By Leslie Sherwood and Kara Mac Donald
Multimodal writing is commonplace in the online landscape. Articles of all kinds have print text alongside images, videos, and often links to other online resources. Students are constantly interacting with these multimodal texts throughout the day on their phones, tablets and laptops for school and leisure. It makes perfect sense to give students assignments that mirror these real-word texts. The author, Brett Pierce, advocates for middle and high school students to develop such multimodal texts to expand their literacies and share their voice. In fact, there are multimodal PhD dissertations. Although limited in number, even graduate education is embracing the practice as the academic and popular media publications are evolving. If higher education is coming on board, so should elementary and secondary education.
The Rationale for Making Digital Storytelling a Normative Classroom Practice
Pierce opens chapter one with an account of how he came to promote digital storytelling as common in the classroom and his professional background that effectively positioned him to go about doing that. Then he offers an overview of the history of communication and associated practices. In the beginning, societies were based on oral cultures and as economies expanded, where information needed to be recorded as it could not all be memorized, the impact of written language on society grew. Then, the printing press made information more widely available and therefore, knowledge was spread more easily. Next, the radio and TV brought shared knowledge and socio-cultural content to communities distant from one another. The next communication tool to change society was the internet, and subsequently mobile devices and social media platforms. All of these communication technologies have changed how societies interact and have increased the ease of access to information. Young children, not only adults, are active users of recent technology and devices from an early age.
The significance of this is that information today is not only housed in national archives and libraries, but in the cloud and accessible on our phones and other devices, even among children. Therefore, educators should be making use of resources available online to create digital multimodal texts, giving students the opportunity to structure their thoughts and build language arts skills, as digital literacy is as necessary as textual literacy. Additionally, digital storytelling fosters educational equity through building effective communication skills, increasing student engagement and motivation, and encouraging learners to share their experiences and views. Questions that may arise among teachers if not super tech savvy are addressed by explaining that there is no need to know how to use tons of digital production apps, as digital literacy places learners in a position to explore how to use the apps to create the content they want to share. Teachers prepare students for their future, but unlike in the past, today’s students will carry out their lives in an ever-changing context. Students need to be prepared for their future selves and their future identities, as this is a fundamental part of learning and growing.
Preparing Youth for a Culture of Omnipresent Change
Chapter two addresses what students need for a future of constant, omnipresent change, and that is 21st century skills, but this term often translates into a list that is not so meaningful. There are other terms out there: life skills, future skills, essential skills, or soft skills. The term the author prefers is human skills, as it suggests comprehensive openness and positivity towards continual change due to technologies’ impact. These skills translate into individuals being able to face challenges, identify patterns, be empathetic, engage in active listening, utilize delegation to accomplish tasks and draw on creativity. The chapter offers a human skill survey that teachers can use with students, as a starting point, but it is digital storytelling that develops human skills while also addressing curriculum content and negotiation of identity. Digital storytelling is centered on collaborative projects, requires use of the imagination, fosters problem-solving and decision making, which are derived from student generated content, and necessitates consideration of the audience.
Digital storytelling requires more than a command of the written language, as it entails effective use of audio, images, and music as well. The author sees visual and auditory cognizance as two additional necessary human skills, as they permit learners to express their story in a dynamic and engaging manner. Visual and auditory cognizance entail having an explicit understanding of how the world communicates through sound and imagery. The four types of sound in digital storytelling are explained: ambient, natural, foley, and pre-recorded sound effects, as well as three types of imagery: image captions, pictures timelines, image sequencing (photo-essay). Additionally, text and music are discussed. A large portion of the chapter offers suggestions and activities for exploring sounds and imagery to build students’ visual and auditory cognizance, followed by three sample digital storytelling projects.
Processing Learning: Research, Creativity, Development, and Production
Chapter three delves into the process of creating digital storytelling opportunities for students. Pierce begins by framing the chapter title "Processing Learning," within a series of current standards guiding American public education. Pierce highlights that digital storytelling is "about 75% process," and thus facilitates a number of skills that schools today are seeking to cultivate: communication, collaboration, inquiry, problem-solving, and flexibility (p. 45). Overlapping this with the notion that digital storytelling operates with a growth mindset aim, the author serves up an example project, shown as a transcript from a Zoom recording of students summarizing their project procedure. What is noteworthy about this example is how by relaying their experiences, choices, tensions, etc., we get a sense that the students were deeply engaged with the activity. This type of project is especially of interest given the increasing use of technology in which students could outsource some of their coursework, e.g., cut and paste from a chatbot, etc. The transcript documents the meaning making process of the students.
