National Writing Project

Literacy Through Technology: The Power of Digital Storytelling

Date: July 2007

Summary: With funding from an NWP Technology Initiative grant, the Maine Writing Project is using digital storytelling as an instructional practice to improve student writing.


Words, voice, music, and images: these are the essential components of a digital story, according to Debra Butterfield, a language arts teacher at Gardiner Regional Middle School and a teacher-consultant at Maine Writing Project.

She should know; Butterfield is a pioneer in the state of Maine in this promising blend of technology and writing. Digital storytelling (DS) combines words, images, music, and other media to artfully present a message. Projects can include memoir, description, or informative prose, among many possibilities.

Funded by the National Writing Project’s Technology Initiative grant program, the Literacy Through Technology Initiative was started by members of the University of Maine Writing Project in 2005 to investigate the effectiveness of digital storytelling as an instructional practice for improving writing in Maine schools. Butterfield, Terri Kane of Warsaw Middle School, Jamie Heans of Brewer High, Seth Mitchell of Lisbon High, and Dave Boardman of Messalonskee High piloted digital storytelling with their students in the first year of the program. The team experienced striking success.

Students show ownership in their stories and appreciate the wider audience for their writing.

“Everyone has a story to tell,” says Terri Kane. “All students at all levels can make a digital story. Students enjoy working with technology . . . they work hard on their stories so they can get to what they consider is the ‘fun part,’” she explains.

Authentic, Engaged Writing

In 2002, a state initiative called the Maine Learning Technology Initiative was funded, providing every seventh and eighth grade student with a laptop computer to use in school.

“For the seventh- and eighth-graders in Maine, the new laptops make the digital storytelling process very easy.”

Too many times since the technology revolution hit schools, it seems, a new gadget or piece of software has been touted as the answer to improving student learning. Members of the Maine Writing Project digital storytelling team tell their colleagues, however, that DS produces authentic, engaged writing.

“It is the story that is important. The technology is secondary,” says Kane.

Butterfield concurs: “Students show ownership in their stories and appreciate the wider audience for their writing. Many students come to find their voice. The digital storytelling medium requires students to choose their words well, create a purpose for the given story and develop a focus for it. It is authentic writing that redefines what writing looks like in the classroom by honoring students’ words, voice, music, and images.”

Digital storytelling has changed Butterfield’s classroom. “Students quickly become invested in their classmates’ stories. The sense of collaboration enhances the writing community. Revision is given true purpose and feels authentic. Students discover the art of writing and come to see themselves as writers.”

“It’s another way to showcase student work,” Kane comments. “A digital story needs to be kept to about 400 words, so students learn how to weed out unnecessary information and just keep the most vital pieces to their story. They also learn how visuals can add to the story—sometimes replacing many words.”

A Growing Practice

She advises colleagues new to digital storytelling not to let concern about how the technology works stop you from trying DS. The students will figure out the technology. “Give yourself and your students the gift of time to create and play with the words, images, and music. There has to be some breathing room during the development of the stories.”

Now in the second year of the grant, the Literacy Through Technology team is increasing its mentorship of colleagues. In partnerships and workshops already under way, team members are using their classroom experiences as launching points to show fellow teachers some of the benefits of technology-intensive writing practices. They are exploring the demand for workshops on digital storytelling around the state.

For more information on the work of the Literacy Through Technology team, contact the Maine Writing Project.

This article originally appeared on the University of Maine website and is published courtesy of the Maine Writing Project.

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