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*This page is derived from a workshop I attended on digital storytelling, with Jason Ohler. A great day, but as I wrote I found there was too much more I wanted to explore. I am adding to this page as I read through Jason's book.

Storytelling isn’t just for the English class and elementary school. Social Studies essays, science experiments, etc, can all be presented as a story. In November 2012 I attended a professional development workshop on Digital Storytelling, conducted by Jason Ohler. These are some reflections on that workshop, as well as revisions/ additions made as I read through his book Digital Storytelling in the Classroom: New Media Pathways to Literacy, Learning and Creativity. For those interested have a read for more detailed study. 


Creative Commons - A site with copyright-free resources your students can use in assignments. 

*Answers to copyright questions are noted below. 

A key idea in this workshop that I appreciated was the emphasis on the story and the process, not the technology. I’ve seen in the past how students often get hung up on the technology rather than concentrating on the content and the task itself. This of course may be due to poor planning on the part of the teacher (yours truly) and not scaffolding the process well enough. Key idea: the technology supports or highlights everything else and shouldn’t necessarily be the focal point. This whole idea help limit the habit of students being given high grades because the technology looks good, regardless of the quality of the content. Story telling can be anything. It can be a description of how to conduct a science experiment, a photo documentary, a local news event, or a fictional story about the monsters under your bed. Think of anything that can be told! 

  • So how can we approach storytelling? DAOW: Digital, Art, Oral and Written Literacies
  • Concentrate on the narrative, not the media.
  • Incidental music – make the audience feel what you want – relative to the theme, topic
  • 30 seconds plus a soundtrack forcing the atmosphere
  • Remind students to be aware of visual noise; the background that is distracting or irrelevant
  • Be careful of images used – even on blankets, green screen background images
  • Story vs Lists – tell a story, rather than listing “facts”, and you get greater student retention 
  • Flow of the story is important: Beginning, Conflict-Transformation, End (creating a table with the headings below can be a good starting point)

Beginning =====> Conflict-Transformation =====> End

I find that teachers are more interested in the media side of this and have more confidence in the “story” part of an assignment, so I’m putting the cart before the horse as I develop this page and have placed "How To Tell A Story" towards the end. 

Essentially, anything you produce and put online or in public is automatically copyrighted. You can pay for formal copyright, but it’s slow and can be expensive. (before I put my own original music in the public sphere I email it to myself and make a CD, and mail that to myself for the date and official “stamp”) See Chapter 15 of Jason Ohler’s book.

The United States’ TEACH Act:

For music, video, and animated you can use up to 30 seconds or 10%, whichever is shortest
For words, you can use up to 1,000 words, or 10%, whichever is shortest
For illustrations, photos, graphics you can use up to 5 images from one artist; you can use 15 works from a collection, or 10%, whichever is smaller
  • In terms of using copyrighted material for education:
  • Cite the source and creator(s) of the material used
  • Seek permission but be prepared to be turned down
  • Pay for it, if you’re willing
I think Ohler makes a very important point in his book: create your own material. GarageBand makes it easy and free (for Mac users), at least. Create your own images and scan them. Ohler suggests also using friends’ materials, as it’s easy to get permission. Use free-use web sites. Use pay-for-use web sites. Use Creative Commons. He does note, using the “rules of respect” noted above if you use other material.  

Check the Copyright Clearance Center. (remember, this can be based on country, as well)

Before this process actually begins a proper activity with curriculum alignment should be planned out. Be certain the school and classroom is capable of meeting the technology needs. Copyright issues should also be considered, though for educational purposes you’re usually safe using images, etc, as long as there is no commercial use. You may need parental permission for public display or use of certain images. (ie) their child in a video that will be posted online. Be familiar with the technology and it’s possibilities. Remember, the whole point here is that the teacher doesn’t have to be an expert. Most schools these days have tech support or a willing faculty member to help out. A good idea is to have a short lesson on the basics of the hardware and software. (my preferred to approach is to give them tasks to complete, and require them to support each other to complete the task, with the teacher only stepping to clarify and if necessary, give the answer/ process. 

When the task is assigned give appropriate examples to students, if possible. For example, a Social Studies class documentary assignment wouldn’t be shown a sample of an English class a book review. *Note that students should be saving their work over and over, backing it up as well. This process can be broken down into assessments by stage. 

Computer-Based DST: One that is built around a voice-over narration, with images, music and video added later. Speaking/ reading techniques can be emphasized here. 

Performance-Based Green Screen: This can be done easily in iMovie and can be a lot of fun. (I’ve had students do this through a news story, making the background with a Keynote or PPT slide saved as an image file (the background being a newsroom and a relative photo of the news event). *Page 158 of Ohler’s book discusses using green screens in detail. 

Phase 1 – Story Planning
This is the brainstorming stage, though it’s wise to have a brief refresher lesson in storytelling. Students can share ideas, create storyboards, mind/story maps, etc. This is a good chance for students to work independently to develop ideas and work collaboratively to share and critique. Figure 11.2 on page136, and 11.3 on page 142 are nice organizers displaying the process. Basically, map, peer critique of the story idea, storyboard, tell the story for a critique of the story, write. This can be repeated until the pre-production stage. Students making storyboards may consider PPT or Keynote. A teacher may want to make their own Keynote/ PPT storyboard for students to use. 

