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"Hear a Story, Tell a Story, Teach a Story": Digital Narratives and Refugee Middle Schoolers

Abstract

In spring 2013, nine ESL refugee middle schoolers participated in the “Hear a Story, Tell a Story, Teach a Story” project, a digital storytelling unit designed as an extended hours literacy intervention. Working with a lead instructor and five undergraduate interns one afternoon a week for eight consecutive weeks, the refugees learned about traditional story structures by telling an autobiographical story and then translating the narrative to film, using simple moviemaking software. Though they struggle with reading and writing in English, the students exhibited a sense of academic confidence when presented the opportunity to compose a digital story.
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Voices from the Middle, Volume 21 Number 4, May 2014
Emert | “Hear a Story, Tell a Story, Teach a Story”: Digital Narratives and Refugee Middle Schoolers
Toby Emert
“Hear a Story, Tell a Story, Teach a
Story”: Digital Narratives and
Refugee Middle Schoolers
“I
think the girls really enjoyed
today,” Jill, one of the under-
graduate interns, wrote in a
note to me after the fourth hour-long
workshop session in the “Hear a Story,
Tell a Story, Teach a Story” literacy proj-
ect, an initiative for middle grade refugee
children.
The “girls” Jill refers to are nine tweenagers,
all English-language-learner newcomers to the
United States. Instead of enrolling in an Ameri-
can public school where similar young adoles-
cents traditionally fail to achieve academically
(McBrien, 2005), the students have elected to
attend a single-gender, community-based educa-
tional intervention program specifically designed
to prepare them to enter high school. I was in-
vited to partner with the program in spring 2013,
providing an eight-week 21st-century–style lit-
eracy workshop that employed simple filmmak-
ing as a strategy to bolster the students’ oral and
written language proficiency in English.
I have offered similar digital narrative work-
shops for learners in other settings. In those ses-
sions, I witnessed the power of visual storytelling
as an invitation for underachieving students to
engage with a sophisticated assignment—one
that demands they demonstrate an understand-
ing of narrative structure, voice, grammatical
constructions, technology tools, and compos-
ing and editing processes (Emert, 2013). The
learning activities in the workshop sessions are
purposefully interdependent and social, empha-
sizing collaboration and audience awareness.
This requires, however, that the traditional role
of instructor be mediated. Rather than content
expert, the teacher serves more as guest artist,
facilitator, and sideline coach, providing a tem-
plate for the project design and demonstrating
the steps in a multiphase creative process. The
student filmmakers, likewise, must adopt new
classroom roles, moving from being passive note
takers and information consumers to engaging as
“independent thinkers, problem solvers, and de-
cision makers” (Silva, 2009, p. 630).
The Workshop Design
All learning involves learning through language
and about language (Fang, 2002, p. 110). In a
new literacies framework, students often cre-
atively assemble and reassemble knowledge, re-
mixing “ideas and resources from their everyday
lives into their literacy experiences” (Labbo &
Place, 2010, p. 11). The central assignment of the
storytelling workshop offered the refugee stu-
dents opportunities to practice a range of litera-
cies as they listened to, told, and then translated
to film an autobiographical story. They had to
conceptualize, interpret, and experiment in order
to produce a fully realized digital translation of a
life event.
A film-festival-style premiere at the conclu-
sion of the workshop acted as an authentic as-
sessment of progress, a “real-life,” high-stakes
event (Butler & McMunn, 2006, p. 6) at which
the students introduced their movies, explained
the process for creating them, and fielded ques-
tions and comments. These responsibilities ex-
tended opportunities for the students to practice
oral language skills. Admittedly, the academic ex-
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Copyright © 2014 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.
Emert | “Hear a Story, Tell a Story, Teach a Story”: Digital Narratives and Refugee Middle Schoolers
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Voices from the Middle, Volume 21 Number 4, May 2014
In general, I have found
that introducing struggling
students to a multilitera-
cies assignment such as the
creation of a digital nar-
rative requires classroom
assistants who can provide
individual coaching.
pectations of the project were significantly more
demanding (especially in terms of the use of tech-
nologies) than the students were accustomed to.
However, reimagining the classroom space as a
teaching and learning laboratory and scaffolding
the instruction with individualized support cre-
ated the environment necessary for success.
