Narrative and digital storytelling

Authors: Glynda Hull and JuliAnna Avila

To cite this article, use the following information:
Hull, G. and Avila, J. (2008). Narrative and digital storytelling. New Literacies: A Professional Development Wiki for Educators. Developed under the aegis of the Improving Teacher Quality Project (ITQP), a federally funded partnership between Montclair State University and East Orange School District, New Jersey.
Available from: http://newlits.wikispaces.com/Narrative+and+digital+storytelling

Glynda Hull: http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/faculty_bios/view/Glynda_Hull
JuliAnna Avila: http://storyagainstsilence.org

Welcome to the New Media Age

It’s a commonplace that we now live in an age in which digital technologies proliferate, and also that youth discover and learn to use the new tools almost, it seems, by osmosis. Mobile phones, ipods, computers, YouTube, texting, blogs, photo-sharing: many youth seem appended to new devices and readily conversant with, even eagerly enamored by, digitally-enabled forms of communication and attendant genres—these relying, it should be noted, not only on words, but image, movement, and sound. An important challenge for educators becomes how to build on the enthusiasm that youth currently have for such emergent forms of communication and expression in order to extend their repertoire of literate practices to include school-based forms, such as essays. An equally important challenge is how to incorporate new literacies into the curriculum such that school-based repertoires are extended and expanded as well.

The way that we have addressed these challenges has been to teach youth, across the age range, to create digital stories. Two to five minute movies, the stories usually begin with a written script that is eventually accompanied by images, photographs, artwork, or snippets of video; a musical soundtrack; and the author’s voice reading or performing the script. The still visuals are stitched together with an editing program through fades or dissolves or checkerboards or a myriad of other transitions, thus allowing the illusion of movement. Such stories shouldn’t be confused with the brief videos that are available on the Internet via YouTube. In contrast, digital storytelling usually incorporates video sparingly, and the arrangement of photos and other visual artifacts is usually quite a planful process, as we shall see below, rather than a serendipitous one.

Over the years, working with university and community colleagues to provide workshops and programs for youth, we have found that the digital stories created by young people and adults represent a range of genres and purposes:


  • Genres: Autobiographical Narratives; Poems/Raps; Social Critique/Public Service Announcements; Reenactments or Extensions of Stories, Cartoons, and Movies; Animations; Reports; Biographies and Interviews

  • Purposes: Offer a tribute to Family Member(s), Friend(s); Recount/Interpret a Pivotal Moment/Key Event; Represent Place, Space, Community; Preserve History; Create Art/Artifact; Play/Fantasize; Heal/Grieve/Reflect; Reach/Inform/Influence Wider Audience

Of course, many authors had multiple purposes, and sometimes the digital stories blurred genres, as befits their dynamic and evolving nature. In addition, for many young people in our programs over the years, especially in middle school, creating a digital story also came to include creating digital music as well, as budding musicians.

The Why of Digital Stories

Creating a digital storytelling program for youth requires, like any kind of teaching and program development, pedagogical, technical, and content knowledge. However, to create educational experiences for students that are more than isolated activities, tricks drawn from a bag of tricks, it’s necessary to wax theoretical and to ask why—in this case, crafting an explanation of how the practice of digital storytelling interfaces with our larger understandings of how children develop and what counts as literacy, or more broadly, communication in our current world.

One useful way, we have found, to theorize digital storytelling is to remember the power and purpose of narratives. 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 how we come to think about ourselves and how we want others to perceive us. These stories have been called, appropriately, “identity texts.” In fact, it is said that we learn to tell ourselves stories, not about what actually happened or the people that we are, but our constructions of the past and the people we imagine ourselves as having been or that we want to be. We learn to tell stories by listening to and interacting with our mothers and other caregivers very early in life, and we continue telling stories throughout the life span with a range of significant others. Of course, teachers remain very important interlocuters for narratives, but as youth gain access to larger and more distant and different audiences through the Internet, the influences on and respondents for their narratives of self can potentially grow as well. One reason, then, for our interest in digital stories is our interest in the power of narrative and its relationship to identity formation. We wanted to make it possible for youth to tell powerful stories about self and community, to experience being powerful communicators able to tell influential accounts that helped them imagine themselves and their potential and their futures anew.

