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Opportunities and Challenges in Representing Narrative Inquiries Digitally

by Cheryl J. Craig - 2013

Background/Context: Within the context of four locally funded research projects, the researcher was asked to disseminate the findings of her narrative inquiries not to the research community, which had previously been the case, but to the practice and philanthropic communities. This, in turn, created a representational crisis because practitioners and philanthropists typically do not read research reports.

Purposes/Objectives/Research Question/Focus of Study: In this paper, two sources previously cut off from one another—the narrative inquiry research method and the digital storytelling approach—were brought together to inform how the live research projects became represented.

Setting: The four research endeavors, all involving arts-based instruction and all funded by the same reform movement, were undertaken in four different school sites serving primarily underserved minority youth in the fourth largest city in the U.S.

Population/Participants/Subjects: The participants were mainly teachers, although some principals, students, and grandparents contributed to certain digital representations. Research assistants were also highly involved.

Conclusion: This meta-level ‘inquiry into inquiry’ traversed all four narrative inquiries and the digital exemplars produced for each to show how digital narrative inquiries (narrative inquiries represented through digital story) attend to eight considerations: relationship, perspective, authorial voice, cultural/contextual considerations, relevance, negotiation, audience and technology were learned. While this “inquiry into inquiry” addresses definitional and others queries at the intersection where narrative inquiry and digital story meet, other questions remain to be addressed that will necessitate future research.

This article features four digital narrative inquiries (Rudnicki, 2009) reflecting teachers’, students’, and principals’ experiences of living four different arts-based change initiatives in four different school contexts in Houston, the fourth largest urban center in the United States. Fueled by the need to report my research locally to the practice and philanthropic communities and coupled with my doctoral students’ desires to examine the intersection where narrative inquiry and digital story meet, I decided to experiment with digital storytelling as a form of representation different from the telling stories, parallel stories, and story constellations (Craig, 1997, 1999, 2007), representational forms I had previously used in my narrative accounts of teachers’ contextual knowing. At the outset, the fit seemed right because narrative inquiry unpacks the experiences of human beings in relationship with people, places, and things by researchers who themselves are immersed in relationships with people, places and things (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). It also made sense because digital storytelling can capture and communicate the agentive voices (i.e., Hull & Katz, 2006) of participants and holds great possibility for portraying the socio-cultural-political contexts (i.e., Li, 2007) within which human experience unfurls. The principle question driving this research study had to do with how my students1 and I could digitally evidence and narrate the lived experiences of four different arts-based reforms using the narrative inquiry research method. Our foremost desire was to disseminate, through digital means, lifelike instantiations of what happened when teachers and administrators from four campuses—Armstrong Academy, Douglas Academy, Renaissance Academy, and Hawthorne Middle School—enacted arts-based change efforts alongside their students in their respective school milieus. Through creating fine-grained narrative exemplars (Lyons & Laboskey, 2002; Mishler, 1990; Schön, 1983, 1995) of what transpired, opportunities and challenges of sharing narrative research using digital technology as a representational form would be illuminated. Also, issues needing to be sorted out at the interface of the narrative inquiry research method and the digital story telling technology (multi-media presentation) would be dealt with, and questions relating to why this work is termed digital narrative inquiry are addressed. Before sharing the experience of working alongside graduate students to develop the four digital narrative exemplars, I present my literature review, a description of my research method and a provisional definition of digital narrative inquiry.


In this brief survey of the literature, each of the conceptual pillars foundational to this investigation—that is, narrative inquiry and digital story—are elaborated. Concurrent attention is paid to how these ideas possibly overlap and inform one another within the context of the field-based projects earlier described.


Narrative inquiry is a qualitative research method built around three commonplaces: temporality, sociality, and place (Connelly & Clandinin, 2005), which reflect its Deweyan (1938) and Schwabian (1973) roots. Dewey viewed education as experience and named time, interaction, and context, synonyms for narrative inquiry’s commonplaces, as essential qualities of educational experience. As for Schwab, he identified four commonplaces—teacher, learner, subject matter, and milieu—as foundational to understanding any curriculum-making situation. When one conducts research using narrative inquiry, one necessarily studies people, places, and things, all of which are in relationship with one another. In a nutshell, narrative inquiry is the study of people in relationship by researchers who themselves are immersed in relationship (Clandinin & Connelly, 1995). A corollary point to remember is that narrative inquiry was never meant to be a “stand-alone” research method. Rather, the narrative inquiry approach emerged while Connelly and Clandinin (1990) were addressing knowledge questions, initially with teachers, in the curriculum field (Connelly, 2009).

According to narrative inquiry’s founders, Connelly and Clandinin (2005), the emergence of narrative inquiry fell in a period of “fluid inquiry.” Fluid inquiry, in Schwab’s (1962) explanation, “rests on conceptual innovation, proceeds through uncertainty and failure, and eventuates in knowledge that is contingent, dubitable, and hard to come by” (Schwab, 1962, p. 5). Narrative inquiry, as described by Elbaz-Luwisch (1997), is an “against the grain” method that was developed to challenge the logistic view (McKeon, 1952) underlying technical rationalist approaches to top-down curriculum reform and process-product research. In contrast to many other research approaches, narrative inquiry allows teachers/administrators/students to actively participate in the research process. Furthermore, rather than presupposing that teacher/administrator/student behavior is directly evidential, researchers in the narrative inquiry tradition assume the teacher/administrator/student perspective, conduct their investigations alongside teachers/administrators/students, and present their narrative inquiries in teachers’/administrators’/students’ terms, imbuing narrative accounts with the thoughts, words, and feelings of teachers/administrators/students. In short, everyone (researchers included) takes an insider view of the teaching/learning experience. As a result, such conceptualizations as personal practical knowledge (Clandinin, 1986; Connelly & Clandinin, 1985), images of teaching (Clandinin, 1983), narrative authority (Olson, 1995), and knowledge communities (Craig, 1995, 1998) have been added to the knowledge base of teaching. Also, the professional knowledge landscape (Clandinin & Connelly, 1995) of schools, the rhythm of teaching (Clandinin & Connelly, 1986, and the rhythm of school reform (Craig, 2012), have been contributed. Overall, the narrative inquiry research method has championed the image of teacher-as-curriculum-maker rather than accepting at face value the process-product/input-output image of teacher-as-curriculum-implementer (Clandinin & Connelly, 1992; Craig & Ross, 2008), a view that has dominated the administration and school reform literatures.

The minded agency afforded teachers (Dewey, 1908) and the relational quality of narrative inquiry research (Craig & Huber, 2006), coupled with the fluctuations within the contexts of teaching, makes narrative inquiry a difficult research process to explain and an even more complex method to live (Clandinin et al., 2006). This is largely because it follows no pre-set research design. Simply put, the research process takes shape as each narrative inquiry unfolds. As Conle (2000) explained, “methods of narrative inquiry, rather than being externally defined, emerge out of the inquiry activities.” In essence, “they are not as much a means to an end as they are part of the ends achieved” (Conle, 2000, p. 20).

In the narrative inquiry research method, four interpretive tools are used to produce true-for-now narrative accounts. These verisimilar accounts acknowledge that the research could be conducted from a different curriculum commonplace (teacher | learner | subject matter | milieu) and/or at a different time with different instantiations of events, situations, and interactions. The fluidity of this approach aligns with Schwab’s (1978) view that “stories … fit the writer’s facts, give insights and aids to understanding [but] leave room for three more quite different stories” (T. Roby, personal communication, April, 2007). In short, the acknowledgment of alternate interpretations in narrative inquiry reminds audience members that any story is a partial telling and viewpoints other than those named also exist, despite those vantage points not being featured in a particular account.

The first interpretive tool, broadening (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990), places the topic under study in historical and social-cultural context. The second tool of analysis, burrowing (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990), unpacks human experience in a fine-grained manner, paying attention to competing and conflicting points of view. As for storying and restorying (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990), the third research device, it closely resembles what Schwab (1983) might have meant when he defended “serial interpretation” of “an encompassing idea” as a necessary feature of practical inquiries. Through storying and restorying, subtle and not-so-subtle changes over time and across situation become known. Lastly, the fourth interpretive tool, fictionalization (Clandinin et al., 2006), is a more recent research innovation. Fictionalization allows the researcher to subtly shift circumstances to protect individuals when they become increasingly identifiable and their relationships are potentially placed at risk in local situations. In live representations, such as digital narrative inquiries, the fictionalization of people’s identities or the places where interactions take place is more difficult to achieve, though not impossible. The most pressing challenge is that names, facial features, words and emotions, as well the backdrop where the human interactions have taken place, are recorded live, and hence are available for full public viewing. However, skillful editing combined with the use of innovative technology can lessen, though not entirely alleviate, this barrier. This work, for example, experiments—in two instances—with the idea of a fictional narrator introduced through technological means. The introduction of a fictional narrator helped in the blinding of sensitive material and aided in the discussion of difficult issues.

Having introduced narrative inquiry, the first research pillar, attention will now turn to a description of digital story, the second research pillar.


Developed by Dana Atchley and Joe Lambert (Lambert, 2006), digital storytelling is storytelling accomplished through digital media presentation. It began with visual images projected on a screen in the background while a narrator told a story in the foreground. The term “digital story” soon became attached to the technology, and a Center for Digital Storytelling was created through which the approach became widely renowned throughout the world.

Digital stories, which typically are 2- to 10-minute multimedia presentations (Robin, 2004), take many forms and serve many purposes (i.e., Barrett, 2006; Burgess, 2006; Kajder, Bull, & Albaugh, 2005; Maine Writing Project, 2007; Ohler, 2005/2006; Salpeter, 2005). They can be fictional accounts, documentaries, abstract conceptualizations, featured entries from portfolios, or narratives with personal connections. Historically, digital stories have not employed a research method such as narrative inquiry. Yet, narratives with personal connections, the variety propagated at my institution, appear to have a likelihood of fit with narrative inquiry. Digital stories centering on personal experiences cycle through a number of developmental stages. These include work on a draft story and engagement in reflective story circle discussion and feedback. Revisions to the original story script come next, followed by the development of a full-blown storyboard, including selection and coordination of images and narration. This culminates in the “finished” media production. Following the 10 principles of digital storytelling, which build on Lambert’s (i.e., 2006) original seven principles; these stories include: (1) overall purpose of the story; (2) the narrator’s point of view; (3) a dramatic question or questions; (4) the choice of content; (5) clarity of voice; (6) pacing of the narrative; (7) use of meaningful audio soundtracks; (8) quality of images, video, and other multi-media elements; (9) economy of story detail; and (10) good grammar and language usage (Robin, 2004).

