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Co-authoring identity: Digital storytelling in an urban middle school
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Alan Davis (University of Colorado at Denver)

Working after school in the Cyber Cougars Fifth Dimension Club in a large city in the western US, African American youth age 12 to 14 produced digital stories representing episodes of change in their own lives. A close examination of how three of these stories came into being explores the dialogic process of authoring and considers some of the ways that self-narratives can serve as developmental tools for the authors. [This study was supported by Field Initiated Study Grant R305T010285, OERI, U. S. Department of Education]

Digital Storytelling

Digital story has largely come to refer to a form of short narrative, usually a personal narrative told in the first person, presented as a short movie for display on a television or computer monitor, or projected onto a screen. Before about 1995, “movies” produced by individuals without access to the film or television industry were difficult to produce. They relied mainly on VHS video cameras, super-8 movie cameras, and time-consuming editing techniques, if they were edited at all. With the advent of relatively inexpensive digital video cameras, scanners, photo editing and video editing software for the home computer in the 1990s, the possibilities of telling a story combining visual imagery and a sound track became widely available. At the time of this writing, thousands of digital stories have been produced by K-12 students, university students and adults with minimal technical expertise, often through organizations such as the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, Digital Underground Story Telling for Youth (DUSTY) in Berkeley, or the Visible Knowledge Project at Georgetown University.

In recent years, digital storytelling has become the subject of a small but growing body of research (c.f. Weis, Benmayor, O’Leary & Eynon, 2002). Like all storytelling, digital storytelling is a means of narrative expression, and as such it is linked to traditions of narrative thousands of years old – a genre that is universal and emerges early in the communicative development of children everywhere (Ochs & Capps, 1996). Narrative is developed in an interaction between an individual author and others in a cultural context, and serves as a symbolic resource for the author and for others to draw upon. At the same time, the visual aspect of digital storytelling and its obvious connection to the familiar media of television, movies, and computers, distinguish this genre from oral and written stories. Digital storytelling involves access to a medium which very recently was unavailable to most of us for our own expressive purposes, and particularly unavailable to low-income individuals, youth, and the very old. The expressive use of the medium by these groups is of particular interest. My interest here is mainly in the ways that digital storytelling serves as a developmental resource for youth from families outside of the economic, educational, and ethnic mainstream of American society.

Narrative as a Developmental Tool

Sociocultural theory, with its origins in the work of Lev Vygotsky, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Alexander Luria, provides a useful way to consider the function of narrative in human development within a cultural context. Vygotsky (1934/1978) demonstrated that higher order thinking in human beings is made possible through the internalization of symbolic tools. Among the most important of such tools is language, which comes to the child first as signs representing particular objects and actions, but later becomes internalized as symbols, tools for solving problems and imagining future actions.
At an early stage speech accompanies the child’s actions and reflects the vicissitudes of problem solving in a disrupted and chaotic form. At a later stage speech moves more and more toward the starting point of the process, so that it comes to precede action. It functions then as an aid to a plan that has been conceived but not yet realized in behavior. (Vygotsky, 1934/1978, p. 28)


As representations of complex experience reduced to language and images, stories function as symbolic tools, ways of understanding experience as unfolding in time and space (Bruner, 1986). Mikhail Bakhtin, a contemporary of Vygotsky, developed a dialogic theory that likened the experience of living to authoring (Holquist, 2002). Bakhtin proposed that the language and genres that become available to us through cultural participation become the means by which we interpret and answer the world. Our answering, the ongoing response to the messages of moment-to-moment existence, is akin to authoring a novel in the first person. Each of us “authors” her own story. And as with any act of authoring, choice and interpretation are unavoidable -- there is no one correct account. Each act of authoring is also an act of co-authoring. The words and interpretations available to us are not initially our own, and our stories evolve in interaction with others whose words and actions position us and assert interpretations to which we respond (Holquist, 2002).

Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps (1996), in their comprehensive review of literature on narrating the self, provide further explication of the idea that the self is inseparable from narrative. Narrative is an essential resource in the struggle to bring experiences to conscious awareness, and is the means through which we mediate our experience of the world. Personal narratives shape how we attend to and feel about events. They are “tales that tellers and listeners map onto tellings of personal experience” (Ochs & Capps, 1996, p. 21).

Several elements contribute to the indeterminancy of all personal narrative. As we experience life, our perceptions are filtered through our cultural and physical perspectives, and our selective memory. Milan Kundera (1995) argued that memory never captures lived experience:
We immediately transform the present moment into its abstraction. We need only recount an episode we experienced a few hours ago: the dialogue contracts to a brief summary, the setting to a few general features. ... Remember is not the negative of forgetting. Remember is a form of forgetting. (p. 128)

The construction of narrative is also a reflection of the notion that identity is at once continuous and relatively stable, yet also multiple and evolving. The American George Herbert Mead , like Bakhtin, conceived of the self as constructed through interaction with others. Our sense of who we are reflects in part how we are seen by others, and involves, according to Mead, “taking the attitude of the other towards oneself” (1934/1974, p. 47). We are positioned by others, and in important ways we experience ourselves differently in different situations, as we move from one figured world into another (Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1996/2001). The sincere narrative we choose to tell at a given moment reflects our perception of experience at that time and place, but may be different at another time and place.

