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Monday profile: Digital storyteller Nancy Ely

Submitted by on 1, June 14, 2010 – 5:00 am2 Comments

Photo by Matt Kalkstein

Photo by Nancy Ely

There is a special showing at the Alameda Free Library this Wednesday night — one which the actual creators of the showcased art may or may not choose to attend. That’s because summer vacation just started and the creators, who happen to be Wood Middle School sixth graders, are likely to have different ideas of how to spend one of their first carefree summer evenings, now that school is finally over.

The show is Digital Storytellers, short films about Alameda people and history, conceived and created by 31 students from Wood Middle School’s Gifted and Talented Education program. The shorts will be screened at the Regina K. Stafford Community Meeting Room from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. this Wednesday, June 16. The event is free, and questions and discussion will follow the screening.

The films will later join the collection of stories posted on Alameda Free Library’s Digital Story Station website, as well as the archives of “California of the Past” —the larger, state-funded digital storytelling project underway in libraries statewide. The Wood filmmakers are some of the youngest to participate in the project. And although the creators may be absent, eating ice-cream or frolicking in a friend’s swimming pool, their teacher Nancy Ely will most certainly be there, proudly displaying her students’ achievement and talking up the possibilities of digital arts in Alameda schools.

Ely, who holds degrees in classics, classical archaeology, museum studies and computer programming, came to Alameda Unified in 2002 as a core teacher in the Math, Science, and Technology Academy (she now teaches sixth grade reading, English Language Arts and history).

What inspired you to embark on digital storytelling with your students?
I have always been interested in the integration of technology and education. When teaching in Richmond in the mid-1990s, there were kids who had never yet been on the Internet, much less having any of their work posted on it. I wrote a grant which enabled my classes to acquire technology and make web pages on “Ancient Inventions,” which explored various ancient civilizations’ contributions to mankind’s inventions. I saw the power of the computer — allowing students who had never in their life completed a project to actually finish (one) — and feel great about the “look” of their product.

Is teaching history through digital technology effective?
Teaching history through digital arts can be joy for both teacher and student. I found this out two years ago when I sent my kids out, armed with their cell phones, to record “Interviews from Ancient Greece.” They were to produce a newscast from either the Trojan War, the Persian Wars, or the Peloponnesian War, interviewing such characters as Helen of Troy, Agamemnon, Pericles, etc., as well as the common “man on the street.” The kids costumed themselves, came up with call letters for their stations (in Greek letters, of course), and even filmed commercials. The beach a half block from our school became the backdrop for the Aegean Sea, Rittler Field became a dueling ground for ancient Greek battles, and the steps of Alameda High School served as a building in the Agora. It brought our lessons to life!

At Wood school, you coordinate the Annual Museum of History. What is it?
The Wood Museum of History is an annual exhibition which for the past several years has been showcased at the Alameda Free Library (we were the first group to exhibit in the new space). The Wood Museum features handmade models of historical items which our sixth and seventh graders have studied in their history classes. Objects range from cave paintings of Early Man to the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, relics of ancient Egypt, Great Walls of China, African masks, all the way up to the European Renaissance and the Taj Mahal. Each year there are more than 250 artifacts exhibited at the Wood Museum.

Were you aware of the Digital Story Station project underway at the library?
At the gala reception for the student artists of the Wood Museum last year, David Hall was the speaker on behalf of the library. David and I were seated together and began talking about how wonderful the student work was and my interest in oral history. He then told me about the project and invited me to have my GATE class participate as student storytellers.

How did the students decide what stories to tell?
The topic of each group’s project was limited only by the need to have some bearing on Alameda’s history. They needed someone to “tell” the story – someone who had lived here and had experiences they were willing to share – and they had to be able to find archival documentation to include with the telling of the story, as well as period music. Some groups quickly decided on their story — one girl, for example, has an uncle who is heavily into the annual Alameda Car Show. Another group was interested in telling an immigrant’s tale, and they chose to interview a Vietnamese refugee (in Vietnamese, with subtitles), who provided family photos and her story of escaping wartime Vietnam to the safety of Alameda. Another group interviewed and filmed one of our P.E. coaches here at Wood; he had grown up in Alameda and reminisces about the various youth baseball leagues and the fields they played on. Some groups took a while and agonized about their topics, but they finally selected the Alameda Theatre, Ole’s Waffle Shop, and Tucker’s Ice Cream.

What lesson do you think students have learned from this project?
They learned about their community and appreciation for Alameda traditions, as well as some specific technical things. But the most important lesson I think was the experience of the group. They fought and manipulated, and were often frustrated, and complained to me about other members of their team, but I always referred them back to the group to solve their issues. My experience in Silicon Valley taught me that the setting in our modern workplace is “the group” – our students need to learn to work together to create a common product in which they can all share and be proud. Much of the work done in the classroom is solo work, with tremendous competition between individuals, especially in a GATE class. That’s the real lesson of the Storymakers. I am hoping that the library will continue to allow my class to participate and contribute to this program – it has been a powerful experience!

There is talk of Wood becoming an arts magnet school next year. How do you see digital technology integrated with that?
I am a member of the leadership team at Wood that submitted a proposal for making it a Creative Arts Magnet, which would emphasize the creative arts, but also combine the highly successful collaborative methods from the days of Wood’s Academy program (of which I was a member). My personal primary interests are in the digital arts, and, of course, the visual arts, so the idea is very exciting to me! We will be finding out in the coming weeks whether the District is interested in having us pursue this idea.

And are the kids ready?
The children we are teaching today are members of the digital generation. They are tech-savvy and hungry for more. It used to be that in a research paper, I would have to tell them to be sure to include an Internet reference in their bibliography; now, I have to tell them to be sure to include a BOOK as a reference!


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