In preparing digital stories, how digital media is used is considered less important than the story itself (Banaszewski, 2002; Bull & Kajder, 2004; Ohler, 2009). The overall aim is “to pursue, discover, and communicate new understanding that is rooted in who we are as humans” (Bull & Kajder, 2004), which is not unlike the purpose of narrative inquiry. In a similar way, Martin Buber’s concept of I-Thou (1970) relations is instructive to both digital storytelling and narrative inquiry. High quality digital stories, in Rudnicki’s (2009) view, maintain two “I-You” stances—with the story being meaningful to the storyteller as well as to the audience for whom it was prepared (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). In the case of this narrative inquiry research endeavor, I argue that three “I-You” positions are addressed—because the digital narrative inquiries needed to be relevant to: (1) the school participants; (2) the team of researchers creating the stories; and (3) the audience members for whom the multimedia presentations were crafted. Also, as a relational form of research investigation, narrative inquiry categorically avoids Buber’s impersonal “I-It” position, an instrumental stance that has historically endangered human relationships with machines (Wiener, 1954). In the worst-case scenario, extreme means-ends agendas, manifestations of gross forms of technical-rationalism, supersede human beings in importance. People become objects manipulated by others and/or technology. No longer are they self-determining agents of action, worthy of being understood—through face-to-face interactions—in their own terms.

With the two identified pillars of this inquiry in place, the research method used in this “inquiry into inquiry” (Schwab, 1962) involving digital stories as an alternate form of research representation (Eisner, 1994, 1997) will now be discussed, followed by a provisional definition of “digital narrative inquiry.” Taken together, the literature review, the research method, and the interim definition lay the theoretical and methodological groundwork for the featured digital narrative cases.


The research method employed in this “inquiry into inquiry” is more complex than narrative inquiry as introduced in the review of the literature. This is because this second-level investigation is a meta-level analysis that cuts across four narrative inquiries, each of which was represented in digital form. In the overarching reflective analysis, I sift through these multiple stories of experience (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990) and snag relevant narrative threads that illuminate what was learned at the crossroads where narrative inquiry and digital storytelling intersected.

Just as different aspects of individual narrative inquiries comprise a whole, so too do different elements of cumulative narratives inquiries form a whole, especially when they are conducted by the same principal investigator (me) (sociality), funded through the schools (place), by the same grant program, conducted during the same time frame (temporality), and enacted within the same state and national policy environment (place). Such is the case with this work.

The approach taken here follows research previously conducted by Czarniawka (1997), Connelly and Clandinin (1999), Craig (2002, 2009), and Olson and Craig (2005). Czarniawka placed a number of narratives alongside one another in order to portray a meta-level view of institutional identity, whereas Connelly and Clandinin, in their research program, connected different stories by different authors in order to capture the many ways teachers develop their identities or “stories to live by” (Connelly & Clandinin, 1999) in the narrative vernacular. Meanwhile, in a 2002 essay and in 2009 article, I surveyed how various expressions of the conduit manifested themselves in my  research studies (in the former instance) and how the contested classroom space phenomenon played out over a decade of lived field-based research in local area schools (in the latter case). Furthermore, in 2005, Margaret Olson and I examined how the cover story conceptualization emerged in our combined research efforts. In each of these examples, different narrative researchers and research teams used meta-level narrative analysis for different purposes in their respective investigations.

This article most resembles the Craig and Olson and Craig works because focus is placed on a phenomenon that arose within the parameters of my research studies. However, in this particular work, the phenomenon is not a narrative conceptualization (the conduit [Craig, 2002], the contested classroom space [Craig, 2009], cover stories [Olson & Craig, 2005]), as was in previously conducted studies. Rather, it involves a contemporary field-based research method (narrative inquiry) and the fit between narrative inquiry and the use of digital technology as its representational form. Situated at the confluence of these divergent sources, this study seeks to inform research/practices arising from two different sources and two distinct approaches to contextualizing and representing human experience.

In sum, then, this article discusses relevant understandings gleaned from four digital narratives produced from four narrative investigations in four different school sites. These cases examine what was learned when diverse literatures, activities, and processes became fused in the context of my research program and understood through the digital narrative inquiry lens. The concept of a digital narrative inquiry will now be provisionally sketched.


Digital narrative inquiry refers to a representational form that features narratives of experience told and re-told, and storied and re-storied, through the narrative inquiry research method. Products of rigorous investigation, these digital narratives capture and communicate life as lived in context and understood in individuals’ own terms. In these digital narrative accounts, relationships between researchers-research participants are critically important because they fuel the personal/social understandings that become featured in the lifelike representations. Formed around Schwab’s commonplaces of curriculum (teacher | student | subject matter | milieu) and adhering to Dewey’s qualities of experience (temporality | sociality | place), this narrative form of representation employs digital technology to convey research findings that arise from broadening, burrowing, storying and restorying, and fictionalization, narrative inquiry’s four interpretive tools.

Digital narrative inquiries share some features in common with the visual narratives produced by Bach (1998), for example, who similarly employed the narrative inquiry research method. But the reliance on interactive live video makes digital narrative inquiries different from Bach’s scholarship, which coheres around still life photography. The visual ethnography research method likewise uses photos, maps, and computer graphics in its representations (Pink, 2001). However, visual ethnography usually does not concentrate on live human interactions over a specific time period or involve the researcher as he or she comes to know through relationship. In short, the storied relationships among people, places, and things—revealed through interactions with the researcher in context—distinguish digital narrative inquiries from visual ethnographies (and also from documentaries, for that matter). A second major difference is that digital narrative inquirers typically cast a broader, more fluid inquiry net than visual ethnographers, who are more apt to center on particular phenomena (i.e., Li, 2007) and to interpret those phenomena through more defined lenses, while remaining open to outcome.

This interim definition of a digital narrative inquiry, combined with the survey of the literature and a description of my research method, sets the stage for the presentation of the four arts-based cases that follow. Each exemplar showcases elements that elucidate digital narrative inquiry as a representational form.


In this section, I introduce the plotline of each school context (place) where the research study was conducted, along with its reform focus. After that, I present a thumbnail sketch of the storyline of each school’s digital narrative inquiry representation and then reflect on the opportunities and challenges of creating digital narrative inquiry products in the particular campus milieu. I also lace the words, emotions, interactions, and activities of participants engaged in the arts-based reform work throughout the digital narrative exemplars I present.

Before launching into the four cases, readers need to know that the digital narrative inquiries were produced to culminate four years of reform work on the respective campuses (temporality). The primary audience for these digital presentations was representatives of the reform movement, the reform movement’s funders, and city dignitaries, as well as teachers and principals from other campuses involved in the same reform program. For the first 3 years I conducted the project independently—with the exception of the Armstrong Academy research site where one research assistant well versed in digital storytelling technology began to work with me. After that, the remainder of the research assistants joined me for either field-related study or digital media creation purposes. This explains why I have chosen to present the Armstrong Academy (elementary) exemplar first and the Douglas Academy (elementary) exemplar second. I then continue the K-12 progression by presenting the Renaissance Academy (Grades 5-6) exemplar next, followed by the Hawthorne Middle School (Grades 7-8) exemplar.



School Plotline  

Armstrong Academy is a relatively new campus built for primarily diverse students enrolled in K-Grade 4. While the affordable homes in its neighborhood were new constructions, Armstrong’s immediate community bordered other neighborhoods that had seriously declined in the period following an economic reversal in the Houston area in the 1980s, which was brought about by the decrease in oil prices. Armstrong Academy was striving to become a Primary Years International Baccalaureate (IB) World School and was using its grant from the local reform movement to integrate art, understood from a global perspective, into instruction in all subject areas, a thrust very different from the No Child Left Behind educational policy environment in which the campus and its school district were also immersed.

Digital Narrative Inquiry Storyline

Armstrong’s (place) digital narrative inquiry begins with a flashy introduction of its title, Art Infusion Enhances Learning: It’s All Art and a collage of artwork created by primary school children (sociality) whose skills and creativity are advanced beyond their years. In the background, the music and lyrics of “We are the future … go slow … go with what you know …” can be heard with the school’s drum corps beating loudly in rhythm, an audio-visual feature that remains constant throughout the digital narrative representation. Soon appearing on the screen are photos of particular students with their artwork. One is the child whose imaginative creation produces, through technological innovation, the fictional narrator (sociality) of Armstrong’s digital narrative inquiry. What come next are terms that punctuated conversations undertaken with Amstrong’s faculty and students (sociality) over time (temporality). These terms included “arts-based learning,” “teacher collaboration,” “professional learning community,” and “student-teacher-parent community” with “arts infusion” appearing at the center, binding everyone and everything together (interaction). Soon, a teacher remarks in a videotaped focus group conversation with her peers (sociality): “You know someone commented the other day that this art could be hung in a museum … and I sit back and think: ‘Our kids made these … Our kids did this … WOW.’” Then, all of the elements of Armstrong Academy’s arts-infused program are seen on the screen—such mediums as poetry writing and reading (café scene of students reading poetry featured later), the campus’ student chorus (comes later), the use of arts-based approaches to teaching mathematics and science (explained several times), and the school’s art gallery where portraits and music of masters appear side-by-side with exemplary student work in the fine and performing arts (sociality, temporality, place). Visit the link http://bit.ly/zG7ktJ to view the introduction to the Armstrong Academy digital narrative inquiry.

After that, additional focus group interactions are featured. These involve many combinations of Armstrong children, teachers, administrators, researchers, and arts partners (sociality) engaged in live conversations concerning what happened and what was learned as a consequence of the grant supporting arts-infused education at Armstrong Academy (place).

