Storytelling around a digital campfire
When I was growing up in Arroyo Hondo, a small village in Northern New Mexico, our family phone was the beacon to the outside world. When it rang, we answered it. There was no answering machine. Making a call took some effort as each number had to be pulled on the rotary dial, making a funny noise at it returned for the next number. Every call, in or out, was precious. We may have talked on the phone once or twice a week at the most, the rest of the time was spent running around outside, splashing in the creek, chasing each other with cactus spears, riding bikes, battling red ant piles, and running home with various wounds to mend.
My dad built our house on top of an old adobe with the Rio Hondo in our front yard and the wild mountains behind us. He and my mom courageously raised horses, kids, chickens, cats, dogs and goats. We were the first ones in my neighborhood with a television set, so my best friend would often spend the night and we’d wake at the crack of dawn to catch the morning cartoons. My mom forbid us to watch Tom and Jerry, claiming it was too violent. On school days we walked half a mile to catch the school bus to the old elementary school in lower Hondo, on the weekend we were building forts, riding bikes, or in the case of my sister, riding horses. The icing on the cake was the special treat of piling in my Dad’s truck with my friends on a saturday night to go see Star Wars and Blade Runner at the drive-up movie theater. Yep, the Walmart lot used to be the outdoor theater and the plaza theater (hasn’t been open for decades) was the “old school” cineplex.
Flash forward from Taos of the 1970’s to Taos High school in 2018 where I am currently teaching UNM Taos Media Arts classes. Recently a student said to me, “Mr. I’m mad at you.” “Why?” “Because you let your second period class use their phones and you’re always cracking down on us!” I was surprised to hear this because I thought I had a pretty consistent “no-phones in class” policy. Turns out I was wrong. This student provided hard cold evidence to the contrary. She said, “Look, here you are on their snapchat photo from 2nd period” And these days you know what happens with juicy media…it gets shared. Not in a linear fashion but more like a instant spider web that gets big faster than you can reach out and grab it. We are long gone from the nostalgic days of rotary phones and film cameras!
I am accepting that this generation is indeed, glued to their smart phones. And obviously not only the kids. We all are! However, it seems to me, these high school students are the first generation to grow up sleeping with their phones under their pillows. Their brains, hearts, and minds have become fully attached to the magic and power of their devices. There does not seem to be any turning back. As one student told me, “Mr. I can’t listen without my phone.” Take it away from her and she will freeze and become incredibly confused.
One of my recent questions for their daily writing assignment was “How are your brains and lives different from your Grandparents’ now that you are living in the smart phone age?”
Here are a few juicy responses…
“Now-a-days no one really pays attention. We use our phones for everything. Back then you couldn’t. Back then was better and their style of of make-up and clothes was cool.”
Diana Olivas (16)
“My grandparents grew up with Televisions barely coming out. Cars were out, but that was before the mustang. All the kids born between 1997 and the present have grown up with big screen tvs, computers, smartphones, ipads and kindles, plus video games. TV’s were still in black and white until the 70’s or 80’s” – Peyton Loya (16)
“My pineal gland is less active due to the large amount of artificial light I’m exposed to. This interference with dreaming and even perceptions of color, leads to sleeping problems. So basically smart phones turn you into a zombie. Luckily my grandparents’ lives and brains were much more healthy than this generation.” – Santiago Cardenas (14)
I wanted to do an experiment and find out how far I could push the video production part of my class using smartphones. If I could never win the battle over attention, at least I could attempt to harness their incredible HD capabilities and supreme ease of use! During fall semester, students shot two short film projects. Out of fifty students, only two requested to check out traditional, hand-held cameras.
One group of young ladies went to the gym to film their acrobatics and choreography of their cheer team. By the time they came back from shooting at the end of the period, they said, “Mr! Want to see what we shot?” I expected to see lots of rough footage, and was flabbergasted at what I saw. On her small screen, six of us crowded around to see a dazzling video edited in sync with music, featuring slow motions, fast-forwards and funny special effects. This particular student had edited it while walking back to class from the gym in the hall!! “How did you do that??” I asked. That much musical sync with movement would have taken me hours to edit. “Oh just on a app I downloaded.”
I went to work with another group and when I looked across the room at the cheer team, they all sat there on their individual phones, no group work, no collaboration, just individuals and their screens. I couldn’t tell who was working on their video and who was texting, snapchatting or just playing games. And to make the situation more surreal, all of them were sitting in front of giant screens connected to amazingly powerful mac computers, completely unused! Five students isolated on five small screens, representing their own mini-universes.
I spoke with the girl who did the app editing and said “I need to see your movie rough-draft edits on the computer.” “Why???” She looked at me like I was from Mars. “Because this is a computer with powerful editing software and a big screen!” I thought it was obvious. “Why do I need a computer when I have my phone???” Honest question. I was caught of guard, she was right in many ways. I was at a loss what to say. Fortunately I was saved by the bell and the students went rushing out of class, phones in hand.
I had a few days to think through this new dilemma. I had opened a can of worms. Yes, I was happy to have them all be able to film on their smart phones, saves me the logistical troubles of bringing in cameras and all the accessories. However, now the phones are always on and they always have the excuse that they are editing. Ya right!
So I came up with an idea. They must take whatever they shoot & edit on their phones and get it onto the computer and screens so I can do a draft review with them. They grumbled and moaned at the new task and asked, “how dow we get it from our phone onto the computer?” “Figure it out. Use your cable, blue-tooth it, email it, upload it to youtube, download it. Whatever it takes. Just get it there!”.
Once on the big screen all the flaws are apparent and I can give them editing tips, and ways to improve their project. It is another battle to teach them that the first draft does not mean finished. It takes multiple rounds of hawk eyes and bat ears to polish a strong video.
For our more recent spring semester project, I wanted to incorporate the oral storytelling tradition as exemplified in the “Arabian Nights” and from our very own Northern New Mexico cultures. So my lead-in began with, “Tell a story that you heard from your Grandparents…”
Somehow I am trying to counteract the effects, or at least harness the positive aspects, of our smart-phone age so well exemplified by this statement by another student, “When your grandmother is telling you a long story and you listen for five minutes than you get a text message and you pull it out and then can’t pay attention.” – Brenda Garcia (15)
When it was time for the oral stories to be told, one student said, “Hey Mr! You should put a campfire on the computer!” Brilliant idea! Within seconds I googled “campfire video HD”, and connected it to the massive Apple TV built into the front wall of my classroom. The speakers are surround-sound built into the ceiling, so each student got to stand with a huge roaring fire behind them and the crackling sounds permeating down onto their pineal glands as they told their stories!
“Storytelling has evolved because in ancient times before the chinese invented printing presses, stories were an oral tradition then evolved into written experiences in books and letters. But as we moved through time we came to a virtual world where we use our phones, tv shows and movies to tell stories. “ – Aidan Swayne (16)
“Well my grandpa would always be working on the farms and grandmas would be cleaning and making food. But now it’s like really different. We don’t have to work at an early age like they did. Now all we do is live in our own little world in our phones. “ – Eva Arreola (16)
“Smart phones give us access to all of human knowledge. Smartphones also let us speak with anyone in the world. This is something our grandparents couldn’t even imagine.”
– Marcelino Tafoya (16)
So for all of you reading this…please stay tuned as we remember generationally-told, oral stories and mix them through our media editing lab. I’m confident some excellent stories will come out the other end. In my dream we would build a giant bonfire (a real one), and project the movies (shot mostly on phones of course) onto a huge outdoor screen. Inviting the entire taos community to come share the tradition of Taos storytelling which is alive and well with a digital twist and a much shorter attention span.