The (somewhat uncomfortable) Process of Digital Storytelling & Teachable Moments

This post is Part 2 of a series on the Mellon Institute of Public and Digital Humanities. A special thanks to Allison Myers, Ryan Trauman, and Marie Lovejoy at the Story Center. For part 1, please click here.

I didn’t know anything about digital storytelling  when I walked into the Story Center’s workshop as part of the Mellon Institute of Digital and Public Humanities. I thought it was maybe something like an audiobook, or a video of me, telling a story. No big deal, I thought. As a historian, I pretty much write and tell stories for a living.

But then the story specialists at the Story Center taught the other institute participants and I *how* to write a script for digital storytelling, and I began eyeing the door. Not because it was too big or difficult, but because it was so small and succinct. How was I going to tell a full story worth hearing in fewer than 250 words? I’ve probably written longer sentences than that!

The other Mellon Institute participants struggled with this concept too, which I found very  encouraging in its own way. While it’s good to provide context and delve into a subject fully, verbosity often has the effect of hiding, instead of revealing an emotional truth. No one at the institute was going to breeze through this workshop, and if they were going to be brave and bare their souls, then so could I.

I decided that I wanted to tell a story about teaching.  Those of you who teach know: there is so much that goes into teaching. You have the pedagogy, you have your relationships with your students and the wider classroom, you have the subject matter, the administration, the grading, the pep talks, the lecturing, the discussions, the readings, the fears, the hopes, and those moments when your students experience real life and the classroom converging. Each day presents a new challenge, or a different teachable moment that helps your students understand viscerally what the subject matter is all about.

But all of that doesn’t make for a particularly good story, from a creative standpoint. Good stories have compelling characters, and a narrative arc, and conflict and resolution. They allow the reader to find the universal truth in the most specific detail.  There is pacing to consider, and point of view. Whose story is being told?

The story specialists with Story Center showed how it wasn’t about capturing everything, but rather, conveying one tight idea that allows the readers/listeners to imagine the broader world of your story.  Instead of trying to cover everything, cover almost nothing, but do it well.

I knew the specialists were right: there was no way that I could tell everything I had seen in my years of teaching. I’ve taught in so many different environments, from the kitchen counter during one-on-one tutoring, to a public junior high school in North Nashville, to Community College, to Vanderbilt University. I have taught subjects that ranged from basic 101 stuff, to the socially difficult subjects, like gender, slavery, and racism. I’ve taught the history of the Civil War to a classroom of Southern students. I’ve taught the history of Somali piracy to Naval cadets in an ROTC program. I’ve taught graduate students, and students who struggled with basic literacy. I’ve had students experience poverty, deaths in the family, and imprisonment of their loved ones. America’s zeitgeist has played out in my classrooms over and over again.

But that isn’t just my story- it is the story of nearly every other educator in the US and probably the world. We truly have seen it all.

So instead of repeating this list, the Story Center specialists helped me to dig deep for the one story that you haven’t heard. The story that could have only happened to me.

And when I found it, I wasn’t happy.

The story I felt called to tell was not of a success, but of one of my most profound failures in the classroom. I was young- still a graduate student taking classes by day, and teaching at a community college by night.  I was also naïve, assuming that most students would approach learning the way I had done at their age.

When I was in college, the best part of history classes was learning all the things high school teachers and textbooks had skipped over because it was difficult to talk about, or controversial, or too complex for the allotted 45 minute classroom. Every time I learned something that contradicted how I had previously thought the world had come to be, it excited me, like I was being let in on some secret arcane knowledge. And because of that, I was utterly unprepared for the student who experienced this sensation not as a privilege or thrill, but as a threat to his sense of self.

Instead of explaining again what happened that evening, I’d like to share my official Story Center digital story with you here.

Creating this story was an incredibly difficult, yet a liberating and transformational experience. Though I write a lot, I had never written in the way the Story Center taught me to write. I wrote several different stories until I settled on this one, and then I rewrote it many times until I got down to what it was really about.  In my very first attempt, I caught myself in a lie- I had tried to write myself as the hero of this story. But for me to be the hero, my student had to become the villain. That wasn’t right at all.

I didn’t have a teacher versus student story, but a teacher versus self story. The story wasn’t about my student at all, but about how I grappled and continue to grapple with my failings as a white educator teaching about slavery in racially mixed classrooms, in a nation that is willfully colorblind and would rather forget. And so I rewrote. Again and again, delivering the punches I had held back before.

Parts of this process were deeply uncomfortable. I worried about what people would think of me and how I failed to properly handle a tense moment in my classroom. I judged myself harshly, wishing I could go back and do it again. On day two of the workshop, I wondered if there was time to start from scratch and tell an easier, less revealing, story.

Thank you, Story Center, for not letting me do that.

Once I had a story that evoked the uncomfortable spirit of the truth, I spent two intense days revising it at least a dozen more times, asking for help with word choices, mood, pacing and tone. I was writing reality as if it were fiction, and ensuring that all the elements of story were there in the way I laid out my narrative.

And then I stepped into a room with egg cartons covering the walls, and a big fluffy microphone, and I told my story.

Now it’s out there and can’t be taken back. And I feel different. I feel stronger, like I’ve said something many others have experienced but have not articulated. I know now who I am in the classroom, and what I do there, and how much that can affect the worldview of my students.

What I hadn’t realized until the digital story was told and edited, was that the process of writing, intensely revising, and telling my story changed something inside of me: it helped me to transform the narrative in my mind.  For so long, I had been unconsciously walking around with this memory still heavy in my heart, unsure of how to categorize it or even really talk about it. Now, I understand it for what it is, and I take ownership of it.

I did the best that I could at the time with the tools that I had, and I wasn’t aware then that I needed more. Growing up white hindered me from seeing the true extent of racism in the world, and not knowing about it had a damaging effect on me. This moment in my classroom reversed some of that, albeit painfully. It pushed me to understand the legacy of my whiteness. That has helped me to make stronger connections between past and present in my scholarship, and relate better to my students, and to do right by them, no matter the views they bring into our shared classroom.

So yeah, for that, I’d admit my failings ten times over. The fundamentally healing effects of telling a story cannot be overstated. I feel like I have taken a step toward the person I was meant to be.

This post is also available on the StoryCenter Blog.

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