Reflections on Creating Armstrong’s Digital Narrative Inquiry

While the storyline of Armstrong’s digital narrative inquiry initially comes across as a Hollywood plotline (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000)—the kind of ideal educational experience we would want every child to have (Dewey, 1938), those viewing the digital narrative inquiry representation soon become vicariously introduced to struggles and tensions lived by the Armstrong educators. These challenges paradoxically also became lived by the researchers (sociality) as we attempted to authentically capture the essence of the arts-infused education offered young students at Armstrong Academy (place). Underlying Armstrong’s almost idyllic approach to early childhood education is a perennial issue of education: the fact that arts-based approaches to teaching/learning and arts-based educators themselves have not been recognized and/or valued for contributions made to children’s enriched life experiences and futures. The preparation of this digital narrative inquiry representation unexpectedly placed my research assistant, Anne Rudnicki, and me at the fulcrum of this age-old dispute.

By way of introduction, readers need to know that we took 18 months to develop Armstrong’s 19 minute, 37 second digital presentation (temporality), which, in itself, was more than twice as long as the average digital story. While my relationship with Bernadette Lohle (pseudonym), the teacher heading up the Armstrong project reached back to 1997 (sociality), the learning curve of how to use digital narrative inquiry as a representational form in a specific school setting (place) with particular teachers and students (interactions) enacting arts-infused education, a teaching/learning method qualitatively different from the status quo, was very steep. This was in spite of my research assistant’s expert knowledge of digital storytelling and narrative inquiry, and my longitudinal experiences of conducting narrative inquiries in multiple school sites. Needless to say, Anne and I encountered several challenges.

The first issue we faced involved temporality, sociality, and place. The lead teacher, Bernadette Lohle, and I had a long-standing research relationship, but that relationship had developed against the backdrop of Cochrane Academy, her previous school milieu. While I knew Bernadette’s story well, it took considerable time and effort for us to learn the intricacies of how it was continuing to take shape in her new school context amid developing relationships with new peers and administrators. To be certain, my past knowledge of Bernadette greatly informed the present research enterprise. But it did not preclude my needing to learn about Bernadette as she interacted with her new colleagues and principal during the creation of the digital narrative inquiry at her new campus.

The second challenge seemingly involved sociality. While I easily accepted and felt comfortable with Bernadette’s fellow teachers, it took considerable time for Bernadette to trust my new colleague, especially since Anne Rudnicki was then a doctoral student and potentially wielded a great deal of power in the creation of Armstrong’s digital narrative inquiry representation. In retrospect, this was entirely understandable since Bernadette had been a research participant in one of my prior studies and had previously expressed dissatisfaction with the dissemination processes demanded by funding agencies. In fact, she earlier had declared:

There is something about the word dissemination—like the word seminal—that is totally and utterly wrong … We need ways to describe how ideas become shared. Perhaps then we could more ably understand what happens and what need to happen in order for teachers to share their knowledge in ways that are helpful (Craig, 2006, p. 257).

After Anne Rudnicki and I carefully revisited the aforementioned article with our present experiences with Bernadette held closely in mind, we better understood Bernadette’s reluctance as being associated with her experiential continuum (temporality) of having to advocate for arts education in a less-than-accommodating policy environment, not something solely something having to do with Anne (sociality) who was diligently trying to communicate Bernadette’s message. In short, the matter we were attempting to address was a career-long frustration for Bernadette, who was now nearing retirement and feeling increased urgency to make a difference.

Our third struggle had to do with finding a perspective—an intersection of Schwab’s curriculum commonplaces—to enter into the digital narrative inquiry that would aptly respond to the research query, “What is the experience of arts as a core subject area and arts as integrated in all subject areas in a primary school striving to attain International Baccalaureate authorization?” At one point, we began the digital presentation with a narrative secret divulged by Armstrong’s principal. Apparently, the principal had been visited by district administrators and had been told that the school’s scores were not what they should be. The district directive was that the campus needed to abandon its arts focus and engage its underserved students in “drill and skill” exercises in order to prepare them for the high stakes accountability tests. “I knew that would not work” was the principal’s unspoken reply to her chief superintendent, whose full name she openly used as part of our digital narrative footage. As a result, the principal said that she decided to throw even more support behind teachers like Bernadette Lohle who held alternate visions for children’s education and development. Bernadette’s principal was convinced that arts-infused learning at Armstrong was, in her words, “bringing learning to a deeper level” because “children latch onto it” and “the modeling they get is incredible.” Somewhat later, the school test scores increased, and the campus was once again visited by the district superintendent. However, this time around the superintendent declared Armstrong “the district’s best-kept secret.” Then, on a second occasion, Anne and I started the digital presentation with a story nugget told by one of Bernadette’s colleagues. That individual shared how a young girl was faltering—“hit[ting] rock bottom” in her school work and risked failing her high stakes achievement exams. Wisely, that teacher took the child to Bernadette’s music colleague in whose drum corps she was “a leader.” The music teacher—unaware of the child’s poor academic performance—reminded the youngster of her many stories of success in his class and in extra-curricular activities (temporality). With tears welling in her eyes, the first teacher declared that her colleague “saved [the student]”—which is how she phrased the music teacher’s timely influence on the child’s self-confidence (sociality). As it turned out, neither of these introductions to the digital narrative inquiry proved satisfactory, although both interactions would have provided us with provocative entrées into Armstrong’s reform plotline and both were eventually included elsewhere in the digital narrative representation. In the first instance, too much attention was paid to the educational hierarchy, and in the second instance, too much focus was placed on teachers who embraced the school’s art vision and not on those who initiated it. The third time around Anne single-handedly hatched a brilliant idea: she, as foreshadowed, focused on a child’s award-winning artwork and, through animation, breathed life into a fictional character who, in turn, became the story’s narrator. This was a story starter with which no one could quibble. The idea was fresh, technologically advanced, multicultural, and contextually relevant—all wrapped up in one. Temporality, sociality, and interaction became intimately interwoven via narrative inquiry’s fourth interpretive tool: fictionalization. Visit the link http://bit.ly/AgEobl to view a clip of the fictional character and story narrator.

Closely linked with our third issue was our fourth dilemma that specifically had to do with interaction: that is, who would be the narrator. At one point, I served as the absent narrator, which again lent too much authority to the educational hierarchy and presented a disembodied voice of someone who had not been introduced, an associated difficulty. On another occasion, audio-visual footage of Bernadette Lohle brilliantly breaking one arts-based learning activity into its component parts (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) was considered and, indeed, portrayed elsewhere in the digital narrative inquiry. However, we wanted to spotlight the Armstrong faculty’s shared efforts to use arts-infused teaching methods to enrich children’s learning, not make the contribution of a strong individual the focal point, however enormous that contribution was. Once again, the fictional character worked because everybody could have a say in the script of the digital narrative inquiry without offending or contradicting the “person” who held the privileged narrator position. Furthermore, the “person” was created by a Latino boy. Consequently, the voice became that of a child attending Armstrong Academy, which suited our purposes and added an element of believability to the representation. Also, an absent narrator child was somehow easier to accept than an absent narrator adult. The idea of the fictional child reflected the sociality of the place (school) and influenced the digital narrative inquiry’s title.

Our fifth issue was an opportunity that became a challenge. All of Armstrong’s teachers had previously signed research releases and all willingly participated in focus group discussions that were videotaped. However, when Anne Rudnicki and I noted that some of the teachers came to school dressed up for the focus group conversations, we realized that it might be highly problematic if only certain teachers were placed in the limelight in the final version of the digital narrative inquiry. As a result, we worked hard to include interactions involving everyone in the video clips—if only for fleeting seconds—to acknowledge participation in the project (sociality). This dilemma is one I have never previously encountered with research participants in written narrative inquiries. This is because I author multiple pieces of research in each school site with many teachers appearing in the foreground, but at different times (temporality). On this occasion, however, only one digital narrative inquiry representation would be prepared for the reform movement, its sponsors, and teachers and administrators from other participating campuses. In this instance, the stakes were higher. Participants instantly could see and hear what they had to say—they directly could receive feedback on the perspectives they shared. Their selves, informed by their personal agency (i.e., Amsterdam & Bruner, 2000;  Bruner, 1990, 1994; Hull & Katz, 2006), were immediately recognizable.

Having discussed five introductory challenges and opportunities of digital storytelling in the narrative inquiry vein at Armstrong, this article will now describe the second elementary school, Douglas Academy, and share how the digital narrative inquiry representation took shape there.


School Plotline

Douglas Academy sits on the site of the original segregated campus in one of the largest historical African American neighborhoods in the U.S. Douglas’s community was involved in a long-standing court dispute concerning the education of its children, a lawsuit that did not reach final settlement until the early 2000s. The federal courts determined that the neighborhood would have a feeder pattern of magnet schools built in it, and its community members decided those campuses would focus on mathematics, science, and the fine arts. Also, parents would have the option to enroll their children in either a Direct Instruction or a Montessori program. Currently, Douglas serves students enrolled in Grades 1-3. Like Armstrong, its grant from the local reform movement focused on arts integration in order to offset some of unintended consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Digital Narrative Inquiry Storyline

In Douglas’s 9-minute digital narrative inquiry, still-life photos foreshadowed its title, Douglas Academy: Then, Now, the Future (place, temporality). Background music, representative of each period of the school’s history (temporality), accompanied photographs of the original campus during the segregation years and portraits of some of the campus’s first students and teachers. Strategically sandwiched between “Then” and “Now” was a portrait of Martin Luther King, who advanced racial integration and was instrumental in changing how lives were lived (sociality) in the American South, particularly in this historical African American community (place), where local schools were closed or dedicated to other purposes and neighborhood children were bused to White schools for approximately two decades. What came next in the digital narrative inquiry was a photo of Douglas’s new school façade and massive building improvements, which were added to remnants of the original school in the late 1990s when the community’s children began to return to the campuses in it. The “Now” era also included photos explaining Direct Instruction, Montessori Learning and the benefits of Fine Arts integration. Clips of children playing in the schoolyard additionally appeared, along with a photograph of horses chewing hay across the school’s back fence. This linked the present-day community with its historical past and the first opportunity local African Americans had to purchase one-acre plots of land that, in turn, could be used for agricultural purposes. A faded sign, a good portion of which was missing, then introduced the community and its name (place). Sub-sections of the “Now” section appeared with the subtitles: “A Quest for Renewal,” “Preserving Its History,” “The School’s Feeder Pattern,” and “[Teachers’] Teaming for Excellence.” Here, photos of aged homes, abandoned properties, mobile homes with roof damage (covered with blue tarps signaling Hurricane Ike damage), unpaved streets, and piles of used appliances were shown. But new homes with metal fences and locked gates were also strategically included to suggest community regeneration. Pictures of community services also appeared—for example, tidy neighborhood churches of various denominations, a run-down store named Deluxe Foods and Baron Motel with lodging that appeared anything but stately (place). A further contrast was apparent in a photo of a well worn “snack shack,” which was followed by the marquee of a brand-new fried chicken place. Inside the school, several shots of teachers learning arts-based teaching practices with their Armstrong counterparts were included (interaction). Finally, when “The Future” flashed on the screen, the stream of photographs and accompanying music came to an abrupt halt, suggesting that what was to come in Douglas’s social narrative history was largely unknown, although currently in the process of being written (temporality).

