A Desire Line to Digital Storytelling
by JuliAnna Ávila - December 09, 2008
This essay describes the digital story of one 12-year-old girl from New Orleans, living in a FEMA trailer park at the time, who participated in an after-school technology program. I focus on the lessons her participation offered, including the need for educators to allow space for "desire lines" to learning, even in a time of standardization and accountability.
Over three years have passed since Hurricane Katrina wrecked New Orleans, and the devastation seems to have faded from our collective consciousness into the ever-expanding territory of history. Renaissance Village, which once housed 1,500 residents as the largest FEMA trailer park in Louisiana, closed the week of June 7, 2008. In this essay, I describe my work with Brunica, a former resident of New Orleans and participant in an after-school program at Renaissance Village, and depict what her participation in digital storytelling taught me about the contextual nature of participation itself.
Doing Digital Storytelling in Renaissance Village
I had moved to Louisiana during the summer of 2006 to work in the UC Links after-school program at Renaissance Village; UC Links, tied to the University of California system, describes itself as a network of educational programs that connect community and university partners to provide computer-based and other learning activities for school children (UC Links Annual Report, 2007).
Although I was finishing my dissertation at UC Berkeley at that time, my involvement in the after-school program was not tied to my graduate work. Instead, I viewed it as an opportunity to do constructive work in education before going on the job market. Also, I had been a high school teacher in Los Angeles seven years earlier and after many years of graduate school, I felt out of touch with the passion and possibility that had caused me to go back to school in the first place. I still believed that education, and literacy in particular, could bring some amount of freedom to students lives, but I had since learned how tricky that was to accomplish and that it would require much more of me than just enthusiasm.
I worked in the Renaissance Village after-school program four to five days a week for ten months, although we did not have access to computers until the last six months. There were a myriad of educational and social services provided by the after-school program staff; I focused on doing technology-based activities with children in grades three through five. We had three main activities: a protected blog where students could post their writing and receive responses, email communications with UC Links staff, and, primarily, digital storytelling (to view the digital stories in their entirety, see storyagainstsilence.org). Digital storytelling involves combining imagery, written text, audio-recorded voiceovers, and music, using iMovie in our case, to tell ones stories (Hull, 2003; Hull and Katz, 2006; Hull and Nelson, 2005; Kajder, 2004; Lambert, 2006). I also used informal literacy assessments, like the Getting Started questionnaire, that came from UC Links.
Brunicas Digital Story: People of Hurricane Katrina
Brunica, a 12 year-old fifth grader at that time, lived in Renaissance Village with her mother, grandmother and siblings. She was one of our last students to attempt digital storytelling, and it took a few months to convince her even to try it, although her brother was one of the more enthusiastic participants. Both she and her brother had attended the after-school program since its beginning.
In this essay, I describe her desire line to digital storytelling. A desire line usually represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination (Wikipedia, n.d.), and while Brunica took longer to arrive at digital storytelling, she arrived there in her own time and on her own terms. For her, it might well have been the shortest route. As a teacher, I am sometimes so concerned with keeping everyone accountable and productive that I lose sight of the multiple routes to travel while learning. Brunica reminded me of how unfair the assumption of one uniform path to literacy really is.
On the Renaissance Village Learning Center Pre-Survey, she marked that she was good at working on the computer but also answered that she did not enjoy reading and writing. It was not just that Brunica was a struggling writer, although I suspected that she was, given how reluctant she was to participate in any of our literacy activities and based on what I did see of her writing, but she also seemed intimidated by using computers for school-like tasks. It was also a challenge to get her to complete the informal writing assessment Getting Started, and she wrote, I do not no in response to some questions while leaving others blank. She was also unable to spell her states name. She seemed self-conscious and hid what she was writing with her hand, even after I reassured her that spelling errors wouldnt count in that activity. She later revealed that her trouble with spelling prevented her from liking writing. When I told her that she was still capable of communicating despite this, she looked at me warily. It surely doesnt take students very long to internalize whatever deficits schooling identifies in them.
