One time, I came home from school very upset, because some kids were making fun of my accent and that I couldn’t read English very well. First, my mother comforted me so I would
quit crying. My mother also talked to my father to help me improve my reading skills and accent. And she also talked to the principal about this incident [giggles] so these kids would not make fun of me or others again. Since then, my reading has improved, and my accent has improved. And can you believe that those kids that bullied me are now my best friends? But none of that would have happened if it weren’t for my family.
How often do teachers and students hear this type of story in the English language arts (ELA) classroom? The quote above was taken from a digital story written by a student we will call Beatriz, a twelve-year-old English learner (EL) participat-ing in a literacy camp designed to prevent sum-mer learning loss. If provided with a platform to do so, ELs like Beatriz can author stories rooted in social injustices because of the learners’ identities and their experiences. In this article, we postulate that, with teacher guidance and through a digital storytelling workshop, peers can be exposed to the inequities faced by ELs in the classroom, in the community, and in society.
What Are the Issues and Challenges?
The number of English learners (ELs) joining their peers in generalist classrooms increases each year, causing teachers, including ELA teachers, to search for ways to meet the needs of this growing population. In addition to the long journey ELs take to acquire academic English language skills, they are often marginalized in the curriculum and in social interactions with their peers. Within the curriculum, ELs’ background experiences are often not valued or incorporated, the different ways the families of ELs interact may not be legitimized, and there is often a disconnect between school and home literacy practices. Moreover, cultural differences can influ-ence the way peers interact socially with ELs in and outside of the classroom. The results are stories that live in silos and do not “travel” well across what Pa-tricia Enciso refers to as “the wall” (23), the barrier separating mainstream students and those students from diverse cultural backgrounds. ELA educators understand the imperative to break down the wall and create an inclusive learning environment. To ensure equal access to the core curriculum, all learn-ers’ experiences and cultural backgrounds must be valued, and all students must learn from each other. In our experience as university faculty who prepare prospective and practicing teachers to work with ELs in the mainstream classroom, we find most ELA teachers understand the urgency of ad-dressing the educational inequities ELs face in the classroom. Still, ELA teachers may lack a venue in the crowded curriculum to expose, discuss, and reflect the equity issues present in the classroom.
We propose digital storytelling (DST) as what Gerald Campano et al. call a “coalitional literacy practice” (315) that creates a space where learners share stories and lived experiences. This is seen as an organic space with the potential to engage students in conversations centered around social injustices (315).
What Do We Know?
We know that culturally competent teachers follow certain developmental stages, namely, recognizing, acknowledging, speculating, addressing, and recon-ciling attitudes toward cultural nuances (Sue et al. 481–82). The first steps in culturally proficient teaching entail noticing the differences, being able to critically think about what our differences are and where they exist in classrooms. Next, cultur-ally competent teachers are able to speculate about root causes of the differences so that teachers and students may relate to the challenges faced by each other. Cultural competence provides educators with the ability to teach students from different cultures. In this article, we draw on Campano et al.’s no-
tion of coalitional literacies (315). Coalitional liter-acies were originally proposed, articulated, and used in community-based research, but they are a perfect match for the ELA classroom. This match was vali-dated when the National Council of Teachers of En-glish (NCTE) published Campano et al.’s approach in Language Arts in 2013. According to the authors, coalitional literacies entail “critical social practices whereby community members enact language and literacy across cultural boundaries in order to learn from others, be reflective with respect to social lo-cation, foster empathy, cultivate affective bonds, and promote inclusion in the service of progressive change” (315). In coalitional literacies, students en-gage with others and are intrinsically involved in the process of negotiating a variety of social issues. The DST project we propose is clearly aligned with coalitional literacies and our shared vision of social justice that can result from this project.
Coalitional literacies place language at its core. In addition to serving a communicative purpose, Campano et al. noted that language conveys people’s worldviews and ideologies (315). In DST, typically marginalized students find voice, power, and have a space to share their stories. The power of the individual’s voice is carried by the story and can serve as a way to positively affect social interaction (Lambert 18). Campano et al. assert that social injustice is more likely to be exposed and understood through this intersectional way of analysis (317).
Additionally, biases toward any cultural group, which might be caused by miscommunication or lack of communi-cation, are more likely to be eliminated by compre-hensible and accurate understandings, which can be fostered when diverse perspectives are invited into the conversation. As educators and learners in a just future, teachers and students must view ourselves as “active participants in social change, as learners and students who can be active designers—makers—of social futures” (New London Group 65).
Another potential we see in coalitional literacy is the ability to foster mutual empathy. Empathy is the ability to be aware of, sensitive to, and vicariously experience others’ feelings, thoughts, and experiences, or what Edward Titchener calls “a process communicators (Rogers 5).
However, empathy is insufficient; it does not have the “magic power to overcome differences in personality and background” (Howell 108). The de-velopment of empathy must be grounded in shared experiences where meaning is made (Broome 241– 42). DST provides a space to share experiences, make meaning, cultivate empathy, include marginalized students, and focus on language and literacy.
