My First Attempt at Employing Digital Storytelling in the Classroom

Today, my students turned in their Digital Storytelling projects. I set the bar high for them and they more than delivered. I first learned about Digital Storytelling while at a Learning Conference at the American School in London. It was an amazing presentation and demonstration, presented by Leah Treesh.

My overall goal with this project is:

  • To help students to learn how to research topics, develop a topic focus, and to present material in a coherent, logical way to their peers.
  • Teach students to learn to read both text and imagery as it relates to historical topics (my pet concept as I’m a trained archaeologist).
  • To help students develop their research skills, especially to recognize and utilize reliable and informative sources (be they written in a book, an academic journal, a magazine, and/or an online blog).
  • To have students employ and exercise multiple senses and activities to promote understanding and retention of material. In ‘regular english,’ having them use visual, audio, and tactile skills in production they are more likely to remember what they learn.
  • To help students focus, hone, and develop their own time-management skills. This was a project that was intensive and most students were working 100% of class time and then working about 20 minutes in the evening. It required planning ahead and managing their workload. Waiting until the last minute would result in a timely investment at the very end.
  • To have my students push the envelope and challenge themselves not only with new material, but new tools.

I posted my lesson plan and project objectives at the beginning of the week. You can read up on that here: “Digital Story-Telling Lesson Plan.” Here were the written instructions that I distributed to the students:

We went over the instructions step-by-step in class. I also showed them an example of what I produced so that they could see a finished product.

I also developed a thorough rubric that emphasized the fact that the video productions were not about the “razzle dazzle” but the content. The students were given the rubric in advance.

We then went to a prepared library orientation where students were shown how to use our school’s resources for finding books and journal articles. Our librarian did an amazing job and the students were given an introduction on how to find useful information.

Our entire focus this last week in class (and as homework) has been working on the project – we have all been either in the library or the computer lab. Students picked their own topics of interest and then developed their topics. We hit some bumps in the road, but ultimately came up with an amazing product.

From some of the input I got from colleagues, here were some of the problems that I anticipated and tried to plan for as much as possible.

  1. Having to teach students a ton of new software and then play tech-support monkey. I can honestly say that software instruction and tech support was far more limited than I anticipated. I tried to pre-empt this as much as possible with my “Troubleshooting Suggestions.” Whenever a student asked me a question, I asked if they had tried one of the first few suggestions – most of the time they replied “no” and went to work on the list. They were, 90% of the time, able to solve their own problems and thus developed some self-reliant skills. Not to say that there weren’t any tech issues, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed and found that if I had several students with the same problem (e.g. how do I upload to YouTube), I could show one and then they would teach their classmates.
  2. Uneven access to resources – would all students have access to computers and internet outside of school. I tried to make as much time as possible for students to work in the classroom. Most of them still had to do some work outside of the class. However, due to the nature of my school, all of my students had internet and computer access outside of school. Still, I realize that this is not the reality for many educators.
  3. Some students will wait until the last minute and thus won’t complete it on time. Since this may require that they access software or information unevenly available (e.g. a program at school vs. one at home and vice versa). This requires a lot of time management skills that many teenagers do not have. This is a real concern as teenagers are just learning this skill. However, like adults sometimes they have to learn the hard way and suffer some consequences. My students know that there is a 10 point grade penalty for all late assignments. I had about 10-15% of students who did not have their projects completed on time. If they had a reasonable explanation/excuse then they were granted an extension. However, if it was a time-management issue they had to take the penalty. What I did was plan in a 10 point extra credit assignment. If they watched a classmates video (posted on our classblog) and meaningfully commented, they could earn up to 10 points. This rewards those who followed the instructions, managed their time, and completed their work in a timely manner but also provided a safety net for those who struggled so that they can make-up their missed points.
  4. There will be technical difficulties and some students won’t be able to solve them. This is always the reality be it making a PowerPoint slide or a video production. We didn’t have a lot of true technical difficulties – most of them were simple errors (like storing pictures in the wrong folder). Sometimes, students needed to do more research on how to use their elected program (PowerPoint seemed to be especially a struggle when it came to saving it as a movie). Even I can’t learn all of the tech elements of every program to teach them effectively. If a student waited until the last minute, this hit them harder.

In addition to planned hiccups, there are also unplanned problems that I had to deal with:

  1. A few parents were uncomfortable with their child having a public video on YouTube. Many parents are reasonably concerned about their child’s public presence on media. I had a few parents that expressed concern and I made allowances for their child to put their video on a flash drive and show their video without it being shared. 
  2. The power went out at 9am. Yep, power outage. Fortunately, it didn’t last very long. However, it reset all of the servers. So in my first period class we started about 20 minutes late. Fortunately, our tech team was on the ball and made a point to reactivate my YouTube access right away.Teamwork!
  3. Not all students have video capable bandwidth. This actually surprised me quite a bit. I assumed that everyone would be able to upload a small video from home, but I had a few students (about 2 or 3) that were unable to upload videos from home to either YouTube or our shared DropBox. I had them bring it on a flash drive to school where I uploaded it to YouTube (students cannot access YouTube at our campus).
  4. Sometimes YouTube is a jerk. If the server is heavy or busy, videos can take a long time to upload and process errors can occur. A few students had videos that were seemingly ‘stuck’ in ‘processing’ mode on YouTube. When they messaged me, the problem was generally solved by having the student repeat the process.

