Coming Full Circle to Digital Literacy

Personal narrative has traditionally been used as a starting point for writing in first year English composition classes. Student writers can be motivated by the opportunity for self-reflection, and personal narrative can be used to introduce a critical examination of ideas about identity, experience, and culture. From this entry point the FYC course usually progresses to more formally structured genres of academic literacy including expository, analytical, and persuasive essays. With the omnipresent reality of the Internet and other networked technologies, digital literacy has taken on growing importance in preparing students for full participation in society and the professional world.

But how can this increase in pedagogical scope beyond traditional alphabetic literacy be achieved while at the same time meeting the needs of basic or developmental writers? In coming back full circle to the personal narrative there is opportunity for expanding into the realm of multi-media technology while at the same time returning to a fundamental grounding in the voice and written word.

With roots in oral tradition, digital storytelling is deeply and fundamentally personal, dealing with turning points and transformation, social construction and self-realization. In their journal article, “Crafting an Agentive Self: Case Studies of Digital Storytelling,” authors Glynda A. Hull and Mira-Lisa Katz quote Ochs & Capps (1996, 2001) in stating that “There is abundant research on narrative and the important role that narratives of self—stories about who we have been in the past and who we want to become in the future—can play in the construction of agentive identities” (44).

Typically, digital storytelling takes place in a workshop setting in which participants share ideas in a story circle and go on to write scripts that are revised for narrative efficacy and edited to fit a concise format of around two to five minutes in length. Then, over the span of approximately two days, recordings of voice narrations are made, photographs and other artifacts are scanned, images are pulled from the Internet, music is recorded and laid underneath, text may be inserted to highlight special points, and the result is pulled together into a short digital movie.

The movie making process, with its simple, yet multi-modal format, provides an immersive engagement with the act of meaning-making. Technology is embraced and manageably learned. In the space of a few days a story is composed that foregrounds the author’s authentic and original voice. It can be put on the Internet and shared with friends, family, classmates, or people from around the world.


9 comments on “Coming Full Circle to Digital Literacy

  1. Hi, Richard. Are you pursuing this topic for your research project? It sounds intriguing!

    In the course I designed in 710 this semester, I start with the literacy narrative, but the final writing assignment also asks the students to incorporate storytelling, although not multi-modal storytelling. This also reminded me that in my first-year composition course, my professor ended with a memoir assignment. I’m not sure of her rationale.

    I love this idea, but I have a couple clarifying question. What guidelines will you give students for selecting the story? Also, how will you ensure that all students have access to the necessary technology to make the short film?

  2. Sounds like an interesting research topic, Richard. I’m curious what you think of the topic because I remember earlier in the semester you were lamenting the move away from alphabetic literacy in a composition classroom. I share your concerns, and I wonder if there is a way to embed more writing in the digital storytelling assignments. It is obviously a fun assignment for students and teachers, but I worry how much student’s writing will improve with that kind of assignment. I’m sure there are ways to incorporate a lot of writing in this assignment.

  3. Richard, this topic is very intriguing, especially considering my personal preference for “alternative” assignments and ways of instructing. I like the idea of self reflection through exploring identity, culture and experience. I think this is a great forum for getting students to realize their own voice and the relevancy of their own voice, which could later on help them develop their own critical thinking mind, which is a goal I think most comp teachers have. I think there is some element of risk in incorporating digital storytelling and something so personal into the classroom because like Robert poses, there is not an obvious connection to improving students’ writing. I think some reconsideration would have to occur regarding one’s purpose as a teacher and with the class. If a comp teacher really wanted to tie the assignment back into a traditional composition assignment, perhaps the students could then write about an issue regarding identity and/or culture in the digital story. The students would have to consider the digital story they created, the issue, and how the digital process emphasized or highlighted the issue.

  4. I appreciate everyone’s comments and questions about how the personal narrative orientation of the digital storytelling format meets the the objectives of an English composition class. These are questions that I will want to address in my research paper on this subject. I will just post a few cursory ideas here.

    First, there of course is the writing of the personal narrative script, and this goes through an important revision and editing process. The writing process is reflective in terms of looking at meaningful events and experiences in one’s life. The process is collaborative in that it is shared, and in that way an awareness of audience and its attendant feedback is foregrounded.

