My Full Attention: Digital Storytelling Across the Curriculum

Glaspalast München 1883

Tell me a good story and you have my full attention. Story is the way we learn and is a powerful way to communicate. From before biblical days, story has always been the way to transmit knowledge, beliefs and ethics.As a child I can remember sitting glued to the radio as the Just Mary stories came on air. While I could read these stories, it was the addition of voice that added colour to the story. The reader’s voice used register, timing and dynamics to bring the tales to life. More and more story comes to us through a variety of media. New layers (image, music, movement) add new dimensions to the way stories are told. But it is not enough to add layers. We have to understand how to use each of these aspects to tell the story. That is we have to understand the codes and conventions to harness them in telling our stories. What role does camera angle play? How can we choose just the right music to appeal to the audience? How does colour affect the message?

I really believe in the power of story. Throw statistics at people and their eyes glaze over. Just look at how people react to natural disasters. It was not the number of people affected nor the amount of damage that pushed people to donate to Japan after the tsunami; rather, it was the personal stories of loss, of courage of determination that mobilized people. We could empathize with stories, but not with numbers.

There are some interesting projects around that can inspire our students as storytellers. And, I would like to add, storytelling is not just for language arts as some of these samples will show you.

StoryLab: The Center for Digital Storytelling in the U.S. has begun an initiative to help people create videos to “promote public conversation” around issues.   Their motto is Change the Story Change the World. They are just beginning. I’m looking forward to seeing the stories that come out of this.

Wes Fryer, through StoryChasers has been helping people collect oral histories. You can learn more here

Mapping Memories My colleague, Paul Rombough, wrote about this in a previous blog entry. It is worth watching some of the videos by refugee youth. Everyone has a story.

As our world becomes more visual, it is imperative that our students learn to read and communicate through a variety of media. They can now create digital stories that can be viewed by people around the world. Let’s help them learn to create in powerful ways so they, too, can share through their stories: their hopes, their opinions on issues and their creativity . As modern day storytellers they can help create the world they envision. Never underestimate the power of story.



The Mapping Memories site has excellent resources to get you started.

You can also find resources from Digital Pictures Speak, a workshop from LEARN

Teacher Profiles: An Interview with Julie Greto

Julie Greto

This year, we will be featuring on our blog talented and committed educators from our community. I hope that the personal paths and ways of doing of individual teachers inspire you as they do me.  Enjoy this first teacher profile! – Sylwia Bielec, ed.

Teacher’s name: Julie Greto, M.A. Art Ed.
School: Marymount Academy, EMSB
Subject: Visual Arts
Levels: Sec. I – Sec. V
Experience: 20+ years

Q: How do you decide what to do in your Art classroom?

Julie Greto answers: My approach has always been, regardless of whether I’m teaching adults or younger people, that I “workshop” what to do in the classroom. I start with whatever interest there is in the classroom and I build on that. So, if there are different things that students want to do in the context of a project, then I am fine with that. I am following their interest and they are going to be more interested in what they are doing and more likely to follow up on what I want them to do! It also deals with looking at the strengths and weaknesses of any particular group or individual. If you go with what THEY want to do, then I think, and I’m not 100% sure on this, but I think you are starting with the strengths of the group or the individual. I haven’t tested this mind you! This year, with my sec V class, we are choosing a theme or an idea unanimously as a class, and then each group chooses a way to approach the idea, which includes the materials and media they choose to use.

Q: What is your personal philosophy about teaching Visual Arts?

Julie Greto answers: Authenticity. Process. Whether the work stems from a person’s background or a person’s interest, it has to be true to them and their experience! I also want a person to really understand THEIR process. Very difficult! It took me a long time to understand my process, so it’s no easy thing.

Q: How do you make sure you cover the curriculum with such a student-centered approach?

Julie Greto answers: At Marymount, we have a school curriculum that we created several years ago as a PDIG (Professional Development and Innovation Grant). It was difficult to do, because the department kept changing, but it allowed us the time to sit down and ask “How DO we want to carry out the curriculum as it is set out in the QEP, how DO we set it up so that it makes sense for the teacher?” We looked at the skills that we needed to develop, and the elements of art that we had to cover. Designing a curriculum also allowed us to cover different materials and techniques over the five years of high school, because what was going on before was that a student would do one thing in sec. I and then do the same thing or a similar project in sec. III – because there were new teachers or because teachers did as they wished without consulting each other. Now we have the progression of learning, which is new, but I haven’t had the time to really digest it and the impact it will have on what we came up with. It’s not an easy thing to do, making sure you cover the whole curriculum, and I’m still working on it.

