HETL Global Communities

In Production: Using iPads to Tell Stories through Documentary Film

April 21, 2016 in Volume 6

HETL Note:

In this academic article, authors Drs. Rashné Jehangir and Na’im Madyun present their experience in an interdisciplinary undergraduate first-year experience class and how their students used narrative pedagogy together with iPad technology to develop short documentary films.  To this end, the students collected data through interviews and other research. Student learning centered on understanding and creating narratives through different mediums and viewpoints. This article focuses on the process and pedagogy used to support students in that learning process.

Author bios:

JehangirPhotoRashné Jehangir is an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities. She began her career working with first-generation students in the TRIO Student Support Services Program. Her research interests focus on experience of low-income, FG students; multicultural curriculum and identity development; learning communities; and the design and structure of first-year experience programs. Jehangir teaches in the First-Year Experience program in the College and in the graduate programs in Higher Education. Her scholarship is featured in several journals, including Journal of College Student Development, Innovative Higher Education, Urban Education and the Journal of the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, as well as her book, Higher Education and First-Generation College Students: Cultivating Community, Voice and Place for the New Majority (2010). She is committed to translating research to practice and has presented at numerous conferences, and faculty and staff development events around the country.

AdyunPhotoNa’im Madyun is the associate dean for undergraduate, equity and diversity programs. His administrative experience as an associate dean covers ten undergraduate majors and ten undergraduate minors in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. He is also the chief diversity officer in the college and is committed to supporting programming and strengthening communication pathways that push our students, staff and faculty to trust diversity and value equity. His research focuses on opportunity and outcome gaps by integrating social capital and cultural capital theories in the study of students of color from middle school to college. My research aims to inform viable solutions that address educational disparities in achievement, particularly for African Americans. He has published in Education and Urban Society, Urban Education and the Journal of Negro Education. He has have edited or co-edited three special issue journals and is currently the co-book editor for Urban Education.


In production: Using iPads to tell stories through documentary film

Rashné Jehangir and Na’im Madyun

University of Minnesota, USA



This article is a process piece that describes and provides rationale for the use of narrative pedagogy in the development of short documentary films in an interdisciplinary undergraduate first-year experience class.  The curriculum and pedagogy scaffold students through a series of learning experiences that prepared them to create narratives, engage in interviews, and conduct research that culminated in the production of a short documentary film shot and edited using their iPads. The process sought to support students’ capacity to appreciate and prepare a range of narratives through different mediums, but also led to students becoming more acquainted with their own narratives. While we share some preliminary data that was collected to analyze impact on learning, this article focuses on describing the structure and pedagogy used to support students toward production of an original short documentary film.

 Keywords: Narrative pedagogy, curriculum, iPad, impact, film



In a paper presented at the 2003 Apple University Consortium Conference, Kearney and Schuck challenged educators to embrace a shift from using technology for solely content delivery to using technology to produce learning outcomes (Kearney & Schuck, 2004). Since then, many educators have utilized various methods of digital story-telling and student-generated videos with a growing emphasis on the process rather than the product (Swan & Hofer, 2013).  In those studies, educators typically examine the degree to which the process impacts the learning experience of participants. Mobile technologies are becoming more prevalent in education experiences (Williams, Lee, Link, & Ernst, 2014) and offer unique educational experiences versus desktop computers (Melhuish & Falloon, 2010). We used iPads because they were made available to all students in our program and as such reduced barriers of unequal access to technology and media (Jenkins, 2009). We describe in detail, the structure of the course and assignments developed to allow novice filmmakers to engage with narrative methods and create an original film. Our intent is to make the process as transparent as possible, while also highlighting challenges we experienced.  In doing so, we intend to suggest ways of structuring narratives in film that shape effective communicating and an appreciation of difference for first-year students while enhancing their confidence and competence with technology as a medium to tell stories.

