Using Digital Storytelling to Teach Visual Literacy

People of the Screen


Screens are everywhere.  From chatting with friends to reading the news to (maybe) signing up for healthcare, we are interacting with our world through screens more and more and through traditional print less and less.  And, as the speed with which new screen-related technologies are produced increases, the shift away from printed text as a primary source of information is only becoming more profound. What this means for teachers is that our understanding of literacy- reading and writing- needs to mirror this change in order for us to adequately prepare our students to navigate intelligently through a world of screens.

To accommodate this shift, it’s important that we begin to think explicitly about teaching visual literacy skills.  Visual literacy refers to one’s ability to interpret, evaluate, use and create images and visual media.  As screens proliferate and take on more important roles in our lives, they dictate not just how we “read” information but, with the rise of new technologies which allow regular people to create and share digital information, how we “write” it as well.

In his NY Times article “Becoming Screen Literate,” author Kevin Kelly writes that the rise of screen culture heralds an important shift in how we interact with the world around us, similar to the way the invention of the printing press, “by means of cheap and perfect copies, elevated writing into a central position in the culture” and upheld text as “the engine of change and the foundation of stability.”  Only, this time (as Lawrence Lessig has also pointed out), it’s not just a privileged few doing the publishing.  The masses are picking up the tools and telling their own unique stories, and they’re not just using words to write.

More and more, Kelly argues, writing today means digitally remixing images and sounds selected from a vast cache (known as the Internet), much the same way an author mixes individual words in a lexicon to form unique sentences, paragraphs, and stories.

In fact, the habits of the mashup are borrowed from textual literacy. You cut and paste words on a page. You quote verbatim from an expert. You paraphrase a lovely expression. You add a layer of detail found elsewhere. You borrow the structure from one work to use as your own. You move frames around as if they were phrases…

As moving images become easier to create, easier to store, easier to annotate and easier to combine into complex narratives, they also become easier to be remanipulated by the audience. This gives images a liquidity similar to words. Fluid images­ made up of bits flow rapidly onto new screens and can be put to almost any use. Flexible images migrate into new media and seep into the old. Like alphabetic bits, they can be squeezed into links or stretched to fit search engines, indexes and databases. They invite the same satisfying participation in both creation and consumption that the world of text does.

His article is actually quite fascinating (despite being 5 years old!) and underscores the idea that teaching visual literacy is not optional or “fluff” content.  Furthermore, if we want to teach our students to be visually literate, it’s important to remember that literacy means fluency in both reading and writing, coding and decoding, constructing and deconstructing.  Whether we’re talking about traditional literacy (i.e. print) or digital literacy (of which visual literacy, media literacy, and computer literacy are often considered subsets), these skills are complimentary, and reinforce one another.

Writing Digital Stories

One way to develop students’ visual literacy skills is through digital storytelling.  Digital storytelling is just what it sounds like- it’s telling stories through the use of digital media. Telling a good digital story utilizes the same age-old storytelling techniques as telling a traditional story- it’s got to have a strong beginning, middle, and end, create an emotional impact, etc. – but the tools and the product are different.  Digital stories involve layering a narrative with images and sounds in order to create a direct emotional impact in the viewer, while written words can do this indirectly.  Reading the word “bird” requires a kind of mental “translation” that viewing a picture of a bird does not.  Asking students to create digital stories requires them to exercise critical thinking skills to write texts which utilize a variety of senses to effectively communicate a complex, layered message.

I recently asked my 8th grade ELA students to create “book trailers” for stories that they had read.  With this project, I wanted to see that they could take a story and whittle it down to its essence- identify the main characters and conflict- while using the literary elements we’d been talking about- like mood and suspense- to successfully capture the viewer’s attention and get them interested in reading the story.