The next time that I do this project (and yes, there will be a next time) there are definitely some things that I will do differently. Likewise, I assume that there are some things that my students will do differently. Overall, the successes far outweighed the fall-backs. Also, I set the bar really high for my students and they not only hit it – they jumped over it. I was so impressed with their presentations; they were well researched, thoughtful, creative, and professional. Several of them told me that they felt proud that they had accomplished something meaningful – that they had challenged themselves and met it head on. I’m going to include a few examples here (but keep in mind, there were so many amazing examples that it’s hard to pick a few). Of course, not 100% of the students were thrilled by this – some I’m sure will be happier when we do our ‘standard’ research paper in a few weeks (or perhaps they will nostalgically look back on this project).

41 thoughts on “My First Attempt at Employing Digital Storytelling in the Classroom

    1. Jennifer Lockett Post author

      Thanks so much Dave! But really, this is a reflection on the kids – they worked so hard and really demonstrated their abilities and efforts. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was with the results of this project. I was trying to prepare myself for an epic fail, didn’t even consider an epic success 😉

      1. Jan Wells

        Hi Jennifer…….Thank you for posting your lesson, reflection, and product. When I was reading through it, I could soooo see my 4th graders doing this. Thanks again for sharing!

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  2. Michael Hulshof-Schmidt

    This is one of the best and most comprehensive lesson plans I have seen in over 20 years. Kudos to you and to your innovative pedagogical approach. You have put so much work into this, I wondered, do you have a life outside of school? I also love that your examples mirror the objectives of tying history and technology together, well done.

    The presentations on the Indus Valley are really quite remarkable. You continue to amaze and impress me. If I start another school here in Portland, I’m definitely stealing you away from your current school!

    1. Jennifer Lockett Post author

      Thank you so much Michael! I have such a deep respect for your opinion as an educator. I’m especially excited that you are not a ‘techie’ person and still find this to be a positive project! Thank you!

    1. Jennifer Lockett Post author

      They really did learn a lot about their individual topics. I was so impressed with them! This product was far more thorough and the students more invested than a traditional “research and present in class” project.

  3. Michael Hulshof-Schmidt

    Yes, I must confess to your readers that I am less than tech savvy. However, you have taught me how important it is to become familiar with new technology as an educator and you have helped me overcome a great deal of anxiety in using new tools available to me. I can only imagine how far ahead of the curve your students must be.

    1. Jennifer Lockett Post author

      One of my greatest educational moments was when I taught you to use Diigo and how to do the texting 😉

      My students were already ahead of the curve – now I hope that they have an even greater leg up. I told them that the next time a teacher tells them they can do a presentation on *any* medium they should do this. It will blow away their teachers!!

    1. Jennifer Lockett Post author

      I did! I also heard a rumor that you would soon be ditching your telegraph machine and that the ham radio would be next!

  4. David

    This is great. The overall structure looks good, and the final results are impressive. It’s definitely something I’d like to try with my sophomores, and your experiences and suggestions will be very helpful. I like the idea a lot, particularly as an alternative to the standard essay. I do have a couple of questions. First, how much time and effort did it take from the students? More than a standard written research project, or less? Also, what I like about an essay is that, if written carefully, it forces the students to go beyond recall of facts to analysis–making an argument, weighing evidence, etc. Projects like this don’t have a “thesis” as such, so how do you make sure they don’t just find facts and put them into the presentation in a straightforward way. How do you ensure analysis? Is “purpose” what you tell them to aim for?

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Jennifer Lockett Post author

      In this particular project, I was focused on having them learn to do research, synthesize and organize information, and directing a “purpose.” I intentionally chose a section about which most of them would know very little (as opposed to something like Egypt or Rome about which they already have a basic foundation). However, like you, I am also a big believer in the research paper. Our next step will be the 3-5 page research paper where they will have to organize a thesis and develop an argument. This assignment isn’t in lieu of traditional educational tools and projects, just in addition.

    2. Jennifer Lockett Post author

      Ooops, realized I didn’t answer your first question! This took my students about 5-8 hours total (in class and out of class time). Some a little more, some a little less.

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  8. kathy d shields

    I like the rubric. It’s clear and easy to grasp. I think I will use it with my 5th graders! You might consider adding just one more section: citations or references. Did the student cite their sources and credit their actors etc.

    1. Jennifer Lockett Post author

      Yes, the students were required the cite their sources at the end in MLA format. I’m definitely going to tweak the rubric for next time. Thanks for your thoughts and contributions!

  9. ncarroll24

    You really set the students up for success. Your plan was well thought out and easy for the kids to follow. I like the use of Dropbox so they could work on things at home and access them at school. Your rubric lets the kids know exactly what you are looking for. I’m sure they enjoy these projects and like Jan Wells above – I will be trying to follow your good model for my 4th graders. Thanks for sharing.

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  19. Heather Davis (@heatherd1951)

    This is a great idea. I will definitely share it with my teachers and change it a bit for the elementary level. I love it because I taught about Indus Valley for five years while I lived in China. Previous to that I had never heard of the Indus Valley civilization.


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