Brunica decided to participate during the last couple of months of our project, after we had been doing digital storytelling for three months. It was after seeing some of the digital stories her peers made about Katrina that she decided to join and announced that she would make her story about that, as well. I had planned to work on her first digital story for a short amount of time to avoid overwhelming her, but once she began looking for pictures on the Internet, she became engrossed and worked for three times as long as I had initially suggested. She wanted to look for Hurricane Katrina people, after I suggested using Hurricane Katrina as her first search term. The students I worked with created their Katrina stories by first looking for images on the Internet, creating an order for the ones they chose to include, writing the accompanying narration and then recording it. The last steps were to add sound effects or part of a song.
While searching for images, Brunica talked to me about her own personal experiences of the storm: while viewing pictures of people wading through the city, she recalled her mother bringing a boat to transport her family away from their submerged house. Perhaps this opportunity to share her own experiences colored her decision to make her story about people of Hurricane Katrina. I was careful not to tread into raw emotional territory and so asked few direct questions about her experience. I tried, instead, to let her determine the course of her story just as she had decided how to approach digital storytelling in the first place. I felt little of the teacher-authority I usually feel in a classroom because this had been her experience, and not mine, and I avoided making any editorial choices for her so that this would be her construction.
As the following transcript of Brunicas first digital story illustrates, she focused on the relationships of people involved in this disaster, and even used artistic license by beginning with a picture of two men, who were not actually her family members, although she set the tone of her movie by claiming them. Perhaps she felt that surviving the storm created a kind of familial bond, even among strangers.
Figure 1. Transcript of People of Hurricane Katrina by Brunica
Brunicas last step in her digital storytelling process indicated that she became aware of her ability to add layers of meaning to her story by using music. Foregoing the popular sound effect of thunder that so many of her peers had chosen to add to their Katrina stories, she chose a song that was popular at that time, Dont Matter (Akon, 2007). After we added it and then played her story, her eyes widened as she realized that these lyrics had a special significance in this context. In particular, she announced that the refrain, nobody want to see us together/nobody thought wed last forever&.things between us going to get better was an appropriate match for a movie that described exile from a beloved, though troubled, place. She was pleased with her choice and remarked that, its good that I picked that song because it fits New Orleans. She also seemed a bit surprised that this assemblage of story and song was her creation, and I was pleased that after months of trying to convince her to try this activity out, it elicited a sense of achievement.
Being able to use digital storytelling to portray personal relationships proved to be a critical hook for Brunica. That she could define the impact of Katrina in terms of what it did to family members appealed to her and led her out of her silence. Her earlier trepidation about being able to spell correctly dissolved in the face of the more compelling task of telling her version of how Katrina impacted families.
Reluctance and Possibility
Initially, I had been tempted to define Brunica by her reluctance. What I learned from her that I now use in my teacher education classes is that literacy education often begins with assumptions, and the careless, erroneous ones have the power to stifle possibility; I nearly dismissed the possibility of Brunicas participation. By the time my involvement in the program ended, Brunica had started on her next digital story about her life in Renaissance Village. She had made so much progress, but none that could be measured by a standardized assessment.
Now that I am in teacher education, I often think of Brunica and her peers in the Renaissance Village after-school program when I caution my students about judging their struggling and reluctant students. Perhaps these students just need to participate on their own terms, at least initially, and forge their own desire lines to literacy. Maybe they just need to feel part of a community and have the opportunity to tell a story that comes from their own lives, as well as the lives of those in their home communities. This is not a novel claim Im making, but one that is easily crowded out, by standards, accountability and standardized testing that places so much pressure on both new and veteran teachers in public schooling. Creativity, and taking time to approach literacy by traveling ones own desire line, seems like a luxury in our current educational environment.
Storytelling is a human right, no matter how much trouble a student might have with traditional, school literacies, or the path they may travel to arrive. Exile, whether it be academic or geographic, cannot take that away.
Akon (2007). Dont matter. On the Konvicted album. Lyrics retrieved December 9, 2008 from http://www.completealbumlyrics.com)
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Lambert, J. (2002). Digital storytelling: Capturing lives, creating community (2nd ed.).
Berkeley, CA: Digital Diner Press.
UC Links Annual Report 2006-2007 (2007). University Community Links SAPEP Report 2007. Retrieved December 7, 2008 from http://www.uclinks.org/what/what_home.html
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Desire lines. Retrieved December 7, 2008 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desire_lines