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Digital Storytelling and Social Justice


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This article was written for the International Literacy Association magazine, ILA Today

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Digital Storytelling and Social Justice

  1. 1. COVER STORY 18 November/December 2016 | LITERACY TODAY
  2. 2. y knowledge is only as big as the bus window, but these traditions are ancient.” This beautifully poetic line comes from a documentary my students produced on our trip to Vietnam last year about the religion and spirituality of the country. It’s a line that not only encompasses the literal reality of our field trip but also calls attention to the way in which each of us views the world: a perspective limited by our position in the world and in society. “m Promoting empathy, equity, and cultural literacy through digital storytelling By Michael Hernandez SOCIAL JUSTICE IN A DIGITAL AGE We might define social justice as seeking justice or equity in terms of wealth, opportunity, power, and privilege in society. I’m convinced that a literate society is equipped to handle these challenges and find creative solutions to new ones. WHAT IS SOCIAL JUSTICE? With so many elements of society seemingly breaking down and with such polarization politically and culturally, I’ve been reflecting on my role teaching students and what part I play in this growing lack of understanding. What can we do as educators to identify and address inequity and prepare our students to tackle the big challenges of social justice now and later in life? I was first made aware of the need to address social justice topics when my journalism students repeatedly pitched stories about how it was unfair that minority students “have an easier time getting into college.” This lack of empathy grew not from a place of racism or selfishness, but simply from a lack of understanding and experience. It was then that I began planning a series of projects, including our international documentary trips, to make my students more culturally literate and to empower them to address these issues themselves. LITERACY TODAY | November/December 2016 19
  3. 3. Literacy is tied to social justice Literacy and social justice are inseparable concepts. Access to literacy has historically been a way to reinforce—or mitigate—inequity in societies stratified by race, geography, and economics. And although we still struggle with these concerns, we might also consider a broader definition of what it means to be literate. Cultural literacy—an awareness of and sensitivity to diverse cultures and lifestyles—and media literacy—a knowledge of how to decode and produce media messages—have become the default means by which we understand our world and interact with it. And it’s more important for our students’ success than ever before. “As we prepare our students for a global economy, social justice is imperative for global awareness,” says Christine DiPaolo, instructional tech innovator at Square Peg Consulting. “It’s important to see and understand the world from all different lenses and points of view so we can prepare to compete in a global marketplace.” This past summer, Facebook Vice President Nicola Mendelsohn predicted that in five years, the social media company would be “mostly video.” It’s hard to dismiss a media powerhouse where users consume 100 million hours of video on mobile devices every day and that fields eight billion views daily, according to Forbes magazine. Text messages are on the decline. “Literacy goes beyond reading and writing,” says St. Louis–based multimedia instructor and ILA member Don Goble. “Students now must read images, online text, videos, and other media to make sense of their world.” Buildingempathy We’re often unable to acknowledge, let alone solve, problems in the world because we simply don’t see them. So the first way to begin addressing inequity is with empathy. When we can understand the concerns and plights of others, we can start to find solutions to these problems. Building empathy is a process and mind-set we can apply universally to many challenges. There are many exercises to develop an empathetic mind-set, including games like The Extraordinaires, that help frame discussions and prepare students to wrestle with topics they’re passionate about. But one of the best ways we can create empathetic students is to have them tell stories. Socialjustice throughstorytelling Marginalized voices and perspectives underlie many inequities in society, so allowing those voices to be heard is fundamental to social justice literacy. We can begin with personal stories, allowing students to talk about their passions, whether it’s their own lives or the problems they see in the world. One of my favorite projects for my cinema students is a personal essay documentary. A visual poem/ documentary, these stories have allowed students to talk about their struggles with having gay parents, with gender identity, and other concerns. Although extremely personal in nature, their audience members now see them as valid points of view coming from someone they know. And it’s hard to dismiss the concerns of others when they come from your friend or the person sitting right next to you in class. Goble believes that when students are empowered to tell their own stories, learning becomes energized. “The role of authentic authoring means that the student has an immediate connection, interest, or passion to the subject.” Allowing