Context:  Our First Year Experience Program

Our course is situated within a First-Year Experience Program housed in a College of Education and Human Development at a large U.S. public- land grant university. Every first-year student in the college participates in a year-long first-year experience curriculum. In the first semester, all students read a common book that responds to the question of “How Can One Person Make a Difference?” The cohort of first-year students for 2012 included 243 White, 91 Asian, 58 Black, 23 Hispanic and 12 International students. Approximately 40% of the freshman cohort each year is either a low-income or a first-generation college student. In the fall, students enroll in one of six co-taught First-Year Inquiry (FYI) courses where faculty teams take an interdisciplinary approach to designing curriculum that address the common question. The course places great emphasis on the writing process and two learning outcomes that shape the construction of the FYI course:  communicating effectively and appreciating differences.  During the spring semester, students participate in a learning communities that consist of two separate disciplinary courses that share thematic connections and an integrated assignment that complements interdisciplinary inquiry.  The learning communities also prepare students for the second year by satisfying core curriculum requirements of the university and/or functioning as an introductory course into a chosen major.

Beginning in 2010, all first-year students received an iPad upon entry into the college to use during the First Year Experience Program (FYE). Instructors received training and ongoing instructional support to integrate the iPad into their assignments, and instruction (Williams et al., 2014).  In addition to the college’s major focus on innovation with technology, a primary purpose of the iPad initiative is one of access. Instructors were encouraged to use the iPad to provide access to open-source materials and work to close the digital divide for first-generation and low-income students (Williams et al., 2014).  In their examination of the impact of the iPad on student’s educational experiences, Williams et al. (2014) found that first-generation, low-income students in our FYE program were more likely to feel connected and be engaged compared to their counterparts.  This is consistent with the work of Melhuish and Falloon (2014) who argued that mobile technologies can increase the possibility of access, social interactivity and connectedness.

This article focuses on one iteration of a First-Year Inquiry (FYI) course:  Stories as Game Changers.  The course was designed to use story and narrative as the central frame with core texts that included a memoir, academic and newspaper articles, and a documentary film to introduce and engage students in the deep practice of communicating effectively and appreciating differences. Shaped by the disciplinary backgrounds of the authors of this article, this FYI course drew on literature, psychology, sociology and history as primary disciplinary lenses from which to consider context, frame, character motivation, structure and content of narratives within our curriculum. Three overarching themes drove the curriculum and assignments in our class: the American Dream, home and place, and critical moments.


There were 96 students enrolled in the course. Of the 96 students, 43 agreed to participate in an ongoing study examining how narrative pedagogy impacts learning outcomes.  Participants agreed to share 4 reflective writings completed throughout the semester regarding learning outcomes and classroom process and pedagogy.  Of these 42 students, 22 were female and 21 were males. There were 21 White students and 22 Students of Color (SOC). The average ACT composite score was 25.7 for Whites and 20.56 for Students of Color. It is important to note that the ACT composite standard deviation is 4.68 (ACT technical manual, 2007), which suggests that a possible difference in pre-college curricular exposure and mastery between the Students of Color and the non-students of color.  Despite the standardized test gap, there was no gap between the groups in high school rank or grade point average (GPA). The average high school rank was 80 for Whites and 84 for SOC, while the average GPA was 3.66 for Whites and 3.62 for SOC.

Data sources

We are currently in the process of analyzing qualitative data sets derived from student reflective writings to see what relationships are revealed between the use of narrative pedagogy and student learning outcomes. Students engaged in these reflective writings and four separate points during the semester.  The study is still in an analysis phase; therefore with the exception of a brief reference to preliminary findings in the conclusion, the focus of this chapter will be on process and pedagogy.

Theoretical Framework

We constructed the core of our course’s process by relying on theoretical understandings from narrative pedagogy and cultural capital. Narrative Pedagogy was one theoretical frame that guided the development of the course and the research for this project. Narrative pedagogy emerged out of the nursing education literature from the seminal work of Diekelmann (2001) in her 15-year examination of the training and educating of nurses. A classroom that utilizes narrative pedagogy allows students to publicly share their lived experiences (Diekelmann, 2001; Ironside, 2003). Students are not only encouraged to accept that initial narratives may be incorrect and other perspectives are needed to fully understand a single narrative, but are taught to be reflective and thinking about the thinking that occurs when engaging with narratives (Ironside, 2003). This classroom practice promotes critical thinking informed by the theorizing of Mezirow (2000) and Freire (2000) to push students to better understand the relevant and meaningful components of a narrative, which then results in transformational learning (Forneris & Peden-McAlpine, 2006).

