Lifelong Learning, teaching writing & storytelling

Why is telling a story important?

Originally written in June of 2012

A response to Have, Pahl, and Roswell and the importance of digital storytelling for our students …

I found every word of Haven’s chapter to be important and applicable to my work as an English teacher. Many of the references to research and the ideas expressed simply reaffirmed my own experiences and learning over the last eleven and a half years of teaching. I felt validated in reading much of this article; however, my teaching context is going to be changing dramatically next school year. From January 2001 through this school year, I taught high school English in a very large, traditional public high school. Next year, I will be teaching seventh and eighth grade language arts electives, creative writing (7th) and dramatic writing (8th), in a private, college preparatory school.  Not only is the general atmosphere completely different, but the study body will be markedly different as well. Of all the ideas, Haven’s comments about the broad educational value of writing stories stand out the most. “[L]earning to effectively write stories is a valuable precursor to learning to write other expository forms since stories developed tens-of-thousands of years before expository forms” (p. 117).

First, this statement reinforces the value and importance of my role as a creative writing teacher. This course, although an elective, clearly has the potential to play an essential role in assisting students’ progress as learners across the content areas. By starting with explicit instruction in story structure, Haven suggests that I help students improve their ability to comprehend all forms of text. Furthermore, this explicit instruction may have “a large impact on their [students’] enthusiasm for and willingness to spend school and home time writing” (p. 116). Clearly, as a writing teacher, any activity that can improve student enthusiasm and motivation is a valuable activity to include in my teaching.

Second, in my opinion, the scope of the eighth grade course, dramatic writing, is vague and not clearly tied to any specific educational objective. Prior to reading this chapter, my plan was to propose changing this course to “creating digital presentations” (or something to that effect). Now that I have read this chapter, I plan on proposing the course change to “digital storytelling” with the following educational objective (still a work in progress): Students will learn to apply story telling techniques using new digital media to express a variety of cross-curricular content. I believe I can use much of the research provided in Haven’s text to support this change as a relevant change in focus that will assist students in all of their classes towards meaning making and effective communication of ideas.

Pahl & Rowsell

In my experience as an educator, I have found that “reading” is not an activity performed in isolation. For years, experts in reading have suggested that one of the best ways to increase student comprehension is helping students to access prior knowledge, a concept confirmed in Haven’s chapter. Pahl and Rowsell comment that “Street therefore challenged us not to see literacy as a neutral skill, but as a socially situated practice” (p. 14). Street’s challenge to see literacy as a socially situated practice seems to me an extension of the idea of accessing prior knowledge in reading. As individuals, we call upon different literacy skills depending on the context. If I am reading a text for graduate school, I use the literacy skills I have developed as a student and an educator to engage with the text. From accessing my prior knowledge of educational theories to personal experiences as a student and educator, my situation is unique and, therefore, informs my comprehension of the text and the literacy skills that I use to comprehend it. If I am engaging in a group text message conversation with my friends, I utilize an entirely different set of literacy skills based upon this context. My friends and I have our own set of shared understandings and I can draw upon the prior knowledge that I have of those understandings to make references to our favorite media or memories. Likewise, our students have many different skill sets that can be enhanced depending on the situation; therefore, it seems essential to recognize the various social situations in which students engage in literacy practices and help students identify strategies they use in different domains and guide students toward “tweaking” existing literacy skills towards usability in new domains. In other words, if a student already understands how to explain the importance of a character in a movie based on the socially situated practice of discussing and analyzing a favorite movie, it becomes the teacher’s responsibility to point out how that literacy skill can be applied in the new domain of discussing and analyzing the importance of a literary character in a print text.



Haven, K. F. (2007). Story proof: The science behind the startling power of story. Westport, Conn: Libraries Unlimited.

Pahl, K. & Rowsell, J. (2005). Literacy and education: Understanding the new literacy studies in the classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Lifelong Learning, teaching writing & storytelling

Story Core: Analysis & Application for Education

At the heart of all storytelling and writing is a story core, but how can the concept of a story core improve the quality of education? 


