Books and Stories Can Change Lives: Storytelling in the Digital Age

Storytelling in a powerful skill in this digital age, so much so that I put it on a shortlist of critical skills for effective digital age communication. People who can craft and tell compelling and resonating stories, and who can connect with audiences around those stories, have a greater voice today. Tim Tomlinson wrote that, “The best books and stories can change our lives.” Years ago I thought about pursuing a MFA in creative non-fiction. In fact, I was accepted in a program and took the first class. At that point, I already had four degrees, a full-time job, an additional part-time job, a consulting business, and a family. Plus I was, at the point where taking classes was less desirable than learning in the wild and learning by doing. As much as I treasured the idea of learning from great writers and teachers, what I really wanted to do was write. Write to think. Write to learn. Write to connect. Write to imagine and invite others to imagine the possibilities. So, I didn’t sign up for a second class, but I did commit to writing each day.

I wrote about many things. I wrote short stories inspired by my Mississippi roots and the legends that flow out of that river. I wrote about what I was thinking, reading, learning, and seeing in the world around me. I wrote about education, culture, trends, and those persistent ideals that haunt or inspire so many of us. I wrote about my joys and fears. I wrote about affordances and limitations. I wrote about possibilities.

I liked the idea that others might want to read what I wrote, and that they would find something true, good or beautiful in it. Just as much, I valued the idea that people would find something useful or inspiring. So, I didn’t pursue an MFA. I just started writing.

Writing isn’t easy for me but it is rewarding. Sometimes I don’t feel like writing. I might even dread it. Yet, once I get going, I don’t think about those things. I’m immersed in words and ideas, and even if nobody reads something that I write, I’m glad that I spend a few minutes or hours of my life doing it.

At the same time, I don’t just write for myself. It is never a solitary activity for me even if I’m alone. I am also writing to connect. I’m a teacher at heart, and I aspire to writing things that help people, even to influence people. I’m candid about that. I want to challenge, inspire, and help people explore the possibilities. I want to be a champion for truth, beauty and goodness; especially as they inform the promise and possibility of life and learning in a connected and digital world.

So, when I first read that opening quote by Tim Tomlinson, something changed in me. “The best books and stories can change our lives.” I wanted to write things that did that sort of thing. As one of my professors in my doctoral program once noted. “If you are in education, you are in the business of changing people.” You might not like the idea of this and it doesn’t need to be manipulative, but it is the work of changing or influencing people. Even in some of the most self-directed learning contexts, teachers influence learners. Even if you limit your comments to asking questions and guiding people, you are invested in their change and transformation. That is probably why I first became a teacher and it is certainly why I continue to write.

This quote about books and stories changing lives also continues to influence my philosophy of education. As much as I am a champion for educational innovation and connected learning, I see immense value in books and stories as forms of learning. Of course, stories don’t only come in written format. We have thousands of years of an oral tradition in humanity that leans heavily upon storytelling. Similarly, in this digital age, stories quickly established their home, with digital narratives of many types spreading throughout the web.

This age resulted in new and fascinating forms of storytelling that continue to be rich in meaning. There are storytellers in the blogosphere, on video sharing sites, and throughout all forms of social media and social communication technologies. These stories change lives too. It might even be argued that some of these change even more lives, reaching massive groups of people in a fraction of the time, spreading across time and space more than most stories of the past. A story created and told in rural South Dakota can reach Los Angeles, London, New York City, and New Delhi in seconds, with people sharing these stories among their peer groups on the social web.

Yet, consider the fact that storytelling is democratized in this age. Storytellers of the past shared in their local communities, with only a small number of people gaining a forum to share their stories across a country or around the world. Those rare few could share their stories on television, through films, through recorded music, through plays and musicals, and through books. Those stories spread and influenced. Today anyone can craft and share a story that travels around the world. There are few to no gatekeepers in these new forms of storytelling. If you have access and the courage to share then you can let your story be heard.

Of course, some storytellers continue to reach wider audiences. These include more traditional authors, musicians, filmmakers and the like. Yet, we are also aware of Youtubers who gain significant followers. The same is true for bloggers, podcasters, and influencers in various social media outlets who manage to garner a large and diverse following over time. This is not a small change in the world, but we also don’t fully understand the implications of this change.

Some might argue that this democratization is diminishing the quality of stories, drowning truly great stories in an ocean of lesser stories. Others look at this and celebrate the fact that stories often unheard or even intentionally silenced are indeed changing lives today. Real world stories about tragedy and injustice are shared even as the tragedies are unfolding, sometimes eliciting actions that help address the issue. Powerful groups seeking to suppress stories that undermine their agenda no longer have as much power to do so. Stories that have deep meaning and value to a small but diverse audience now have a greater chance of reaching that audience.

As such, I’ve come to believe that the connected and digital age is also the age of the storyteller. People with the courage and conviction to tell their stories have more freedom and access than any other time in history. In fact, this is part of why I see the art of storytelling as a valuable 21st century skill for young and old alike.

