Digital Storytelling with Occupational Therapy Students by David Haines
In the 2020-21 academic year, I facilitated digital storytelling workshops with two groups of University of Brighton Occupational Therapy students. In these, they learned about this simple creative process and then each created and shared a short film about their own world, issues or ideas. The COVID pandemic meant that the workshops had to take place online, rather than face-to-face. Alongside some challenges, the online format presented opportunities and resulted in insightful experiences for the students taking part and production of some powerful films.
Therapeutic Skills sessions on the Occupational Therapy courses
Occupational Therapy begins with an understanding that we fill our lives with activities that are meaningful and important to us within our environment and that these ‘occupations’ impact on our wellbeing and quality of life. In other words we might say that ‘we are what we do’. Typically, occupational therapists work with people whose physical or mental health, or environmental situation prevents them from doing such activities. They promote health and well-being through engagement in occupation.
Creative and practical skills sessions are an important part of our pre-registration BSc Occupational Therapy and MSc Occupational Therapy courses at University of Brighton. Our students take part in a number of different therapeutic skills workshops and, as well as learning skills, this enables them to experience and reflect on the effects of participation in occupation. They consider the therapeutic potential that specific activities may have in practice and how they might adapt activity to enable participation.
Having run skills sessions on video making in previous years, this year I developed these into a series of 2-3 hour digital storytelling workshops over the course of 5-6 weeks. Two groups of 6 and 7 students on each course took part in these workshops.
Digital Storytelling workshops during the pandemic
I originally intended the workshops to be delivered face-to-face, but as the date of the first workshop approached, it became clear that another COVID lockdown was imminent. The sessions were therefore moved to Microsoft Teams, though I had reservations about whether or not this would work. Would it be possible online to form an effective story circle with a sufficiently relaxed and trusting atmosphere for participants to have the confidence to tell their own story? How effectively would I be able to explain remotely and without use of University iPads how to use iMovie to create a short film? How would internet connections of different degrees of reliability affect the sharing of the eventual digital stories?
In the event, the workshops went extremely well online, with only minimal technological problems and in fact the online format had some unexpected benefits. An international student who had returned to her home country during the COVID lockdown was able to join us from India – albeit at what was for her a slightly inconvenient late evening local time! Remote delivery was helpful for accommodating challenges that some students were experiencing due to COVID, for example enabling partial participation in sessions where individual circumstances made this necessary. It also allowed anyone who was initially wary of the idea of sharing and creating films about personal stories to remain a little more peripheral at the start and to increase their engagement as their comfort and recognition of the relevance of digital storytelling grew.
5 or 6 weekly workshops
In the first session I introduced the idea of digital storytelling and the theory behind it and students watched and discussed examples of others’ digital stories, critiquing what they liked about them and which ones they thought worked best and why. They prepared for session 2 by watching further digital stories and by gathering some photos and an object of importance that might evoke a story or stories that they would be happy to share.
In the second session, I facilitated a number of storytelling exercises. Students began to share stories about their lives and what was important to them and our (virtual) Story Circle took form. In session 3, I introduced some theory about narrative principles and students began to make decisions about the stories they wanted to tell. They encouraged and supported each other to develop their stories and to think about how they might effectively be told in a short 2-minute film.
Students came with varying levels of confidence in filming and editing and some teaching of practical skills was therefore essential. Recognising that in their future practice as occupational therapists they would very likely not have access to specialist equipment, the focus was on using everyday technology – i.e. the camera and editing apps on their own phones and tablets. We focused on filming and editing using iMovie on the iPad/ iPhone – I gave a live practical introduction on MS Teams and students dipped into supplementary tutorials on LinkedIN Learning. A number of students effectively transferred the principles to their own equivalent Android devices/ apps, or Windows PC software.
Participants filmed and edited their digital stories in and between the remaining sessions and then on the final afternoon we shared the films in a celebratory screening, followed by a reflection on the process.
By David Haines
Course Leader BSc Hons Occupational Therapy, University of Brighton
Feedback from storytellers
Student feedback about the digital storytelling workshops was really positive, including about how effectively they had been tailored to work online.
