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Using Digital Documentary Shorts to Explore Social Issues With Students

By Kristine E. Pytash, Todd Hawley, and Kate Morgan
 | Feb 06, 2018

ThinkstockPhotos-538202245_x300Students live in a world saturated with media, influencing how they consume and produce information and develop the social skills and cultural competencies they need to engage in conversations about democratic and social issues. To fully embrace civic participation, students need to be able to access, analyze, and evaluate digital media, as well as effectively communicate their beliefs and ideas using digital media, according to The Alliance for a Media Literate America. This requires students to become both critically and media literate, so they use their resources to foster “social communication and change.” When students are empowered to be producers of digital media, they learn to “create their own messages that can challenge media texts and narratives.” 

Creating digital documentary shorts

To explore instructional projects that might foster students’ critical media literacies, we worked with a high school social studies teacher and his class as they produced digital documentary shorts, or 8–10-minute videos that present research findings on a chosen social issue. The goal of digital documentary shorts is to help students make learning visible, communicate their findings, and take informed action as citizens. Here are the steps they followed:

  • Students selected a contemporary social issue. Topics included: kneeling for the National Anthem, Examining the word “feminism,” the border wall, cultural appropriation, police brutality, LGBTQ rights, terrorism, bullying, healthcare, and immigration.
  • Students worked individually and in pairs to develop a research focus and at least one research question.
  • Students researched their issues and found evidence to support their ideas. This included textual evidence from digital media (e.g. videos and pictures), interviews with other students and community members, and print sources.
  • Students developed storyboards, which is a way to graphically display images in a sequence so students can visualize an animation or video.
  • Students used Windows Movie Maker software to create their digital shorts. We used Windows Movie Maker because it was on the computers in the school media lab, however, iMovie, Animoto, Prezi, and Powerpoint are all tools that could be used for students to produce their digital documentary shorts.


In follow-up interviews, the students expressed some of the benefits of participating in this project. Students explained that selecting their own topic of interest gave them the opportunity to examine their positions on the topic in an in-depth manner. They had to wrestle with their personal beliefs as well as beliefs held by others. They recognized that their identities were incorporated into aspects of the project and they expressed how using media to produce digital documentary shorts could be considered a form of activism. Students also discussed the intentional decisions they used to inform and persuade their audience. They discussed how they used popular media images, music, and text as evidence and the decisions they had to make so that their evidence best represented their knowledge, beliefs, and ideas about their particular topic.

This project has helped us recognize the benefits of using digital documentary shorts to teach students to be critically and media literate. We see this assignment as a gateway into conversations about social issues, students’ positions and identities tied to contemporary social issues, and how digital media projection can be used to empower youth’s voices.

pytash-headshotKristine E. Pytash is an associate professor in Teaching, Learning and Curriculum Studies at Kent State University where she co-directs the Integrated Language Arts program.

hawley-headshotTodd S. Hawley is an associate professor of Social Studies Teacher Education and the coordinator of the Curriculum and Instruction Program at Kent State University.

morgan-headshotKate Morgan is a doctoral student in the Curriculum and Instruction program at Kent State University.

This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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