Goodson and Gill (2011) articulated the role the classroom can serve in moving students to a transformational experience through encountering narratives.  Therefore, our FYI section was designed around the analysis and construction of a variety of narratives. The diversity of narratives and the presence of “other” and opportunities to dialogue with “otherness” were necessary and critical to transformational potential storytelling (Goodson and Gill, 2011).  .  Goodson and Gill’s (2011) considerable research on life histories also suggests that narrative pedagogy unearths how individuals lived experiences impact their ability to cultivate narrativity, or a narrative capital, (Goodson, 2012, p. 7) that is, the ability direct one’s own story and to have a “flexibility of response” to various social situations and contexts that allow for new aspirations and agency about one’s direction.  We wanted students to move from merely understanding or describing their current and future narratives based on dominant or ascribed scripts to constructing and visualizing aspirational and multiple narratives or what Goodson (2012) called elaborators. Narrative elaborators do not see their personal narratives as fixed by dominant culture or popular stereotypes, but construct a narrative informed by lived experiences and aspirations. This increased narrative capacity pushes the individual to embrace the power and potential of a narrative and in doing so teaches them to not limit their analysis of others’ narratives.

Bourdieu (1986) argued that cultural capital, aspects of a person’s culture that is valuable as a privileging resource in a given context, is present in three states: the embodied state, the objectified state, and the institutionalized state. The embodied state encompasses one’s way of being and the expression of self often through voice. Our class supported the development and expression of individual student narratives in mediums of writing, discussion and film as authentic and important contributions to course content. Therefore, each student had the opportunity to embody valuable cultural capital in the form of their personal stories.  Given the class’ diversity, affirming each story as valuable also legitimized the “otherness” or untold stories of peers in the classroom.  By affirming the narrative of each student as a necessary expression of “other” and integrating the narratives with the assigned readings (Jehangir, 2010), the classroom contexts became sufficient spaces for creating transformational encounters via stories and storytelling.

There is an intentional intersection between the work of Bourdieu and Goodson and Gill in our curricular and pedagogical design: Bourdieu’s work acknowledges that there are many forms of social and cultural capital and our work seeks to identify a process that embraces and leverages the diversity of cultural capital students carry to increase their narrative capacity. Goodson (2012) argues that “we have to look at how different forms of narrativity, respond, refract and generally re-interpret and re-direct dominant western narratives” (p.3) to allow for new elaborations of self-hood.  With our diverse student body, many of whom were first in their family to go to college, students of color and/ or immigrant students creating a pedagogical space that invited the interpretation of their lived experiences was important. It was equally important for students who represented majority groups to be able to elaborate their stories while perhaps challenging scripted or prescribed view of themselves.  Finally, the creating of the documentary films in collaborative groups pushed students to explore untold stories and thus practice the relationship between narrativity and agency.

“The role of documentary film is not to give us reality on a plate. We have plenty of our own reality to deal with. It should make us think about reality.” (Morris, 2016)

In production:  Scaffolding the process toward making the documentary film:

Stories were central to the curriculum and were represented via different mediums including memoir, fiction, journalistic inquiry and film as text. We examined these texts from an interdisciplinary perspective drawing on fields of literature, psychology, sociology and history.   Students also engaged in assignments that invited construction of their own narratives.  These assignments encouraged students to attend to the ways in which our own lived experience impacts how one tells a story and to consider the role of self-reflection, revision and reflexivity that is inherent to the narrative process. Much has been written about narrative, life-history research and storytelling within the social sciences (Diekelman, 2001; Ironside, 2003; Forneris & Peden-McAlpine, 2006; Goodson & Gill, 2011; Stille, 2011; Tsiviltidou, 2015).  Our intent here is not to argue the philosophic merits of different approaches but rather to suggest how we drew on particular stances around narrative to make concrete applications to pedagogical and curricular approaches in this class.  It could be argued that the entire 15 weeks of the semester might have focused on the construction of the documentary films alone. This was not however, a film course with that sole purpose, rather our goal was to encourage students to think about how stories and specifically, who tells them and how they are told, impact the story teller, the audience, and in many cases the communities, families and individuals represented in the story.  As such, we focused on three elements around the construction of narrative in text and film: Social encounter, story structure, and context.  The social encounter is concerned with the significance of “social interaction in the construction of narratives” (Hinchman & Hinchman, 1997) and suggests the story is inevitably shaped by the relationship cultivated between teller and audience (Goodson & Gill, 2011).  In our class, the social encounter also involved working in collaborative groups to construct these films ranging from the idea generation and research, to the storyboarding, and editing processes. As such, we extend the definition of “social encounter” to consider the added element of constructing a collaborative narrative.  The second element was the focus on story structure with focuses on a) meaning: why does this story matter;  b). choice and ordering of events toward the endpoint, “causal linkages” or the intention in selecting events to provide an explanation or unpacking of the meaning driving the film (Gergen,1998).  The third element of context encourages students to consider the cultural, historical, sociological and psychological frames that influence how we understand stories. With this rationale in place, the next section will delineate the specific activities, assignments and timeline we created in our FYI class to arrive at the final product: a documentary short film. To describe the processes and scaffolding of assignments toward documentary production, this section will be divided into five parts that reflect stages of scaffolding development of narrative inquiry within the bounded space of fifteen weeks in the semester.

