Sam Meekings, Northwestern University in Qatar
This task is designed to get students in English courses to think about how an engaging narrative is structured and created by writing an Instagram narrative in 8-10 images telling the story of one day, hour or event of a single person. With more than 600 million monthly active users and counting, Instagram has many benefits in the composition classroom:
- Most students are already familiar with the rules, codes, signs and symbols using when writing for this app;
- This offers a chance for students to share their own knowledge;
- Writing an Instagram story provides a perfect opportunity for group work, something that is often missing from the composition classroom;
- The mixture of image and text encourages students to visualise their writing and think about narrative structure and writing in a new way.
- The theory of situated learning (Suchman, 1987), suggests that learning occurs in specific cultural and practical contexts; therefore, students need to be engaged in activities that utilise ‘real-life’ contexts. Since many of my students use Instagram on a frequent basis, utilising this platform for practice-based learning showed them how writing skills directly related to the immediate contexts and interests of their daily life.
This task is designed to fulfil two learning outcomes:
- Students will analyse the rules and constraints that govern the expectations of specific audiences in specific genres;
- Students will design and create a digital narrative designed to appeal to a contemporary audience.
Beginner (first or second year undergraduate)
This task asks students to research and write notes and short summaries on existing Instagram narratives; brainstorm in groups; create a working outline and storyboard; draft, revise and write the narrative text to accompany their 8-10 images. They should also write a short reflective introduction to explain their narrative, their intentions and the challenges they faced to the classroom audience of their peers.
Students will require at least one smartphone with camera capabilities per group. Classroom will require Wifi-connected laptop screen display.
Small (groups of about 4)
Level of preparation
Instructors need to be familiar with the workings of this app, and to have examples on hand (see Useful Resources below). They will also need to check institutional policy on uses of social media and ensure best practice in terms of keeping all projects accessible only within the classroom. To do this you must ask students to create a new account on Instagram separate from any personal accounts they may have, and remind them to both make this new account Private in the Settings, and to accept only classmates as followers. Since many students will already be ‘digital natives’ and familiar with Instagram, it is therefore handy to get students to introduce this app and its functions in the class for a flipped classroom and to benefit any who are unfamiliar with it.
These are the steps I followed to implement this activity in my first-year composition class:
Step 1: Explaining the task
Ask students to get into groups of around 4. Tell them they will be working together to create a short Instagram narrative. It must have a beginning, middle and end, with a hook to engage readers.
Be sure to set a clear work schedule, and more importantly a limit of images. For my own class, I gave them 4 weeks to research, plan, draft and create an 8-10 series of images telling the story of one day, hour or event of a single person. I also limited them to a maximum of 4 characters appearing in their narrative.
Step 2: Using Previous Knowledge
Discussion questions include: ‘Who uses Instagram?’ ‘What kind of images do you post/like?’ ‘What is the ideal amount of writing under a post?’ ‘What do you want that writing to tell you?’
Bring up a random Instagram account and look at some images together in class (one selfie, one plate of food, one landscape, one group shot). Discuss what stories these tell. Then ask students to write a list of rules for writing on Instagram. Share these on the board and discuss.
Encourage students to use their mobile phones in the classroom to find images that tell a story on Instagram. Share with the class and together write a list of rules for Instagram writing.
Look at models and focus on how the hashtags and captions add important details and context to the images, to show how they are linked together. This should take one class.
Step 3: Planning
In order to construct their own image-based narrative, students are forced to experiment with storyboarding, a key skill both in terms of outlining longer compositions. In groups get them to first decide on a character, a hook and a premise. To encourage struggling groups, you can ask questions such as ‘What is the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you?’, ‘What would you do if you and a stranger picked up each other’s bag by accident on the bus?’, or ‘How did you feel and what did you do on your first day on campus?’ Then monitor students as they brainstorm story details. The aim in this lesson is to get a basic plan for the beginning, middle and end of their narrative.
Step 4: Action!
Remind students that much of the context of their story relies on its setting and style. Students should consider how the clothes a ‘character’ is wearing, and the places she is shot in, for instance, will show her backstory and demographic details, as well as her actions and feelings. The images can therefore be used to replace description and scene-setting. The added text should provide context and show how each stage of the story is connected. Provide examples of each of these from the models you have already used in class.
Step 5: Peer Review
Once students have collected their first two or three images (outside class as homework), these can be workshopped in class. This feedback will help students engage with their audience and test whether their story is clear, and whether it has ‘hooked’ readers. You can use therefore use this assignment as an opportunity to discuss narrative structure and audience expectations.
Step 6: Sharing
After possible classes on conclusions and endings, set aside a class for students to share their final stories with the class.
The creation of a ‘product’ at the end of the course was very popular with my students, since it gave them a creation they can show to others and access easily in the future.
This task could also be used in literature or creative writing classes (to practise analysing and using particular literary tools), and potentially in other humanities classes to display knowledge (for instance, a history class might work on representing a typical day in the life of a Roman slave).
The exercise could also potentially be adapted to other social media apps, in particular Vine Camera, Path, Pinterest and Tumblr, with only a few tweaks to fit the specific constraints and audience expectations of each of these.
Potential challenges that instructors should consider:
- You will probably need to create new rubrics for grading, since these narratives often rely more heavily on image than text;
- Students without much technological literacy may need a large amount of support, so you will the basic technological skills to help them;
- Always remember these wise words: “educators using any web-based form of instruction must be concerned about equal access for all learners, taking into consideration an individual’s socioeconomic background and learning needs” (Dreon, Kerper and Landis, 2011, p.9).
In short, the creation of a short Instagram story in the writing class can be a great way to get students thinking about narrative structure and audience engagement while practising different forms of writing.
For models of Instagram narratives you can discuss and analyse with your students, consult:
Rachel Hulin’s Instagram novel ‘Hey Harry Hey Matilda’ at https://www.instagram.com/heyharryheymatilda
‘novelgram: Instagram a novel’ at https://www.instagram.com/novelgram/
Caroline Calloway’s stories at https://www.instagram.com/carolinecalloway/
The website for Creative Nonfiction at www.creativenonfiction.org