Q: How do you handle evaluation, with so much group work?

Julie Greto answers: I’m the Rubric Lady in town – not that anyone actually calls me that! I use rubrics a lot and always share them with my department. I just find it so much easier when I have a rubric for a subjective subject such as art, where my own tastes can get in the way of a fair appraisal. It doesn’t matter if I like it or not, what matters is whether someone has fulfilled the criteria for the project! And a rubric helps me see that. I also like to use the same rubric from year to year – for example, my presentation rubric is the same no matter what grade I’m teaching because the elements of presenting something are the same at any level. It is the knowledge content that changes and the rubric is structured to evaluate that as well.

Many of our projects are done in groups but there has to be an individual component to this type of learning and evaluation situation. Otherwise, there are students who have a tendency to rely on the strongest students in the group…and other group dynamics issues surface. And that’s how it can be: one or two students sustaining the group and everyone else going along and the product never getting completed in the manner one would wish. Ideally, the individual develops and also learns to work in a group. In the animation project we did last year, I had each student make their own storyboard, and that, along with the contents of their sketchbook, combined to create their individual mark. I used another rubric to evaluate the group work – the actual way in which the group operated. Within that, they self marked their contribution and product and also marked the group’s progress and process. I average the group marks and get rid of any obvious outliers. The group work evaluation contains questions about problems encountered and solutions proposed and enacted. It’s quite easy to see if someone did not engage in the process, because they tend to say that there were no problems at all!


Final remarks

After spending time in Julie’s classroom, it is also clear that authenticity and process are what Julie brings to her students. She sets up the learning environment to encourage authenticity and authentic creation by placing the onus on students to come up with topics or ideas that interest them. She engages her students in a process and values the various milestones and other evidence of process as much as the product being worked on by according time and value to that part of the project.


Do you know teachers who should be featured in our Teacher Profiles? Are you such a teacher yourself? Leave a reply and we will get back to you!

Game-changers: Teachers who changed my life

(c) Todd Berman

 Mrs. Stevens was strict.  Mrs. Stevens scowled.  Mrs. Stevens got after her students.  Mrs. Stevens had fiery red hair.  Mrs. Stevens was not some people’s favourite grade 2 teacher but…she was mine because Mrs. Stevens loved reading! Mrs. Stevens was, for me, a game-changer.

Teaching is an intensely personal experience, richly coloured by our own personal beliefs and worldview. Game-changers are people who force you to examine your beliefs and come to a place of action, who give you the tools to make up your own mind and move forward from there.

Mrs. Stevens would gather us all around her for read-aloud and I would become lost in another time and another place.  There was something magical about those stolen moments between math stencils and spelling lists.  It was a time like no other.  I can see myself as if it were yesterday sitting cross-legged listening with every inch of my body to the sound of Mrs. Stevens’ voice.  I was drawn in.  I was hooked.  The only thing that could break the spell was the sound of the book being closed.  A collective groan of disappointment would follow and then off we would go quietly back to our desks, back to SRA and workbooks, biding our time until the next read-aloud would sweep us away between the pages to learn more about ourselves, others and the world in which we lived.

It was not until years later that I realized that Mrs. Stevens was the first to plant the seeds for what would become a lifelong passion for literacy and literacy education. In the magic garden of read-aloud, I found what made school meaningful to me… and I never looked back.

Throughout my educational career, there have been other teachers who have come into my life, each one unique and each one contributing to the defining moments of what makes me the educator that I am today. These are my game-changers:

Lynn Butler-Kisber was my very first professor at McGill University (Montreal, Canada).  I was fortunate to have her for an entire year, back when English Language Arts was a 6 credit course.  I will never forget her quick step as she entered the classroom pushing her cart filled with goodies…picture books, manipulatives and movies of her days in the classroom.  I loved that class and I loved Lynn.  I wanted to be Lynn.  I would sit there totally mesmerized by her stories.  She would read to us, she would talk to us, she would share with us and all the while she would prompt us to think for ourselves, to consider our opinions, our connections, and what we were going to do once we were out there in the field with a class of our own.  It was the questions that we had to ask of ourselves and our students as we turned the pages of the beautifully illustrated picture books.  We learned not to only appreciate what the text had to offer but the responses and conversations that we brought to and from the text.  Rich dialogue that pushed us to look, interpret and become more aware as we explored the whole-language approach to literacy.  Although I did not know it at the time, this course and the conversations that flowed out of it became the underpinnings for my interest in Critical Literacy.

