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From Writing the Page to Pressing Play: More Tips on Teaching Digital Stories on Immigration

This article completes a two-part series dedicated to the art of teaching the digital story on immigration to build writing and research skills while engendering empathy and engagement. 

These practical insights come largely from middle school teacher Brian Kelley who regularly incorporates digital storytelling and podcasting on family heritage and immigration into his curriculum. The American Immigration Council’s teacher’s guide “Crossing Borders with Digital Storytelling” complements these tips. It provides educators with easy instructions to develop similar projects in their classrooms. It is Common Core aligned and adaptable for multiple grade levels.

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

In the previous article, we outlined 8 tips for teaching how to write a digital story on immigration. These remaining tips take the project from paper draft to digital publication. 

Tip 1: What if students ask “what do I write about”?

The beauty of this project is that you won’t get this question too much, but occasionally students may still struggle.

Using the brainstorms from our previous prewriting sessions, I ask students to highlight one piece of explicit information in their notes -- something that their eyes are drawn to. I give them the example that one of the things I have come to understand through my prewriting is that, as an adolescent, I did not appreciate the closeness of my family.

When I was a child, I never appreciated that closeness, but after hearing the way my mother put it, I crave that closeness too.

I took that message and tried to explain it with more information and an anecdote and demonstrated my thinking for students. I added information (people, places, things, facts, procedures, data, quotes, etc.) and anecdotes (short bits of narrative enough to help make the information stick). Read more »

Tip 2: What if students say “I can’t find the ‘right’ image”?

How I Handle Images:
Some students will want to Google images and be done with it. I want to dissuade them from this approach. Read more »

Tip 3: Storyboards may be good for some, but not all

What I learned is that my kids did indeed "storyboard"...just not in the way I envisioned it happening – and not all.

I tried talking about the boxes as snapshots. Think of them as the photographs you are going to layout in order to show the viewer something specific--sometimes our eyes catch what our ears cannot.

I called it an organizer, a visualizer, a layout, and an outline for my video.

I tried to show them that it was a way to bring words one step closer to merging with the visual aspect of the story.

It didn't matter. So many of them stared at the boxes. Read more »

Tip 4: Test your digital storytelling software before working with students

Before offering options, I tested several apps and programs for making videos and podcasts. By tested, I mean I made short sample projects--thirty seconds long--so I could better understand a few things:

  1. ease of use (recording voice, uploading photos and video)
  2. how to share my work with others
  3. is it available in the cloud
  4. does it only function on one fixed device

It is critical that you create a digital project yourself anytime you ask students to do it. So many variables come into play that we can better understand--and avoid--by trying it first. Between workshops, conferences, and my peers, I have seen far too many examples of teachers feeling stuck--or untrained--and helpless when students cannot share their project with them. 

Try it first! Here are some applications I have tried and my observations of them. Read more »

Tip 5: Provide extra support for beginner writers and users of technology

If you’re teaching writing digital stories for younger students (grades K-5) or for some ELL or SPED students, you’ll have to add structure. Likewise, support is necessary for beginner users of technology. What follows are 10 recommendations to make digital writing projects on immigration accessible for all students. Read more »

Tip 6: View troubleshooting with technology as a learning opportunity

No matter how much preparation you put into a digital project, you will face problems that you will need to troubleshoot.

I am still dealing with a handful of students who cannot upload their projects to me. They created them on a computer at home and--according to them--nothing is working. Several things could be at play here; the student may never have done the project; the video really is there but a setting in their home-computer or WiFi is creating problems; they created and saved it as something too large to upload---the possibilities go on. 

Some of the problems are more transparent--kids will need a lot of repetition and support in how to best show a picture in their video or why they need to speak slowly and clearly or why silence and pauses matter.

Sometimes, programs and apps will be quirky. They just will. I can't explain it. That said, for as rewarding as the final products can be--and for as much writing and planning that you and your students will do--creating digital texts requires time and patience and flexibility. From you, yes. But we will have to remember that all of the roadblocks, quirks, and unexpected problems with technology (or in the gaps in our collective knowledge) is an opportunity for us to make the time to model patience and flexibility and problem-solving with our students. Read more »

Tip 7: Plan unique opportunities to celebrate and share!

Digital stories on immigration provide unique opportunities to celebrate and share both within and beyond the classroom walls. Too often as teachers we collect papers from our students and we are the only one who reads their work. A class project dedicated to writing digital stories on immigration is the perfect medium to showcase student work in a dramatic way.

Ideas for sharing student work include:

  • Gallery-walk and listening tour
  • Student presentations Q&A
  • Website publication – post to a class page or school website (as long as you have permission)
  • Host an “Oscar-like” awards ceremony – host a friendly competition and allow students to pick categories for the “best” digital stories.
  • Create a community viewing event – Invite parents, guardians, fellow teachers, administrators and community members for a digital story movie event with popcorn and soft drinks.

Have more ideas? Please share with us by emailing us at



Tip 1: What If Students Ask “What Do I Write About”?

As a child, my mom was able to see most family members on a daily basis. Four Italian families of uncles, aunts, and cousins all lived together on the same street. My mom thought this was the way everyone lived, and that is where and how she raised me--in my grandparent’s house, so close to all of our family members. Now, we all live so far apart and the physical distance doesn’t feel natural to either of us. My mom reminded me, “Being surrounded by family, growing up with cousins in the same house or across the street, I never felt alone.”

Then, we all wrote to try to frame a piece of information with narrative.

Interestingly, students in each of my five classes continue to reference something written by one classmate. The young writer explained China's law regarding parents giving birth to a second daughter. The mother loses her job and the family is fined $50,000. As a result, her parents birthed her in the US, then flew her back to China and left her with other family...for three years. The parents went to America to start a new life--one in which they could raise a second daughter. 