  • How are we helping learners discover the power of storytelling in the digital age?
  • How are we equipping them to analyze and make sense of a broader range of stories today?
  • How are we encouraging and equipping them to refine their craft as digital age storytellers?

Digital Storytelling, Jane Goodall, Michael Moore, and Nathaniel Kahn

I grew up thinking of documentaries as National Geographic specials on PBS. They were often interesting voice-over tours of distant lands and unfamiliar ecosystems. About ten years ago, as I was exploring different expressions of storytelling, I returned to this film genre.  I remember being amazed at the creativity and edgy feel to these newer documentaries. I don’t know much about the history of documentaries, but it certainly seems like the modern documentary reflect many attributes of the digital world and reality television. Rather than my earlier expectation of an objective educational report on a given topic, this modern breed is wonderfully diverse, packed with bias, constantly blending fiction and reality, and mixing observation and autobiography in a way that I don’t remember in the old Jacques Cousteau films. Then again, I can see how Jane Goodall’s participant ethnographies with Gorillas opened the door to this style.

Whatever the case, if you are interested in the modern world of digital storytelling and want some great ideas for crafting your own, check out these documentaries. You don’t need to agree with the agendas or like the people. Instead, consider them case studies in storytelling that blend editorials, video, images, music, etc.

Here are some that captured my attention over the last decade or so. Be warned that the content in some of these documentaries may be disturbing and definitely isn’t something that you want to watch if you are curled up on the couch with your three-year old.

Race to Nowhere, Please Vote for Me, The Waiting Room, Brooklyn Castles, Bully, The War on Kids, Curiosity, The Cartel, American Teacher, Teached, Ten9Eight: Shoot for the Moon, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Craigslist Joe, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Buck, Project Nim, Waste Land, Make Believe, Being Elmo, Like Water, Forks Over Knives, Happy, Waiting for Superman, Bowling for Columbine, Roger and Me, Fahrenheit 9/11, The Lottery, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Freakonomics, Spellbound, Supersize Me, Touching the Void, Paper Clips, College Inc., Touching the Void, March of the Penguins, Devil’s Playground, The Real Dirt on Farmer John, Murderball, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Born into Brothels, Grizzly Man, Hoop Dreams, An Inconvenient Truth, My Architect, The Story of the Weeping Camel, Sound and Fury, Stevie, Daughter From Danang, Ghosts of Rwanda, Rize, Mad Hot Ballroom, My Date With Drew, Emmanuel’s Gift.

You don’t want to work through the entire list? Consider my personal favorites (:

1. Emmanuel’s Gift (the most inspirational documentary)

2. Happy (makes you smile)

3. Craigslist (great story about exploring humanity in the digital age)

4. My Architect: A Son’s Journey (for everyone grappling with father-son issues)

5. Sound and Fury (intriguing exploration of the hearing impaired community as a culture)

6. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (from the maker of Super Size Me…notice the way that he tells the story.)

7. Race to Nowhere (because life and learning are so much bigger than school)

8. Born into Brothels (inspirational story of a photo-journalist helping children of prostitutes in India brothels)

9. Spellbound (funny and heart-warming)

10. Waste Land (dignity and despair)

11. The War on Kids (provocative)

Which comes first, the image or the text?

When I first learned about digital storytelling, it was suggested that I begin by crafting an outline for a story, a lived experience. Sit in a quiet place and write, by hand or keyboard. Take the time to craft an outline, then a written narrative that will direct the rest of the process. It is only after you have written the story that you are able to choose the images, music and other effects that will help you accurately communicate the message. Words first, everything else is decorative. That isn’t descriptive of all digital storytellers, but it is how I initially understood digital storytelling.

image wordI certainly respect this word-first approach and I believe and hope that the written word has a long future. Beyond almost every great play and film is a great screenplay. Every talk show host has a team of writers to help him or her sound funny (the recent strike highlights this fact). And people on the six o’clock news don’t get by with tooth whitening, a contagious smile, and a likable voice. Turn off those teleprompters and see what happens.

I personally find this text first approach to be valuable, but it is not the only option. For one reason or another I became interested in photo essays this past week, so I stopped one of my colleagues, a faculty member in the art department, and asked her what she could tell me about photo essays. My vision of a photo essay was still connected to what I just wrote, writing an outline and then finding images to help tell the story- images serve the words. But she explained that many photo essays don’t even have words. It can be an image-first approach to telling a story, communicating a message, or evoking an emotion. After you have crafted the visual experience, you may or may not choose to go with subtitles.

So we have two contrasting approaches to creation. From an educational perspective, this is a promising discovery. Photo essays might be a wonderful way to help visual learners explore, communicate, and understand. It might even be a strategy for helping them learn about the written word. And those students of the word (yes, they still exist despite the various claims that 60% percent of people are visual learners), can use their love of the lexicon to gradually explore the world of visual literacy.