Moreover, the act of narration shapes the sense of self. Ochs and Capps (1996) describe how narrators use their own first-person narratives as symbolic tools for self-understanding:
Spinning out their tellings through choice of words, degree of elaboration, attribution of causality and sequentiality, and the foregrounding and backgrounding of emotions, circumstances, and behavior, narrators build novel understandings of themselves-in-the-world. In this manner, selves evolve in the time frame of a single telling as well as in the course of the many tellings that eventually compose a life. (p. 21)

These “novel understandings” of self serve as symbolic tools for narrators in the sense that they become available to mediate future activity. How one goes about pursuing one’s ends is mediated by “who one understands oneself to be” in an unfolding chronology of experience. In this way, learning can be transformative as well as incremental: we learn from experience by internalizing symbolic representations drawn from experience, which in turn allows “qualitative transformations of one form of behavior into another” (Vygotsky, 1934/1978, p. 19). Narrative is a means by which we learn from experience by reflecting upon experience, declaring what it means, and distilling it into a symbolic form to be expressed and remembered. The process is essentially reflexive, folding back on itself: experience is distilled into narrative, and the narrative itself becomes a tool which shapes memory and mediates future experience.

The sort of “reflecting upon experience” involved in the production of personal narrative can range from a seemingly direct rendering of memory into words, to a self-aware evaluation and interpretation of experience, often constructed in interaction with another. Richards (cited by Farrell, 1995) refers to the latter, more deliberate examination of experience as critical reflection:
Critical reflection refers to an activity or process in which experience is recalled, considered, and evaluated, usually in relation to a broader purpose. It is a response to a past experience and involves conscious recall and examination of the experience as basis for evaluation and decision-making and as a source for planning and action. (p. 95)

The power of narrative to shape interpretations of life experience has also led to the formal use of narrative as a therapeutic device. For example, the Australian clinical psychologist Michael White (1990) describes narrative therapy as a process through which an individual in interaction with a trained therapist relates her “presenting problem” as a narrative, and then works with the therapist to analyze the narrative and re-frame it in order to arrive at an affirming understanding of self. The act of telling the story aloud “externalizes” it, and this externalization allows the story to become an object of reflection:
As persons become separated from their stories, they are able to experience a sense of personal agency; as they break from their performance of their stories, they experience a capacity to intervene in their own lives and relationships. The discovery of unique outcomes, as well as the externalizing of the problem, can then be further assisted by encouraging persons to map their influence, and the influence of their relationships with others, on the “life” of the problems. (White, 1990, p. 16)

Because authoring is also done in interaction with others, others who also assert who we are and provide competing interpretations, it has a political aspect, an aspect involving the ability to position oneself and to shape and to tell one’s own story (Goodwin, 1981), and to both draw upon and resist cultural prototype stories in interpreting one’s own experience (Foucault, 1965; Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1998/2001). Who can tell a story? How do others respond to the telling? How is one’s story silenced by prevailing ideologies? These are questions that pertain to the construction of identity in the multiple worlds in which we act, and also, as we will see, in the immediate context of authoring a digital story in an after-school club.

The Importance of Medium

Storytelling, even in its oral tradition, involves more than the use of words to communicate the experience to an audience. The intonation, gestures, expressions, and accents of the storyteller convey the emotional significance of the story along with the words. Most forms of commercial narrative presentation – plays, comic books, television, computer games, and movies – provide visual images that at once restrict the interpretive role of the listener and enhance the realism and verisimilitude of the portrayal. Marshall McLuhan (1964) recognized an important distinction between the “cool” medium of television and the “hot” medium of written text, a distinction emphasizing the different ways that viewers and readers interact with text. Narratives conveyed through television require less active participation on the part of the viewer, but at the same time feel less imaginary, and more real. Interactive fantasy computer games now allow much more direct participation in the authoring of visual narrative, and Gee (2003) has explored in depth how playing such games can engage players in trying out new identities. Digital storytelling lacks the immediacy of computer games, with their ready-made realistic backgrounds and possibilities for action, but digital storytelling allows substantially greater freedom of authorship. By controlling both the images and sounds in their narrative portrayals, youth can use digital storytelling to control what previously has been a cool medium to portray their own experience.

Screen media are particularly influential for youth. That is, the use of these media have become ingrained in the figured worlds of youth as an arena of shared experience (Alvermann & Hagood, 2000; Dyson, 1997; Kitwana, 2002). Fashions, popular culture heroes such as athletes, musicians, and actors are known to youth primarily through screen media, and the importance of these media as new literacies are increasingly recognized by educators (Hull & Schultz, 2001). Messages communicated through screen media have a strong impact in shaping youths’ opinions about fashion, sexuality, and status, and provide a rich source of narrative motifs which young people take up in their own storytelling to address issues in their own lives (Diamondstone, 2004; Dyson, 1997). For these reasons, there is evidence that youth associate screen media with high interest and high status. Digital storytelling taps into youths’ associations with screen media as preferred means of communication.

