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published: March 2004
analytic scripts updated:  October 28, 2010

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Museums and the Web 2003 Papers

Digital Storytelling at the National Gallery of Art

Julie Springer, National Gallery of Art;  Sara Kajder, University of Virginia; Julia Borst Brazas, Chicago WebDocent Project, USA


Stories put us in touch with ourselves, others, and our surroundings. Using innovations in multimedia technology, student and adult audiences can make personal connections to visual art and museum artifacts through new ways of storytelling. Digital storytelling is a new medium for this age-old practice and one that is humanistic, culturally rich, and globally relevant. This paper will review the pedagogical dimensions of a digital storytelling tutorial for K-12 teachers that took place at the National Gallery of Art's Teacher Institute in the summer of 2003. It will also examine how the concepts presented have been translated into real-world experience in Chicago public schools. The value of digital storytelling - for teachers and for museums - will be addressed through the perspectives of the museum educator who organized the Institute, a language arts teacher who served as a technology coach, and a program enrollee who develops on-line educational resources for Chicago public schools.

Keywords: digital storytelling, teachers, education, art museums, instructional technology


The 2003 Teacher Institute explored the connections among storytelling, imagery, and learning, while it examined the ways teachers can use art objects with storytelling activities in the classroom. The last three days of the program were an intensive, hands-on tutorial in which participants told their own stories about an artwork, artist, or experience with art through short, digital movies.  With help from coaches, teachers wrote, designed, and produced an electronic story using Adobe Photoshop Elements, Apple iMovie software, and Smartsound Sonicfire Pro. 

Prior to their arrival, participants were offered tips on script duration, number of images, and use of video clips. A password-protected Web site was established to help them prepare.  The site outlined the educational premise for storytelling (digital and otherwise) and offered bibliographic and Web resources for crafting an effective movie (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Home page of the password-protected site designed to help teachers conceptualize and plan their digital stories.

Why Storytelling, and Why Do It Digitally?

With the growing interest in storytelling across many sectors of society, it seemed a timely topic for the Teacher Institute and offered a perfect link to narrative art. Word and image go hand in hand. Until the Twentieth Century, paintings and sculpture were often vehicles for storytelling, and effective storytelling has always used rich visual metaphors for immediate, sensory effects. Recent research also suggests that people process and retain information in narrative structures and that stories are fundamental to making meaning.  According to learning theorist Roger C. Schank, stories are at the core of human intelligence.

Stories allow us to share our experiences and build a sense of community with others. Penninah Schram says,

Storytelling connects people.  It connects hearts.  It helps answer questions like: Who am I? Who are my people?  With what values did they live?  How should I live?  How should I die?  What are the legacies that I want to transmit to my children and to the next generation? (Mooney & Holt, 1996).

Bill Harley believes that storytelling is particularly important today: 

With all the noise we have in this culture, it's heartening that one person talking can still command attention.  (Mooney & Holt, 1996).

The pedagogical dimensions of storytelling could be summarized as follows: they are

  • Humanistic: a culturally rich and venerated practice, global in relevance; encourages people to value their experiences both imaginary and real, and it puts us in touch with ourselves and others. Stories communicate values.
  • Cross-disciplinary: stories apply to many K-12 subjects, including language arts, history, social studies, and humanities
  • Cross-cultural: narrative structures cut across cultural and geographic spaces and unite oral, written, and technological literacies.
  • Multisensory, multimodal:  they have visual, auditory, kinesthetic properties
  • Constructivist: storytelling is learner-centered; tales are created out of an individual's knowledge and experience.
  • Learning directed:  we learn in narrative structures and think in terms of stories.