That is all information but some might argue it is story too.

What none will argue--and the detail that my students keep coming back to--the detail that makes the information stick.

The student writes, "In talking with my father alone, he told me my mother wept the entire plane ride from China to America."

Still information? Yes.

But it is framed by narrative and that makes for interesting writing.


Tip 2: What If Students Say “I can’t find the ‘right’ image”?

What I tell my students is this:

  • Start with family images. Write, call, ask family for pictures of family. You would be surprised by what already exists...and new pictures of family or family locations can inspire new depths of writing. Pictures of cultural or family objects and places work just as well as people. 
  • How can they be uploaded?
    • Some pictures will be emailed to the students. 
    • If students have a personal device with a camera, they can take pictures of pictures.
    • If students know family members are on social media like Facebook, students can take screen shots of any relevant family photos.

How I Handle Literal-Minded Students:
This will happen. A student is writing about the impact that her grandfather's woodworking had on her as a little girl. But then she realizes that no photos exists of her grandfather's woodshop let alone pictures of her in her grandfather's woodshop.

  • Any photos of you and your grandfather together will work...
  • Any photos of your grandfather will work...
  • Any photos of you will work...
  • Any photos of something your grandfather made will work...
  • Any photos of your grandfather's tools...or a tool that reminds you of him will work

Sometimes students will hyper-focus on finding the exact photo of the exact moment in time noted in their writing. We need to help them learn the skills of applying a photo or image in context.

How I Handle Students at the End of their Rope

No photos exist. They really did look. They asked. They emailed. They scoured social networks. But the great-great-grandfather who felled a forest all by himself in Bavaria left no images behind. Now what? Google?

I try to keep a cache of links to sites providing royalty-free images. However, I always point students towards art first. The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers tons images online. All searchable by geographical regions.

If art fails, then yes, by all means, use any of the links on this wiki:

Additionally, check out the American Immigration Council’s padlet, an online bulletin board of curated resources for digital storytelling on immigration with links to student-friendly image resources.   


Tip 3: Storyboards May Be Good for Some, but not All

"What [the hell] do I do with these boxes?" they asked.

"Did you gather the pictures you might use?" I asked.

Some students needed to lay photographs into iMovie first before they decided what they needed to write. Drawing it out first just wasn't clicking. However, the act of laying the photos down is in itself a step in the right direction.

Other students needed to just write their script, revise it until it was as close to a polished document as possible. THEN they sought the images needed and only then could they lay them down in iMovie. Again, not sketched-out on a storyboard.

A smaller sample--maybe 20%--actually found the storyboards valuable. They could see and hear their story as they sketched. 

Bottom line is the writing process is different for every student and depending on their ability, you have to let students find their way through it, no matter how messy or disordered it may appear to you.



Tip 4: Test your digital storytelling software before working with students

  • iMovie
    • for Apple users
    • you have to do all of the work from the same one device or computer
    • 2/3 of my students chose the iMovie app
      • most of them did everything from a personal device
      • they could access all of their pictures, emails from family, Google Docs, music, audio recordings / they saw their device as a studio
      • our students had to sign-up for WiFi in or building; a basic document which also included a parent permission component
  • WeVideo
    • for those who want the cloud & the ability to work from any device, home or school
    • does not have all of the bells and whistles of iMovie / a stripped-down version
    • a little more than 10% of my students chose this option
    • they worked from various devices (you can't do everything from the app that you can from the online/web version)
    • the videos look and sound just as good as anything made on iMovie

* We also recommend Little Bird Tales for K-5 as an option for primary grades or beginner writers and users of technology. 


Tip 5: Provide extra support for beginner writers and users of technology

Tips for Beginner Users of Technology:

  1. Keep it Simple – Use a simple tool like Little Bird Tales or if using a more advanced digital storytelling platform, keep it in a storyboard mode.
  2. Use Captions – have students copy lines directly from their story.
  3. Curate Images - collect them beforehand and paste them into a google doc or upload them to the digital storytelling application
  4. Choose Sound Wisely - choose either to have students record their voice or music, but not both
  5. Set Guidelines - exp. 6 images and 6 sentences

Tips for Beginner Writers:

  1. Storyboard Templates - can target skills like transitions, plot development, vocabulary, etc.
  2. Collaboration - have students work together to create and/or peer edit their stories
  3. Voiceover - have students record themselves reading aloud to build fluency
  4. Provide images in advance – curate them on a google doc or within the digital storytelling application itself
  5. Write in front of students to demonstrate your thinking.


Tip 6: View troubleshooting with technology as a learning opportunity

A note on uploading videos…

We are a Google-oriented school. All of our students are given a school Google email address. Many services come with that--use of Docs, Drive, Calendar, etc.

And YouTube. As I am typing this, I clicked the little checkerboard box up in the top, right-hand corner of the page. All of those apps/features are a part of the Google in Education partnership. If you simply click on the YouTube icon you are taken a personal YouTube channel connected with the school account. 

The YouTube security is set differently for each school and age group. Your IT administrators would have more information about your individual buildings. (If you don’t have access to YouTube or Google accounts, don’t worry.  If you have a teacher wevideo account or a teacher account in Little Bird Tales, students will be able to publish within the “digital walls” of your classroom).

When students uploads a project they should select "Unlisted" and not "Private" or "Public"..."Private" means only they can see it even if they share it with you. "Public" means anyone can see it and search for it. This setting can always be changed.

When they upload it to their own channel, they can then share it with you. There is a share feature under the YouTube video screen where they would type in your school email address.

Once they do this, I receive an email with the video in it and can select to "add to" my YouTube playlist.

When you make a YouTube playlist, all of the videos you put in it can be watched by anyone you give access to—again you can set and change the privacy settings at will.


Year Released: 2015