The completed digital story also becomes “fixed” in a way that is not true of oral stories. The oral story can vary each time it is told, and allows the author the opportunity to re-construe with each telling. The digital story, in contrast, involves a complex linking of narrative and imagery, and is difficult to change. Once it is complete, its “telling” does not require the participation of the storyteller: it stands as a work of art, a representation apart from the teller, an “object” for reflection and critique.

Digital Storytelling in the Cyber Cougars Club

The Cyber Cougar Club represents a partnership between a university (the Laboratory of Learning and Activity at the University of Colorado at Denver) and an urban middle school, serving several purposes. It is an attempt to create an after-school learning environment in which urban youth, usually from low-income homes, can learn through participating in activities of their own choosing with the assistance of more competent peers and adults. At the same time, it is a site for research on learning and activity, and from time to time a site for the preparation of beginning teachers. Based on the Fifth Dimension model developed by Michael Cole and Peg Griffen at the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition at the University of California at San Diego (Cole, 1996), the club is designed to enact a learning environment based on sociocultural principles of learning and development (Vygotsky, 1934/1978). Youth choose from a a menu of activities constrained by a maze akin to a board game from activities including simulation and problem-solving games, digital storytelling, motion video production, and web page design. Participants are discouraged from surfing the internet or playing games that do not have a problem-solving emphasis.

In the fall of 2003, our Cyber Cougar team introduced digital storytelling as an optional activity for a group of eighth grade African American youth. Youth in the Cyber Cougars were told they could “make a short video about a true story in your life.” Four 13-year old boys, all African American, expressed an interest in participating, and after a few sessions they were joined by a fifth. Daniel Weinshenker, of the Center for Digital Storytelling, took the lead in facilitating the process, assisted by three staff members of the Cyber Cougar Club with expertise in multi-media production.

The Laboratory of Learning and Activity conducts inquiry in the tradition of action research, aimed at the improvement of local practice, and reporting learning to broader audiences with the understanding that the insights are not intended to be generalizable as causal relationships, but rather as illustrations of learning processes within particular social contexts (contexts in turn constrained by higher-level systems). We hypothesized that the production of digital stories, through a process involving critical reflection and the externalization of personal narrative in the form of an artistic artifact, would serve as a symbolic resource or “tool” (drawing on Vygotsky’s concept) for the youth. For example, we thought that the process of authoring a digital story might provide youth with a clearer conception of how events in their life had consequences and led to changes in how they acted and felt. We believed that the formal and repeated articulation of those changes might provide youth with a more stable, “crystallized” account that they could draw upon to bring a higher degree of reality or affirmation to the assertion of change portrayed in their story. Our initial research purpose was to identify and illustrate the ways that digital stories served as a developmental resource to their authors.

To document the process of story telling and the reflection by youth on the meaning of that process, we recorded conversations among youth and adults as they worked on their stories, and transcribed those conversations. One member of the adult team also took daily field notes describing the interactions and adding reflections and interpretations. As we began to examine these transcripts and field notes early in the process of story development, an additional purpose emerged: to examine the interactive process through which the stories themselves came into being. We had imagined, before starting the process, that the process of settling on a story to tell would be mainly one of selection. That is, we imagined that each of us has a store of significant events to relate, and the process of personal story telling would be initially mainly a matter of selecting which one to portray. As the process unfolded, however, we quickly discovered that the initial processes of narration were more complex. Youth were reluctant to share first-person accounts, and the accounts initially focused on a noteworthy event or topic, but did not associate the event with change or consequences. The rendering of these kernels into a narrative emerged in a highly interactive process, a series of conversations and story drafts and revisions before the “final” story emerged and was recorded. This process raised interesting questions about the nature of authorship and the role of others in the formation of identity, and the description of this process became a second focus for inquiry.

Three themes emerged in the course of the analysis. First, the telling of digital stories developed a momentum and importance for the youth of our club that seemed exceptional to us, even after two and a half years of assisting youth to make action videos, web pages on fashion and music, animations, and other multi-media presentations on topics of their choosing. Second, the process of production proved to be highly interactive, and the co-authoring of the stories of youth with adults brought into focus processes of identity formation in general. All responsible teaching involves ethical questions of relationship and authority. When the topic of interaction touches on matters of identity and personal history, adults must take into account the social implications of gender and race as well as age and other components of power and influence in helping youth shape the telling of their stories. Third, the stories of how these stories came about, the chronology of their production, revealed important variations in what it means to arrive at an interpretation of personal experience and change. These evolving discoveries of change can include, as I will illustrate with three stories, interpretations whose embrace by their authors remains tentative, but also coherent tales that seem to coalesce for the author into an authoritative account. They also include emotionally painful forays into very delicate memories loaded with avoidance and ambivalence, moving courageously towards the construction of tales of agency.

The Need to Tell

We began to make digital stories in the fall of 2003 by inviting six 8th-grade youth who had participated in our Cyber Cougars activities in previous years to participate in the activity. Daniel Weinshenker, of the Center for Digital Storytelling, defined the genre for the youth: A digital story, he said, was a short movie, about two minutes long, that told a true story about some change in your life. The story “tells how you changed, or how something changed for you.” Four youth, all of them male and 13 years old, expressed an interest in making digital stories, a process that took them six weeks working after school three days a week for two hours each day. When we finished, we suggested holding an informal film festival within our club. The students agreed, and we projected the finished stories onto the wall of the computer lab and broadcast the narrative soundtracks on speakers. We hadn’t advertised the event, but two teachers came because one of the authors had invited them. All four youth wanted DVDs of their work to take home, and all four reported to us later that they showed them to adults in their homes. Marion, one of the youth, was surprised at his father’s response. “My dad, he even got back there and watched it again, like you watch a movie!” he reported.

