The Strength of Weak Ties

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Digital Soft-telling?

Co-published at

Digital storytelling has been receiving a tremendous amount of play recently in the blogosphere and at conferences. You might even say it’s the next newest bandwagon (move over, podcasting! Here comes DST!). In my district, we have had a digital storytelling program for almost three years, with some phenomenal products being produced. During that time, we were faced, like most who are now initiating programs, with justifying such an activity against the pressure to perform on standardized tests.

We’ve come to grips with this by focusing on the fundamental premise that every activity like digital storytelling is grounded in a literacy that we believe in, and that those literacies can help students succeed in a variety of learning situations, testing included. In this case, two very important literacies are embodied within digital storytelling: writing and the ability to locate, interpret and use visual imagery.

Why do we do digital storytelling? I tell everyone this: it improves writing skills (it does and we have evidence) and it makes students more visually literate. But there is more. Something much more powerful…

So I’ve been watching the SITE conference in Orlando very closely because they have many presentations on digital storytelling going on (see the conference blog here), and also because Wes Fryer is there, which means I can expect a detailed and thoughtful blog entry about the various presentations he attends, and I can learn something.

One comment, buried in one of his posts, caught my eye.

(Don’t worry Wes, the comments to follow are not directed not at you but at whoever expressed them-I won’t shoot the messenger.)

Here it is:

This seems so “soft” to many academics and others.

Soft? You’ve never composed a digital story, have you? Until you have, you have absolutely no standing to make that comment. And have you seen kids do a digital story? Have you spent an entire day taking four pages of narrative to ¾ of a page? Have you seen kids use five software programs simultaneously when working on their story? Have you seen a kid do 21 redrafts to get their script right, without being asked? And have their teachers roll-up their sleeves and provide feedback on all of those, because it’s that important, but you know, that’s just one kid, and it looks like it’s gonna be a long night, because there are 28 more to go? Have you kicked kids out of a packed library at 6:30 pm because they’re staying after school because the story is about them and it has to be perfect, only to see the same kids lined up at 7 am waiting for the library to open? Have you seen senior AP Biology kids three weeks from graduation lose it because the project demands are that intense? Have you ever worked with a kid who is autistic who has had to record their voice-over, and does it? Is that soft? Or a kid that can’t find the words but is using a digital story to reconnect with estranged siblings? Does soft describe that? And have you ever sat next to someone who is confronting a life-threatening illness, and doing so by creating a digital story, who can barely get through the voice-over because of the emotion, and you have to get up and walk away because you just can’t find the words to console her?


That’s funny.

All of us must deal with standards-based education. It’s a reality. But when you don’t do things like this, when you don’t give kids the opportunity, when you don’t harness the power of emotion and creativity to do something great, then you truly have left children behind. Stop talking about it, stop making excuses, and find a way. That’s what we have always done, in spite of everything-and that’s what has always made teaching, and teachers, great, and capable of changing a life forever….

However, you can choose your content, because teaching the internal anatomy of flatworms is important. It might be on the test. You can choose to put kids in the nice, tidy 6X5 classroom grid, and everyone, take out your notes because what I’m covering today will be on the test! Oh, and pass in your worksheets from last night also. You can choose your multiple choice tests, your standards, and you can choose to find every excuse not to teach kids with something like digital storytelling, and in the process, avoid doing something great that potentially has a lifetime of value.

Now that’s soft.


  • At 10:45 AM , Blogger Kelly said...

    Great post. You have really hit the point. Do we want kids that can actually produce something (and work through the process of doing so), or do we want kids that can fill in the sheet, bubble, square, whatever. I have been working with kids for over 10 years on producing digital (sometimes analog) stories. I have those kids from 10 years ago coming back to me now and showing me work they are still doing. They don't talk about the math facts or english proceedures, they talk about the stories they told and the stories they are telling now.

  • At 7:13 PM , Blogger David said...

    My Dad was an art teacher for 36 years, I was a biology teacher for 15 and he always believed that his kids would still have that piece of pottery that they built in his class when they were 50. I didn't have much to counter with, science education doesn't generally produce some tangible product like that. However, since I have been IT Coordinator, I can now point to the digital stories kids create and think that they will still be proud enough of their creations to watch them 10, 20 years down the road (if the technology permits!). It certainly is a process that will give them a voice the rest of their lives. Thanks for the post.


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