Ohler (2008) introduces the concept of a story core as a “vastly simplified version of the hero’s journey” (p. 72). He identifies the three major components of a story’s core, which can be briefly summarized as the central challenge, the character’s transformation, and the response and resolution (p 72).

In the Williams and Cantina story, both men face the challenge of adapting to life with each other. For Williams, this challenge presents itself as facing the unknown: “’I didn’t know what kind of food you were going to eat’” is the first in a list of “unknowns” that Williams lists in the beginning of the story. For Cantina, this challenge presents as an adjustment from living as a single person to living as someone who must share his life and space with another person. Both men are transformed by the experience when Williams discovers that he will become a father. To Williams, the transformation is clear: he transitions into parenthood – ready or not. For Cantina, on the other hand, the transformation is subtle: he describes a realization that Williams is a responsible, committed young parent. He says, “’I think the thing that impressed me the most was your comment that my son is going to know who his father is.’” In the end, each man expresses gratitude to the other. Thus, the initial challenge of adapting to life with each other is resolved: Williams has found comfort, guidance, and support from Cantina, claiming that all the good in him has been “put there” by Cantina; meanwhile, Cantina claims the feelings of a proud parent when he thinks of Williams and all he has achieved.

In “Harry the Dirty Dog,” a dog is challenged at the beginning of the story because he will have to take a bath. He runs away and has a fantastic time becoming as dirty as can be, only to find that he misses his family and wants to return home. He so much desires to return to his family that his revulsion to bath is transformed: he must beg for a bath in order to be recognized. In the end, Harry’s problem is resolved because he takes a bath and is immediately recognized by his family as their beloved pet. Furthermore, he lives “happily ever after” with the bathing brush stored neatly under his bed.

My favorite of the three pieces is the animated short “Kiwi!”. In the video, a kiwi bird wants to fly, which is a challenge for this small, flightless bird. In order to overcome his physical detriments, kiwi transforms not himself but his world so that he can experience a simulation of flight. Kiwi’s response is taking a leap off a cliff, and, through this “flight,” he learns what it is to fly, but his flight ends in certain doom as he crashes to the ground.

Any analysis would not be complete without addressing the challenges of the different mediums. I found the audio story to be the most difficult to analyze, and I am unsure as to whether my difficulty results from the lack of visual components or my own discomfort with personal narratives. I never thought of myself as a visual person; however, I felt as though this story was lacking something that I needed in order to understand the characters. On the other hand, the challenge could be that literary analysis is part of my professional context, and I am more comfortable with traditional “stories” like “Harry the Dirty Dog,” which I found to be the easiest to analyze as it adhered to a traditional story structure.

The medium of delivery for “Kiwi!” created an opportunity for audience transformation. When clicking play on this video, a viewer naturally expects a funny, light-hearted cartoon about a silly bird doing something silly. After all, what kind of “bird” has useless wings and cannot fly? And, this particular kiwi is nailing trees to the side of a cliff. How odd. Then, when the kiwi places the flight goggles on its head, we realize what is happening – we are shocked at the unexpected turn of events. The story is not silly or funny. This story is sweet and sad, and speaks to us about achieving a dream and reaching beyond our limitations — something one might expect to be presented in a different medium, such as a fable with colorful hand-drawn illustrations or a personal narrative with evocative photographs, but not a wordless cartoon. There are over 32.5 million views of this video with the most recent comments written in Thai (at 8 a.m. June 25, 2012), translated the viewer states: “The dream is to fly in my life.” I must logically conclude that the transformative nature of the viewing experience is derived from the contrast of presentation with that which we expect, and that viewers across the globe are sharing this video because the story speaks to anyone because it does not speak at all. Only one word is included in this video: “Kiwi!”, introducing the bird and lamenting the bird after it has “landed”. Thus, the lack of language broadens the audience allowing for increased access to the creator’s story.


Ohler (2008) recommends studying story core as a component of media literacy education because “story core is often employed as a way to structure many forms of media” (p. 75). In my opinion, media literacy can no longer be a topic that we teach incidentally. As Ohler (2006) points out, “students need critical media skills in a world overwhelmed by story-based media “ and that we want students “to learn and think critically about media” (p. 47). By explicitly teaching story core to students, we give them the tools to “see more clearly the persuasive nature” of the various elements of a story. In other words, when students become digital creators, perhaps trying to persuade their own audiences, they will understand when they are being persuaded by another creator’s choices in digital stories. Understanding how producers use story to express information is a key characteristic of being a literate consumer of media.