The Schooling Experiences of
Refugee Children
The children of refugees attending US schools
are “some of the most vulnerable members of
[learning] communities” (Kirk & Cassity, 2007,
p. 50). They typically
have difficulty adjusting
to American classrooms,
as they need particu-
larized assistance, “es-
pecially in reading and
language arts” (del Valle,
2002, p. 605), and they
often fail to thrive social-
ly. The nine students in
the extended-day work-
shop described in this ar-
ticle had emigrated with
their families from re-
settlement camps in the Middle East, Africa, and
Asia after fleeing their home countries because of
violent conflicts.
Like those of most refugees who spend “pro-
tracted periods in camps or other difficult living
situations in transit countries” (Dooley, 2009,
p. 6), their schooling experiences had been in-
terrupted and uneven. They struggled to be-
come academically proficient in a new language,
though, like many refugee learners, they had
quickly acquired conversational abilities in Eng-
lish (Zhou, 2001). They were able to understand
their peers (who speak a variety of languages,
including Kurdish, Amharic, Tigrinya, Arabic,
Burmese, and Karen) and to converse with their
teachers. Compared to their same-age American
peers, however, they were less accomplished aca-
demically. They struggled with reading and writ-
ing tasks, and they were notably less confident
about their ability to function independently in a
classroom setting.
Jill McBrien (2005) points out in her review
of the literature about the needs of refugee learn-
ers that sensitively targeted educational interven-
tions “can reduce environmental barriers and
increase the [refugee] child’s sense of compe-
tence” (p. 340). The challenge is to develop an
interesting and relevant learning experience that
has the potential to realize these objectives. In
devising the “Hear a Story, Tell a Story, Teach
a Story” workshop, I worked to embed tradi-
tional language arts skills—listening, speaking,
writing, and reading—and to build on the pro-
clivity humans have for storytelling (Gopnik,
2012). Robson (2012) reminds us that “from the
very beginning of our lives, we have a readiness
to hear and understand stories” (p. 1). The goal
of the digital storytelling initiative was to create
an authentic language-learning environment that
felt both inviting and demanding for the stu-
dents, and to offer an assignment that privileged
their strengths and encouraged them to augment
their academic skills.
The short timeframe for the project (seven
one-hour workshop sessions and the premiere
event) demanded an accelerated instructional
pace, which meant thinking strategically about
how the students could successfully complete
the phases of the assignment. I invited five un-
dergraduate women, all students in an advanced
education course, to serve as interns on the proj-
ect and to share the instructional responsibilities
with me. Their roles as small-group facilitators
and individual mentors during the filmmaking
lab sessions were particularly important to the
success of the workshops, not only because they
helped me teach skills lessons, but also because
the interns connected interpersonally with the
“girls” in ways that I, in my role as a male college
professor, never could.
Trust building became an essential compo-
nent of the workshops, and having the college-
age interns involved in the lab sessions was key.
In general, I have found that introducing strug-
gling students to a multiliteracies assignment
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Voices from the Middle, Volume 21 Number 4, May 2014
Emert | “Hear a Story, Tell a Story, Teach a Story”: Digital Narratives and Refugee Middle Schoolers
such as the creation of a digital narrative requires
classroom assistants who can provide individual
coaching. But with English language learners,
the teaching assistants’ role is particularly criti-
cal. Working one-on-one with the students, the
assistants provide much of the direction, and the
lead instructor moves into the supporting role of
trainer and troubleshooter.
The Classroom as a Teaching and
Learning Lab
Each Wednesday afternoon, the students walked
the quarter mile from the church where they
meet for classes to the college campus where
they worked with the interns and me. The early
sessions involved building rapport. The students
had reasons to be suspicious and hesitant. We
were unfamiliar to them, and we were asking that
they tackle an assignment that required them
to perform in the classroom in uncharacteristic
ways. We began with language games and get-
acquainted activities for the first ten minutes of
each session and then transitioned into the sto-
rytelling components of the project. The games
were drawn from the canon of awareness and
collaboration activities used by theatre artists to
learn to relax, focus, think creatively, and develop
a sense of general positive regard for each other.
(See Viola Spolin’s Theater Games for the Class-
room: A Teacher’s Handbook (1986) for examples.)
They also served as a somewhat nonthreatening
mode of assessing the students’ English language
facility, as all of the selected exercises involved
conversation.
Phase One: “Hear a Story”
In the first phase, “Hear a Story,” the refugee
students divided into triads to listen to one or
two of the interns share an autobiographical sto-
ry. The interns, most of whom had not worked
with second language learners before, had been
coached to choose a story that was interesting
and personal but did not include overly dramat-
ic or traumatic life events. Refugees’ migration
narratives can be fraught with danger, injury,
and violence (Bek-Pedersen & Montgomery,
2006), and we did not want to set the expectation
that the students should share harrowing tales.
