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8 Tips for Teaching How to Write a Digital Story on Immigration

This is part one of a series dedicated to the art of teaching the digital story on immigration. The second part is accessible here. Digital storytelling about immigrant heritage is a way to access a shared past and present, however distinct the individual stories are, develop reading and writing skills, and most importantly, build empathy while thoroughly engaging students. It can, however, be challenging to teach for a number of reasons: 1) uncertainty in the writing process when there may be unknown variables in immigration experiences 2) fears of technology 3) relevancy within what may be a restrictive curriculum.

The American Immigration Council’s “Crossing Borders with Digital Storytelling” is a comprehensive guide adaptable for any grade level and aligned to Common Core, but best practice often involves learning from other teachers to improve.  Middle school teacher Brian Kelley has been developing family heritage podcasting and digital storytelling with his students for several years and has shared some of his methods for working with students in writing about their immigration journeys.  His tips connect well with our curriculum.

Writing is the most important aspect to any digital story project.  What follows are tips excerpted from Kelley’s blog Walk the Walk and copied with his permission here to help teachers anticipate and meet some of the challenges in implementing this project as well as to showcase its valuable rewards.

We welcome your feedback, tips, and questions for how to engage students in digital storytelling on immigration.  Email us at and follow us on Twitter.

Tip 1: Brainstorm with Students

The early stages of any digital storytelling project are writing. Lots of it. Before students decide what story they would like to tell digitally, they need to do a lot of writing first. My class has just begun their journey. Read more »

Tip 2: Encourage Talk at Home

These are questions I want the students to start asking at home. Gather information and gather photographs! Ask at dinner. Email aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins for photographs and keep them in a digital folder online. 

We will need these digital photographs for the blogs, podcasts, and videos we compose later. Read more »

Tip 3: Bring in Good Writers and Writing

After this, I turned their attention to a poem, Eating Together, in our textbook by Chinese poet Li-Young Lee. We discussed what information struck us as cultural clues and what information struck as pieces of his family history. In the end, what came out of this was food. Food is a beautiful conduit for writing about our families and cultures. Read more »

Tip 4: Demonstrate Research Skills and Reflection

Most students will experience struggle when digging for family online with resources.  And that is ok. This kind of research challenges anyone of any age and helps develop problem solving skills. In the end, students will find that they want to, and need to, ask for help. And I love that many realize on their own that family is the best place for them to find this help. Read more »

Tip 5: Analyze Historical and Cultural Context with Students

One way to help students understand context is through a three-step exercise:

  1. Identify Protagonists & Values
  2. Knowledge Dump
  3. Five Minute Scene
Narrative will give us a slightly different experience from the direct questioning and interviewing of the past few days. Narrative will provide another challenge. It will ask students to consider components of their family history and culture beyond the names and dates. Read more »

Tip 6: Model Writing a Short Narrative

Explaining my thinking and process, I write front of my class. (The story is blend of facts, stories, and details evocative of one protagonist and values tested during the immigration experience).

 Tip 7: Target Areas for Revision

Since my 8th grade students and I wrote narrative drafts of a short scene yesterday, we started class today by breaking down my finished draft, Right Out of the Pot. I projected my draft on the wall and pointed out five things the students need to consider as they revise today... Read more »

Tip 8: Question When Students Say “I Don’t Have Culture”

Sometimes students do not believe they have history or culture to write about--even after going through prewriting, looking at pictures at home, and asking questions at home. Sometimes they come from families where the past just isn't well-known or talked about. Read more »



Tip 1: Brainstorm with Students: Not knowing something about our family tree is just as valuable as what we do know. These gaps can provide starting points for questions with our families.

No matter how great of a start a class had on the first day of a digital composition project, the foundation will be built around two things: prewriting and modeling.

In a recent National Writing Project workshop it was noted that 90% of writing instruction should be spent on helping students find their topics.

Prewriting activities allow students time to explore. It provides teachers with the time to be a mentor and moves us away from the allure of being a judge of student writing. Furthermore, at no point in this project will I approve or reject topics. My goal is to put students into the best position to find the topics that they care about and to learn from their choices as writers.

As we are five months into the school year, and students have had guided instruction in various prewriting activities, several prewriting strategies can now function at once in the classroom:

  • turning and talking
  • webbing
  • listing
  • drawing
  • writing itself...or diving in

On any given day, students choose which strategy best fits.


Tip 2: Encourage Talk at Home. I asked the students to write down questions adapted from NPR's StoryCorp Great Questions list.

  1. What is your ethnic background?
  2. Where are your various family members from? Has anyone ever visited there?
  3. What traditions have been passed down and still exist? What traditions have been lost through the years?
  4. Who are/were your favorite relatives when you were a child or adolescent?
  5. Do you remember any favorite family stories that a specific family member loved telling?

