Unleash Your Students’ Voices: Digital Storytelling

You can also check out the post on using The Power of Storytelling.

Adapting the Story

As I’ve said, regardless of age, ability, or language, everybody has something to say. Previously I discussed why storytelling is one of the most persuasive and powerful tools there is, what happens in the brain when stories are told, and how to use it effectively with your students. The struggle comes when students encounter frustration somewhere between embodying their story and trying to express it in the manner the teacher dictates.  This can often be resolved if the teacher broadens their perspective in how stories can be created to include more than just words jotted onto notebook paper.

There are a few basic strategies you can adopt depending on the needs and the severity of a student’s challenges.

  1. Consider various levels of accessible technology. That might mean typing instead of writing or text to speech or even more advanced systems. You can also look into some Google accessibility add-ons or Microsoft accessibility tools in OneNote.
  2. Personal grammar rulebooks or dictionaries can be useful or apps like Grammarly can be a boon.
  3. Use visual graphic organizers to help students gather their thoughts.
  4. Follow my 6 tips for improving student storytelling which include high expectations & specific feedback.
  5. Consider moving towards adapted books or digital storytelling which allows students to express themselves in engaging and augmentative ways.

Digital Storytelling

Adapted Books Vs. Digital Stories

Screen Shot 2018-01-10 at 7.40.47 PMThere is a distinct difference between adapted books and digital stories. While both can use technology to bring books to life for struggling students, they do it in drastically different ways. Adapted books, like those found at Tarheel Reader and Baltimore Books, use picture symbol software like Boardmaker or SymbolStix to create pictures to make a story accessible to non-literate (and possibly non-verbal) students. See the lovely laminated example above. Digital stories, on the other hand, totally change the nature of the story by adding visual, audio, and other components to make it more akin to a film.

The History of the Digital Story

In one sense digital storytelling has been an effective and influential tool ever since Orson Welles broadcast War of the Worlds back in 1938. In a modern context, we can look to The Civil War documentary by Ken Burns for using images, video, and other media to great effect (and no I wasn’t referencing the Ken Burns Effect). My favorite moment is the Sullivan Ballou Letter. I think I fell in love with ‘dearest Sarah’.

Dana Atchley’s work at the American Film Institute and Joe Lambert’s efforts at the Center for Digital Storytelling in the 1990s were amongst the first pioneering efforts in the field. That work continues on with Storycenter. You can check out Lambert’s Digital Storytelling Cookbook for more of his insights including the 7 steps of digital storytelling.7 Steps of Digital Storytelling.png

The main differences between digital and traditional stories are that the normal conventions no longer apply because the stories now contain images, video, text, sound, animation, and now virtual experiences. It adds to the stories expressiveness in addition to making it accessible by allowing visual, auditory, or even physical comprehension. It can also be much more interactive.

In education, this has been used to great effect for engagement and empowering at-risk students and initiating social change. Gladly I get to work with one of the amazing educational pathfinders in this area, Susan Abduleezer, who literally wrote the book on creating multimedia stories in classrooms. We also get to enjoy collaborating with great storytelling organizations like The Moth to help students find their voices.  By adding multimedia components to student stories you can increase participation, cooperation, communication, and other 21st-century learning skills. There are a number of apps that help make both the digital and the storytelling portions easier to create. I’ll share a few here.

Digital Storytelling Tools

Some tools like the iPad and some software like iMovie help to expand the capabilities of storytellers without having to master many multimedia skills. That allows the content of the story to remain the focus.

Thoughtful Storytelling

There are some steps to take to help your story creation work go well.

  • Storyboarding – FInd a storyboard template to help students plan their stories well before they start playing in an app.
  • Scripting – Whether it’s an original work or the student is retelling a story or speech, it is important to have some text as a basis to begin. Granted, if you are going to digital because physical writing is not possible for your students then try to formulate some plan even by practicing what they may say.
  • Asset Management – Any photos, videos, or other content you plan to use is best gotten in advance. I recommend using Creative Commons for copyright free material. After creating your stories it’s good to export them to as a video file so you can use or share the content in whatever way you choose.
  • Researching – Some apps allow you to search for content and research as you go, but that will likely require some instruction on how to use it in advance
  • Across Subject Areas – Also, don’t think that digital stories have to be confined to a literacy or history classroom. Dan Meyer’s makes it clear that through 3 Act Math, you can make math a series of stories to solve.

Here are some of my favorite tools at a number of skill levels.

Enhanced Writing


All of the following apps are basically like standard writing with a few additional features. This isn’t exactly digital storytelling as it is traditionally thought of, but I thought these were worth including.