Though we did not want to dissuade a student
from telling any story she chose, we wanted to
model stories that focused on other kinds of life
markers. (One intern told about her fiancé’s pro-
posal, another explained
her college choice, and yet
another student described
her audition for a school
musical.) In preparation
for the workshop, the in-
terns had practiced telling
their stories to each other,
honing them to illustrate
traditional narrative struc-
tures: exposition, rising
action, climax, falling ac-
tion, and resolution (Jago,
2004, p. 50).
After listening to the
interns’ stories, the students in the workshop
retold the stories, asking for clarification on any
confusing plot details. This step in the process
allowed us to gather information about the stu-
dents’ comprehension levels and to discuss the
concept of narrative arc with the students.
Refugees’ migration nar-
ratives can be fraught
with danger, injury, and
violence (Bek-Pedersen &
Montgomery, 2006), and
we did not want to set the
expectation that the stu-
dents should share har-
rowing tales.
Students listen to an autobiographical story told by one of the college
interns.
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Voices from the Middle, Volume 21 Number 4, May 2014
Having the interns’ stories
as models was important;
the students mimicked the
style, tone, and structure
of the interns’ stories as
they told their own.
Phase Two: “Tell a Story”
The students followed the listening experience
with a telling experience. Again working in small
groups, the refugee stu-
dents shared a personal
story with their peers and
the interns. Doing so was
difficult for them, but they
persevered. We were in-
tentional in casting the
early tellings as “drafts”
of the stories; we wanted
the students to know that
they could continue to re-
fine their stories throughout the project. Having
the interns’ stories as models was important; the
students mimicked the style, tone, and structure
of the interns’ stories as they told their own. We
recorded each student as she related her story,
and then we transcribed it verbatim. The tran-
scription served as a first draft of the written text
that would ultimately be used in each student’s
short film.
Phase Three: “Teach a Story”
In the production phase of the workshop, the
refugee students reviewed their transcribed sto-
ries and edited them—with the help of the in-
terns—to 12–15 sentences, which they wrote on
individual strips of paper and then revised for
organization, using a graphic depiction of tra-
ditional story structure for reference. They also
devised illustrations for their stories by staging
tableaux vivants—“living pictures”—using them-
selves, their peers, and the interns as “actors.”
Each image served as an illustration of one scene
in the story. They photographed the tableaux us-
ing a digital camera and then imported the imag-
es and the text into Movie Maker, the filmmaking
software program available as a free download for
PCs. We provided an introductory tutorial for
the software and then worked with each student
to answer questions and make suggestions. None
of the students had used moviemaking software
before, but all tackled the filmmaking project te-
naciously.
Though they struggled to revise the lines in
the stories, the technology presented the students
with few problems. They naturally became peer
coaches, responding to each other’s questions,
pointing out shortcuts, and offering advice and
critique. My role and that of the interns shifted
A student tells her story to one of the interns as a camera
records it for transcription.
As they revised, the students whittled their stories down
to a few good sentences and organized the sentences
according to a traditional story structure.
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Voices from the Middle, Volume 21 Number 4, May 2014
Emert | “Hear a Story, Tell a Story, Teach a Story”: Digital Narratives and Refugee Middle Schoolers
dramatically as the students refined their proj-
ects, adding transitions, visual effects, and music,
and making creative choices about style, image
and text placement, and timing. The students be-
gan teaching themselves about the features of the
filmmaking software, relying on us primarily for
explanations when they encountered a problem
they could not resolve on their own.
All nine students successfully completed a
short film that included the text of their story,
the images they had developed, an instrumental
soundtrack, and closing credits. At the premiere
event, the students appeared nervous but also ex-
cited to show their films to their teachers, peers,
and invited guests. Each student stood with
one of the interns at the front of the room and
presented her project. Having the interns, with
whom the students had worked closely, share the
stage helped ameliorate the anxiety that accom-
panied such a high-stakes speaking event where
the EL students were asked to speak before an
audience of approximately 50 people.