space for personal stories also makes learning meaningful. Having a choice in their learning allows students to realize that their point of view is valid and it empowers them to make a difference. “Storytelling from experience and understanding are the keys to awareness,” says DiPaolo. “Students need to learn that the impact of the stories they tell the world is important, and that they can author using their own authentic voices.” I teach at a school in a wealthy, privileged Southern California neighborhood, but social justice is a concept that affects all members of society. One day my students will vote and will need to be prepared to work with others to solve problems of inequity. “Having a global perspective and awareness helps move us past race and religion,” says instructional tech innovator Christine DiPaolo. “Regardless of socioeconomic status, becoming aware of other cultures through experiences in and out of the classroom is more effective than studying for a standardized test from a textbook.” MY STUDENTS ARE WHITE AND PRIVILEGED. WHAT RIGHT DO WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT SOCIAL JUSTICE? Above, Don Goble’s students filming in Ferguson. At right, Goble’s student creating a project on stereotypes. All other photos are of Hernandez’s students abroad. 20 November/December 2016 | LITERACY TODAY
  4. 4. Living in St. Louis, Goble was near Ferguson, MO, when Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in 2014. Some of his students who had lacked motivation previously were galvanized by the events that followed the shooting. They decided to produce a news story about Brown’s funeral (the clip can be found on Goble’s YouTube channel at dgoble2001) and interview community members about the incident. This created a learning opportunity for the students that they never had before. “I’ve found that an issue a student may want to explore is not directly tied to the curriculum,” says Goble. “As educators, it’s important for us to guide students to make connections, whether it’s a social justice topic or another area of interest.” Listeningtothestories ofothers The process of telling your own story automatically becomes one of listening to and decoding the stories of others. Publishing written and multimedia stories beyond the classroom, online for example, encourages reading of these stories and an openness to critique from other points of view. A documentary produced by one of my students following our trip to Cuba received a critique from an unlikely audience member: a Cuban citizen. After publishing her doc on YouTube, the sophomore noticed a scathing rant in the comments section of her post, calling her out for missing the problems of the political system in the island nation. “I was stunned and, honestly, a little embarrassed,” says Morgan Montgomery, the student director. “But it made me realize that I was missing something I hadn’t even considered. It opened my eyes to other points of view and how people might be affected by my work.” Howtoteachsocialjustice Empowering students to have an impact on the world beyond the classroom is a critical responsibility we have as teachers, but it can be challenging to accomplish when our curricular plate is already full. Rather than trying to add on another unit and content, weave social justice concepts and processes into your existing curriculum. Having a separate lesson might also give students the impression that social justice is extraneous and not related to the rest of your curriculum. DiPaolo agrees: “Look for ways to embed social justice into lessons subtly. Don’t think so much about the topic but rather in the ability to hear stories about how people contribute to the equality of our communities.” Consider the purpose of your assignments and the prompts you give students. Allow them to choose the best way to tell stories—an online class blog, a podcast, a fiction or documentary video—and focus instead on purpose rather than medium. The choice will encourage your students’ passions and show that you trust them to make good decisions. Writing is the underpinning of all multimedia projects, so you can still satisfy your existing ELA curricular requirements. Goble says, “Don’t worry about the logistics of ‘what’ device or ‘how’ they will do it. Students will figure out this process on their own. The teacher’s focus should be on the ‘why.’” Howbigisyourbuswindow? How big is that bus window of your class or school? How much can our students really see and understand about the wider world and each other? And what is your role in widening that window? If we agree that we’re here to prepare students for success later in life, if we agree that there are inequities in society that underlie many of our problems, and if we agree that we should empower our students to develop a voice, then we need to address social justice in our classrooms. SOCIAL JUSTICE RESOURCES Scan this QR code to check out resources for lesson ideas and how to create and evaluate multimedia projects, and to see examples of student social justice projects, including those mentioned in this article. Michael Hernandez (, a new ILA member, is an award-winning cinema and journalism teacher in Los Angeles, CA. He speaks regularly at conferences like SXSWEdu and ISTE on topics ranging from digital storytelling to social justice to technology integration in schools. Hernandez is an Apple Distinguished Educator and PBS Digital Innovator. Follow him on Twitter @cinehead. LITERACY TODAY | November/December 2016 21