In November, we opened the club to additional students, and made a special effort to recruit girls. One boy and seven girls began making digital stories. Nearly all of these new students were completely new to multi-media production. Three of them were classified by the school as having learning disabilities, and four were immigrants from Nigeria, learning English as a second language. Most of them found the process of making a digital story challenging technically, artistically, and emotionally, and took a break from the process for up to a week at a time, yet all but one persevered. The fits and starts of their participation, which was entirely voluntary, suggested not so much that they found the process tiresome, but that it was for many intensely personal and required mulling over. Two announced on separate occasions that they were quitting, yet came back days later with longer and more personal versions of scripts to resume the process.

Tales of Authoring: Marion’s Story

Marion, a 13-year old African American young man, had participated in our after-school club for two years before we introduced digital storytelling. Throughout his years in middle school, Marion agreed that doing well in school was important to his future, and he acted accordingly. He turned in homework and received grades of A, B, or occasionally C in academic subjects. His older brother had attended college, and Marion also spoke of attending college as well. On the other hand, he did not focus on any particular career goal or academic interest, and did not have a well-organized sense of a future identity apart from the idea of going to college.

Marion was eager to author a story two days after we introduced the idea to the Cyber Cougars. “I want to tell about airplanes,” he said, “and about the Ace Combat computer game that I play.” Before he began to write a script, he and I talked about the story.

Marion: I started playing Ace Combat 4, and I got real good at it. That’s what I want to tell about.
Alan: What is it, a computer game?
Marion: Yeah, my mom got it for me because I got good grades.
Alan: But you don’t want to make a story just about a computer game, do you? What’s important about it?
Marion: I do all kinds of things about planes. I have an F16 Tomcat, and an F18 Hornet, and a P-51 Mustang, and I know all about them, how fast they fly, what armaments they have, everything.
Alan: What do you mean you have them? You have models of them?
Marion: Models, yeah.
Alan: Are they connected to the Ace Combat game?
Marion: Sort of, yeah. I learned about the F-18 Hornet playing Ace Combat, and then one day I saw a model of one in Walmart, and I said to my mom, “Can I buy that plane?” and she said “Yeah,” and I bought it, and I made it, and then I got more.
Alan: Wow, that’s interesting. And you were telling me about that Jim Meyer guy who makes models. Do you ever see him?
Marion: Jim, yeah, he’s my friend. He just sent me a book about planes.
Alan: Doesn’t he make models that actually fly?
Marion: Yeah. We flew RC planes together in the summer.
Alan: RC?
Marion: Yeah, RC, Remote control.
Alan: So do you think that the Ace Combat game led to all that?
Marion: Sorta. And my dad’s interested in planes.
Alan: He is?
Marion: Yeah, he flew in them in the war. He looks at my models and stuff.
Alan: Was your dad a pilot?
Marion: No, he just rode in them.
Alan: Wow. So, an interesting story is how just this computer game sort of led to a really big interest you have, and also a connection with your dad. You know, most people think that computer games are pretty much a waste of time. You could say that in your story.

Two days later, Marion produced a script for a story:
My mom bought me Ace Combat 4 because I got a good report card. I started to play Ace Combat every day. The more I played it the more I gained interest in planes. One day I was in Walmart and I saw they had a model of an F-18 Hornet that I recognized from Ace Combat game. I built it and put it on a shelf above my desk.

My mom asked me,” Where on earth did you learn about planes?” I said, “From my video game that you got me.”

At the end of school last year I overheard a guy talking about radio controlled planes. Two days ago he sent me a book about them. Now we are good friends. I could end up in the Air Force, like my Dad was, except he didn’t get to fly.

All of the elements of the story were evident in the conversation from the preceding week, but before that conversation these elements did not make up a story. They lacked a chronology, and the identification of a change. The causal sequence, from the acquisition of the game, to the purchase of the first model, to the association with a remote control plane club, then the connection to his father’s military experience and imagining a future as a pilot, was constructed interactively in the conversation, and then became fixed in the plot of a story. The change that was suggested was that a simple computer game had started Marion down the road to becoming a pilot. This was not an idea that was crystallized in Marion’s mind before the conversation.

I met with Marion on October 14 to work on the script, reading one line at a time aloud, and then asking questions and making suggestions. Based on those suggestions, the script expanded. All of the model planes were listed, and details that Marion had learned about them were included. The ironic twist that “most people think that video games are just for fun” was added as an introductory sentence. Then Marion recorded the script, and at that point the story line became fixed.