Conclusions
In her chapter “Traumatized Refugee Children”
from the book Best Practices in School Crisis Pre-
vention and Intervention (2002), Patricia del Valle
notes that the “resettlement community plays a
critical role in the refugees’ adaptation process”
(p. 602). Designing sophisticated literacy assign-
ments that honor the academic skill sets students
already possess (such as storytelling) and that
challenge them to acquire new skills (such as dig-
ital representation of ideas) is an important step
in providing opportunities to succeed academi-
cally to young adolescents whose school experi-
ences have been marred by their life histories.
The stories and films the students gener-
ated in the “Hear a Story, Tell a Story, Teach a
Story” project were, in many aspects, rudimen-
tary. However, the multiple literacies they used
to create and present their
projects were remarkably
complex. Over the course
of the eight weeks, they
demonstrated a marked
decrease in their anxiety
about producing a digital
project and about intro-
ducing it to an external
audience. Furthermore,
requiring the students to
whittle their stories down
to a few good sentences
pushed them to use their
burgeoning knowledge of how to compose in
English—especially how to make thoughtful
choices about vocabulary and meaning. Anchor-
ing the literacy work in the narrative tradition
allowed us to build on their interest in telling
others about the transitions in their lives and, ad-
ditionally, to use skills they already possessed to
The students began teach-
ing themselves about the
features of the filmmaking
software, relying on us
primarily for explanations
when they encountered a
problem they could not
resolve on their own.
Each student worked individually on the translation of
her story to film, assisted by the interns.
Each student read her story at the premiere event as one of the interns
stood nearby to offer assistance and support.
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Voices from the Middle, Volume 21 Number 4, May 2014
CONNECTIONS FROM READWRITETHINK
Text and Images Come Together in Video
In the ReadWriteThink.org hands-on lesson plan “Tell and Show: Writing with Words and Video,” students
will enhance their multimedia literacy and expand their understanding of text. First, students watch and
study digital videos and their transcripts to explore the differences between written and spoken text. As
they think critically about the videos, students will discover how text and images can work together to
convey information. Once students are comfortable with the ways in which images and words can support
and enhance each other, they will apply what they’ve learned by writing essays and turning those essays
into captions for a teacher-created video. At the end of the unit, students will have a documentary film
that they have written and designed.
hp://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/tell-show-wring-with-1099.html
Learn more with the “Tips for Using Movie Maker”: hp://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/
printouts/ps-using-movie-maker-30258.html
Lisa Fink
www.readwritethink.org
relate to us and to each other through storytell-
ing, arguably the world’s oldest art form.
References
Bek-Pederson, K., & Montgomery, E. (2006). Nar-
ratives of the past and present: Young refugees’
construction of a family identity in exile. Journal of
Refugee Studies, 19, 94–112.
Butler, S., & McMunn, N. (2006). A teacher’s guide to
classroom assessment: Understanding and using as-
sessment to improve student learning. Hoboken, NJ:
Jossey-Bass.
del Valle, P. (2002). Traumatized refugee children. In
S. E. Brock & S. R. Jimerson (Eds.), Best practices
in school crisis prevention and intervention (pp.
599–614). Bethesda, MD: National Association of
School Psychologists.
Dooley, K. T. (2009). Re-thinking pedagogy for middle
school students with little, no, or severely inter-
rupted schooling. English Teaching: Practice and
Critique, 8(1), 5–22.
Emert, T. (2013). “The transpoemations project”:
Digital storytelling, contemporary poetry, and refu-
gee boys. Intercultural Education, 24, 355–365.
Fang, Z. (2002). The construction of literate under-
standing in a literature-based classroom. Journal of
Research in Reading, 25, 109–126.
Gopnik, A. (2012, May 18). Can science explain why
we tell stories? The New Yorker. Retrieved from
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/
books/2012/05/can-science-explain-why-we-tell-
stories.html.
Jago, C. (2004). Stop pretending and think about plot.
Voices from the Middle, 11(4), 50–51.
Kirk, J., & Cassity, E. (2007). Minimum standards for
quality education for refugee youth. Youth Studies
Australia, 26(1), 50–56.
Labbo, L. D., & Place, K. (2010). Fresh perspectives
on new literacies and technology integration. Voices
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McBrien, J. L. (2005). Education needs and barriers for
refugee students in the United States: A review of
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329–364.
Robson, C. (2012). Writing for change: Research as
public pedagogy and arts-based activism. New York,
NY: Peter Lang.
Silva, E. (2009). Measuring skills for 21st-century learn-
ing. The Phi Delta Kappan, 90, 630–634.
