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We need to get better at telling stories.
These words were spoken recently by a manager in the teaching and learning space to a large group of tertiary educators. The immediate context was Virtual Reality, though I have a feeling the statement was intended to apply more broadly. No one in the room argued with the sentiment. Everyone was listening.
The dilemma of how to tell stories better – and in doing so, tell better stories – keeps me up at night. This isn’t because I’m losing sleep over the issue; it’s often because I’m up late making those stories: trying new things out; failing and starting from scratch; partially succeeding and publishing imperfect attempt. Given midnight is fast approaching, I guess this blog may just be another example of that…
Stories have been the foundation of human learning since human learning began. The media, the modes, the genres, and the conventions have always changed over time, and the pace of that change has never been more feverish than it is now. Yet while the ways in which we produce, distribute, receive, and interact with narratives are prone to constant renewal, the paramount importance of storytelling always remains.
The theme of story-making is something I’ve become increasingly interested in in recent years. I’ve been bringing more and more concepts from my research – multiplatforming, transmedia storytelling, gamification, co-creation – to bear on my teaching practice. I’ve been teaching and/by telling stories with videos, podcasts, tweets, live broadcasts, and Insta posts for years, and over the past few months I’ve taken things in a few new (or additional) directions.
One new strategy has seen me experiment by making 15-second-or-less micro video narratives with TikTok, which I blogged about here. These have proven very handy in communicating simple-but-important messages – and in a much more powerful manner than simply typing the key point would entail…
And in line with my recent blog on personalised video messages, I’ve even ‘repurposed’ content I’ve created on a whim to engage with specific students in a less ‘broadcast’ fashion, such as in the example below:
There are some other new platforms and features of existing platforms that I’ll write about separately, but for now I thought I’d do something a little different by reflecting on the passing of a Holocaust survivor.
Media, Memory, and (Hi)story
One particular moment from 2019 that got me thinking hard about how to convey a small story was upon the death of Stephanie Heller, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau and a very generous woman I’d had the privilege of meeting in 2014. This story isn’t directly related to my teaching, but seems to me to offer some value to educators seeking to tell stories in new ways – not to mention being a reminder that inspiration can come from unlikely places.
With a few low quality photographs, some amateur video footage, some links to external content, and my memories of an unlikely friendship, I decided to make a Twitter thread. For some time I struggled to figure out the best way to articulate the story within the confines and opportunities of this social media platform. Follow the link to this tweet thread to get a sense of what I did and experience the story as I
This attempt raised a range of questions for me then and since:
- How do you tell someone’s story – anyone’s story – thoughtfully and ethically?
- How do you capture brevity without connoting minor or passing significance?
- How can you utilise a few flimsy media resources created with no sense of what they might be needed for years later in a compelling manner?
- How can different media be mixed in a structured but necessarily fragmented way?
- How might a story like this be re-told on another social media platform?
I ‘adapted’ this story for Instagram with relatively few changes, though the platform’s affordances meant that some further decisions needed to be made. I could only include the video clip (originally shared within Twitter’s 2 minute and 20 second limit) if I split the footage into two parts, and Insta’s visual priorities meant that the written text couldn’t be ‘attached’ to specific media in the same way as a tweet allows. In fact, you could argue that audience expectations and behaviours render so much written text in an Instagram caption somewhat less likely to be read than in a Twitter thread.
View this post on Instagram
'I am not so good at my iPad, but one cannot expect many new tricks at 90 years of age.' – Very sad news at the passing of Holocaust witness and museum guide Stephanie Heller, who survived Mengele's torture with her twin sister Annetta, but lost the rest of their family during the war. – While Stephanie talked down her digital ability in our correspondence, her emails always looked to share and gain new knowledge, knowing that this is what shapes the world. Stephanie eagerly participated in all 3 days of a Holocaust and genocide conference I organised in 2014. – Always seated right at the front, Stephanie was as curious, engaged, and open to new ideas as anyone else in the room… – Stephanie's presence literally made the conference come alive, and reminded everyone of why it was they were there. At one point, Stephanie stood up and simply said to those attending, 'Thank you. This is important.' – No, Stephanie. Thank you. – Here is a previously unpublished glimpse of Stephanie's kindness, generosity, and humour… (video in 2 parts) – Stephanie's legacy lives on through the work of the Jewish Holocaust Centre @JHCMelbourne
I offer this comparison not to judge one platform against another, but to highlight just a few of the small-but-significant decisions that one can find oneself making when telling a story in the online world. There are so many storytelling opportunities out there that they typically just need to be looked for in order to be found. Earlier today I was collaborating on a gamified, immersive narrative built using the simple medium of Google Slides. Tomorrow something else might come along.
Storytelling is a Privilege
When I was growing up, my Mum would make the nightly journey all the way from the other end of the house to my bedroom door. Squinting in the brightness of a light that was almost always the last to go dark in our home, she would offer three consistent – and usually ineffective – words: ‘Get to bed.’ Back then I was reading stories two evenings out of three, and writing them on the other night. Back then it was just for me.
Storytelling is a privilege. While I make no connection between the stories I tell and those of Holocaust survivors, it’s perhaps those survivors of genocide who understand that privilege most deeply of all. Not everyone can tell their story; there are many times when the stories we have to tell must move beyond our own. Drawing on near and distant memory, teachers might often find themselves in the situation of telling the story of a student to engage a similar audience. This process is complex enough even before taking into account the intricacies of making that story engaging.
While Stephanie Heller might not have been the most proficient user of her iPad, she continued to send her emails and she kept telling her story to anyone who would listen. As with all Holocaust survivors – or educators of the past, as so many choose to be – Stephanie’s memories become entwined with her telling of them. When Stephanie thanked the participants at that conference all those years ago, she wasn’t just acknowledging their commitment to researching the traumatic past she had lived through. Stephanie was making a statement about storytelling.
This is important.
At least that’s how I remember it.