Storytelling about museum objects can be particularly powerful. Cultural treasures that have been singled out for preservation - cherished over time, fought over, bartered, stolen, celebrated in verse - can have a singularly powerful and evocative presence. Properly structured, storytelling activities encourage people to connect to these artifacts on a deeper, more personal level, reaching an understanding that goes beyond the more traditional, intellectualized parameters established by museum professionals (historical, cultural, stylistic, and biographical).  If proof is needed of the power of museum treasures to inspire storytelling, witness the rise of popular books and movies inspired by works of art, most recently Jan Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Digital storytelling allows many of the traditional elements of performance-based storytelling to be seamlessly integrated - the visual and verbal, the kinesthetic and auditory.  Because it incorporates a wide range of task - including scriptwriting and editing, image manipulation, voice-over narration, music selection, and timing - digital storytelling allows educators to address multiple learning styles within a single lesson.  Since it draws on a wide range of academic skills, digital storytelling also has impressive cross-curricular potential.  Finally, it helps learners of all ages build the technological skills required in an increasingly electronic society.  As they learn word-processing and imaging software or transfer video clips and still photographs from digital cameras to computers for use in their movies, digital storytellers master general technology concepts and operational skills.

Among master teachers, digital storytelling is rapidly becoming a major vehicle for building twenty-first century literacies. According to Kathleen Tyner (1998), it offers the advantages of an experiential approach to learning while combining oral and alphabetic literacies with those intrinsic to the new multimedia.

The National Gallery Experiment

These theories and educational goals informed the 2003 Teacher Institute at the National Gallery of Art.  As part of a six-day professional development program about storytelling and the visual arts, teachers of varied disciplines, K-12, participated in a three-day digital storytelling tutorial conducted by Joe Lambert and Emily Paulos of the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, California.

Using Apple iMovie and Photoshop Elements imaging software, teachers produced a 3- to 5-minute movie that focused on an artistic motif of their choice.  They were asked to come to Washington with a one-page script of their voice-over narration and 10 to 20 images with which to tell their story. Participants were also provided with step-by-step guidance on how to build an effective story: the Center for Digital Storytelling's May 2003 revision of the Digital Storytelling Cookbook and Travelling Companion  was made available to them in printed and pdf formats. Upon completing the Institute, all were given copies of Lambert's book (2002), which covers technical matters while making an eloquent case for the transformative power of storytelling.

Meg's Story

Digital storytelling can be a compelling and satisfying process, from crafting the right story through every stage of the technological telling. It is learner-centered in the best way imaginable as it asks us to make meaning out of experience we deem significant.  The digital story made by Meg Garcia, a high school English and Art History teacher from southern California, is an outstanding example of authentic, object-based storytelling. Meg's story revolved around the child she hopes one day to have - a daughter, to be named Matisse after the French early Twentieth Century artist.  His colorful, decorative paper cutouts provided the visual foundation of the narrative.  In these decorative collages painted with opaque watercolor (gouache), cut with scissors and then pasted in place, Meg saw her dreams for this child unfold: 

Matisse Margaret Garcia will be the name of my daughter. I want my child to be unique and use her personal pair of scissors to craft the shape of her life. I want her imagination to be as vivid as gouache on paper . . . I want her to be named after Matisse, who, in the face of crippling arthritis could not keep the sea snail in the depths of the ocean . . . .

Several factors make Meg's digital story successful. First, she is comfortable enough in her knowledge of Matisse and his work to allow her personal reflections to remain center stage. She thus avoids anything reminiscent of the documentary or historical narrative, which too often seems amateurish. Throughout, she strikes exactly the right emotional chord, overcoming the novice storyteller's inclination to aim for neutrality and distance, while steering clear of the opposite extreme: sentimentality.  Her sensitivity to the artworks is keen and the associations gleaned from each personal and real.  Words are chosen with a precision and economy that allow the individual images to carry the force of the story.  What cannot be conveyed here, in writing, is the expressive power of Meg's own voice.

Figure 2:  The calligraphic forms of Matisse's Beasts of the Sea (1950) inspired the voice-over: ‘I want her to be named after Matisse, who in the face of crippling arthritis could not keep the sea snail in the depths of the ocean.'  (Paper collage on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 116 3/8 x 60 5/8 in.)

For educators looking to provide students with opportunities to develop literacies beyond the traditional printed word, digital storytelling is ideal (Kinzer & Leander, 2002; Leu, Karchmer, & Leu, 1999; Kinzer & Leu, 1997).  It brings students' narratives and inquiry into the classroom, extends their literacy skills, and challenges them to create within a multimedia environment that develops their skills as writers, directors, artists, programmers, and designers.  Further, students must exercise comprehension skills as viewers, asking how it is that they understand the story as it's now told in an oral, visual, and textual form.  Here, meanings are not fixed and additive but multiplicative (Lemke, 1998). 