Of course, part of the power of digitally-enabled communication today is its multi-modal nature, the ability to extend our use of language to include other systems of meaning making, such as sound and image. Like many other literacy educators, we think of 21st century literacy as including multiple modes, and a primary challenge facing teachers, learning to expand conceptions of literacy in the curriculum to include semiotic systems other than language. Becoming literate means learning to use the cultural tools that are the most powerful means of expression in a given age, and in our age, those tools allow the construction and manipulation of speech, written language, image, movement, and sound. However, there’s another, to us, more important reason for exploring multi-modality as part of what has traditionally been called “language arts.” It has been argued that multimodality is, in fact, our quintessentially human way of communicating, and that a reliance on texts alone has somewhat narrowed the meanings that we can create and convey. It stands to reason that making it possible for youth to tell important stories about self and community via multiple communicative modes is likely to expand the meanings they can convey and the impact of those meanings on their audiences.

Two Children’s Digital Stories: “My Neighorhood” and “My Life”

One popular kind of digital story among the youth with whom we have worked has been stories about place, in particular neighborhoods. One thirteen-year-old boy, interested in paying homage to his “posse,” constructed a story that pictured each of his many friends and named them one by one, but he also carefully demarcated their neighborhood, taking photographs of street signs and domiciles, and distinguishing the west part of town from the east. He announced his home turf as the best section of the city in which to live, far superior to neighborhoods in the east. A younger boy wrote a story about a trip to Alaska, contrasting its weather and other features with those of his home town. A nine-year-old girl, who had recently moved from another city, contrasted her new home with her old one, and expressed considerable longing for a quieter, more pastoral space to live than her urban neighborhood. This was, in fact, a theme that surfaced in other urban stories: the noise of the city and its lack of aesthetically appealing space. Another girl developed her entire story around the pleasures of visiting a particular place, her aunt’s house, where special privileges abounded. Connecting ourselves to places, assessing whether those environs make us happy or sad, secure or vulnerable, is surely a part children’s social and emotional development. We would also suggest that digital stories are especially fitting vehicles for children and youth to represent their lives spatially and that they have the potential to afford children and youth the representational means to see themselves in relation to places in new ways.

Jamal, a nine-year-old boy, created a digital story about his neighborhood that illustrates the power of multi-modal narratives about place. A minute and a half long, it contains seventeen images, each linked to the other by a lively visual transition such “opening doors” or “cartwheels” that blend one picture into the next. Entitled “My Neighborhood,” it is narrated by Jamal, while the jazz of Miles Davis—a cut from “Sketches of Spain”—sounds an exceptionally plaintive backdrop. The story is based on a well-known writing assignment about the senses: “Compose a poem in first person that reveals what you hear, see, feel, smell, and taste.” In preparation for writing, Jamal and his classmates participated in several preparatory activities, including a walk about the neighborhood, where they took note of what was salient to them

Here is the final version of the text of Jamal’s poem:

  • I hear the sirens of an ambulance speeding by.
  • I hear the sound of a car skidding.
  • I hear kids laughing at the boy who fell down

  • I see kids running down the street to the ice cream truck.
  • I see a brotha selling drugs on the street.
  • I see Asians walking up the street.

  • I feel the strong warm breeze against my face.
  • I feel the rough wall of my house.
  • I feel my shirt sticking to my back.

  • I smell the nasty aroma of urine.
  • I smell chicken from inside my house

  • I smell BBQ sauce.
  • I taste the cinnamony, sugary churro.
  • I taste the soft chocolate milk in my mouth.
  • I taste the dry air on my tongue.

  • I hear a car speeding by.
  • I know that this is a bad neighborhood.

These lines, though wonderfully evocative, make up but the skeleton of Jamal’s digital story; it was the blending of words, images, voice, music, and motion that created meanings that differ from and exceed what is possible through single or fewer modalities. For example, “the sound of a car skidding” was accompanied by images of an ambulance, a car, and skid marks on pavement, and “I see a brother selling drugs on the street” introduced an internet image of a dark-skinned man taking money from a white man with one hand and passing him something with the other. “I see Asians walking up the street” was illustrated by an image of a smiling family posed for the camera, father holding one daughter, a mother’s hand on a second daughter’s shoulder. And “I feel the strong warm breeze against my face” was juxtaposed to a photograph of Jamal’s smiling face, cut out and superimposed on an Internet image of a beach scene with palm trees. (See Figure 1.) An ode on place with images that powerfully contextualized the words that Jamal spoke, and a jazz soundtrack that strongly evoked a melancholy mood, juxtaposing musical sophistication and world-weariness with a child’s innocent voice, “My Neighborhood” could be seen as a young author’s reflection on place in relation to himself.


