University of Vermont

University Communications

Digital Stories Give Shape to Language, Voice, Identity

Professor Cynthia Reyes helps a local middle school student, new to the country and to English, construct her digital story, an audio/visual representation of her evolving identity. (Photo: Sally McCay)

The printed words, "I am a little shy," begin 11-year-old Lubna's movie, "But I want you to know more about me." As the screen fades into a classroom photo of a young Iraqi girl wearing a headscarf, her voice narrates the simple story of a child new to English. Yet the haunting native music she's chosen for background deepens the impact of the images and words that follow: a photo of Baghdad..."We left Iraq because of war..." "I was scared of my new country and school."

This is the digital story, a project of Cynthia Reyes, associate professor of education, whose research focus is in language, literacy and their impact on identity. She's been working closely with a class of sixth- through eighth-grade English language learners (ELL) in Winooski, Vt. -- 16 students speaking six different languages, all in the U.S. less than 18 months.

"I've always been interested in children with bicultural identities, who have dual language worlds and dual cultural worlds," says Reyes, whose parents are first-generation Filipino. "I'm really interested in the ways that literacy might mediate identity. We talk about student voice but what is student voice for students who are not able to speak English well?" It's an increasing problem for Vermont, and the country as a whole, as more refugees and immigrants enter school systems. From school years 1998-1999 to 2007-2008, ELL enrollment increased by 81 percent to approximately 1,650 students in Vermont. And it's far from a monolithic new culture that's being introduced -- in Vermont, students speak more than 90 languages and come from 97 countries on 6 continents. In the class where Reyes has been working, one can hear Bhutanese, Nepalese, Iraqi, Vietnamese, Somali and Chinese.

Literacy in many languages

The digital stories, created with iMovie, are fun to make, Reyes readily admits, but students develop a number of mainstream literacy skills and pick up technology applications as readily as their mainstream peers. They learn elements of story development and work on writing, speaking and listening skills.

"Narrative is developed," Reyes says, "and the combination of visuals and music often produces a powerful story."

The initial projects took eight to ten hours to complete with the help of Reyes, the classroom teacher and a UVM undergraduate intern. The learning curve behind them, they expect the process to go faster in the future. A new goal is to send students home with a camera to photograph family and friends. Some, but not all, had their own pictures and in many of the movies children have used generic images of families to represent their own.

The stories themselves have much in common -- soccer as a favorite pastime was nearly ubiquitous, but so was fear of the first day of school. "When I came to Vermont," says Ball Witt of Taiwan in his movie, "I felt like I didn't know anything." He speaks as the words also appear across the screen, over an image he's chosen of a boy sitting on the floor against a row of shabby lockers, knees up, hand on his forehead. But resilience is evident as well as students conveying a sense of relief in finding friends and caring teachers.

Along with concrete curricular outcomes, the assignment yields intangibles that are difficult to measure but may nonetheless affect long-term academic success.

"The students gained a lot of confidence viewing themselves as writers," says Andrea Wheeland, ELL teacher, "and viewing themselves as having a story to tell." The movies were screened during an assembly of all middle schoolers, and met with enormous enthusiasm, according to Wheeland. In this distinctive format, the stories of who ELL students are and why they are here seemed to humanize for their peers these strangers in the hallway.

It's a common misperception among professionals, according to Reyes, that students who come from other cultures resist learning a new language, never true in her experience.

That idea, at least when students are given the tools they need to progress, is affirmed watching the digital movies. "I want to learn more English," Ball Witt says. "I study a lot because I want to be a doctor," says Mahat, a refugee from Somalia, over an apparent image of a surgeon tying on a mask.

Reyes' goal is to be proactive in reaching students and understanding who they are on their own terms. It's emergent research she says, but it feels like the right track.

"When I entered the classroom to upload the students' movies," Reyes says, "I was struck by their joy. They proudly pointed to each other's movies and begged me to watch each one. That single moment highlighted for me what learning should be."