    I’m also thinking about Wysoki’s ideas around the “materiality” of writing for digital media, and her expansion of that term to include just about everything one would care to consider in the scope of social, cultural, political, and yes, material contexts. I’m relating this to my reading of Kathleen McCormick and her perspectives derived from cultural studies, again with the idea that an individual’s beliefs and repertoire derive from ideologies which are culturally (as well as individually) determined. Additionally, my reading of a journal article, “Coaxing an intimate public: Life narrative in digital storytelling” (Poletti, 2010), has me thinking that I might question the established assumptions of the digital storytelling genre itself with its preference for closure and dramatic, audience-pleasing conventions.

    There are some other interesting, non-traditional approaches to the composition process which digital storytelling opens up: I’m thinking of the common initial process of pouring over photos or artifacts from one’s life and reflecting on them. This seems to me to present a useful perspective on the ideation process which is materially different from sitting down to a blank page with the presumption that one must immediately begin writing in order to have thoughts or form meaning. I think this might help us to remember that alphabetic language is a symbolic system for both generating and communicating thoughts–but it is just that: a symbolic system. Written or spoken language is not the sole ground of thought or meaning. I’m thinking of Watson and Crick’s 3-D modelling of the double helix, or Newton’s sitting under the apple tree, free speech protesters who wear duct tape over their mouths, etc. etc.

    It may therefor be useful to add a layer of student reflection about the genre and process of digital storytelling into the assignment mix for teaching a unit on digital literacy in the composition classroom.

  5. I’m curious, from where did you get the information about a typical digital storytelling incident? The story circle/workshopping experience doesn’t seem all that typical to me; most digital storytellers I know create in private and have a mostly-finished product before sharing it with anyone.

    • I should correct my statement to say that much of the spread of the digital storytelling movement results from the training workshops that people associated with Berkeley’s Center for Digital Storytelling have given to groups and organizations in various parts of the U.S. and in other countries. The story circle is a core element in the CDS training. Most of the literature that you will read traces the genesis of the digital storytelling movement and genre to Dana Atchley and Joe Lambert who started the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley in the 90s. The CDS site has a history of digital storytelling page.

      Here are a couple links to books about the process and the movement.
      Story Circle: Storytelling around the world
      Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community

  6. I liked your comments, “Personal narrative has traditionally been used as a starting point for writing in first year English composition classes.” I agree with you that “Student writers can be motivated by the opportunity for self-reflection, and personal narrative can be used to introduce a critical examination of ideas about identity, experience, and culture.” That is why I am going to use autobiographies and the autobiographical narrative in my teaching plans. I believe as others who have researched this subject for example:

    In a study conducted by Hamann, Schultz, Smith and White (1991)and in a separate study along these same lines conducted by Spires, Williams, Jackson and Huffman (1998). Both groups of researchers investigated autobiographical reading and writing and how it enhanced students’ engagement, reading and writing skills, and the understanding of literature.

    They argued that if students have not had previous positive experiences in their writing it is unlikely that their writing will improve. Both sets of researchers pointed out that as students engage with their reading they become emotionally and psychologically engaged through their writings. According to Spires et al.,
    “instructional approaches” were shaped by Bartholomae and Petrosky (1986). They described how they added expository reading and writing at the end of their course much like Bartholomae and Petrosky (1986). Spires et al. believed that “first year college students must discover and define who they are within an academic context.” They believed that to reach first year college students “that self-knowledge and reflection are essential to growth and development.” The authors believed that the students develop a “sense of self through autobiographical readings and writings,” (Spires et al., 297- 298).

    I like your use of digit literacy and I belive I can use dome of your suggestions in my future class.

    You wrote, “coming back full circle to the personal narrative there is opportunity for expanding into the realm of multi-media technology while at the same time returning to a fundamental grounding in the voice and written word.”

    I agree with you you also wrote “With roots in oral tradition, digital storytelling is deeply and fundamentally personal, dealing with turning points and transformation…” I believe that using your ideas mixed with the autobiography and the personal narrative can be away to introduce autobiographies and digital literacy to connect with students and then move them to more academic writing.

    Outstanding post! I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    Joe Ramos

    • Yeah, I think our interests in this subject are simpatico. I agree that the digital storytelling genre would would fit with your interest in autobiography. Here is a pretty in depth case study for using digital storytelling in the classroom to explore ideas around neighborhood home community along with gangs and violence. This is from a class in Richmond. The article, titled “Rethinking Composition in a Multimodal World” is featured on the National Writing Project website.

      I’m also going to check out the articles which you have mentioned here. Thanks!

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