Cultivating a narrative voice

During the first six weeks of the semester, assignments focused on stories of self-exploration to allow students the space to cultivate a narrative voice in a content area they knew well:  their own lived experiences.   The class began with two important assignments: a Biographical Object Assignment where students wrote about and shared the story of a meaningful object in their life; and a This I Believe paper modeled about the Edward R. Morrow essays in which students wrote about one core belief and shared a narrative from their lives that solidified this belief.  Both of these assignments are detailed in forthcoming publications, but we note them here to situate how the curriculum embedded the process of story-telling from personal narrative to collaborative construction of a documentary film and how embodied cultural capital was valued.

We approached the construction of the course from the position that narratives are “important sites of meaning-making and learning” (Goodson & Gill, 2011, p. xiii).  The concept of narrative pedagogy suggests that the personal narrative creates avenues for the learner to share lived experience and drive their learning and development, which in turn allows for “reflective self-construction; and an ongoing pattern of reflexivity” (Goodson & Gill, 2011, p. xiii). We contend, that in addition to an opportunity to look inward and create one’s own narratives as students in our class did with the Biographical Object and This I Believe assignments, they also had the opportunity to hear, absorb, and consider the narratives and specific vantage points of other storytellers, namely their peers.  As such, through the use of the texts in the curriculum and the narratives shared by fellow students, the class quickly came to consider how the position of the teller, and the location or social space they inhabited, deeply influenced the telling of the story. Stories were framed by the cultural, historical and social context of the teller.  Our preliminary data analysis suggests that these assignments were most impactful for students for two reasons: 1) they encouraged them to reflect and share their own narratives, which was empowering and 2) listening to their peers revealed many untold stories from diverse perspectives and social position challenging the notion that social and cultural capital belonged only within the academy.  It was also an opportunity for students to move from scripted perceptions of self to more elaborated narratives. Because individual narratives were honored in a collaborative context, students were supported in their collective journey towards a social encounter.

To supplement this self-reflection, the curriculum included a memoir titled, the Latehomecomer, by Hmong American writer Kao Kalia Yang.  While studying her book and unpacking the socio-historic context of her lived experiences and immigration to the U.S. we also supplemented reading with short documentary films that represented immigrant narratives. One film titled, Translating Love was professionally created by the Immigration History Library staff at our home institution and focused on the efforts of an international graduate student tasked with translating letters sent between early European immigrants to Minnesota and their families back home. The film also included the graduate student’s reflection and comparison of her own experience being away from her family in Lithuania and that of the immigrants whose words she was translating.  As such, the film included both personal narrative and consideration of the position of “others.”  It also raised the following key questions:  How is one tasked with telling the story of another and how one might engage with this authentically?  In this second year of the project, we were also able to share a sample of a student-made documentary from a previous year, titled The Seeds That Follow My Sorrow (http://vimeo.com/54999311) .This film was created by four students who focused on how Hmong- American immigrants define the concept of home following their immigration to Minnesota.  This allowed students to consider the following questions a) what kind of research was needed to make such a film? b) How was the narrative sequenced?  c) How did the use of music/ images impact the content?  e) Did it have meaning?  f) Did it tell an untold story?  Also, both films included speakers who primary language was not English.  Another discussion occurred around how one engages in translational work that represents the voice of the speaker, as well as technical issues around transcribing interviews.  As students worked in their groups to reflect on these narrative encounters, their questioning began to make meaning of the story structure and we moved our attention to how they might make their own films.