When students write encourage them to concentrate on what they write – make it engaging, and don’t rush to the media part of the assignment. (I weight the planning and writing part more than the media part when I assess assignments) 

Peer critique can focus on this such as: 
  • Are story elements clear and connected?
  • Was the character’s transformation clear and interesting?
  • Was the audience engaged throughout?
  • Was there a resolution?
Phase 2 – Preproduction
In this stage students determine what kind of media they could potentially use, and then choose what media they’ll use. (ie) video cameras, still images, audio equipment for voice overs. In this stage students also create the media.  In this stage students also create the media. (create the video, photos, audio narration, etc). 

Phase 3 – Production
Some students (including the teacher) may or may not know how to use the technology, so an introductory crash course may be needed. If you have enough students with experience, then group them up with “experienced leaders” and “new learners”. In this stage students finish the media components, such as a video, music, voiceovers, etc. They begin editing the media. This is a rough draft. Students show this to the teacher and/ or peers for critique. 
  • The focus must stay on the narrative – record the narrative
  • Visual media should be added after this
  • Add music/ background/ other sounds or voices
  • Present the rough work for peer critique and consider changes
Phase 4 – Post-Production
In this stage any kinds of titles, transitions, credits, and copyright notes. Add any kinds of special effects and additional sounds you want. Now students are ready for final editing. In this stage the final product must be ready and perfect, and then exported to the format that’ll be used for display. Keep a copy saved as a backup. *Sources must be cited! Make it a habit. Before a final mixing of audio and video it may be a good idea for further peer critique. Polish the work and save in the desired format. Remember to have it backed up – not just the final copy, but the pre-export files as well. 

Phase 5 – Performance, Distribution
Showing in front of class, in the school, in your department, online posting (such as YouTube, USTREAM, podcasts, school web sites), etc. School events or special meetings may also be good avenues to present/ share student work. Ohler also suggests publishing on outside web sites or submitting for contests. Why not at educational conferences? 


Have students reflect on their work and the process. Have a worksheet or online survey. Reflect on the rubric. 


  • Set clear goals
  • Assess the story without being overwhelmed or overly impressed with the media
  • Assess everything the student uses in order to achieve the final result, for instance, the story map, the audio narration, the video, etc, (the build-up, not just the final piece of work)
  • Assess the student’s planning process
  • Assess the student’s understanding of what Ohler calls “media grammar” – a simple example being an audio narration that doesn’t have inappropriate background noise
  • Assess the student’s understanding of the content presented
  • Assess the use of resources
  • Assess the performance of the student (ie) the ability to act, how well rehearsed a part is, etc
  • Have students self-assess
Jason Ohler has a list of possible "assessment traits" on his web site. Scroll down and have a lool. 


I saved this for later because I feel many teachers will have their own resources for this, and are looking for technology to enhance the storytelling in their classes. Keep in mind the notes below are in consideration of Western storytelling, which often differs from other parts of the world.

The story should include:

  • A central challenge to the character or characters, which creates the tension that moves the story forward (a quest, a problem, an obstacle, a goal, an opportunity)
  • Character transformation that will allow for a resolution to the problem, or a response to the challenge
  • A response that leads to a resolution or conclusion
The “story core” (Ohler) in application to teaching:
  • Students can draw or write the story core
  • Students can write backwards from the end
  • Students should be taught that as it’s written a story evolves, changes, shifts, BUT the core must be decided before the media creation (the digital process) begins
  • Teach students how important it is to consider the audience (is it the teacher, the class, the school, a school board, parents, the world wide web?); a video about environmental awareness will be different from an appeal to the school PTA asking for a grant
  • Have students clearly identify if the story is a personal story, a documentary, etc
  • Discuss with students how the story core will be assessed (assessment is another separate discussion) 
The “story map” should, in general terms, evolve this way:
(I advise that the class go over storytelling and analyze a few short stories at the beginning of this stage, identifying any themes, morals, value lessons, etc)
  • Get an idea
  • Create a story core
  • Create a story map
  • Write a narrative, script, or story
  • Create a storyboard if necessary (for a video, for example)
What’s the difference between a story map and a storyboard? A story map has what Ohler calls the “emotion” (the essence) of the story and includes an in-depth view of the problem, transformation, and resolution, whereas a storyboard has the “motion” (events, movement, the setting, the mood). Page 80 of Ohler’s book has a table diagram of story elements. I agree with Ohler’s suggestion that students do story maps without the computer, helping to avoid the many computer distractions that exist.

Story elements have:

A beginning: this includes a character (or characters) with an ordinary life but is suddenly “called to adventure”; the main characters are introduced and the goal or quest is identified. 

A middle, or transformation: in Ohler’s suggested story map there is a flexible curve that indicates the story may change or evolve of shift. Characters change, which is the transformation. The tension is fully brought out, and the characters grow and learn. The character changing leads to the start of a resolution, often being that the character knowing or changing a flaw in themselves. Ohler refers to this as ‘slaying the inner dragons before slaying the outer ones’. Something that has to be considered is whether this transformation is an “ah-ha!” moment or a slow realization. The story also needs to bear in mind any value or moral lessons. 

A conclusion: this is obviously the resolution, but it should include closure that leaves the audience feeling satisfied. 

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