The most surprising educational application of story core Ohler suggests is using story core structure as a method for designing instructional units. Although my personal education context is creative writing and relies heavily on story planning, this approach for structuring educational units is interesting. He suggests positioning the students as heroes beginning a quest characterized as the learning objective. The students-heroes are thus transformed through their research, analysis, and other learning activities. The result is their discovery – the new knowledge or understanding they have acquired.

Prior to reading about “story-form” unit planning in Ohler’s text, I had never thought of constructing an educational unit in this format; however, I have instinctively done this in the past. For instance, I regularly form project assignments as “missions” such as “your mission is to write a …”.  This form of inquiry-based instruction is similar to the webquest, which even imitates Campbell’s hero’s journey with its vocabulary (quest, task) and its structure (an initial task that begins the journey of knowledge-construction/acquisition that will lead to a clear transformation in the students completing the task, drawing conclusions, and having final evaluations) (Dodge, 2007).

Both the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (2003, p. 57) and the Common Core State Standards Initiative (2012) include explicit standards for teaching students to compare, contrast, analyze, and evaluate the impact of medium on a narrative. A teacher can guide students through this process by teaching them to use the story core as the tool for analyzing the stories. When students are able to recognize the story elements in various forms of media they will be able to meet various standards and learning objectives. For example, the “Kiwi!” video illustrates the impact of visual components on a story and how a word (kiwi) can carry significant meaning depending on the story context. Students armed with the story core as a tool would be able to analyze this video and discuss the impact of the medium on the story rather than simply summarizing the events.

In my own instructional context, I will certainly be using the story core as a method for helping my creative writing students evaluate the strength of their stories. Ohler (2008) suggests that having students create a story core prior to beginning digital production is “truly important” because “[o]nce the media production process is rolling, it’s difficult to significantly change directions” (p. 76). Ohler (2006) expresses concerns that as the students’  “technology becomes more powerful, their stories become weaker” (p. 45). He asserts that the use of the story core ensures that students are focusing on their story first so that the technology does not overpower the story and does not distract students from creating a good story first (p. 73). He even suggests that teachers can use the story core as a way to assess the quality of stories (p. 77).

In conclusion, I am surprised that I have not encountered Ohler’s simple, yet powerful, concept prior to reading his text. Certainly, I am familiar with Campbell and have applied his hero’s journey countless times in lecture and assignments in my classroom, but Ohler’s story core simplifies this concept and easily leads into the more in-depth hero’s journey that is prevalent, and necessary, for literary discussion and analysis in any English teacher’s classroom. Story core will become a regular part of my teaching practice.

UPDATE: As a writing teacher, I adapted these ideas into a lesson for teaching story structure in seventh grade. Both “Harry the Dirty Dog” and “Kiwi!” featured heavily in this lesson. Resources are available here.

Works Cited 

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2012). English language arts standards >> Anchor standards >> College and career readiness anchor standards for reading. Common Core State Standards Initiative. Retrieved on June 25, 2012 from

Dodge, B. (2007). Creating webquests. Retrieved on June 25, 2012 from

Ohler, J. (2005). The World of Digital Storytelling. Educational Leadership, 63(4), 44-47.

Ohler, J. (2008). Digital storytelling in the classroom: New media pathways to literacy, learning, creativity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Lyle, S. (2000). Narrative understanding: developing a theoretical context for understanding how children make meaning in classroom settings. Journal Of Curriculum Studies, 32(1), 45.