Spolin, V. (1986). Theater games for the classroom: A
teacher’s handbook. Evanston, IL: Northwestern
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Zhou, M. (2001). Straddling different worlds: The
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Voices from the Middle, Volume 21 Number 4, May 2014
Emert | “Hear a Story, Tell a Story, Teach a Story”: Digital Narratives and Refugee Middle Schoolers
Toby Emert is associate professor and chair of the Department of Education at Agnes Scott
College near Atlanta, Georgia, where he teaches courses in language, literacy, and the arts.
He can be reached at temert@agnesscott.edu.
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... Media may include photographs, video clips, voice-overs, and music (Lambert, 2018). In a series of studies employing DST with refugee-background children and youth in community-based and summer literacy programs in the U.S, Emert (2013Emert ( , 2014aEmert ( , 2014b showed how the narrative form of DST drew learners to demonstrate their real-world knowledge, express their identities, build connections with each other (e.g., through collaboration), and engage in developing and showcasing their English language learning for authentic purposes, be it through composing key sentences and practicing new vocabulary for their digital stories, translating their poems to a visual medium, revising for clarity, or presenting orally to real audiences, all of which increased learners' academic confidence. ...
... Through DST, the students in our study were also able to make intentional investments in their learning through a strong dialogical foundation, targeted and spontaneous language development, new digital literacies and skills creating counter-narratives of empowerment and pride by going public with their digital stories, reiterating how flexible classroom structures and routines can be guided toward nuanced learning and agency. Our findings support previous research (see review in Michalovich, 2021b) that shows how digital multimodal composing can afford youth from refugee backgrounds opportunities to agentively frame their representations of themselves (e.g., Leurs et al., 2018), reveal their competency in digital literacy practices (e.g., Gilhooly & Lee, 2014), share, and take pride in their knowledge about real-world issues as they communicate it to audiences (e.g., Luchs & Miller, 2016), express and process their emotions (e.g., Jang & Kang, 2019), enhance their language learning (Emert, 2013(Emert, , 2014a(Emert, , 2014b, represent and reposition their identities (e.g., Michalovich, 2021a), and narrate their lived experiences (e.g., Johnson & Kendrick, 2017). ...
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This study addresses the urgent need to develop innovative pedagogies that build upon and enhance the digital literacies and representational practices of culturally and linguistically diverse youth from refugee backgrounds. In Canadian high schools, this population of students enter school with varying levels of literacy in their first language(s), as well as potentially difficult experiences due to their forced migration. For many, learning English, may become a formidable challenge. A growing corpus of case studies is beginning to show how pedagogies that draw on youths’ everyday meaning making, including their digital literacies, can effectively engage English learners in academic learning. In this qualitative, ethnographic case study involving nine youth in an English language learning classroom, we addressed the question: What is the potential for digital storytelling to draw from the fuller context of the lives and literacies of youth from refugee backgrounds to enable more autonomous language learning and identity affirmation? Our study is informed by interrelated conceptual frameworks: learner autonomy; investment in language and literacy learning; and digital literacies. Using thematic and multimodal/visual analysis, data were collaboratively coded to identify four interweaving themes: 1) use of multimodal meaning making to communicate complex, critical understandings; 2) emergence of digital literacies; 3) challenges of communicating in digital spaces; and 4) investment in identity affirmation in language learning. Implications focus on how digital storytelling as an innovative pedagogy has the potential to create space within the curriculum for stories that have deep meaning for learners.
... Stewart's (2014) collective case study of four newcomers from El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala, found that social and entertainment networking allowed students to connect to their home countries, maintain a strong Latina identity, and gain support in their integration efforts. Moreover, Emert (2014), found that digital storytelling, in addition to cultivating refugee middle-schoolers' English language skills, reduced their anxiety while attending summer camp. Omerbašić (2015), in a study with nine teenage girls from Thailand and Burma, concluded that the use of digital spaces facilitated the girls' integration into U.S. schools. ...
... While ESL programs can function as a source of marginalisation and exclusion, they can also be seen as a 'safe haven' for newcomer students, when caring atmospheres prevail (McCloud 2015) and when students are provided opportunities to engage in digital literacies (Emert 2014). Adapting instructional language practices to the specific needs of the focal population, such as incorporating explicit language instruction for students who are older than 10 is an effective approach (Sanatullov and Sanatullova-Allison 2012). ...
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Writing for change: Research as public pedagogy and arts-based activism
  • C Robson
Robson, C. (2012). Writing for change: Research as public pedagogy and arts-based activism. New York, NY: Peter Lang.