Learning about Documentary and Practicing Narrative Construction in Film:

At mid- point of the semester, we gave student an opportunity to watch several short documentary films or trailers that allowed them to experience of range of topics around the three themes of our course: the American Dream, home and place, and critical moments.

We devoted a class session to the technical components of basic film production using iMovie.  In collaboration with our Academic Technology staff, we designated a class session as an iMovie primer. This included a quick overview of how to use iMovie’s key features specifically inserting film, photos, sounds and music into a storyline. This was followed by a brief one minute video assignment that was an effort to encourage practice, problem–solving, and co-teaching. We asked each student in the class to create a one-minute documentary short film around the question: Is Education a Game Changer?  The question reflected themes we focused on in class and allowed students to interrogate the question in multiple ways.  It also required the use of the basic components of iMovie listed in the training session. Over the course of a week each student shared his or her one-minute documentary with the class.  This activity prompted rich discussion about both the elements of narrative we were focused on namely, social encounter, story structure and context, and also on technical expertise and troubleshooting.  In many cases, this was an excellent space for students to teach each other and resolve technical questions, as well as to share new applications or “work- arounds” to the constraints of the iMovie on the iPads. Given the dynamic status of technology the students were often aware of applications, sites, or methods employed with iMovie that even our technical staff had not heard of yet!  Also, the act of sharing one’s own work created a collaborative encounter and students began to see the very different positions, causal linkages, and lived experience that shaped how one made meaning of the question: Is education a game changer? As such, we began to discuss how or if films were required to take a position around a subject and how the act of choosing and ordering events in a story might inevitably suggest a position or stance on the part of the teller.  We also discussed “who is interpreting whose stories” (Goodson & Gill, 2011, p. xiv) and how there is power is shaping a narrative.  This issue of power linked closely with issues of rights, culture, immigrant status and race that we also explored in our classroom curriculum.

To continue to investigate the role of power in storytelling we also began studying Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke, a film that documents the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and surrounding areas.  We sought to accompany this analysis of Lee’s film with an opportunity for students to begin envisioning how they might frame a story of their own. The film draws on the historic and cultural context of racialized segregation in the South and the ways in which the mismanagement of events leading to the Katrina disproportionately impacted poor communities and people of color. The film also juxtaposes these inequities with the rich multicultural and musical heritage of New Orleans and the strong attachment to place those residents feel to the area.  The use of this film was purposeful not only because it fit well with the three themes of our class but because it was organized into four Acts and included many different interviews with various stakeholders: survivors, politicians, business people, weather experts, historians, musicians and professors many of whom were residents of New Orleans.  Students watched the film and explored various scenes to discuss and critique the diversity of ways narratives could impact the story structure and context.

Asking the right questions: Research and Field Work

In an effort to build on the issue of one’s relative location to power and how one’s cultural capital can impact access and perception of a particular topic or social issue, students were assigned two articles around participant observation and interviewing. After discussing these works students formed small groups and went to different locations across campus to observe the environment with a particular question in mind. The goal was to consider how one might simply observe a particular context and how that observation might impact what one “sees.”  The students wrote field notes on these observations and compared field notes and process observations and shared that observations gave rise to new questions, for example: How had a particular building on campus been designed and did it facilitate or impede student engagement?  In other cases, students noted they needed more information about said environment to better contextualize their observations.  This exercise was a pre-cursor to idea generation about specific topics for their documentary films, as well as the type of research they would want to do to better understand the context of their topic and the communities they might engage with.  We also noted that to create a strong documentary film, gaining access, trust and engagement with potential interviewees would be critical. Students also would need to consider how the social and cultural capital of students could engage or constrain that process.

To introduce the interview component of the course, we, the co-instructors modeled an interview for the students.  We interviewed each other in front of the class for 10 minutes.  We did not rehearse or reveal the questions or even the topic of the interview to each other prior to the activity.  The intent was to demonstrate the preparation, challenges, and vulnerability that the interview process entails for both parties. The demonstration also raised questions about how the interview is a microcosm of the narrative social encounter wherein the interviewers are gaining access into the world of the interviewee and hearing their story. As such the interviewer’s choice of questions, words, and body language is intentionally or in some cases unintentionally influencing the telling of narrative and shaping what is told and what is left out. The class reflected on and critiqued both instructors after the interview and held a discussion on what type of content is needed how to access the information through interviews.