Classrooms across the country have integrated digital storytelling into their content curricula.  Secondary science students use digital stories and a process of narrative inquiry to develop hypotheses about natural phenomena. In English and language arts classrooms, students write personal narratives that are delivered as digital stories.  Mathematics students create and solve digital story problems. In social studies, students learn community histories told through digital stories. The process of digital storytelling gives students opportunities to discover, reflect, narrate, explain, and persuade both orally and in writing.

Part of the instructional appeal of digital storytelling is that the process of writing, editing, and narrating a script strengthens and reinforces basic literacy skills. Reading, both in and outside of the classroom, is about much more than simply absorbing words on a page. As Gallas writes,

to read a text with understanding and insight, we must move inside a text, pulling our life along with us and incorporating the text and our lives into a new understanding of the world.  (2003.

Equally important are the social and multicultural aspects of the digital story. Storytelling and the narrative inquiry process integral to oral history provide opportunities for sharing and better understanding our individual experiences and larger cultural traditions. As Bakhtin explains, words are learned from interactions with others: ‘none of us is the first speaker, the one who disturbed the eternal silence of the universe' (1986).  From words that are spoken to us, we glean lexical meaning and identify our individual roles in the communities where those words are voiced.  Words teach us our history and who we can become.  Words are another link in the chain of speech communication, revealing both where we've been (where our words were learned) and where we are (how we use them). With digital stories, student writers pair their words with images and sounds to further communicate intended meaning.  As readers, students are challenged to develop more complex senses of self as they test, interpret, and learn from the stories shared by others. These stories allow students to make connections between texts, ideas, and the world outside of their classrooms.

Crafting a Digital Story in the K-12 Classroom

The technologies available in our schools change expected literacies and modes of communication (Kinzer & Leander, 2002), as they challenge classroom teachers to integrate tools and curricula meaningfully, authentically, in such a way as to expand student learning.  In terms of technical requirements, digital storytelling requires only that students have access to a computer with some sort of digital video software. As operating systems bundle in programs such as Apple iMovie or Windows MovieMaker, these tools are becoming increasingly present and almost ubiquitous in schools. Students also benefit from the use of digital cameras, scanners, and printers, which are likewise becoming increasingly prevalent. The bare-bones requirement is simply that students compile images and recorded narration, side by side.

The process of digital storytelling consists of six steps: 1) scriptwriting, 2) artifact searching, 3) storyboarding, 4) revising the script and storyboard, 5) constructing the digital story, and 6) screening. 

Step One:  Scriptwriting

In English and language arts classrooms, students work to convey their own personal narratives or to share findings of community oral histories.  Reading, writing, speaking, and representing are at the core of the traditional language arts curriculum. Students share and discuss family stories, books from their childhood, and their experiences in school. These classrooms are driven by Langer's idea that ‘all literature - the stories we read and those we tell - provides us with a way to imagine human potential' (1995). Students sound and balance their stories against the authors read in an attempt to validate, understand, and critically consider their experiences. Written scripts are read aloud, bringing the students' voice into a story that is shared. 

Step Two:  Artifact Searching

Digital stories are typically built using still photos and/or moving images. Students must work not only to identify powerful images that convey intended meanings, but also to revise their written scripts to allow the images time to speak. This requires students to slow down, see the extraordinary in the ordinary, and become better writers through close observation and careful use of language.

Step Three:  Storyboarding

Students map each image, technique, and element of their story by constructing a storyboard on paper. This visual story has two dimensions: chronology (what happens and when) and interaction (how audio information and image interact) (Lambert, 2002).Using a storyboard, students arrange images listed on sticky notes. On another line on the storyboard, students sequence the images with the narrated text.

