Diversity and Democracy

Story Matters: Meeting Actionable Community Needs in a Digital World

Stories unite us. Across cultures, we are socialized from an early age to use them to make sense of our world, shape our present experiences, and imagine a distant future (Bruner 1985). Crafting and sharing personal stories that have a wider public impact is the goal of the Saving Our Stories (SOS) Project, a youth digital writing program sponsored by the Colorado State University Writing Project, which I direct. This ongoing program connects preservice English teachers, K–12 teachers, and elementary English Language Learners (ELLs) for the purpose of meeting an actionable need, in this case the preservation of stories from the local Latino community that might otherwise be lost.

Theory and Practice

Brittany Belmarez, whose comments accompany this article, participated in the SOS Project when she was an undergraduate at Colorado State University studying to be a high school teacher of social studies and English language arts. As her English professor, I recruited Brittany to be part of SOS because I knew her dual academic emphasis reflected an existing personal commitment to social justice and civic literacy. Yet she—like many preservice teachers—saw limited opportunities to enact these values and the educational theories and methods she was learning about in her university courses. Brittany was committed to making a difference in her future students’ lives, but the future is, well, the future. It exists only as a blurry abstraction in the peculiar liminal space Brittany and her classmates inhabit as they straddle the roles of university students and soon-to-be teachers.

Helping preservice teachers transition from the mindset of a student to that of a teacher is a well-documented challenge for teacher educators, and I am no exception (see, for example, O’Donnell-Allen and Hunt 2001). Having been a high school English teacher myself for eleven years prior to becoming a university professor, I am convinced of the intimate relationship between theory and practice. I know that theories never exist in a vacuum; indeed, they emanate from practice as educators and researchers attempt to understand why classrooms operate as they do. I emphasize to my students that articulating the principles behind their practice will allow them to be intentional about the strategies they employ to support student learning. Otherwise, as the educational pendulum perpetually swings back and forth, they will be subject to every new “surefire” program or method that comes along. Furthermore, I stress that teaching can make a difference. As the one developmental context virtually every young person in the United States shares, schools have great capacity to disrupt social inequities and increase access to the privileges and responsibilities toward which an educated democracy aspires.

My students, including Brittany, are familiar with this speech, but they are not always convinced by it. Without concrete examples to contextualize who they envision themselves to be as future teachers, my admonition that they “just trust me on this one” often falls on deaf ears. To correct this disparity, I look for every opportunity I can to get preservice teachers, experienced teachers, and school-aged students into the same room and working together to make a difference now that will also make a difference later in our increasingly diverse and digital world. The SOS Project directly addresses this goal.

Digital Technology and Service Learning

The SOS Project is a digital storytelling workshop that allows preservice teachers to work alongside experienced teachers to help fourth- and fifth-grade English Language Learners (ELLs) preserve their own stories and those of their families and the local Latino community, while at the same time developing valuable twenty-first-century literacy skills. During the weeklong workshop, the elementary students engage in a broad array of multimodal literacy practices and conduct research on local history with cultural innovation and community change in mind. They read and emulate literary works by Spanish-speaking writers; visit local museums, including El Museo de las Tres Colonias, a restored adobe home originally built by Mexican immigrants working in the sugar beet industry; record their learning in daily journals, podcasts, slideshows, and videos; and share it via various face-to-face and digital platforms like Twitter.

The SOS Project runs concurrently with a weeklong professional development workshop for teachers on teaching with technology. For half of each day, teachers in the workshop explore digital tools and discuss issues related to technology integration in the classroom. For the other half, they immediately apply what they have learned by helping the SOS students use programs like iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand to record and edit podcasts, slideshows, and videos capturing their personal and family histories. At the end of the week, when both workshops conclude, teachers participate in a celebratory reading where SOS students share their work with family, friends, and invited guests, including professors and students from Colorado State University who were the first in their families to attend college. With their presence, these first-generation professors and students demonstrate that a postsecondary education is achievable, a point most also emphasize in their direct interactions with the students.

To prepare for their potential participation in the summer workshop—which is a professional networking opportunity but not a course expectation—students in my undergraduate course on teaching composition participate in a required service-learning project. Through this project, they learn to develop instructional materials for marginalized students in our community that meet Colorado standards in secondary English Language Arts. They pilot the curricula they develop in an English class at a local alternative high school with the understanding that the materials may be adapted in age-appropriate ways for the elementary students participating in SOS.

Culturally Responsive Teaching

For several reasons, the service-learning project focuses on the development of culturally responsive materials that feature multimodal rather than print-based literacy practices. First, this approach intentionally expands the traditional literacy curriculum to tap the “cultural knowledge, prior experiences, and performance styles of diverse students” (Gay 2010, 29). Second, while a multisensory, multimodal approach to literacy instruction benefits all students, it is especially effective with ELLs (Fu 2009). Finally, the project reflects the reality that ELLs are the fastest growing student population in the United States. National statistics reveal that approximately one in every five students lives in a household where English is not the first language spoken (Shin and Kominski 2010). More locally, Colorado is one of twelve “destination states” for ELLs—that is, states having over 200 percent growth of ELLs since 1994 (Office of Language, Culture, and Equity 2011).