Marion turned next to collecting images to illustrate the story, and took the digital camera home, returning with pictures of all of his models [Image 1], a picture of his father, and a picture of his father’s Air Force hat that was retrieved from a closet. The interaction with his father seemed significant:

Alan: Marion, what about your Dad? Does he know you’re doing this?
Marion: Yeah, he’s the first one I told.
Alan: Really? What did you tell him?
Marion: I told him I was doing this digital story telling, and I was doing it on the planes, and stuff like that. And he said, “Ooh!”
Alan: And was he around when you took any of the pictures?
Marion: Yeah.
Alan: Did you ask him if he had any old pictures of himself?
Marion: He’s got a picture, but he’s not in uniform.
Alan: Does he know about Jim Meyer?
Marion: Yeah! He met him.

Over the following weeks, Marion discussed the possibility of joining JROTC in high school, and joining the Marines or the Air Force. He worried about being “fragile” and told me about his injuries and allergies. The possibility of flying was becoming more real to him, and he was weighing the possibilities. The sharing of the story at home on the family DVD player was an important event for him, as already described. When our club was visited by the director of the Art Street project of the Mayor’s Office, Marion told her that the value of making a digital video was that he had “learned that I have an interest in planes.” Clearly he knew that he had that interest before making a digital story, yet the digital story crystallized that interest into a narrative that he could use in conceiving of his future. After Marion showed his story about airplanes, it occurred to Daniel that Marion could fly in a two-seater plane through the Young Eagles program. We arranged for that to happen through Cyber Cougars, and Marion made a video about the event, and closed it with a picture of himself labeled Future Pilot. He went on to make a third video about a famous black aviator. For him, the sequence of stories made during the year seemed to be coalescing into an imagined life trajectory.

Tales of Authoring: Noah’s Story

Noah was a 13-year-old African American youth at the time he began participating in digital storytelling. He seemed to be trying to juggle the competing expectations of his parents and teachers, on one hand, and his friends, on the other. Noah was popular, a successful player in the hip-hop world of his friends. He wore name brand jerseys, expensive athletic shoes, and would occasionally “bust a move” from his hip-hop dance repertoire with athletic grace. His grades were all over the place. When he began his digital story, he was receiving a failing grade in his Language Arts class, and was almost failing in math as well – mainly, it appeared, because he didn’t turn in assignments or pay much attention in class. He described himself as capable but not trying to do well in school. He said he enjoyed “clowning around.”

After the introduction to digital storytelling, Noah said he wanted to tell a story about his birthday parties. He would show pictures of balloons, and cakes and candles, and of him “being crazy.” Daniel Weinshenker reminded him that the story needed to show a change from the beginning of the story to the end. After a week, Noah, produced this script:
I’ve been bragging about my birthdays I’ve had since my 11th birthday. Since my 11th birthday, I don’t have a lot of memories. I’ve been pretty different because I have not been as straight up as before. I’m more loose, and not so boring. I make sure I’m polite to people. Like on my 12th birthday I learned how to do magic tricks, so I would be nice to people. I’ve been pretty informed that I make the best decisions on my birthday selections.

The main message of this initial script seems to be that Noah takes pride in having good birthday parties. The only change he identifies is becoming “more loose, not so boring,” and becoming “more polite to people,” a phrase that sounds suspiciously gratuitous, like a morsel thrown in to appease an adult sensibility. Daniel pressed him for a deeper recognition of change.

Daniel: So Noah, let’s talk about your script a little bit, okay?
Noah: Okay.
Daniel: What’s the change from the beginning to the end?
Noah: Uh, let’s see. I got older.
Daniel: So we all get older. What makes you getting older different from everyone else getting older?
Noah: Umm, I got longer hair, uh, I got bigger, I got taller ...
Daniel: Right. So those are all physical things. What about the emotional things? What about the changes inside you? How you think? How you feel about things? Noah: Uh, I think before I act now.
Daniel: Give me an example.
Noah: Like, um, if I was really really angry, and I wanted to fight somebody, I probably wouldn’t fight them.
Daniel: What else? Are you different about school? Do you take school more seriously?
Noah: Yes, more seriously, and when I watched those really really drama, pulled-out movies with my mom, I get all weepy eyed.
Daniel: Really? It is kind of cool that you’ll go and sit with your mom now. Did you used to do that too?
Noah: Oh, no. I used to be just so Noah ...
Daniel: Tell me about the old Noah.
Noah: The old Noah was always running around, bumping his head, yelling, screaming, crying, all over the place. Yeah.
Daniel: I think your assignment is, under Old put one thing that you used to do, or one thing that you used to feel, the Old Noah, and then put how the New Noah feels about that. And then your job, after you do that, is to think about ... give me one or two examples of those things. Because that makes a really good story. What we really need to hear from you, Noah, is what happened, besides just getting older, that made you change from the Old Noah to the New Noah.
Noah: I think I will be writing about that stuff.
Daniel: I think that would be really good. Maybe you’ll show this, and some other students will see it and say, “Man. He became this new guy. And he got to be a little cooler, and stuff. I wonder how did he do that?”

In pressing Noah to build his story around a recognition of changes in how he acts and feels, Daniel seemed to be arguing from two assumptions. One was that the identification of a change, illustrated with specific examples, would make for “a really good story.” The other was that if he thought about it, Noah would realize that he really had changed. Noah offers several possibilities of change: he thinks before he acts, he fights less, he takes school more seriously, he cries watching “really drama pulled-out movies” with his mom. Daniel doesn’t settle for any of these, and assigns Noah to think about changes and write them down with examples.

