Whether it’s Race to the Top or Common Core or Whatever Comes Next, curriculum standards at all levels will continue to require us to use technology in interesting and innovative ways in our classroom environments. But what exactly does that look like? How do we facilitate students’ critical perspectives of both content and process? How do we approach digital literacy? And how do we spark enthusiasm for learning it?
Storytelling is an inherently social act, and we can utilize social media platforms to engage with stories—both historical and literary—in new ways, on platforms that feel familiar to us and our students. In his book The New Digital Storytelling, Bryan Alexander refers to Annette Simmons’s definition of storytelling, framing it as “the unique capability to tap into a complex situation we have all experienced and which we all recognize” (11). Good stories and storytelling tap into the universality of the human experience and Web 2.0 platforms allow us to make the unfamiliar a bit more familiar, in both the content presented and the medium through which it is presented.
Our students know how to create characters, plot, engagement online. And so do we. We do it every day when we present a certain version of ourselves to the world to our contacts on social media. We create a persona (some closer to reality than others), we advance the plot with updates, we engage with our audience by asking questions, allowing people to comment, by liking or retweeting. But how often do we (or our students) think about the broader narrative that is created? How do all the pieces fit together, and what story are they telling about our online personas?
Enter blogs. While we typically think of blogs as journals and first-person reflection, blogs can also function as “cross-platform, transmedia storytelling” (53). Take, for example, Project 1968, in which two people took on the fictional personas of attendees of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. About pages were created for each persona. Hyperlinks to MySpace pages and supporting documents were included, and blog posts were added chronologically, as if they were posting in real time. Project 1968 is an example of what Angela Thomas refers to as “‘blog fiction’: fictionus[ing] a blog as a writing device, using all of the features afforded by the blogging or journaling software, such as hyperlinks, graphics, and the commenting system” (53). This type of serialized storytelling certainly is not new, but using it in conjunction with a different platform, one still familiar to most students, allows for a new kind of interactivity and engagement with the text.
Other projects have explored the power of temporally structured archival blogging as well. One project, the Pepys Diary blog (2003), posts Pepys’s journal entries on the same day at the original entry (January 16, 1666 would be posted January 16, 2018, for example). Readers comment and engage in discussion; scholars share their research. Archival material presented in this way “defamiliarizes the document…[and]revises the bloggers sense of time” (57). Likewise, Alexander’s own project, blogging Dracula, allowed both blogger and readers to engage with the text in a new way, from different
perspectives, and in collaboration. This type of blogging mirrors social media participation by triggering active audience contributions, making timelines clearer, and allowing for instant feedback and critique of both source material and reader contributed comments.
While it may seem an unlikely platform for the kind of critical storytelling and analysis we want our students to engage in, Twitter offers a simplicity that opens it up to a great amount of creativity. First, “Twitter’s immediacy lends itself to live, staged stories” (62). Think real-time War of the Worlds story line unfolding one tweet at a time. Or several Twitter personas tweeting around a similar plot as it unfolds, organized around one or two hashtags.
Second, the character limit and micronarrative aspect of Twitter lends itself to a focused critique of language and plot. One such project republishes selections from Félix’s Fénéon’s Novel in Three Lines, a 1906 experimental novel that excerpted or remixed true crime stories from popular newspapers. With this model, students can consider how a writer or historian can condense a story—plot, characters, conflict—into 280 characters and practice doing it themselves.
Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list of digital storytelling modes, platforms, or projects. Flickr and Instagram offer opportunities for more visual forms of storytelling. Facebook offers its own personal presentation platform. All of these offer interconnectivity both across platforms and between groups of readers. It may, however, allow us to start to reframe the way we think about stories, how we engage with them, and how we can build new kinds of communities around them.