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Creating Classroom Community Through Digital Storytelling

From our earliest oral traditions to folk literature of the past, stories have been and continue to be an integral component of the human condition. Ong suggests, “narrative is paramount among all verbal art forms because of the way it underlies so many other art forms, often even the most abstract” (Ong, 1982, p. 137). Storytelling, as it is defined in this paper, is a “linguistic activity that is educative because it allows individuals to share their personal understanding with others, thereby creating negotiated transactions” (Egan,1995). Storytelling is an art form that allows us to communicate ideas and images. Jerome Bruner states,

The imaginative application of the narrative mode leads instead to good stories, gripping drama, believable (though not necessarily "true") historical accounts. It deals in human or human-like intention and action and the vicissitudes and consequences that mark their course. It strives to put its timeless miracles into the particulars of experience, and to locate the experience in time and place. (p. 13)

Shared narratives, in the form of texts, have been passed down through generations forming the stories that are often the basis of our collective social knowledge that we pass on to our children. The art form of storytelling has, until recently, been an interaction between storyteller and audience. Traditional oral narratives focused “not in making up new stories but in managing a particular interaction with this audience at this time – at every telling the story has to be introduced uniquely into a unique situation…” (Ong, 1982, pp. 41-42). The storyteller honed their craft by practicing and trying to gauge the experience of the audience.

Rather than supplanting oral and print based traditions today’s digital stories are enabling authors to utilize a multimodal approach in creating and telling their stories. Jay David Bolter author of Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print describes remediation as a process where a modern medium borrows and reorganizes elements of an older medium in turn changing its cultural dynamic (Bolter, 2001, p. 23). Bolter also suggests that “[d]igital media claim to achieve greater immediacy and authenticity by integrating images (and sound) with prose” (Bolter, 2001, p. 47) The following discourse will look at the real world impacts of integrating a digital storytelling model within a grade seven class’ writing curriculum.

The digital video format allows students to develop personal narratives within a supportive classroom framework that will promote community amongst peers. Learners will have the advantage of developing the ability to distinguish what information is required and relevant through a peer editing process that enables opportunities for scaffolding i.e., providing support that facilitates students’ acquisition of desired learning outcomes. "[A] healthy amount of connected behaviour within a learning community is a very powerful stimulant for learning, not only bringing people closer together but promoting deeper reflection and re examination of their existing beliefs" (Siemens, 2004[1]). The digital format allows learners to select from the personal stories of themselves and others while making connections necessary to internalize learning outcomes.

About the Learners

As has already been discussed, the art of storytelling and story creation is a universal human quality. Is not one of the Internet’s biggest social and economic success stories a running autobiography? The popularity of Facebook and other social networking sites demonstrate the inherent need for individuals to have their stories heard. “An entire genre of Web services has emerged solely for connecting people to each other based on their interests and personality, including: Friendster[2], MySpace[3], FaceBook[4], and Flickr[5]” (Alexander, 2009, p. 150). “Millions of people use Facebook everyday to keep up with friends, upload an unlimited number of photos, share links and videos, and learn more about the people they meet” (Facebook, 2009). This fascination with telling one’s story and creating dynamic depictions with technological enhancements is very much in tune with where intermediate students are at in regard to their social and cognitive development. Specifically, the group of learners this paper is examining are students in grade seven. “This group of learners is typically egocentric. They love to talk about themselves and their many opinions” (Gibbs, 2001).

This age group is beginning to look outside themselves and consider how other people think and feel. They have a well-defined trust system, and a strong sense of fairness and social consciousness. They are often witty and have a good sense of humour. This group of students is in a new stage of their development as they are experimenting with new roles and values. Their peer group is very important to their sense of self worth, and a strong motivator to their learning (National Middle School Association, n.d.) Through engaging in a writer’s workshop model of digital storytelling, this age group’s love for talking about themselves will encourage inclusion, influence, and community through the stories they tell.

Intentions and Positions

According to Hannafin and Land (1997) technology-enhanced, student-centered, learning environments or TELEs “emphasize constructing personal meaning by relating new knowledge to existing conceptions and understandings; technology promotes access to resources and tools that facilitate construction” (p. 170). The main objective behind creating this technology enhanced learning environment (TELE) is to provide a platform in which students can actively create a community of learners promoting artistic creativity, technology skills and community through digital storytelling. “A culture is created through communication and it is not so much the events that are told in the stories, but the telling of stories that builds the culture and community” (Marshall, Taylor & Yu, 2004, p. 45).

