teachers. 

I’ve used digital stories for various projects with my ELA classes ranging from grades 7-12, but this versatile tool could be adapted for younger students as well, and for almost any subject matter!  Below I share the five ways I’ve used digital storytelling successfully in my classroom.

1 – Digital Story as a Product after an I.B.L. (Inquiry Based Learning) Task

In this version of the digital story assignment, students use digital storytelling to track their I.B.L. process and learning instead of using a notebook or teacher conferencing method. Check out an example assignment of this process: I.B.L. Digital Story Assignment.

I’ve found that students love this creative outlet as a visual showcase of their I.B.L. work. They are also significantly more entertaining to watch than 30 oral presentations!

2 – Digital Story as a “Farewell” Keepsake

I’ve recently started assigning my grade 12 ELA students the task of writing and producing digital stories titled Dear Lively High as a senior tribute and keepsake. I also grade them for media product creation, oral communication, and script writing.

They’ve turned out so well that my principal has started using them as school promotional items, and we’ve even showcased excerpts at graduation ceremonies.

What’s best is that students are engaged and thoughtful about their work and they have a beautiful story about their high school experience to look back on one day.

3 – Digital Story as a “Letter” to Something Important

Similar to Kobe Bryant’s Dear Basketball, I ask students to write and produce a digital story addressed to something important in their own life. 

In the past, topics have included: “Dear Fishing,” “Dear Grandma,” and “Dear Part Time Job at Walmart”–that was a funny one! Students’ stories range in tone from serious and deeply meaningful to humorous and sarcastic.

Since students select their topic and it holds meaning for them, they are engaged with their work and are interested in telling their story.

4 – Digital Story as a Goal Setting Commitment

I love goal setting, and it’s something I ask my students to practice on a regular basis. In this version of the digital story assignment, students create a digital story about their personal short- and long-term goals for a semester, school year, or beyond.

I ask students to write a script as a “letter” to themselves, in which they make a commitment and detail their goals as well as their reasons for wanting to achieve them.

After submission, I ask students to regularly view their “goal commitments.” I’ve had many students comment that this practice has given them the motivation to stay on track and accomplish their goals! Since ‘metacognition’ is a central part of my Language curriculum in Ontario, this goal setting activity also satisfies this curriculum expectation.

5 – Free Choice Digital Story Assignment

At times, I’ve also allowed students “free choice” from the below list of topics for their digital story assignment:

· an important historical or personal event

· an historical figure or important person in your own life

· a ‘how to’ video

· exploration of a particular idea/topic/question/concept through visual medium

· a mystery (real or imagined)

· a public service announcement about an important issue

· virtual exploration of an interesting place

· bringing your own poem or short story to life as a digital story

· a personal realization

· writing a letter to someone or something

· re-writing or modernizing a fairy tale or other famous short story, then presenting it as a digital story

· the dangers/beauty/fear of____________

· What I’ve learned about____________

Really, the list could go on and on. The digital storytelling format is as malleable as the traditional essay or oral communication assignment. When assigning a “free choice” option, I’m looking to teach and assess oral communication and media skills, and am less concerned with the topic presented to satisfy those curriculum requirements.

Have I convinced you to work digital story assignments into your classroom? Try them out! Your students will thrive with a new and fun way to communicate thoughts and learning, and you’ll thoroughly enjoy watching their final products…much more than grading a pile of essays!

Kyleen Gray is a teacher and literacy program leader at a small, rural school in Ontario, Canada, with 14 years of teaching experience both in the classroom and on e-learning platforms. Her teaching style focuses on using 21st-century teaching methods, literacy development, and cross-curricular learning.

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