Abigail Anderson, architect and writer of the English Language Arts curriculum for Québec’s teachers.  Strong, opinionated, passionate and brilliant.  There was never a time that I left her presence without having learned something new and usually it was more than one thing.  Wow!  She made my head spin.  How could someone know so much about literacy?  How could she time and again speak so eloquently and always draw reference to both theorists and novelists alike in order to get her point across?  I would hurry home and look up the person, the quote or the book that she had offered.   I knew that I could be a fearless teacher and take the risks required to implement a Freirean pedagogy because that was the pedagogy on which our very ELA curriculum was based.  She believed in critical literacy and she put her money where her mouth was by having it live and breathe in the Québec Education Program that she had envisioned. Abigail Anderson was my game-changer because through her actions I saw the words of Paolo Freire come to life in a tangible way – and I knew what I could do to follow that same path.

Janet Radoman had the patience of a saint with her students.  She was a true teacher.  She was gifted in the ability to take anything, no matter how convoluted and explain it in such a way that everyone present could understand and then apply.  She was a constructivist in action, an advocate for her students and a champion for the unheard and voiceless.  She was the teacher that would throw away a planned afternoon math lesson if a child of hers entered the classroom sweaty with excitement and full of questions regarding the fistful of worms they had found in the schoolyard after a lunchtime rain shower.  She not only listened to her students, she engaged them in critical conversations, inquiry and dialogue.  What her students thought and felt mattered.  This is what she believed and this is how she taught.  Janet Radoman was my game-changer because she taught me how to bring critical literacy into the lives of the children we teach.


These four women prompted me to reflect on what I believed about literacy education at different points in my life and how I chose to teach to reflect my beliefs.  I will always be grateful to them.  And you, who have been your game-changers? I would love to hear your stories.

New (School) Year Resolutions

Shopping for school supplies

Confession:  I have never liked New Year’s Eve.  Too much pressure is associated with that one night: going to a huge party, dressing in fancy duds, and staying up late.  Then, we have the angst over making New Year’s resolutions.  Stressful!

For me, the best time to make meaningful resolutions is in the first days of the school year.  This timing makes sense for teachers and students, but also for parents who may have more time to think now that their children are back to school.  We have had a summer to reflect back on the past academic year and look ahead to the one to come.  Starting school means new teachers, new classes, new supplies, new clothes, and most of all, a whole new school year with its amazing potential.  Even now after, dare I write it, 40 school-starting Septembers, I still find this time of year just as exciting and full of possibility.  It is a perfect opportunity to re-focus and make improvements!

There is something very powerful about writing down a few resolutions in the fall.  By putting those positive hopes and plans into words and actually posting them somewhere, they can easily be referred to and you can keep on track with the direction you are hoping to follow for the year.  Of course, this is a great exercise for students, too!

In our first staff meeting of this year, all of LEARN’s online teachers talked about trying new things.  Everyone was excited to share plans and discuss ideas.

This year, it was our most experienced online teacher who most surprised and delighted all of us with his resolution for the school year.  This teacher has been teaching for over 30 years, and has taught online courses for 16 (just in case any of you thought online courses were a new thing!)  He has amazing results and every year he receives many notes from his students and their parents, thanking him for the time and effort he gives students to ensure their success.  With his stellar history, what motivation would he have for changing the way he teaches?

Well…last year, this same teacher observed changes in teaching methods being embraced by other online colleagues.  He witnessed their excitement for flipping the classroom.   He watched them using social media to join and form personal learning networks (Twitter) and for students to share with a wider audience (blogs).  He saw that they were interacting and learning with students and colleagues outside of the class space, and as he said, “I see how much fun you are having!”   Even as a master teacher, he was still open to the excitement and possibility of trying something new that would provide him with more ways to connect to and help students.

My favourite part of being an educator is that I get to start fresh each fall and with each year, I have the opportunity to get better.  Why not take advantage of the New Year and identify a few changes or challenges that will make this year a great one for you and your students?

Have you made any resolutions for 2012-2013?

Happy New Year!