It is tempting to dismiss this exchange as contrived. Noah at this point really doesn’t appear to be aware of any significant way in which he has changed over the past three years, and one might suspect that whatever he comes up with will be merely an attempt to comply with an adult’s assignment, and not an authentic assertion that will be internalized. On the other hand, Noah is in the process of authoring his own identity, and there is no “true” version of who he is, or how he has changed. Any interpretation he arrives at will be significant to the extent that he embraces it and others accept it.

Like most of the participants in the Cyber Cougars, Noah participates in multiple figured worlds, in which he receives conflicting messages daily about who he is and what should matter to him. In the hip-hop world that nearly all of his peers participate in to some degree, name-brand fashion, athleticism, toughness, and street-wise savvy are key to status; crying while watching movies with your mom and “being polite” are not. Noah is successful in the hip hop world. He has friends. Other youth think he is funny. On the other hand, his father urges him to be self-disciplined and prepare for college, and expresses concern about Noah’s low grades. Teachers tell him that he needs to settle down and work hard. What Noah makes of these conflicting messages no doubt changes from place to place and from day to day. But by putting one version into a digital story and presenting it as a finished object, he takes a step towards embracing one potential identity over another, freezing it in time, and externalizing it as a possibility to contemplate.

Noah returned with this version of the script, which was recorded for his movie:
On my 11th birthday we had different colored balloons and when I’d get a couple of the same color I’d pop them and suck helium out. Then, on my 12th birthday I discovered that I really liked vanilla ice cream with sprinkles [Image 2]. And on my 13th birthday I had the biggest party ever with tons of friends and family. My mom took all of us to the movies.

Now, looking back on it all I remember how wild and crazy I was, not just on my birthday, but all the time. How I grew my hair out long and wasn’t really polite to people at all. Like one time I talked back to a lady at the zoo for no reason, or I’d do crazy stunts without thinking about how hurt I could get.

Back then I didn’t spend a whole lot of time with my family. I’d just go play basketball or hang out with my friends. I didn’t care.

This year my friend Marcus got into a car accident and my mom drove me to go see him at the hospital. When I saw him in the hospital bed it made me think about all the dumb and stupid things I did. I didn’t say anything to my mom, but I knew it inside.

I don’t spend so much time away from my family anymore. Not long ago I sat at home with my mom instead of going out to play. We watched a movie together in the basement. I even got a little teary eyed.

The transformation of the story from the initial version to the final script is striking. Now the Old Noah is set out in detail, with persuasive examples. The contrast with the New Noah is well defined, certainly beyond what we would expect if the changes had been produced simply to comply with an adult’s assignment. Most persuasive of all, the change is attributed to a powerful event, the visit to see his friend in the hospital who had been injured in an automobile accident.

Noah did not repudiate or ridicule this story when it was shown to other students in the club. He later reported taking it home and watching it with his parents, and his father subsequently came to the club on his own initiative to tell us how important this activity was for Noah. Three weeks later, Noah presented his story projected onto a large screen and spoke about it publicly in a conference on digital literacy at the University of Colorado, accompanied by his father. At that moment, he appeared to embrace the story and its making as a confirmation of his newly confirmed “maturity”. He also turned in literature logs and improved his grade in Language Arts. But after that, Noah began to drift apart from his association with the Cyber Cougars. He made a humorous video about the club, and then started to make a murder mystery video, but this project was never finished, and by the beginning of May he and his close friend Evan had quit coming despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that his father insisted that he attend, saying that the Cyber Cougars was the best thing happening for Noah.

Tales of Authoring: Adamma’s Story

Three girls from Lagos, Nigeria, showed up at the Cyber Cougars club one Tuesday in early January, and sat together in the back, as far away as possible from the boys and the adults at the front of the room. Sharon Sherman, the coordinator of the club, greeted them, and told them a bit about digital storytelling, but they said little. They had come to work on a homework assignment, they said. They worked on their assignment, and occasionally watched the club members and stayed to themselves. The next afternoon they came back. After a week of coming and watching and playing computer games, Adamma, an 8th grader, announced that she wanted to make a digital story. She described it to me visually.

Adamma: I’m going to take a picture of a plane. I don’t know how I’m going to take a picture of a plane.
Alan: It’s easy. We can find one on the internet.
Adamma: And then I’m going to have the words, My Trip to America. Or My Life in America. It’s going to be one of those.
Alan: Where were you coming from?
Adamma: Nigeria. Lagos.
Alan: What was it like there?
Adamma: It was beautiful. I like it better than here.
Alan: What was good about living in Lagos?
Adamma: You could be open with everyone. You could just be natural. Not worry about all these people coming to kill you.
Alan: What’s it like here?
Adamma: It’s boring.
Alan: Did you go to school there?
Adamma: Yes. We had to wear uniforms, which I love so much. We learn a bunch of stuff. I’m supposed to be in high school right now, in Nigeria.
Alan: How old are you?
Adamma: 13.
Alan: You wouldn’t be in high school in Nigeria when you are 13, do you think?
Adamma: I would, because I skipped two grades.
Alan: Wow. How did you do that?
Adamma: I don’t know. I’m just smart.
Alan: Wow. Do you speak more than one language?
Adamma: I speak three languages. Ibo, Yoruba, and English.
Alan: Adamma, what do you hope will happen in the future?
Adamma: I’ll go back. I want to be a doctor.
Alan: I think that’s a really interesting story. You should start writing it down.

