Teacher’s Guide to Digital Storytelling

Teaching critical thinking and creativity in writing can be a difficult task, but it is crucial in preparing students to meet the standards of the Common Core. Digital storytelling is a highly effective technique for doing so, as it requires a clear organization of thought, discipline, and problem solving skills — all of which can translate directly into more traditional essay writing. What’s more, digital storytelling has the added benefit of meeting other Common Core standards relating to proficiency in technical skills. In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at why digital storytelling is an effective approach for teaching writing, and how to do it best.

Photo credit: torres21

What is Digital Storytelling, and Why Do It?

Quite simply, digital storytelling is the act of using computer-based tools (desktops, laptops, tablets, cameras. and even smartphones) to tell a story. Used in the classroom, it is a lens that teachers and students can use to master the craft of storytelling and argumentative analysis. Digital storytelling might incorporate anything from storyboarding to script writing, revision, production and further editing.

From a writing perspective, digital storytelling will teach students how to navigate the writing and creative process, including brainstorming, constructing unique voices, narrating, and perhaps most importantly, structuring arguments in a compelling and logical manner. From a broader teaching perspective, the amount of work required for a digital project often necessitates partnership with another student, which will require teamwork, listening skills, organizational skills and time management skills to stay on top of production deadlines.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about digital storytelling is that it teaches so many fundamental skills using a medium in which students are already fundamentally interested — and, notably, one that will prove essential for them as they move up the academic chain and on to their careers. Digital storytelling techniques do not simply add to a student’s craft toolbox; they become a source for creativity itself when students are encouraged to get inventive with those tools. They might, for example, decide to use songs to tell a story, rather than simply as a soundtrack, learning to interpret lyrics and to construct emotive arguments as they go. Alternatively, they could try editing and splicing old creative commons footage together, a technique that requires good research skills, the ability to interpret the mood and tone of a photo, and the ability to piece a diversity of photos together into a cohesive narrative.

Here are a few creative digital storytelling assignment ideas to get you going.

Digital Storytelling Lesson Ideas

  1. Dream Scenes. Have students write a narrative essay about what they’d like to be when they grow up. Then have them draw digital pictures to animate their vision and put it all together in a YouTube video.

  2. Animated Personal Narrative. Teach students how to write a personal narrative. Then help them turn that narrative into a storyboard, and finally have them put it altogether in an xtranormal animation.

  3. Google Story. You know those (tear jerking) Google Ads, like the one that uses Gmail to tell a father’s story about his love for his daughter? Teach your students the epistolary format, and then have them write a Gmail story of their own, to be compiled via video or compressed into an illustrated PDF. Alternatively, use this Google search Parisian love story as inspiration. Have students brainstorm plotlines, write an outline, and flesh it out with the magic of Screencast-O-Matic and Google search.

  4. Historical Slide Show. Have your students pick a favorite figure from history and write their biography. Then have them scour the web for Creative Commons images that are relevant to their project, distill the biography down into its essential parts, and put it all together in a shareable Slideshare presentation.

  5. Book Trailer. Who needs a run-of-the-mill book review when you could have a book trailer? Trailers should help students practice their critical reading and analysis skills, while also developing their constructions of arguments and use of rhetoric as they battle to convince their classmates to read their book next.

  6. How To Guide. Every student has a secret talent. Have students describe theirs in a straightforward YouTube video, laying out each step in logical sequence. This is an especially effective lesson for more hands-on students who struggle with writing and need a more intuitive connection to a physical skill as they learn to lay out steps logically.

  7. Two Sides of the Story. Sick of the regular old persuasive essay? Assign students a controversial topic. Then have them research arguments supporting both sides, and put it all together in a video, presentation, or infographic that must devote air time to articulating a clear thesis for both sides of the story.

  8. Family or Community History Project. Send your students out to interview and record members of their family or community about their past. Then challenge them to put this together into a podcast, video, or newscast, reviewing all that’s come before.

Further Resources

There are numerous digital storytelling guides available online, and more crop up each day. For a comprehensive rundown of resources, we recommend Educational Technology Director Kathy Schrock’s excellent site as well as this guide from Educators Technology. We also recommend a number of TeachThought’s guides, including this guide to digital storytelling apps, this breakdown of ten tools for student-centered expression. This collection of digital storytelling rubrics from the University of Houston School of Education is also a helpful resource for evaluating student performance on these unique projects.

Telling Stories in a Student’s Language

Digital storytelling is the best of all worlds. It combines a teacher’s need to impart important lessons about critical thinking, analytical writing and creativity with a student’s natural aptitude for the apps and tools they use every day. In fact, it encourages students to see those tools as more than what they offer on the surface, and instead to find creative uses for cutting edge technology. Together, these skills will help a student thrive in academia and far beyond.


  1. Eric Braun

    November 10, 2014 at 7:40 pm

    One of the most important and often overlooked values of Digital Storytelling is having students use Iterative Creativity. This means, don’t just tell a story in 1 draft, but review it, revise it, get feedback, revise it and let the students learn that iteration makes an end-product better. Some apps make this easy and others harder. Try @30hands Pro for iPads with your students to create visual stories with drawing and narration. 30hands was designed with Iterative Creativity in mind, so making revisions is easy, like building a project layer-by-layer.

    • Leah Levy

      November 11, 2014 at 11:00 am

      As a writing teacher, reviewing, revising, getting feedback etc. have always been essential habits to impart. I’ve never heard of the term “iterative creativity” but will certainly look it up now, as it sounds interesting!

  2. Louise Loghry

    November 17, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    It is KATHY Schrock–not Karen.

    • Kyle Dunning

      November 17, 2014 at 8:46 pm

      Thanks Louise, we corrected this :)