Reflections on Creating Douglas’s Digital Narrative Inquiry

Unlike the other exemplars, Douglas Academy’s digital narrative inquiry, which was 9 minutes in length, conformed to the average timespan of digital stories. Douglas’s representation also was distinctively different from the rest in other ways. Let me explain.

At Douglas Academy, I experienced a crushing setback that was not anticipated when the long-standing teacher collaborator, through whom I vetted all of my activities on campus, transferred from the school ironically to assume an administrative post at Armstrong Academy. This untimely event occurred just prior to our beginning renderings of the digital narrative inquiry (sociality). This interactional void created a major shift in how the digital narrative inquiry representation at Douglas Academy was approached. Rather than developing a comprehensive storyline around the curriculum commonplaces, as was the case with Armstrong, my research assistants and I necessarily had to take a different tact. We decided to center on three things: (1) the school’s distinguished history, its contemporary community, and how education had and was taking place (temporality); (2) the different curricular programs operating under one school roof (context); and (3) two off-campus visits that Douglas’s teachers made to Armstrong Academy for advice concerning how to engage in arts-based learning (interaction). Each of these decision points informing narrative inquiry’s commonplaces (time, place, sociality) will now be elaborated.

To be honest, delving into Douglas’s historic background and contemporary community was most certainly inspired by the school’s lived story and my fascination with it since my early research with Bernadette Lohle, who previously was at Cochrane Academy, and with Roberta Roland at Renaissance Academy, among many others. But the fact that the visiting postdoctoral fellow from Canada, Dr. Guming Zhao, was very interested in culture and had a keen eye for expressions of it was also a motivating factor. I clearly wanted to use the strengths of my research team as well as make each member’s experiences relevant to his/her interests (sociality) and funded/unfunded research. It therefore made sense for us to find cultural-historical artifacts—one being a photograph of the school’s namesake, another being group photos of early staff members and students, and another being archived newspaper articles discussing the historical development of the community—and to include them in the footage we collected. Also, Thresa Stallings and my other research assistants, Xiao Han and Yung Chen Chung, painstakingly photographed the community, being careful to visually show the one-acre plots of land that distinguished the neighborhood where some of the first African American landowners dwelled. Our sensitivity to history and culture (context) was particularly appreciated by the Douglas faculty, especially the school custodian who happened to be the ex-officio community historian. However, he initially was less than impressed when Douglas’s principal allowed us to take the community’s cherished artifacts to the university to have them professionally photographed (interaction).

The second area on which we focused was the Direct Instruction and Montessori programs, which were two philosophically different curriculum approaches to early childhood education concurrently being lived at Douglas Academy. We recognized that a separate digital story of the abstract conceptual type could be developed for each of these phenomena. However, because our research method was narrative inquiry and the experience of arts fusion in both academic programs, we decided to elaborate the information about the programs and how the arts were integrated differently in each mode of instruction via a professional poster we had made. Additionally, we had a banner produced of the integrated units of study that the Douglas faculty had developed. Our sense was that these would convey information we would be unable to include in the storyline of the digital narrative inquiry due to time limitations (temporality), different foci (place, sociality), and different approach (narrative inquiry research method as opposed to digital storytelling via technological means).

As for the script of the digital media representation, rather than letting it emerge through experimentation and response as Anne Rudnicki and I had earlier done at Armstrong, we became more specific about narrative inquiry’s temporal considerations and decided to center on two half-day interactions that Douglas’s teachers had had with Armstrong’s teachers, which were a major part of Douglas’s grant proposal and initiated by Douglas’s faculty. We felt this “less is more” approach would help compensate for the loss of immediate interactions with Douglas’s primary collaborator. Also, I came up with the idea that we could turn what I previously had captured in field notes and what my research assistants had filmed on videotape into a readers’ theater script, which Thresa Stallings, another research assistant, prepared alongside me. This way we could distill what was shared, fictionalize who said it, and use real-world video clips, along with the still images discussed earlier, as background. Additionally, we could involve the person who left Douglas to become an administrator at Armstrong and include Armstrong teacher Bernadette Lohle as well, so as to retain the interactive nature of the original dialogue we were attempting to feature.

In the end result, Douglas’s principal who, on the one hand, was thrilled with the cultural-historical footage and the posters we created, but decided, on the other hand, that those two things alone would suffice. This strangely returned Douglas Academy’s digital narrative inquiry representation to Dana Atchley, Joe Lambert, and the origins in the digital storytelling technology, despite the research process in which we had engaged. Images, accompanied by music, were presented on a background screen while, in the foreground, the Douglas teachers spontaneously telling their story of how they integrated art on a campus supporting two philosophically different approaches to instruction. And to the side were the banners contrasting the two philosophies, how art integration evolved differently in each instance, and a chart highlighting the units of study Douglas’s faculty members had prepared. Visit the link http://bit.ly/yHD0wG to view and discuss a clip of Douglas’s visual media presentation.

Of course, many questions remain concerning why the readers’ theater script featuring the teachers’ own words was neither negotiated nor used in the manner anticipated (see Appendix 1 for informational passages from the script). Several reasons that have to do with human interactions exist, but none of them are definitive. First, with achievement testing in the offing, Douglas’s principal may not have wanted to burden the teachers with one more thing to do, however willing and able they were to do it. Second, the script included the previous coordinator who was now employed at Armstrong as well as Armstrong teacher Bernadette Lohle. Organizing a joint effort between the two campuses—especially while reeling from the transfer of a key faculty member to a “competing” district school—may have been difficult. Third, a delicate matter lay in the background. Douglas’s high stakes test scores exceeded those of Armstrong. The idea of the Douglas faculty seeking assistance from teachers at Armstrong would seem antithetical to the school district’s leadership team, which appeared to place more value on high stakes test scores than on providing age-appropriate, experientially rich activities to minority youth. The Douglas observation that “Armstrong is doing what we are trying to do” may not have sat well in a district which would have expected the statement, “Douglas is doing what we are trying to do” to be uttered by the Armstrong faculty. Fourth, the principal and faculty at Douglas quickly recognized that the posters and the photo montage (accompanied by appropriate theme music) could easily be used to culminate other grant programs also underway on campus—and in the future because the school’s history and program offerings would not change. However, if my research team integrated them in a way that placed the enacted readers’ theater dialogue in the digital narrative inquiry’s foreground, the material would only satisfy one grant program (although we would have gladly supplied two or more versions). In short, the digital narrative inquiry story arguably would not have the portability and applicability that its constituent parts had. A fifth possibility was that the principal as a newcomer to the project simply might not have understood the abstract description of a digital media production. Whether it was one or all of these considerations, a combination of a few or something else altogether that influenced the principal’s decision making, will never be known. What is known is that the campus, community members, and representatives of the reform movement were delighted with the constituent parts—and the research team was relieved of additional work. At the same time, we recognized that Douglas’s final product reflected the evolution of the digital story technology, whereas Armstrong’s digital narrative inquiry sat on the leading edge of the interface between narrative inquiry/digital storytelling and the dissemination of research was concerned.

Renaissance Academy’s exemplar, explaining its digital narrative inquiry representation, will now be introduced.


School Plotline

Renaissance Academy is an engineering magnet campus for Grade 5-6 students, most of whom are underserved Hispanic and African American children living in large extended family units in nearby trailer parks. Many of its faculty members and support staff speak both English and Spanish. It is located in an industrial area near the international airport. In contrast to Douglas Academy, Renaissance’s magnet program was sponsored by the school district as opposed to being mandated by federal law. The campus focused its reform effort on arts integration professional development for its teachers and cultural field trips for its children. The cultural field trips provided opportunities to interact in the urban core and beyond (Space Program, etc.) that Renaissance’s students would not otherwise have. Also, such experiences complemented the strong science push of the campus’s magnet, which had become increasingly grueling as a consequence of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Digital Narrative Inquiry Storyline

Through Ni’s Eyes: Children’s Experiences of Cultural Outings, Renaissance’s 19-minute digital narrative inquiry representation, begins with fictional character, Ni, taking a taxicab ride from Houston’s international airport to nearby Renaissance Academy. S/He, as a special representative of President Obama, has heard of this outstanding school and wants to know more about how high needs children are being educationally served in Texas. In the taxi, Ni poses a string of inquiry questions (“These are all businesses. Where are the homes?” “Are those cars all broken?” “Is that sign in Spanish?” “Where are the schools?”), and continues probing in this manner throughout the digital representation. In the background, U2’s (1987) “Where the Streets Have No Name,” can be heard, particularly the lyrics, “I wanna run/I want to hide/I wanna tear down the walls/That hold me inside/I wanna reach out/And touch the flame/Where the streets have no name.” Visit the link http://bit.ly/zN4MVo to view and discuss a clip of Ni arriving at the airport and his taxi ride to Renaissance Academy.

Arriving at Renaissance Academy, Ni immediately meets Roberta Roland, the school’s principal, who introduces him/her to her campus and invites him/her to learn about the students in attendance at the school. The principal explains the school’s engineering focus, how the campus has no immediate community, how the children enrolled come from large families, and how family incomes do not allow students to engage in community activities that would enrich their learning. Roberta Roland also proudly informs Ni that, while Renaissance’s students are at-risk, high poverty minority youth, the children’s scores on high stakes achievement tests exceed those of other youth in similar circumstances. She also personally thanks the reform movement for the experiences Renaissance’s students “would not otherwise have.”  