Last night, I received this email from a student:

Mr Kelley,

Over dinner with my mother and I told her that we had been discussing the family tree in writing and she told me that her father went crazy years ago and researched his whole Taylor family tree. She got it out and showed it to me where as it dates as far back as to the late 1700's. All the information is extremely precise, with it there is birth, death, cause of death, and burial place for each person. Some people even more background added to that. Of course this is amazing and I've been sitting in my room with the documents reading through and looking up some of the background from it, but there was so much to see as unfortunate for some of these family members. As I read through the generations it showed that in one family a child only lived for two hours. Years later his brother was born and he only lived for one. I don't know how my grandfather did this and managed to find everything spot on, but I think it'd be a great thing to bring in and show you for the family tree unit so that is what I intend to do for tomorrow. I look forward to showing you this for it is pretty amazing.

Young people love writing about themselves and discovering their place in the world. This project funnels the larger world into the manageable and meaningful world of family. With your guidance and modeling, you will find your students compiling many topics to explore. 

Writing about family history and culture provides an opportunity for me to model the importance of primary sources, primary documents, and talking and staying connected with family.


Tip 3: Bring in Good Writers and Writing

Today's prewriting arose from the prompt what object(s) do you associate with family members? First, we took a look at Julia Alvarez's poem Dusting and discussed what objects or things Alvarez connects with her mother.

As a transition to the next stage, I asked students to share out loud any connections that they had with objects and their family.


Tip 4: Demonstrate Research Skills and Reflection

While you can go in any number of directions with guiding student freewriting or drafts, I offer the following prompt as a starting point: 

Inform an audience with up to three things which intrigue you about your family history and/or culture.

As students began to open their notebooks, I composed my own list of things which intrigued me about my family on the white board and then wrote a sample of the kind of thinking I hoped they would move to.

The more I dig the more I learn about the (severe) hardships all immigrants experience. My ancestors relied on one another to make it. Often they lived in another person's home for years before finding steady work, money, and confidence to rent their own home. For instance, one of my cousins left Italy for the United States after World War I. Married, she and her new husband experienced the joy of the birth of a son and the heavy sorrow of losing twin girls at birth--all in less than 18 months. I can't imagine the drastic swings of emotion during their first year in a new country where neither could speak nor write the language. This teaches me why I remember my family as always being so close and tender with one another. My mom and older cousins were raised where people took care of one another when family truly needed each other.

After writing and reading my response, I leave the class with about twenty minutes to list and write.


Tip 5: Analyze Historical and Cultural Context with Students

  1. Identify Protagonists & Values: Ask the students to write and follow along as you create a short list of family members who would make for good protagonists for a narrative from their family history. In addition to names, identify core human values connected to each person.
  2. Knowledge Dump: Choose one protagonist and start listing all of our facts, quotes, memories, and stories about him/her.
  3. Five-Minute Story: Write alongside of your students for five minutes. 

Take a protagonist from the family and write a short narrative. Some young writers may struggle--stuck not knowing what to write--but this is where guiding them back to their memories triggered by basic human values comes in. Advise them to write an anecdote they have been told or know firsthand but do so with a specific basic human value in mind.

After five minutes, ask students to note what gaps exist in their first few lines. Help them understand that they now have more questions to bring home, more details to discover.


Tip 7: Target Areas for Revision

  1. Evidence of my protagonist's core human value is present in the scene. While I did not write the word generosity, readers can glean generosity through my grandfather's actions and dialogue. Students should write their scene so that reader can see the core value at play. In the case of my grandfather's scene, generosity can be inferred through his dialogue: 
  2. A cultural and historical context is present. Students should consider opportunities to note clothing styles, language, music, food, furniture, et al. In my piece, I put saddle shoes on the Joanie because they among fashion trends for girls in the 1950s. The table was chrome. My grandfather used "doll" when referring to my grandmother. According to Google's Ngram Viewer the usage of "doll" peaked in the 1947 and 1948 and remained highly used in the 1950s. Perhaps my grandfather would have used that term of affection for his wife.
  3. Setting helps tell the story. Our stories should not have the feel of taking place nowhere at any time. We should, as readers, be able to look around and see the infrastructure of the place. Readers trust that if a story takes place in 1850's Ireland that some differences would exist from the story taking place in 1980's India.
  4. Revise for strong verbs. Make this a habit.
  5. Revise for sensory details and figurative language. Make this a habit too

The list is a rough rubric. This is not graded. This is a formative assessment for me to understand if they grasp context and if can they write with context. Can they make creative choices with words, sentence, and ideas to bring a snippet of a family member to life?


Tip 8: Question When Students Say “I Don’t Have Culture”

Actually, my family knows very little about my paternal grandfather's side of the family. They have disappeared from our lives. Some of our kids will run into walls like this.
I have students who sometimes find it difficult to get answers--and not for a lack of trying. Sometimes circumstances outside of the classroom are beyond a student's control. This is where we need to work to help students see connections. 

  • Perhaps music is valued in their family?
  • Do you notice people working with their hands? 
  • Does your family eat dinner together? cook together? garden?
  • Is there a history of the military? science? athletics? religion and faith? in your family?
  • What do you notice in the artwork around your house?
  • Does your family keep clothing? plates? foods? representative of a specific culture?
  • What do you see when your extended family visits or when you go there?

I try to ask questions to plant seeds in the struggling writer's mind--so they can see and value and connect with aspects about their family today. Nothing is too small. Nothing is insignificant. Everything matters and has value.


Year Released: 2015