Mobile Storyteller, and how your students can tell stories, too

Students are capable of producing professional quality video anymore, but basic technology can turn students in any class into storytellers. (Public domain photo via

Students are capable of producing professional quality video anymore, but basic technology can turn students in any class into storytellers. (Public domain photo via

Anyone can tell stories. They’re powerful and compelling. It’s how humankind has passed information down from generation to generation.

Students at Hoover High School of North Canton City Schools (North Canton, Ohio) get to tell stories with some impressive equipment.

They use industry-standard digital video cameras. They edit video using Adobe Premiere and Avid, both powerful tools for making beautiful video.

But what will catch your eye is the Mobile Storyteller bus. It’s a shiny, white vehicle that houses state-of-the-art video production equipment that can be used on the go. It was purchased with a $95,000 national service learning grant to encourage service learning projects.

These students have an advantage with all the finest tools at their disposal. But you don’t need fancy tools to tell stories like these, said Tom Wilson, coordinator of district media and video production instructor. It can be done in your own classroom without buying expensive equipment. In fact, you can add powerful storytelling to your classroom with technology you and your students likely already have. (Much more about that and some practical tips in a moment.)

From meager to extraordinary

Students at North Canton

Students at North Canton City Schools use the Mobile Storyteller bus to shoot and edit video professionally on the go. (Photo by Matt Miller)

Eighteen years ago, Wilson was asked to start a video production program at North Canton. The problem: he had very little equipment, and some of it was broken. (This was way before we could pull an iPhone out of our pockets and shoot video on the spot.)

They added equipment to the program little by little, tapping into funding through local foundations and other grants.

The students also added to their skills. A simple Veteran’s Day video the first year turned into a full-blown documentary about local veterans the next year.

Now, they’ve combined broadcast journalism with video production so the content is as professional as the video quality. They participate in student video competitions. They shoot video at various events and display their work on their website —

Storytelling for anyone

Wilson’s students study video production and broadcast journalism. But elements of what they do can be used in most classes, in a variety of classes and grade levels.

Hoover High School students Carly Sabella (right) and Hayden Kearns (behind) create video at the Ohio School Board Association annual conference. (Photo by Matt Miller)

Hoover High School students Carly Sabella (right) and Hayden Kearns (behind) create video at the Ohio School Board Association annual conference. (Photo by Matt Miller)

I attended the Ohio School Board Association’s annual conference in Columbus, Ohio, and got to see these guys in action. These North Canton City Schools students buzzed around the event, conducting interviews and shooting “B roll” for videos on their website while others edited video in the bus.

I watched these students do their work and it dawned on me: what they’re doing can be done in so many classrooms. In the four core subjects, for example:

  • Social studies students can tell local history. They can compile research and put their own unique spin on telling the story.
  • Science students can tell the story of what they’re doing in labs, of what scientists have done in history, of how science plays into our day-to-day lives.
  • Math students can explain how they do math in their own words and how it plays into different parts of our everyday life.
  • English classes are all about storytelling anyway. They could tell an alternate ending to a story they just studied or write a follow-up story telling what characters did later in their lives.

Tips for teachers and students

Wilson and Josh Branch, a partner from neighboring Plain Local School District in Canton, Ohio, made these suggestions for any teacher that wanted to incorporate video and storytelling into their classes:

  • “People will watch whatever you produce,” Wilson said. The video quality doesn’t have to be superior for others to benefit from it. Don’t feel like it has to be perfect. “In this YouTube age … people’s standards are lower,” Branch said. “They’ll forgive some technical difficulties because they’re used to it. They’re used to seeing amateur video.”
  • The audio quality is very important, though, Branch said. “Pay attention to the audio. It’s half the video,” he said. If you’re shooting video with a cell phone or basic camera, using an inexpensive microphone can improve audio quality drastically. Audio Technica has a lavalier, wired microphone that runs about $30, and that makes a huge difference, Branch said. (I use the ATR 2100, a USB microphone when recording video at my desk. It’s about $80 and it sounds great.)
  • Listen to Ken Burns. The famous documentary creator connected with Wilson’s class once and suggested these five elements for a bigger video story: first-person interview, narration, supporting materials (like newspapers, archival video and photos), music and sound effects.
  • Share with whomever your audience is. Everyone has an audience, Branch said, whether it’s family or friends, the school community or even worldwide through social media.
  • Learn and improve each time. “That’s the beauty of creating content,” Branch said. “Just go do it. You’ll be better for making it, and your next video will be better from the experience of the first one.”
  • Be intentional. Help students plan how they want to tell a story through video Use an outline, script or story board. Story boards don’t have to be elaborate … stick figures work! “Thinking through it before you produce it will make the end product that much better,” he said.
  • Give yourself a buffer. If you’re recording video, start recording five seconds before you start talking and stop recording five seconds after you stop talking, Branch said. That gives you extra video “space” to add effects.

Question: How have you used storytelling in the classroom — with video or without? What is important when helping students tell stories? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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