Step Four:  Revising the Script and Storyboard

Storyboarding requires students to examine their scripts closely. As Heard explains, revision ‘involves changing the meaning, content, structure or style of a piece of writing rather than the more surface changes that editing demands'(Heard 2003). To that end, students' work centers on bringing voice to their pieces or on helping the events come alive for the viewer-reader.

Step Five:  Constructing the Digital Story

To build their digital stories, students import or digitize their photos; add transitions and special effects; record narration; add a soundtrack; and burn their finished work to a CD.

Conventional digital stories involve the writing of a script that is read aloud and recorded to provide narration.The most essential element of the scripting and narration process is that the student's voice be present in the reading of the printed text. Students are present as readers, writers, and thinkers throughout the project, some for the first time.

With a ratio of 80 percent content to 20 percent effect, construction should emphasize content over presentation. Otherwise, students become too caught up in zooms, pans, and special effects that show knowledge of the tools but little control of the story. By putting the story first, students become selective about effects, choosing those that drive the story as opposed to those that mimic what might be seen in popular films or television.

Step Six:  Screening

Students and teachers screen the finished digital stories with the additional requirement that students provide written and oral responses. Shared responses can celebrate students' attempts to reflectively add meaning to past events or request more detail. Others might explore technical suggestions for both the presentation and the content, referring to cinematic terms or class texts. These conversations generate a collaborative interpretive community and supportive structure for students to talk and interact as readers and as writers.

Storytelling and the Chicago WebDocent Project

The Teacher Institute inspired the Chicago WebDocent Project (CWD) to explore storytelling as a tool for teachers and students to find their own meanings in museum objects. The WebDocent Project, started in 1999, is an initiative of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) / University of Chicago Internet Project and eight cultural institutions: Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Historical Society, DuSable Museum of African American History, Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, Newberry Library, and the Oriental Institute. (http://www.chicagowebdocent.org/) The goal of CWD is to develop story-based, on-line curriculum materials featuring objects, images, and texts in various media from Chicago's world-class museum and library collections. 

Based on what CPS teachers consider to be needed materials or areas of special interest to their students, CWD focuses on social studies and science topics for grades 3 through 8. Teachers identify the scope and sequence of the curriculum module to be developed, and they write, review, and field-test the lessons, which are aligned with the state and national learning standards. Lessons are delivered as an interactive multimedia experience, via the Internet, exclusively to Chicago public schools.

Teachers decided to develop the lessons as stories because they wanted to create materials that would be student-ready, in contrast to lesson plans which require facilitation by a teacher (and which are already abundant on the Web). They also wanted to avoid the impersonal voice of the textbook. Storytelling is an effective way of communicating a lesson that engages students' imagination while delivering content to meet standards for learning. By developing lessons as stories, the aim was to make the curriculum friendly and responsive to students. 

Storytelling complemented CWD's goals to create deep, rich, and interactive materials using Chicago's museum and library collections. In the process of working together, teachers and CWD staff developed an interface design that combined elements of a chapter storybook with interactive, multimedia features. Students interact with lessons through multiple modes of learning. They read, write, explore high-resolution still images, listen to sounds, view animations that explicate processes, and engage in simulations where they can manipulate museum objects.

Teachers write their lessons in the personas of guide characters to give vivid, firsthand accounts of an historical event, era, or scientific discovery. Often the guide is a peer of the student who will be reading the lesson. The guide shares personal details and particulars of his or her life to give context. The storytelling approach personalizes and humanizes historical events, making them more appealing to students. Details of the guide's life and experiences become the bridge  for connecting to formal student learning goals.

Integrating material culture, technology, and storytelling has required new teacher training to achieve a consistent result. The teachers who participate are a heterogeneous group with a wide range of skills and experience. Most enjoy the museum experience and have been active field trip visitors with their students. But not all teachers are practiced curriculum developers or adept writers, nor does pre-service training prepare them to integrate technology and teaching practices. A range of skills is needed to develop lessons for the WebDocent Project: those of the museum educator, author, classroom teacher, performer, and technologist. 

