Using Digital Stories to Inspire Reluctant Writers

We’re only a few weeks into the year, but a few of my students are already on the radar. You are probably in the same situation — noticing and making notes of students who will be needing a little more support and attention as writers and readers. We’re still finishing up our digital story project, but as in other years, I am noticing how this kind of technology project can engage the reluctant writers I am already seeing. This one student really struggled with sentence flow, and syntax, and getting ideas down on paper, but they have flourished with the Dream Scene digital story project, so much so that every single day they are asking if I can share their project with all of my classes.

They would never, not in a million years, do that with a written piece of writing.

I was thinking of this the other day — of what is it about the technology aspect that can provide an inroad for some of our reluctant writers to be successful, and feel successful, even though they don’t see themselves as writers. In this case, this student gets so frustrated with other assignments, they often just give up, hang their head and shut down.

So why this project?

First of all, the “writing” is hidden. Their writing is a script, a piece of narration, and so all spelling, grammar and other mechanics that often gum up their writing is behind the veil. This gives the student some power and some authority over the “content” of the piece as opposed to the “mechanics” of the piece. We’ll work on mechanics this year, for sure, but here, that isn’t the main thing that readers/viewers will see.

Second, there was a set structure to their pieces (what is your dream, why is it important, how will you achieve it) that kept the writing from getting too open-ended and unfocused. We’ll be moving on to more open writing later in the year, and I know I will need work on hard with storyboarding, and graphic organizers, and more. But for now, this structure was a comfort zone for my reluctant writers.

Third, the art element of illustrating your own digital story empowered the strengths of this particular student. They spent a lot of time on the art, erasing and restarting a handful of times to get it just right. There was a real pride in what they were doing, and that pride-fulness carried over into the digital story component of the piece. I want to note that in the illustration, the self-portrait shows my student smiling and in full focus. I love that self-perception, which we don’t always see in them in the classroom, unfortunately.

Fourth, if you listen, you can hear this student perceiving an audience. They know we will be watching it together in the classroom (and we may be sharing these over at Youth Voices, too). The sense that more than me, the teacher, would be the viewer gave a little push to try a little harder, and to not be afraid to get the picture right, and get the narration right, even if it meant slowing down and starting over (something they would almost never do with a piece of written work. They write; it’s done.)

Finally, they were creating an original video, for the first time ever. Too many young people are cast into the role of consumer, or viewer, and not enough into the role of producer. Even with this short digital story, the expertise was in their hands, and they were creating something original. The power of that act is very motivating for young people.

I’m as proud of what this student has accomplished as they are of themselves, and my task now is to keep nurturing that motivation and using that interest to work on writing skills. I will keep referring back to this early success as an example of what they can do, instead of pounding it into their head the thing they lack. The deficit model won’t work so well in this situation.

This young writer is being built, one digital story at a time.

Peace (in the mulling over),


Presentation: Video Games and Digital Writing

On Saturday, I co-presented on the topic of video games and digital writing at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. My co-presenter did a fantastic job of showing how an immersive game experience can spark various kinds of writing in the classroom while I focused on the links between game design and the writing process, and how kids can create (not just play) games.
Here is my presentation:

Gaming Presentation PDF
Here is the resource list:
More Than a Game Resource PDF
Peace (in the sharing),

Book Review: Wonderstruck


Some writers just leave me gasping for breath. I can’t put the book down and feel as if life is intruding on an intimate space that the writer, the characters and I inhabit. I was thinking of this as I finished up Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick (whose The Invention of Hugo Cabret remains a solid favorite of mine), shifting towards the end of a twining narrative of words and illustrations that had me hooked from the very start. Selznick is one of those writers who is also an illustration, and who has come to understand the way to merge those two ideas together, so that the pictures are not just complementary tokens to the story. The illustrations are the story itself.

Or in this case, one of the stories. Here, in Wonderstruck, Selznick skillfully uses his line drawings to tell the tale of a deaf girl, and the pictures are like a silent movie unfolding on the pages. We don’t hear the sounds. We don’t hear any dialogue. We only see the world in a veil of silence, and through the eyes of the character. The effect is pure genius.

And then there is the other part of the story, as a young boy named Ben tries to find his father after his mother has died in a tragic car accident, and he too becomes deaf  (by a lightning strike). Using a museum as a setting for the middle of the novel, the two narratives of these characters in Wonderstruck slowly come together in a wonderful way, which I won’t give away here, except to say that the panoramic model of New York City is a delight to see, as are all of the hidden reasons for its importance.

I’d like to share this quote from the book:

“Ben remembering reading about curators in Wonderstruck, and thought about what it meant to curate your own life, as his dad had done here. What would it be like to pick and choose the objects and stories that would go into your own cabinet? How would Ben curate his own life? And then, thinking about his museum box, and his house, and his books, and the secret room, he realized that he had already begun doing it. Maybe, thought Ben, we are all cabinets of wonder.” (574)

Is there a better phrase than that? Maybe we are all cabinets of wonder? I love that idea.

Don’t be put off by the size of this book (630 pages) nor the price, and be sure to read through Selznick’s notes at the end of how he came to write this story and how he researched the elements. Just like the video that he made for Hugo Cabret in which he talks about how he made that book (which I show every year to my young writers), Selznick here pries open the veil of the writing and drawing process for the reader to see and understand.

Peace (in the wonder),


Under Waves: A Poem Inspired by Riven

(Note: In a presentation around gaming and writing yesterday at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, my co-presenter began the session by dimming the lights and putting on the soundtrack to the immersive game, Riven, and asked us to be inspired and write. The sounds were of the ocean. Here is what I came up with as I listened.)

Under Waves

I’m drifting …
caught here in the center of this wave
as my toes drag across the bottom
of the sea …
wondering where you are right now
and if you can feel
this pull of gravity, too,
or if you see the moon as I see it
above me
with invisible forces …

I’m drifting …
hidden in the white noise
as thoughts lay scattered like seashells
on the sands …
wondering where you are right now
and if you feel
this push of gravity, too,
or if you see the moon as I see it
below me
with invisible love …

Peace (in the poems),