  • OneNote – The big 3 tech providers each have their own notes apps, but Microsoft’s might be the best. Granted it’s somewhat bloated, but it has so many amazing features that are hard to ignore. It allows you to throw documents, PDFs, videos, and a number of other things straight into a note along with handwriting, drawings, recordings, and text scanning and recognition. The best feature though is Learning Tools which provides several great accessibility features. You might choose this one for lesson plans even if it isn’t a student story option.
  • Google Keep – Because it’s Google it’s popular and it shares easily. It’s colorful with notes that show up like cards to scroll through. Additionally, it has voice notes, to-do list, and reminders.
  • Apple Notes – Apple’s foray is much improved now with the ability to draw and add attachments along with the standard links and checklists. It also allows you to scan documents for your records.
  • Notability – This is my personal favorite that feels most like paper even though you can change the paper’s layout. It offers text, drawing, recording and more. The recordings will sync with your notes so that as you play it back the note will rewrite itself in sync with when it was created. You can also zoom into areas of a page to add detail.

There are a number of others like Mental Note or Fii Note, but the above offer everything you’ll really need.

Image Stories

If pictures are worth a thousand words, adding them your stories should making writing a lot easier. Telling a story with a picture is the basic level of digital storytelling and here some apps that keep it simple and fun. Find examples at University of Houston’s Digital Storytelling page.

  • Skitch – Take a picture and mark it up with text, symbols, digitize areas, and add effects. You can label your map or highlight a PDF full of text. 576x768bb.jpg
  • ChatterPix Kids – Along with adding stickers and effects to your pictures, you can also make them talk. Draw a line where you want the mouth to be and record up to 30 seconds of speech. The app will then move the mouth in time to make it look the object, the animal, or person is speaking. It’s easy to do but immensely entertaining.
  • 30 Hands – Their web tools and apps are basically ways to create standard slideshows with recordings attached to each slide.
  • Shadow Puppet Edu – This app makes it easy to create full-fledged digital video stories with easy access to a number of images and tools. You can search the Library of Congress, NASA, Met Museum, Flickr, maps, or the web for images within the app. Add text or drawings on the image and then combine those with narration and music for your tale.

Multi-Person Stories

  • hqdefault.jpgPuppet Pals, PuppetPals 2, Puppet Pals 2: School Edition, Puppet Pals HD – In these apps you can create a scene with multiple characters, scenery, props, and music. It gives you several options for each so it can be a historical figure, fantasy characters, or even create one with your own face. Some of the characters require an additional purchase. The school edition gives you those with an up-front cost. After hitting record, select and move a character and speak. Their mouth will move in time with your words. When you touch another character, they will be speaking. Students can work together to create multimedia stories. Check out their info sheet to learn more.
  • Sock Puppets -This is fairly similar to Puppet Pals except that is uses sock puppets. One added benefit is that you can go into settings and adjust the pitch for each character’s  voice. This way your students can try to sound different.
  • Toontastic – I love this app for storytelling because it automatically maps out a story sequence for your students. You can select a short story, classic story or science report. A classic story will sequence from setup through the climax and resolution. Simply choose the part of the story (which the app explains), choose a scene, add characters and start recording. Afterwards set the scene with some music and move on to the next part. It’s scaffolded in a way that both simplifies and enhances student stories. Students have the ability to draw and photograph their own characters and scenes also.toontastic-3d.jpg

Digital Books

There are a variety of apps that allow students to create and read digital books that are enhanced with a number of additional features.


  • Digital Book Apps – Kindle, iBooks, and Google Books allow students to access digital book collections and gives them the ability to search, have the text read, add notes, and research topics inside the book. There are even enhanced textbooks with embedded videos, 3D images, and assessments. There are also stand-alone books that are fully interactive. Check out The Monster at the End…Shakespeare In Bits, or The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.
  • Book Creator – This app is probably the easiest way for a teacher or student to create a digital book. You can add text and layouts like a regular story or make it look like a comic. Add photos, videos, music, or record your voice. Draw in some extra details or add stickers to make it more fun. Then you can read it in the app or quickly export it to iBooks.
  • iBooks Author – This is the app you can use to use to create the types of enhanced ebooks I described earlier with 3D manipulatives or videos added.

Inside each of us is a natural born storyteller just waiting to be released.

– Robin Moore

Storytelling Films

  • Flipgrid – This video communication site is easy to use and incredibly engaging. You can read a full post about 20 Ways To Catch Flipgrid Fever.
  • Clips – This fairly new app from Apple is like a simplified iMovie that allows you to put together movies in pieces add text, stickers, and image effects. My favorite part is the incredibly accurate auto-captioning. If there is an error, you can go back in and correct it or copy the spoken text to another app.
  • Adobe Spark Video – Spark allows you to choose a story type and quickly and easily fill it with multimedia materials that you can search for in the app. The icons you can add really help create broad story imagery. The built-in music and themes make your story look professional without much effort.
  • iMovie & GarageBand – These apps require full explanations on their own, but just know that when you’re ready for in-depth film or podcast creations, these are the tools I would most recommend to teachers capable of taking on more advanced work. Yes there are even more complex pro software like Final Cut, but most teachers don’t need that kind of power.

There are other types of resources available to tell stories that I will cover in further posts, but these should be a solid starting point for teachers and students at any level. Get started on telling your story and helping your students tell theirs.



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