Adamma’s story was very slow in coming. After we demonstrated PhotoShop, she announced that she was not going to do a digital story because making them was “boring”. For several days, she played Band Entrepreneur, and said nothing about her digital story. I thought she seemed angry. Efforts on the part of Sharon and Daniel to re-interest her in digital stories were rebuffed. Meanwhile, I learned that she had been diagnosed with a learning disability and placed in special education. It occurred to me that her school experience in Lagos and her school experience in the United States had sent her opposite messages. In Lagos, she was more than competent; she was extraordinary, and had been double promoted. Here, she was told that she had problems learning, and belonged in a class with students with special needs. In Lagos, she was successfully trilingual, speaking Ibo at home, Yoruba with certain friends, and English at school. Here, the Ibo and Yoruba were simply ignored at school, and her English was seen as flawed rather than praised as an accomplishment. This, I thought, had the makings of a powerful story. I hoped that the telling and formal presentation of it would strengthen her presentation of herself as someone who was smart and capable, and better equip her to recognize and respond to the contradictory assertions of school and peers.

Adamma returned to her story, and wrote and recorded this script:
I haven’t been living in America for very long I just got here about five years ago. I use to live in Lagos in Nigeria, which is in Africa [Image 3]. I love Nigeria very well. I could say I love it better than here. When I heard I had to come to America I was sort of happy, then I started feeling sad because I will be leaving some of my friends and family.

When I heard we were going to take a plane I freaked. I had never been on a plane before but they are so high up in the sky that I was afraid I was going to die.

My first school in America was a nightmare. The kids did not treat me with respect because I spoke differently and I was from Nigeria. They would tear my homework and were just mean. Even though I treated them with respect it didn’t make a difference. So I started being mean, doing to them what they were doing to me, which wasn’t like me at all but they did leave me alone. I did make one friend. Her name is Alex. She is nice and respected me.

My next school was the same. I stood up to the kids but this time it made the situation worse. Luckily I was only there one year. When I finally went to middle school it got a lot better. I made lots and lots of friends, and was happy there. They are the best, they are still my friends, but I made more and more. It made me feel happy, but some people are still mean to me. But what do I care if they don’t like me? Too bad, they just missing the incredible time and fun they could be having with me. But I have something to say to those people who are my friend, Thanks. I will always remember the people who make me feel that not all Americans are bad, only the people who don’t know how to respect themselves and respect others.

This is a strong story, addressing directly Adamma’s sense of social rejection from her peers, the theme foremost in her mind. The story also conveys a subtext of loss and unrealized potential. Several adults in the club made efforts to discuss the script further with Adamma to raise that subtext to the surface. But Adamma was not very open to talking about her script, and seemed to reject suggestions as criticisms. On more than one occasion she became angry and announced she was never coming back, and then reappeared the following day. Up until the final week, none of us knew whether she would finish editing her story and allow us to include it in the final presentation. She did finish it, and after it was shown and she received the certificate we gave each student for completing a digital story, she went around and asked every youth and adult to sign it and write something to her. Three weeks after school ended, she sent the following email message to the club, which I have pasted exactly as I received it: “I wish I can see you next year. this year has been the best year of my life. All thank TO the CYBER COUGAR.” It was the strongest evidence we had received that the process of digital storytelling had been significant to Adamma.

Personal Narratives as Tools for Development

These three accounts provide some insight into the variety of ways that the construction and externalization of personal narrative can serve as a cognitive tool for development. The process of creating the story, the completed story as an object, and subsequent experiences of presenting the story to others and interacting with others about it all served the work of identity construction.

In each case, the narrative emerged in an interactive process between a youth and an adult. The adult’s contribution reflected a preference for a particular normative genre of story -- chronological linking of events in a causal sequence to describe and explain a change that had some emotional significance for the teller. The youth certainly were practiced in producing informal narratives of this general pattern for themselves and for their friends, but probably had little experience in formalizing such a telling and reflecting on it. The stories emerged gradually through interaction with the adult from a simple theme or event (airplanes, birthday parties, coming to America) into a more reflective interpretation of a sequence of related events.

The process of telling the story and writing it down was an act of self-authorship: through it, the youth were faced with making decisions about what particular events had meant to them, and settling on a particular interpretation. The process took place over a period of up to two months, and involved the sort of guided critical reflection that has the potential to support positive change and inform future decisions (Farell, 1995). The youth returned to the elements of their story and the coalescing of those elements into a single narrative day after day, contributing to the internalization of the emerging account. In the case of Marion, the coalescing into a final version occurred relatively quickly, and seemed to come as a sudden passage into consciousness of a trajectory that was already present but not fully recognized. In contrast, the transformation of Noah’s story through an overt process of guided critical reflection gradually produced a narrative akin to the basic “redemption story” that members of Alcoholics Anonymous share in each meeting: “I was out of control of my life, I hit bottom, and then I discovered I needed help” (Holland et al., 1998).

