Using Digital Stories in the Writing Classroom

Cathleen Rowley

Sometimes I obsess over writing assignments I create for my classes. Should I use a novel or story or essay for a text analysis assignment? What is the best way to explain the researched argument and how many parts should I break the assignment into? But for my WRT 303, the personal essay class, I know my final assignment is going to be a digital story. The digital story is a short film that can combine videos, photographs, music, sound effects, and narration. It’s an assignment that I think has a lot of value for the student in that it is a new and compelling approach to the personal essay.

In WRT 303, the subject of the course is  the personal essay. The assignments I use in my course include short informal writings, two longer personal essays, a personal statement and a digital story. A digital story can be used for other purposes–such as arguments or informational pieces, but I will be discussing using it for personal essays. In an earlier post on this blog, Rita Nezami provided compelling  reasons to teach the personal essay.  The personal essay itself is a somewhat ambiguous form and can take many shapes. In the introduction for The Art of the Personal Essay, it takes Phillip Lopate thirty-two pages  to try and define exactly what constitutes a personal essay.  One of the points  Lopate makes is that, “the essayist attempts to surround a something–a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation–by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the heart of the matter” (xxxviii). His idea of getting at the subject from different angles ties in neatly to the digital story. The story can include images, text, narration, and music–all of which can help lead to the center or the heart of a story.

When originally planning my 303 course, I was influenced by Cynthia Davidson and Kristina Lucenko who were using digital stories in their classes. They were generous in sharing ideas and examples. There are also links at Writing@Stonybrook  for digital storytelling. which includes a digital storytelling subject guide from the library. To create the stories, students use iMovie or Windows Moviemaker  which are free programs. I schedule library  workshops for sessions on an introduction to digital stories and an introduction to Audacity (a free program for sound).

It is not difficult to make a digital story that looks professional. iMovie and Moviemaker keep becoming more user friendly and make  it easy to make something that looks like a legitimate movie–fade-ins and Ken Burns effects (panning  across images) and titles and transitions. But the films are  completely empty without some kind of intent behind them.

And this is where the writing class comes in. Teaching how to create digital stories  doesn’t turn our class into a filmmaking class. Instead, it gives us an opportunity to talk about issues we have already been considering in class, such as the effects of organization or tone or word choice. Or,  we might consider how to move a story beyond being a journal entry and towards something that readers (and now viewers) will find meaningful. Sometimes we talk about universal human experiences and how a writer is reflecting on those experiences. And  we talk about  using a distinctive voice that sets you apart from other writers. These goals are present in all of the essays assigned, but they take on different meanings in the digital stories.

Digital stories add new layers to personal essays and raise additional questions. What happens when you spend more time lingering on certain images? What is the role of silence and what effect does it have? How do different types of music change the mood or tone of the story? How do you use text in an interesting way and not just to repeat what is shown in an image?  How do you read the narration and which words might you emphasize? How do you bring the story to a satisfying conclusion?

Using digital stories for personal essays encourage students to think of concepts used in writing essays in new ways–concepts like audience or voice can be seen in a new light. There are some technical issues unique to digital stories that may come up: narration too loud or soft, or pacing too fast or slow. The assignment requires scaffolding with different due dates for various parts: script, simple storyboard and so on so that students don’t wait  until the last minute to create their work. With the assignment sheet handout I give a list of components that factor into assessment:  a simple rubric that covers aspects unique to the digital story such as pacing and narrative. In a recent article in Computers and Composition Online, Shyam Sharma proposes his own method of assessment for digital stories with a rubric.  Still, there can be other difficulties that come with any form of writing such as generating an idea or deciding what kind of examples to use or how to conclude. It is challenging but satisfying for the students  to figure out solutions, and peer reviews and multiple drafts play a big part.

At the end of this post, I have linked to two examples of digital stories, In the first example, Sabrina started from a story. In a lead-up exercise to the personal statement, I have students do a freewrite that is a sort of reverse-psychology exercise: write about how boring and ordinary  you are. Sabrina liked what she came up with and adapted it to a digital story. She wrote her story  and looked for photographs to illustrate her points after the script was completed.

In the second example,  Elizabeth started from pictures. Her story  came from a question: why did she keep returning to waterfall pictures when going through her family photos? Why does she enjoy visiting them so much? She also composed music that is heard in the film (a piece she had been working on prior to the class that seemed to fit with her story).

So why assign digital stories?They bring personal essays into the 21st century. In an article on multimodal composition, Cynthia Selfe and Pamela Takayoshi give compelling reasons to have students create multimodal texts when they say, “In an increasingly technological world, students need to be experienced and skilled not only in reading (consuming) texts employing multiple modalities, but also in composing in multiple modalities, if they hope to communicate successfully within the digital communication networks that characterize workplaces, schools, civic life, and span traditional cultural, national, and geopolitical borders ”(3).

Digital stories are a way of expanding the essay form in  the writing classroom and I plan on finding ways to keep using them. For the future, I am also considering ways to incorporate them into WRT 102, possibly in the form of visual arguments or a PSA.  There’s value for my students and value for me as well since it encourages me to rethink and reconsider my ideas about composing and the forms essays can take.

First student example: Sabrina’s story on cultural identity.

Second student example: Elizabeth’s story on  waterfalls .

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One Response to Using Digital Stories in the Writing Classroom

  1. klucenko says:

    Thanks so much for the post, Cathleen! The digital story assignment is a favorite in my WRT 303, too. Your link to the Selfe and Takayoshi chapter articulates really well why students need skills in *creating* multimodal texts (and not just consuming them). This semester I also asked students to upload sounds they create and/or record to SoundCloud, an audio-sharing platform ( This way students are not only “borrowing” content, but also contributing to a community of creators.

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