The core of the chapter, however, introduces and provides sample activities for the digital storytelling model, which includes research, creativity, development, and production. The chapter ends with a compilation of three projects, meant to span one to three weeks of work and suitable for language arts and/or history courses. One project example includes developing a Facebook profile for a historical figure of a student group's choice.
The Curricular Ecstasies of Stories and Story Creation
Chapter four begins by providing further justification for the salience of digital storytelling as a pedagogical tool for the 21st century. Then, the chapter outlines and describes the key components in such an approach: a hook, visual moment, sound moment, character, and outtakes. These elements are presented simply for instructors. For example, for a sound moment, suggest students integrate one dramatic sound into their project. For the bulk of the chapter, Pierce details common storytelling formats while outlining five narrative formats: game shows, commercials and PSAs, vlogs, radio dramas, and podcasts. A number of creative ideas are listed for the instructor, as well as three in-depth projects. One project of interest is a podcast in which students discuss a piece of literature through a lens, e.g., a Marxist or feminist one. Another is developing a commercial, where the author discusses making a debate style for or against the use of GMOs. While both projects could stand on their own, they could also be coupled with writing assignments, either as prewriting or postwriting, whereby students plan or recreate academic writing projects into multimodal pieces for a different audience and purpose.
Making It Happen in the Classroom…Seamlessly
In his final chapter, chapter five, Pierce responds to the notion that using a digital storytelling approach might be at least partly fluid/chaotic in the classroom for two reasons. First, he asserts that such a project-based approach empowers students. Of note, this point also aligns with the Freirean approach to teaching. Additionally, he argues that engagement is a precondition to learning and that this precondition is embedded within digital storytelling pedagogy because it makes it accessible through student choice of content and/or mode and through technology. Furthermore, many students are already familiar with technology and because it requires students’ deep exploration of the content. Pierce continues the chapter by providing instructors with two tested models. The first model is of a four-week project that challenges students to develop a novel horror scene based on their reading of Edgar Allen Poe's short story "Ligeia," while the second model covers a single class period, with a flexible lesson plan structure for working on a micro-aspect of a digital storytelling project. Assessment is then discussed, with a suggested rubric including mastery in the following domains: content, storytelling, digital, and human skills. The assessment tool is visualized in Figure 5-8 (pp. 139-140), with each assessment category broken into multiple criteria. Along with assessment, the chapter continues with strategies for further engaging students, including competition, inviting feedback from outside the classroom, showcasing, and sharing in a community public space for positive impact.
Pierce ends the books with a detailed interdisciplinary project plan, composed of a STEM, language arts, and history challenge. This is based on his son's senior thesis project, one in which visual storytelling is at the core. The project, adaptable for 8-12 graders, is based on the river, both literally and metaphorically For example, the STEM project involves interviewing science experts, conducting fieldwork, persuasive writing, and creating video. In addition to detailed lesson plans, tailored analytic rubrics and Common Core & C3 Framework curricular objectives are included.
Overall, it seems this book is a useful professional development tool for instructors interested in integrating multimodal learning activities into their existing curriculum or for birthing an entire course. Given the social nature of language learning, such collaborative activities would be most welcome in a language learning classroom, albeit Pierce notes that these projects can be also achieved by the individual. This digital storytelling pedagogy and the articulated ideas encompassed in the book would be especially suited for content instructors, in the middle to high school levels.
One limitation for implementing such an approach would be the possible comfort of the instructor with technology tools. While the author maintains that the students can learn on their own, some facility with technology–or at least a willingness and capacity to learn such tools–would be quite useful for an instructor to have, as we must be careful not to burden our students with learning not just content and language, but a new tech tool. Instead, we can invest some time to evaluate the most suitable tools, learn the basics, and then micro-teach them for students to use. Further, this limitation is offset by the fact that while some of the projects can be layered with opportunities for digital content creating and editing, students can also take a low(er) technology approach using simple recording of audio or visual elements. The authors are convinced that investing in the preparation for multimodal projects in the classroom will result in increased learning, as the projects are engaging and motivating.