Ni then conducts a tour of the campus and begins to ask students about the grant-supported initiative from which they have benefited. The children, all but one being minority, enthusiastically discuss the cultural outings in which they have participated. In the midst, audience members learn about child poverty through comments laced throughout the representation (i.e., “parents don’t always take you places;” “cheap for your family;” “[problems with] paying on time;” “the need to keep you doing good [despite lack of money];” and so forth). After that, Ni learns of the school’s forthcoming cultural outing and is invited to accompany the students. S/He boards the bus with the children and joins them as they dine at a downtown restaurant before attending a play where they later interact with the actors. Back at the school, Ni continues to investigate what the students have learned as a consequence of the cultural outing. Two grandmothers also offer feedback. The representation ends with a child who dreams of being an entertainer performing “America the Beautiful” (Bates & Ward, 1910/1917) surrounded by her peers.

Reflections on Creating Renaissance’s Digital Narrative Inquiry

Having as long a history with Renaissance Academy’s principal as I have had with Bernadette Lohle at Armstrong, my research team members and I anticipated that we might also experience some reservations on the part of Roberta Roland when she learned that five research assistants would join me in creating Renaissance’s digital narrative inquiry (sociality). However, that was not the case. Roberta Roland was honored to have Xiao Han, Yung Chen Chung, and Dr. Guming Zhao (briefly) videotaping the school and community buildings (place), and Debra Shulsky and Dustine Thomas focusing on collecting specific community images and developing the digital narrative inquiry’s storyline. From a technical standpoint, the latter task is a vital stage in the digital storytelling process and an important consideration in the narrative inquiry research method as well.

Because the fictional narrator idea had worked so well at Armstrong and time remained an issue, I suggested we follow the same approach at Renaissance. My students and I began to read the Flat Stanley series of books in order to glean ideas. However, when another doctoral student who was African American pointed out that Flat Stanley was about a “1950s White guy,” it confirmed for us that we needed a different, more culturally appropriate plumb line into Renaissance Academy’s narrative. Because Barack Obama had recently been elected President of the United States (temporality), we decided that the fictional character would be a special emissary sent by him to research why cultural field trips were so vital to the education of high poverty, minority youth in the metropolitan Houston area (interaction). At the same time, we wrestled with how to name the young character in a way that would signal the cultural diversity of the school (place) without suggesting any one racial group. Once again, our African American friend came to the rescue: “Ni,” she offhandedly remarked, “could be male/female, African American, Mexican American, Asian American, Spanish-speaking immigrant …” Then, with a twinkle in her eye, she added: “And could be narrative inquiry???” Also, Anne Rudnicki rose to the occasion and assisted once again: She created Ni and made his/her lips move, which was a major technological feat. Also, she completed the final touches on the digital narrative inquiry while Dustine Thomas, who also had a digital technology background, determined the images to be used and placed them in order.

Although the “less is more” script at Douglas had not unraveled as planned, the same approach was favored for Renaissance. The exciting part of Renaissance’s reform project was the 8 field studies per year in which the students engaged. But we figured that focusing on all of the studies would dilute the unique learning associated with each outing. Therefore, attention was centered on the next field trip, which happened to be the world premiere of The Man Who Saved New Orleans (Meloncon, 2008) at the Ensemble Theatre, which fittingly would be performed at Houston’s historic African American theatre (place). The play revolved around an extended African American family from New Orleans that relocated 280 miles west to a relative’s home in Houston and how the grandfather, who was part African American and Choctow Indian, helped each member overcome his/her fears and breathed hope into the vision of New Orleans “rising up again” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (interaction). The encompassing theme, in the grandfather’s words, was that “If we can save the young, if we can turn them around and keep their dreams afloat. … New Orleans can be saved” (Meloncon, 2008).

With Renaissance’s principal’s permission, all five members of the research team accompanied 35 students and their chaperones to dinner and to the theater performance. Of course, Ni fictitiously joined us. Along the way, photos were taken to which Ni would later be digitally introduced (empty seat on the bus, empty chair at dinner table, unfilled seat in the theater, empty spaces alongside the actors). For my part, I worried that our presence would be an imposition on the Renaissance faculty and volunteers. On the contrary, the graduate students’ face-to-face interactions with the children were rightly interpreted as expressions of genuine interest. A warm reception was also received at the Ensemble Theater (place) where we found ourselves almost the only White and Asian faces in the crowd (sociality).

Understandably, we were not able to videotape the Renaissance children seated in a particular section of the theater with parent volunteers, teachers, and the doctoral and postdoctoral students mingled in between nor were we able to capture images of the actors as they performed their roles on stage. This was a liability. However, two unexpected affordances helped overcome these constraints. First, the cast members stayed after the performance to converse face-to-face with the children and we were able to film those exchanges (interaction). Second, the Ensemble Theater, upon our request, sent us the play’s promotional scenes and key lines from the script, both of which were used in the digital narrative inquiry representation. The unanticipated cooperation we received from the Ensemble Theater suggested that the manager and actors greatly supported the cultural outings offered Houston’s underserved youth. Indeed, some actors shared that they were high need learners themselves earlier in their lives (interaction).

Following the play, I asked Roberta Roland whether we could interact personally with a few Renaissance students about their experiences of The Man Who Saved New Orleans. Interviews were also requested with the Latina school secretary who was the grandmother of one of the children and an African American great-grandmother who chaperoned her child’s child whom she was parenting. When the research assistants and I arrived at Renaissance on the appointed day, we were overwhelmed to find the library filled with all the students who had participated in all of the field trips—as well as the great-grandmother who arrived promptly at 7:30 a.m. and the school secretary who was already at work. It was obvious to my research assistants and me that everyone was anxious to participate and had been given the chance to do so. We subsequently were faced with a dilemma that we needed to resolve quickly. Due to the technical limitations of the equipment we had brought and the limits of our human capacity, we realized we would have to organize the students into several focus groups of five with two focus groups concurrently being videotaped. In each instance, one of us would moderate the discussion and move around our paltry supply of microphones, the second of us would videotape, and the third would write field notes. Also, the conversations in motion would necessarily be limited to three queries: (1) Why should children on an engineering campus be involved in cultural field trips? (2) What did you learn from experiencing the cultural outings? and (3) What might you like to share that our questions have not addressed?  

In a less-than-ideal videotaping session, Renaissance’s students provided responses that could not have been predicted or even imagined. One White boy abandoned by his parents and living with his grandmother who was handicapped matter-of-factly informed us that his extended family did not have money for anything other than basic needs. He furthermore shared his grandmother’s fervent desire for him to have experiences in the community, and of his older siblings, who also were raised by grandma, and how they had “emptied their jean pockets” to collectively gather 10 dollars for their brother’s dinner before the play. They, too, wanted him to benefit from the cultural experiences. In this way, he said, they demonstrated “their love for [him].” Another student, an African American male, told how the exciting activities preempted his physical fights and verbal arguments with his siblings at home and with his peers in the community. Numerous other students—Black, White, and Latino—said the field trips were the highlights of their year/life and that they were welcome diversions to “putting in time, watching television,” as one Hispanic girl termed it. By way of contrast, the outings gave them something educative and “fun” to look forward to. Still others (African Americans, Latinos, and Whites) claimed the Native American part of their heritages, which, they admittedly had “glossed over” or been “ashamed of” in the past (temporality).

Several other children went deeper in their analyses. They saw the grandfather character in the play providing youth with a productive plotline of how to overcome setbacks that may happen in one’s life. The grandfather figure, noted some, taught the life cycle and how those dying can imbue others’ lives with wisdom and insight (interaction). One young Latino male told of how his father had unexpectedly died the previous year and how he psychologically had not been able to return to his home and sleep in his own bed for 6 months. In the young man’s words, he had “totally shut down.” But then he saw The Man Who Saved New Orleans and had written about it in class and reflected on what it had taught him in the interim. The boy realized that his father would not want him “stuck” in a morose state. So, the boy decided to “pick up the pieces” and participate in life—school and extra-curricular activities as well. The Man Who Save New Orleans, the young Latino declared, “helped [him] work through [his pain] (voice breaking up) … and modeled [for him] how to “[go] out and [do] something. … He helped [the boy] to stay with dance [salsa]—and not to ever give up.” Meanwhile, an African American girl discussed her identification with the young girl in the play who lost her voice due to the trauma brought about by Hurricane Katrina. She appreciated the “diversity in the play” and saw it as “a heart-giving gift that [she] was able to relate to.” She likened the character’s frightening experience to her own loss of hearing in her right ear, which occurred when a tree crashed through her Houston-area home during Hurricane Ike, causing damage yet to be repaired. Still others indicated that the play helped them to temporally story their lives into careers in singing, acting, broadcasting, choreography, engineering, teaching, psychology, and social work—to name but a few of the options being entertained for the future (temporality). As can be seen, the relationships established with the Renaissance children and their principal afforded understandings that would not have otherwise bubbled to the fore (interaction).

As for the two grandmothers, their contributions were equally revealing. In her interactions with us, the African American great-grandmother, a community activist and founder of a “Grandparents Parenting Grandchildren” group, spoke of racial typecasting and how African Americans are most often associated with sports and how narrowing and erroneous that is. She made a compelling argument for the arts as also being a vehicle for creative expression and a way for young people to deal with both positive and negative emotion in understanding self and interactions with others. She also indicated that her great-granddaughter had already been a featured soloist at local churches and at a major league baseball game in downtown Houston. The information she provided led us to videotape one of the child’s in-school performances, which we then used to culminate the digital narrative inquiry representation. Where the Hispanic grandmother/school secretary was concerned, she spoke of “the spark in the children’s eyes” when they returned to Renaissance after the field trip experiences. In her own home, she had observed that the cultural excursions had become a marker point by which future experiences were made sense of by her grandchildren—one of whom continues to discuss a play attended in fifth grade from a high school purview. And both grandmothers mentioned the special needs children who were included in the field trips. Both were quick to note the autistic boy who rarely interacted with others at school but who could barely stop talking after the community outings he experienced alongside members of his peer group (interaction). Visit the link http://bit.ly/w4l4T5 to view and discuss a clip of the grandmothers’ narratives.

Having discussed the Renaissance digital narrative inquiry experience in addition to the Armstrong and Douglas cases, Hawthorne Middle School’s digital narrative inquiry will now be shared.


School Plotline

Hawthorne Middle School is located in the same feeder pattern as Armstrong Academy. Hawthorne was a premier campus located in a thriving golf course community before Houston’s economic crisis in the 1980s. Since then, neighborhoods in Hawthorne’s student catchment zone have been in serious decline. Hawthorne Middle School was in the process of seeking IB authorization and was using its grant award from the local reform movement to integrate arts activities and field trips into its newly planned IB units of study. Like Douglas Academy, Hawthorne Middle School achieved its IB authorization during the period it held the local grant.