Also drawing on the participants observations, we asked students to extend their observational skills to various scenes in the When the Levees Broke film. Coupled with guided readings, we then discussed a number of issues related to film production in class including: elements of a documentary film, framing the narrative, adopting a particular investigative stance or position,  interview techniques, choice of audio/images to evoke mood, editing and sequencing as well as ethnical consideration when making film. Together we considered if documentary films can facilitate dialogue in a democratic society and discussed the importance of telling an untold story – affirming the voice of “others”.

Finding the question and doing the research

Students were divided into groups based on common themes that emerged from their This I Believe Papers.  These themes were broad (e.g. hard work; family; loss).  Although students were grouped by theme, they were likely to have had different interpretations of the theme represented in their papers and very different lived experiences.  They were not required to use these themes as the basis for their films, but the discussion of the theme was a starting point for things they valued and served as a springboard for the initial brainstorming assignment during week 8.  Prior to class students completed a reflection that included the following questions:

  1. What big questions do you have that will be worth exploring?
  2. Is there an area (e.g. geographical, group specific, lived experience) that you want to explore? Whose story do you want to tell?
  3. Where could you go to begin gathering information about this topic?

Students wrote responses to each of these questions on small post-its and then began organizing their post-its into themes to see points of integration, overlap and to highlight different ideas.  This was also a week when students were asked to think about their particular strengths in relation to key roles related to the construction of the film.  Given that the film was constructed solely on an iPad, it was import to designate one student’s machine as the primary device for editing purposes.  To this end, students were asked to designate individuals to the following roles:  Cameraperson/ Editor, Researchers; Sound and audio point person; Photo journalists and interviewers. We also required that for all interviews students work in pairs so that they had a partner when exploring new locations in the metro area and also so that one person could be fully present and engaged with the interview process and the other could focus on camera work, framing the shot and making sure the sound/volume were functional.

This process allowed students to begin focusing on their next big job, which was to write a research paper on the topic of their film.  Students continued to work in their documentary groups but were required to write individual papers around their topic.  The paper required six primary sources, five of which needed to be newspaper articles that focused on their topic.  There was a broad range in topics a sampling of which included the following:  What is the impact of light rail construction on small business in the surrounding metro area; How do Hmong-American refugees conceptualize home?; Is the American Dream attainable for most immigrants?; How do we put a face on homelessness?; and Crime on campus: Challenges of to safety and dangers of racial profiling. As students began to prepare for the research papers, some groups intentionally split up their topic to look at the issue from different vantage points.  During Week 10, students were asked to come to class with at least three articles to share with their groups.  The discussions around new perspectives, positions or contradictions between articles proved very useful to students as this allowed them to further focus the goal, questions or stance of their film.  At this point, they began to generate lists of places, people and questions that they would need to move toward filming. We encouraged them to make phone calls to sites they wanted to visit if appropriate or in some cases scout a location before filming.

Storyboarding and Production

Using an article that focused adapting narrative story telling for documentary film (Everett, 2006), we used the storyboarding format of three acts to help students’ structure core questions and content for their films. Students worked together to clearly articulate a core issue for the focus of their documentary.  Though seemingly obvious, this question alone generated a lot of discussion and pushed the group to come to consensus on a focal point for the film. Noting that this was an eight- ten minute film, students negotiated to consider what key questions need to be included and how the research they had done informed various aspects of their documentary to unearth an untold story. We then moved to discussion and sharing of Audio and visual elements used in the film and a consideration of what would constitute primary footage (A roll) versus secondary footage (B roll).  Using Everett’s (2006) work around creating a narrative arc students began story boarding three acts:  Act One focused on launching the story, portraying an provocative incident (if appropriate), posing the central question and creating a hook that would draw the audience into the story. Act Two focused on pacing the narrative and determining which components (images, interview clips) were critical to moving the story forward and what could be edited) in addition to troubling and challenging the central question.  Act Three focused on answering the central question or demonstrating the need for ongoing inquiry.   At this point, students were running into a variety of challenges that pertained to all three components.  In some cases, interviews did not go as planned or students found themselves inadequately prepared for the complexity of interviewing.  Through reflective writing and classroom discussion student’s commented on the challenges of the process.  One student said,

“While interviewing I learned that you really can’t force answers out of people. You can try to work around it to get what you want, but in the end you just have to accept what they give you.  I learned that I definitely need to work on my interviewing skills. I struggle to come up with good follow up questions after someone has answered my original question.”