Figure 1: Jamal’s image representing a warm breeze against his face

Alexis, an 11-year-old girl, also used digital storytelling to capture both her then-current home in Renaissance Village, a FEMA trailer park, following Hurricane Katrina as well as her aspects of her former home of New Orleans. As a participant in an after-school program, Alexis crafted a digital story that is almost two minutes long and containing twenty-three pictures (To view the story, go to storyagainstsilence.org; for a complete description of this program see: Avila, Underwood & Woodbridge, 2008). The length of her digital story can be contrasted with an unassisted writing sample that she created in an email to a project staff member in California: “hi my name is alexis i am 11 years old and i am good at writing AREYOU and one more thing do you have a web sit you can writ me back sometime”. Formal written language clearly posed problems for her.

Alexis was especially transfixed by finding pictures she could relate to in terms of her experience of Hurricane Katrina on the Internet and first gathered over thirty pictures of the Hurricane’s impact. She also had a disposable camera that she took home with her so that she could take pictures of her family and friends, as well as of New Orleans when she visited one weekend. In one writing sample, Alexis wrote that what she didn’t like about New Orleans was that “they shoot every night.” However, she identified New Orleans as her home and expressed a desire to return to it. Digital storytelling, as it was practiced in her program, was expansive enough to allow her to express her feelings about the city she identified with, even as she recognized the peace that it lacked.

Alexis chose more images than she would use, and she sorted through them alone when making her final selections. She then wrote her narration while she decided what order the pictures should go in. We purposely asked her to execute these steps by herself and did not suggest any amendments so that the digital story would reflect her decision-making process. We recorded her voiceover, and re-recorded a few parts after she decided that they needed improvement. While we were doing this, she remarked, “We’ve really got our story going now.” These were editing choices that were within her ability range, unlike those that were strictly grammatical and only at the level of written language, so she could be an editor in this context whereas she needed more direct help in more traditional forms of writing.

From the beginning, Alexis stated that she planned to make her digital story about her family. She began her story with a picture of her mother and than transitioned into describing “what she (Katrina) did.” Before the story ends, she returned to describing her family and friends and announcing her allegiance to the particular neighborhood in New Orleans where she had lived. Her experience of Katrina that she portrayed in this digital form is surrounded, visually, by her loved ones, who survived the storm, resulting in a message of survival, even as she acknowledges the disaster of Hurricane Katrina.

The transcript of Alexis’s digital story follows:

  • This is the way my mother look.
  • This is how Katrina happened and what she did.
  • They wrote on houses so people wouldn’t go up in them and to show how many were dead and there was one [in that house].
  • This is how Katrina affected cars.
  • We had to live under the bridge.
  • This is how trees fell on the houses.
  • This is my family.
  • This is me putting up my sign for the eighth ward in New Orleans.
  • These are my sisters.
  • This is my friend B.
  • This is my brother but he’s in jail.
  • This is the end of my story.

After viewing another participant’s digital story, Alexis decided to use the same song “Irreplaceable” (Beyoncé, 2006) as background music; its refrain of “you just don’t know about me” seemed a poignant reminder of her personal trauma and that of her city, as well as, perhaps, her desire to be known through her digital story. Otherwise, Alexis’s story had unique characteristics, for example her presentation of Hurricane Katrina as well as her inclusion of special visual effects that emphasized the storm’s destruction (see Figure 2, for example). Her peers, if they used special effects at all, used those that appealed to them visually, like the “shooting star” effect which was particularly popular to add to pictures of their families and friends. Alexis used the rainfall effect on her second picture and the “fog” effect across six pictures of houses that sustained damage. She also overlaid a lightening bolt to a damaged car accompanied by the narration, “This is how Katrina affected cars.” It was not exactly how Katrina affected cars but was still a succinct way to convey the message using her new tools and skills.


hull_avila_figure2.JPG

Figure 2: Image from Alexis' digital story about the effects of Hurricane Katrina


We taught Alexis the basic digital storytelling procedures but provided very little editing during the construction process, and one result of that was that she decided to tell her Katrina stories in the context of what had been her daily life. Watching this digital story with what seems to be an almost random mentioning of Katrina makes it seem a bit chaotic and almost illogical. Perhaps the logic of the stories Alexis told comes out in the fact that the form of the story, illustrations of what life used to be, interrupted by the effects of Katrina, mirrored what the experience was like for her and her family since her life were suddenly interrupted, using a form of essay design that was new to her.

