Digital Reenactments: …

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Digital Reenactments: …..

Caroline C. Sheffield

Stephen B. Swan

University of Louisville

In groups of two and three, students from more than 15 public schools in Louisville, Kentucky are at various stages of completing digital stories, which are literally transporting them back in time. These students are participating in a weeklong summer technology camp hosted by the University of Louisville and sponsored by Jefferson County Public Schools.1 Some of the campers are finalizing the scripts and cue cards they have written based on the research they have conducted during the last two days. Others are in costume, practicing their reenactments; while another group, having finished filming, is editing their story.2 All of the students in the room are engaged in a digital reenactment. They have selected and researched and event from the past, written a script, brought in costumes, and have practiced their presentation. But, what makes their digital reenactment experience different from a traditional in-class reenactment activity is the use of a green screen, a flip camera, and digital images to take the students into the time period they are reenacting.

Digital Reenactments vs. Traditional Reenactments

Historical reenactments are frequently utilized active learning strategies that encourage students to engage in historical thinking. They require students to critically read and synthesize information, consider multiple perspectives, and write a coherent narrative demonstrating their understanding of the time period, event, and the individuals involved.3 However, in-class reenactments lack authenticity. Although a teacher can create a stage that has some vestiges of a selected time period, it still feels artificial. Digital reenactments solve the authenticity issues of in-class activity. The NCSS Technology Position Statement describes appropriate technology integration in the social studies as extending beyond what can be done without technology.4 Digital reenactments do just this. By selecting images from the time period, and placing those images behind them through the use of a green screen, students are transported into the event they are reenacting. Imagine students who are studying the Civil War reenacting an event such as the siege of Petersburg and actually being in the trenches with the Union soldiers. This can be achieved by transposing a Matthew Brady photograph available from the United States Archives onto a green background. Bolick and Waring offered a similar idea when they suggested transposing, or editing, students into an historical image through Adobe Photoshop.5 Digital reenactments differ from their idea of “transposing students into another time,” in that the students recreating an historical event are able to interact with the historical image. For example, in one of the reenactments created during the camp, the students “participated” in a civil rights march, by walking in place in front of a still image. This same group also used a picture of a 1950s bus interior to have the students move to the “back of the bus.” Through a creative use of positioning, draping of the green screen, and thoughtful staging, the students transported themselves into the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. No matter how creative teachers are with props, they cannot achieve the same authenticity in the front of a classroom.

Authenticity is not the only limitation of in-class reenactments. When students perform a traditional reenactment, usually it is for a small audience, their classmates. It is unfortunate that a larger audience does not witness the students’ research, creativity, and effort. Digital reenactments provide students with a means to share their work with an audience outside of the classroom setting. This can be done by uploading the reenactment to a podcast site, such as the one we have at the University of Louisville6, or to an unlisted You Tube channel, which provides a layer of privacy for a class channel. By having their reenactments available on-line, students can share their work with their family and friends. Knowing that others will be able to view their finished product provides motivation for students to excel in their work, to ensure that their information is accurate, and that their narrative is coherent.

Linguistic Literacy, Visual Literacy, and the Digital Reenactment

When looking at the process of creating the DR one is struck at the importance of the use of many modes of literacy employed in the creation process. Linguistic literacy, meaning making derived from written or oral human language, is clearly in evidence in the storyboarding/script writing process that must be the starting point for the project to have meaning, cohesive structure, and message is well known to educators as a powerful tool for students in developing their ideas. Visual Literacy, as defined by Jack Debes, in 1969 as:” Visual literacy refers to a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences.” is becoming more and more important a literacy of the 21st Century. The process of researching, evaluating and employing the images, movies, and sounds used in the DR reveal a process deeply embedded in the modern Bloom Taxonomy and 21st Century School’s Skills. . The Digital Native today sees their world in many different ways. The auditory nerve in our brain contains 30,000 fibers. The optic nerve of our brain contains 1 million fibers. We hear the world through a dial up connection. We see the world through a broadband connection. Education must allow for the new visual literacy to thrive as it represents the way our students experience the world.

The DR project represents the best of both of these worlds. The linguistic and visual literacy represented in the DR experience is rich in expression, deeply engaging, and powerful as an expression of understanding by students of the social studies curriculum.

What Do You Need to Create a Digital Reenactment?