Others found that the outcome of the interviews shifted the focus on the film and they had to decide how to attend to this or re-configure their narrative to accommodate this position.  Another student captured this dilemma below: “I also learned that things happened in a process and sometimes we don’t know what we can expect and should just go with the flow” At this point, our primary role as instructors was to facilitate, coach, and question students to move them toward the final production to that end. To move the process along, all students were required to share another one-minute clip of their video in class during Week 13 and following that milestone; the two weeks of the semester were dedicated to work-shopping and independent group work.

Works in Progress:

During Week 13 each group was required to share a one-minute clip of their documentary with their peers.  This requirement was an effort to push those who might be stalled to move forward on editing, interviewing or polishing the documentary as the deadline drew near.  It also created a forum for peer evaluation and feedback. We did not want to create more work for students at this stage so students were encouraged to present their material as a segment of the film or as piece of raw footage that would still be imbedded into the documentary.   As we watched each group’s contributions, the audience responded to the following prompts:  What works?  What is unclear or raises questions?  The audience also asked comments about process or technical aspects of the production:  e.g. how did you include those subtitles?  Or what was it like to ask the University Police Chief about racial profiling?  How were you able to find elderly refugees who were willing to talk on camera?   In turn, the filmmakers had the opportunity to ask questions and seek advice as they prepared to wrap up production.

Students were also given designated class time to work outside of class on editing, re-filming to resolve problems or just finalizing the film.  To provide structure and accountability to the process each group reported on designated roles for each group member, as well as attendance at editing sessions.  At the end of week 14 each student completed a self and peer evaluation of each group member that was accessible to instructors only.

Mini documentary screenings

The final week of the semester involved screening all the documentaries.  In a class of 95 students there were a total of 30- 32 films completed.  Each film was screened during class time concluded with a discussion with the filmmakers.  In addition to taking questions and comments from the audience, students were asked to comment on the following prompt: What did they learn about themselves, what they learned about others, and what might they do differently if they had a chance to do this again.  Many students expressed a degree of pride in their work and recognition of the complexity of constructing a narrative in the medium of film.

One student noted pride and also the value of the collaborative endeavor. She said:

The technology was perplexing, and at times, and working around other people’s schedules was never easy, and yet the final product was something that I feel immensely proud of, and proud of the group members that helped me accomplish this.”

Other students commented on how the content of the films had shifted their understanding of communities around them. One African immigrant student whose documentary focused on perception of young male Hmong in the media said this:

There are so many things that are left unsaid and we should ask people instead of judging them. Hmong people are not the way the media portrayed. They are negatively portrayed in the media. The media is biased in the way that they report news about the Hmong people.”

Our initial review of data collected around this project is still under analysis at this time. However, preliminary results suggest that narrative pedagogy with scaffolded assignments like this documentary film production impacts how students’ make sense of their development in the areas of self- awareness, appreciation of differences, and ability to communicate effectively in various mediums and with multiple audiences. As the data analysis continues, we hope to better understand how students learning outcomes intersect and inform each other.

Conclusion: Messy Work

We set out to clearly articulate the pedagogical process for utilizing narratives and film to create transformational learning experiences in first-year students.  Transformational experiences are difficult to capture within one semester, but in our preliminary analysis we did find that students demonstrated a heighted appreciation of differences, more self-awareness and were able to effectively communicate these outcomes in writing, discussion and film.  However, it is important to note that this paper is focused more on the process rather than the outcomes. Past studies utilizing computers and mobile technologies as pedagogical tools have not fully detailed how the technology could and should be incorporated to produce learning outcomes. In this paper, we focused on the role of the iPad, the use of class time, organization and scaffolding of assignments and nature of the classroom context in that process.