For a student like Alexis who struggled with written language, especially in school-like activities, digital storytelling was an opportunity to tailor her story to her personal storyline without its being confined by only what she could communicate with written language because she had imagery and sound to draw from as well. The fact that she was defined as a communicator in this program, rather than as a struggling writer, seemed to motivate her to tackle writing via email. As mentioned, during this program, she had the opportunity to trade emails with staff in another state. This re-definition of her literacy identity through digital storytelling also functioned as a bridge back into more traditional writing practices. Our email-writing routine became one of her typing a draft of an email and then sitting with a tutor? to revise it and to discuss and correct the grammatical errors she made. The message of the email was central and editing only served to make the message easier for her audience to access. We alternated working on composing emails with production of her digital story so that her role in our program rotated between skilled participant and novice. She likely knew what story she planned to tell, and came into a learning situation where she was able to communicate what she chose to and was not restricted by any wariness she might have felt toward the act of writing. Although she was still learning how to do digital storytelling, as a new combination of activities that included the more accessible format of imagery, it was likely less intimidating than writing an essay.

In a conversation after she completed her digital story, Alexis stated that she learned that when making a digital story “you have to put details in it and expressions.” She particularly enjoyed being able to include pictures of her family and to represent her mother “as being happy and smiling.” This afforded a level of agency she did not often possess in her daily life. For a student who had trouble with writing, she seemed to take to this new form of composing that reflected her as a communicator first and foremost.

A Young Adult’s Digital Story: “Lyfe-N-Rhyme”

Jamal’s digital story built effectively on a well-known language arts activity, the sense poem, and well-known steps in the process of writing, pre-writing, drafting, and revision. To these were added “storyboarding,” or matching images with the story script; image manipulation such as cropping and sizing; digital voice recording; and the compilation of all the modes into a single digital text. Of course, a variety of literacy activities in the classroom can be extended in similar ways through the addition of multiple modes. It is also the case, however, that digital storytelling can be a distinctive kind of meaning-making, instead of just an add-on to or illustration of an existing print-based text. It’s in this new realm that literacy can blend with media to form distinctive kinds of meaning-making.

To illustrate such possibilities, we introduce a young adult who is an expert digital storyteller and his digital story called “Lyfe-N-Rhyme” (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfFg8zNkXZM ) . A musician and poet who spent most of his non-school or non-work hours composing beats and rhymes, Randy learned about digital storytelling as part of a vocational program on computer technology. The first part of the workshop consisted of watching examples of digital stories and discussing what stood out about them and accounted for their power. Then students listened to each other’s ideas for their own movies. When his turn came, Randy read a poem he had composed especially for the workshop entitled “Lyfe-N-Rhyme.” Here is its beginning:

  • What’s done through life echoes throughout time
  • It’s an infinite chase to become what I was
  • But what was I? I don’t remember
  • Life, love, truth, trust, tribulation
  • That’s what’s up
  • The only thing I know is I’ve seen it before in the mirrors of my mind.

Randy thus narrated his digital story, performing his original poem/rap to the beat of a Miles Davis tune playing softly in the background (although in every other digital story he created after this one, he created his own digital music). He illustrated, complemented, or otherwise accompanied the words and the message of his poem/rap, along with the Davis melody, with approximately 80 images. Most of these images were photographs taken by Randy around his neighborhoods, while others he found on the Internet, and a few screens consist solely of typed words. The pace and rhythm of the piece varies, as did Randy’s speaking voice, in keeping with the background melody and the message. While some of the literary and literate expertise Randy demonstrated in his story were carry-overs from his years of writing raps and poetry, his combination of word, rhythm, rhyme, music, and message together with image allowed a very powerful interweaving of multiple modes. Deftly orchestrating multiple symbolic and semiotic systems, Randy was able to enact, as we explain in more detail below, what we might think of as an “agentive” self.

“Lyfe-N-Rhyme” begins with a title screen of red words on a black background and a Myles Davis tune as background music. The second screen is a picture of a sphinx and the pyramids, which is paired with the line, “What’s done through life echoes throughout time.” The third screen shows a well-known portrait of Malcolm X, with Randy’s voice narrating, “It’s an infinite chase to become what I was.” The fourth screen, a Picasso-esque portrait of the late rap artist, Tupac, appears as Randy intones “But what was I? I don’t remember.” Suddenly, the beat quickens, and images or words flash second by second on the screen, each suggestive of the words Randy speaks: “Life, love, truth, trust, tribulation, that’s what’s up.” (For “tribulation” Randy chose the infamous image of a plane crashing into the Twin Towers.) The ninth image is a picture of Marcus Garvey, the 19th century African American leader who advocated repatriation to Africa, and it is followed by a photograph of Biggie Smalls, another late rap artist. Randy’s narration for these two pictures states: “The only thing I know is I’ve seen it before in the mirrors of my mind.” This remarkable opening lasts for less than twenty seconds, but it introduces in powerful fashion an authorial stance and set of motifs as well as performative techniques that recur and are developed throughout the story.