Digital Narrative Inquiry Storyline

Hawthorne’s digital narrative inquiry, which was 20 minutes in length, was titled Hawthorne Middle School’s Arts-Based Reform Effort. The representation began with black-and-white photos of a neighborhood filled with government-subsided housing units (place), many of which became occupied with evacuees in the aftermath of the hurricane that struck New Orleans. In stark contrast to these dwellings with doors falling off the hinges and broken window shades is Hawthorne’s school building (place), whose photo appears in color, along with a sign indicating its reform movement participation. The deep voice of an absent male narrator concurrently describes the campus’ seriously declining neighborhoods (place) as being in close proximity to a road deemed “the most dangerous street in America.” Then the camera takes viewers inside the school (place) where everything is clean, bright, and orderly. High points of the visual tour of the school context are the campus’ two art galleries and related displays, all of which happened as a consequence of the reform movement funding.

Background information offered by Hawthorne’s principal, Rita Giles, and me comes next. Rita Giles discusses how “excited” Hawthorne was to have been awarded the honor and how the 5-year award allowed her minority, at-risk students to “gain experiences” that life had not previously offered. She described how Hawthorne Middle School, a campus that once was suburban, was now “definitely urban.” I continued this theme in my contribution by sharing the percentage of high-risk students, the number of New Orleans students who attended after Hurricane Katrina, the awards the school has garnered, and the transformation that occurred when displaced at-risk youth from New Orleans joined Hawthorne’s already at-risk student population (see Olson & Craig, 2009).

Cameo interviews with three educators come next in the digital narrative representation—one being a literacy teacher, another being a drama teacher, and the third being the IB coordinator. The literacy teacher tells of how arts-based IB units of study have been written and how “a whole new world has been opened to [students]” by virtue of the field study trips imbedded in those units. She matter-of-factly observes that many Hawthorne students have “never left the neighborhood—even to go downtown.” The drama teacher next discusses the annual whole-school reading and study of a play (i.e., Rodeo Mongolia [2007]), which culminates in a live production with the playwright performing alongside Hawthorne’s youth. He tells of how his interactions with students in the school have increased because “other kids want to [talk with him] about the play” (sociality) and how the play and its associated learnings have “enriched the lives of children at the school.” After that, the IB coordinator acknowledges that the grant helped Hawthorne’s faculty to “beautify our building” (place) and assisted in putting Hawthorne “at the forefront of educational opportunities” through coupling the grant effort with the school’s bid to become an IB World School. Throughout this segment of the digital narrative inquiry, wall charts outlining the IB units of study, the corresponding field trips, and the associated fine and performing arts activities are flashed on the screen, together with display materials, which support each theme.

Hawthorne Academy’s digital narrative representation ends with scenes of students rehearsing and finally performing Backyard Story (Pascoe, 2010), along with several student interviews (interaction). One male tells of how he has “learned to go in front of people … and deal with [his] fears.” Another student, a female, tells of the life experiences afforded her and how her “creative eye, her third eye” has been opened to things to which she previously was unaware. A second female discusses attending a Shakespeare performance and how she “witnessed Shakespeare [in action]” and was no longer passively reading the classics. The final student to contribute was also a male. He lamented that he did not participate in the Backyard Story play experience (reading or performance) and regretted that he had “missed out,” which was an alternate interpretation to those communicated by other Hawthorne youth. That young man’s parting words—which formed the finale of the digital narrative inquiry—were “too bad, it was COOL.”

Reflections on Creating Hawthorne’s Digital Narrative Inquiry

In the Armstrong, Douglas, and Renaissance digital narrative inquiry exemplars, history (temporality) played a role in one way or another. The same was true where Hawthorne Middle School was concerned. Both the personal history of my interactions with the Hawthorne principal and teachers, and the social narrative history of Hawthorne’s neighborhood rose to the fore.

Although this was the first time I had worked face-to-face with Hawthorne’s faculty, I had known many of them since 1997 when the reform movement operated under a different name, had a much larger budget, and articulated a much grander vision of school change. At that time, Hawthorne had been part of the second tier of schools and I had worked with teachers in five of the first tier schools. The acknowledgement of this prior pecking order, imposed by the reform agency, initially seeped into my relationship with the Hawthorne teachers who frequently apologized for not representing “top tier” schools like my previous research participants. I had to work hard to convince them that I did not parse the educational landscape in the same way and in the same terms that the reform movement did (sociality).

Also, where history was concerned, Hawthorne had a rich community heritage like Douglas, but not nearly as long. In its prime, Hawthorne’s feeder pattern high school had been one of the U.S.’s “Blue Ribbon” schools (place). Now, Hawthorne was “another campus filled with high poverty, minority kids bearing a rich dead White man’s name,” as one teacher succinctly worded it. Unfortunately, this apt contextual description was not captured on videotape, but it did influence how we introduced Hawthorne’s digital narrative inquiry. Everyone agreed that bleak panoramic views of Hawthorne’s feeder pattern neighborhoods—in their advanced states of disrepair (indeed, many condemned apartment buildings and many blue tarps on roofs)—should open up the media production. But we went wrangled in the negotiation process over what would accompany that footage. I favored an historical artifact: the newspaper headline about “the most dangerous street in America.” I realized that it was somewhat sensationalist but it did address the reality that a young woman had recently been found murdered in a ditch less than three blocks from the campus—and the fact that the principal had earlier confided—but not on videotape—that “some of Hawthorne’s students step over dead bodies to get to school.” When Sun Hong Hwang, the lead research assistant on this particular digital narrative inquiry (who received support from Xiao Han and Yung Chen Chung) followed my suggestion and we later preview the footage with the research participants at Hawthorne, the teachers were less than comfortable. They wanted to temper the realities of what was happening in the world outside the school with the positive, uplifting, educative things happening within it. Hence, a compromise was struck. The digital narrative inquiry representation would open with the stark, black-and-white community photographs and Hawthorne’s creative drama teacher who volunteered to the absent narrator (no narrator problems this time around) mentioning the dangerous thoroughfare nearby. Immediately, after that came vibrant color photographs of Hawthorne’s building, classrooms and art galleries (place) as well as live scenes from Backyard Story, the first play all of the students studied and performed (courtesy of the grant)—as well as the caveat that “the staff and student at Hawthorne were working hard to overcome certain community influences.” Visit the link http://bit.ly/yjgv9E to view and discuss a clip of Hawthorne Middle School’s digital narrative inquiry. In retrospect, I can see where my telling of Hawthorne’s school narrative came across as a “frozen story” (Conle, 1999)—a plotline stuck in time that the characters of the digital narrative inquiry representation could not overcome—and their telling offered the possibility of living forward in the future in more positive ways via the storying and restorying process, a vital component of narrative inquiry. Concurrently, I considered the extent to which their version might also have been a cover story (Crites, 1979, Clandinin & Connelly, 1995; Olson & Craig, 2005) that veiled truths about the dangers associated with their school placement that they may not have wanted to publicly admit. Then, too, that cover story may have been a necessary one that allowed them to continue to teach at Hawthorne. And, as I later thought about it, that same cover story may have enabled me to conduct research there, alongside my research assistants, despite known safety issues repeatedly documented by the local news media and incidents I had observed and heard about while conducting research over a 4-year period (temporality) in the school context (place).

Interestingly, Hawthorne Middle School’s digital narrative inquiry was the only one in which I made a live appearance as a researcher. Hawthorne’s teachers made the special request. They wanted me to share what I observed happening on the Hawthorne campus when the middle school received an additional 105 displaced students from New Orleans. They worried that if they raised the topic they might be perceived as “whiners, complainers, and makers of excuses.” At that particular juncture of time, the campus risked losing its reform movement funding because Hawthorne’s faculty and administration became so focused on attending to the dire needs of these traumatized students and their families/extended families that it did not meet all of its grant obligations (interaction). Because of our sustained relationships established over time, I understood the teachers’ position and gladly participated. I even surprised myself with the detail I packed into the brief contribution (85% high needs student population, 80% mobility rate, particular stories of New Orleans students and their parents, high scores in mathematics achievement tests, named as one of the best middle schools in Texas by Texas Monthly Magazine in 2006 and 2008, and the like).

Having candidly discussed the opportunities and challenges of my digital narrative inquiry experiences at Armstrong, Douglas, Renaissance, and Hawthorne, I now synthesize what was cumulatively learned at the crossroads when ideas and practices related to digital narrative inquiry representations were brought together within the context of my four funded school-based projects, all of which involved temporality | sociality | place (Dewey’s qualities of experience) and teachers | students | subject matter | milieu (Schwab’s commonplaces of curriculum).


Located at the crossroads where narrative inquiry and digital story intersect, the four experiential exemplars presented affordances and constraints from which many valuable lessons were gleaned. These lessons largely had to with (1) relationship (2) perspective (3) authorial voice (4) cultural/contextual relevancy (5) negotiation (6) audience and (7) technology. While many of these considerations surfaced in the initial work at Armstrong, they inevitably resurfaced in multiple and varying ways in the other school milieus and therefore warrant additional discussion. These factors cumulatively shed light on the provisional definition of digital narrative inquiry with which this article began and on which it will soon end.