Because all students were required to use the iPad, the iPad itself became an important variable to consider in the process of producing a film. Students came into the class with varying levels of experience and expertise with technology. It was important that we built technology assistance into the class to bring all of the students to a minimal shared, baseline. This did not reduce the variance in experience, but it did address potential gaps in minimum knowledge that can be found between groups of differing backgrounds in the age of the college digital divide (Good, 2010). We also mandated that students could not use their desktop computer in conjunction with their iPad. Allowing students to use their desktop would increase the potential for the finished product to be more of a function of unequal access to resources and we wanted to level the “playing field” as much as reasonably possible with the construction of the assignment. Students were also required to identify a single iPad as the primary iPad and assume various roles in the production of the film. The “constraints” pressed students to become creative, to recognize strengths in others and to become more aware of their own talents/limitations.  We also had some spirited discussions with students about the decision to limit production to the iPad and debated the rationale of this choice.  Most students agreed that limiting usage to one device that all students in the class had access to worked to level the playing field.  These discussions played a role in students’ self-awareness and also appreciation of differences, particularly with regard to access to resources to complete projects.

Just as important in the process was the uses of in-class time, not only to provide instructional experiences but to also create a context for the authentic sharing and affirming of narratives.  We intentionally invited students to share their narratives in multiple ways and affirmed them as valuable “texts” within the classroom. We modeled sharing of personal stories during our class interview of each other. We used class time for students to place themselves in an alternate environment and report back their observations.  Before film production was complete, we used class time for students to show 1-minute clips of their film. After each in-class experience, the class processed the experience and provided affirming statements of what others shared. We were intentional about supporting the cultural capital that students brought and or developed during the class to create a space for “safe” exploration and examination of the stories of self and “others.”  From a very practical perspective, in class time allotted to complete a cumulative assignment like a documentary also took into the consideration the lived experiences of many students who are employed, volunteer and may also have responsibilities at home.  This is especially relevant to first-generation and low-income students who make up a significant percentage of our incoming class.

Lastly, we carefully scaffolded assignments to reflect the manner and direction of the work we wanted to students to produce. The scaffolded assignments became a narrative in and of itself. We began the process with students sharing their general story (biographical object), then a personal value (This I believe). Both exercises cultivated a sense of belonging and trust in the class, which extended into engaging with self and otherness (participant observation, interviewing). We layered otherness with examples of articles, short films and memoirs that capture diverse experiences of transition and becoming. As students became more comfortable with understanding and appreciating narratives, we journeyed deeper into the different factors that affected the telling of the story – framing, context, photographs, words, music, sound and video. To produce richer stories we introduced students to a full-length documentary as text and assigned a research paper on an aspect of the group mini-documentaries. We then provided in class time for students to share a clip of their film for peer feedback, motivation and inspiration.

We felt that transformation through the use of narratives was not an accidental outcome, but results from the understanding and careful planning of a process that invites students to authentically share themselves and appreciate, understand and research the stories of others. The pedagogical process must also limit inequity of access to resources, establish a common baseline and take advantage of in-class time to scaffold experiences. In this process, students had the opportunity to become more self-aware and value the importance of otherness in their lives as a collective journey. We also recognize that this is messy work. Even with a carefully crafted plan and scaffolding toward narrative encounters, students felt challenged by each other, by their topic, and sometimes overwhelmed by creating a final product.  Yet, despites these challenges their process writing about the experience shows emerging themes of deep self-reflection on not only their own role and narrative but also how they grappled with hearing, listening and telling untold stories in collaboration with others. In an essay about famed documentarians the Maysles brothers, Errol Morris writes that “They weren’t just capturing a stream of events. They were giving their subjects a space to reflect…They were showing us something about subjectivity, about how we define ourselves in the presence of another” As such Morris, suggests that in engaging in the narrative encounter both the parties are impacted.  As analysis of the data continues, we hope to demonstrate how intentional scaffolding of narrative pedagogy through the medium of film provides opportunities for students to strengthen their communication skills in various mediums and appreciate a diversity of idea, people and contexts.



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This process article was accepted for publication in the International HETL Review (IHR) after a double-blind peer review involving 3 independent members of the IHR Review Board and 1 revision cycle. Accepting editor: Dr Charlynn Miller

Suggested citation:

Jenangir, R. Madyun, N. (2016). In production: Using iPads to tell stories through documentary film. International HETL Review, Volume 6, Article 4,  https://www.hetl.org/in-production-using-ipads-to-tell-stories-through-documentary-film
Copyright 2016  Rashné Jehangir and Na’im Madyun

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