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Role of digital storytelling in media literacy education: What happens when kids make documentaries

When/Where: Sunday, 10:45-11:30 in Reynolds.

Presenters: Craig Santoro, Dorrance H. Hamilton Public Media Commons at WHYY; Henry Cohn-Geltner, Dorrance H. Hamilton Public Media Commons at WHYY. Presider: Theresa Redmond.

Objectives: This session will encourage participants to think about the power of documentary storytelling in creating a media literate student through screening of youth produced documentaries.

Audience: PK-12 Schooling, Higher Education, Non-Profit Sector


For eight years, WHYY’s Hamilton Public Media Commons (formerly the Learning Lab at WHYY) in Philadelphia, PA, has been teaching teenagers to produce documentaries. Empowering youth to tell authentic stories about their communities develops a heightened awareness of place and self. The work that the young filmmakers produce promotes creative self-expression about issues, ideas, and themes that are inherently important to their lives. Video production is a powerful tool for developing insight into the media creation process. Student producers have a head-start over their peers in understanding and breaking down media products.

We propose an individual presentation, presented by Public Media Commons staff and student filmmakers, that highlights the work produced by young teenage filmmakers in our program and to discuss the importance of teaching digital storytelling skills through documentary video production. The session would include a screening of select productions, a brief presentation, and a discussion of the process, challenges, and successes of the program.

Documentary is a versatile medium that teaches teens to think critically not just about media, but are forced to develop a holistic understanding of issues that are personally relevant. Through the practice of filmmaking, young filmmakers are forced to consider issues of audience, bias, and journalistic integrity, and to make decisions in their storytelling based on these factors.

The young filmmakers who produce work in our program are asked to first come up with a topic or theme that is meaningful to them. Their ideas are refined into stories, and working in groups, the students plan, script, shoot, and edit the short pieces over 15 weeks. The documentaries are shown on WHYY’s website, on our cable on-demand channel, and in community-wide screenings, where the young filmmakers have the opportunity to share and talk about their work.

The production process pushes the students to look at their community in a different way. They are constantly learning new things about people, places, and issues that affect their lives and their community. In this session, we will discuss the importance of creating an aware and engaged local citizen who is concerned about the people, places, and issues that affect those around them and their local communities. Students completing the program are curious and believe in the power of their voice to tell the stories of their community and share them with others to promote greater understanding.

The process also pushes the students to think about media in new ways. The presentation and discussion will highlight strategies for using production as a tool for future media de-construction.

Participant Involvement

The presentation will not only feature the students’ work, but will feature the students themselves, serving as experts on the content they’ve created. Attendees will have the opportunity to ask questions of the filmmakers about their process and the importance of the stories they tell. This process of reflection and sharing work with the community is integral to the program we run at the Public Media Commons, and we want to highlight that in this venue.


  • Craig Santoro, Dorrance H. Hamilton Public Media Commons at WHYY: Craig joined WHYY in 2002 and shortly thereafter started the station’s first youth media program. Since then, he has created and managed ongoing after-school documentary workshops for Philadelphia teenagers and partnered with community centers to hold video production classes for teens who dropped out of school. He’s developed award-winning video summer camps, partnered with numerous schools to train teachers to use video in their classrooms and created video learning experi- ences for nonprofit organizations and area retirees.
  • Henry Cohn-Geltner, Dorrance H. Hamilton Public Media Commons at WHYY: Steve is a graduate of Philadelphia’s High School for Creative and Performing Arts and holds a Communications Studies degree from West Chester University. En- tering his third year as a media instructor at WHYY, Steve has taught video and audio production to elementary-school children, teens, teachers, and seniors. He is a skilled videographer, editor, and producer, and particularly talented at sharing these skills with others.
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