A quality arguably unique to the narrative inquiry research method, relationship became even more important in the digital media representation process because further elements of complexity were added to it—people speaking in real time and frequently interacting with their colleagues in ways that did not allow narrative secrets to be hidden, together with the addition of research assistants in order to deal with the technical and human magnitude of the research effort. The prior relationships I had cultivated as a lone funded researcher on each campus certainly laid a strong foundation in preparation for the digital narrative inquiry representations and eased the doctoral and postdoctoral students’ entries into the multiple milieus. However, this did not negate the fact that each of us as individuals and as members of a research team had to be keenly attentive to relationship. At Armstrong, time was needed not only to figure out how to create digital narrative inquiries for dissemination purposes, but to grow relationships and build a new form of trust (interaction), one in which technology would be an unknown, social-mediating force because we, in the spirit of fluid inquiry, had no preconceived notion concerning how the digital narrative inquiry experience would play out. And, at Douglas, the untimely loss of a relationship meant reframing and revamping how the entire digital narrative inquiry was approached. Respect for a potentially developing relationship additionally meant learning to live within the parameters of other people’s choices—even when a more elaborate digital narrative inquiry representation could have been created. Where the Renaissance Academy digital narrative was concerned, the Grade 5-6 students would not have been as open with their observations and sharing of intimate experiences had it not been for doctoral students, Debra Shulsky and Dustine Thomas, for example, sitting alongside them, interacting with them, entering into their worldviews, and entertaining multi-storied experiences of curriculum from their vantage points. Meanwhile, at Hawthorne Middle School, secure relationships meant that the teachers could frankly tell me that they wanted me—not them—to discuss the delicate issue of the influence of the displaced students from New Orleans on the reform initiative and school context. Also, this group of teachers became comfortable interacting with the research assistants without me being present on all occasions, which suggested a higher degree of comfort. At the same time, Hawthorne’s teachers were more guarded about what their students would say than was Roberta Roland, principal at Renaissance, for example. This may have reflected their positions as teachers and the blame teachers often incur—particularly in this era of high stakes accountability—when student behaviors and academic achievement fall short of others’ expectations. Alternately, it may have had something to do with the fact that Hawthorne’s students were middle school youth who were sometimes “rough around the edges”—as one teacher deftly worded it.


Perspective was a second major consideration. Finding an intersection of the curriculum commonplaces that would provide entrée into the digital narrative inquiries focusing on the human experience of particular integrated arts-based reform initiatives was no easy task. Once again, our struggle was most pronounced at Armstrong where relationships, the breadth of experience, the number of people involved (administrators, initiators of the reform, lovers of the reform, students, arts partners, etc.), and the balancing of the formal and informal roles the people played in the school context with the roles they would assume in the digital narrative inquiry representation came into play. At the same time, what we learned at Armstrong became important knowledge that shaped the vantage point from which we approached Douglas’, Renaissance’s, and Hawthorne’s digital narrative inquiries. The fictional character’s perspective at Armstrong birthed the Flat Stanley idea at Renaissance, which eventually morphed into the President’s fictional emissary arriving at the airport and marveling at the signs having to do with dog fights, drug abuse, and human trafficking in the school’s industrial neighborhood. Also, rather than taking on the topic of arts education in all subject areas in one primary school context over time, as was the case at Armstrong, we learned that we needed to sharpen our focus, limit the time frame covered, and reduce the number of featured activities: two professional development meetings between Douglas Academy and Armstrong Academy teachers, one cultural outing at Renaissance, and students studying a particular play (Backyard Story), which coincided with the end of the reform effort at Hawthorne.


Intimately connected with perspective is authorial voice, the third consideration. Once again, the Armstrong experience taught volumes mostly because many teachers, students, and principals asserted their narrative authority (Olson, 1995) concerning their personal experiences of arts-based reform. This left us wrestling with whose narrative authority would take the lead—and how this might effectively be accomplished through the use of absent narrators. It also left us puzzling why another faculty member did not assume the lead teacher position at Douglas when a colleague became an administrator at Armstrong Academy. We also wondered why children’s voices were not included as a way to bring learning full circle, despite students being part of the original intent. It caused us to question whether “drills and skills” were the curriculum of Douglas’s Grade 3 students in the months leading up to the high stakes achievement exams, despite cover stories of arts-based instruction being told. As for Armstrong, readers will recall that Anne Rudnicki’s technical genius resolved the issue of authorial voice there. At Armstrong, everyone could speak through the fictional character and multiple perspectives and voices could be accommodated. Needless to say, the Armstrong experience most directly affected the Renaissance digital narrative inquiry where we took a copycat approach, albeit through Ni, another contrived character through whom multiple stances could be channeled. Furthermore, because we had learned vital lessons at Armstrong, we could broaden the aperture of our lens of experience at Renaissance to include the authorial voices of the grandmother and the great-grandmother, who helped us to confront stereotypes of at-risk, minority children and their families through involving actors and perspectives “hard to come by.” We could also include scenes from The Man Who Saved New Orleans and footage of students conversing with the Ensemble Theater actors, which also assisted the sense-making of audience members viewing the digital narrative inquiries. As for Hawthorne, the creative drama teacher volunteered to be the absent narrator when I first introduced the digital narrative inquiry idea, which thankfully took care of many issues that we could have encountered. Given the nature of the creative drama teacher’s work, he was a natural for the role and he knew—from his extensive theater experience—how multiple perspectives and many authorial voices could be channeled through one character. Fortunately, he was a generous narrator with whom to work. This helped us to avoid the chronic problem of the “sure interpreter” or “reigning interpreter” (Lindemann Nelson, 1995) who shuts down meaning-making opportunities rather than generatively opening them up for reinterpretation.


Cultural and contextual relevance is the fourth theme that emerged in this inquiry. Douglas Academy was the campus where we paid the most discerning attention to place and its historical and cultural considerations. This became expressed in the photos and videotapes sensitively gathered by Thresa Stallings, Xiao Han, Yung Chen Chung, and Dr. Guming Zhao and in the professionally archived materials. Hawthorne’s shifting school context, particularly the influx of the young victims of Hurricane Katrina, also received our close attention. Meanwhile, at Renaissance and Armstrong, we relied heavily on images to convey the racial and cultural diversity of the students rather than naming the phenomena directly in the interactions featured in the digital narrative inquiry. At Renaissance, readers will recall the African American girl who emphasized the importance of attending an African American-themed play shown in a historical Black theater. All in all, digital technology enabled context to be made available to audience members in real-time ways that written forms of narrative inquiry could never accomplish regardless of the number of words assigned to abstract descriptive text.


The fifth consideration to which I draw attention is negotiation, which is wholly dependent on relationship, the first topic discussed. This particular research enterprise was deeply laden with complex acts of negotiation. It can be said that digital narrative inquiries are products of multi-layered negotiations, involving teachers, principals, children, parents, grandparents, community members, research team members, principal investigator, and unseen audiences. On several occasions, research team members presented ideas and even semi-developed segments of digital narratives to which other researchers and/or the school-based educators offered feedback. Readers will remember that the introduction to Armstrong’s digital narrative inquiry changed three times. Also, the principal of Douglas—due to time and other considerations—declared null and void—the readers’ theater script documenting authentic interactions that Thresa Stallings and I created. Yet another example of negotiation took place when the Hawthorne teachers felt uncomfortable with the newspaper headline that Sun Hong Hwang included at my request. And, at Renaissance, readers will remember that Roberta Roland enabled all of the students who participated in the cultural outings to have their say—not just the few requested. What initially befuddled us in the process also surprisingly became a source of unexpected delight where the digital product was concerned, which often is the case with the narrative inquiry research method and the ends achieved.


As foreshadowed, the sixth theme that emerged in this study had to do with audience. In this work, reform movement funders and those who funded the reform movement were to be the primary audience members, although teachers and administrators from other schools also viewed them. Of paramount importance to this work was the development and sustenance of “I-You” relationships between the digital narrative inquiry representation and members of multiple and differing audience members, many of whom would never come in contact with members of the research team and the research participants whose relationships initially made the work possible. Also, I was ever conscious of the fact that the digital narrative inquiries were not to be promotional materials, although they potentially could be used that way, as Douglas’s principal, it seems, quickly figured out. The digital narrative inquiries needed to be about human experience—planned and unplanned, positive and less positive—in teachers’/principals’/students’ own terms, not the perspective that others (school district officials, consultants, government authorities, researchers) impose on them. In the narrative inquiry tradition, it is assumed that an intelligent audience will form its own opinion rather than having take-away points predetermined for them. At the same time, narrative inquirers have a responsibility to educate audience members’ meaning-making processes and to avoid doing so in a Hollywood plotline way, which is a natural human tendency. Where educating the audience was concerned, we included details or lines in the scripts that dealt with alternate points of view. For example, we incorporated the potentially negative impact of the press for achievement test scores in Armstrong’s script and in Douglas’s readers’ theater and how arts-based education potentially played out in those scenarios. At Renaissance, we featured billboards not typically found near schools in middle- or upper-class neighborhood. At Douglas, Renaissance, and Hawthorne, the many faces of poverty and how those faces were mostly students of color dominated the digital narrative inquiry representations, with some verbal contributions pointing to poverty as the underlying/overriding—indeed, perennial, concern.


Consistent with the history of the digital story technology, technical considerations, the seventh consideration, were also less important in these digital narrative inquiries than the development of plotlines conveying human experience. However, they were essential to the quality of the products created. Fictionalization, an interpretative strategy used in narrative inquiry, was facilitated through the use of advanced technology. This enabled a one-dimensional narrator to emerge in a three-dimensional way from a child’s piece of artwork. As a result, the fictional character could move and speak. But there were many lower level technical considerations we learned as a consequence of this digital narrative inquiry project as well. We learned to spend lots of video time shooting single images and to hold the camera still and move painfully slowly when filming hall displays. We also learned we did not have enough or the appropriate kind of microphones to support focus group conversations. Furthermore, we came to know that professional videographers would be needed to film close-up images of children and teachers in order to capture expressions such as the “sparkle in their eyes” to which the Latina grandmother referred, a phenomenon that also was observed in person by us, but one that we regrettably could not find video evidence to support.


Like other forms of representation, digital narrative inquiries present affordances and constraints. Since narrative inquiry has no preordained research design, representational ideas able to communicate lifelike instantiations naturally emerge in the throes of the narrative research process, becoming “not as much a means to an end as they are part of the ends achieved” as Conle (2000, p. 201) so cogently put it. In hindsight, a bevy of inquiry decisions sat in the backdrop of the four digital narrative inquiries as the featured exemplars and my meta-analysis of them made visible. But one sticky point remains that has not been directly named. In the digital narrative representations, the authentic names of the schools and some participating adults (including a superintendent, as readers will recall) were unavoidably mentioned. This happened because the media productions were initially disseminated locally. However, in this written manuscript, I have used pseudonyms so that my previous research with Bernadette Lohle at Cochrane Academy/Armstrong Academy and Rita Giles at Hawthorne Middle School, for example, could be cross-referenced. But I mostly elected to take this approach as a way to protect the privacy of the young children and youths who made brief appearances in the digital narrative vignettes. In the end result, this means that the linking of the digital narrative inquiry representations with this article unavoidably requires that certain names be silenced in the audio and specific images be blurred in the visual presentation. To me, this was the prudent way to manage representational issues that arose from the dissemination of this local arts-based reform work nationally and internationally.