Carol Doyle-Jones, author of Story-Dialogue: Creating Community Through Storytelling, recognizes the importance of having students create and share stories within her classroom. “I noticed subtle changes in the tone of the class. Talking about the issues brought us closer together as a group and a sense of community continually evolved…” (Doyle-Jones, 2006). This is a core value embedded within digital storytelling; the ability to create, nurture, and evolve students’ understanding and empathy of one another.

The power of storytelling is that it is a universally recognized medium with the “…ability to create empathy and build relationships between different people and communities by connecting both the storyteller and the listener within a common narrative” (Third World Majority, 2002[6]). Having students work through the digital storytelling process: Living Inside Your Story, Unfolding Lessons Learned, Developing Creative Tension, Economizing the Story Told, Showing Not Telling, and Developing Craftsmanship through a writer’s workshop framework that involves peer editing and collaboration will encourage students’ social and emotional growth in a respectful and mutually beneficial forum (DigiTales, 2009).

We have entered an era of storytelling that allows a transition from storytelling as a traditional oral pass-time, through printing press, and have now entered the realm of digitization. Bernajean Porter (author of DigiTales[7]) notes that "digital storytelling takes the ancient art of oral storytelling and engages a palette of technical tools to weave personal tales using images, graphics, music, and sound mixed together with the author's own story voice" (Porter as cited in Salpeter, 2005,). Not unlike traditional storytelling methods, digital storytelling recognizes the importance of a student's voice and enables “storytellers…to take control of their own story, and tell it in a way that has not been possible before the advent of multimedia approaches…” (Marshall, Taylor & Yu,2004,p. 44).

Through the enriching platform of technology, students will be able to develop and give life to their own stories as well as learn to value, share, and ultimately collaborate on others' stories. Students will develop a sense of community, which will extend into their daily lives within and outside of the school environment. As aforementioned, students will be guided by the DigiTales’ outline for their digital story creations.

In The World of Digital Storytelling the author Jason Ohler points out a seemingly obvious fact but one that could possibly be overlooked given the ‘bells and whistles’ of the technology involved in digital stories. He suggest to “focus on the story first and the digital medium later; and use digital storytelling to enhance students' skills in critical thinking, expository writing, and media literacy“ (Ohler, 2006). The interrelated nature of these literary elements is something that was also express in the article Scroll to Codex. “The reading modes overlay and merge with each other. These are the modes of orality, writing, print and electronic transmission. They all emerge, persist and influence each other in a continuing, timeless dynamic of the storage and transmission of knowledge” (Scroll to Codex, 2009).

To this end, students worked independently, in pairs, and groups to develop an enriched storyboard (including graphics information) and a first draft of their script. The storyboards “help them efficiently organize the evolution of a story and keep it focused within certain parameters” (Chung, 2007). As well, Teresa Dobson and John Willinsky in their article Digital Literacy noted that “[s]uch advanced organizers or literacy supports are advocated because they enable readers to discern, variously, the organization of content, the extent of the text and their own location in the text” (Dobson & Willinsky, 2009, p. 7).

Students used Microsoft’s Windows Movie Maker to record their voiceovers; these had to be reworked several times before their timing and inflection were just right. While hearing one’s voice is often uncomfortable, especially to students who are at an extremely socially delicate stage in their lives, having the student’s own voice as the narration is immensely powerful e.g., please see the attached media file entitled Purple Dragon Don Jitsu.

Digital storytelling immersed students in constructivist storytelling that: encouraged and enabled multiple representations of reality, is an authentic task, fostered reflexive practice, is embedded in context, and supported learning through scaffolding, and a collaborative process (Jonassen, 1996). Immersion facilitated by the classroom teacher and peers, in correlation with exemplars, supported students’ continued development as young authors. Peer collaboration is of prime importance for building community within the classroom. Not only does collaboration encourage students who may not normally interact with one another develop relationships, it also recognizes and promotes the knowledge, skills, and attitudes students already possess.

