High-Tech History: Bringing History to Life with Digital Storytelling

Your classroom will never be the same. 

Digital storytelling offers a revolutionary new way to engage students in the study of history.  Using free, easy-to-use software, you and your students can create professional-looking historical documentaries that can be shown and shared on computer or television screens.  These stories weave together images, text, narration, charts and graphs, and a musical soundtrack, just like the documentaries found on PBS or the History Channel. 

Digital storytelling is active, hands-on learning.  It offers an exciting and painless way to enhance students’ content knowledge and build their research, technological, critical thinking, and writing skills. Students not only learn the secrets of movie-making, but how to express their ideas in visually and emotionally engaging ways.  .

No longer are students simply the passive recipients of information transmitted by a teacher or from a textbook. Digital storytelling transforms students into historians, who must identify a compelling historical topic, conduct research, weigh and interpret evidence, draw conclusions, and present their findings in a rich and persuasive manner.

Creating a documentary used to be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. But with Microsoft’s PhotoStory 3 or Windows Live Movie Maker or Apple’s iMovie, the process could scarcely be simpler.  These programs even include simple-to-use editing tools that allow users to trim clips, insert titles and transitions, add voiceovers, and incorporate special visual effects such as panning and scanning images or zooming in or out.  Typically, a digital story is just three to five minutes long, which teaches students to express their ideas concisely, clearly, and without needless digressions.

Many teachers use digital storytelling to bring major historical episodes to life. But the most effective digital stories, I have found, have a personal dimension. Every student has a story to tell and digital technologies offer an uncomplicated way to share this story. This might be a family story: For example, a story of migration.  Or it might be the history of their neighborhood or the story of a family member or neighbor’s involvement in a major historical event, such as a war or the Civil Rights movement.

Recovering these stories encourages students to recognize that their home is filled with primary sources, ranging from photographs and scrapbooks to such family documents as wedding invitations, letters, and Christmas cards.  Often, the most outstanding source of information is a family member or neighbor’s memory, which must be recovered through oral history.

Not only are these personal digital stories highly original, but in conducting their research, students grow closer to relatives and neighbors and rescue a history that might otherwise be lost. Equally important, students will discover that America’s history is not the single story recounted in textbooks.  Rather, American history is the collective stories of all of the people who have inhabited this country and of their families and neighborhoods.

An effective digital story educates even as it entertains.  Like a written essay, digital stories must have a powerful introduction that grabs the viewer’s attention; a provocative thesis that offers a distinctive point of view; a rich body of evidence to support the argument; and a strong conclusion that ties the story together and leaves a lasting emotional impact.

Creating a digital story is easier than you might think.  To insure originality, I recommend that digital stories be constructed in stages. 

Step one involves identifying a topic worthy of study.  A clear focus is essential, given the brevity of the story. 

Step two is the research stage.  I require my students to construct a bibliography and to write a sentence on each of the most important ideas that they have distilled from their reading.  Then the students must list the essential points in a logical order. This list will serve as the outline for their script.

Step three involves the development of a narrative. Even students who have trouble writing a standard essay often find it easy to construct a digital story.  From newscasts, most have learned the “secrets” of a successful news story: an introduction (or what journalists call a “lede”) that grabs the listener’s attention, introduces the topic, defines key terms and states the argument in a provocative manner; a narrative arc; and a conclusion with impact that explains the significance and implications of the topic.

It is essential to remind the students that they are writing a script, not an essay. Sentences need to be short and snappy, and their points need to be very clear.

I require my students to integrate at least one primary source into their narrative.  This might be a quotation from a document or an extract from an oral history.

Only when students have completed these steps, do I let them move on to step four: collecting images to illustrate and animate their narrative. Although many digital stories rely on online images, often from such public domain sources as the Library of Congress’s American Memory website or its online Prints and Photographs collection, students can also incorporate their own video and digital photographs.

Make sure that your students compile a list of citations for the images.

In step five, the students actually assemble their digital story.  For novices, I highly recommend Microsoft’s PhotoStory 3, which is extremely simple to use.  Its one major limitation is that it does not allow users to import video. 

A detailed, step-by-step guide to using PhotoStory 3 can be found below.  Here is a very brief summary.

First, the student imports and sequences the images.  Then the student adds motion (the panning, scanning, and zooming often called the Ken Burns-effect) and transitions to the pictures.  Next, the student narrates the digital story. Then, the student adds music and sound effects, before saving the completed story.


PhotoStory 3 Step-by Step

Requirements for using Photo Story 3

The follow chart from Microsoft lists the technical requirements for using Photo Story 3.

