My TEDx Talk, “The Power of Digital Storytelling”

On May 18, I had the opportunity to give my first TEDx talk, “The Power of Digital Storytelling,” at the Solebury School located in New Hope, PA.

As I explain in the talk, I have recently been thinking a lot about the power and potential of storytelling practices in school spaces (both during the school day and in after school programming). I frame my talk through a discussion about a particular multimodal project, entitled “Where I’m From,” that I was first asked to do as an assignment in one of my graduate school classes a few years ago, and now do with any group of young people that I work with. Some might argue that not every student may want to share their personal stories with an audience, I agree. The purpose of this work–of engaging young people in storytelling projects and practices–is to provide an outlet for expression, to engage in multimodal meaning-making activities, to prompt self-reflection and promote identity work using creative tools. The stories do not necessarily move past the door of the classroom (sometimes they don’t make it off the page in their personal journals). The point is that in this age of high-stakes testing, of ineffective national standards of learning (which are designed with an incredibly flawed assumption that every child learns the same way and a disregard for the contexts in which young people live outside of school and the experiences they bring into school), schools and teachers are under immense pressures to ‘perform,’ to ‘succeed,’ and in order to make more time to attempt to do so, the arts and music are typically the programs to go. Young people are being given fewer and fewer opportunities to express and share themselves in school spaces, and yet sharing stories are what make us human, what connect us, what teach us more than we might ever learn from the information in a textbook.

Additionally, engaging in activities like the “Where I’m From” poem project can establish a strong base of shared knowledge within a classroom, resulting in mutual trust and respect between a teacher and his or her students. It’s a way for educators (adults) to learn about their students’ interests, experiences, and backgrounds; for them to better understand the context and culture in which they are teaching; and allows teachers to share pieces of themselves with their students as well. More than anything, a project like this requires people to bring their authentic selves into a shared space. Authenticity–“keepin’ it 100″  (real)”, what is often referred to as “knowledge of self” in the hip-hop education & pedagogy community/ies–is one of, if not the most important pillars of connecting with young people, of being a “good” educator.

When young people are provided with opportunities and platforms in the classroom to tell their stories, it results in a shifting of power dynamics between teachers and students; it challenges the idea that teachers are the only individuals who can and should possess “important” information and knowledge. It conveys to young people that their experiences outside of school matter, that their family and cultural traditions matter, that they matter. As one of my incredible mentors, Dr. Chris Emdin says, “One cannot teach if they are not willing to learn.”

Engaging in this work can be just as important and powerful for pre-service and current teachers/adults as it can be for students/young people to explore aspects of identity, better understand aspects of their identity and their lived experiences. It can create a sense of humanity and empathy amongst and with the young people they’re working with; it can help them to understand first-hand that this is a vulnerable process but that by sharing our stories we open ourselves up to new perspectives and unanticipated connections. This project also helps us to consider what happens when we add visuals to the words of our stories. What happens when we add moving images to still images? What happens when we add our voices to music? What comes to life? What is better understood? How do we foster and spread the power and potential of [digital] storytelling? We keep doing, making, sharing, connecting. Spread the word.