First, the disclaimer:  This is the first digital story project I’ve done with these students this year, and the timeline was a bit rushed.  That being said, here’s the process we went through, lumps and all:

1. Research examples.  We checked out YouTube and found a ton of sample, student-made book trailers, of varying quality.  Students got together in pairs, selected three sample trailers, and evaluated them using a rubric.  (They were required to select at least one they thought was a bad trailer, and one they thought was good.)  Students added their own comments, and then met in groups to discuss common elements of good and bad trailers.  We made a list of these elements together as a class.

Now, this sounds like a really good activity- and it was- but it certainly didn’t eliminate a lot of the same mistakes from showing up in my students’ videos.  After watching their completed videos we talked about why that was, and they pointed out that it’s far easier to criticize than create.  True that.  Sometimes it just takes doing a thing to learn it.  I’m looking forward to seeing them apply these lessons to their next project.

2. Write a script.  Students wrote scripts for their book trailers.  These served as the backbones of their trailers, on top of which they layers images and sounds.  Writing a solid script relies on time-tested storytelling skills, and is one of the most important steps in the entire process.  Digital storytelling is still storytelling, and a digital story can only ever be as good as the story it tells.  Without a clear storyline or a strong emotional pull, viewers are left confused and/or disinterested.  In the past, I’ve spent up to a week on this step alone with students.  This time, however, due to time constraints, we kind of breezed through it, and I think it shows.  This is definitely a step worth investing some time, and requiring multiple drafts is a good idea.

 3Talk about copyright.  Since students would be using images and sounds they found on the web in their movies, which they would then be sharing with me and the world through YouTube, it was important that they understood which images and sounds are legal to use, and where to find them.  There are many resources available for talking about copyright with students (Common Sense Media is a good place to start), as well as resources for finding copyright-friendly images and sounds.  I introduced the topic with my students and supplied them with links to websites where they could find copyright-friendly material, but it didn’t quite sink in.  I got a lot of movies that (I’m pretty sure) clearly violate copyright law.  This is something I struggle with, as it’s difficult (and time consuming) to verify the legality of images and sounds sometimes, even with sources that are cited.  It’s definitely something I need to work on figuring out in the future.

 4Create a storyboard.  This is where the digital part comes in.  Students divided their stories into scenes, and then gathered ideas for images and sounds that could effectively underscore the narrative in each scene.  They also decided when they wanted to speak the words of their narrative (what they’d written in their script), and when they wanted the words to appear as graphics on the screen.  (Or, in the case of one video, when to appear on large, hand-written cards that the character holds up as they are spoken through a voice-over.)  I think it’s important to allow students to work on their storyboards as they search for material for their story, instead of separating the two into separate steps.  You never know what you’ll find until you start looking, and sometimes it’s the unexpected finds that yield the best results.  Once they’d settled on all of their images, music and sound effects, they recorded all of these ideas into a graphic organizer called a storyboard.

In the past when I’ve done digital stories, I’ve spent considerable time with students on discussing how a storyboard works- how it’s a flat representation of a layered text.  We talk about how to read one, and then I have them create one based on a video that we watch together.  It wasn’t until, again due to time constraints, I skipped those steps this time around that I thought, yeah, storyboards are actually pretty complicated visual tools, and I probably shouldn’t have rushed through explaining them.  Consequently, I ended up having a lot of one-on-one meetings with students to fix their storyboards.

 5.      Pick a tool and create! For this step, students were on their own.  They had a week over vacation to put their movies together.  Most used iMovie, although they were free to chose whatever tool they felt most comfortable with.  Fortunately, most of them are pretty tech savvy (or have brothers or sisters who are) and they didn’t express much concern about having to tackle this step by themselves.    The results, however, show that they could have used a little guidance.  Some students got carried away with the graphics, causing individual words to crawl interminably across the screen until they formed a complete sentence.  Others had sound issues, and others who opted to use live actors could have benefitted from some instruction in the art of lighting and costume design.  I think, were I to do the project again, I would ask students to peer review each other’s film before the due date, and then give them some time to fix issues.  After all, they proved to be highly skilled at critiquing other people’s films.

And that’s it!

Here are two examples of my students’ book trailers.  May they pique your interest!

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