Digital Story Telling & Audio Essays

Tweeting and blogging may get students writing and reading, but both acts might feel more like pre-writing, or micro-writing on the way to something larger.  Even if not treated as such, we teachers may still be looking for a more fully developed product from our students.  Assigning digital storytelling and audio essays are two approaches for asking students to take on assignments that are familiar, substantial, but engaged in multiple modalities and 21st century literacies.

I haven’t broken this until into grade units; audio essays could be used at any grade, with students taking more control of, doing more editing and drafting of, their audio essays as they get older and more comfortable with the tools.


The Center for Digital Storytelling.  You shouldn’t need any additional resources.  A $20 “cookbook” is available if you want to learn about digital storytelling from a print source.  Digital story telling tends to be story + still images + music and audio elements, rather than a (music) video or film.  Audio essays can be understood as a subset of digital storytelling; I ask my students not to include images in their audio essays so they really focus on descriptive writing, storytelling, and carefully selected audio elements.

Audio essays.  Ira Glass and This American Life are largely responsible for raising the public profile of audio essays, so I use Glass’s manifesto and his comic book to teach audio essays.  Most students have the tools for making audio essays: a recording device (their phones, mp3 players, or computers) and audio editing software is often free or inexpensive and easy to use: Audacity or GarageBand (see the Mac App store).

A student sample from last fall.

What’s familiar: Storytelling is often considered the oldest human art form; essay writing is considered a fundamental component of literate education.  Digital storytelling and audio essays are very much grounded in these familiar means and genres of communicating with others.

What’s newish: as English teachers, we are heavily invested in words and print culture, but we have to acknowledge that our most cherished medium is losing some of its power and influence, that the English class has not always been about silent reading, and using digital storytelling or audio essays will engage and empower our students.

Writer’s workshop: making an audio essay of an existing piece of writing is a powerful method for teaching voice. Students really hear their voices, perhaps for the first time, and typically make fantastic choices that energize their stories, add vibrant details, select appropriate details.


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