With this brief illustration we hope to suggest that digital storytelling can both draws on other genres, styles, and literary forms, and it can provide a canvas for experimenting with different kinds of textual strategies and creating new forms of meaning-making. In his digital story Randy enacts several senses of self, including loving son, social critic, and talented artist. He enacts himself as artist, not just directly through his artful use of poetic and aesthetic techniques, but by implicitly connecting himself with works of art and African American icons, past and present. He also “decenters” these famous figures, removing them from their particular historical contexts, and “recenters” them, recontextualing them in his own creative universe of this digital story and his own social world. What a powerful and sophisticated composition he creates, one that both draws on genres and techniques from print literacy and that also goes beyond those techniques to communicate in digitally unique and powerful ways.

The Nuts and Bolts of Digital Storytelling

Examples and descriptions of digital stories sometimes don’t reveal the nitty and gritty work of teaching and learning that lies behind the interesting digital products. We end here with a few organizational and pedagogical practices that have emerged as important in the school and after-school settings in which we have worked.
  • Have technical support on hand. Help with the technology is usually necessary. Although software gets easier to use by the day and technology more available, computers still break, and there always seems to be a need for technical support, regardless of how tech-savvy a teacher may be. Sometimes that support can be provided by the students themselves.
  • Allow flexibility of process. There are multiple entry points to the process of digital storytelling. Some youth can easily write a script and then illustrate it, but others might want to start by selecting music, and others with taking photographs. The beauty of multimodal composing is that it can play to children’s strengths.
  • Allow freedom in choice of topic. We have found that everyone, child and adult, has a first story to tell via digital means, and that it is important to honor those choices and desires. Sometimes adults and others exert influence on genre, topic, and mode unknowingly and detrimentally.
  • Embrace popular cultural forms as content for digital stories. Cartoons, movies, music, television, fashion—all of these are forms of “symbolic creativity” that often engage youth and can provide the impetus for telling a story.
  • Consider a time frame of several weeks to a semester. Although adult digital storytelling workshops are often compressed into a weekend or a few days, that time frame will not work with children and usually youth. In after- school programs that meet twice a week for three hours each day, my experience has been that kids can produce one story a semester
  • Create your own. Perhaps the best preparation for teaching digital storytelling is first to create your own digital story or to co-construct it with a student, since young people often have less trepidation toward all things digital, as well as, often more knowledge.

References, Resources & Further Reading

  • Albers, P. & Harste, J. C. (2007). The arts, new literacies, and multimodality. English Education, 40, 6-21.
  • Avila, J., Underwood, C. & Woodbridge, S. (2008). “I’m the Expert Now”: Digital Storytelling and Transforming Literacies among Displaced Children. In D. McInerney & A.D. Liem (Eds.) Research on Sociocultural Influences on Motivation and Learning: Teaching and Learning: International Best Practice (Vol. 8). Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age Publishing.
  • Beyoncé. (2006). Irreplaceable. Retrieved November 27, 2007, from
  • http://www.allthelyrics.com/lyrics/beyonce/irreplaceable-lyrics-866619.html
  • Center for Digital Storytelling website: http://www.storycenter.org/
  • Hartley, J., & McWilliam, K. (Eds.). (2009). Story circle: Digital storytelling around the world. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.
  • Hull, G. (2003). Youth culture and digital media: New literacies for new times. Research in the Teaching of English, 38, 229-33.
  • Hull, G., & Katz, M. L. (2006). Crafting an agentive self: case studies of digital storytelling. Research in the Teaching of English, 41, 43-81.
  • Hull, G., & Nelson, M. (2005). Locating the semiotic power of multimodality. Written Communication, 22, 224-261.
  • Kajder, S. B. (2004). Enter here: Personal narrative and digital storytelling. English Journal, 93, 64-68.
  • Lambert, J. (2006). Digital storytelling: Capturing lives, creating community (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: Digital Diner Press.
  • Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (Eds.). (2008). Digital literacies: Concepts, policies, and practices. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2006). New literacies (2nd ed.). New York: Open University Press.
  • Lundy, K. (Ed.). (2008). Digital storytelling, mediatized stories: Self-representations in new media. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Miller, S. M. (2007). English teacher learning for new times: Digital video composing as multimodal literacy practice. English Education, 40, 61-83.