In addition to a more effective teacher-training program, CWD developed ways to streamline lesson production to strengthen the storytelling and multimedia possibilities of the WebDocent curriculum development model. The WebDocent Content Management and Presentation system (CMAP) provides a template for lesson writing and access to media elements so that teachers may outline and organize their lesson on-line. They can write and edit text, as well as search and select objects, images, texts, sounds, video, and other media elements. Teachers incorporate media using a drag and drop function to add desired elements to each page. High-resolution images can be bookmarked to bring attention to specific details. These features appear in a unified interface, making CMAP a user-friendly tool for developing story-based lessons. The ease with which teachers can add digitized museum and library resources encourages them to enrich every page in their story with multimedia.

Increasingly, CWD's focus is to train teachers to use storytelling to achieve learning goals more engagingly and meaningfully and to help teachers create lessons that capitalize on the rich experience offered by interactivity and multimedia content. A pilot training program has been developed to help teachers acquire instructional skills using material culture, including interpretation of objects and elicitation of stories from them. One aspect of this program is training teachers to use CMAP. Training precedes lesson writing, which takes place as a peer-review circle where teachers share and critique lessons in development on a cooperative Web workspace. The pilot training program uses digital storytelling elements presented at the Teacher Institute to foster the multiple skills needed for the project. 

Integrating Elements of Digital Storytelling into Teacher Training

One of the difficulties teachers experience using objects and images in teaching is that they do not learn techniques for using primary resources or material culture in their pre-service training. A concept emphasized in the digital storytelling workshop and adopted in CWD teacher training is the notion of making personal connections to an object or image. This experience is fundamental for teachers who are learning to interpret objects and present them in a narrative joining historical fact and imagination. Most teachers find it easy to draw out stories from objects or images that already hold personal meaning for them; finding a personal connection to unfamiliar material is more difficult.

To help teachers transfer storytelling skills from the familiar to the new, they are asked to bring an object or image that holds personal meaning for them. In a workshop setting, they share stories about their artifacts. These stories are rich in detail and emotion. Other members of the group contribute knowledge, expertise, and their own experience. The end result is a shared understanding of the artifact from both personal and cultural perspectives. For example, a teacher describes her personal attachment to a ceramic vessel she received as a gift; an art teacher explains the process for throwing a ceramic vessel; and a history teacher who has traveled extensively shares knowledge of the region from which the object originates. Through group discussion, ideas that link the combined knowledge with formal learning goals are generated. To aid teachers in observing, describing, and analyzing new and unfamiliar material, CWD training incorporates Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS).

In subsequent training at participating museums, teachers learn about the collections from museum educators, curators, and archivists. Teachers are encouraged to write down on index cards heir feelings, what they have learned, and what they find interesting. Personal and shared meanings, knowledge, and experience are shared among the group and become the raw material for creating story-based lessons later. Using an approach based on Egan's story form model (1986), teachers identify: 1) what is most important about the shared knowledge of the artifact in terms of learning goals, and what is most affectively engaging about it; and 2) what the most powerful aspects of this knowledge are, that best communicate the learning goal to students. This approach helps teachers develop a dramatic narrative for their story. It also strengthens the link between artifact and learning goal, rather than making the artifact subordinate (or merely illustrative) to the learning experience. The museum artifacts, along with additional content such as audio, video, and other media elements, are loaded into the CMAP database in advance of the lesson-writing phase. Teachers refer to their index cards and other resources to outline and organize their lessons on-line; these lessons are reviewed by the group as they are developed into stories.

The success of the pilot training program will be monitored and findings used to improve what we hope will become the standard preparation for CWD writers. The project is also exploring a student-side interface for the CWD database. Ideally, this tool will be used by students returning from field trips as a follow-up activity to tell the story of a personal connection to particular artifacts.

The Chicago WebDocent Project is a demonstration of how the creative and intellectual aspects of digital storytelling can be use as a curriculum development model. At the same time, museum-school-university collaborations such as CWD can expose students and teachers alike to a rich array of museum and library resources and learning experiences that are only possible through multimedia technology.


Support for the Teacher Institute was provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowed Fund. Additional funding is made available by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Park Foundation, the GE Foundation, and the Sara Shallenberger Brown Foundation.  Canon U.S.A., Inc. and Apple Corporation generously donated cameras and computers for use in digital storytelling.


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