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Digital storytelling: Lessen student anxiety, aid SEL

Combatting student anxiety with digital storytelling

5 min read


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As the pandemic enters year three, more schools are returning to in-person teaching and making masks optional. However, teachers are finding that getting back to normal is anything but normal. Student anxiety, behavior issues, and learning problems are swelling. That’s why we’re hearing so much about social and emotional learning.

Student anxiety and attention issues are nothing new. In fact, in 2018, a year before Covid-19 entered our vocabulary, a Pew Research study found that 70% of teens identified anxiety and depression as major problems among their peers. When schools closed, these numbers rose. According to the American Psychological Association, 81% of teens reported more intense stress due to a loss of structure and socialization opportunities sparked by the pandemic.

When tech hurts students

In addition to the pandemic, social media has been shown in many studies to be linked with higher rates of depression and anxiety among teens. According to Pew, 45% of teens report being online almost constantly, with 97% surfing social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. Despite all this time online, social media can make students feel even more isolated, experience greater fear of missing out and create self-esteem issues.

Ironically, the very technology that can foster feelings of isolation, can also be leveraged to keep history students engaged with learning, foster independent thinkers and promote the crucial social and emotional learning competencies of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making, many of which lessen behavior issues.. 

Making digital storytelling work for you

Social studies teachers can leverage digital tools and storytelling to get their students back on track in several ways.

Use digital learning tools to keep students off of social media and actively engaged. Student surfing on social media can disrupt both classwork and homework. Reagan Metcalf, a history teacher at Gilbert High School in Iowa, says it’s a challenge to keep students actively engaged without social media, so he mimics it by using a digital curriculum that includes digital storytelling clips to illustrate concepts.

For example, teachers could use a clip from “Family Guy” to illustrate the concept of federalism in a way that is interesting to digital native students.

Allow students to learn the way they learn best. Metcalf starts each semester with a survey to determine how individual students learn and then gives them a “voice and choice” on how to demonstrate mastery. Since not everyone does well on a written test, he allows students to show proficiency using digital tools such as PowerPoint presentations and Powtoon, and other mediums like poetry.

Keep learning visual and interesting. Using multimedia to illustrate lessons helps reach students and can result in better learning. According to one recent study in conjunction with Project Tomorrow, 90% of teachers say the use of digital storytelling in lessons increases their effectiveness in the classroom. Eighty-four percent of students say pop culture media helps them learn.

When classes went online, Metcalf leveraged YouTube to reach his students, creating and posting videos to explain assignments and just to stay in touch. Students liked it so much that he continued the practice when they came back to in-person learning.

Make lessons more interactive. Many teachers find that traditional lecturing isn’t as effective as experiential learning and self-directed learning are in keeping students engaged.

To avoid lecture fatigue, Metcalf gives students time to read the material and watch a multimedia clip. He then divides students into small groups to discuss the lesson. Next, these groups roll into larger discussion groups, allowing teams to present ideas, debate civilly and learn from each other.

He also works to make lessons current by encouraging students to compare events that happened in the past with what’s happening today, such as the current invasion of Ukraine and World War 1.

Foster health and wellness through examples. Social and emotional learning competencies are often taught as part of a health curriculum, but social studies can play an important role in fostering social and emotional learning.

History is full of examples of heroes who display positive examples of how to face and overcome challenges. Many of them have been brought to life in movies and other multimedia. From Abraham Lincoln’s approach to Reconstruction, to John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Ronald Reagan’s use of humor and optimism to combat communism, digital storytelling is a powerful tool to model good habits.

Digital tools are also great for student communication

Finally, digital tools provide teachers the ability to stay in touch with students and to spot struggling students earlier. Metcalf makes himself available by email and via message on Google Classroom to students who have questions about assignments and tries to respond within five to 10 minutes. He is clear about when students can reach him (usually until about 10 pm on school nights) and sets boundaries for weekends.

These interactions provide insight into which students may be struggling, so he can meet with them and their parents early to get them back on track.

Fred Fransen, Ph.D., is CEO of Certell Inc., a nonprofit whose mission is to foster independent thinkers. Certell is the creator of the Poptential family of free social studies course packages. Read the company’s survey with Project Tomorrow.


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