What Is DST?
DST is a workshop-based process where “ordinary people” author autobiographical stories, package them digitally, and present them to an audience (Burgess 207–12). In DST, literacy moves beyond the traditional text-oriented approaches to include tools and resources as part of the text. Being able to get across ideas through alternative communicative modes with diverse resources has been regarded as a core ability in the 21st century. With a focus on emotional personal narratives, digital stories chal-lenge students to think and reflect on their lives and historical tapestries and, in turn, acquire valuable writing, language arts, and literacy skills (Khebbaz 9). DST provides a space for learners to “articulate pivotal moments in their lives and to reflect on life trajectories” (Hull and Katz 43). It is the personal nature of the narrative that makes learning more relevant and meaningful to the learners’ real lives (Dreon et al. 5). In addition to reaping the general benefits of DST, when ELs author digital stories, their reading comprehension (Rance-Roney 388) and oral proficiency improve (Kim 27).
The DST practice is clearly aligned with the writing process and entails viewing samples of emotional stories, writing a first draft, receiv-ing feedback, writing additional drafts, receiving feedback from peers via a story circle, recording the narration, adding sound and images, and pre-senting to an audience (Lambert iii). The focus of the digital story is the story itself, and digital sto-rytellers spend the vast majority of the workshop time crafting, revising, and prioritizing their sto-ries (Banaszewski 35; Castañeda 59). It is not until the author is satisfied with the story that the author incorporates digital elements. The finalized digital product is then presented to an audience.
We have directed numerous DST workshops with ELs and their peers in various contexts includ-ing traditional classrooms, after-school enrichment programs, and summer literacy camps. We have experienced how the DST process is clearly aligned with ELA classroom goals and objectives, and we have seen the power of digital stories to expose social injustices. In these contexts, we have observed the potential of using digital stories to simultaneously facilitate ELs’ language development and promote generalist students’ and teachers’ empathy and cul-tural literacy. In the following section, we present examples of what we learned from ELs about social injustices through their digital stories. Each story represents a unique form of injustice embedded in everyday school practices. We offer ways that teach-ers can use these stories to dialogue and co-construct a just classroom where everyone’s voice is heard.
What Can We Learn from ELs’ Stories about Social Injustices?
We began this article with a quote from Beatriz who shared, through her digital story, how peers mocked her accent at school. Beatriz did not com-plain to the teacher or administrators, but instead confided in her family. Her mother, an EL herself, understands what it is like to have an accent and is able to comfort her daughter. Still, the family takes measures and talks to the principal about the inci-dent and implements strategies at home to help Be-atriz improve her English. With the family’s help and continued academic learning in school, Beatriz felt that her English accent improved and helped her fit in. This sentiment is echoed when she tells us that those peers who made fun of her have now become her friends.
Beatriz’s story was emotional. She articulated the tensions that exist between mainstream stu-dents and ELs in the classroom. Beatriz’s strategy to work through the adversity she faced was to go to her parents. The story highlights her family’s approach to confront the issue and also debunks a common stereotype that families of ELs do not participate in school-based activities. Generally speaking, most parents of ELs have a deep respect for school and consider the teachers and adminis-tration the experts. Still, sometimes they lack En-glish skills and engage in different ways. Parents of ELs may engage in schooling practices at home by reading books in Spanish to their children, dedicat-ing a specific time at home to complete homework, and/or providing nutritious meals. Once Beatriz’s parents realized there was an issue at school, they got involved very quickly. They implemented strat-egies both at home and at school.
Since Beatriz’s story was created and shared in a summer camp setting, it lacked that broader audi-ence. If Beatriz’s story about her situation at school and how her parents got involved had been authored and shared in an ELA classroom, the teacher could have used the story to facilitate a discussion cen-tered on individual differences. The teacher could discuss school-based interactions through a critical lens and could point out that everyone’s unique dif-ferences need to be valued in the classroom.
Another student, Jazmin, alluded to cultural differences as well as the estrangement that is com-mon between the families of ELs and mainstream students. Jazmin’s family is from Mexico, where sleepovers are not common—especially when it comes to overstays with non-family members. Her mother was distressed when Jazmin and her sister were invited to spend the night at a classmate’s house. Compounding the issue was the fact that Jazmin’s mother did not know the family where the sleepover would take place. Although she al-lowed Jazmin and her sister to go, the mother was anxious. Jazmin drew a picture to depict the scene described in her digital story. In the drawing, Jazmin’s mother had a look of anguish on her face. Jazmin writes the following about the experience:
Another thing is the way my mom protects us, makes me feel safe. One time, me and my sister were going to a sleepover and my mom asked my sister’s friend’s mom what we were going to do [during the sleepover]. And the woman said we were going to the pool and to play games. And when my mom said bye to us, I could see that she had a worried look.