The materials needed to create a digital reenactment are far less expensive and much more available that one might initially imagine. Green screen kits are readily available and can cost as little as $150.00. However, you do not have to buy a kit to achieve the same effect. Other options include draping a green cloth or mounting green poster board onto a wall, or if permissible, painting a wall with chromakey green paint. As long as students do not wear the same color green as the backdrop, any of these options would achieve the same effect as the green screen kit.

Filming the reenactments can be done with digital cameras and tripods readily available in a school’s media center. Flip cameras and tripods were used during the summer camp. One caution with using flip cameras – students will need to speak loudly and distinctly for the audio to be clearly understood. The microphone on the flip camera is small and if it is too far away, or if students talk softly, the recorded dialogue may not be audible.

During the summer camp, we utilized a free on-line filmmaking program,, to create the digital reenactment video. Unfortunately, shortly after the camp Jaycut was purchased by another company and new accounts were frozen. Those with existing accounts can continue to make videos free of charge; however, new users are not able to create an account. Other filmmaking programs offer green screen capabilities, including iMovie, __Adobe Premiere___, __Sony Vegas___, and _Pinnacle Studio____.This link will take you to a website where many titles of video editing software are reviewed and compared:

Background and voice over audio tracks can be recorded and mixed using an on-line program such as, or if you are a Mac user, Garage Band is an excellent tool for mixing audio tracks.

How Is A Digital Reenactment Created?

We have identified nine distinct steps associated with the creation of a digital reenactment. The following is a description of how we introduced the concept and guided students through the process of creating their digital reenactments during the summer technology camp.

1. Discuss the six components of a good digital story. The Center for Digital Storytelling ( defines them as:

1. Point of View - These elements helps clarify the content of the story. It plays a big role in deciding what details of the story to edit out, and what to leave in. The point of view is defined by asking three questions: a) what is the message of the story? b) who is the audience? c) why am I telling this story right now?
2. Dramatic Question - This element helps create the arc of the story. It's created by making a statement that hooks the viewer into the story. The statement creates a question in the mind of the viewer and the story ends when the question is resolved. "I was seven years old when I met my father" is an example of a dramatic question. It hooks you in and motivates you to listen to the story until it's conclusion.
3. Emotional Content - This is the heart of a digital story. It is the emotional journey of loss and redemption or of crisis and transformation that makes a story compelling. This is what everybody can relate to and what makes stories so universal. Emotional content is often the most difficult piece of the story to create. It requires honesty and an understanding of the emotional journey that we've undergone.

4. Voice - This is the gift of the storyteller. It's important to approach recording the script in this way because so many people hate the sound of their own voice. We usually remind our participants about how much they cherish the sound of the voice of their own friends and family.

5. Soundtrack - While the script and voiceover makes a story, the soundtrack can break a story. Appropriate soundtrack can be thought of as a third narrative that is supporting and enhancing the message and emotional content of the story. Unfortunately, the soundtrack can easily interfere with the storytellers intended message. Common pitfalls to avoid include: too much volume on the soundtrack, lyrics that interfere with the voiceover, lyrics that contradict the message of the story

6. Pacing - This is important to avoid monotonous, or take your breath away fast-talking digital stories. Make sure that the voiceover sounds contains the storytellers natural inflections and that the pacing matches the content of the story. Also, change-up the amount of time images stay on the screen. Use panning and zooming effects for images that require them. (We strongly recommend the website: Center for digital storytelling at as a starting point for understanding the process)

3. Identifying and researching an historical event

4. Select scenes from the event to be re-enacted

5. Write the script for the reenactment

6. Create a storyboard of the scenes (We strongly recommend using large poster sized sticky notes to serve as the resting places for the script/storyboard and 3X5 size sticky notes to draw and write upon. We found this method made for easy manipulation of scenes and order of events in the scripts. Plus the drawings in the storyboard begin the visualization process.)

7. Select the images/video to be used as a backdrop

8. Record scene in front of the green screen

9. Import video into a digital filmmaking program. Edit video & add appropriate sound. (We strongly recommend using the Sound Editor in http://aviary com to create original musical compositions.)

Concluding Thoughts

The DR process reveals a remarkable change in how we think/view visual information in schools. Before the advent of powerful Web 2.0 tools and video technologies, multimedia was passive and not engaging. Students did not see the purpose or need to watch videos about historical events. Now students have the tools and processes to make their own rich multimedia content that combines all the higher order thinking skills we realize are at the core of the 21st Century Education.

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