Despite a changing student population, most teachers report feeling inadequately prepared for teaching ELLs. An unfortunate result is that these students are often doomed to receive writing instruction that requires no more than filling in the blanks rather than constructing extended prose (Fu 2009). In light of these realities, researchers have called for better university preparation of preservice teachers to help all students compose digitally, to help ELL students in particular develop academic literacy, and to address the intersection between these areas—that is, helping all students develop literacy skills through digital composing (see, for example, Black 2009; Leander 2007).

Knowing that even experienced educators feel overwhelmed by the prospect of supporting their ELL students’ literacy needs, particularly in a digital realm, I feel an acute obligation to help my preservice teachers see this challenge not as insurmountable, but as a tremendous opportunity in disguise. Yes, teaching is a complex task, as is learning to write. Learning to teach writing to a diverse population in a digital age only compounds these complexities. But as Robert Frost noted, the best way out is always through.

Engaging by Enacting

Brittany and her classmates are right not to be satisfied with educational theories alone. They must be able to do more than read about how to teach or speculate about how they might help their future students disrupt societal inequities by developing critical literacy skills and civic agency. They must engage these theories by enacting them. Participating in service learning, networking with experienced teachers about teaching with technology, and teaching diverse youth in the SOS Project allows my university students to act on their impulse to make a difference now.

The power of story unites our efforts to capture what exists in the perplexing now and to shape our collective narrative into a more promising someday.

Using Digital Storytelling to Cross Linguistic Boundaries

The following excerpts are from an interview with undergraduate student Brittany Belmarez conducted by Cindy O’Donnell-Allen. The interview can be heard in its entirety on the National Writing Project’s “Digital Is” website at http://digitalis.nwp.org/resource/4417.

[Participating in the Teaching with Technology workshop] really opened my eyes to some of the realities of what it’s like to be teaching. It’s one thing to be in a [college] classroom and to be talking about what to expect as a teacher, and it’s a completely different thing when you’re hearing about the hands-on experiences and those first-hand encounters teachers are having in the classroom. For me, just being in the room with some really phenomenal teachers…hearing their ideas and hearing the things they do was so inspiring and encouraging….

[During the workshop,] I worked with two students—a young girl and a young boy—and both were Hispanic, and the first little girl was so shy. She had this great story to tell…and the first time she tried to tell it, it was a struggle for her. She was just so shy. And then…when we played it back to her the first time, her face lit up. I will never forget the look on her face when she heard her voice on that recording….And the little boy…told his story first in Spanish and then translated it into English, and it was his story about learning English and some of the difficulties he had in that process and having a primarily Spanish-speaking family. And so, that was entering a whole different level for him of self-discovery and self-identity. So to be a part of that was great….

The technology definitely will be a natural thing that I’ll take into the classroom. But I think [I will also take] the importance of students sharing their experiences and where they come from in ways that allow them to own their story. [Digital storytelling] allowed them to pick a moment in their life. It allowed them to portray that moment the way that they wanted it to be portrayed, and so they owned it completely. So when you have a student who is…[learning] English as a second language, that can be an uncomfortable thing for them to talk about in the classroom of primarily English-speaking students. So when they’re given an opportunity to choose if they want to bring that [to the] table, and then how they bring [it] to the table, I think it validates their experience in ways that are really worthwhile….

[O]ne thing that I know I will take into my classroom, no matter if I’m teaching a history class or an English class, is storytelling. I think that it’s critical for creating a community within the classroom. And I think, honestly, the technology can be a great way to tap into English Language Learners’ abilities…. [T]echnology can cross language boundaries really easily, so I think that can be a great opportunity to create an equal playing field in the classroom, especially with English Language Learners.

—Brittany Belmarez


Black, Rebecca. 2009. “Online Fan Fiction, Global Identities, and Imagination.” Research in the Teaching of English 43: 397–425.

Bruner, Jerome. 1985. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fu, Danling. 2009. Writing between Languages: How English Language Learners Make the Transition to Fluency, Grades 4–12. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gay, Geneva. 2010. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Leander, Kevin. 2007. “‘You Won’t Be Needing Your Laptops Today’: Wired Bodies in Wireless Classrooms.” In A New Literacies Sampler, edited by Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear, 25–48. New York: Peter Lang.

O’Donnell-Allen, Cindy, and Bud Hunt. 2001. “Reading Adolescents: Book Clubs for YA Readers.” English Journal 90: 82–89.

Office of Language, Culture, and Equity. 2011. Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students in Colorado: A State of the State Report. http://www.cde.state.co.us/sites/default/files/documents/cdesped/download/pdf/cld_stateofthestate2011.pdf

Shin, Hyon B., and Robert A. Kominski. 2010. Language Use in the United States: 2007 American Community Survey Reports. Washington, DC: US Census Bureau.

Cindy O’Donnell-Allen is professor of English at Colorado State University.

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