Curricular outcomes were varied as they were designed to fit the needs of individual and/or groups of students. The British Columbia (BC) Ministry of education recognizes the importance of building community through their strategic planning for 2005-2008. "For the upcoming year, the Ministry of Education will focus on three key areas: literacy, health, and building community ..." (BC Budget, 2005). A key component of the ministry plan is to build literacy through community interaction. In addition the Information and Communications Technology Integration Performance Standards states “that students should use communication tools to collaborate with others to build personal understanding and share ideas…” (BC Ministry of Education, 2005).

While the creation of these digital stories enabled students to become more familiar with a modern form of communication it did not extensively tap into Web 2.0 technologies. “Web 2.0 is defined as a way of creating Web pages focusing on microcontent and social connections between people. It also exemplifies that digital content can be copied, moved, altered, remixed, and linked, based on the needs, interests, and abilities of users…” (Alexander, 2009, p. 151). Yet, as this paper suggests, the multimodal nature of digital storytelling, supported through a collaborative framework, provides a foundation for students beginning to immerse themselves in a Web 2.0 world i.e., they are more prepared for these online environments.

Key Concepts and Contexts

Storytelling is a tradition in many cultures and is not used solely for entertainment. Historically, stories help to define purpose, model values and behaviour, provide language models, and establish a need for co-dependence; this has been shown through the first digital story example and will be supported through the second. Stories give meaning and context to most of humanity’s endeavours. Digital storytelling in the context of this paper and its classroom setting focused on three major outcomes: inclusion, influence, and community.

In order for students to experience inclusion they must have a sense of belonging. They need a way to present themselves, to state their needs and expectations, and to be acknowledged. “If a person does not feel included, he/she will create his or her own inclusion by grabbing influence-attracting attention, creating a controversy, demanding power, or withdrawing into a passive belligerence” (Gibbs, 2001). Inclusion is an issue for everyone.

If we don't have a sense of belonging we are never fully comfortable to learn and grow. In the context of storytelling, inclusion means that all stories are valued and shared. There is no judgment. Rather, in order to successfully meet the needs of all learners, in particular historically disenfranchised groups, integration of technology within the classroom must be grounded in a holistic pedagogy that recognizes students’ cultural diversity and unique needs e.g., please see the attached media file entitled GLOP!

Following these pedagogical principles, the class consistently reviewed peer-editing procedures with explicit instruction on providing constructive criticism. Through following this model students built upon their social and literary skills reinforcing a sense of common purpose and inclusiveness. In connection, the classroom teacher provided scaffolding opportunities for students that in turn supported their successes and ultimately targeted their zone of proximal development (ZPD[8]).

Influence, the second outcome, means sharing leadership and valuing differences. We must all feel like we can influence the group in order to have a sense of community. In the context of storytelling, it means respectful turn taking, active listening, and tolerance. Sometimes influence is sharing a story, sometimes it is commenting on a story and sometimes it is a poignant silence. Influence included shared goal setting, and problem solving. Following the class’ etiquette for writer’s workshop was one of the keys in helping to build and maintain a circle of influence.

The third outcome is the product of the first two, community. Community has been defined as "support from people who share common joys and trials" (Brown, 2001). It involves building social skills, sharing responsibility, constructive thinking, and celebrating our achievements. Through the process of creating their digital stories students embraced their differences, recognized similarities, and developed mutual understandings that helped support and promote a sense of community.


From the first stories told around a campfire on the African plains, to Greek poets reciting an epic battle from the Iliad, or a running narrative on Facebook, stories and their significant roles within society are as prolific and meaningful in the twenty-fits century as the first. As has been demonstrated, how stories have been told has certainly changed with evolving technologies and yet as Bolter notes this change is less an end to an older format but rather a natural extension or “remediation” of the format (Bolter, 2001).

It is with this in mind that I engage my past and present students. Digital storytelling is a natural extension of print media. Not only are the technologies involved in digital storytelling exciting and multimodal by nature they are also enabling connections that go beyond what traditional static text is able to offer. As well, I believe it is my professional obligation as an educator to ensure I am able to actively teach my students to become proficient with resources they will use in society at large. At the same time, I need to be open to a reciprocal process where I am the one being taught; in the case with emerging technologies this is happening more and more these days.


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