What Does It Mean?

Promoting divergent thinking with digital storytelling

Imagine a photo of the Grand Canyon, jagged peaks under a summer sky. In the foreground, a father holds a round-bellied little girl in a yellow shirt and sandals. Feet dangling, the girl stares at his collar, while he looks past her, eyes fixed on the horizon.

When you click the image, you hear the voice of a young woman, narrating. She tells you the photo was taken on a father/daughter road trip to Arizona. She chuckles, recalling her father’s reason for waxing the rusty Ford pickup: “We’ll get better gas mileage this way.” After the trip, her parents will divorce, leaving her confused. Was he saying goodbye? Will she ever have such time with him again? Feeling hopeful, she concludes that the photo represents shared time and friendship.

What I’ve just described is a two-minute single-image screencast video, compact and loaded with meaning. To make it, this student engaged in all facets of literacy: writing, reading, speaking, listening, and thinking. Our narrator tells you what you see and what you don’t see as she determines what the story means to her.

Since argumentation became a key feature on standardized testing, we spend a lot of time talking about claims, reasons, and evidence. And while these concepts are vital for fostering critical thinking, too much focus on argument sends the message that the world is little more than a theatre for pro/con argumentation (a message the world is happy to reinforce). Digital storytelling, by contrast, has the unique ability to provide authentic audiences and promote divergent thinking while fostering a sense of shared humanity.

Making Meaning

When I think about story, I draw upon the work of Jerome Bruner, who proposed that narrative was a way of knowing. You could learn about the properties of a wood-burning stove through observation and experimentation (what Bruner called the paradigmatic mode), or you could learn about the stove by inadvertently touching it, despite your mother’s high-pitched “No!” (his narrative mode).

While some things are best learned vicariously or via formal experimentation (thus saving you a trip to the doctor), our most powerful and long-lasting learning experiences are storied. How you learned something is a story, complete with motives, helpers, and hindrances. But, there is more to a story than its factual elements (touching a hot stove). There are the conclusions we draw, which allow us to transfer what we learn to other facets of our lives (slow down, pay attention). So, it is worth asking what our stories mean.

As human beings, we determine meaning all the time, and sometimes we get it wrong. Take this example, as told by my sister, who teaches eighth grade reading: A student, let’s call her Emily, sits down in class and begins to text Erik, a boy with whom she is “going out.” Since he is on a different schedule, she writes, “How’s lunch?” and puts her phone away. As class winds to a close, she peeks at her phone to see a notification from Erik: “It’s over.”

Emily can’t concentrate. It’s over? What happened? The next day, she will apologize to her teacher for failing the quiz. The relationship wasn’t over. Lunch was over.

It’s not what Erik says that worries Emily. It’s what she thinks it means. And, if you pressed Emily to explain what she learned from the experience, she might generate some very good conclusions, such as that Erik is a pretty literal dude, or that text messages have limitations.

If we don’t ask students to derive meaning, they generally don’t, and so miss opportunities to question their conclusions. If Emily can learn to reflect on something as simple as the misinterpreted text, she may be more adept at determining something more complex down the road, like asking what it means when her boyfriend habitually succumbs to fits of rage. Deriving meaning is not a thing we do in school; it is a thing we do in life.

Moving Beyond Binaries

As teachers, we’re generally pretty good at fostering convergent thinking: we help students get the same answer to a math problem, the correct context for a historical event. We want students to reach the same conclusion, the right answer. Sometimes we get the opportunity to foster divergent thinking: we look at events from different points of view, read the short story and emerge with different personal connections. We entertain possibilities for interpretation.

Writing can be a powerful conduit for divergent thinking. Take our digital story at the top of this article: a daughter tries to decide what the road trip with her father means to her. His joking about waxing the truck could be a way of showing he cares (love takes many forms). She could conclude that we should savor time with people we love (seize the day), or that parents are human.

Generating possibilities for meaning can help us open up, think reflectively, learn. Struggling to hone her message, another student of mine turned in two separate videos, each one featuring the same photo of a scrappy black and white kitten sandwiched between pillows. In the first video, she spoke about how she adopted a shelter kitten, explaining that the kitten taught her responsibility. In the second video, she explained that she adopted the kitten on the advice of her therapist (new detail), and that the kitten curbed her sense of isolation and growing depression.

Note the switch: In the first version, she saves a kitten. In the second, the kitten saves her. What’s terrific is that both stories are true. Life doesn’t have to fit into binaries: good decisions/ bad decisions; right answers/wrong answers; giving love/receiving love. Moving past binaries helps us understand human nature.

What Did I Do?

Bruner was interested in actions—the choices we make within specific cultural contexts—along with how those actions generate narrative. In Acts of Meaning, he noticed that children supplied more elaboration when they were asked to explain an action that deviated from an established cultural pattern. If, for instance, Sally decides to pour water on her birthday candles rather than blow them out, you’ve got a story.

If unlikely actions (or feelings) call forth narrative, that’s great news for middle school educators, since their students are grappling with identity, including their own weird feelings and actions. Stories can help students consider their motives and assess the results of their choices: did things go according to plan? What went wrong? Can I tell this in a way that will help others understand me?

When things go wrong, we tell stories. When we get caught eating a third piece of cake, we tell stories. When we have feelings that don’t match the occasion (why am I crying?), we tell stories. Stories help us explain, rationalize, reflect. Middle schoolers have a lot of stories. So, there’s plenty to mine.

Shorter is Sweeter

In giving this assignment to teaching candidates, I have learned to ask them to keep it short. If students have 1-2 minutes to tell a story, they tend to think in terms of relevance. They winnow things down to the most salient details, focus on precision, along with the message they are trying to send.

If students have 4-5 minutes to tell a story (or, heaven forbid, an unlimited amount of time), they tend to ramble, lose the narrative thread, or supply unnecessary details, trying to fill time in the same way they pad essays. In the real world, we rarely have unlimited time to make a point, share a story, or idea, so it’s worth practicing pithiness.

Short videos can also help differentiate instruction. While the time limit makes digital storytelling seem easier for students who are paralyzed by the thought of writing to length, students who are skilled elaborators find that the time limit makes the process harder, since they have to be selective about the details they choose. In this way, everyone gets a challenge suited to their abilities.

The Basics

Ask students to identify a photo in their library that needs explanation. Then, instruct them to do the following: 1. List what is obvious, 2. Identify what is not obvious (emotional states, intentions, conflicts), Then, ask them to outline a narrative arc and draw conclusions. What do they learn from the photo? If you want to foster divergent thinking, challenge students to supply more than one explanation, or challenge each other’s conclusions.

You will find plenty of free screen-capture software applications online. Just make sure to keep it simple as you begin: one image/one narrator. Ignore all the bells and whistles, including audio effects and pan-and-zoom options. The educator page at University of Houston’s digital storytelling website will provide you with more sophisticated techniques when you’re ready to go wild. In the meantime, help students generate stories worth telling. The rest will follow.