Emily Hogan (BSc Occupational Therapy year 4 student): I found the whole experience very enjoyable. For me it was a very cathartic process that allowed me to tell an important story about my personal growth. I liked how you had planned each session and broken down each stage of digital storytelling, making it easy to follow and learn. I loved watching my peers’ digital stories at the end and also sharing mine. In the digital world we live in I can see the relevance of using digital storing telling in practice, giving people a voice and sharing individual experiences.
Rachel Dinnage (MSc Occupational Therapy year 1 student): I found both the sessions and the process of making a digital story cathartic, enjoyable and engaging. The structure of the sessions flowed well, allowing us time to develop as a group before sharing ideas and supporting each other to develop our stories. As so much of our teaching has been online we haven’t had much time to get to know each other outside of formal sessions and it provided a good opportunity to build relationships.
My story is about my own experiences of intrusive/disruptive thought patterns and trying to find a way to sit with these. I was initially hesitant to choose such a personal subject matter but as I started putting the images and words together I found it helped me understand things in a different way. It was also made clear that we didn’t have to choose something personal, and that we could disclose as much or as little information as we felt comfortable with. I found framing my experience in the context of a story with a beginning, middle and end really helpful.
I also really enjoyed the creative aspects of the project; everyone could tailor their story to a format that suited them. It’s clear how the process and product could be adapted and graded for different client groups. The module has demonstrated the therapeutic benefits of occupation first-hand and I am looking forward to facilitating a story-telling circle in future!
Harry Covill (MSc Occupational Therapy year 1 student): It’s a really great way to get to know people and the group felt like a really safe and open environment to discuss feelings and ideas. It was a cathartic experience making the video, thinking about the themes in it and how I was going to put it together. It was a creative and fun experience and didn’t really feel like work! It was really interesting and enlightening at the end seeing everyone else’s. The discussion around how it could be used as an intervention was really fruitful and its definitely made me believe it could be used in many areas! Particularly liked the idea of helping people with learning difficulties. A great format to allow people to tell their own stories and narratives. Would certainly be very empowering and client-centred!
Katy Forsdyke (MSc Occupational Therapy year 1 student): Having made my own digital story, I can wholeheartedly say that creating a personal, digital story was very cathartic and enjoyable. It showed me first-hand how therapeutic this occupation can be, and I can most definitely see the appeal with future service-users.
I thought the pace of the sessions was spot on – I never felt that there wasn’t enough time to create my digital story, or that there was pressure to produce something great. David was extremely friendly, calm, and approachable and eased any doubts or worries that I had in creating my own digital story.
I loved when we shared our meaningful photos to the group, as it was a great bonding exercise and a fun way in building trust and support within the session. It was a fantastic skills session and I loved partaking in it!! Such an accessible and useful medium and I’d encourage any future OT to take part in this group and give it a try! It gently pushes you out of your comfort zone as it feels quite vulnerable presenting your own personal, digital story to the group, but it is done so in a safe and supportive environment; you even get a mini high afterwards! You will not be disappointed! 🙂
Examples of the digital stories
Both groups of storytellers produced impressive digital stories in creative and very varied ways. The impact that creating the stories had on the storytellers is clear from the above feedback, but viewers comments after viewing the digital stories have also been extremely positive, describing them as “moving”, “fantastic”, “brilliant”, “touching” and “relatable”.
It was a pleasure to work with these two groups of students and I feel very proud of the digital stories they produced. It was particularly lovely to see how the experience enthused them to use digital storytelling in their future practice as occupational therapists and to hear their ideas regarding its potential.
I look forward to continuing to develop the digital storytelling workshops with future cohorts of occupational therapy students and to being part of the growth of this medium within University of Brighton and beyond.
Thanks to Isobel Creed and Ross Adamson for their support and encouragement.
Ten students have kindly given permission to share their stories in this blog:
Rosie Wooldridge – Water
Carla Harrison – 4 years a lifetime
Gemma Wilson – untitled
Sarah da Silva – My Dad
Emily Hogan – My Journey
Tamsin Ghansam – Being a woman
Amelia Powell – A cat’s tale
Rachael Dinnage – Somewhere in the middle
Harry Covill – Jimmy and the Loo Rolls OR My last summer