Downloading and Installing Photo Story 3

To install PhotoStory 3, you must have:

  • Microsoft Windows Media Player 10 or higher – which is a free download.
  • Windows Genuine Advantage validation

To download PhotoStory 3, go to: http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/using/digitalphotography/photostory/default.mspx

You will then be prompted to download the program.

Follow the onscreen wizard to install and run Photo Story 3 on your computer.

If you are asked to validate your Windows software, simply look for the sticker that has Windows’s 25 letter and number code.

Creating a new Photo Story

  1. Right click anywhere on your desktop and create a new folder where you will store all the graphics and files, etc. associated with your Photo Story.
  2. Open Photo Story and select “Begin a new story” and then click “Next."

Importing Your Pictures

Next, Photo Story will ask you to import your images. After you import the pictures, arrange the images in the correct sequence. 

  1. Click on ‘Import pictures’.
  2. Navigate to your folder on the desktop that contains your images.
  3. Select the image you want by clicking on it.
  4. Click ‘OK’ to insert it in the timeline.
  5. Repeat this procedure until you have all the images you want imported.
  6. Rearrange your pictures by clicking on the one you want to move and using the arrow keys on the right to position it in the timeline or the X to delete the image. You can also drag the images to the proper position.

Editing individual pictures
PhotoStory provides some limited picture editing options; make sure you save your changes before you move on to the next picture: 

  • You can correct color levels, correct red eye, rotate
  • You can also remove black borders to make your pictures stand out
  • an edit button allows you to crop the pictures and to add special effects such as sepia

Save Early Save Often
Few things are more upsetting than losing work if your computer were to crash or to experience a power outage.  Make sure to frequently save you work.

Creating title slides using PowerPoint

The best way to create slides that simply contain text is to use PowerPoint: 

  • Click on the ‘Design’ button on the top to choose a solid color background.
  • Then save the slide as a .jpg in your Photo Story folder. You can then import the slide just as you would any other graphic.
  • When you are finished inserting, arranging and editing pictures, click the ‘Next’ button.  You may press the ‘Back’ button at any time to return to a previous section.


The next step in creating a Photo Story is to add titles or text to the slides.

  1. Click on the picture to which you wish to add a title.
  2. Type the title into the box.
  3. You can change the font type and color, font size and positions of the text by clicking on the appropriate buttons.
  4. Click ‘Next’ to go to the next section.

Motion and Narration
The next step in Photo Story is to add pan and zoom effects and transitions.  You can also preview your PhotoStory and insert narration

Customizing motion

You can customize motion in two different ways

  • You can select the start and end points of panning and zooming and you can change the length of time that the slide will remain on the screen.
  • You can also insert transitions between pictures.
  • To add pan and zoom effects, click on the ‘Customize Motion’ button
  • On the ‘Motion and Duration’ tab, check the ‘Specify start and end position of motion’ box and resize the screens to select how Photo Story will pan across your picture.
  • Select the radio button for ‘Number of seconds to display the picture’ if you want to manually set this.
  • On the ‘Transition’ tab, check the ‘Start current picture using a transition’ and then experiment to find a transition you like.
  • If you want to manually set the amount of time to display your picture select the radio button for ‘Number of seconds to display the transition’.
  • Save your changes before you go to the next picture.
  • Click the ‘Preview’ button to view changes.


You must have a microphone to use this feature.

  • To ensure that your microphone is working properly, click on the “Configure microphone” button and follow the prompts.
  • To add narration to a specific image, click on the picture to select it.
  • Begin recording by clicking the red ‘Record’ button.
  • Stop recording by clicking the stop button.
  • Delete the narration by clicking on the delete button.
  • Click ‘Next’ to go to the next section.


To add background music to your slide show:

  1. Click on the picture where you want the music to begin
  2. Click on ‘Select Music’ to navigate and import music you already have on your desktop.
  3. Or click “Create Music” and have PhotoStory create custom music for your slideshow.
  4. You may add as many different pieces of background music as you wish.   Just click on the picture where you want the new music to begin or select ‘Silence’ from the “Create Music” menu.
  5. Click ‘Next’ to go to the final section.

Saving your story

You must now save your PhotoStory in a format that will allow it to be viewed by others.  PhotoStory will compress your slideshow in a .wmv format.  This file cannot be edited.  The only PhotoStory files that can be edited are .wp3 files, which are the working files.

  1. The save screen will look like this.
  2. By clicking “Next,” you can save your Photo Story for viewing on this computer or for burning it onto a CD, uploading it to a server, or storing it on a jump drive.

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