With the benefit of experience and retrospective analysis, I am now in a position to embellish the interim definition of digital narrative inquiry provided at the beginning of this article. Having lived through the creation of the four digital narrative inquiry representations, I am able to add that the process collapses gaps and spaces between living and telling, and re-living and re-telling in a way not possible through written forms of representation. In short, the verisimilar renderings we produced were able to convey a near raw sense of experience, which inexorably included the history of education in the American South, dissatisfaction with current educational policy and the encompassing ways that poverty narrows the life experiences of children from low/no income families (nuclear and extended). Despite these sensitivities and associated vulnerabilities, research participants paradoxically became more desirous of contributing to the digital narrative inquiry representations we proposed. This was probably because the digital narratives reflected their immediate experiences, but also because of potential rewards stemming from the sharing of the work (i.e., personal recognition, school recognition, the possibility of the grant program being re-funded). Furthermore, the “best-loved self” (Schwab, 1954/1978) of the participating teachers—that is, their agentive selves—was able to rise to the fore in their discussions of the possibilities of arts-based learning and what they were able to discern from students’ work products. The teachers, for example, were quick to liken the impact of the arts on their students to a similar impact on themselves. Also, emotions and attitudes were easier to apprehend in the digital representations of this narrative inquiry research. These included such things as tears misting in people’s eyes and quivering voices. Of particular importance was the fact that the research process from which the narrative representations arose made them qualitatively different from digital stories approached through technological means (more interactive because living/re-living was interlaced with telling/re-telling) and quantitatively different due to the productions being more than twice as long as the average digital story.


To end, some major questions swirling around this digital narrative inquiry work will be named. One has to do with whether digital technology should serve as a representational form of the narrative research method. A second is whether narrative inquiries approached digitally will eventually replace other forms of narrative inquiry. Ideas concerning future research form a third query. Fourth, the audience’s response to the four digital narrative inquiries needs to be shared. While these are not the only questions that this research study raises, they are some of the most obvious ones on which to focus.

To begin, digital narratives should be produced via the narrative inquiry research method. However, as earlier stated, this claim does not extend to all narrative inquiry topics/projects. Relationship, collaboration, and negotiation necessarily must be part of media products for them to be narrative inquiry representations. And alternate viewpoints, as Schwab (1983) advised, need to be included—not as interesting diversions, but as deliberate acts of alternate interpretation and triggers of doubt, which make for subtle distinctions. At the same time, there is a challenge inherent in the use of the digital story technology in representing narrative inquiries. The fact that the most engaging presentations are short in length (i.e., 20 minutes) means that many of the complexities and complications encountered in the lived narrative inquiry space over time (in this case 4 years) and in the subtleties of relationship were not addressed due to time restrictions. They realistically could not be included in the final products despite their warrant of inclusion. Thus, digital narrative inquiry representations are not a replacement for existing narrative exemplars such as the various forms of written (telling stories, parallel stories, story constellations) and enacted (one-act plays, readers’ theaters) ones, which allow for more in-depth analysis, particularly on the part of the researcher/research team. While digital narrative inquiries give more interactive, real-time voice to participants, provide more graphic understandings of place and offer immediate opportunities to influence educational policy, their condensed format places researchers in more of a facilitation role, a relatively comfortable place for narrative inquirers, and demands more of viewers where interpretation is concerned. This is because the researcher—like a film producer—is not actively acknowledged as part of the experiential “happenings and goings on.” She or he is not able to verbally direct the audience’s attention to this phenomenon or that phenomenon. Interpretive cues are much more subtly presented and audience members do not necessarily grasp and/or act on them. As for the teachers, principals, community dignitaries, and reform representatives who viewed the digital narrative inquiry representations, I witnessed them using their experiences of viewing the digital narrative inquiries to spontaneously initiate more informed discussions with colleagues concerning various aspects of school programs and student impact. Stated differently, the digital narrative inquiry representations worked—independent of their original purposes—as facilitation devices, which makes them highly useful from both policy and practice perspectives. And, from a distance, these subsequent interactions seemed deeper, richer and more centrally focused on arts integration due to their immediacy, relevancy, and compact nature. Also, in the aftermath, a program officer from one of the local philanthropies approached me about combining the four digital narrative inquiries into a single product in order to draw attention to the varied ways that the arts positively influence the lives of underserved, minority youth. Such a request would doubtfully have happened as a consequence of my published narrative inquiries. Thus, the immediacy of the impact of digital narrative inquiry representations cannot be underscored. The possibility of a quick turnaround could result in future school and research funding. Finally, we arrive at the question concerning where future research needs to be conducted. Reflecting back on this research journey, I see there is more work needed in the curricular uses of the digital story technology as well as unmarked territory where the use of digital narrative inquiry representations for teacher development and research dissemination purposes are concerned. Epistemological and ontological considerations at the intersection of narrative inquiry and digital technology also exist and are best dealt with in a separate article. Additionally, the work presented here addressed the teacher, student (to a certain extent), and milieu commonplaces of which Schwab spoke, but only brushed the surface of the subject matter commonplace. Furthermore, I jumped into this research project with both feet, working with multiple research participants and many research assistants in a shared reform effort rather than systematically working with two or three teachers, focusing on a particular subject area, and showing how those teachers mined curriculum potential (Ben-Peretz, 1975). In addition, the ancient art of storytelling, which, in hindsight, also sits in the background of this digital narrative inquiry work, was not explicitly addressed. So there is a great deal more that needs to be accomplished—from exploring storytelling devoid of its digital association, to working in particular content areas and staying within particular teachers’ pedagogical milieus, to exploring digital narrative inquiry’s teacher development and research dissemination potential, the latter of which I attempted to do here. A huge practical world exists in school milieus.

Teachers/administrators/researchers/policy makers/citizens-at-large need to better understand what happens on campuses. Countless interactions between people, places, and things are available to be documented through digital narrative inquiry representations, as I hope I have demonstrated through the four live arts-based reform exemplars and the opportunities and challenges that emerged while attempting to represent them digitally.


The author acknowledges the reform movement, which provided funding through the schools that supported the narrative inquiries conducted in the four research sites. She also thanks the University of Houston for a technology grant that financed the purchase of special equipment and the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education, University of Houston for the financial support provided doctoral students. The postdoctoral fellow from the University of Alberta was funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR). Finally, the author thanks Michael Connelly for his feedback on an early draft of this manuscript.


1. I would like to recognize Dr. Anne Rudnicki who headed up the creation of the Armstrong Academy digital narrative inquiry and played a technical leadership role in the development of the Renaissance Academy digital narrative inquiry.  Also, I acknowledge Dr. Sun Hong Hwang who took the leadership role where the Hawthorne Middle School digital narrative inquiry was concerned.  Dr. Xiao Han also deserves recognition because she assisted with the aforementioned digital narrative inquiries and assumed the technical leadership role in the development of Douglas Academy’s photo montage.  Where the Douglas project was concerned, Dr. Thresa Stallings worked diligently on the readers’ theater style script and served as the neighborhood photographer, alongside Dr. Guming Zhao, a visiting Post-Doc from the University of Alberta, Canada.  Lastly, Dr. Debra Shulsky and Dr. Dustine Thomas made important contributions to the development of the Hawthorne digital narrative inquiry and Yung Chen Chung provided strong technical support to all four digital projects.


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Appendix 1: Sample Excerpts from Douglas Academy’s Readers’ Theater Script

Excerpt 1: Temporality and Place

Teacher 1: Douglas Academy’s history parallels the history of the _______ Community. That history is also one of educational excellence, reflected in our walls of awards.

Teacher 2: ________ was a subdivision of homes originally developed around World War I. It took its name from the fact that land was sold by the acre and not the lot. The owners’ gardens and the livestock they kept on their properties gave the area a rural atmosphere. This created a deep sense of pride in its African American residents. You still can see people riding on horseback from time to time. In fact, we have horses across the back fence from our school.

Teacher 1: Douglas was the original ________ School during the segregation years. Overcrowding caused the students to attend classes in shifts, which severely impacted their quality of instruction.

Excerpt 2: Place and Interaction

Teacher 3: The overcrowded situation and the limited hours students could attend (due to the shifts) caused one African American father to cross Highway I-45 to seek equitable education for his three children in a White school.

Teacher 4: The denial of those children’s admission ignited the long-unresolved federal desegregation lawsuits that ultimately resulted in the creation of a feeder pattern of magnet strand schools specializing in mathematics, sciences, and fine arts, namely _____ Academy, _____ Academy, _____ Academy, _____ Academy, _____ Academy, and _____ High School.

Excerpt 3: Interaction

Teacher 1: Bringing the arts-based program into Douglas’s core curricula presented several challenges beyond those typically experienced in schools due to the two different educational philosophies/programs housed in one building.

Teacher 3: Arts integration is a natural fit with the Montessori philosophy and teaching approach.

Teacher 2: Arts integration in direct instruction classrooms is possible, but our accommodations appear different from our Montessori counterparts. We focus more on content overlap than integrated learning experiences.

Teacher 3: In the Montessori program, art moves beyond the boundaries imposed by a traditional core curriculum and evolves into a tool for expression and creativity.

Teacher 2: In the Direct Instruction program, art is viewed as an integrated discipline and as such is used authoritatively.

Excerpt 4: Interaction

Teacher 4: A wide variety of terms are used to suggest teacher development or teacher professional development.

Teacher 3: Teacher professional development and teacher training differ in significant ways.

Teacher 4: Teachers need technical training in order to develop certain aspects of their practices. I know that from my work as a specialist.

Teacher 2: However, teachers prefer learning experiences that advance their knowledge and their practices as teaching professionals.


Teacher 1: In this period of accountability, Douglas’s commitment to the Arts as well as to math and science, places it in a position of breaking new ground.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 4, 2013, p. 1-45
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16927, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 6:05:13 AM

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About the Author
  • Cheryl Craig
    University of Houston
    E-mail Author
    CHERYL J. CRAIG is a Professor in the College of Education, University of Houston, where she coordinates the teaching and teacher education program area. Craig currently serves as the Secretary of the International Study Association of Teachers and Teaching. In 2010, she was named an AERA Fellow. In 2012, she was a recipient of AERA’s Division B (Curriculum Studies) Lifetime Achievement Award.
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