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Student projects on national site

By Honor McCain

When Jennifer Sias teaches her First Year Seminar class at Marshall University, her emphasis is on critical thinking.

Her students are encouraged to sharpen their minds so they can use their critical thinking skills in other areas of study throughout their college careers.

Each year, 40 sections of First Year Seminar are offered at Marshall, and professors from different disciplines serve as instructors.

While the emphasis on critical thinking is the same for all sections of First Year Seminar, each professor is invited to design the course for his or her areas of interest and expertise.

For example, one professor used a criminal justice framework to divide her class into prosecution, defense and investigators, seeing how each group applied critical thinking.

Sias' background in journalism and interest in storytelling have led her to use narrative storytelling to help her students with reflective thinking.

This past semester, Sias' students read a nonfiction textbook on critical thinking alongside narrative works such as "This American Life" by Ira Glass, "The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls, and "All Over But the Shoutin'" by Rick Bragg.

After reading other people's stories, students were encouraged to reflect on their own experiences and write down the results of these reflections.

At this point in the class, Sias recognized a prime opportunity to introduce digital storytelling. So the final project for her First Year Seminar class became a digital story - a recorded interview of someone the student considered a significant influence on his or her life.

Sias taught the students basic audio editing and listening with discernment, and provided examples of questions that might produce compelling interviews. She also gave the class music clips from iMovie that could be incorporated at the beginning and end of the interviews.

The interviews were written, produced and edited by the students and posted to a class website via SoundCloud (like YouTube for audio recordings). While uploading her students' final projects, Sias discovered that a partnership existed between SoundCloud and StoryCorps. 

StoryCorps is an American non-profit organization whose mission is to record, preserve and share the stories of all Americans from all backgrounds and beliefs.

In 2007, StoryCorps attempted to record an oral history of America with the voices of everyday people, and excerpts of the 10,000-plus interviews conducted were compiled into a book called Listening Is an Act of Love.

In 2008, StoryCorps launched the National Day of Listening, which now recurs every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day.

It was based on the idea that on "Black Friday," people should consider shifting their focus from commerce to listening to the stories of loved ones, because sometimes the best gift one person can give another is simply listening.

Upon discovering the SoundCloud-StoryCorps connection, Sias contacted StoryCorps and asked if they would be interested in having her students post their stories to the National Day of Listening website.

Happily, the answer was a resounding "yes" and many students submitted their interviews.

Two students, Joey Paugh and Danelle Wandling, had particularly well-crafted interviews that can still be heard on the National Day of Listening site (www.national

dayoflistening.org).

Waugh interviewed his wife, Whitney, about the struggles and joys surrounding the birth of their daughter, Adalyn.

"We spent so much time researching birthing options that were better for the child and the mother-baby bonding experience. Many people are led to believe that the hospital is the only place to have a child while under the influence of numbing and pain agents. We just wanted to share our natural experience with everyone and let them know that it's still OK to have children the way people have for many, many years."

Danelle Wandling interviewed her father, Daniel Rickard, about his childhood on a West Virginia farm and his memories of Christmases past.

"He started dredging up childhood memories about Christmas . . . talking about going out in the woods and finding the perfect tree, and how my Grandpa Rickard made all the boys slingshots by hand. I knew that was something I wanted to share with my class." She noted that very few gifts are handmade these days, and because her grandfather has passed away, this interview was a wonderful way to revive her own memories of him.

Both Wandling and Paugh remarked that the most challenging part of the assignment was editing the interviews. While Sias had advised the students to be aware of distracting background noise, Paugh's interview was made more poignant by the occasional cooing of baby Adalyn.

When asked what they gained from this assignment, Paugh and Wandling both mentioned a heightened awareness of the importance of thinking independently and critically.

"The First Year Seminar class has taught me, even at 34 years old, that you need to think critically about everything you come into contact with and make your own educated decisions," Wandling said.

She also said, "The digital story project has taught me that even though you may think your own stories mean very little or that no one will care what you have to say, they could mean quite a bit to those who listen to it." 

Sias appreciates the ability of reflective storytelling to allow her students to deeply explore and share the varied experiences of their lives. This kind of reflection can give students a greater sense of who they are, what is important to them, and what they want for their futures.

The final project interview also gives them something more tangible; the uploaded interviews remain on the class website and links can be shared with students' family and friends.

"I want [my students] to leave this class with something they're proud of . . . a product they can look back on and treasure," Sias said.

Thanks to this project, the value of people's stories (both for the tellers and hearers) is not lost on Paugh and Wandling. They and their classmates have lovingly recorded the words of one generation being passed on to another - a priceless gift.


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