To prevent the marginalization of her daugh-ters, Jazmin’s mom allowed the sleepover, even though she was concerned. The families of cultur-ally diverse students often find themselves in sit-uations that highlight cultural differences. Other differences that could arise and could potentially isolate diverse learners include dressing differently, starting to drive at a different age, differing pa-rental communication expectations, etc. If stories like Jazmin’s are shared in the ELA classroom, the teacher and students can talk about how relation-ships can be affected by cultural expectations at home, in turn leading to a further understanding of each other’s cultures.
The last example we will present is from a young storyteller, a ten-year-old we will call Patri-cia. In her story, the student alludes to unique chal-lenges faced by some ELs in the classroom. Some ELs are separated from family and friends and can-not travel back and forth to their countries of origin to visit family, as they, themselves, or their parents are undocumented. Patricia writes:
When I was born my favoritist aunt, Tia Titi, got me toys and clothing. She is like my mom. She loves me. She has a baby; three months old. It is a boy. She is in Mexico. When I was in Mexico, [pause] she and my grandma celebrated my sev-enth birthday. It was a big birthday. . . . Then my mom gets to the United States. Then my aunt has—[takes a sharp breath] has—her baby. She is still in Mexico. I didn’t see her baby. But I have a lot of pictures of her baby. I call him Carlos. My mom buys a lot of clothing for my cousin, Carlos.
According to Gloria Ladson-Billings, teachers with culturally relevant practices must have socio–political consciousness to relate to students’ unique challenges (75). Issues ELs face may include fear of deportation of themselves or their parents, economic hardship due to employment restrictions, and lack of social mobility, all of which negatively affect a learner’s academic engagement. Undocumented stu–dents often live in the shadows and do not talk about their immigration status. Just like Patricia, we sometimes only get a glimpse and can only assume. Without singling out a student and the student’s potential lack of documents, the ELA classroom can serve as a space to discuss immigration challenges faced by some students in our classroom.
All three stories presented above were written in a summer literacy camp. The purpose of the DST workshop was twofold. First, it served as a tool to develop the ELs’ language skills, and second, it pro-vided a space for teachers and students to reflect on social injustices.
Emotional stories like those of Beatriz, Jazmin, and Patricia are typically not heard or dis-cussed in a traditional curriculum. Still, under the guidance of a culturally competent teacher, these stories have the potential to expose social injustices, and students can learn from each other. Culturally proficient teachers will guide students to notice the social injustices. In the examples above, we heard about social injustices present in the classroom (Beatriz discusses how her peers made fun of her accent), community (Jazmin talks about cultural dif-ferences and unfamiliarity between families), and society (Patricia alludes to challenges deriving from immigration status).
The three stories provide snapshots of how DST can serve as a coalitional practice in the class-room. They were deliberately chosen to highlight classroom, community, and the inequities in the broader societal context. Hearing the struggles faced by students like Beatriz, Jazmin, and Patri-cia exposes mainstream students to a variety of so-cial issues. Through critical reflection, stereotypes can be eliminated, and empathy can be cultivated. Although the stories we selected are from ELs, we acknowledge that mainstream students are not immune to social injustices and contributing to the discussion. The learning in a DST workshop is reciprocal; mainstream students can learn from ELs, while ELs can learn from generalist students. The ultimate goal of DST is to allow learners’ sto-ries to be heard through the writing and sharing process, ensuring equal learning opportunities. For ELs and diverse students, the DST serves as a platform for self-expression where they feel they can effectively contribute to the community around them (Khebbaz 4).
Given the potentials of creating a coalitional literacy community, teachers are encouraged to in-corporate DST into practice. In the language arts classrooms, DST can be used as a means to simulta-neously develop language and discuss cultural iden-tities. In addition to turning a traditional writing project (e.g., brainstorming, drafting, reviewing, revising, and publishing) to a multimodal DST project, teachers can use the opportunities provided in the project to scaffold both language and cul-tural understandings during the brainstorming and publishing phases. Before ELs start drafting their stories, teachers carefully plan the theme to acti-vate particular stories that can elicit the learners’ emotion. Teachers’ scaffolding is equally important during the publishing phase as it is the space for learners to share their stories within the commu-nity. A series of questions can be asked to facilitate their understanding of the stories, such as, Who is the main character of the story? What is the main idea of the story? What would you have done in that situation? In the meantime, encourage discus-sions on the critical topics brought up by each oth-ers’ stories.
Instead of marginalizing students, the digi-tal format can empower the students as their sto-ries travel across “the wall” and are heard within the community through the coalitional literacy practice. Since digital stories are emotional, we have found that it is often through DST that we get to hear these types of stories from ELs. In the DST process, the student’s story is planned, vocal-ized, discussed, edited, enhanced with music and images, as well as presented to an audience. It is this process that allows students to engage deeply in the storytelling practice, with language and with technology. ELs have stories to tell, and DST is an excellent venue to bring these stories and the learn-ing from these stories to life.
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Martha Castañeda is an associate professor of foreign language education in the Department of Teacher Education at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Xiang Shen is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Miami University. Email: email@example.com. Esther Claros-Berlioz is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.