These stories illustrate the potential tensions in the adult-youth relationship during the development of a youth’s personal narrative. The adult may act as a facilitator, helping the youth to make use of complex technical tools to tell a story. But the adult may also act as a guide, leading the youth to see connections among elements in a potential story, pressing the youth to engage in critical reflection, and helping the youth to view the story as an artistic artifact aimed at connecting with a potential audience of viewers. Storytelling is different than taking a fingerprint or a candid photograph; it is not a direct revelation of something that already exists in some objective form. Storytelling is a cultural genre, an art form developed by human beings, and like all forms of artistic expression, one can get better at doing it under the guidance of a more accomplished practitioner. As these stories show, the story often comes gradually into consciousness as chronologies are worked out and interpretations constructed. When the story is autobiographical, ethical considerations demand that the adult assist the youth to arrive at a self-awareness that is ultimately hopeful and adaptive, and not delusional, self-deprecating or overly alienating.

Sometimes, as in the case of Noah, an adult may succeed in moving the youth from relatively superficial themes (I have great birthday parties) to more significant insights (after my friend nearly died, I realized how immature I had been). But as the case of Adamma illustrates, youth are frequently reluctant to engage in a formative dialogue with an adult about portraying their personal stories. In both of these cases, it was apparent that if the adult had pressed too hard for a particular version of the story, the youth would no longer have “owned” it, and whatever developmental potential it brought would have been lost. In an after-school setting such as the Cyber Cougars, where everyone is free to leave at will and there are no grades or graduation requirements compounding the power imbalance between youth and adult, it is not difficult to find the flexibility to step forward and to pull back as the dynamics of the relationship suggest. In a classroom setting, however, where the product will be graded, the likelihood that the youth will produce an artifact with no internalized significance would seem to be much greater.

Educators working with older youth to produce digital stories within the context of a school course have demonstrated that class discussion and readings can serve as a significant resource for framing personal narratives. For example, Rina Benmayor (Weis, Benmayor, O’Leary & Eynon, 2002) incorporated digital storytelling into her Latina Life Stories class at California State University at Monterey Bay. Through critical discussions and through reading stories of resistance, struggle, and survival, her students came to see their lives as embodying larger social forces, theories, and identities, and these realizations affected how they told their own stories. In the Cyber Cougars, we were white and latina adults working with considerably younger African and African American youth, and only in the case of Adamma did we try to help her to see the relationship between her personal story and its larger social context of immigration and loss of social capital.

Once youth had recorded a version of their story and linked it to images in a movie, the story became externalized as a sort of symbolic package, a version of self available to be affirmed or improvised upon. At this point, the presentation of the story to audiences and the interaction of youth with those audiences played a critical part. Each of the youth in the Cyber Cougars was given a DVD of their story, and each reported sharing it with one or more adults at home as a positive experience. Marion reported that the story reinforced his relationship with his father, and Noah’s father visited the club on his own initiative after seeing the story and affirmed its importance. The stories described here were also shown in an informal Film Festival within the Cyber Cougars, and each was met with applause, which supported the authors’ embrace of their own stories. On the other hand, a story by another youth, one not described in this account, was met with some derisive laughter because a picture she had included had become distorted unintentionally in the editing process. This seemed to detract from the meaning of the story in her eyes.

Marion and Noah were two of four Cyber Cougars invited to present their stories to a highly supportive audience at a conference at the University of Colorado at Denver a few weeks after they had produced them. Each showed his story, spoke about it briefly, and then answered questions from the audience of university professors and students. For some time following that event, the stories took on a new level of meaning for the authors. Taken together, these experiences of presentation demonstrate the fragility and importance of this stage. If for some reason these youth had sensed that their stories portrayed them as nerdy or in some sense pathetic, the experience could easily have undermined their acceptance of the story as an account of who they were, and would have distanced them from the account it portrayed.

In the end, there is evidence that each story served as a tool in the process of self-authoring. In each case, the youth reflected on events of his or her life and organized them into a coherent narrative that had not existed beforehand as an object of contemplation. Each of these narratives held the potential to contribute to a more developed “imagined life trajectory” for the teller. For the time being, Marion saw himself as a future pilot, Noah seemed to embrace the idea that he had moved on from his former “wild and crazy” self, and Adamma understood that she had lost status and relationships when she came to the US, but she was finally emerging with new ones. Each of the story tellers had also developed proficiency with a variety of technical tools, from scanning and digital photo editing to video editing, and these newly acquired tools also became incorporated into a more competent sense of self. From this point on, however, the significance of these realizations will depend on how they are reinforced and re-shaped in the ongoing process of positioning and answering (all within the constraints of larger, slower-moving systems) through which we author our lives.


References

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Attachments:

Image 1: "Marion turned next to collecting images to illustrate the story..." (image format), 9 K.

Image 2: "Then, on my 12th birthday I discovered that I really liked vanilla ice cream with sprinkles..." (image format), 21 K.

Image 3: "I use to live in Lagos in Nigeria..." (image format), 9 K.