Creative transgression and belonging in digital storytelling

“Sharing stories and listening deeply…changes us… all of us.”

Joe Lambert, Founder and Executive Director, Storycenter


The app on my phone for the learning management system keeps notifying me that my students’ 30 second stories are awaiting grades. I resist and turn off the notifications. Before I can grade these digital stories, before I can think of them as objects awaiting assessment, I need to spend more time with them. Before calculating how well they met the goals and expectations of the project, I need to let their stories just breathe. In that space, what arises is a sense of appreciation not only for the artifacts of their digital storytelling — the stories themselves — but the action and reflection of digital storytelling. As I watch several times and reflect, I’m struck by the way each story individually–and collaboratively–enacts and reflects a sense of belonging.

The Oakland artist Brett Cook defines collaboration in this way:

“I used to think collaboration was something I had an idea and you help me do it. That’s collaboration. Now, I actually think collaboration means, how do we look at the expertise we each have as individuals and combine that to make something that is greater than ourselves.”

When we engage in digital storytelling in educational space, we are designing space for creative collaboration, or co-creation. Each student will approach the assignment in their own particular way, giving it voice and meaning that is specific to their interests and experiences. At the same time, when the stories are completed and we hold space to share them within the learning community, we witness the possibilities of a larger story that is more expansive and more complex than the single stories that join together. Each individual story shares the students’ creative expression, perspective, and sense-making skills. Collectively, their stories assemble into something greater than any one story. This does not just happen spontaneously, of course. It is not a given. Holding space for collective meaning-making is an intentional act.

Digital storytelling provides space for students to exercise agency over how they want to be seen. Storytelling practices, including scripting workshops, story circles, and rough cut screenings for peer feedback, co-create space where students are seen. It is both a space of being seen, and an invitation to see others in new ways. The linked acts of creating stories and making them public joins creative reflection and action in ways that are often transformative. This requires deep attention to and collective care for the ethical implications of gathering and sharing stories, and we draw on Storycenter’s Ethical Practice guide as well as traditions of ethical practice drawn from documentary and participatory media making.

I think of my students’ digital stories as tiny acts of creative transgression. Acts of resistance against the many ways that technology produces dehumanized learning environments. Against the ways that institutional structures and routines can undermine possibilities for students to cultivate belonging. In the commotion of the semester, digital storytelling is a practice that holds possibility for what the late education philosopher Maxine Greene called releasing imagination. In her book, titled the same, Greene offers this: “All we can do, I believe, is cultivate multiple ways of seeing and multiple dialogues in a world where nothing stays the same” (p. 16). In my teaching, and in the work to promote digital storytelling practices more widely across campus and in the community, digital storytelling is a response to Maxine’s call “to work for the ability to look at things as if they could be otherwise” (p. 19). This looking, this cultivating, this collaborative effort, is connected to the work of belonging in community.

In Documentary Research, students have just completed and shared their first short docs, a 30-second “snapshot story.” One still image and their voice. We’re exploring the theme of technology in everyday life this semester, so we co-created some prompts to help them begin to imagine the story they wanted to create.

  • Go back and look at your first post on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, MySpace…(some of them actually remember MySpace). What did it represent? Who were you in that post?
  • Recall an email or a text you regret sending. How might things have turned out differently if you had refrained from pushing send?
  • What device/format did you use to make your first “mix-tape” / playlist? Who, or what occasion, was it for and what songs did it include?
  • Where does play turn up in your tech-mediated life? In a favorite video game? An app?
  • Tell a “tech-fail” story, something that technology is not very good at.
  • Spend 24 hours without any tech (except for school-required activity). Keep a log of how you feel after 1 hour, a few hours, and so on. Was there a point when you stopped thinking about the absence of tech and just enjoyed the space to be otherwise?
  • Picture an important relationship that is/isn’t tethered to technology. Tell a story about that relationship.

Snapshot stories are brief, subtle, and very low-tech. (This is the first production course in the media and communication major, and we use WeVideo for editing before moving on to Premiere in advanced courses). But in the space of our class, they are significant. Each story is particular–a story about a phone call with a mom, a can’t-live-without playlist, a story about being the only kid without a phone in middle school. But as a whole, they gather meaning as a small collective act of creative transgression. Most are sharing their stories publicly for the first time and we recognize the courage and vulnerability in that. In the several decades Joe Lambert has travelled the world supporting storytelling work, he has observed this special meaning-making practice: “Often, we haven’t quite figured out what our stories mean for us until we hear ourselves telling them and feel ourselves being heard. Until we’re really heard, we can’t be present for the stories of others.”

This is space where students both know that they have a voice, and experience that their voice matters. Their snapshot stories–each of them as particular as the lives that brought them to the screen– invite new and unexpected meanings. After each 30 second snapshot story we pause and reflect, offering feedback about what stayed with us in a story, the seemingly small details that stop us in our tracks. Sharing what we notice is there, and sometimes what is not there, gives the storyteller a glimpse of how others are seeing, feeling, and responding to their work.

In these moments, we are unlearning some of the expectations we’ve come to hold about each other, loosening our assumptions and inviting more spaciousness into what we think we know about each other. Sharing stories widens the space in which to appreciate both the diversity among the students’ lived experiences, as well as what is held in common. This paying attention to what distinguishes and what connects their stories is an expansive practice that works in all kinds of learning communities, as a friend recently demonstrated this beautifully in a K-8 context. This is what I care about most in these moments, the ways that students reveal their recognition that each others’ voices matter, the way they listen to each story with care, empathy, and attention. The act of listening and bearing witness is itself learning. And it is the heart, I believe, of what moves each student towards their own greater potential as ethical, imaginative storytellers.

The space that students’ stories and storymaking practices create transgress those things that tend to inhibit deep, meaningful learning and connection (especially at the end of the semester). Disconnect, overwhelm, exhaustion, and relentless systemic attention to outcomes rather than process. The purposeful joining of reflection and action helps restore and cultivate a sense of belonging in spaces where belonging has been frayed. I’m reminded again that even small acts of storytelling–one image, 30 seconds–can help restore a sense of meaning, individual and collective, with enough energy to counter and transform that prevailing end of semester ethos. My hope is that, against the oppressive drive towards some foreclosed endpoint or outcome, students’ stories become a powerful form of participation in a conversation unbounded by the start and finish of a semester, a form of enacting belonging.

Young dubber turns punker. By Daniel Sadler. November 2019.