Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy


Erica Halverson

Erica Halverson (PhD05) studies the impact on adolescents’ literacy and identity when they use digital media for autobiographies.

Techie Teens: Developing Identity and Literacy through Life Storytelling

By Jennifer Beck
Techie Teens

As word processing software increasingly replaced pencil and paper essays, students and teachers everywhere worked to incorporate new skills into their respective toolkits. Well, it may be time to reload those toolkits once again. Popular digital devices including video cameras and camera phones introduce exciting new tools for telling stories — and offer a new vocabulary for young people eager to tap into electronics.

Digital narrative production, which combines sound and images, is reshaping traditional approaches to literacy. Significantly, it offers another avenue for students to express themselves and develop greater technological abilities. Erica Halverson (PhD05), assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Education, studies the impact on adolescents' literacy and identity development when they use digital media to tell their life stories.

"Putting identity and literacy together like that is ingenious," says SESP professor Dan McAdams, who is also psychology department chair at Northwestern. He explains that while the issue of identity in adolescence is normally regarded as a tremendous challenge, Halverson's focus reduces that and makes it fun. Regarded for his life-story theory of human identity, McAdams is the author of The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self and, most recently, George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream: A Psychological Portrait. He notes that life storytelling, "an effort to convey the meaning of your own experience to another person," occurs across cultures and is "the natural way to relate to other people verbally."


Halverson, who recently won the Jan Hawkins Award from the American Education Research Association for her early-career accomplishments, works primarily in nontraditional settings with marginalized or struggling students. She explains that in digital narrative production students edit elements such as video, still shots, music and talk into an autobiographical story. In the process of building their piece, participants develop literacies that Halverson believes will be critical for success in the future. According to Halverson, people who are able to make meaning of the copious information in the world today will be the leaders across all fields in the years to come. The "kinds of knowledge and skills that kids are displaying through this process are the kinds that matter," she says.

In order to create their stories, students must make optimal use of the digital media tools available to them. They are forced to think about a variety of factors that will produce the intended message. "The literacy practice is a lot about mindful choices," she notes. Rather than pondering word choice, transitions and paragraphing in a traditional essay, digital narrative producers consider elements such as camera angle and music selection plus the appropriate timing and placement for all of the components. Students must figure out how to introduce connections and new points to represent a final product that is cohesive and meaningful. They also grapple with the boundaries of genre, exploring the opportunities and limitations of a documentary, for example. This is the kind of literacy learning kids need to be gaining, she says. As they make these choices, students are learning to represent complex ideas mindfully, according to Halverson.

She became intrigued with the relationship between storytelling, literacy and identity through her work with Barrel of Monkeys, an organization she helped launch after earning her bachelor's degree in speech at Northwestern. Barrel of Monkeys brings the joy of writing and producing original plays to Chicago-area elementary schools. By the time Halverson began graduate school in learning sciences, she recognized the "idea of storytelling and story making as another venue for success." Halverson's focus is unique because it combines two traditionally disparate disciplines, allowing her to examine both literacy and identity. "Engaging with one's own personal stories actively through crafting live performances … was a vehicle for both learning sciences and also the Human Development and Social Policy program," she explains.

For her dissertation, Halverson spent two years working with gay teens to create live, autobiographical plays. Through the experience, she identified three important intersections between literacy and identity: telling, adapting and performing. "Each represents interesting and important ways for those kids struggling with positive identity development to … represent themselves in a positive light and understand those practices as literacy," she notes.


Halverson found that the positive identity benefits students gained from creating life stories were available through both the live theater and digital narrative production experiences she studied. Essentially, the life storytelling process allows teens to explore identity by finding the balance between their inner thoughts and their place in the community. "When you have to make that piece, you're forced to deal with that relationship," she says. For example, students who want to demonstrate athleticism with footage of their basketball games must apply digital narrative devices in a way that captures a more generic experience that audiences will recognize and reflects their own unique take on a community activity. Decisions about what to include or exclude and how to best present the content help the students define themselves because, ultimately, they must comprehend the idea they intend to show.

McAdams points out that the "teen years are key for life storytelling." He explains that while younger children can tell stories, life storytelling doesn't occur until adolescence. Teens are newly able to connect their life experiences into a narrative that makes a clear point about who they are. The ability to examine and express oneself in this way blossoms during adolescence, says McAdams. He explains that Halverson's approach creates a safe space for adolescents to experiment with identity in a setting that is meaningful but reduces judgment.

While the creative process allows teens to explore identity, Halverson says that "sharing with a legitimate, external audience" is also important. Knowing that they will present their pieces causes the teens to think carefully about how they want to represent themselves. Halverson has found that incorporating an outside audience is what makes the experience truly "transformational."

McAdams emphasizes the importance of a social audience to identity development. Individuals must balance their aspirations with what society can offer. They must find their niche and shape their reputation. "Audience is always a factor in everyday life," he explains. We are reviewed by our audiences on a daily basis in a process that he says both positively and negatively shapes our life stories. Halverson formalizes this process, he notes. By putting on an actual performance, the teens actively consider the audience's response.

In the future, Halverson hopes to bring digital narrative production to the formal school setting. She is concerned that traditional content knowledge will not be enough for students to excel in the future. However, due to factors like academic scheduling and outcomes, she has worked primarily in after-school programs with volunteer participants. Halverson plans to develop an assessment framework that will help open classroom doors, allowing more teens to benefit from the literacy and identity benefits of the life storytelling process.