facilitating creativity through templates

In They Say, I Say, a college-level text used by some writing courses, the authors offer the reader many fill-in-the-blank templates that can be used to help students practice making written arguments. Early in their book, they address objections they’ve heard to using templates. Some students have echoed the sentiment that these forms may suppress individual expression or insult their intelligence.

The authors respond to these concerns by saying that it takes “a great deal of practice and instruction” to use templates successfully, suggesting that they still require critical thinking in order to make an effective argument, and that they “do not dictate the content of what you say….but only suggest a way of formatting how you say it.” Templates provide scaffolding that students can eventually improvise on, but that students need to polish and internalize these rhetorical forms first: “Creativity and originality lie not in the avoidance of established forms but in the imaginative use of them.” They believe that, contrary to their students’ beliefs, templates actually promote original thinking once the models they represent have been mastered.

I grappled with the idea of prescribing structural templates with digital storytelling because of the very fear articulated by students. In our workshops, there is a great amount of time spent on helping participants develop their stories. Our initial instruction revolves around showing examples of digital stories and relating them to set of “elements” that stories should possess such as a dramatic question or a point.

These in of themselves do not tell participants what kind of structure their story should take on, but I have noticed a trend in which facilitators tend to lean toward a specific structure in which their story should “come full circle.” That is, begin with a personal story that represents some prior state of knowledge or perspective and suggests a dramatic question, describe the event or phenomenon that transformed them, and then revisit or conclude their initial story to reveal (or imply—we also often ask participants to trust the audience to “make the leap” in understanding) the insight or revelation they had made. As a result, many of the stories come out looking and sounding very similar to teach other—probably in no small part to the other constraints we mandate:

  • 3-5 minutes in length
  • 12-20 images total
  • a video editing program with limited features and styles

After a while, it gets a little tiring to see these videos. And if these stories were being created for my benefit, this might be a valid concern. But what I have failed to realize in trying to improve the variety of storytelling approaches is that these stories are not about me; they’re for the benefit of the individual. They’re about providing a foundation for participants to work from.

We don’t tell them what their content should be (well, sometimes we make suggestions if we feel we’re missing information or if we feel we’re getting bombarded with too much information), we’re giving them a structure that models good storytelling, which is our goal in the end. Once they have internalized the model, they will be able to riff on it as I have done in my own story-making. And what they say, of course, is always up to them.

I actually don’t need to look any further than fiction in popular contexts for an example of this in mainstream practice. After all, movies and books tend to follow the basic structure of exposition-conflict-rising action-climax-resolution.

It occurs to me though that some might view the “full circle” foundation as limiting, as something more like the traditional five-paragraph essay than a model of argumentation. Admittedly, some of the stories and the insights that are articulated in the workshops I’ve taught can be weak (as can popular movies). They follow the formula, but the point and the dramatic question might be shallow, boring, or even hard to discern in the first place.

Campbell (2014) published the article “Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay” in Educational Leadership and tells of her students’ writing that ‘Organization was evident, but thinking was not.’ This is how I’ve felt about a few of the student stories I’ve seen. But I think that the problem arises from when the formula is introduced. Before we suggest an organizational structure, have we allowed participants the messy process of reflecting and finding a story in the first place? Personally, I think perhaps that sometimes I’ve been too quick to give participants an easy formula instead of challenging them to write first and structure later. It’s ironic because the whole purpose of having elements instead of a structural framework is intended to allow the participant creative freedom.

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