Madyeti47. (2006, June 27).  Kiwi! [Video file]. Video posted to

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. (2003). Adolescent and Young Adulthood English Language Arts Standards, (2nd ed). Arlington, VA: National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Retrieved from

StorylineOnline. (2012, May 21). Harry the dirty dog [Video file]. Video posted to

Williams, C. & Catania, R. (Speakers). (n.d.). I didn’t have any idea as to what to expect … [Audio podcast]. StoryCorps: Every voice matters. Retrieved June 25, 2012 from






ed tech in practice, teaching writing & storytelling

Resources from “Why Blogs?” Presentation

Resources from “Why Blogs?” Presentation

Visit this page from my blog for all of the resources I mentioned or showed in my presentation at the Pine Crest Summer Institute this June 23 and June 24.

ed tech in practice, teaching writing & storytelling

Pine Crest Summer Institute Presentation, June 23-24

Sharing Comes Full Circle

Blogging is not a new fad-like hobby anymore. Blogging is not MySpace, or Instagram, or any other passing phase. One can aspire to “be” a blogger as a professional career. For our students, who have both feet planted firmly on the “this is life” side of the digital divide, blogging is one piece of the large social media puzzle that is their lives. It would be foolhardy for English teachers especially, but for any teachers, to ignore the power of blogging for their students. Blogging means sharing, and sharing is valuable to students. Blogging means capitalizing on students’ innate desire to make connections with their peers and their desire to express themselves using the digital media that has been a part of their whole lives.

Like my student who highlighted getting his ideas “out there” as the most important positive aspect of blogging, I, too, hope to enhance the power of my idea by sharing with my peers and colleagues who would find value in the results of this project. The first step has been sharing portions of this research to my meager blog audience, but this week I will present this to a national conference being held at my school. An ideal outcome would be for more students to have the chance to express themselves and receive feedback and to know that their unique voices are being heard. What will our students write when the world is their audience?


ed tech in practice, teaching writing & storytelling

Digital Storytelling: Love it!

I created the above video for my Digital Storytelling class at the University of Florida this summer. The purpose of this video is obvious, I hope: I will be teaching creative writing and dramatic writing (two separate courses) in my new teaching position for 2012-2013. One of the foundations for the writing courses, as I am designing them, is a daily journal. I have spent years collecting my creative writing inspirations and resources and spent the bulk of this summer (at least that time that was not devoted to graduate school) picking out my favorite journal prompts. The prompts featured in the video will appear within the first two weeks of class. I believe strongly in the value inherent in writing a journal — regardless of the quality of the written product. The act of writing — of expanding one’s comfort level with writing on any topic for a mandatory period of time — is arguably the best way for my adolescent students to improve their confidence and, therefore, their skill in writing. I wanted to explain these ideas in a fun way to them. Plus, I want them to create their own digital stories, and I can’t very well ask them to do something that I haven’t successfully accomplished myself. Can I?

Digital Storytelling is one of the electives I chose for my Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction. I am excited about teaching a short unit on digital storytelling using many of the ideas that Jason Ohler explains in his text Digital Storytelling in the Classroom: New Media Pathways to Literacy, Learning, and Creativity. For now, I will include the commentary that I wrote when I turned in this assignment. I do hope to elucidate some of the additional lessons learned in future posts.

In reflecting on the completion of this digital story, I have learned the following lessons that will help me when I implement a digital story assignment with my students:

  • It is easy to underestimate the length of the final video. I estimated that my video would be three and a half minutes long, but, without adding anything to the original pre-production plan, the video is seven minutes.
  • The nitty-gritty details in producing a digital story can consume a lot of time. I will strictly limit the number of elements (transitions, titles, stills, music, sound effects, etc.) that students are permitted to include. 
  • Production could easily overshadow story. Although I am confident that production highlighted the quality of my story, I can see how my students might get lost in producing and forget that the story is the central objective in digital storytelling.  Therefore, through limiting elements and focusing on the story core, I will endeavor to keep the story as the central focus.
  • Advance access to an excellent rubric is vital. As long as the rubric reflects the learning objectives, students should be able to focus on the most important aspects and not get lost in the details.

I hope to include a few more posts about some of the additional teaching ideas I have gleaned from this course. Suffice it to say that I have a lot of “take aways” that I will be taking directly into my classroom this coming school year. Certainly, a unit on digital storytelling is a new “must have” for my students. The only question to remain is how much am I going to learn from their videos? I venture to guess that I will learn quite a bit!