Digital Storytelling Goes Hollywood

Digital storytelling already proves its worth in classrooms across the country, but when Joe Brennan took over a position at Wilkes University teaching a Digital Storytelling graduate course and the Discovery Education Network blog focused on the art, he made
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Digital storytelling already proves its worth in classrooms across the country, but when Joe Brennan took over a position at Wilkes University teaching a Digital Storytelling graduate course and the Discovery Educator Network blog focused on the art, he made it his mission to make it even more valuable. After a lot of research--studying new products, new tech, and watching the ways students and their teachers used it--he came to a conclusion: bells and whistles can make for a good design education, but the art of digital storytelling just doesn’t need them. Digital storytelling is at its most powerful when the immediacy of the project shines through a student’s perspective--not through some flashy special effect.
He did discover another angle to improving both the end product and the student’s experience--Mr. Brennan went Hollywood. He talked with T&L about a few of his simple-to-implement strategies to get the most from your programs and students.

Q. Many teachers are using digital storytelling in the classroom. How can seasoned educators in this genre polish their technique and bring their students to the next level?

Through Discovery, I connected with the American Film Institute Screen Exhibition program and learned how to bring Hollywood features to classic digital storytelling. First, I had to teach video grammar. All of those writing elements apply to a 30-second or 60-second commercial, movie trailer, or any genre that the kids recognize. You just teach them a few shots--close ups, extreme close ups, medium shots, reverse angle shots. Even little tips, such as: the reporter is the one who looks into the camera but the person you're interviewing never really does. When kids shoot their own original footage it looks recognizable to people who watch it.

Q. Do they get instant gratification by presenting a more professional piece without investing a lot of extra time and resources?

Their story just comes from a little higher place. It's not hard to do, you don't have to teach a reading class, just make them aware of the shots. Then they become better consumers of information when they’re watching commercials and TV shows and movies. They appreciate how well the story might be told visually…and might pick up a little quicker on when they're getting snowed.

Q. Can better tech offer an edge?

There’s really no middle, you either go with the free software available for download-- Macintosh I Movie for Mac, MovieMaker, Photostory for PC. If you wanted to get really fancy with your audio, you’d get Audacity--or go to the top with things like Final Cut on a Mac or Adobe Premiere to make feature-length movie or TV shoes. What comes for free can be put on a cable access or school website, it’s more than adequate.x

Q. So is there a place for special effects or are you a purist when it comes to telling the digital story?

Sure, you can make a voice sounds like ‘The Chipmunks’ or ‘Darth Vader’ and that’s great. But you see these PowerPoint’s that are full of transitions and short on content or anything you can take away. We don’t want to do that in storytelling. If the special effects don’t advance the story, why bother? There has to be a reason for them and they can be done in a simple way.

Q. Can you share some of the simple special effects you use?

I love using the green screen to feature the kids’ own scanned artwork as background. The ‘Ken Burns’ effect which can be used in iMovie and PhotoStory on a PC, lets you move around a still picture. Black and white is a great way to show a dream sequence or a memory. Morphing can be as simple as adding a cross dissolve between two similar pictures. It’s also a way to bring movement to still pictures. You can do a lot when the camera remains fixed and you just cut pieces of time out. People only see what the camera sees and what slices of time you choose to let them experience. These could include “Beam me up, Scotty” kind of shots or ghosting where a long cross dissolve can make a specter appear. Reversing a clip takes a bit of planning but is a very attention getting way to make a point.

Q. How does an educator measure the success of this style of learning?

The paper transcript is not a good indicator, so it has to be something like an EPortfolio. One obstacle I hear is, ‘What does this have to do with No Child Left Behind, this isn’t on the standard tests?’ When educators dig a little bit, they realize it applies through all the standards. This is a great way for kids to communicate and share what they learn and increase their knowledge base. The kids just leap into higher-order thinking skills in spite of themselves.

-- Sascha Zuger


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